- 6 -

I felt more rested the next morning than I had the previous, and once again, it had nothing to do with my accommodations.  I had warned Relena the night before that I would most likely leave before she woke, and I made good on that, catching an early morning shuttle bus to the Preventers HQ.  Before heading to the office, I stopped by my quarters to get some fresh clothing.  When I got in, I found Duo had beaten me there this time.

"You're earlier than I would have expected," he greeted me over a mug of coffee.  It was liberally laced with cream, and I suspected sugar as well.

"Same time as yesterday," I answered, settling myself into my chair.  I glanced at the surface of my desk and found a distressing lack of material.  There was only Brisbois' laptop, and we had already done all we could with that.  What to do in the fourteen hours until a scheduled contact that might not even happen?

"So what are the plans today, chief?"

I was caught offguard by the appellation.  It took me a moment to remember that it was used as slang on some of the colonies as a generic name.  I told him only what I had already thought up myself.  "We need to pursue other leads while waiting for our contact tonight."

He eyed the stack of files on Trowa's and Wufei's desks distastefully.  "When I read the brief, I didn't expect the mission to end up so... researchy."

I shrugged, a resigned edge to the action.  "What else can we do?  We don't even have a target yet, especially since Brisbois turned out to be..."

"Useless small fry?"

"...A dead end," I offered instead.  "Were you looking forward to something more... 'actiony'?"

He paused, then shrugged noncommittally.  "You sound like you weren't."

I didn't feel like countering his evasions.  "I might have been, a few years ago.  Now... I guess I'm used to peace and quiet."

"You haven't gone soft, I hope?" he asked, arching an eyebrow at me.

"If or when the action comes, I'll be ready for it."  I hadn't changed that much.  "I just don't look forward to it.   I've spent my restless energy and settled in."

"'Restless'," he echoed contemplatively, turning away from me to ponder the word.  "Yeah, that's about right."


My curious sound made him start a bit, as if he'd been unaware of speaking aloud.  He started to shake his head dismissively, but paused, lips remaining poised to speak.  After a few seconds, he stood down, shoulders slumping slightly as he released his breath.  "It's funny, ya know?"  He was quiet, introspective, using a tone I recalled from fleeting, painfully honest moments.  "I've had five, no, six years to settle down, when that's all I wanted... and I haven't."

He had just looked at me to say something more when the door opened, and the unspoken words fled before Wufei had even entered the room.  Our Preventer partner nodded briskly to me with my name as greeting as he entered and seated himself at the desk he had claimed as his own.

I didn't get to find out what else Duo might have said.   Inconsequential small talk was made on the price of intercolonial travel until Quatre and Trowa got in.  The biggest plans of the day naturally revolved around the hoped-for communication with Brisbois' contact.  Deciding that Trowa would handle the matter, we established that he and Quatre would spend the day with Brisbois and his personal affects to gain a better understanding of the character he would be impersonating.

In the meantime, Wufei would continue to use Preventers contacts to look into the various militant groups that he had identified the previous day.  We were expecting to receive word back from local agents updating our information later that morning.  A list of people that had any knowledge about the Zero system had also been compiled.  They would be checked out in case one of them was involved or was about to be involved in the matter.

Duo was going to split off from the group to use his own contacts to gather information on the case.  None of us said anything overt, but it was understood that he would have ties to the black market -- actually, the 'brown' market, as I believe Howard used to refer to it.  He liked to characterize the Sweepers as merely slipping through the cracks and flying beneath the radar rather than the outright defiance of laws and regulations.  I was assigned to accompany Duo on his quest since I had a better working knowledge of just what he should be looking for.

We didn't want to wander all that far, but this wasn't really business one could or should conduct in the middle of Preventers Headquarters.  We borrowed Wufei's office, leaving the lights mostly off in an attempt to disguise the fact that it was a government office.  I jumped through all the hoops necessary to establish a secure line of video communication outside of the Preventers network, and then Duo commandeered my place in front of the console to complete the transaction with the packet checksum pattern that would assure the people on the other end of the line that we knew who they were and what we were doing.

I stood out of the line of sight as Duo connected the call.  The screen flickered, then resolved into an image of a sandy beach at sunset, complete with palm trees and umbrella.  I raised an eyebrow, but apparently Duo had been expecting something of the sort.  He confidently keyed in a sequence twelve digits long, then sat back to wait again, fingers tapping out a rhythm lightly over the keypad.  After a seven second delay, the display flickered again, and a familiar face appeared on the screen in its place.

"Hey, kiddo.  You're a week overdue."  Judging from the background, I guessed Howard was on one of his ships.  From the lack of latency, he must have been earthbound.  He looked well, now that the stress of seeing his mechanical children repeatedly take a beating was past.

Duo grinned and shrugged.  "Yeah, well, you know, things came up.  Sorry 'bout that."

"Better be something important, otherwise I'll make you regret missing out on margarita night."

He coughed discreetly.  "Heh, we got ourselves a little surprise, is what it is, and not in a good way, I'm afraid."

Howard snorted with concern.  "What, that bastard Yuy finally make an appearance or something?"

Duo choked, though I was unsure if it was on embarrassment or amusement.  I saved him the trouble of an answer, leaning over so I was in the camera's field of view.  "Howard," I greeted blandly, a faint smile tilting the corner of my mouth up as I waved casually.

The man was motionless for a second, then he tipped his head forward and pulled his sunglasses down with a finger on the bridge.  I'd never noticed he had gray eyes.  "Well, I'll be damned," he said finally, pushing his eyewear back up.

Duo had recovered by this point and regained control of the conversation.  "Yes, well, surprising though this may be, that's not the real surprise.  Heero Yuy doesn't just show up without a reason, you know."

Had there been a hint of bitterness there?  I wasn't sure.  We'd gone for quite a few hours without exchanging barbs, but then again, we either hadn't been together for most of those hours, or we'd been working.  So much for the hope that the hostility had just vanished without direct confrontation, but I would deal with that another day.

Howard's brows rose above his glasses.  "We have a situation?"

"Yup.  Some hardware's been stolen from the Preventers.  Computer hardware."

He scratched at his goatee shrewdly.  "What sort of hardware are we talking about here?"

"The kind that I used," I answered.  The security on the line was tight; I knew that for a fact.  But there was no such thing as perfect security.  I preferred to avoid the plain and direct answers if possible.  That, or I was superstitious, as if speaking its name would bring evil upon us.  I tended towards the former.

From his hiss of indrawn breath, I assumed he figured it out rather easily.  "Da-amn.  Do we know who?"

I retreated to the background to let Duo do the talking.   "Yeah, we got the ass that walked away with it, but he passed it off before that, and we don't know who to.  You heard anything, old man?"

"Hmm, nothing specific comes to mind... when was this?"

"Four days ago."

"Well, nothing's happened so far, so I guess that's a good sign."  He was taking things rather calmly, but he had also taken the ramming of his ship into another rather calmly as well.  A man after my own heart, perhaps.

Duo jerked his thumb over his shoulder at me.  "This guy tells me that anyone worth his salt is going to have to fix it up a bit first since it got fried, then he'd have to tweak it to fit, so it'd take a little while for it surface."

"Damaged, eh?"  Howard scratched at his chin again.   "What kind again?"

Duo glanced up at me to answer, so I did.  Howard was familiar with the system, so indepth explanations weren't necessary.  "My systems overloaded with the last blast of my beam cannon.  While I was in the air."  The impact when I landed, and I use the term lightly, had been less than pleasant.  Wing, Zero and I had received quite a jarring.  It had taken a bit of effort to walk a straight line after that.

He frowned, muttering as his mind reviewed the system, going through the components to estimate damage.  "Hm, that would have... and then that would have gone... which would take out that... and then... so in the end...  It's not everyone that'd be able to fix that sort of damage.  And not everyone that'd supply those parts."

"We're looking into things on our end," Duo answered, trailing the sentence off open-endedly.

The old mechanic grunted contemplatively.  "I'd certainly never get involved in anything that reeked of this.  You might try talking to Jorge.  He's local, deals in electronics.  I'll give you his info."

"Can we trust him?"

"More or less.  I wouldn't get too chummy with him, but he's a decent guy.  I've done a bit of business with him.   Gets a bit weird sometimes, but doesn't do anything too-too shady."

"What can he tell us?"

"I doubt you'd want to ask straight up about it, but if it's on the market, he'll know.  Don't know why someone'd go through the trouble of stealing it just to sell it, though.  You should be able to get a feel for the availability of the stuff you'd need, anyway.  I'll call ahead and vouch for you so you can cut through all the cloak and dagger crap he likes to pull."

He gave us the information, we thanked him, and then he sobered.  "I know you can't tell me everything, kids, but tell me true -- how do you think this is gonna go down?"

Duo shifted uneasily in his seat, but he met the question honestly as always.  "I dunno, man.  Things aren't pointing to your run-of-the-mill world war scheme.  Not sure why, but my gut's thinking quiet and ugly."

Nothing in my mind decided to contradict that assessment, but I didn't like leaving things with those as the final words.  I leaned over Duo's shoulder again to add something a little more confident.  "We'll find it, Howard.  All of us are on it.  They can't hide from us for long."

I couldn't tell what he was thinking behind those sunglasses of his, but he studied us for a few seconds before nodding.  "I'll keep an ear to the ground, let you know... you guys give me a call if you need anything, or when this is all over.  No need to keep me in suspense, you know."

Duo laughed shortly, said his farewells, and then disconnected the call.  He leaned back in his chair studying the information that Howard had passed us.  When he looked back up to me, I asked a question on a completely unrelated note.  "Since when did I become a bastard in Howard's book?"

When he shrugged on his jacket with only a snort as acknowledgment of my words, I figured he wouldn't be answering.   Ah, well.  Perhaps I could find out another day.

Jorge's place was about a twenty minute drive down the highway.  The establishment was in the backrooms of an electronics repair store.  Its exterior gave the impression of a completely legitimate business, but speaking the passphrases that Howard had given us won us access to the real source of the profits.

We met the man in a small office, a buffer zone between the two businesses.  Jorge himself was a middle-aged, twitchy sort of man, wearing a suit that even I recognized as being several decades out of fashion.  We didn't shake hands as we seated ourselves at a desk.  As agreed, I fell into a support role while Duo took point.

Jorge started us off.  "Howard recommends you highly."  He made it a point of steepling his fingers quite obviously, his face turned slightly downwards so he could look at us with a more mysterious air.

"And he you," Duo responded easily.  "He tells us you're the man to go to for this."

"Yes, 'this'.  He didn't mention what you're looking for."

"I should hope not," Duo sniffed.  "Howard's opinion means a good deal for good reasons."

Jorge smiled thinly.  "True, true.  But to business.  How can I help you?"

"We're looking for a little hardware, from the higher end of the spectrum."

"Nothing is too high for my reach."

"We're going to want the highest you can go.  Preferably something that doesn't fill up an entire room.  If you don't have a pre-built system, we'll be looking for components to assemble one ourselves."

"Well, I have some lovely Pemberton four point eights...."

Duo snorted derisively.  "Please.  I could go to the front of your store and buy those."

"Ah, but could you buy three of them networked together for an array functionally equivalent to a thirteen point eight?"

"Yes," I answered bluntly.  In my role as the tech geek, it wasn't expected that I be polite and well-mannered.  "In fact, I could buy two Alton four point fours, mount them on the Rockford twenty-three sixty board tweaked to twenty-five hundred, and get similar performance for lower cost."  With or without Howard's support, it was expected that we would have to go through a test or two to prove that we really knew our stuff.

"We're looking for something a little more powerful than a simple desktop machine," Duo inserted firmly.  Flatly, even.   If we hadn't been in a relatively undercover situation, I might have glanced apologetically at him for stealing his show.  Then again, this was what I was here for.  Duo knew all the components on the market today, but I was more in tune with to what creative uses one could put them, and a little more besides.

Jorge hummed appreciatively.  "Ah, a true business machine, then?  Could I interest you in a Callie eighty-five hundred?"

I made a note to myself to inform Une of what was on the market these days.  The Callies were used in military applications, typically to calculate missile trajectories.  "If we're going with Callies, why stop at the eighty-five when the eleven-k-two does a better job?"  The latter was often used to calculate trajectory and propulsion for space in real-time.

"Those are harder to come by."

"Nothing is too high for your reach," Duo reminded him dryly.

He tsked at us.  "I didn't say I couldn't get one.   Just that it's harder to come by."  The arch look he gave us adequately conveyed the price hike to us.  Luckily, we weren't really interested in buying.

"The cooling systems on the ten-k-ups are unreliable.  And the Callies are insufficient, in any case."

"Insufficient?  I can also offer the necessary hardware to tie, say, four of them together?  Eight?  The cabinet's about a hundred fifty centimeters--"

I shook my head in the negative, holding out for something better.  I finally named something that Zero could use.  "What about raw components?  Five gigahertz LSI chips, about two dozen of them."

Jorge coughed delicately.  "You do realize you're talking more than a hundred gigaflops of--"

"You should be able to get them installed on six processor nodes following the contiguous data pattern.  One box, water-cooled, copper interconnections.  Two hundred fifty-six megabits fully pipelined, twenty forty-eight way banking..."  Now I was quoting specs that had nothing to do with Zero, but were intriguing nevertheless.

He held up a hand.  "Wait.  There's only one person I know that would set up a computer that way."

Something tapped against my foot.  Duo was asking me if I had just blown our cover.  With my own foot, I signaled back that everything was all right.  "There's no reason Hatchett should be the only one, is there?"

Jorge stroked his chin thoughtfully, studying us intently without responding to my rhetorical question.  At length, he spoke.  "I may have what you're looking for."

That was troubling.  We had no intentions of closing a deal, unless the plan was to remove the components from the market to prevent the thieves from acquiring them.  Duo moved his foot against mine again, claiming the lead.  "All of it?"

"I have everything you need.  Let's talk shop, shall we?" he invited, standing and gesturing towards the back storeroom.

I started to get up, but Duo's foot landed on mine as he stood.  Slipping out from between the chairs, he put a hand down upon my shoulder, casually pressing me down into my seat as he smiled amicably at Jorge.  "Let's talk shop."

The businessman didn't blink as he led the way into the back, shutting the door behind him and leaving me alone in his office.  I would have protested had we not been in a professional situation.   Did Duo expect me to rummage around in his office while they were gone?  I glanced around.  The file cabinets in the corner had no locks.  I suspected they held the records for his legitimate business.  It was unlikely that he would store any sensitive information in a place so easily accessible.  It was equally unlikely he would have let me stay in his office if there were anything significant to be found here.

His wall clock was five minutes fast.  He had a large calendar on the wall as well, compliments of his insurance company.  I noted the name out of habit, even though I doubted they had anything to do with the matter.  He had failed to mark off the last three days.  There were some scheduled pickups scribbled into a few of the squares, but they all seemed innocent enough.  I committed the memos to memory anyway.  I got up to stretch my legs and take a look at the other side of the desk.  I found nothing special.

By the time they came back, I was back in my seat, having worked my way through half the electronics magazine Jorge had had on his desk.  I tossed it aside as they entered, Jorge laughing ruefully over something Duo had said as if they were old friends.  Our farewells were made with smiles and handshakes.  We left empty-handed.   I was informed that Jorge had been mistaken about being able to meet our needs.

Duo waited until we were back in the car and several blocks away en route to the highway before he decided to fill me in.  "He didn't seem to know anything about it," he started without preamble, breaking the silence that had persisted since our departure.  "He wasn't holding back on me, and he seems like the kind of guy that would know.  He really is a major player.  I schmoozed him up a bit, got him to talk.  I got that his stuff comes from a lot of sources, 'lost' shipments, salvage, underpaid employees, so we might want to check into those connections as well.  Asked him if we had any competition for his inventory.  He said no."

I welcomed the distraction that work provided.  Leaving me alone with my thoughts for too long tended to be an unwise idea.   Mission details were pleasantly straightforward.  "Is that just because we acted too early?  Or is it truly unlikely that our thieves will go through these channels?"

"Can't tell you for sure, of course, but I'm not sure they could get what you need from him.  He had about a dozen fives on hand, said it would take him a couple of weeks if we wanted another dozen.  Hard to keep all his stock current and stuff, I guess.  He's lucky Moore's Law bottomed out quite a few years back.  Offered us some fours instead, and some other crap to sweeten the deal.  I wouldn't have taken it, even if we had been interested.  How many of them do you really think a person would need?"

He flitted from subject to subject without any real segue, yet I kept up with what he was talking about.  "Zero is a network of five hundred twelve LSIs, custom manufactured to an ingenuous layering design that cut the size down dramatically enough for it to fit in a mobile suit computer compartment."

He gave a low whistle.  "That many?  Must have cost Quatre a pretty penny getting that thing made."

I hardly thought Quatre had been thinking of financial concerns at the time.  "The LSIs Jorge had would serve to replace the damaged processors sufficiently enough, but the resulting construction would probably never hold up to mobile suit standards again.   Chances are, if a processor is damaged, an entire node would have to be replaced.  If I had to order parts for the job without getting a chance to examine the system... I might give sixty-four as a tentative estimate."

He whistled again.  "I'm beginning to wonder why anyone would want to steal this thing."

"That's if you wanted to fix it as completely as possible without having to custom manufacture the parts again.  If I didn't need all of Zero's processing speed, then I could just remove the damaged nodes.  The software should be able to compensate.  If our perps decide not to fix the system, I think we can safely assume that there are no plans to use it in a real-time high-intensity combat situation."

"What if these guys had the designs?  Could they manufacture their own chips?"

Would we have to look into chip manufacturers as well?   "No.  They don't have the designs."

He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye.  "And you're sure because...?"

"Because Quatre had his copy of the plans destroyed, and I have the only other copy."  Just one of those things I didn't have any use for, but couldn't bring myself to leave behind.

"And I assume they're secure?"

I raised an eyebrow at him.  I certainly hoped he asked that question in expectation of a positive answer.  I had spanned them across a set of five flash disks, encrypted them myself, and then secured the data in separate locations.  "Of course."

"Just asking, man.  Anyway, I turned him down, but I left him a discreet way to drop us information in case he did acquire the parts.  Also got him to possibly consider letting us know if anyone else was asking for them."

He must have 'schmoozed' well.  I assumed he did it without breaking cover.  "What did you tell him?"

"Well, I softened him up a bit, got all buddy-buddy, convinced him to help us out and let us know in advance if we were going to have any competition in our little project."

A creative use of half-truths and implications, no doubt.   "And just what project was that?"

He took advantage of a straight stretch of road to take his eyes off of it for a moment and favor me with an offended look.  "I have no idea.  It's not like I told him outright what it was we were working on.  I may have implied we were trying to break the encryption on something or another."

"A computer like that would definitely help.  Did I miss out on anything else back there?  Some secret Sweepers handshake or something?"

"Huh?"  For some reason, I startled another glance out of him.

"Why did you have me stay behind?"  If he had really had some misguided notion of me searching the office for information, he would have asked if I had found anything by now.

"Oh."  I noticed his fingers tightening slightly around the steering wheel.  "Yeah, I guess.  I mean, not literally.  But sure, there was some definite stuff to pass myself off as in the in crowd."

The scenery outside my window was approximately the same as it had been when we had come.  I studied the hands in my lap instead.  They were the same as they'd always been, too, and yet I occasionally managed to discover something new about them.  "And you couldn't have done that if I had been standing there watching?"

"Well, gee, you don't have to go feeling like I left you at the kiddie table or something."

He was getting defensive.  That meant I was getting close to something he didn't want to talk about.  Too bad for him.   I really needed to know what was going on between us, and if he wouldn't answer my questions, he would respond to my interpretation of the facts.  I left enough silence between us for him to feel I had backed down, then I offered the conclusions I had come to while waiting.   "You don't trust me."

He jumped a little in his seat, but his hands on the wheel didn't waver.  It reminded me that he was a pilot that I would trust with my life.  Regardless of the level of trust that he had for me.  "It wasn't a matter of trust.  I'm enough of a Sweeper to be able to talk shop with him.  You aren't."

"I wouldn't have had to talk shop.  That's what you're for."

"It was more cozy with just the two of us.  We had good atmosphere going."

I remembered when it had been cozy with just the two of us.  We had trusted each other, depended on each other then.  It got me riled up enough to stop staring at my lap and look at him instead.  "I don't see how he could trust a man who couldn't trust his own partner.  You had no reason to have me stay behind.  I should especially have been there if he was going to show us his hardware since that was obviously what I was there for.  He was an unknown, leading you into foreign territory.  I should have been there, watching your back."

"Watching my back, eh?" he repeated flatly.  His hands tightened around the steering wheel again.  If I hadn't seen him pilot through immeasurably high-stress situations, I might have postponed the discussion to a time when we were no longer in a moving vehicle.  "You know, I did that once.  Watched your back.  Watched you leave, rather.  Last thing I saw of you, five years ago."

He was not going to make me regret that, dammit.  "Last I saw of you, you were waving back at me.  Last I heard of you, you were wishing me a good journey."  I took a breath, taking a moment to shift my gaze out the window before spelling it out in terms less argumentative.  "I really don't understand what changed between then and now.  What did I do to lose your support?  Your trust?"

I hadn't expected a big, triumphant return home to arms wide open, but I hadn't expected this, either.  I had avoided giving the matter too much thought before the conjecture became a reality, but I had hazily envisioned a cautious period of adjustment while we worked together.  I hadn't been too far off the mark, except in this one case, and perhaps he was the one I would have least predicted as reacting negatively.  Shows what I know.  Was that why it stung so much?  We'd gone our separate ways after the war, having parted on good terms.  When we met up again one year later for the Barton incident, it went well enough.  A few bumps here and there of unexpected behavior, but about par for the course.  Nothing like this.

"Do you trust me?" he asked at length.  Demanded, almost.

It was my immediate reaction to say yes, of course, but brutal honesty made me halt myself.  Yes, I would trust him with my life... if he was interested in preserving it.  "I trust your skills, your morals... but I no longer know your intentions.... Nor my ability to judge them, perhaps."

I couldn't read his reaction.  A muscle in his jaw twitched, but what did that mean?  What sort of answer had he expected or wanted?  Whatever it was, he dwelt on the answer I gave him for a few long seconds before answering in an ambiguous tone.   "Then I guess the same goes for me.  I trust that you'll save the world, time and time again, this time included.  There are some things in this world that just don't change."

"But you don't trust me to watch your back?"  That hurt.  When everything had been going to hell six years ago during the war, one of the few things we five could depend on was the fact that we could trust each other.

"You didn't trust us."  It started out as a snap, but puttered out quietly, if not less intensely, keeping things at our companionable simmer.

"How?" I asked in a tentative quest for a comprehension I was beginning to fear was beyond me.  "When?"

He kept his eyes firmly on the road.  I followed suit, staring at the dash instead of his profile.  I suppose it evened things out a bit.  "You know, if you don't get it, then never mind, I guess."

That was far from resignation.  It had been yet another nail in my coffin, another accusation, another defensive barb.  I wasn't sure why I wouldn't let this go.  We just had to work together; we didn't have to like each other.  If we could just find that we'd changed, that we no longer got along, that there were parts of each other that we didn't like anymore, then fine, I would settle for that, but we couldn't even get that far.  Why did we have to be like this?  "No, I want to understand this, Duo.  I did something to piss you off, and whatever it was, I never intended it to offend you, so I'm sorry for that.  But if you would just tell what we're talking about here... then maybe I could make it better."

He snorted in dry amusement, sparing me the dramatic declaration that I couldn't.  "You ever think you have a superman complex, Heero?  Wanting to fix things, make them right?"

"Why would a person want to leave things wrong if he could do otherwise?"  I had memories tied up with him that I considered precious; I could not, would not allow our differences now to ruin those for me.  I didn't want them bittersweet, or worse yet, just plain bitter.

"It's done, Heero.  Done is done."

"I don't want to do it again."

"You won't."

I found that flat statement to be entirely too ominous.

This piece of fiction is the intellectual property of the little turnip that could. The basis for this fic, i.e. Gundam Wing, Kyuuketsuki Miyu, et al., is the property of someone else. The author can be con tacted at jchew at This has been an entirely automated message.

last modified : 12/30/2005 14:41:38 PST