- 19 -

It seemed as if Zamora had vanished into thin air.  His escape was made in the early morning hours, with almost no one to witness his departure.  As expected, he hadn't surfaced since he had left Meridian with the Zero system in tow.  I wrestled with his computer for most of the afternoon.  While his system wasn't sophisticated, it was armed to the teeth with enough simple things that I could hardly get very far before tripping over another.  It wouldn't have been so bad if his assorted security options hadn't interfered with each other as well.  After giving his computer a cursory examination, I was surprised that it could retain a good chunk of its functionality.  Conflicting lockouts contrived to make even the basic usage a trial.

Eventually gaining a crude level of access into his computer, I found not too much beyond the cut and dry of his official work-related reports.  There were a few snippets relating to his work on the Zero project in temp caches, but nothing that the Preventers hadn't already seized from other computers that had been linked up to that particular subnet.  Judging from his internet records, I guessed he had recently made a purchase online.  Based on his browser's image cache, I decided it was a toaster.

I did manage to find some interesting dirt in his e-mail.   Beyond progress reports and company memos, Zamora had exchanged a string of confrontational e-mails with his superiors, Hoffman, Conzemius, and one other researcher that had already been identified by agents as one of the ranking members on the project.  Spanning the last week, the messages chronicled his induction into the secret project and his excitement at being included, hit his strong protests at the decision to move away from the neural interface towards non-realtime analytical applications, and ended with warnings and responses sent due to Zamora's refusal to terminate all contact with the project members.

Quatre took a break from the work the rest of the team was doing to pore over the bodies of the e-mails and attempt to form some sort of context in which they were written.  On the day that Quatre, Wufei, and Duo had visited Meridian for the second time, when their separate meetings had been interrupted by the mysterious troublemaker, we determined that Zamora had been behind their distraction.  Records cross-referenced with login timestamps, file dates, and displeased e-mails indicated that Zamora had been relatively docile during the day, working on the project to which he'd been assigned, and getting in the faces of those still on the project with only minor aggression.   After hours, however, he had stayed late and 'borrowed' the equipment while everyone else was out to continue pursuing his own interests.  When Hoffman and Conzemius had been called away, the staff had just discovered Zamora's violation of the rules.

Duo was the one that pointed out the irony to us.  "You know what really annoys me?  The freak was there that night we were there.  He might have been playing with Zero right underneath our noses that entire time!"

Leave it to Duo to pull out the dark humor.  The connection should have been more obvious to me without it having to be pointed out.  I went silent for a cold minute before Duo poked me.  "You zoning out on us again, Yuy?"

Yes.  I had been too busy with my self-castigation to pay attention to the rest of the conversation.  "This is my fault."

This time, he used not just a finger to jab me on my arm, but his entire hand curled into a fist.  "What the hell?"

Rubbing absently at my abused flesh, I shook my head.  "He was there that night, and I tripped over the Zero system.  If..."  I got distracted by a passing thought, but it zipped by before it could fully realize itself to me, so I continued on my way.  "If Zamora knew enough to have figured out what my presence meant on the network, then he would have had plenty of warning to get out of there.  If I hadn't been using the interface to chase after Zero's wake, I wouldn't have given us away, and he'd have been at work yesterday, and Zero would be in our custody already."

Duo felt free to punch me again.  "What the hell are you on, Yuy?  I swear..."

Quatre took on my accusations with a milder approach.   "It's not your fault, Heero.  He played his luck and won.   Even if he recognized you on the network, he couldn't have known when we were going to make our move.  He took his chances by not leaving the day right after we were there.  Might as well blame us all for not getting the case together in time to get a raid on that day instead."

"We never confirmed whether or not they were able to identify you as an intruder," Trowa added.  "Remember, no actions were taken against you on the network that night.  We decided as a group that they didn't know you were there, and maybe the fact that Zamora took off yesterday morning was a simple coincidence.  Hoffman and Conzemius were certainly ready to hand him his walking papers after all the trouble he was causing, anyway.  Maybe it was just bad timing."

He passed the figurative conch back to Quatre, who took up the persuasive argument as smoothly as if his point-making had never suffered an interruption.  "Even if they detected it was you, you took a justifiable risk in chasing Zero down.  You made a decision, and none of us offered an alternative, so there's no reason for anyone to go around accepting blame for something outside of our control."

I held my tongue and let them think they had convinced me to drop it, but I hadn't.  None of them really had an accurate sense of what it was I blamed myself for anyway.  It hadn't been outside of my control -- I had seen the suspicious ripples in the net and made the conscious decision to go after them, with a modified interface no less.  I had let my curiosity, or perhaps my desire to get Zero back, cloud my judgment.  By the time I took off in pursuit of the trail, we had already acquired all of the information we needed to shut Meridian down.  There was no reason for me to have followed the clues left behind in the net, only I had, and in doing so, I had quite possibly wasted all of the work we had put into the investigation so far.  That was inexcusable.

Later that evening, as I continued to probe Zamora's computer for answers, I found that my life would be much easier if I had a tool I had written to assist me.  I didn't have the file with me, but I did keep it on my server, so I set up a secure connection and remotely accessed it.  After I had downloaded the small application, I checked on some of the other things that had been gathering on my machine.

There were a few e-mails from friends wondering where I had disappeared to.  Those reminded me to send off a note to someone postponing an appointment I had scheduled with an acquaintance in three days.  I didn't know when I would get back.

I was falling behind in a few forums, but those could easily wait until I had leisure time once more.  Just in case, I sent a cursory glance over two of the underground communities to see if there was anything lurking there that could possibly be of use in our investigation, but I found nothing.  As Trix had said, no one had claimed responsibility or even knowledge of the so-called attack on Meridian's systems.  It had already dropped off of the radar.

I was ready to log off of my system completely when I received a notification in my tray.  Someone had just run into one of the sniffers I had laid out quite a while ago.  Certain information in various systems had been flagged to let me know whenever someone was trying to access any files on me.  Although I'd distanced myself from the rest of the team, I was still interested in knowing if they, or anyone else for that matter, were looking for me.  If such pings grew in number, then I would know if something was up.  If nothing else, I would know how close they were to finding me.

And yet I'd already been found.  Who would be looking for me now?  The ping was dismissed in my mind as one of the ones that just happened every once in a while, but then I received another notification that belied that idea.  Someone was accessing my files.

There was another hit, and then another.  I settled down in earnest to try and determine the source of the hits, but that had never been what I had set out to do in laying down my traps.  Since they were embedded in foreign systems, I had access to only so much data without hacking myself more privileges, which would be an act of futility anyway since most of the data that I needed would probably be gone by the time I had gotten in.

The spate of activity was over and done with in just about five minutes.  Since I could not ascertain the source of the requests, I looked instead at the pattern of inquiry.  To my surprise, I found not only hits on 'Heero Yuy', 'Wing', and '01', but 'Hiro Yui' as well.  Only my fellow ex-pilots had been privy to the information that they all referred to the same person.

My mind arrived at the obvious conclusion, recalling for me the conversation I had had with Duo earlier that day.  I had mentioned having taken a psychology course or three in school, and he had said, "I like to delude myself into thinking that I won't be getting any new surprises out of you, Yuy, but every time I think that, I find out something new and strange that I never knew about you."

He had clearly expressed an interest in getting to learn more about me.  Was this his way of doing so?  Back when we had first discussed my sudden reappearance, he had mentioned that he had feelers out on the net for me.  From the frequency of the hits, I had to conclude that the search had been automated.  Had he added a few new search strings and then let it loose on the net?

I was startled out of working when a hand stopped just short of landing heavily on my shoulder.  Apparently Duo thought better of it at the last moment.  It still managed to jerk my attention back to reality.

"Hey, Heero," he said, letting his hand fall the last few millimeters to make contact.  "I know this is serious stuff and all, but really, you keep thinking about it so hard, you're gonna strain something."

Hadn't I already?  I spent five seconds blinking the moisture back into my eyes.  After that, the moment passed in which to make a witty comeback, so I let it escape entirely with a mere shrug of my shoulders.

Duo lifted an eyebrow at me.  "I was going to get some more water."  He shook his empty bottle at me.  "Wanna come with?  Stretch your legs or something?"

I blinked a few more times, then nodded.  "Yeah, that might be a good idea."  I was definitely in need of switching tracks for a little while.  I stood, and forgot to brace myself for the inevitable moment of vertigo.

He noticed, his eyes narrowing.  "You haven't been eating much lately," he observed.

That wrung a frown from me.  "Have you been talking to Sally?" I muttered sourly.  My blood pressure having stabilized, I snatched my cup off my desktop and headed towards the door.

He caught up with me before it had swung shut.  "Hey, no need to get all grumpy, man.  I was just saying."

"I do not require your concern."  It worried me that I had to pause for a moment outside the door to orient myself.  I had made the trip to the water cooler more times than I could remember, and yet just then I found myself having to think about which way to turn.  Maybe Duo was right.  I really had strained something.   I figured out which direction I was supposed to go and started walking.

Duo matched me stride for stride.  "Well, tough shit, 'cuz you're gonna get it regardless," he snapped.

I stopped, automatically stepping towards the side of the corridor to remove myself from the flow of traffic despite the fact that the hall was currently empty.  Duo overran my position by two steps, but recovered quickly enough.  I stared at him for a few more long moments, waiting for my thoughts to catch up with the rest of me.  Eventually, I finished processing the string, then blinked some more, running a hand through my hair.  "Sorry.  I... didn't mean that."

His expression immediately softened somewhat, and he drew closer to me.  "You sure you're okay, Yuy?  You've been zoning out an awful lot lately.  You're... starting to worry me.  I mean, I know you've got some heavy thinking to do, but really...."

I snorted.  "You sure Sally didn't put you up to this?"

He took a step back, puzzled.  "What does Sally have to do with this?"

I shook my head and started towards the water cooler again, this time a little more slowly.  He followed.  "At least I know you haven't gotten into my medical files," I joked.  Not that I thought he would be able to.  They were locked up pretty tightly under the confidential Preventers medical heading.

"Why would I--?  Whatever.  Seriously, man.  You okay?"

He must have been really concerned for him to have asked so many times.  It surprised... and warmed me.  That deserved an answer, so I gave him one along the lines of what I had given Sally.  "I'm fine.  Just tired, I guess."  I would have to pick up some snack in the lounge, whatever protein or energy bar I could find.  That would alleviate some of the nutritional problems I was having.  As for the sleep part, perhaps I could convince Duo to help distract me from my thoughts.  I didn't suffer from a physical exhaustion, but a mental one.  Recently, all of my thoughts had eventually ended up back on the case, even my dreams.

"Heh, you always so spacy when you get tired?"

Having arrived at our destination, I went towards the table with the food while Duo hit the water cooler.  "I don't know.  I haven't been tired enough in the past to have formed a pattern."

I had finally selected an energy bar when Duo came up beside me and touched my shoulder again.  I turned towards him, and his hand moved to my chin, a light touch holding me still in the light.   "You're getting circles under your eyes," he noted disapprovingly, releasing me.

That was what happened when a person got tired, was it not?  I shrugged it off.  "And they'll probably stay there until this case gets resolved."

"You need more sleep.  Maybe I'll drop by tonight and make sure you get it."  He tossed out the possibility as an offhand remark.

I was pleased to note how well it mirrored my own ideas.  I gave him a smile in return.  "I look forward to it."

A mischievously thoughtful expression took its place on his face.  "Although, I dunno... a spacy Heero might be fun to play with.  I'm sure I could worm some interesting things out of you.  Sleep dep is a well-known interrogation device, you know."

"All you need to do is ask, Duo," I chided him.  "I'll answer.  You don't have to go looking elsewhere for the answers instead, searching the net or whatever you're up to."  Hadn't I responded the other night, when I had fallen asleep on Wufei's sofa?

I expected him to say something along the lines of, 'where would the fun be in that?' but he surprised me with something else entirely.  "What do you mean, 'searching the net'?"

Was there some miscommunication here?  "I logged you, or your queries, anyway, trying to access my files last night."

"That wasn't me," he said slowly.  "I have no idea what you're talking about."

That was troubling.  "Someone has been looking into me.  I assumed it was you."

He raised an eyebrow.  "Why would you think that?"

"You said you had some sniffers out on the net doing casual searches for me.  I thought maybe they were periodic, which would explain the number of hits I got last night.  The searches were run on both spellings of my name, along with a few other old appellations.  You all are the only people who ought to know to look for both now."

His uneasy expression probably matched mine.  "I haven't run those for a few months now.  I don't leave them running.   I just pull 'em out every once in a while when I feel the whim to do so."

"So if it wasn't you..."  Our eyes met, and both of us probably had some sort of expletive running through our minds at the same time.  I turned to hurry back to our office.  Maybe one of the others had gotten curious.

"Hold up a sec."  Duo snatched my cup right out of my hands and moved towards the water cooler, filling it with hot water and just a splash of cold, just the way I liked it.  I took it automatically when he handed it back to me.  "Now we can go."

When we got back to the office, I waited for Quatre to get off the phone with one of the agents handling the Meridian case.  He held up a finger for us to wait when we signaled that we needed to talk to him, calmly finishing his conversation with the agent in an efficient manner without giving the person on the other end the impression that he was in any hurry to hang up.  It was a good skill for an executive to have.

Once he was done, I asked my question of the room.  "Has anyone here been attempting to access my files?"

No one volunteered the answer.  I wasn't sure what I wanted to hear.  Wufei asked for clarification.  "What files?"

"My official records.  School files, Preventers files, old military files.  I have them all tagged to notify me when someone accesses them."

"And someone has been?"

"Yes.  But none of you?"  They all shook their head.  Damn.  If not them, then who?  Another possibility struck me.  "Hang on a sec."

I retreated to a corner of the room and pulled my phone out of my pocket.  Seeing that I had sufficient reception, I dialed a number and waited impatiently for someone to pick up.

"'ello?"  She sounded sleepy.

"Trix, it's me."

"Hey, stranger."  She had the ability to perk up in short order.  "What's up?  You back yet?  Or are ya just calling 'cuz you need my help again?  And why the hell are you calling so early?"

"It's not early, Trix."

"Says the guy that gets up with the sun."

No denying that.  "Have you been digging for information about me again?"  She had been known to do such a thing, though well within the limits of propriety.  I wouldn't have trusted her as a friend if she had been attacking my files maliciously.

"Uhmmm.... hmmmm..... no."  Should I have been worried that she needed to think so hard before answering?  "Why?"

"Are you sure?"  I asked though I doubted it was her.  She should not have been able to link my past and my present together.

"What do you mean, am I sure?  Of course-- no, wait.   Hmmm.  No, yeah, I'm sure.  Besides, it's not like I've ever been able to find anything interesting about you anyway."

Duo raised an expectant look at me.  I shook my head as a negative.  He frowned and started muttering to Trowa.

I tied up my inquiry with my friend.  "I don't suppose you know if anyone else may have been involved?"

"No, no I don't.  What's this about, Heero?"

"Just checking something out.  I got some flags triggered last night."

"Oh."  She yawned.  Must have been staying up late again.  "Lucky bastards.  I never got that close to you."

She was a good friend, but not that good.  "Thanks, Trix.  I'll talk to you later."

"When are you getting back?"

I glanced around the room, eyeing the sprawl of laptops and paperwork we had.  "I don't know yet,  I'll let you know when I do, though, okay?"

The noise she made was a pouting one.  "Fine, be that way.  I'm going back to sleep.  Later, Heero."  She hung up without even waiting for me to respond.

Sliding the phone back into my pocket, I rejoined the others, confirming what I had already told Duo.  "No luck.  It wasn't her."

"'Her' who?" Duo asked.

"A friend.  She likes trying to figure me out."

"Hn, don't we all," he muttered.  "Can you give us any more specifics?"

I let his comment slide in favor of getting back to business.  "Last night, I was checking in with my home computers, and I got some notification messages that some of my files I had tagged were being hit.  There were six hits in five minutes at approximately twenty-three fifteen.  I think they may have all had the same source, but I wasn't able to determine that to an absolute certainty.  My school files were accessed twice.  Two hits were logged from the Preventers network, one querying my current status and one querying events at the end of the Barton insurrection.  One hit originated from the old Federation database, involving the first report filed on my presence on Earth, and the last hit was a request from the old OZ records, for when I was the test pilot for Mercurius."

"How much information did they actually get out of it?" Wufei asked.

"No way to tell for certain, but probably more than I would have liked.  None of those files were classified.  What I'm more concerned about is the fact that they were able to find those files at all.  My school files are filed under the alternate spelling I've been using for the last five years.  My status at the Preventers would be filed under my name with the correct spelling.  As I recall, the report on the Barton insurrection should not have mentioned any of us by name, but number or codename.  The Federation and OZ didn't have my name, so they would also be filed under number and make of my Gundam.  Who would know enough to be able to access all of those files?"

"Zamora is the obvious answer," Trowa suggested, fingers idly flipping a pen across his knuckles.  "Given that we're currently engaged in an investigation against him."

The thought had, of course, crossed my mind, but it didn't quite add up so easily.  "But why would he be interested in me?  And why would he know enough about me in the first place to be able to research me?"

Quatre coughed nervously, the ease with which he had dealt with the agent gone now.  "I hate to suggest it, but what about Zero?  It has massive data storage capability.  Could it have retained what it knew about you?"

That was something I hadn't considered.  "Hmm... provided the memory systems remained intact after our last battle?  Then yes, I suppose it is highly probable that Zero would have retained any data it decided was relevant to its calculations."

Duo finished off my thought.  "But that still doesn't explain why he, or whoever, would have an interest in Heero.  And that doesn't explain the whole misspelled name thing.  Zero wouldn't have any knowledge of something that happened after Heero last connected."

"The timing is too much of a coincidence for it not to have something to do with our investigation, though," Wufei affirmed.   "Unless we want to consider the possibility that Zamora may be working for or with other people..."

Quatre shook his head to that.  "That was the obvious answer for Brisbois, but it seems out of character for Zamora.  He doesn't need anyone else to provide him with a means of pursuing his own goals.  In fact, they'd just get in his way."  Even though Quatre had never met our suspect, he was still able to form a good impression of him.  Most people fit into a set number of templates, and Quatre was familiar with them all.

"Maybe Zero knew it was you," Trowa proposed.  "That night on the network."

"That was less than a second," Wufei pointed out.

"Maybe that's all it needed.  Maybe Zero is just gathering information on its adversary."

A part of me cried that I was not Zero's adversary.  I was on its side.  Then I remembered just what side Zero was on at the moment, and I rescinded the thought.  In any case, I was against Zamora, and Zero had been known to be rather liberal in whom it considered an enemy.

Duo shook his head, pacing a little around the room.  He wasn't the type to stay still for long.  "Still doesn't explain how it found Heero's recent records.  Unless it's just that smart.  Also doesn't make sense that it identified Heero that night, but then didn't act on it until a day later."

"No," I cut in softly.  "Zamora didn't act on it until a day later.  Zero... would have made a tactical decision of some sort.  It wouldn't have been panicked into taking off immediately."  It was dangerous to keep forgetting there was a difference between the two entities.  All Zero did was evaluate and offer suggestions.  It was up to the user to decide on a course of action.   Although admittedly, sometimes Zero was rather forceful in its suggestions.

"Alright, fine, Zamora," Duo accepted, in all likelihood not truly understanding the distinction I was trying to make.  "There wasn't any reason for them not to take off immediately.  He had a lot of time with what was left of that night to gather up whatever stuff he needed and get out of there before the sun rose."

"Assuming that they didn't have to wait for anything," Wufei added.

Trowa inserted another dimension to the problem.  "His co-workers didn't indicate that anything seemed amiss in his behavior the day before he took off with the system.  If he fits the classic mad scientist profile, he probably wouldn't have been very patient with delays."

That was an all too correct observation, given my experience with mad scientists.  Apparently, Quatre agreed with a small laugh.  "True, true.  Maybe it was a justified delay, though.   Forrester gave me a preliminary inventory," he said, referring to one of the agents on the case.  Presumably the one he had been speaking with on the phone.  "Let's see if he had to wait for some equipment."

He took one of the general use laptops in the room and used it to access the file server.  As he did that, Duo's course of motion eventually carried him to my side, where I was leaning against the file cabinets in the corner.  I was getting tired of sitting all the time.  "You've got that look on your face again," he said, frowning.

I was seeing that expression on his face a little too often for my liking.  "Hm?"

He commandeered the wall next to me to lean against.  "That sort of... disturbed look you get when you're contemplating something you don't like.  What terrible conclusions are you coming to now?"

Able only to summon the weakest of smiles for him, I didn't bother hiding the path of my thoughts.  "All of this makes sense.  I know it does.  It has to.  I'm just..."  I rubbed tiredly at the skin between my eyes.  "...annoyed as hell that I can't see what it is."

"Hey, you're not the only one."  He poked me in the forehead, startling me.  I swatted at his finger with my hand, then looked up, expecting to see a playful expression on his face, but it was serious instead.  "Maybe it's one of those things that'll come to you if you stop thinking so hard about it.  For now, maybe... we went to the lounge for a reason, Yuy."  He pointed towards the water and energy bar I had set down on my desk earlier.  "Fuel up."

An excellent suggestion, one I took up obediently.  I didn't think I'd have to worry too much about my health with him and Sally hovering nearby.

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