Contact me ASAP.
No unnecessary formalities, greetings, signatures. A part of me recognized the abruptness as a large part of why our arrangement worked out so well. She accepted our deal without any drama. Another part of me was amused by the thought that I was not the only person that might send a message so concise. I felt somewhat vindicated of all the chiding I received for my similar behavior, not that Une was a particularly good stick by which to measure. And yet another part of me was appreciative of the way the unsecured text message gave nothing away. Only she would send something like that to that address. No extraneous information was needed.
I glanced at the clock for confirmation of what I already knew, then proceeded to set up a secure phone line through my laptop. Within minutes, I was dialing directly to Une's office, bypassing her personal assistant to connect without the hassle of a middleman. She allowed me the same access I allowed her. All things considered, it probably seemed we were much closer than we actually were, but we were no more than two people united by our desire to preserve the peace.
As expected, she picked up the phone with little ceremony. "Une."
If I didn't know her name, I might think it nothing more than a monosyllabic grunt. "Yuy here," I answered in kind, tacking on the one superfluous word in a frail attempt at something more substantial.
"Ah. I appreciate your prompt response." The gratitude was a nod of respect.
Having nothing stopping me from doing so, I had acted as soon as her e-mail arrived at my inbox. Une did not contact me frivolously, and I respected her in turn. "You said ASAP."
"There's a problem." And that was the end of the pleasantries. "Are you available?"
"How long?" If important things were happening, it wouldn't be a question of whether or not I could be available for that period of time; realistically, it was more an issue of how many things would I need to set aside to deal with this 'problem'. Fortunately, I didn't have many things occupying my time at the moment.
"As long as it takes. Longer than usual."
Time frames also gave helpful hints as to the scope of the problem. This sounded more serious than the few other occasions Une had directly contacted me. Once, she had requested some information mining of me, and I had obliged without leaving my apartment. I had done a little clandestine work on-base, but none of it had been so indefinite. This sounded like a full investigation. I didn't normally do that, and she knew it. "What do you need me for?"
"Your unique experience makes you the most qualified man to act as a consultant in this matter."
Consultant? That backed my investigation theory. Unique? It couldn't be the fact that I had been a Gundam pilot, then. She had the other four to tap as resources in that arena. 01, then? Wing was gone, my connections to the crew on L1 dissolved. What skills did I possess that at least one of the others did not? Leadership? Hardly. Assassination? Not even. A healthy disregard for my personal safety? Getting colder by the second.
A blink or two later, and a possibility sprang to mind, a distinctly unpleasant possibility, and the number of ways it could have turned into an incident of this magnitude multiplied with a blinding flash on the insides of my eyelids. If any one of those scenarios was correct... This needed to be discussed in person.
"I can be there... by one o'clock tomorrow," I stated decisively, running through flight schedules and other sundry matters in my head. I checked the online timetables to confirm my estimates, reflecting dimly what it said about my life that I had those charts bookmarked for easy access, then began the online booking process as we continued our conversation.
I guessed she was nodding approvingly on the other end of the line. She had an appreciation for efficiency that had only become more refined after she had acquired a similar appreciation for elegance. With a few more short exchanges, we worked out the details of the arrangement, but before I could bid her farewell to start working on my to-do list, she halted me with one last bit of information. "I've called in my best men to work on this. They've all had relevant experience with the matter at hand."
It didn't surprise me. It was not what I would have personally wanted, perhaps, but this was not the time to quibble over what I might have wanted for myself. "Understood," I said with soft resignation. I appreciated the advance notice, even though I think I expected it. "Yuy out."
After cutting the connection, I took a moment to take a breath and give my thoughts some time to settle into order. Immediately after, I stood from my seat and went to my closet, pulling out the duffle that had been on holiday for quite some time now. Break was over. It was time I got back to work.
I had that stride, too. Despite how long it had been, I fit in with these people.
When I arrived at the server room, I found that Une had cleared my access ahead of time, so I got to work immediately. Within minutes, I was in. There was no need for me to familiarize myself with the security protocols since I myself had installed them the previous year. I had to admit, it irked me a bit to know that someone had gotten away with a theft of this magnitude right under my protocol's nose, but that was just my competitive streak raising its ugly head. On the other hand, the focus of my work had been skewed towards attacks from the outside, not from within.
The sysadmins had provided me with a log of the blips they had first detected. They were small discrepancies, but footprints nevertheless, and in particular, footprints that might not have been left in another system. At least my work held up that far. I always knew double redundancy verification would pay off. In the time it took me to get here, the techs had narrowed down a timeframe and a window of opportunity, but had been unable to determine a source.
I started by examining the log blips. Someone had been deleting the records of their activities, up to and including the IP address of the accessing computer. I thought about the way packets were exchanged on the network, and delved a level deeper, finding and accessing the system's internal traffic logs. A bit of irritable smugness struck me when I encountered the encoding on it. I was forced to write a little script to parse out the binary data, something someone unfamiliar with the setup would have had a hard time doing, but it didn't take long, and soon enough I had the information I was seeking.
Opening up the logs the techs had given me, I compared timestamps and found the underlying packets that had transferred the data from the client to the server. Our suspect may have deleted his logs, but he couldn't have deleted the record that logged his delete request.
I had to look up each of the blips and compare them by hand, but I managed to correlate enough of the delete requests to trace them to a single MAC address. Fortunately, the server kept records of which workstations mapped to which hardware addresses; I would have hated to have had to log in to every single workstation on the subnet to check its configuration.
Agent Elster was the man I was appointed to assist, along with his junior partner Wong. As soon as I had identified the workstation from which the log modifications had come, we left for the research labs. Elster had a ground-eating stride and a grim look on his face. I had only known him for a couple of hours, so I couldn't tell if that was his normal look, or if he had taken this betrayal personally.
We stormed the department of human resources like a divine wind come to mete out justice to the unworthy. The person at the end of our search was a mousy sort of man, with wire-rimmed glasses, a bad haircut, and a slouch from poring over his data all day. He jumped when we arrived at the opening to his cubicle.
"Espinoza?" Elster snapped out.
The man nearly squeaked. Agent Elster had a commanding presence. "Uh, yes?"
"Unauthorized access to network files has been traced to your workstation." He glared accusingly at the paperpusher. Its force rivaled my own.
"Uh... What do you mean?"
I had difficulty believing that this was the man we were seeking, but Elster continued to grill him. "What were you doing accessing the system logs?"
"Two days ago, you accessed systems that were off-limits to you from this computer, and you altered system and security data."
"What?! I did no such thing."
"Using this information, you then further bypassed security to steal Preventers property," Elster continued relentlessly. "You will now be taken into custody--"
"I have no idea what you're talking about! It wasn't me!"
"Then someone used your computer to perform those acts," I inserted, reminded of the old game of Good Cop, Bad Cop. Never really thought I would be the good cop. "If it wasn't you, then who was it?"
"I don't know," Espinoza blurted. "Maybe someone used my computer while I was at lunch or something. I don't know, but it wasn't me!"
"Does anyone know your system password besides you?" Elster demanded, reclaiming control of the interrogation.
"Of course not! I've never told anyone what my password is."
"Did you violate company protocol when you selected your password?" Agent Wong spoke up. "Did you choose something easy to guess, like your birthday, or your wife's name?"
"God, I don't even have a wife!"
I set their conversation to a lower priority in my mind as they continued to ask him about access to his system and looked around his workspace instead. It was not unreasonably cluttered. Human resources saw a lot of paperwork in order to keep track of all the personnel in the building, from janitors to Une herself. They would keep and maintain files on every paperclip requisitioned, every paycheck issued, every mission attended. Consistent with Espinoza's claim that he had no wife, there were no photographs adorning the wall of his cubicle showcasing a loving family. There was a calendar with some comic strip character on it, and a lot of sticky notes, but not much else. He had a bookcase as well, filled with binders and folders and more paper. I thought about what a horrible fire hazard this entire office must have been, even with so much of the paperwork being filed electronically. Triplicate in one form or another would never become extinct.
I zeroed in on the sticky notes. They were covered with reminders, and I got a sinking feeling. Catching sight of a row of notes stuck to the bottom of his monitor, partially obscured by a sheaf of papers, I shuffled the sheets out of the way and rolled my eyes. "Elster," I interrupted.
He finished his sentence and stared menacingly at Espinoza again before he turned his attention to me. "What?"
I plucked a note off the bottom of Espinoza's monitor and held it up for everyone to look at. "Is this your system password?" I asked him.
Espinoza stared at it for a few seconds. "...Uh, oh. Heh. Forgot about that..." He trailed off with an uneasy laugh, then glanced at Elster out of the corner of his eye and promptly cowered in his chair.
People generally thought that hacking was some sort of glorious, mystical affair, but it really wasn't. It was mostly about taking advantage of other people's stupidity. I don't know why people bleated about backdoors and loopholes when those same people usually made it so very easy to walk right in the front door. At least my security system wasn't entirely to blame. There was nothing I could do about people that had the requisite passwords to get into the system and perform legitimate operations.
"Where were you two days ago, around twenty-one-hundred hours? Nine o'clock that night?" I corrected myself. Five years, and I still used military time on occasion. I didn't slip that often anymore, though.
"Nine o'clock? Home, of course."
"Is there anyone that could corroborate that for you?"
"No, I already told you, I don't have a wife or anything!"
I didn't believe it was him, but procedure had to be followed. One look at Elster and Wong told me that they didn't believe Espinoza was a suspect anymore, either. The man didn't have the balls it would have taken to have pulled this off.
"We'll need to go over the security logs, again," Elster laid out to us. "There can't have been that many people in the building after hours. We have security cameras, maintenance workers..."
I listened to them with half an ear as I thought about the matter some more. Doing it that way would take too long. They had already checked the security cameras and found a couple of suspicious persons on tape at the proper time, but they were either cleared, or unidentifiable.
I tapped Espinoza on the shoulder and made it clear I wanted him out of his chair. He quivered and got out of my way. I sat down, took one look at his graphical setup, and opened up a command prompt instead. Our 'hacker' had not really had much in the way of hacking skills. He hadn't needed to hack past security since he had Espinoza's password, but he had needed to delete the signs of his activity, and I thought the deletion and obfuscation patterns looked familiar. They showed signs of a relatively available little application that a person could acquire on the net. Sometimes it was annoying that hacking was considered trendy in certain circles.
The application had been deleted on Espinoza's hard drive, but there were still signs of its existence on the backup snapshots. Triplicate to the rescue. The fact that the application had been on this computer didn't help us, though. It confirmed that the security breach had taken place at this workstation, but it put us no closer to finding our real suspect.
I tried tracing the source of the application. There was no internet activity on the night in question, but there was intranet activity. The file had been transferred over the Preventers network, and it had originated from the researcher workgroup. Because of the way traffic was centralized and routed through the system, I couldn't get any more precise than that.
Elster grunted contemplatively at my findings, and then we left HR to continue our investigation away from the rest of the curious department. We brought Espinoza along with us. The mousy little man trembled as if we were about to bring him in front of a Grand Inquisition, but at least he knew when to keep his mouth shut.
Once we got back to a secured office, Elster planted our paperpusher in front of a workstation and issued his commands. "Bring up the personnel files from the research division."
"All of them?" Espinoza quavered, wiping his palms across his pants. One look, and he did as he was told.
There were, of course, a lot of them. "Have any more bright ideas for narrowing this down, Yuy?"
"Has anyone failed to show up for work in the last few days?" I asked after a moment's thought.
Espinoza typed in the request, working a little more steadily now that he had someone telling him what to do. "Hmmm, yeah, we got all these guys."
I looked at the results of the search. Still more than I would have preferred. "Tentatively, I'd say we can discount the guys in the tech division. The app the perp used was amateurish." The parameter was applied, and we still had ourselves almost two dozen names. Was everyone a slacker these days?
"Who would have the motive?" Wong asked.
"Anyone. Money will motivate anyone." I could all too easily see the stolen property being sold to the highest bidder for quite the tidy sum, and from there, nothing good could possibly happen. I thought briefly about running our names through the system, but the Preventers did a full background check on anyone coming to work for their organization. None of them would have a criminal record.
As more ideas were bandied about, I took a seat in front of the terminal next to Espinoza. I always thought better when I had the system at my fingertips. Using Espinoza's username and password, I won my way into the HR database. From there, I studied the options available to me to try and retrace our perp's digital steps. What would he have needed to do to get into the weapons lab? The most obvious way to do that would have been to access his file, alter it to give himself the necessary security clearance, walk in and take Zero, and then come back to undo the changes to his record. The traces didn't indicate that he had tried anything much more devious than that.
I created a bogus account in the database, using a generic researcher's status as a template and starting from there. Choosing the most straightforward approach, I assessed my options and went about trying to legitimately alter my user's security clearance, only to be stopped by a message reading that the change would require the clearance of someone higher up in the food chain. How had the perp gotten around that? Could he have cleared himself? Or maybe he hadn't needed the clearance. Perhaps his clearance had been high enough, but simply in the wrong department. I hacked my user's data a bit to test my theory, and lo and behold, I found that no authorization was necessary to change his department, while his security level remained the same across the transfer. I would have to mention the oversight to the database maintenance department when I had the time.
"Give me researchers with a clearance level five and above... who have worked in HR before," I added. Considering the amount of time it would have taken to effect the change compared to the timing on the log blips, our thief had to have a good idea of what he was doing before he got there, plus he had to have known of the flaw in the database security checks.
"Uh, one guy," Espinoza answered in due time. "Brisbois, M. But it says here he's been on vacation for a week now."
"Damn," Elster muttered. His fingers tapped out a subtle, agitated beat against his side. "Maybe our guy's too damn cocky. Forget about guys that haven't checked in recently. Let's start over again with the researchers."
Espinoza continued to sort through the research branch, subject to Elster's and Wong's suggestions. On a hunch, I ran down Brisbois' file. He was a geopolitical analyst. How horrid for him. The photograph on file showed a constipated looking man, with his shirt buttoned up all the way and a smug twist to his smile.
I didn't like him on sight. Perhaps that was not the best reason for me to work my way into his log files, but that was what it was. "Elster," I called again.
"What?" He looked at my display as I typed in another command. "The guy that was on vacation?"
"Brisbois, Michel. If he was on vacation, then why do the records show that he checked his e-mail from his computer about ten minutes before we see the activity begin from Espinoza's workstation?"
Perhaps I had a flair for the dramatic, for I stood outside the door and cracked it open slowly, just enough for me to listen in on what was being said inside. That way I could time my entrance. Or perhaps I just needed the time to prepare myself. The door was in the back of the room, so if I was careful, I knew that Une's captives wouldn't notice they had an eavesdropper. Une would notice from her position at the front of the room, but that was acceptable.
"--not become urgent yet," she was saying. "But we are certain the threat is imminent, and we must preempt it before it manifests."
I heard her boot heels clopping against the floor as she moved across the room, presumably to hand out the case brief folders, one of which I already held in my hands. Our team had put it together earlier that day. "Two days ago, we discovered we had a defector in our ranks. After the fact, unfortunately. He was an analyst working in R&D, and he took something with him when he left, something he should never have had access to in the first place."
"Holy shit!" I heard someone curse, and despite the foul language, the voice was welcome to my ears. I hadn't realized how much I had missed it.
"Too impatient to wait for it, I see," someone drawled lazily. A shuffling of paper followed, then a brief, stunned silence. "I second Duo's opinion."
"Zero?" That was Quatre's tone, a little deeper than it once was, and still confident, but in this case tinged with a faint tension. Apparently, Zero still haunted him. "How could an analyst have walked off with the Zero system?"
"Internal Affairs is investigating that matter quite thoroughly, I assure you," Une said. Quiet menace filled her words. I had no doubt that whoever should have prevented this would pay dearly for the mistake. Wait, was that me? No, hopefully she'd punish someone on her active payroll instead. "More important, of course, is getting the Zero system back."
"Holy shit," Duo muttered again. "Who the hell is this guy, and what the hell does he plan to do with it?"
I smiled slightly without quite knowing why. That was what the team had been assembled to find out. That, and to reclaim our stolen property, of course.
Une continued unperturbed. "To assist in this matter, I've called in the world's foremost expert on the Zero system."
"Expert?" Quatre inquired, slightly puzzled. No doubt he was thinking about the designers of the system, all of whom were presumed dead.
I judged that to be the best moment for me to enter, dramatic timing aside. Une had probably intended for me to join them with that little introduction, and who was I to disappoint? I took a breath to steel myself, schooled my expression into something professional, knocked once smartly on the door, then opened it completely and revealed myself. My eyes passed over the room briefly as everyone turned to look at me. We measured each other for a second, and then I entered and closed the door behind me.
It was the first time in five years that I had seen them, and they me. After the Barton incident, I took my leave of their company. I needed time to 'find myself', as they say, to redefine myself outside of an armed conflict, so I said my good-byes, and then I disappeared into the throngs of humanity. Anonymity had been such a beautiful thing.
We were all taller, leaner, broader across the shoulders -- some more than others -- but our attitudes hadn't changed. I could see the way we were all in deceptively relaxed poses, but ready to act at a moment's notice. It must irk mightily to have to sit through a briefing with one's back to the door. That would explain why Trowa stood leaning against the wall to one side, and why Duo sat sideways in his seat. Yes, our bodies may have filled out a little, but underneath it all, we were still the same.
Quatre was the first to react. "Heero," he said with some degree of warmth.
"Quatre," I murmured in response, adding a nod. I received cordial nods in turn from Trowa and Wufei.
Duo, on the other hand... There was something on the tip of his tongue, something unpleasant, and he restrained himself from saying it by pursing his lips. It made him look angry, and I couldn't tell if he actually was or not. It should never be assumed that what one sees on Duo's face is the truth. I didn't know what I might have done to inspire such enmity, though; I'd informed him of my leave, and he'd even agreed with my reasoning and let it go without a fuss. After a couple of seconds, he loosened up and said quite pointedly, "Been a while, Yuy."
He made it sound like an accusation, and it was true. "Aa."
"Gentlemen," Une cut in. I resisted the urge to look around and see if she was referring to us. The one word was a reprimand for us to put aside any personal matters we might have and focus on our assignment instead. I was glad for her interference. Without it, we might have carried on for a while. Better that we have time to readjust to each other's presence, and that we attend to business first as professionals.
"Yuy," Une addressed me. "What has the team found out so far?"
She ceded the floor to me, and I took her place, pinning up photos and reference materials from the file as I covered my points. "Four days ago, a political analyst by the name of Michel Brisbois took some vacation time. HR has him logged for one week. Three days ago, Brisbois, our suspect, came to the office after hours, around twenty-thirty. He used his own computer to check his e-mail and transfer a file, then walked into human resources and used the computer of Bernard Espinoza. The password was written on a note stuck on Espinoza's monitor."
Duo snorted in derisive humor.
"Indeed," I agreed. "Brisbois gained access to his own personnel files and used a loophole in the database software to alter them and grant himself a high enough security clearance to use his keycard and get into the weapons lab. The system was moved there last week for the beginning of research into its hardware components that was expected to start today. The initial delay between transfer of the system and the start of the project was caused by the sudden realization that the software engineers from the other department had nowhere to work in the weapons lab, so Zero languished for a few days in their vaults while they shuffled things around to make room. Brisbois got in and walked off with it, and kept his face off the security cameras while he did so. Afterwards, he went back to Espinoza's computer to return his records to their original state, then used a readily available amateur hacking app to clean up after himself.
"The next day, the footprints left by the app were discovered by network security. The admins analyzed the logs and narrowed down a timeframe against which they crosschecked the logs from our other systems. Similar blips began to surface until they traced the system errors down to one of the weapons labs, and they figured out just what was missing. At that point, I joined the team, and further investigation of the digital trail led us to our suspect."
It sounded so devastatingly simple when all the facts were laid out like that, and yet I was at least a little proud that the admins had discovered Zero's loss in a relatively timely fashion. It would have been embarrassing for the researchers to have simply discovered it gone one morning. I paused a moment to shift gears, then continued. "Brisbois was last seen by his neighbors three days ago. A search of his house was conducted, and signs indicate that he did indeed take that vacation of his. He told no one where he was going, and his accounts show no activity, but we did pull a few phone calls that lead us to believe he fled across the border to France. Agents are chasing down the leads now."
"Do we have a motive?" Wufei asked once it was clear I had nothing more to say about the investigation.
"Other than the obvious? No. We suspect he is working for or with someone else. His record has been clean, up to this point, with his psych eval showing nothing out of the ordinary, and he does not appear to be in severe financial straits. As a political analyst, he wouldn't have much use for the system himself. I find it unlikely it was his idea in the first place. He wouldn't know much about Zero, if anything."
"It was planned," Quatre noted aloud. "With a good deal of forethought. He had to stake out HR to find a computer he could access. He had to plan and call in the vacation. He had to find an app to alter the logs. He had to find out where Zero was. He had to know there was a research project, and that it was delayed. He had to know the locations of the security cameras. He took his time to get this right. There was no urgency."
"So we can discount things like ransom," Trowa mused.
"Or coercion," I added. "We didn't get his face on camera, but if he is the one we think he is, he didn't show many signs of hesitance. A justifiable tension for a novice, perhaps, but confidence. He didn't spend too much time messing with the database, either. He knew what he needed to do, and he did it."
Wufei tossed in his two cents. "What about his e-mail?"
"Uninformative. He got a single piece of what may or may not be spam. We're checking out the sender anyway, but the address was an account with one of the free, web-based mail services, so they probably won't have much information to give us. Other than that, he doesn't have anything personal on his drive."
"Home computer?" Duo suggested.
"He took it with him. We're getting in touch with his ISP, but if he used web-mail as well, then we'll be out of luck. It's also probable that he met his partner in some neutral forum like IRC, and they won't show records for that."
"This guy's good."
"Too good," Quatre commented, looking over Brisbois' file. "He was definitely working with someone. His profile shows him as a man with aspirations, but no ambitions. He's a follower, not a leader. He couldn't have planned something like this."
"Working for, or with?"
Quatre paused to give it a moment's thought. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by his ability to analyze a man with nothing more than a copy of an old Preventers psychological evaluation, but I trusted his skills. I trusted them all, despite not having seen them for the last five years. "For. Brisbois thinks he's in control, but there's someone else pulling his strings. I wouldn't be surprised if they cut him loose after they get what they want."
"Do you think he's passed it off already?" I asked. That would make things more difficult.
He nodded. "If not already, then soon. Brisbois is a tool; they wouldn't let him hold on to something so valuable for a long amount of time."
I think we all stopped to hope that there wasn't some complex conspiracy behind this. Something on that scale could plunge the world back into chaos. "Une, what would we do if Zero got out?"
I shouldn't have asked, but I did. Maybe it demonstrated a lack of faith in the team's skills, but I had fought long and hard for our peace. Five years wasn't enough. I wanted more, and as always, I was willing to fight for it. I just wished I didn't have to.
Une granted me a solemn look and answered me frankly. "I don't know."
I inclined my head in acknowledgment. I was glad she hadn't handed me some spiel on how it wouldn't come to that, but the answer, the images it provoked, also made me feel sad. Sad, tired, but determined to enact that same spiel, to put a stop to this before the worst happened.
"So what do we do?" Trowa asked, turning to me as if he expected me to have an answer.
I gave him what I could, but I wondered how I had become the leader in this little enterprise. My official capacity was consultant, a title I didn't much mind. "The team from Internal Affairs is running down the Brisbois angle as we speak. That's their job, and I trust them to do it well, but soon, this won't be a matter for IA to investigate anymore. Even now, none of them really know what was stolen other than 'classified hardware'. Once they find Brisbois, we'll take over, unless it takes too long, in which case we'll step in. In the meantime, however, I'd rather look into what Zero would fetch on the black market, and/or who might be interested in acquiring Zero."
"Anything and anyone," Quatre answered grimly. "Brisbois could ask anything, and it'd be his. Zero's potential is limitless, to him and any prospective recipient. Not that I'm saying we don't need to investigate that angle, though."
Une adjusted the glasses perched on her nose with a familiar gesture. "I would like to think the Preventers would have heard if anyone had been asking about Zero in the underground, but last week I would have thought it impossible for someone to walk in and steal the Zero system so easily."
"As I recall," Duo put in, "you didn't label the box with a big sticker that said 'steal me!' because you didn't want to make it an obvious target. Maybe it backfired and people didn't realize what it was."
I was passingly amused by the frown turning down Une's lips. I wasn't certain if she was scowling because it was a good possibility, or because Maxwell had made the suggestion so flippantly. It could have been true, though. If I had known something like this would happen, I would have taken Zero myself when I disappeared, rather than trusting the government to safeguard it. According to Une, it had taken them five years to start the research on Zero because of the need to have a truly stable organization and some trustworthy staff before embarking on a project that needed to be approached with the utmost sensitivity. Apparently the Preventers had misjudged the timing. Maybe I should have supported its destruction from the beginning, no matter the waste of technology and knowledge.
"Just so we're clear," Wufei put in after a discreet cough, "can Zero be used to do anything other than start a war?"
Again, the team turned to me. "Its potential is limitless," I answered, consciously echoing Quatre's comments from moments before. "Zero is basically just an artificial intelligence system that has been programmed for use in war applications. In theory, a person could wipe those directives and reprogram it with a different set of goals. But I highly doubt our thief is interested in using Zero to predict the weather.
"On the other hand, you can't use Zero straight out of the box, so to speak. By itself, Zero is just a processor and storage media. To use Zero for any application, you need an interface. It's designed for a neural interface, which is strictly regulated these days, although technically, anything could be used for input and output. Its efficiency and practical applications would be limited in that case, though. Zero's power lies in its ability to manage and process enormous quantities of information at unrivalled speeds. Using anything other than a neural interface would severely compromise the tactical advantage of the system."
"So we should be investigating neural interfaces as well," Quatre identified immediately. "Who makes them, where you can get one, if any have gone 'missing' lately. Naturally we'll also need to look into all of the insurgent groups, potential and otherwise, weeding out the ones that don't have the necessary resources. If our suspect is selling, Zero won't be cheap."
"I'll make sure you have that information," Une promised us. The Preventers kept tabs on all such groups. It was good to know that we'd have their backing in this investigation. I wondered if that meant we had to do everything according to their procedure, as well. That could take some getting used to.
Duo rubbed the side of his nose before speaking up. "Hey, let's not be too reasonable about this. We don't know where these guys are getting their information. Wherever it is, they can't be as smart about it as our 'world's foremost expert' here." He waved lazily at me, the flip of his hand perhaps shrouding what could have been a mocking salute. "They might not know anything about neural interfaces or efficiency or reprogramming the system. They might just plug in to see what happens, and have their base go up in flames because someone goes postal. They might not be able to figure out how to use it, and toss it in the trash bin out behind their evil lair. I ain't saying not to look into interfaces and stuff, but let's not forget the other possibilities, too. These guys could be dumb as all hell."
After that admittedly wise, though inelegantly packaged, idea, we only had a little more information to go over, but most of it boiled down to research and waiting. When the meeting was over, I was tempted to follow Une out the door under the guise of checking on the IA team. We had decided that they probably shouldn't be exposed to the rest of the former pilots to minimize talk. There were a few people that knew who we had been and could recognize us on sight. Any case that warranted the attention of all five of us would certainly be high profile, a security risk to be avoided. For those that did not know who we had been, we were still quite visibly young, and not regular agents. Too many questions would be asked.
Unfortunately, I knew that running off to get an update would only be stalling the inevitable. Part of what set us apart was an unbelievable stubbornness, an implacable will to get what we wanted, and I was sure they would want to talk to me. Now that the immediate business was taken care of, I had no good reason to put this off.
Une shut the door behind her and I was left to the wolves. They turned on me with ominous deliberation. If not for the good grace of Quatre, the rest of us probably would have stared silently at each other, each being unwilling to be the first to ask.
"Heero," he said, reaching out to give me a warm handshake, one hand to grasp, one hand to cover. I found my hand rising to meet his of its own accord. Quatre simply had that air about him. No doubt he shook the hands of others several times a day, and none of them ever thought twice about it. His was not a hand to be refused. "You're looking well."
I wasn't certain how I was supposed to respond to that at first. Standard protocol for a compliment called for a denial, but that was not appropriate in this case. Gratitude, perhaps? Also inappropriate. Reciprocation, then. "As are you, Quatre."
And he did, although he hadn't quite lost the fair skin of his youth. His hair seemed a little less blond, a little more sandy. He needed to get out of the board room more often and out into the sun. Living on Earth had given me a fine appreciation of that big ball of gas in the sky.
"I don't know why I'm not surprised to see you here," he continued. He uttered it without rancor. "How did you know?"
"Une contacted me two days ago," I answered succinctly, knowing that no matter what I said, I would stir up questions.
"Contacted?" Trowa asked mildly. Still in his seat behind Trowa, Duo pressed his lips together in a thin line. "She had your contact information?"
"Only an e-mail. I left it in case, well, in case something like this happened. I had hoped it wouldn't, though." I was only somewhat relieved that I had not been called upon after a war had already begun. We had the opportunity to stop things before it came to that, if it was going to come to that. That made me a little less upset about this than I might otherwise have been.
"You left *her* with a way of contacting you," Duo stated evenly, quite aggressive in its mere repetition of fact.
I could just have easily left my information with them, I suppose, but I didn't. Why? I wasn't entirely certain. I had wanted a clean break, and I had gotten it, so it hadn't been the wrong decision. That probably wasn't what Duo wanted to hear, so I said nothing more than a quiet 'yes'. What else was there to say about it? It was in the past now.
"What have you been up to?" Quatre cut in, breaking the silence between us.
It seemed like so much had happened to me these last five years, but really, it boiled down to a few simple ideas. If they wanted elaboration, they could ask for it. "I traveled around Earth for while. Then I decided to go to school."
"What are you studying?" I had always wondered if Wufei would go back to a life of academics, but I think his stint with the Preventers was his journey, just as my five years had been mine.
"Computers." I answered with a small twist of my lips in accompaniment. What else would I be studying? "Plus whatever struck my fancy on the side."
"It agrees with you," Quatre said without any inquisitive lilt. Only a smile.
"It does." I quite nearly smiled back. It felt almost decadent to be able to indulge myself in leisurely learning, to want to know more about something and have nothing stop me from studying it. Such studies enabled me to ask a question of my own in return, even though I didn't think I would be surprised by any of the answers. "And all of you?"
"Business and family." It wasn't that difficult to find out what he had been up to. The division of Winner Enterprises had been a hot topic in the business world for quite some time, and naturally the man behind those changes was still in the spotlight on occasion. Quatre or someone related to him somehow was responsible for spearheading a number of beneficial reconstruction campaigns. "And like you, I suppose, on call to the Preventers, in case something like this should happen."
"Business and family," Trowa echoed in response to my question, although his business and family were far removed from the high-powered activities of Quatre. I wasn't entirely certain what Trowa referred to, but I was sure it was something down-to-earth. Back to the circus, perhaps? I remembered the nurturing, supportive atmosphere there from when I had stayed with him. It was sure to be a good place to wait out the transition from war to peace. I wondered how things might have turned out for me if I had had a business and family to return to. "And on call."
I noticed Duo rolling his eyes at Trowa's answer, but he didn't say anything as Wufei responded with a single word. "Preventers."
That, too, I had known. He was the only one of us to be working full-time with the organization. Brussels was where he was stationed, but at the time I was called in, Chang had been on a mission elsewhere. I wasn't certain if he had been called off the case to work on this, or if it had simply concluded in a timely fashion. I, too, had been confronted with the offer to work with the Preventers, but I had chosen to decline in favor of something a little more civilian. If that didn't work out for me, the Preventers would always be there. I was, in fact, listed as an inactive agent complete with rank, and had been since the end of the Barton incident.
That left only Duo. He never left many traces in the system. When all the eyes turned to him expectantly, it seemed he gave his answer grudgingly. "Oh, I've been here and there, doing this and that," he finally tossed out flippantly. "And of course, I've been on call."
Well, that was utterly uninformative, but if that was all that he wanted to give right now, then that was all I was going to get. I wouldn't be surprised to hear he really had been here and there, doing this and that, and if so, it would have taken a while to go over the matter in any detail. I would find out eventually, but now was not the time. "I'm sure we'll all have time to socialize later. Right now, all of you will need to familiarize yourself with the files you were given. Do you have office space here?"
Wufei answered. "My office is two hallways down. There is a conference room near there that is sometimes converted into cubicles for visiting agents."
From which I assumed that Wufei was the only member of our team that had a space of his own. That made sense. Though the rest were on call, the tasks they had undertaken had been too few or too light to warrant an office on the premises. Space was important in a building like this. Five years ago, it had seemed like the organization would never expand to fill the building. Now, there were offices around the world and the colonies. I slept better at night knowing that. "We can secure it, I assume."
He nodded curtly. "I do not believe there is anyone scheduled to use it at the moment."
"We'll make that our base of operations. Head on over, settle in, and review the file. I'll go to IA and get the latest word on their end. I'll meet you at four-ninety-two, and then we can talk about the case in greater detail." I set about gathering up the materials I had laid out during the briefing, realizing only belatedly that I had nodded dismissively at them when I had finished issuing my commands. I shook my head at my behavior. This only confirmed my decision to stay out of this environment. I was backsliding all too easily.
Papers rustled and chairs scraped lightly against the floor as the others prepared to depart, but by the time Trowa and Wufei had reached the door, I felt someone's attention focused intently upon me. I looked up to respond. "Yes?"
Duo stared openly at me for three seconds before answering with a nonchalant shrug. "Nothing."
It was never 'nothing' with Duo. As far as I could recall, anyway. I supposed I would have to remember that what I knew about my comrades wasn't necessarily true anymore. "No. There's been something you've wanted to say to me ever since I walked into this room. Now's your chance."
He stood looking at me for an additional five seconds before one corner of his mouth lifted, setting his lips into an edged twist as he spoke conversationally. "You're a real bitch, you know that, Yuy?"
During the tense silence that fell in his condemnation's passing, I blinked at him. "No," I said, the first thing that came to mind. "I don't."
The silence persisted for another two seconds before he laughed, that wry quirk of his mouth still present. It looked like he was about to say something else, but he changed his mind with a shake of his head and headed towards the door without another word, brushing past the others on his way out. I watched him go, then got back to collecting my things, deciding that even if I had another five years to try and understand Duo Maxwell, I probably never would.
last modified : 12/30/2005 14:41:38 PST