Although the mood had been a little downtrodden when I entered, things got a little more upbeat when I told them of the action we could undertake with Relena's help. It was not authorization to prosecute, but at least we had the go ahead to mount a campaign to gather what evidence we needed. Think of it as a search warrant, and we were under no obligation to let anyone know that they'd been served.
Duo grinned, a bit viciously, in my opinion. "Ooh, oh, me, me!"
"What?" Quatre asked, his tone almost indulgent.
"We're gonna break in and poke around, right? And we're gonna let me do it, right?"
My immediate reaction was to say 'wrong'. Let him undertake a solo infiltration mission into enemy territory? Five years after any war? Was he mad?
Of course not. Well, maybe, but not so mad I would accuse him of it aloud. There was some merit to his plan, whether or not he had weighed the pros and cons before jumping at the opportunity to go on a stealth mission. Meridian Biotechnologies was a high-tech facility, their security top-notch. It was even inspected by the government regularly to ensure its level of protection and containment since they were in the possession of potentially biohazardous materials.
Certainly all five of us wouldn't be going in. The more was definitely not merrier in this case, but did it warrant the reduction of our numbers to one? Could anyone else keep up with Duo, who was, we all conceded, the best at breaking and entering?
"Don't bite my head off for asking, Duo," I started, exercising a bit of hard-earned caution. I tried not to sound accusing. We just needed the information to better evaluate the situation. "But how have your skills held up?"
He didn't bite my head off, or even shoot me a nasty look. A couple of days ago, he might have torn me a new one no matter how kindly I had phrased my question. Maybe we were actually making progress. "Well, it's not like I've been using 'em every day, but, heh, they've gotten some practice, now and then."
Hm. I never did get a decent account of what he'd spent the last five years doing. "And you want to go by yourself?"
"Well... yeah." He shrugged an unapologetic apology to the rest of us. "I mean, I'll wait until we get the mission specs and everything before I start insisting on it, but you know this is what I do. And the rest of you, well, I'm sure you could hold your own, but...."
"When will Relena be able to get back to us with the official okay?" Quatre asked me.
"Probably tomorrow, noon-ish." They didn't make it a completely trivial affair to bypass the regular system of checks and balances, for which I was glad. "Certainly before we finish coordinating a mission. But she doesn't foresee any problems with it."
He nodded. "Alright, so let's say tentatively, two days from now, after hours, we want to mount a raid. Let's start putting the specs together, and once we have a better idea of what we're up against, we'll decide who goes in. Good?"
He received four nods in response.
There was a lot to do. Since it was already approaching late evening, we spent the rest of our time finishing up with the information that had been collected at Meridian, and deciding what sort of information we would be looking for the next time we paid a visit there. Luckily, Duo's, err, security-oriented tendencies paid off -- even without prior knowledge of our impending foray into the company's bowels, he had lifted passwords seen in passing, taken pictures of security arrays, identified several of the main access points, and gotten a copy of the internal directory. I guess he was just... security-oriented like that.
Comparison of what they had managed to find in the front desk's log book showed no one of note entering the premises before the time that the CEO and the CTO had been called away. What few visitors there were could be identified as significant others or friends of employees there, mostly visiting around noon, presumably to go out to lunch. We tentatively concluded that the troublemaker was an employee of the company. For the person in question to have caused so much of a stir, we surmised that he was a member of the project team working on utilizing the Zero system. Was this good news or bad news? Perhaps there was disagreement on the team, but whether the dissenter was in our favor or against, we had no way of knowing yet.
Discussion of the materials we would need to make a legitimate case against Meridian brought us to the identification of several different topics. We thought the chances of us fortuitously stumbling across the Zero system lying on a shelf somewhere during the short mission were very slim. Would we even be able to find the lab where Zero was hidden? Would it be one of the regular labs, or somewhere not even documented on the blueprints?
All we needed to shut Meridian down and buy us time was proof that they had had something to do with the Condasan attack, that they were developing biological weapons, or that they were conducting illegal and/or unethical experiments, if indeed they were. Incriminating internal memos would work, pictures of illegal setups, computer data, reports. We would pass on actually obtaining physical samples of biological materials. They would be too dangerous or unstable to transport on an infiltration run. Plus, we didn't want them to know that we had broken in. It would be obvious if vital things turned up missing.
We retired for the evening. I got back to my room with that familiar restless feeling bothering me again. I pondered it as I ran through the even more familiar progression of exercises I had done for almost as long as I could remember. Was it that we were about to take another leap into action? That we were getting closer to recovering Zero? That we'd fallen into mission planning mode with the same intensity seen years ago?
Only then, we'd never really planned anything as a group. During the war, we were rarely all five of us together in one place, let alone working together on the same thing, until those weeks on the Peacemillion. But by then, there had been so little to plan. Defend when attacked. Survive. Protect. We had barely enough time to fix our Gundams before something else came at us, let alone to plan. There was nothing complicated to it, until, perhaps, we were all deployed and Quatre was left to struggle to somehow form us into a cohesive team. I never envied him that position.
Was it just the different circumstances, or had five years mellowed our adolescent pride? We worked well together now. We knew our skills and our weaknesses. We had a single enemy.
And was Zero one of them? Would it be used against us? No. All of the signs pointed to 'no'. I was glad. While Quatre and I had both proven our mettle against the fractious system, I did not look forward to meeting it in battle again.
Plans had already been on my mind when I had opened my eyes. The first thing I did after booting up my system was go looking for Meridian's government safety and security inspection reports. They were more or less a matter of public record, so they weren't too hard to find. Within the documents was a summary of the basic security and safety devices Meridian used in their labs and offices. While it certainly wouldn't list the security features that were most likely to cause us trouble, it would at least give us a good idea of the first line of defense we would have to break through, or possibly it would help us determine which areas were innocuous, and which were off-limits even to government inspection staff.
I was already going over the list and making annotations when Duo arrived in the office. I think he was about to say good morning when he stopped to reconsider, having gotten a good look at me. His eyes roved over the workspace. "How long have you been here?"
I shrugged and avoided a direct answer. "I woke up early." As I paused to watch him settle himself at his desk, it finally occurred to me to ask a question. "Have you always been an early riser?"
He stopped in the middle of reorganizing his colored pens to shoot me what could have been a mildly startled look. Because I had asked? Because he thought nothing of it? Who knew? He ended up shrugging it off as well. "Not really. Not this early, anyway. I've never needed much sleep. Which is fortunate, since Fei's gotta get in early to stop by his office and take care of stuff, and he's my ride, so that means I gotta be here with him."
He probably could have taken a room in the Preventers dorms as well if he didn't want to get in so early, but I didn't suggest it. Even though his current bed was a couch, the atmosphere was probably more friendly than the utilitarian quarters provided here. "We might consider requisitioning a car."
"A car? Hmm. Yeah, I could see how that might be useful. Hmm, I think Fei should probably still be in his office..." He switched seats to the spare desk, where the phone was parked, and hit the intercom button. When the overly loud dial tone sounded, he entered a four-digit extension and waited for the beep. "Chang?"
Wufei's voice rang out with that peculiarly empty sound that meant he hadn't picked up the receiver. "Maxwell?"
"Yup. Steffie in yet?" I had met Chang's secretary the day we borrowed his office to call Howard. She was a middle-aged lady that sat up very straight in her chair and somehow reminded me of Pargan: very mild-mannered and innocuous on the outside, but overwhelmingly thorough and capable on the inside. She had to be to put up with Wufei.
"Hm. Think you could have her put in a requisition for a car?"
"What do you need a car for?" His voice came across warily. I suppose Duo could have gotten into some mischief with the ability to move himself at will, but I knew for a fact that his driving skills were top notch.
"Nothing specific yet, though I can think of a few things that might pop up. Whether or not we end up using the car, I think it'd suck to need it and then get held up by paperwork, so we might as well get a jump on things."
A moment of silence passed before Wufei answered. "Alright. I'll leave a note on her desk."
"Thanks, man." Duo punched the phone's button again and ended the call before turning back to me. "We'll need stuff, and I figure we won't be able to find it all on base."
'Stuff'. He somehow managed to make that sound ominous. "I'm not familiar with what the Preventers have on hand, but to get past the easy stuff, you should only need a low-level scrambler." I turned my laptop around so he could see the display.
"My, you have been a busy boy," he murmured after a glance. Heading back to his own desk, he took his own laptop out of its carrying case and booted it up. "What report is that?"
I told him where I had acquired the information as he set up his computer to receive a datafeed from mine. After I had transmitted the documents, he took up their analysis, freeing me to search for more information on Meridian's system.
The others trickled in, and we soon had a full blown data-mining operation in progress. Based on the security systems that Duo had seen on his last trip there, combined with the security systems I had seen when I had been permitted limited access to the Meridian network, we were able to get an even clearer picture than what the government could provide us with.
Also a matter of public record, if one knew where to look, was the original zoning form submitted by Meridian before they had begun construction of the building, plus a few updated blueprints as revisions were made. Combined with some extrapolation, we were able to form a basic map of the premises, from which we could construct a point of entry and an itinerary.
Immediately we decided that one piece of equipment that could not be left behind was at least a basic gas mask. Despite the government's approval, who knew how well they secured their hazardous waste? If that was the only place to hide, we would be prepared. It would be embarrassing to be brought down by a lethal whiff of ethidium bromide.
We were in the unique position of having been inside not only the building, but the building's security systems as well. As part of our investigation, we had requested and received information about the guard roster, shifts, and electronic systems. While it took a lot of the guess work out of the planning, it still only affirmed for us how much security we would have to bypass.
A plan was formulated that would maximize results while minimizing exposure. As any break-in would be, it was not without its risks, but there was at least one advantage to breaking into a civilian installation during peace time -- most of the security devices were electronic. There would be no risk of running into heavily armed patrols in the hallways, willing to engage in shootouts, even in the areas that probably held the secret projects.
We decided to split up the team for a good search pattern. One of us would canvass the parking lot and outside areas to keep track of who was in the building and where. Inside, one person would search the lab areas, and one the offices. Each of us was capable of and accustomed to working without a partner.
No one was especially surprised when I declined a position on the strike team. Even if I hadn't been trying to maintain a pretense of consultation, I had been living a rather domestic life for the last five years. While there were things that a person would never forget, I would have preferred a trial period for getting used to my skills again, rather than being thrown into the field directly for a test run.
Quatre also opted out, choosing instead to stay behind with me to coordinate the mission remotely. The others had no complaints. In fact, Duo leapt right into things, claiming the position of lab sneak. He glared obstinately at each of us, daring us to challenge him for the spot. With a look like that in his eyes, no one did. Whatever was going on in those labs was personal to him.
Wufei would case the exterior and Trowa would take the offices. Their parts would be relatively simple. It was the security in the lower levels that worried me. Though Duo was thinking over the matter thoroughly, identifying problems and offering solutions, he did not indicate that he thought they would be much of an obstacle.
Finally, I planted myself firmly in a position. "I'm backing you up."
"Thought you weren't interested in field work anymore," he said evenly, baring his teeth under the pretense of a smile.
"That's not quite what I mean." I diverted my gaze to the map printouts we had spread out on the desks in front of us, stabbing at the appropriate points with my index finger. "We've both been in and out of the main network and server rooms. It shouldn't be too difficult for you to get back in. Actually, Trowa would be a better choice." I directed my next words to the man in question. "If you divert your path here, you should be able to follow this path and end up here, right outside."
Duo looked no less stubborn, though the narrowing of his eyes had dissipated. "So? We looked at their systems already, remember? We can't risk parking someone in there."
I had asked one of the staff if anyone had been working the server room the night of their so-called attack. She had said no, no one ever watched the servers at night except the security guards that patrolled the corridor every once in a while. "We just need to get in there once and set up an outside connection. I helped them secure their network from the outside, but it should be possible to get out from inside. We can go over that. I'll catch it on the outside and ride the signal back in again." That I had assisted in improving their security meant that their systems were even tighter against intrusion then they had been, but at least I knew what we were up against.
"I can break in to things as I go along," he argued, though Trowa was nodding his head in preliminary acceptance of my proposal. "All I need to do is get my hands on a Tate encyclopedia, maybe a ten-thirteen bypasser...."
"You'd need a different piece for the hand scanner we know they have." After going through their financials, we'd found the purchase orders of several of their security devices, a higher-grade than was required by the government, or even mentioned in the government reports. We knew they weren't upstairs, so chances were that they would have to be bypassed to gain access to the places we wanted to be. "The PH-1100 series also has a timed lock-out feature that would prevent the descrambler from working very well. On the other hand, I hear it's possible to reset that."
"It has its own chipset," he countered. "I doubt it'd be tied into the main network."
I tilted my head in concession. "Granted, you'd need to intercept the signal on your end with a remote access point. But if you wanted to do it on-site, you'd have to take even more equipment with you."
He thought about it grudgingly, but he would have to agree in the end. I asked but a short diversion on Trowa's planned route, and everything afterwards would go much more smoothly. Before then, however, he would have to put up a token resistance. "We don't know how deep the scanner is in the building. The remote signal might not be reliable."
"There are a few quite do-able things we can do to boost the signal strength. If you wanted to go it alone, I'd like to point out that the record shows the purchase of a Schoonmaker lock, which is incompatible with the ten-thirteen. You'd also need the twelve-twenty, if you ran into it. You'll waste time if you have to break every single lock between you and the target, and you can't possibly carry all of the hardware that would be necessary for you to do it. They put together a good mix of devices."
He gave it one last shot. "If you're going to go breaking in and unlocking doors for me or shutting down systems, there's going to be a hell of a lot of footprints you'll be leaving behind."
I raised an eyebrow at him. "I'm not questioning your skills. Don't go questioning mine. Trust me. I'll get your back." In the absolute worse case, I could always simulate another attack from Zero and scramble all of their networks.
His eyes narrowed fractionally for a moment, then his expression blended into a resigned grimace. I think it was my last few words that did it. Hopefully he realized that I hadn't meant to imply that he required my assistance to stay safe, only that I wished him to be safe and would do what I could to ensure that. Finally, he sighed and nodded.
"I thought you were a civilian," Trowa said to me, an eyebrow raised in mild amusement.
I shrugged. "I am. Doesn't mean I don't keep track of current technologies." I'd be doing a bit of studying over the next day or so all the same. "Just get me in there. If it turns out that any assistance I can provide to Duo is redundant, then I'll spend the time raiding their electronic files, or trying to trace Zero. No matter what, it can't hurt to have an inside line. Anyway, we got our callback from Relena for the go-ahead, so why don't we compile an equipment list and figure out what we've got?"
The Preventers stores were filled with a lot of reconnaissance devices, but if they had a few of the things we were really looking for, the Preventers would have to prosecute themselves. Putting the array of equipment together in all its permutations, we decided that it was definitely a good start, but it wouldn't be enough to guarantee that we would get very far.
Having secured a budget for our sanctioned project, Duo and I made another trip out to Jorge's. This time, we used the vehicle that Wufei's secretary had requisitioned for us, and I got to drive. We left the others to plot out the rest of the strategic issues in our absence while we prepared ourselves to deal with all of the security issues. On the way, I started going over how he could get through the inner defenses of the computer network to throw a line out to me. The information he had acquired during his impromptu tour of the facility would prove useful in eliminating a lot of the guesswork, making our intrusion quicker and cleaner.
He laughed at the end of the discussion, leaving me to wait patiently for him to explain the humor to me. After the sound had passed, there were a few moments of silence. I wondered if he had chosen not to say anything further, or if he was waiting for me to ask. In the end, both were proven incorrect when he answered my unspoken question. "Wow. I was just thinking that it was like the good ol' days... And then I realized this is nothing like those days."
"Really?" Well, this was a mission, that was true enough, but I suppose that I, too, could see more dissimilarities than otherwise.
"Yeah. For starters, how often did we take road trips in a boring old four-door? One that was legitimately acquired?" He caressed the dashboard of our borrowed sedan in a joking manner, the motion ending on a contemplative note as the flippancy of his intro faded. "And we never went into this much detail when we made runs together."
"Which we did rarely enough, anyway." Our paths had intersected on occasion, but they had aligned infrequently. Even during our days on the Peacemillion, we had each had our separate battles to fight, no matter how we shared the burden.
"True. Either the plans didn't go much further than 'take out this target', or people were attacking and there was no time for much of a plan... Other than X18999, did we ever infiltrate a base together? And not just at the same time?"
I shook my head after only a moment's thought. "No. But we escaped from a few together."
He chuckled ruefully in remembrance. "Don't know if those make for the good memories.... not that there are all that many anyway, it being a war and all."
"If I have good memories, it's not really from what I did during that time, but from what I accomplished." The best memories I had were brief, stolen pockets of time during which we'd managed to make the war go away, at least for a little while. Those probably didn't count.
"But what are we accomplishing now?" he mused quietly, making it sound like a rhetorical question that I definitely shouldn't answer. He moved on before I had a chance to, anyway. "Do you enjoy it now? Now that you're out of the game, I mean."
"What do you mean, 'out of the game'?"
He shrugged a little. "I dunno. I mean, like... what, are you retired now?"
His answer had been less than elucidating. "From active duty, you mean?"
"Sure, I know there's no real war to be active in, but there's always like Preventers peacekeeping or whatever, but... you've gone all domestic."
I analyzed his tone for a hint of accusation. It was only there in the slightest quantity. Greater than that was a sense of wonder, tinged with a healthy dose of disbelief and a chaser of inquiry. I tried to address all of that as best I could. "I think of it more as being on reserve. When I'm called, I'll answer, and I'll rise up to the challenge, but until then... I'm not going to put everything on hold, waiting for it to come." I could tell the answer discomfited him. Maybe it wasn't the kindest thing to pursue that, but it seemed important. "And you, Duo? Have you gotten out of the game?"
He was silent for a good long while before he answered. "I've tried. It doesn't let go easy."
"Do you want out?" From his stubborn insistence on being the one to go in tomorrow, I had thought he was looking forward to seeing action again, but maybe it hadn't stemmed from any enthusiasm. Maybe it was responsibility. He was the best man for the job. Or maybe it was Meridian. From the L2 plague right down to his indigo eyes, they had made it personal for him. Duo always did have both ends of the spectrum nailed down pretty well, if not much in between.
He shrugged uneasily. "Maybe there is no 'out'."
"You can't fight with it, Duo." I spoke from personal experience. He had to take responsibility for it if he wanted it to be a reality, not deny its possibility. "You just have to accept it. You have to let go of it before it will let go of you."
His ironic chuckle was better than an outright sneer. Humor was a better mask for the insecurity than disdain. "How many self-help books did you have to read, Yuy?"
Trial and error was all there had been. "If you want out, you get out."
"Always so goddamn easy for you. Why the hell you?"
Though the murmured words were nearly covered by road noise, I caught them. "What do you mean?"
He jumped a little in his seat. Had it been that pothole in the road, or had he hoped I wouldn't ask? As if I wouldn't respond to that sort of bitterness, no matter how quietly muttered. He tried not answering, but maybe the silence got to him after a while, so he put together something casually nonchalant. "I mean... I didn't figure you for the type. Didn't think you'd come back so... so normal. Figured... heh, I guess I figured a lot of things. Almost none of which proved right."
"What did you figure for yourself?"
"Figured... figured I'd be the normal one."
I would have agreed. "And that I would be far from it?"
He glanced at me briefly out of the corner of his eye before averting his gaze to the scenery. "Well... you know."
I knew. I hadn't seemed very well-adjusted to the others, and maybe I hadn't been, but now, it wasn't something a little hard work and determination hadn't been able to solve. "I didn't figure it for myself, either, in the beginning. Maybe you just haven't gotten there yet." He didn't seem so far off to me, but all that mattered was that he was discontent with his current place in life. He had said earlier that he hadn't been able to settle down. There had only been a few times in my experience when I hadn't seen him restless.
It wasn't often that I had insight into the inner workings of Duo's brain, and even then, it was only after a lot of hints had been thrown in my direction. "Duo, is that why... is that what you meant when you said you're not all that happy to see me? Because I managed to..."
I stopped when he started chewing on his bottom lip. He obviously knew what I was talking about, so there was no reason to finish my sentence. I let him think about it while I turned my attention back to the road. "Maybe," he said eventually, clearly uncomfortable admitting the possibility. His fingers played with the hem of his shirt. "I don't know. I don't usually.... I mean, it's kinda petty, if you say it like that, isn't it? But of course, I guess it doesn't really matter how you say it; it's still the same. Any way you slice it... I guess... you just have something I want. That's just... I probably shouldn't take that out on you."
A shrug expressed how unnecessary I thought an apology to be. "It's not like you were trying to take it away from me. I might be a little more upset, then."
"Yeah I was," he said, retorted almost. Either it was the repentance that drove him to claim responsibility, or it was the rivalry and tension between us. "I kept bugging you about leaving, like that was a bad idea. I mean, obviously I can see it wasn't. What with the years being so good to you, and that whole contact with Une thing..."
"Hm. If you could make me regret my decision, then that would mean that the only thing you could take away from me would be a false sense of security. I wouldn't have what you wanted." A person could only have regrets if they had doubts. "Did we ever resolve the contact issue?"
He grimaced. "Sort of, maybe. I mean... maybe it took me a little while to think my way through it, but I accept that you had your reasons for doing what you did. I respect that you felt you needed to put yourself in a vacuum for a while. I would have respected it even if I had your contact info," he added in a pointed not-quite-mutter. "But that's neither here nor there, is it? It's not something I would have done. In fact, I'm still not entirely sure I understand your reasoning. My reasoning might have gone in a completely opposite direction. But that's the way things are, ya know? I still think it kinda sucks, but... easy as it would be, can't be sore just because we don't think the same way."
I hummed in agreement. "A civil difference of opinions, then. I... can see that your point has validity. I didn't consider things in that light at the time. ...And I think it's nice that we don't think the same way."
He snorted wryly. "Makes things more interesting?"
I nodded amiably. "And we get twice the good ideas. What were you saying about tracing the power leads? I don't think I followed the thought as far as you did, but thinking about it now, I think that it could be a good addition to the plan with just a little modification..."
When we reached Jorge's, it took us a little more time to get in to see him than it did the last time, but eventually we found ourselves back in his office. Little about it had changed. Even the date on the calendar remained the same, only it was now even more inaccurate than it had been before.
As usual, Duo took the lead. He started off asking about our previous inquiries, just to stay in character. Jorge informed us that he had been unable to acquire the parts that we had specified, for which I supposed I was glad. I didn't like to think that someone could easily build the sort of machine I had outlined. It didn't reach Zero-levels, but it ranked quite up there. In even better news, Jorge told us that no one else had been looking for such parts, which led him to trying once more to sell us parts inferior to what we had sought. Theoretically, the lack of competition would have negated part of the necessity of such a high-end machine.
Duo politely declined and shared that we now had a different project in mind. If we hadn't been us, I probably would have disliked our kind. To me, we projected the image of flighty hackers, still immature enough to be seeking out random targets merely for the opportunity to prove and hone our skills. Worse yet, our trips to this vendor suggested that we thought that better hardware would solve all our problems. For personal pride, if not for the sake of our cover, I hoped we also obviously possessed the confidence without the bravado to demonstrate that we were serious people with a serious goal.
When Duo rattled off the list of things we needed, this time of items much more likely to be in inventory, Jorge whistled appreciatively. He had clearly computed what uses we might have for such counter-security devices, but as the professional he was, he declined to comment.
After jumping through the typical bargaining phase used to determine our relative levels of cooperation, he extended his invitation to the back room. I stayed in my seat this time, until a discreet tug on my sleeve signaled that I ought to reconsider. I met Duo's eyes, and with a meaningful glance we came to an understanding. I followed them into the storeroom.
I was impressed mostly by the sheer size of his inventory. Computer components were not large these days, especially when stripped of their packaging. He could fit a lot in a small space. Naturally, we were not allowed to wander the shelves at will, but we stopped at a large table already partially covered with devices.
There was no secret Sweeper handshake, but I did catch a number of odd turns of phrase that seemed to hold a significance deeper than that which I understood. It was a marvel to listen to the terms being bandied about, to observe Duo as he maneuvered Jorge into showing us all his good stuff, and then proceeded to bargain down the price to a level far below my expectations. I think Jorge was a good man. He seemed to accept the camaraderie and excitement of the lively deal-making as a balm for the loss in profits.
last modified : 12/30/2005 14:41:38 PST