"Shit on a shingle, kid, don't do that!" Howard wheezed, sinking into a chair and wiping his forehead.
From the main computer screen, Hazrat Haan raised an eyebrow at him. < < Don't do what? > >
"Mess with our computers like that! You nearly gave poor Matthews a heart attack."
"Oh, right, as if you weren't worried at all," the engineer scoffed.
Haan snorted. < < Your scrambling and encryption programs were pitiful. I just gave you a better one. You asked me to call you; was I supposed to do it over an insecure line? > >
"Insecure--!" Howard sputtered indignantly for a moment, then abruptly laughed. "Insecure by your standards, maybe, kid, but nobody else has complained."
< < They will soon if you keep using that 8-kilobit packet encryption algorithm, > > Haan told him. < < An OZ base in New Zealand cracked it yesterday. Don't say I never tell you anything for free. > >
"Shit! They broke that one, already? You sure about that? No, don't answer that," Howard muttered, waving a hand. "You're always sure. Damn..."
< < The job, Howard? > > Haan said pointedly. < < Who wants me to move what? > >
"Ah. Right. Er... if it's all the same to you, I won't say just yet. Hell, kid, I trust you," he added hastily as Haan raised an eyebrow, "but my friends with the cargo don't know you, and one of them's paranoid. Burn-before-reading, only-trust-someone-after-he's-dead kind of paranoid. I haven't told them who you are either, if that makes you feel any better! I'm just gonna set up a meet between you, and you can all convince each other to play nice."
< < Sounds like fun, > > the teenager said flatly. < < Do I go armed, or will your paranoid friends take that as proof I can't be trusted? > >
"They'll be armed; I'm not gonna tell you to go naked."
< < Good. If you tried, I'd drop the job. > >
Howard winced. "Give them a chance, will you? Please? They've got reason to be paranoid, believe me, and I think you'll like them once you get to know 'em. Most of them, anyway," he added conscientiously. "And they need you, so if any of them are bastards to you, you can be a bastard back."
< < I'm more likely to just walk out. > > Haan eyed Howard curiously. < < Why are you so stressed about this? > >
"I told you, they're friends--"
< < You don't like paranoid people, either. > >
"All right, so one of them's more like an acquaintance, but the others are cool--" Howard paused as a thought struck him, and peered over his sunglasses at the screen. "It'll really piss off OZ if you get them outta this fix," he said hopefully.
Haan nearly laughed. < < All right, all right. Where do I meet them? > >
After Haan signed off, Matthews started copying the system log files onto a disk.
"Now what?" Howard asked, peering over his shoulder.
"I'm going to find out how he did that, and fix things so he can't do it again," the engineer muttered, glaring at the screen. "He got in and locked me out so fast, it looked like he had a back door... but he's never been on board this ship, has he? I don't see how he could put a back door into the system without actually being here and accessing the computers directly. And even then, my diagnostic programs should find it!"
Howard snorted. "He's never officially been on board, but I wouldn't put it past him to've sneaked in--"
The screen flickered, and a small text box popped up.
SEARCHING FOR LOG FILES... FOUND
DELETING G:\SYSTEM\SATLINK.LOG 195-11-05 2315 to
195-11-05 2335... DELETED
DELETING G:\SYSTEM\MAIN.LOG 195-11-05 2315 to 195-11-05
DELETING G:\SYSTEM\FILEDATA.LOG 195-11-05 2315 to
195-11-05 2335... DELETED
"Oh shit!" Matthews wailed, hammering desperately on the keyboard. "He must've dropped a data bomb into the system! It's deleting his hack out of all the bloody log files and I haven't copied them all yet--"
DELETING G:\SYSTEM\COMMS.LOG 195-11-05 2315 to 195-11-05
SEARCHING FOR BACKUPS... FOUND
DELETING G:\BACKUP\SATLINK.LOG.BAK 195-11-05 2315 to
195-11-05 2335... DELETED
DELETING G:\BACKUP\MAIN.LOG.BAK 195-11-05 2315 to
195-11-05 2335... DELETED
DELETING G:\BACKUP\FILEDATA.LOG.BAK 195-11-05 2315 to
195-11-05 2335... DELETED
DELETING G:\BACKUP\COMMS.LOG.BAK 195-11-05 2315 to
195-11-05 2335... DELETED
"Well, that screws that," Matthews said disgustedly, turning away. "At least I got a couple of them before it went off."
"Uh, Matthews... it's not finished," Howard said quietly, pointing at the screen.
SEARCHING FOR COPIES... FOUND
Matthews didn't waste time gaping at the screen; he flung himself at the console, stabbing at the 'eject' button, and yanked the disk out.
DELETING A:\SATLINK.LOG... ABORTED
SEARCHING FOR COPIES... NOT FOUND
The text box vanished.
"What do you wanna bet there's no trace of the data bomb left, either?" Howard said conversationally.
"I am not putting this back in the main system," Matthews said grimly, clutching the disk and breathing heavily. "I'm not giving his bloody jack-in-the-box data bomb another chance at it! It's going in my laptop, after I run every virus checker and diagnostic program I've got. I might invent a few new ones while I'm at it, too."
"Told you he was good."
"I don't understand why it was running so slow, though..." the engineer mused, looking puzzled.
"Yeah... come to think of it, it was slow for a data bomb," Howard said, eyebrows lifting. "Like it was waiting for instructions between each step. Weird... Haan wasn't still connected, was he?"
"Not so far as I can tell," Matthews said sourly, "but I don't think I trust the computer's records right now."
Haan opened his eyes and lifted his hand off the computer screen, frowning slightly as he watched the complicated symbol fade and the normal system graphics reappear.
*I didn't get it all. Either Howard's caught paranoia from his 'acquaintance', or that engineer was feeling curious... Never mind. They won't be able to work anything out from it.*
Hanging from the cables at the back of the computer, carved bone charms and painted wards rattled as he moved the monitor slightly and tapped the keyboard, pulling up a map.
*Let's see... These people 'need to move themselves and some big cargo',* he thought, remembering Howard's e-mail. *Helping them will seriously piss OZ off, and I'm supposed to meet them there... right in the middle of that big search operation OZ is running. It doesn't take a genius to work out who they are.*
"Duo's probably there," he whispered, smiling. "I wonder if he'll be glad to see me again?"
Matthews wandered in to breakfast the next morning and sat down, frowning into thin air.
"What's up?" one of the mechanics asked, walking past with a tray. "You look like you haven't slept all night!"
"He used a brute force password cracker," Matthews said, not looking around. "He's that good at hacking, and all he's got to get in with is a brute force cracker?"
"Brute force doesn't work on our system," Howard protested, looking up. "If it gets a series of wrong passwords in one connection attempt, the security programs lock them out!"
"They didn't trigger. I checked them and they're working fine. They just didn't go off when Hazrat hacked in, and there's nothing in the one log I've got left to show how he did it. I also have no idea how he managed to get a brute force program to guess an eighteen-digit password in only twelve tries."
"Uh... luck?" one of the mechanics suggested.
"When you get one of our passwords wrong, you get no information about what you should have put in," Matthews said flatly. "There isn't even anything to show how long the password should be. His first try was twenty-five digits long. A normal brute force program would have kept trying twenty-five digit combinations until it ran out, or somebody stopped it. His switched to eighteen-digit combinations from the second try onwards... and every time it got part of the password right, it kept it. That's not luck. The only information our system was giving out was 'wrong password, try again', so how did he do that?! The only way he could mess with the security programs and get the password so fast is if he was already into the system, but then why wouldn't it show on the log? And if he was already in the system, he wouldn't need to crack the password!"
"Like I said yesterday," Howard said sympathetically, patting Matthews on the shoulder and putting a loaded plate in front of him, "the kid's good. If you get all wound up every time he does something and you can't work out how he pulled it off, you'll just stress yourself into a nervous breakdown. I nearly did. Forget about it and eat your breakfast."
"Right on time," Trowa said quietly, leaning against the wall next to one of the grimy front windows. The warehouse Howard had fixed as the meeting site was old, dirty and seemed disused -- apart from some suspicious scuff marks in the dirt, clustered around the rear loading entrance -- and there hadn't been any traffic down the laneway leading to it all morning. Now, however, a battered black motorcycle was cruising towards him, ridden by an anonymous figure wearing heavy black denim and a helmet with a tinted visor, and he thought it was fairly safe to assume this was the smuggler they were waiting for.
Sure enough, the bike swung in through the open door and coasted to a halt in the middle of the warehouse floor. The rider shut off the engine and leaned it onto its kickstand as Trowa pushed the door closed; the blank helmet swiveled to look at him, then turned to scan the area.
The other Gundam pilots walked out of the shadows at the rear of the building. "Howard sent you?" Heero demanded, gun held down by his thigh, half-hidden but ready.
"Yes," the figure replied, in a deep, rough voice that sounded like he'd encountered a lot of cigarettes and whisky in his life. "You must be Mr. Paranoid," he added dryly, reaching up with gloved hands to pull the helmet off.
Sandy brown hair tumbled out, uncoiling as it fell until the ends brushed his boots, and mismatched eyes -- one green, one yellow-brown -- glittered sardonically under spiky bangs as he smirked at Duo, dismissing Heero as if he and his pistol didn't exist.
"Oh, wow," Duo said, grinning. "Haan, man, good to see ya!" Dropping his voice, he muttered out of the side of his mouth, "Lose the gun, Heero, he's all right." Then he started forwards, gesturing expansively. "Guys, this is Hazrat Haan, the person I wouldn't tell you about before. You know, the one who saved my ass? Haan, these are my friends, Heero, Trowa, Quatre and Wufei. I see you got your bike back... Damn, I'm glad you're okay! You didn't have any more problems after I left, did you? I was worried that maybe that OZ squad would go back and make trouble--"
Still perched comfortably astride his motorbike, Haan calmly reached out, wound his hand into the loose strands at the base of Duo's braid, pulled him close, and kissed him. As far as the onlookers could judge, it was a fairly impressive kiss. Duo certainly seemed to think so... at least, after the first startled jerk, he didn't try to get loose.
It lasted a while.
Eventually, Haan let go, and Duo slowly straightened up.
".........I see you haven't changed," he said, blinking dazedly.
"Why change a technique that works?" Haan replied calmly, hooking his helmet onto the handlebars and swinging around, off the bike. "Besides," he added, almost purring, "it's fun." Turning to the others, he raised an eyebrow as he met their gazes. Quatre looked startled, Trowa seemed mildly amused, Wufei's face was determinedly blank, and Heero... Heero was glaring daggers at him, knuckles white as he clenched his hand around the gun.
*Interesting,* Haan thought, and stared coolly back. "So. Shall we discuss the job?"
There wasn't any furniture in the warehouse, apart from a broken chair left behind in one of the cobwebby little offices, but there were enough empty crates and pallets for everyone to sit down.
"Well," Quatre began, resisting the urge to get up again and fastidiously dust his seat, "I don't know how much Howard told you..."
"Just that you have big cargo to move," Haan said, settling back comfortably. "Five Gundams, right?"
"How do you know that?!" Heero snapped, stiffening.
The sandy-haired teen rolled his eyes. "It's obvious. Big cargo plus secret plus giant OZ search -- plus paranoia," he added dryly, "equals Gundams. Meeting Duo here just confirmed it. And no, he didn't tell me either."
"Logic is a useful tool," Wufei murmured, carefully not smiling.
"Very. I don't know how much Howard told you," Haan said flatly, staring challengingly at Heero, "but I don't like paranoid people, and I don't need this job. If you annoy me too much, goodbye. You've got some leeway because OZ want you dead, but if you're going to be twitching and questioning me every ten minutes, it's off."
Heero scowled and opened his mouth to retort, but Haan just kept talking. "If I take this job, I will be in charge. I don't tell you how to fight Leos, you don't tell me how to smuggle things. I'll explain what you need to know to make my plan work, and nothing more. Got that?"
"I'm not convinced we need you, yet," Heero growled, glaring back. "I'm definitely not convinced we can trust you."
"Oh, you need me all right," Haan said, smirking slightly. "I got a really good look at the perimeter on the way in. You're not getting out undetected by yourselves. As for trust, you tell me, Mr. Paranoid. What proof will you accept?"
The smirk grew wider when Heero couldn't come up with an answer to that.
"'Scuse us," Duo said abruptly, standing up. He didn't try to drag Heero, or ask him to move; he just walked some way off and stared meaningfully until Heero got up and joined him.
"Look, Heero," Duo said, exasperated, "Haan risked his life to save my butt four months ago. I didn't ask him to, he just did it. Some shitty OZ soldier nearly broke his jaw! As far as I'm concerned, he already passed, all right?! Yes, we need him, we already decided that. He's got us over a barrel if he wants to play things that way, so can we just be polite, the way we planned?! At the very least, try not to act like you wanna pick a fight!"
The muscles along Heero's jaw clenched, but finally he nodded. "All right," he gritted out. "I'll be polite if he is."
"I don't think it works that way, Heero," Duo sighed. "I think he gives back what he gets, doubled. I think you're gonna have to be polite first."
Heero scowled and nodded again. "Ryoukai," he muttered sullenly.
"Uh... what's that one mean again? It's a good one, right? I hope it's not like 'fuck that' or anything, because that would be really bad, Heero. Really," Duo said nervously, keeping his voice down.
"It means 'acknowledged'."
"Good. Glad we got that straightened out. You, ah, you gonna come back now, or...?"
"You go," Heero said quietly. "I'll be there in a minute."
He watched Duo jog back to the group, and then shifted his gaze to Haan as he discussed something with Quatre. Haan looked up and smiled at Duo as the braided pilot sat down, and Heero suddenly realised he was clenching his fists again.
*How can I trust him to do his job right?!* he thought angrily, forcing his hands open and rubbing damp palms against his shirt. *It's an important job, it's a mission, it's serious, and he waltzes in here and_flirts -- kisses Duo -- I'm supposed to take orders from him?! Like hell!*
"Do you want me to take you anywhere in particular, or just out of here?" Haan asked. Listening with half an ear to Quatre's answer, he watched Heero and Duo out of the corner of his eye.
*They aren't acting like lovers,* he mused. *The body language is all wrong... but Heero definitely didn't like me kissing Duo. Either he doesn't think I should be kissing anyone when I'm on a job, or... let's see.* He turned his head to smile at Duo as the braided pilot returned, and noted Heero's reaction. *Aha. He wants me to stay away from Duo. They're not officially together, though, or he would've warned me off already. Next question: is Duo not interested, or has Heero not got around to making a move?*
*Whichever it is, I don't see any reason why I shouldn't enjoy myself. As long as Duo doesn't want me to back off.*
"...not necessary, but if you can scatter the areas you deliver us to as widely as possible, we'd appreciate it," Quatre finished.
"That shouldn't be hard," Haan replied, returning his attention to the conversation. "There's only a small local-traffic airport in the area, so a lot of heavy road traffic goes in and out with cargo over half a dozen routes. One more truck won't be obvious."
"You're planning to take us out by truck?" Trowa asked, raising an eyebrow; Haan nodded, and Trowa chuckled. "See, Duo? It works."
"I bet he doesn't use a flatbed truck and a tarpaulin," Duo snorted. "Right, Haan?"
"I use my truck," Haan said, grinning. "Purpose-built. OZ can scan it any way they like, they won't see your suits."
"Oooo," Duo said, eyes glittering. "Stealth truck. This, I have to see. D'you think there's anything I-- er, we can use?"
"Finding out how I do things is a lot more expensive than just paying me to do them," Haan told him. "Like I said, I'm not telling you anything you don't need to know."
"You'll live. If it's any consolation, my little cargo-hiding trick only works in an enclosed compartment," Haan said, flicking a quick glance to the side as Heero stiffly walked back. "You couldn't use it to hide a Gundam that was out walking around."
"Well, that sucks."
"Our hearts bleed for you, Duo," Wufei said dryly. "You'll just have to settle for Deathscythe only being four times better at stealth than the other Gundams."
"Gotta keep improving," Duo said, smiling hopefully at Heero as he sat down. "You snooze, you lose. Right, Heero?"
"Hn." Heero folded his arms across his chest and glared silently at an inoffensive spot on the floor.
Haan managed not to roll his eyes. *He may be a brilliant pilot, a great warrior, old beyond his years, and so on, but he's certainly acting his age now! Was I like that?*
*...yes, I was. I tended to throw knives instead of glaring, though.*
"So, is there anything else you need to know?" Quatre asked, smoothly covering up the awkward silence following Heero's non-comment.
"I'll need rough measurements, to make sure the Gundams will fit, but that can wait," Haan said, pulling a small electronic palmpad out of his jacket pocket. "Give me a second to work out the price, and--" He broke off and muffled a cough behind his hand, wincing. "'Scuse me," he rasped, voice suddenly rougher. "Talking too much."
"You okay?" Duo asked, concerned. "Want some water? You weren't talking that much..."
Haan shook his head slightly, waving the palmpad in the general direction he'd arrived from. "OZ checkpoint," he explained shortly. "Asked lots of questions."
He spent about a minute quickly entering data on the pad, then held it wordlessly out to Quatre. The blond boy started to scroll down the list, blinked, scrolled back...
"You have a very, ah, individual payment scale, Mr. Haan," he said slowly.
Haan shrugged one shoulder, smiling blandly, but didn't answer; Duo leaned sideways, trying to peer at the tiny screen. "What's it say?"
"'Transport of five people and 'luggage', base price ten thousand credits each'," Quatre read. "That's actually fairly cheap, I think... 'Duo will talk all the time: plus ten percent'."
Haan pointed at his throat. "Makes me answer," he said, voice still raspy, then tugged the collar of his turtleneck a little higher.
"'Trowa won't: minus ten percent'," Quatre continued. "'Heero's paranoid: plus ten'."
Heero's jaw clenched, but he didn't say anything.
"'You're all used to having your own way: plus ten percent each, refundable if I don't get arguments. You all look distinctive and OZ has your descriptions: plus five percent each for fake IDs and disguises to match'." Quatre scrolled down and continued. "That adds up to ten thousand five hundred credits for Trowa, eleven thousand five hundred each for Wufei and I, and twelve thousand five hundred each for Heero and Duo. Then there's one final clause. 'You piss OZ off on a regular basis'," he read, enunciating clearly, "'and this will really annoy them: minus seventy-five percent'."
Duo burst out laughing, nearly falling off his crate as he rocked sideways. "Oh, that's rich," he snorted between chuckles. "That's a good one..."
Heero's eyes narrowed suspiciously and he opened his mouth, then snapped it shut again, glancing at Duo. Wufei spoke up, instead.
"While the gesture is appreciated," he said carefully, face calm but eyes wary, "that comes to less than three thousand credits a trip... less than many transport companies charge for a standard load of comparable size. Your costs and risk are much higher than theirs. I don't see how you can be making a profit on this."
Haan shrugged again. "I'm not."
"In that case, I have to ask -- even if it appears slightly paranoid," Wufei added dryly. "If you aren't doing this for the money, what are you doing it for?"
"Personal satisfaction," Haan told him, smiling thinly. "Amusement. A lack of boredom. I already have plenty of money."
"Howard did say he gives discounts on jobs that'll piss OZ off," Duo told the others, still snickering. "He just didn't say how big!"
"Big annoyance equals big discount," Haan muttered, coughing and grimacing in annoyance. "Call it a special offer. You want to talk it over without me?" Standing up, he dusted off the seat of his pants and raised an eyebrow at Quatre.
"Thank you," Quatre said, smiling sweetly. As Haan walked off towards the far end of the warehouse, he looked around at the other pilots. "Well?"
"You know which way I'm voting," Duo said. "I trust him, I like him, and I've seen some of his resources; I say go for it."
Trowa shrugged and nodded slightly; Wufei raised a cautioning finger. "I want to test his claim that he can hide our Gundams that well, first, and I want to know what he plans to do if OZ are physically searching cargoes. Apart from that, I have no objections."
Heero's scowl deepened. "I do! I don't care how good he's supposed to be, he's not acting like a professional. He even said he's doing this for fun! What happens if, halfway through, he decides it's no fun any more?"
"Heero!" Duo groaned. "What's he done that's so unprofessional?"
"Ten seconds after he arrived he was flirting with you, that's what!" Heero snarled before he could stop himself.
Duo blushed bright red, but didn't back down. "He kissed me to shut me up, that's all! It's an effective tactic, all it proves is that he can improvise! Anyway, I flir-- uh--nevermind that," he muttered, blush deepening. "I've seen him in action, you haven't, okay? He focuses on the job just fine when he needs to. If you're gonna refuse to work with him because he's 'unprofessional' for stealing one freaking kiss, you should be refusing to work with me because I listen to music and make jokes when I'm piloting!"
"That's different!" Heero growled. "You've proven yourself a hundred times. He hasn't."
"If Howard recommended him," Wufei cut in unexpectedly, "then he has. He just hasn't done it in front of us, and we can't exactly wait until he has a chance to!"
"Chang the Man's right as usual, Heero," Duo said wryly, blush slowly fading. "Either you trust my and Howard's judgement, or you don't. That's all there is to it."
"Of course I-- you-- aah, chikushou!" Heero swore. He looked away for a moment, audibly grinding his teeth, then looked back. "Fine. I'm paranoid. I admit it. He rubs me the wrong way and I can't see him as a serious... fuck it. Fine. I trust your judgement."
"Thank you," Duo said, smiling crookedly, stood up and walked off after Haan.
"It's... er... semi-unanimous, then," Quatre said with slightly strained humour, and hastily got up to follow Duo. "Ah... coming?"
"I'll behave," Heero muttered, answering the question Quatre hadn't asked. "I'll try to be polite to him. I'll even try not to be paranoid about him... but later, okay?"
"Okay," Quatre smiled, relieved, and jogged off.
*And if it turns out that we can't trust him, he'd better pray he's not with me when we find out,* Heero thought grimly, glaring across the warehouse to where Duo had caught up to Haan.
 chikushou = crap!
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