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Several hundred meters above dark, wave-lapped boulders, Heero Yuy squinted into the green matrix of his night vision goggles and locked his chalk-white, friction-gloved fingers into another crack in the cliff face. As he gradually moved upwards, his feet found handy spikes and ledges for support seemingly without effort or will.
The large wall of rock itself -- just the crags and cracks -- was easy to climb, hard and very strong. That fact made the insertion method possible: anything less secure would have been unacceptable.
It was currently pitch black, only eleven degrees celsius, and 2:32 AM, and the wind blowing in from the sea was cold and disorienting. That fact made the mission much more dangerous: Heero's mind had calculated at least seven different ways to die when he had done the planning phase.
But ten minutes' climb above his current position, there was a computer that needed to be broken into and an OZ General that needed to die. That fact made the mission necessary.
Dr. J had broken his six-month-long silence to somehow smuggle out a message to him. It had arrived in the computer bank of Wing Gundam after being sent through 52 different proxy servers all over the Earth-Colony net.
Though Duo and Wufei had freed the doctors from the Lunar Base after their escape, the missions that Dr. J and Professor H had transmitted to he and Duo had been few and relatively insignificant. It had been obvious to Heero that the Doctors were taking much greater information security precautions now that they were really "at war"... or at least /their/ doctors were. Heero had no way of really knowing, after all.
He'd had no contact with Quatre, Wufei, or Trowa after the fiasco in space, except for one time... and that had really been all coincidence. Heero had certainly had no opportunity to talk with them about their missions or briefing status; being more concerned at the time with Quatre's mental condition...
But that was another matter altogether -- an emotional one, and Heero had never been any good with the emotions of other people. The boy willed it out of his mind and continued climbing.
The mission at hand-- put better, this small facet of THE mission -- was to steal some experimental data and kill General Anders Eriksen, a high-ranking research and development officer and former aristocrat. Its importance was not outwardly apparent to Heero... However, it was obvious that what he was /not/ being told was too sensitive to even attempt to transmit.
Code 1212. That was the mission's priority heading... absolute importance, absolute necessity. The only other mission with a 1212 heading had been Dekim Barton's original Operation Meteor plans... and those had never actually gone into effect.
Something very, very important was in the computer; and someone had to die for some very, very good reason. This was /vital/: the circumstances surrounding his orders demonstrated this. The arcane and barely remembered ways in which the message had been encrypted, the urgent and forceful language, the absence of any provided contingency plan or escape route.
The boy also had a substantial suspicion that this wasn't the only phase of this mission, either...
Heero's night-vision goggles refocused, twisting the view of rock and cliff into harsh shades of yellow and green. He pulled upwards, white clawlike hands again finding a handhold and gripping it. His toes, covered by thin-soled, tight climbing shoes, felt a ledge to press against. He shifted his weight against the crumb of stone and moved his other foot to find a higher outcropping.
The rythym of the climb was never boring: there was still much novelty left in climbing real rock, not metal. His training on various colonies and ships, had tried to simulate it in various ways -- walls with grips in them, centrifuges with outcroppings, even scaling a the exterior wall of a colony -- but had never really succeeded. He had only just started climbing the cliff to Eriksen's mansion when he realized that the methods he had been taught in space were almost completely useless.
Heero's left arm moved upwards, groped in the whiteness of his vision for a handhold, found none, and returned to its old perch.
Normally Heero's mind was able to take any action and learn it so precisely that it became a mechanical routine -- like running or moving -- that no longer required conscious thought. However, the action of climbing cliffs still required many decisions and reflexive choices. More practice was obviously necessary.
Heero decided that he'd ask to go rock climbing the next time Duo asked to do something recreational.
After moving his right arm up to a large outcropping and risking a one-handed pullup through the air, Heero found himself on a curious, rounded ledge about as big as a dinner plate. He crouched there to rest for a moment, goggles scanning the skies and measuring the exact distance to the top of the cliff. The climb would take sixteen or seventeen minutes, depending on the terrain and his handling of the one tough-looking spot he could see above him.
As Heero moved his fingertips to the next handhold, he mentally compared his actual route to his planned route. The correlation was quite good on the whole -- the images he had snapped the previous day from across the bay hadn't been perfect for planning a climb, and at some sections had turned out to reveal nothing about the landscape. His plan of the optimum route had proven fruitful on the whole, but in some places he was aware that he had made mistakes.
The climb continued. Swing the left leg up to hook onto a ledge. Hang on with the right arm while brushing the rough rock for another ledge with the left hand. Push up vertically, then quickly grip onto the next bit of stone.
At the next ledge, he reached down and applied more chalk to his hands. All his gear -- including guns, ammunition, three grenades, a radio, several data disks, cables, and of course a hookshot -- was firmly strapped to his vest and his waist. A change of clothes and different shoes, as well as various specialized equipment, were firmly secured inside a small backpack. Seeing that all was in order, Heero cast a quick glance towards the water below him to measure his height, then began to move upwards again.
The goggles showed the moving rock face as a massive yellow polygonal blob, with the contours and bumps traced and filtered in as yellow arcs. Climbing using goggles wasn't much harder than climbing in the daytime: the only differences were that your field of vision was a little less and your depth perception was inaccurate over long distances. Some people would have found it dangerously disorienting, but it seemed to have little effect on Heero's overall perception of the world.
After climbing for several minutes, Heero reached another stopping point and pressed a few buttons on the rectangular pad strapped to his left wrist. The tiny screen on Wing Gundam's remote control unit immediately lit up, awaiting his command. The mecha was lying belly-up seventeen meters underwater, computers charged and ready to ignite the thrusters. If he pressed the "start" button, the preprogrammed sequence would begin... but it was yet too early for that.
As he moved onwards and upwards, Heero mentally calculated the exact time it would take Wing Gundam to blast out of the water and clear the distance between sea level and the top of the cliff: excellent, less than four seconds. With no pilot in the mech, all accelleration issues could be ignored.
Almost there now. Consciously trying to eliminate the white noise of peripheral thoughts from his brain, Heero thrust his right fingers into a crack in the rock. His legs, slender cylindrical coils of muscle and tendon, quivered above the tacky bent soles of his shoes as he pushed upwards to the next ledge.
He was going to make it. The most dangerous part of the climb had been the beginning, climbing to the first ledge with seventy pounds of polythermal scuba equipment on his back. The edges of the water-washed rock had been slippery and his grip had been unsure. He hadn't been able to rely on his earlier reconaissance, either, as the tide was lower now and an unseen part of the cliff face had been revealed.
And, of course, the water had been very, very cold. His gear had barely protected him from its chill; and on the lower parts of the cliff face, the evaporating water had made his body ache with numbness and pain.
But now that had all passed. His black thermal wetsuit was keeping him reasonably comfortable, or at least as comfortable as one could be climbing up a cliff. His goggles illuminated the environment before him. His gear was all ready. His heart was beating at a steady pace. And now he was facing the last leg of the climb: the final few meters of arched rock.
Two minutes later, he was crouching on the dewy, wind-raked grass, wary of the cliff behind him.
Like a paranoid cat, Heero quickly darted into the latticed darkness behind a hexagonal wooden gazebo and began to study the mansion for his approach. Though it was still very early in the morning, the ambient light from the mansion's lower floors illuminated the gardens and fields with an eerie cold white glow. Bathed in yellow gold and digital green, the square windows of the mansion provided all the light he needed to conduct a detailed check on all the terrain.
The large, squat outline of the great house was warm before the distant sky. Lying before it for a hundred meters, deep in winter sleep, were patches of hard flower gardens, paths, a tennis court, and a large pool. Even in winter it was evident that Eriksen lived in utter luxury, and Heero was almost moved to admire the symmetric layout of what was the mansion's "back yard". It was probably an ancestral home, but there had been no time to check.
The first priority was to change out of the wetsuit. With swift and efficient movements, Heero unclipped his pack, vest, and belt and set them on the ground. He proceeded to unzip the thermal, watertight garment and peel it off of his cold skin, tossing it off the cliff edge. With it went the climbing shoes and the container of chalk. Shivering slightly due to the wind-chilled sweat on his bare body, and lacking even spandex to ward away the cold, the boy quickly reached into his pack and donned a tight black pair of pants, a short-sleeved shirt adorned with various pockets and straps, and a pair of combat boots. He proceeded to strap on his belt, combat vest, and pack again.
The next order of business was to check all the gear. Heero removed his climbing friction-gloves and replaced them with black synthetic electrical gloves: in his experience, there was no better type for on-site hacking missions. He attached a holster to his belt and checked his primary gun; an ADA-313 assault pistol with a laser sight. The smell of gunpowder and cordite was familiar as he dextrously loaded a clip into the handle of the firearm.
The boy cautiously turned a control switch on his goggles, which immediately shifted into infared mode. He scanned the grounds of the mansion for lasers and security cameras; none. Simply a quiet warm glow given off by the house that grew lighter around the windows and doors. A small pink trail of vapor rose above the house's chimney: there had probably been a fire -- an old-fashioned wooden fire -- there that evening.
Everything was quiet... very quiet. No laser security, no guards, no cameras. Probably no infared detection units too, as they tended to give off more radiation than Heero saw. Total and utter peace.
There was probably some sort of alarm system inside the house, though... probably set to lock and unlock doors via codes or keys -- or go off when windows are broken. Hacking it would be risky, rewiring it would take time; and it might also be shielded from EM effects. Given the importance of data stored on Eriksen's computer, it was reasonable for Heero to assume that the entire house might be protected.
The nearest police station to the house was nearly ten kilometers away, the nearest OZ barracks was twenty. If Heero set off the security alarm while breaking in, it would take at least seven minutes for any substantial help to arrive. In all probability, the mission would be complete by that time...
Heero Yuy's methodical and orderly mind calmly evaluated all possibilities for neutralizing or avoiding the security system. Having decided on a course of action, he proceeded to check his gear one final time; then squatted down into a coiled position, like a sprinter before a race.
/Infiltration phase: complete./
/Assault phase: starting now./
The moon broke through the clouds as Heero Yuy sprinted, low and silent,
across the grounds of the mansion; hookshot in hand; goggles displaying
urgent red data; and heartrate remaining, as always, as regular as a ticking
Garner eyed the plastic white phone reciever for a moment as her heartrate exploded.
/Who now? OPS control, with another request for information? Division command? Another computer center?/
Her throat was dry and she stuttered, as usual, when she was nervous. She could see Ballard turn his head, interested. /Damn, he heard me. My 'too cool' persona was working so well.../ "Sys- Systems Administrator Marie Garner speaking."
The voice on the other end of the line was obviously female, unfamiliar but very cold, a dispassionate alto with a slightly nasal way of pronouncing Rs. "Administrator, please hold for Vice Admiral Negon."
She managed to spit out, "Acknowledged."
Her eyes shot wide open. /Why so soon...?!/
Then it hit her: /Oh, no. The mole cracked. He told Negon everything -- everything about his methods, about what he stole -- probably everything about Drachenblut, too./
/Of course he will. Negon's reputation is well known, and if Morovsky places any value on dying quickly and while still in one piece, he'll spill everything he knows. And I'm SURE he knows about that file. It was the only one in his disk partition that was unencrypted. He read it; the access record says so.../
/Strange thing is, I don't think he had decrypted any OTHER files -- Drachenblut must've been an exception. All the other files in his sector are still encrypted, untouched... in all probability, Morovsky was passing the encrypted files on to someone else who would then decode them... and it seems as though this was the only stolen file he'd ever actually read./
/So what made Drachenblut different? What made it special?/
/Besides, of course, the content inside the file, which he couldn't have known about in the first place without decrypting.../
"Who is it, ma'am?" Ballard's dark blond hair shielded his glasses as he turned his head.
She shook her head despairingly, all pretense of toughness gone. "Somebody I didn't want to talk to. You just keep working."
Contrary to Garner's expectations. Ballard didn't turn white or cringe. Instead, his face became more stoic and his eyes became more intense.
/That's strange... I was expecting him to freak out... either my opinion of him has been wrong all along, or he simply has more balls than I thought he did. I always thought he was nothing more than a clueless, geeky technician... but now it's as though he's a different person or something! Maybe this is just a panic reflex.../
Another chiding voice: /Maybe, maybe. Maybe what? Maybe your subordinate is more ballsy than you thought he was. But what matters right now is *what* you're going to tell Negon to prevent him from killing your ass and Ballard's recently ballsy ass too!/
Over the phone, Garner could vaguely percieve a reciever being handed to someone and some background noise. Negon obviously had his calls screened, but in all probability she'd be speaking to him in literally seconds...
/Morovsky knew somehow that the Drachenblut file was hot, and decrypted it. Then he read it and figured out why it was hot. Now Negon knows all of that and is gonna wanna know WHY I called a 1077 Security Breach, the highest disaster code I have permission to report./
/He probably has a really good idea already, though. He thinks I saw Drachenblut, freaked out, and called a 1077 to stall for more time./
/And if that's what he thinks, he's absolutely right. But I wasn't supposed to SEE Drachenblut! That file was Black Level, exclusively available to heavy hitters like Khushrenada and Tsubarov. And having read a little -- and God, I wish I hadn't -- I can see exactly why./
/Two big questions... The first, how did Morovsky know to decrypt that particular file? And of course the second, what the hell is my excuse for seeing something I wasn't supposed to?/
"Systems Administrator Garner?"
The voice was a low and gravelly rumble, carrying a vague impression of extreme power and extreme cruelty.
"Y.. yes, sir?"
"You are in supervisory control of the twenty-eighth computer center." A statement, not a question.
"And you are currently investigating the security breaches caused by the mole Aleksandr Morovsky... as per our last interdepartmental operations request."
/That's just bureaucratese for 'you doin' what we told you to do?' I bet I would really hate this guy if I met him in person.../ "We are currently carrying out that directive, s... sir." Her voice raised on the last syllable.
/Shit. He heard that stutter. He heard that and he knows something./
/He knows I'm running scared./
/Don't ask it./
/Don't ask it./
Negon's baritone voice was unwavering as he intoned, "Operations control has informed me that you've called in a Code 1077 Security breach. Why did you do so?"
/He asked it./
/WE'RE ALL DEAD./
/He knows. He has to know. He wouldn't normally contact us until after the interrogation, and I know he can't be done with Morovsky by now./
/He's holding all the cards. Everything. He knows everything I know and more -- and worse, he has sufficient experience with computers to be able to shrug off any bullshit I could try to string together./
"That is... ah..."
/I don't know what to say./
Silence. Nothing but expectant silence over the reciever. She breathed once and listened to her pounding heart.
/I don't know what to do./
And then it happened.
It took less than a second. There were sprinting footsteps behind her and there was something cold and hard against the back of her head and a loud, resounding CLICK. Her computer screen ran black, then flashed with a few centered lines of white text. Behind her, she could see Ballard reflected in her screen, he face now a total mask of urgency and violence.
As her subordinate pressed the cold gun into her black hair, he whispered in an urgent, threatening, totally uncharacteristic tone, "Say your lines."
The text on the screen flashed once at her.
Her mouth dropped open.
The thin man smiled grimly through his glasses, and nervously raked a hand through his blond hair.
"...Or I'll kill you, Administrator."