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OZ Systems Administrator Marie Garner's brain shook with confusion and shock.
/My subordinate... my mild-mannered, clueless, friendly subordinate... is pointing a gun at my head. He's telling me to "read my lines", the lines on the computer screen. I have no idea what he's doing./
/I'm talking to Vice Admiral Sethir Negon, otherwise known as the Grand Inquisitor, intelligence expert and sadist./
/I'm trying to explain why I called a 1077 Security Breach over a top-secret file I'm not supposed to have seen./
/A top-secret file called "Drachenblut"./
Ballard's deadly calm whisper, again: "Say your lines or I'll kill you."
Garner's eyes narrowed as she did all she could do.
She said her lines.
"Oh, I'm sorry, sir. My... my subordinate just locked down a new file sector."
"...You didn't answer my question, Administrator."
/He's mad. I don't think he likes anything but swift obedience.../
/Hopefully, whoever's writing these lines won't piss him off.../
The message on the screen was replaced by a slightly longer one. Garner raked her eyes over the text and tried desperately to adopt a normal tone of voice. The lines looked vaguely plausible, to her surprise.
"I ... I called a 1077 breach because of the prefix code on one of Morovsky's files, sir. The only unencrypted file in his disk partition was named 'drachenblutRS3Ksys.io'. I was going to open it after I saw that he'd recently accessed the file, but I decided to check the access prefix on it to see if I had the priveleges to read it... or see if I needed to call in a higher level team."
The text ended there. Garner shrugged her shoulders helplessly and tried to turn around, but Ballard only pushed the gun into her neck harder. In a second, a new white message appeared on the monitor.
"And...?" Negon's still irritated voice.
"When I *looked* at the prefix, sir," read Garner, managing to add a touch of excited melodrama, "I noticed that it had been altered... hacked... from access level 121 to access level 04, normal document status. At that point I decided that anything with the prefix 121 must have been extremely secret, so I called a high-level contamination warning. If I'm not mistaken, access level 121 is reserved for a very, very small number of people..."
Again the text ended, and Garner simply waited passively for the next message. Behind her, Ballard relaxed noticeably.
/The tragic thing is, this would actually be a good excuse it it were true. I didn't have time to check, but it seems plausible.../
Another, more rational voice chimed in: /Still, what is he DOING?! It's as though he has a totally new personality. And how did he get that gun against my head without me noticing? And what on earth is he trying to accomplish?/
/Who the hell is Ballard really working for?/
/Also, who's feeding me these lines? Are they predicting what Negon's saying, or being dynamically generated? Is it just a set script...? They're coming way too fast for anyone to be typing in.../
Negon's dangerous growling voice again, this time somehow less threatening. "And why did you not call in an OPS team at that point?"
After a pause of about half a second, a new line appeared. Garner read it.
"...Because I wanted to see the extent of the compromise before calling anyone else in, sir. Even a team from your department wouldn't have been cleared to see documents like that, and I wanted to make sure there weren't any others like it. Frankly, OPS department members aren't trained to use our system here, and having extra people here while we weren't totally focused would increase the possibility of exposure of secret information."
This time there was a long pause on Negon's end, complete with indecipherable noise in the background; as though two people were talking. Then his voice returned.
"...Are you telling me that my staff is incapable of using your system, Administrator?"
Garner's heartrate spiked as a new line appeared.
"..Far from it, sir. We simply wanted to finish our current procedures before summoning OPS. Right now, my subordinate and I are decrypting the files and locating the true prefix codes."
Negon seemed satisfied and made an mm noise. "Just a few more questions..." there was a noise over the phone of paper ruffling. "Do April showers bring May flowers?"
Behind her, Ballard froze, as though seeing incredible significance in that line. Quietly, he whispered, "Oh, no..."
/What does he know that I don't?/
/That question makes no sense... is it a Densgrave AI Detection method...?/
After about a second, another line appeared on the black monitor.
"I... I beg your pardon, sir?"
"I said, do April showers bring May flowers?"
This time, the monitor's message changed quickly. "Isn't that... an old Earth saying?" (The ellipsis was written into the text on the screen.)
Negon moved smoothly on to his next question without mentioning the significance of his last comment. "Are you telling me that my staff is incapable of using your system, Administrator?"
/I've already answered that question! Why is he repeating questions all of a sudden?/
This time it took a full two seconds for Garner's screen to register a new message. She spoke her line with feeling. "I believe I already said that we simply wanted to finish our procedures. Is there something wrong, sir?"
Negon chuckled over the line, his voice now gluttonous and deadly. "Only that you're reading lines off a computer screen and your subordinate is holding a gun to your head, Administrator. I'm sure I'll enjoy interrogating both of you."
The explosion of the handgun was deafening as Ballard turned silently and furiously and shot the phone's base, then whirled and fired another slug into the lens of a camera across the room. As Garner leaned forward hurriedly in her chair, dropping the reciever, panicking, her heart racing; and covered her ears; the tech turned again and fired once more. The bullet shattered the lens of another security camera on the opposite wall. Ballard ejected the cartridge from the pistol and slammed in a fresh one.
Three shell casings rolled on the ground and the smell of smoke was heavy in the air.
/First I find out that he's a whole lot more than just a clueless tech, and then I find out that he's able to shoot out a target the size of a marble from across the room?! What on earth is going on!/
Ballard sighed. "I'm afraid I owe you a bit of an apology, Administrator."
/A BIT of an apology?!/
The OZ rank advancement system had required Garner to spend two years in training with the regular OZ corps before becoming a technical director. Thus, Garner had experienced the same level of physical and combat training that any OZ soldier had. She knew how to fight, hand-to-hand, with blades, even with advanced weapons. She knew how to handle a gun.
She also knew that, as a member of OZ occupying the colonies, she was required by organization law to carry a gun at all times.
And Ballard's comment pushed her over the line.
Swifter than her subordinate could move, she sprung from her chair, drew her own pistol out of her side holster and levelled it at his head.
"Ballard, you owe me a hell of a lot more than 'a bit of an apology'! You just pointed a gun at me! You owe me a HUGE apology! You also owe me some information... namely, who you really are, who you're really working for, and how you did what you just did!"
The tech kept a calm, steady expression and retained his grip on his pistol.
"Goddammit, Ballard, I'm your commanding officer! Now *drop that gun* or I swear I'll shoot your traitorous ass!"
The laser sight on her pistol went on when she snapped the safety off, and it cast a small red dot on the tech's sweaty forehead. The tech only sighed and threw his glasses --obviously false -- into a corner. He shook the medium-length blond hair out of his eyes and lowered his weapon, frustrated.
Garner moved into a more defensive position, but Ballard only tucked his gun into his belt and started talking. His voice was different from its normal tone, but not the violent and menacing rumble it had been before. Instead it was a slightly less intense growl.
"Fair enough. But first let's get some things cleared up."
She nodded, gesturing for him to continue.
"Okay... we're both in exactly the *same boat* here. Negon obviously knows exactly what I just did... and soon, the OPS team is going to arrive and check these computers and figure out what YOU did. I'm a mole and I've compromised security. You saw that super-secret Drachenblut document. We're both facing serious time in a military prison, probably worse considering the fact that the Inquisitor's involved."
Garner nodded, but she did not put down the gun. "Agreed."
"Good. Next: Since we're both wanted by the military police, it makes no sense for us to consider ourselves OZ personnel anymore. Therefore, I am no longer your subordinate... and you're no longer my commander. I can save both of us right now, but I'm only going to do it if we eliminate this chain-of-command bullshit. We're the same status now, okay?!"
/Damn, nothing to lord over him now... I suppose it can't be helped, though./
Garner's eyes narrowed. "Agreed." She lowered her weapon.
"Then I apologize for threatening to kill you."
Garner mock-bowed. "I apologize for pulling rank on you and calling you a traitorous ass."
"Excellent. I'll explain the particulars when we're safely out of here, but right now I'll tell you what you need to know. Which you you want first, the good news or--"
The ex-administrator shook her black hair out of her face and holstered her gun. Normally she would have complained about Ballard's tiresome tendency to use that phrase, but language habits were not really her primary concern at the time. "The bad news, please."
Ballard ticked off the pieces on his hands. "There are three pieces of bad news. The first one, obviously, is recap. Negon saw everything: somebody hacked into this building's cameras, and Negon was watching those cameras. The second one is that there are three vans full of special forces agents at the street level of this building, waiting for the go-code to storm this place. I just checked the security feed. And the third -- and the worst, in the long run -- is that OZ knows a lot more than we want them to about TAIKUN."
Garner quirked an eyebrow, missing something. "TAIKUN?"
Ballard waited a cautious moment before replying. "I don't think you're cleared for information access yet. TAIKUN was writing the words you read off that screen."
/Sounds like either a person or an AI.../
"We can talk about that later. What's the good news?"
"The good news, Garner," said the tech-turned-traitor with a slightly guilty smile, "Consists of only one element, but it's a heavy hitter. I'm working for the Barton Foundation, and there's a heavily armed, ECM-equipped helicopter two minutes from picking us up from the roof. We're as good as saved. All we have to do now is get up there."
The black-haired woman nodded. "Betraying OZ in style, I see. Just one question now -- why are you saving me? Isn't there some risk that I might take amnesty and turn you in later?"
The tech removed a silencer from his pocket and screwed it onto his pistol. "I'm saving you because that is the COA that serves the needs of my organization. Besides, after what you've seen, OZ would never give you amnesty. I read that Drachenblut file."
"Is that all?" Garner looked genuinely disappointed.
"Well, also... you never taught me that Brett-Klearson arc-tracing algorithm that you said you would."
She smiled and wiped the plastic dust from the exploded phone off of her uniform. "You may be a badass and you may be a spy, but I at least know that you're still a hopeless geek."
Ballard walked to the stairs and beckoned with his gun and tried not to smirk. "That's 'a geek with an agenda and a firearm'. Come this way."
/Looks as though we're making up rather quickly.../
As he began to walk up the stairs, the ex-administrator said, "Er... why aren't we taking the elevator?"
From the fourth step up, the tech started jogging upwards while saying, "Because the explosives that my predecessor, Morovsky, installed in the support cable of the elevator one year ago were just armed."
Garner started to jog up the stairwell. "Well thought-out."
"We always knew that this day would come. We developed plans for it."
As they entered the hallway of the twelfth floor and the stairway terminated, Ballard jogged down a hallway towards the roof access doors and continued his explanation. "I've already launched my viruses into this building's security system. Morovsky helped construct this building. He passed all the data on to me. I know every way to get to the upper stories of this computer center, and I've blocked them all."
As if on cue, all the lights went out, then returned at half their strength. "Just now, all power to security cameras was totally blocked, and the various fire doors on the fourth floor locked. In seventeen seconds, all umbilical access to the basements will be closed and the fire doors on the first, fifth, and tenth floors will lock. One minute after that, the offensive/defensive laser batteries on the upper eight floors will recieve an instruction to open fire on any moving object. Those teams will be stuck down there until they cut power to the entire system."
"Real professionals, you two. Cutting power to the system would take hours even under the best of circumstances, what with all the redundancies..."
The blond man sighed with genuine sadness. "Actually, I think it's just me now. It's been two hours since the capture, so Morovsky is in all probability already dead. In any case, my 'professionalism' means that WE'll be shot at if we stay on this floor too much longer..."
A red light installed in the hallway began to rotate, and there was a dim klaxon from somewhere. Ballard glanced at it and nodded. "The OPS team just entered the building. If I remember my anti-terrorist training, several of them should approach via the elevator."
Garner nodded. "But you put explosives in the cable..."
"Exactly. The moment the elevator recieves the command to come down, the explosives will go off and the cable will snap. The car will fall ten stories and hit the ground at the third sub-basement. I won't be surprised if it goes several meters into the colony wall."
The pair jogged past long white rooms full of machinery and equipment, dashing toward the pair of doors at the other end of the central hallway. As they did so, Ballard glanced at his watch. "It should be happening in a few--"
The lights went off, leaving the pair in total darkness. There was a noise like a gunshot or MS explosion and then a high screaming, hissing noise.
Ballard grinned in the darkness. "That's the cable."
The floor shook beneath them in a massive tremor, like a thunderclap underground or an earthquake. Shortly following that, the lights went back on again.
"And that was the car."
The pair jogged through the hallway at a brisk pace, listening to the various alarms blare. The hard synthetic flooring was stiff and squeaky under Garner's black standard-issue OZ boots, and every time she took another step she could feel the floor moving under her. They reached the roof access door within ten seconds. It was a rough black set of double-doors with silver bars across them, and Ballard and Garner each pushed one of them open.
The stairs to the roof were painted black, with small ridges in each one, and they doubled back to face the other way halfway up. They terminated in a small landing below the roof access door.
"The helicopter will be here soon," stated Ballard, his voice low and nervous. He glanced at his wristwatch again, a handsome silver model. "Thirty-five seconds until the planned touchdown time."
Garner placed her hands on her hips. "Even with ECM, isn't a helicopter very noisy? I don't hear a thing."
The man nodded. "Exactly. We surrounded the chopper with a redundant I-field audio muffler, though, so 95% of the noise is eliminated. It works on the same wave-cancellation principle as normal thermoptic camouflage, except on a much larger scale. Right next to it, it should sound about as loud as a car engine."
The dark-haired woman shook her head in dismay. "How does your group have access to all of this equipment...?"
Ballard sighed apologetically. "Again, all I can say is that my superiors haven't cleared you for much information access... right now, all I can tell you is my real name. I'm not really called 'Ballard', you know. But my actual name is really no secret... Let's go outside first, though. I'm not too eager to get toasted by lasers..." With that, he pressed on the bar and opened the door.
The pair pushed open the door and stepped onto the helipad platform.
The air was vaguely chilly outside the building. The colony's daytime lights had not yet come on, and all that was lit were a few streetlights below and to the sides of the mammoth computer center building. Barely audible over the ever-present hum of the colony's stabilization machines was the gradually increasing sound of a helicopter -- the sound, though, of a helicopter a kilometer away. It was nearly impossible to see anything, though, as neither's eyes had become adapted to the dark yet.
The man sighed. "Of course, no lights." With that, he pressed a button on a remote controller, activating the floodlights on the top of the building. The lights themselves were about a quarter of a meter square and were arranged in a large circle around the landing pad. As they gradually activated, they cast blinding blue arcs of light towards the ceiling of the colony. The tech was impressed; Garner was concerned with different matters.
"Who are you, anyway? What IS your real name...?"
The faint noise of the helicopter was louder now, and gusts of wind -- seemingly coming from nowhere -- raked the top of the building.
The man muttered, "Hang on a second... this is more important. Once the thing lands, it'll decloak for fifteen seconds. We *must* get on right then, or it'll leave without us!"
Garner placed a hand over her blowing hair. "Okay, I see. Now would you just tell me your name already?"
The tech stammered for a moment. "Well, uhm, do you know anything about the the political history of the L1 colony chain?"
"I think I failed that class in school..."
"I don't think you'll recognize it... it's the name of a famous colony martyr."
"Yeah, a real nice guy who OZ assassinated in order to destroy colony coalitions... Heero Yuy, by name."
The tech brushed his blowing blond hair out of his eyes and nonchalantly replied,
"Heero Yuy. I'm named after a guy called Heero Yuy."
The invisible and nearly silent helicopter blades sliced through blowing masses of cool air, and there was a highly audible bump as the transparent machine touched down in the middle of the circle of lights.
/This has definitely been the wierdest day I've ever had in my life... and it isn't even five-thirty in the morning yet.../