After blinking the sleep out of his eyes, Duo's lips parted as if to say something, but he thought better of it, and with little fuss we rose and prepared for the day, falling very easily back into the pattern of just not thinking about it. We weren't avoiding the issue, or even ignoring it; there was a time and place for everything, and this wasn't it. Now that everything was out in the open, we could continue our other work comfortably, knowing that we could come back to this at any time.
I spared a moment to appreciate the humor of sorts. We'd finally had a good, long chat, and we'd only identified more unresolved issues between us. But at least I could finally follow him to a decent extent. The idea that I might actually be able to figure this whole thing out put a bounce in my step that morning.
As usual, Wufei arrived at the office not long after we did. He waited until Quatre and Trowa showed up to use them as a cover to address Duo in a low voice. "What happened to you last night?" I had momentarily forgotten that Duo was using Wufei's couch as his bed. Of course his temporary roommate would have noticed if he didn't come home at night.
"Told you, Fei," Duo answered. Quietly, but not obviously so. "Had some stuff I needed to work out before the mission."
I felt Wufei's eyes on me for a moment, but they flicked away before I could catch him at it. What did he know about us, I wondered idly. Would Duo have talked over his problems with him? The thought reassured me that Duo had truly not been without support during my absence.
It wasn't long before we were shipping out. After double and triple checking that we had all of the equipment and data that we needed, following a final confirmation of our plans, we started the two hour drive to Meridian in a nondescript van used for Preventers surveillance. Wufei drove, with Quatre keeping him company in the front, while the rest of us sat in the back and played with our gear, setting frequencies and initializing modules. As we did that, we let out some of the tension by speaking of little nothings. We were all prepared; going over the details of the mission would be of no further assistance.
One of the first things we did when we got into town was stop by a car rental agency and pick up a generic sedan. We parked the van in the lot of a business park less than a mile from Meridian, then proceeded to gather more information on our target. There were a few details we needed to confirm from our previous visits. We had never been here with the intent of breaking and entering, so we hadn't paid as much attention to certain facts as we could have.
The security on their delivery bay was useable. We sent Trowa in as a courier with a fake package we put together, labeled with the correct address, but tagged as belonging to another company. While he was there, he confirmed the make of the electronic locking system on the door, and caught sight of the timesheets. When the person manning the bay wandered off to find the one in charge to verify before rejecting the package, Trowa was left to find his own amusements, discreetly planting a leech on the interior locking mechanism. In the first test of our illicitly acquired devices, we hooked into the security pad and downloaded the codes we would need to bypass it later on that night. The short procedure was carried off without a hitch. Jorge had provided us with high-quality goods.
Once the package got officially marked as 'return to sender', Trowa made it back to us without any incident. He reported that there were two security cameras within, but they were both directed towards the loading docks rather than the personnel door. On the off chance we missed something, we could always erase or alter the system logs after we gained access to the building. From our correspondence with Meridian, we knew that there was no one actively monitoring the video feed from this area. Because we were thorough, we investigated further into other possibilities for entrance and exit, but we anticipated no problems with our first choice.
No matter how many missions we'd been on, we always got that same tense anticipation going in, no matter what the objective. That made it difficult to settle down before the plans commenced, but since it seemed we would not be getting any sleep that night, we made it a point to grab some downtime right before mission start. A valiant attempt to sleep was made, but some of the time passed with eyes closed and minds running. Duo and Wufei took a trip out with the sedan to return it to the rental agency, and stayed out for a little extra time to drain some of the jumpiness.
Preparation time was interesting. We had the back of a van filled with equipment, and three people to get wired and set. Explosives and weapons were, fortunately, kept to a minimum. We had decided on a tranquilizer gun to be used in case of emergency, but nothing more harmful. There were still plenty of other things to get strapped to their bodies. The van was temporarily filled with the sound of Velcro and zippers.
Though I would be supporting him remotely, Duo still had a lot of hardware to carry with him. His vest and pants had more pockets than I cared to count, but we filled a good number of them. He put the digital camera into his top left breast pocket while I neatly coiled up the wires for the jumper he would use to access the hardware he ran into. As he sorted through the rest of the bypass devices to be hidden away, I tucked the jumper into his vest's top right pocket. The wireless transmitter that all of the devices were keyed to would go in his left pants leg.
"Stop that," I said to him, trying to pull open the Velcro pocket and stop him from bouncing up and down on his toes a bit. The entire van rolled with the motion.
"Sorry," he said quite unrepentantly, though he did stop. It took the van a few moments to come to a halt. "Just testing the distribution out. This guy rattles." He undid the button on his back right belt pouch and pulled out his biometric descrambler. Puzzled, he shook it twice, listening carefully for a noise, but didn't hear anything. While he slid it back into his belt pouch, I took advantage of his standing still to insert the transmitter into the pocket on his leg. He wiggled his backside a little this time, frowning again when he caught the tapping sound again. "Hey, see what's causing that, will you?"
I patted the pocket closed and shifted around towards the piece in question, after which he obligingly moved his hips again. Nearly done with his own preparations, Wufei chose to look over at that moment. "What are you doing, Maxwell? Some obscure mating dance?"
He wriggled a little bit again. "Is it working?"
I let Duo deal with that while I experimented, moving the scrambler back and forth with a finger. "It's the button," I declared after a few tests, taking the device out and handing it to him. "It's hitting the metal snap of the button. Put the wires on the outside. That should cushion it enough."
He did as instructed, bounced again, and declared a victory when he didn't hear anything. Quatre chided him this time. "I don't even want to know what people are going to think is going on in here if you keep that up, Duo."
Duo smirked and apologized without meaning it at all again. With a final pat-down of his loaded apparel, he declared himself done but for one last accessory. Out of his backpack, he pulled out a few pins and what appeared to be a wad of dark cloth. I gave him a bit of room to work with as he fiddled with his hair, pulling the braid up and pinning it in loose coils to the back of his head. Next, he took the comm set and attached it to his ear, and then he shook out the cloth, which proved to be a muffin cap, and secured it on his head, the muffin part of the cap having ample room to contain his lengthy tail.
"And there we have it!" he said with a flourish of his hands. He held the pose for a second, then demanded, "What?"
Had my lips twitched? "It's cute," I remarked. And it hid one of his most distinguishing features, and covered yet another part of him with something more suited to blending into the shadows. I approved.
He planted his hands on his hips. "I do not like being called 'cute', Yuy."
"I wasn't calling you 'cute'. I was calling the hat 'cute'."
"That's it. When I get back, I am so making you wear the hat. You can use it to cover up your green hair."
"His hair is green?" Quatre asked with good-humored surprise.
"Just a little," I said. He tried to see it, but it was too dark. Not that there was much to see.
Duo smirked. "Heero Yuy dyed his hair. Can you believe it? For no particular reason, too."
Well, I did have a reason, frivolous though it may have been. I had reasons for everything.
"When?" Quatre asked, a sort of wonder in his eyes. Was he amazed that he hadn't noticed? Was he interested in following the same course I had?
I shrugged. "About a month ago? It's a quiet sort of green."
Duo punched me in the shoulder. "It'd have to be, after it got put in your hair. Unless you bleached it first, which I think is something even less likely for you to do."
"I don't think I'd look good as a blonde."
"Well, you wouldn't do it all." He reached out and fluffed my bangs. I started to jerk back until I realized his hand was innocently going for my hair. "You know, just some artistic highlights..."
I couldn't picture it, and was about to say as much when Wufei interrupted us. "If we're done here, gentleman, we have a building to break in to."
Duo immediately withdrew his hand and got an anticipatory gleam in his eye. "We sure do."
The cleaning crew went in at twenty-hundred. They tidied up the upstairs and ground floor offices, mostly, plus hall sweeps downstairs. Lab technicians were expected to keep their own spaces neat to avoid the need for uneducated personnel to be in and out of their potentially dangerous work areas. With a building as large as Meridian's, there was an army of janitorial workers. If it had proved necessary, we probably could have snuck in and assimilated ourselves into the crew, but we didn't have to. They were out by twenty-three hundred.
By counting the lights in the windows, we could see that four people were still in their offices, maybe making up work that had been interrupted by the breach in the Meridian systems. Comparing the window positions to our blueprints, we easily determined which rooms they were, and they proved irrelevant to our case. Trowa would have no reason to stray near them. His primary targets were Hoffman and Conzemius, and they were out. Administrators didn't often need to keep the same hours as their grunts.
The labs proved to be a more difficult challenge since they were mostly underground. Wufei went in first, jumping the low walls on the side to gain access to the parking lot. It wasn't long before he started rattling off license plate numbers to us through the comm. Reference checks combined with access to the employee directory let us know who was most likely to be down there. We found four people in the artificial membrane project, one from accounting, one from cybernetics, and two in oncological pharmaceuticals.
This left the path clear for Trowa and Duo to slip into the building using the back door we had tagged that afternoon. Their entrance went off without a hitch. Contact between all parties was maintained over the comm as Trowa headed to the network room, and Duo proceeded towards the labs to get into position. I very strongly requested of Duo that he wait in a secure place until I gained access to their networks, if he could bear to do that at all, but I didn't have high hopes that he would follow my directions to the letter.
It was a tense wait for Quatre and me. Though we knew that they would probably run into very few problems, and none that we hadn't already discussed, idle chitchat was not encouraged over the line. They wouldn't talk to us unless they had reason to, and being professionals, they had very little reason to. The most feedback we were getting from them was a locator signal, showing us a little blip on a screen superimposed on a 3D map of the premises.
I stopped anxiously tapping my fingers over the keys of my laptop when Quatre decided to shine a light on my head. "What?"
He smiled and turned the penlight off. "Green, eh?"
I shrugged. "Why not?"
He smiled contemplatively. "Are you going to keep it that way?"
That was an option that I had never considered. Though it apparently made an interesting conversation piece on occasion, it otherwise made no difference to me one way or another. I shrugged again in answer. "We'll see."
After a thoughtful look on his face, Quatre chuckled. "I might be interested in seeing what would happen if I walked into a meeting with green hair one day."
"Don't be such a copycat, Quatre," I joked. "Why don't you try blue instead?"
He laughed even harder. "Can you imagine the sight of us, all five of us, each with our own color?"
"I don't think you'd get Wufei to cooperate. What shows up in black?"
"I'm sure we could get some red highlights in there, if we tried hard enough."
I tried to picture it. All I could come up with was images from bad kung fu movies. "And Duo? You really think he'd do something like that to his hair?"
"Well, he wouldn't have to do it all. Just some artistic highlights..."
My application registered some incoming traffic, and I immediately forgot whatever it was that Quatre had been saying in favor of the ping. I caught the signal and rode it back into the network as planned. With a little bit of effort, I insinuated myself into their network, my peripheral applications all loaded up and ready to monitor my logs and keep this a clean operation. "I'm in," I announced over the line. I wasted little time in penetrating their security systems.
"Whee," I think Duo said in response. It was rather sotto voce.
"Alright, people," Quatre started briskly. "Report."
"Heading upstairs," Trowa answered. "No one in sight."
Duo chimed in next. "Heading towards virology. About to go downstairs. No complications."
I scanned the display in front of me. "There are cameras in the stairwells going down. Give me a moment to bypass them.... there." It was simple enough to tie their log files to a different set of cameras. Starting up a queue in another window, I set the cameras to be reset upon my exit of the system. "You're good to go."
Quatre took over directing Trowa's progress while I supervised Duo. Wufei kept up his external surveillance of the property, keeping track of lights, traffic, and time. We all had the blueprints memorized, but they were just blueprints. Keeping an eye on the little dots representing the team's progress, I flipped through the files at my disposal, trying to find something with a map in it. Once I located one, I tossed the blueprints we had obtained and superimposed their map on our grid. There were a few minor changes, plus a wing that hadn't been accounted for earlier.
Bringing Quatre's attention to the data, I left him to tell Trowa of anything relevant while I covered my half of things. "Duo. I have an updated map. They added a couple of doors and a short hallway connecting the B-two-hundreds to the B-four-hundreds. Maintenance closet B-three-twenty-eight has been turned into a storage room. From the looks of things..." I called up some of their inventory data in another window. "They keep routine chemicals in there, general to all the projects. The new storage room replaces B-three-thirty-three, which was turned into a ladies' room slash janitor's supply closet."
"Acknowledged. I'm at the bottom of the stairs. There's a card reader. Hmm, number two-eight-nine-four."
"On it." As I was looking up the device in their database, I made a request of Quatre. "You can hook up the video feeds to that monitor over there."
He nodded, typing away at his own terminal to access the cameras.
I returned to my primary task of unlocking the stairwell door. It wasn't the type to stay unlocked once accessed, but rather the type that was unlocked only so long as the proper electrical signals were being received. It was designed to be more difficult for people to bypass since it would be more awkward for them to pull and bypass at the same time. "You'll need to pull it open on my mark... Mark."
"Got it. Wow, this door is heavy."
I trusted him to open and close it without making a sound. He'd already turned right, according to the plan, and gone about thirty meters before I stopped him. "You'll want to go left instead," I advised him, seeing his little blip halt, then turn around. I was pleased to note he did as I said without question. That deserved an explanation of what I saw in the logs. "It looks like they've mixed up the security rounds since they briefed us. They're on the right, now. They should have already covered the left. They'll probably double back and use the stairwell. I'm going to revert the cameras to their normal feeds."
"Other than that, the hallways are clear of any security devices."
Quatre caught my attention. "He's almost at Hoffman's office. Can you unlock the door?"
Hoffman's door lock operated on the same principles as the mechanism used on the stairwell door. I set up the proper commands for him to execute in coordination with Trowa, for Hoffman's office and any of the other ones nearby.
Duo informed me of his progress. "Popping into lab B-one-eighty-five."
I looked up the number. "Should be... insulin pumps."
"Looks like." Though the room was not what we were looking for, he was probably studying the contents to get a feel for what a regular lab looked like. It would help him distinguish what felt out of place in another lab. "Heading out."
I double-checked to make sure his path was clear before wandering off to other parts of the computer system. With his voice keeping me briefed in one ear, I looked into the trace of their system meltdown again. Now that we suspected that the attack had come from within their walls, I wanted to see if I could follow it back to its origin within the building. Unfortunately, Conzemius had cleaned up after himself. The logs weren't where I had last seen them. I hunted through the caches in the hopes that he might have forgotten something.
"Damn, Heero," Quatre said jokingly to me as I searched. When I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye, I saw that he was focusing on the information flashing across his monitors. "Stop giving me all of this data. I can barely keep track of it all. And you're even running it across both your screens. That's crazy."
My eyes flicked back and forth between my dual monitor setup with practiced ease. The screen real estate was important to have, especially in high-speed applications. I couldn't afford the time to search through all of the layered windows I would have with less display space. "I run three at home. Four would be easier, actually, if I could find a secure way to stack them."
He shook his head with humor. "If you can deal with that much input, no wonder you did so well with Zero."
I snorted quietly, knowing that he could process just as much information. He'd been a Gundam pilot, same as the rest of us. We had data displayed on three sides in the cockpit, plus a few subscreens, although granted, the screens usually didn't all display important data at once.
They were well-buried, but traces of the deleted logs slowly revealed themselves to me. I had just found another piece of the puzzle when what Duo said caught my attention. "The corridors here look a little swankier. Security looks a little tighter."
I glanced back at the monitor. "Duo, stop."
His dot followed my command. "What is it?" he asked tensely.
"Where are you?"
"You lost my signal?"
"Your signal is still clear, but you've wandered off the map." I called up the history and watched as the computer drew a line indicating Duo's path back through time. I stopped it once it connected to the map on the display. "You took a left at B-two-eighty. According to our maps, there should have been a lab there, one door. Hang on. I'll see if I can find something... Can you get into one of the rooms? Try and find a computer down there."
"You got it. Mostly lab space down here. Hm, numeric keypad lock." He could take care of that with one of the numerous devices hidden on his body. Less than a minute later, he told me he was in.
"What's the IP of the computer?"
"IP? I don't wanna turn -- wait. They're all labeled. How convenient."
"Yep." Understandable procedure at a company with as many computer systems as Meridian. The IT department had printed out the relevant addresses and pasted them on the case of every computer I had seen while I was there for easier identification.
Duo gave me the numbers I needed, and from there I searched through the systems to link it to a particular computer on the subnet, found the matching physical location for it, then went back to the security net and accessed the files for that area. It wasn't long before a new section of wireframe was added to our map, colored symbols illustrating the placement of different security devices.
"This lab's empty," he said softly to me, his voice automatically lowering in response to a more secure area, even though the chances that someone would be there to overhear him were even lower than before. "I'm moving on. Lights are dimmed in the halls, but adequate. If you hear me scream my bloody head off, it'll probably be because I just ran into rows and rows of human fetuses in little glowing jars."
I snorted. "You watch too many movies, Duo."
"You watch movies?"
The question was completely irrelevant, but I thought maybe he needed the sound of someone's voice to make his journey a little less tense. Well, I could keep him company and go fishing through security at the same time. "In this day and age, how could a person not?"
"Yeah, I guess. You'll have to tell me about your favorites, one day. You'll have to tell me a lot of things, one day."
There was something odd about that assertion, but I put it aside for the moment to give him an update. "About forty meters ahead of you, there's a T-intersection. Starting with the cross hall, there are security cameras interspersed to monitor the traffic. Do you want me to bypass them, or would you rather I gave you the timings? They swivel."
He gave the matter a moment's thought. "Must be in the right place, then, if they've got tighter security. Do you know where I should be going?"
"Just let me finish up..." Listening to Wufei updating us with one ear, I went back to the segment of the trace that I had found before I got distracted, following the footsteps until I could identify the computer it had come from. "Oh yeah. A lot of those labs are equipped with motion sensor lights."
"I'll turn 'em off, then." It wouldn't be a problem. He was equipped with handheld light sources and night vision lenses if necessary.
While he investigated the last lab before the secured hallway, I extracted an address I thought might be valid, tracked it through the Meridian building to a physical location and synced it up to the map. "Okay. You'll need to go left at the junction. Follow the hall as it turns right, and there will be a door. Go through the door, and you should be in the proper area."
Duo inadvertently let out a puff of air into his receiver. "Might as well keep things clean. Give me the timing on those cameras."
"Alright. On my mark, you'll have five seconds to get to the space beneath the camera on the left. Then we'll wait three seconds, and you can get to the door."
"...Mark." I watched his dot move rapidly to the end of the corridor and come to a rest below the camera's position.
"There's a lock," he muttered into his comm. "Is it safe?"
"Stay where you are," I ordered, already trying to navigate to the proper security subsystem. "Your position is in the clear. What does it look like?"
"I'm on it." He wouldn't have the time to stand there and wait for the hand decoder to do its work. If he were working by himself, he could plausibly run up, plug it in, and then leave it there while he retreated to the blind spot, but there was no point in going through the trouble when I could circumvent it from my end.
"It must be a pain in the ass to work here."
I smiled briefly. "Okay. We're getting a little trickier here. These locks won't be controlled by the same set as the others were. I've uploaded the bypass to your jumper. It should only take a couple of seconds to unlock after you've plugged it in."
"I'm not registering any cameras on the other side. This appears to be the bottleneck into the area." I didn't have to tell him when to move this time since he could see the camera right above his head and gauge his actions accordingly. That didn't stop me from holding my breath for the ten seconds it took for him to complete the procedure.
During that time, Quatre relayed some of the information that Trowa had unearthed on his end of things. "The guy that they got called away to deal with. There's a memo that may be about him, if it was Zamora, Marc, they were talking about."
The name filtered through my consciousness, and I switched output channels. "Wufei. Zamora, Marc. License DHN-three-eight-zero. Still in the building?"
Chang responded after a moment to verify. "Yes. In his office."
Quatre had looked him up in the employee database. "Cybernetics. Related to Zero, you think?"
I couldn't answer, my attention drawn away by Duo's current position on the monitor. "Duo, you're coming up on--"
"--Some infrared beams. I see them."
I heard Trowa informing his guide of our earlier conclusions involving the improbability of Zero applied to cybernetics, so I didn't bother returning to their conversation. I raced ahead of Duo's path instead, trying to identify the threats before they became a problem. Although we were now walking into territory on a separate security subnet, I could still see the devices, even if I couldn't directly control them.
"Whee, a card reader," Duo murmured, having run into yet another locked door. He was right. All of the security measures in that area must have made it annoying to work down there. "Something different. You know, I bet each one of these blasted labs has a different code to get in, if they're really this bloody paranoid."
"I hope that's nothing I suggested to them," I said, a faint smile staining my expression where he couldn't see as I continued to root for information in their computer systems.
"Better not be. You suggested enough crap to them. Hmm, Orion? Yeah, I can get this one..."
Conzemius had tightened things up, unfortunately having taken some of the things I had said to heart. While it wasn't difficult, per se, to break through since I was already in, the timing on the system was crafty. Windows of opportunities closed almost as soon as I opened them, but there was a thin slice of time, measured in milliseconds, of which I could take advantage. I knew just what to do, only my fingers couldn't move fast enough. Though I had hoped this wouldn't be the case, I had foreseen the possibility.
I pushed my keyboard away and got out of my seat a bit to reach out to an unmarked bag that had been shoved into the corner of the back of the van. Garnering a questioning look from Quatre, though he said nothing as he continued to provide guidance to Trowa and Wufei, I returned to my little stool and pulled out a familiar, though not particularly welcome device.
"Heero?" Quatre finally stopped to say, an edge to his voice. "Where did that come from? And what do you plan to do with it?"
I calmly untangled a wire while keeping an eye and ear on Duo's progress. He had entered a lab area where work was being done, but the research was not sinister in any obvious way. Illegal testing, perhaps? Illicitly acquired materials? He decided to take pictures of labels before moving to greener pastures. "This comes from the Preventers' project team," I finally answered Quatre, flipping my comm receiver up so that I didn't distract Duo. "It's not particularly outstanding, but it'll give me what I need to get through the system."
"You mean the other day, when they said they had developed some things? They developed a working interface?" He paused for a moment, head cocked as he listened to the comm. "You tested it for them? And you want to use it now?"
I set aside his dismay to deal with later. "Trowa will tell you that it's harmless. We ran into no complications at all."
"But it can't be ready for use in something like this," he said, trying to reason with me. "This is important, Heero, not just some trial run."
As if I didn't know that. I did not do things like this frivolously and without forethought. "I spoke to the researcher in charge yesterday to ask for some adjustments. I tested them out this morning when I picked it up. Everything checked out."
He listened to what Trowa had to say again. I briefly considered flipping to their frequency, but decided that would be intrusive. "I know, but-- You're sure? ... Hm, that's true, I guess... You can unplug at any time?"
That last part he directed towards me. "Of course."
"You'll disconnect the moment anything funny happens."
"I will," I promised, noticing the distinct lack of request or question in his flat statement. I hadn't yet decided whether or not I was disappointed by their lack of faith in me. Zero had been my machine, almost as much as Wing had been. I knew it. I knew what it was capable of, what it had done, what I could do with it. And, rather importantly, I also knew our limits.
I put the assembly on before he could come up with any other suggestions or objections, booting up RJ's modified shell with one hand while I adjusted the fit with my other. Once everything was set, I pulled my comm back into place. "Duo, I'm going offline for a bit to reinitialize some stuff. Shouldn't be more than a few seconds."
"Mm-hmm. Almost done here."
Assured that Duo wouldn't be unable to reach me without knowing why, I transferred command to the shell interface and waited for the change to settle. Once it did, I tested its integrity with a few simple commands, and when I was satisfied with the results, I woke my remote connection. "I'm back."
"You ready to receive the pictures?"
A mere thought was all that was needed to confirm it. "Yes."
"Transmitting now, then. I'm heading out the door.... Where the hell did they do their shopping? A flea market? Shouldn't they have ordered all this crap in bulk or something? Stupid two-point-eight..."
I told him how to reconfigure his three-point-oh for compatibility with the earlier version, then returned my main thought process to trying to find out where Zero was. Tracing corrupted network packets wasn't fun. Zero probably could have helped me in reconstructing them more quickly and accurately, but without that assistance, I was left to muddle along as best I could.
"Dammit, why can't super secret evil lab doors have windows?" Duo's annoyance at having to break into every single lab to confirm their contents was becoming quite apparent.
"Or name plates would work, too," I contributed, letting him know I was listening. If the lab hadn't been empty of personnel and cleared of security hazards, I might have insisted he stop the chatter, but he was in a relatively safe area, so I kept him company instead. He knew what the practical limits were.
I paused to study the flow of electricity through the complex, slipping through some tight security to get at some of their internal records. Referencing the day in question, I found voltage spikes at the corresponding time. I could correlate those with the other traces I had done to narrow down the location of the computer even further.
Since I was there, I slid through a few more layers of their system to hit their e-mail server, initiating a download of their traffic. I was able to get the history from the last two weeks. Anything prior to that was stored on a different server, and I didn't judge it worth the time to acquire those files as well. I made sure Quatre was aware of the data before I went back to my primary goal.
Duo and I had gained access to four more labs in that area before I finally pieced together enough information for a practical conclusion. "Duo. Does it seem likely that you'll find what we need in the lab area?"
There was a short silence as he opened the door we had just unlocked. "This one's empty. Moving on. Yeah, I think so. I'm gonna skip a few and follow up on that report... ooh, what's this? My, what a pretty, shiny lock you are..."
A short second after he plugged in the jumper, the specs for the lock popped up on my screen. If it was the only biometric device that we had run into so far, surely something important was being secured. "I can do this more quickly on my end."
Without waiting for him to answer, I initiated the decryption and descrambling process, making use of the resetting loophole that I had identified and prepared for prior to the commencement of our operation. While my use of the DNI did nothing to speed the process, the computer that I had at my disposal was more powerful than the handheld that Duo carried with him.
I didn't have to babysit that process, so I continued with my search, my attention returning after only a short while when Duo spoke to me. "This was a good idea, Heero," he admitted quietly. "Hooking up to the network and all."
Though the dictates of society probably called for some sort of false humility or gratitude, that wasn't my style, so I refrained from expressing any at his concession. "Different minds," I said instead, recalling what I had mentioned the previous day. "Different ideas."
The puff of breath into his receiver masked what was certainly a mild snort. "Why were you asking again? About finding what we need?"
Back to business. "From what I've seen in the records, Zero may have been in that direction before, but it probably isn't there now. The attack originated in that sector, but there hasn't been any activity since. The address doesn't show up on any of the internal subnets, so they probably wised up and cordoned it off from access to any vital systems. Even if I can find the computer in the system, there's no guarantee that I'll be able to track it down to a physical location."
"I wouldn't worry about it overly much, then," Quatre broke in. "I think we just found what we need to make our case."
Setting Duo's communicator to receive input from Quatre's channel, I sat up a little more straightly on my stool. "What is it?"
"Paper.. a whole lot of paper. And a few documents that weren't shredded thoroughly enough. We have reports tying Meridian activity to that region of Africa, plus articles on the progression of disease through the Condasan community. Even a few GSDC reports that I know they shouldn't have access to."
Wufei's voice cut in on the other line. "Is there anything to tie them to the actual use or production of the biological agent that got the Condasans?"
Trowa responded. "I've found some references to research being done on those strains, but Meridian does legitimately have research concerns in infectious diseases, especially those from L2. I'm about to hit general accounting for more information."
"Then anything we have so far is circumstantial. We don't have anything linking them with the method of delivery--"
"But I think I've found the vector," Duo cut in with a low voice. The computer had finished its work while I wasn't watching, and he was in. There was just a little excitement in his voice, mixed with a larger portion of dark anticipation. Shinigami was pleased, but not happy. "A mini-fridge with a terrifically familiar name on it.... and petri dishes with lots and lots of numbers of them. Crap."
I knew a little bit about lab work. "Labs keep strain books to track all the different varieties. It should have records of which numbers map to which strains."
"Strain book... strain book... This it? No... How about this? Hmm, interesting, but not quite. I'm turning on their computer." Six seconds later, I received an image of the 'interesting' report he had found. "Wait, found it. Yeah, this is definitely it." He started muttering the names as he read through them to himself, low enough that I could hardly catch them, but the cadence of his words sounded approximately correct.
That was it. We had found samples of biological agents that had been used to produce the disease that had killed off the Condasan community, along with substances with other known detrimental properties. That was all we needed to tie the whole thing together.
Quatre and I started compiling all of the information we were receiving in nearly a constant data stream. We were getting everything from detailed biochemical analyses pulled from the lab computers to payroll and shipping from the accounting computers. During it all, I recognized that Trowa had found two more clues involving our suspected troublemaker, Zamora. Letting Quatre know of my impending digression, I followed the possibilities, tracking Zamora's activities through the security subnet into which I was logged.
His user account was accessed primarily from five machines: one in his office, two in one set of basement research labs, and two in another, with a decent amount of network traffic moving between the three points. One set of computers resided in the lab the directory listed as the cybernetics department. The other set wasn't registered on the main subnet.
Fortunately, computers had addresses. I was swimming through the routers in search of the physical location to which those addresses mapped when my attention was caught by a blip in the packets. I turned to study it further, but by the time I got into the proper module, it was as if it had never been. Perhaps I had imagined it.
Once, I could believe. Twice was pushing it. Three times, and something was definitely up. I sidetracked a portion of my attention to monitoring for those strange patterns. I pounced on a fourth instance of the suspicious phenomenon, but didn't get there quickly enough to catch it in action. I did, however, manage to get a copy of the traffic logs before they were altered irreparably. A quick comparison showed at how fine a resolution of the timescale I would have to work to be able to identify the source.
That sort of speed was beyond my system's current capabilities. I thought about the situation, cast a quick glance over to Quatre's workstation to see that he was handling the flood of information just fine on his own, and made my choice. Maybe I wouldn't have done it under other circumstances, if not for that almost instinctive recognition of Zero's handiwork in the patterns. What was it doing riding the network? At what level was it functioning? Where was it? Who was behind it? I had to know.
Maybe I pretended reluctance, but the fact was that when I had met with RJ earlier, I had suggested a few minor modifications that I knew for certain would facilitate my own adjustments later, should I be in a position to require those adjustments. Had I anticipated it? Did I look forward to it? Was I capitulating a little too willingly?
All of which was irrelevant. Zero was on the network, and I had to catch it. I pulled the interface off, shaking my hair irritably out of my eyes as I lifted a panel on the device and carefully used my fingernail to slide a tiny switch to the right one click. That done, I slid the DNI back on and reinitialized the shell with a few additional parameters.
It loaded up smoothly, and with the click of a button, I no longer saw all of the input on the screens in front of me, but in my mind's eye. I was no fool; of course I didn't re-enable the two-way flow of information to the extent to which the Zero system had. This was only the faintest of echoes, what I could get away with without disabling the safety features. Zero had, after all, fried a man's brain. I could deal with the Zero system that I knew, but who knew what Meridian's inexperienced engineers may have done to it.
Despite its continuing limitations, the newly expanded DNI gave me that tiny speed boost I needed to overtake that frustratingly elusive data blip. There was, admittedly, a small thrill that came from being able to traverse a network without the bottleneck of the human visual processing centers. As soon as that distinctive signature flashed itself across the net, I was on it without having to twitch my fingers in response, even though I left them on top of my keyboard out of mere comfort and habit. My eyes became similarly redundant, the image rendered by the computer on the monitor being a few distracting frames behind what I saw in my mind. I looked away and focused instead on Duo's dot, his graphical representation on the screen bobbing reassuringly in place.
My unknown adversary reacted with surprise when I made my first move, blocking it from erasing the traces of its presence on the network. It retaliated almost immediately by trying to sever my connection. I fended off the attack and dug into the footprint I had frozen, following its history halfway through the routers before it caught up with me and obliterated the trail. That in itself left a mark, and it lit the way for me as I pursued that avenue of approach. As it blocked one, another opened, and between offensives came defensive moves as I strove to avoid being booted from the network.
The game of tag seemed to go on for quite a while, but since the timescale was on the order of clock cycles, it couldn't have gone on much longer than a minute. During that short eternity, I gained quite an appreciation for my opponent. There was no doubting its authenticity as the Zero system. No mere human could move at these speeds, and no mere program could defend itself with such assiduous creativity.
A pattern began to make itself known, though I spared a moment's thought to wonder whether its unfounded nature was a result of an unconscious analysis or a gut feeling. Either way, it felt as if the merry chase on which I was being led was designed to run me through my paces.
It was a pattern quite suddenly broken by a harsh overflow of data, one that left me no doubts at all that Zero was behind it. My opponent threw a massive amount of information at me, enough to drown out the thought level I used to direct my system despite the safeties that were still intact on the device. Things would have gotten a lot more interesting without that buffer. As a backup safety system, I had also been sure to include an automatic shutdown in the event of such an excess of throughput.
Even so, in the few clock cycles that it took for the protocols to take effect, the burst of input threw me off-balance as I reflexively scrambled to respond. It was so shocking and instant that I didn't even know for sure what I was responding to. As soon as my mind fired its answers off, it felt like they were just sucked right out of me and down the line before I even had the chance to get a good look at them. My vision was overlaid with a familiar staticky sensation that made my world glow for a slow-fading moment as my mind diverted its resources from processing the input from my optic nerves to dealing with the data invading my personal space.
It was, in reality, a ridiculously short amount of time for such an ordeal. It was over before my hands had finished reaching up to tear the interface off of my head, an almost pointless gesture since the shell had already reverted to a manual state. Such a reaction did not escape the notice of Quatre, of course. He questioned me with a note of edged worry. "Heero?"
I shook my head at him, shutting my eyes for a moment to cut down on the input as I tried to settle my thoughts. I think the sudden cessation of data flow threw me almost as much as the beginning of the abrupt flood.
"Heero?" another voice buzzed. It took me a moment to recognize that it wasn't Quatre asking me again, but Duo. My comm was still attached to the side of my head. "Everything okay there, buddy?"
I must have made some sort of sound in surprise or the like for him to pick up on. I swallowed before answering steadily. "Yes. Status?"
There was a brief pause of silent suspicion before he responded. "Peachy. Computer's almost done dumping. Looks like I got about six more pages to scan in this book. Pics are taken. I'll take a quick tour of the other labs in case, then I'm outta here. Q-ball, he lying?"
It was a sign of how dazed I was that his sudden shift confused me for a moment. During the time that Quatre used to study me critically for an answer, I preempted him and spoke for myself. "I ran into Zero on the net."
My quiet words elicited a grave silence while everyone digested that little tidbit of information. A moment later, Quatre snapped back into gear. "Can you locate it?"
"No... Shit." My hands went automatically towards the DNI before I realized that that wouldn't be a good idea with my current state of mind. I shoved it aside and dragged my keyboard back into place, regaining access to avenues that had timed out during my absence.
"What's he shittin' about, Q?" Duo asked tensely.
Again, I answered for myself. "If Zero knows I'm here..." No, something was wrong with that statement... wasn't there? I started over. "If whoever was behind Zero knows I'm here..."
I didn't need to finish my sentence before Quatre started issuing orders. "No more loitering, then, gentlemen. Let's pack it up. We have what we need. Trowa, as soon as the download is complete, clear out. You should be okay since we didn't have to circumvent too many security systems to get you up there. Duo--"
"Fine, I'll skip the rest of my sight-seeing. I'll finish up here and clear out."
"Proceeding to point delta-four. Continuing to monitor personnel movement. I'll keep you advised."
"A few of the systems have been reset," I informed everyone, feverishly mining the consoles for what I needed. Something wasn't quite sitting right with me. "But there don't seem to have been any alerts sent out."
"With luck, they thought you were a computer blip." Exactly what I had been chasing to begin with. Unfortunately, I wasn't as clean in my execution as Zero had been.
"Done," Duo declared. "Clearing out."
Zero wouldn't have thrown all of those packets at me if it thought I was a computer blip. No, there I went again. The person behind Zero wouldn't have. "It seems that Zamora's on the project. He's probably our troublemaker. I followed his network activity to Zero."
"We'll make sure we pick him up in the raid," Quatre said.
But that didn't sound right either. That he was a part of the project, yes, but that he was the one behind Zero? No, that didn't seem right at all. Circumstance prevented me from devoting any more thought to the matter. "Duo. Cameras show the security guards about to enter your wing. I'm not sure how far they'll go. Looks like it's just a part of their routine patrol, though."
"Should I wait 'em out?"
Quatre shook his head immediately, even though I was the only one that could see. "No alarms have been sounded that we can tell, but we can't be sure if it'll stay that way. Is there another way out?" He looked at me as he asked.
I was already on it. "That lab section is a giant square. Head in the opposite direction and you'll end up where you started. By the time you get there, they should probably be safely down the hall from your position."
"On it," Duo answered shortly.
With one thread in my mind, I was occupied with cleaning up the traces of all of the data transfers we had set up this night. It didn't have to be perfect. We just needed to cover our tracks well enough that they didn't go underground before we had the time to put together a proper, official raid. With a secondary thread, I followed Duo's path through the lower corridors of Meridian. "Beams on the other side, too."
Despite the resetting of the system and the unexpected patrol of guards, the escape from the bowels of Meridian Biotechnologies was rather anti-climatic. Not a single ventilation duct or elevator shaft had been necessary. There were no explosions, no diversions, no close calls. There were long, tense periods of waiting, but that was mostly on my part and not Duo's. He progressed smoothly through the building with no more trouble than he had had getting in, while I poked and prodded one corner of my mind into figuring out just why this was so easy.
My mind wasn't seeing any obvious answers. The network had been compromised. Why hadn't Zero -- no, the person behind Zero -- cared? Nothing had bothered me as I went about cleaning up after ourselves on the network. What was that person doing on the network to begin with? Just as I had been unable to really trace the source, I had also been unable to determine just what it had been doing. Gathering data? Changing data? Securing data? I had no good ideas, but the question continued to gnaw on my ankle.
Duo was the last to return to the van. All of us had our eyes fixed on his glowing dot as it made its way through the complex, and once he was back with us, Wufei started the van and began the long drive back to Brussels with a slow, inconspicuous beginning.
I helped Duo divest himself of his assorted mechanical helpers. He seemed even more jittery than he had been before the mission, although that had been in anticipation. His excess energy afterwards was probably due to the fade of the adrenaline rush. It didn't help that he was standing in a moving vehicle. He had a perfectly legitimate excuse to bobble to keep his balance.
I was pulling one of the descramblers out of his pocket when he suddenly pitched forward and put a hand against the wall of the van. I leaned back with the motion, not wanting to get in the way of his balance, when I realized that he hadn't been responding to some dip in the road. His other hand came back close to my face holding up the DNI that had been on the equipment counter behind me. "What the hell is this?"
Chances were good that there was no correct answer while he stood looking at me with such an expectant glare. With my back almost literally to the wall, I tried to think of one anyway. "That... is probably what you think it is."
"Fair enough," he said evenly. "Then what the hell is it doing in here?"
His look made it clear that I had better not give him a similar answer. "It's what the Preventers research team was developing. I was using it for system input. It gave me a speed boost. It's not Zero-compatible."
He gave the device a closer look. "Input, huh? Then what's this?"
I looked to where he was pointing with his thumb. It was the jumper I had moved to enable the dual channel capabilities of the device. He had done a bit of neural interface research in the early part of our case; he knew exactly what it was. "I may have tweaked it a little."
"You may have tweaked it a little," he repeated flatly, closing his eyes briefly as if praying for patience. He gave the device a shake for good measure. It was close enough to me that I could feel it brush against my cheek. Actually, he was close enough to me that I imagined I could feel all of him against all of me, given the aura he was projecting beyond the limits of his own skin. Because he couldn't stand completely upright in the back of the van, he was conveniently hunched over me to get even more intimidating. I supposed I would have to get used to the idea of his looming over me, given the shift in our situation.
"You may have tweaked it a little?" Quatre echoed as well, his voice only slightly more mild than Duo's. I peeked around Duo's body to see Quatre casting an accusing glance at Trowa, probably because Trowa had supported me earlier.
"Two-way," Duo informed the rest of the team. I resisted the urge to call him a tattletale.
Quatre came back with a reprimand. "Heero, you said you wouldn't--"
"I said I would disconnect the moment something funny happened," I cut in calmly. "And I did."
"Ha!" Duo barked sharply. "I knew you were lying!"
"I was not," I bit back, keeping an equally sharp tone out of my voice. Given that a lack of trust, perceived or otherwise, had impeded our relationship barely a week ago, I felt very committed to making sure that we would not see a repeat of that. "You asked if everything was okay. It was. There were safeties and failsafes. They kicked in before anything really funny could happen."
"Then why did you tear the interface off?" Quatre asked.
"It... was reflex." Of the sort one had for pulling one's hand out of the flame before it got burnt, but I hardly thought the comparison would fare well in this situation. "The whole thing was over before I even took the interface off."
I would have rather pointedly turned around to get started on the data analysis of everything that had been retrieved, only Duo still had me pinned in place. I had to glare up at him instead. I'm sure he took the hint rather immediately, but didn't act on it for seven deliberate, obstinate seconds. Finally, he backed off just enough to expose me to the scrutiny of the other two with us in the rear of the van.
Fortunately, Quatre's word was law, relatively speaking. He got things moving along again, even if he did hammer another nail in my coffin. "Well, what's done is done. Let's get on with sifting through this data. And Heero? Next time you think about doing something like this, consider letting the rest of us know in advance."
It was quite civil, but it rubbed me the wrong way nevertheless. Would I ever be on the same wavelength as these people? I knew what I was doing. When would they stop judging me by their own standards?
The quiet that fell upon us as we looked over all of the documentation was determined rather than companionable. We should have been able to work together in harmony. That was our selling point, wasn't it? That together we could accomplish the impossible? It almost pained me that I seemed to be the one bringing the tension to the team. Almost. I still thought they all had something stuck up their asses when it came to Zero.
last modified : 12/30/2005 14:41:38 PST