Drums of Heaven

Part Twenty-Two: Hope Despite The Times

We are young despite the years
We are concern
We are hope despite the times
--- Michael Stipe

The forum was empty, and Heero yawned, sipping the harsh coffee as he waited for one of the hackers to log on. It was hours earlier than he usually appeared, but the Wing Zero pilot wasn't certain when he'd next be able to stop by.

Frustrated, he checked the clock again. Eight-thirty, standard time. Duo and Trowa had been sleeping, the ship's lights still dim, when he left. Thanks to Duo's hangover, the thief would probably sleep for another few hours; hopefully Trowa would also sleep in. The last thing Heero wanted was to have them assume his absence meant he didn't want an explanation.

He sighed and tapped his fingers on the keyboard, anxious. The girl over at the counter knocked several things together as she finished cleaning up during a lull in the morning rush. The clatter echoed in the back of Heero's skull, and he stared off across the net café's empty work areas.

"Asswipe! Clear the decks!"

Heero saw the forum window flash to indicate an avatar's entry. He smirked as he caught the Hand's response to the smiley-face avatar indicating a guest user.

"Wing here," Heero typed. He provided no other explanation, and realized he no longer needed one. The greeting was enough.

"Hey, hey," Mike replied. "Rat should be here in a minute. You're keeping strange hours, man."

"Same for you," the photographer replied. "Shouldn't you be in school?"

"Flu," the hand said, and promptly gave Heero the bird right as Rat entered.

"That'd better not be for me," Rat snapped, and kicked Mike.

"Wing here," the photographer said, reintroducing himself as the Hand immediately reappeared. The rat avatar wiggled its whiskers as Heero kept typing. "Don't have long. Any news?"

"We decrypted the bank transfer files."

"Snake did the first one," Mike added.

"And?" Heero sat forward on his seat, his fingers hovering over the keyboard.

"They're not text files." Rat's avatar smirked as a forum address appeared on the next line. "Click on that," he instructed. When Heero did, a secondary window opened. It was an image. After a moment, the image resolved itself.

The dark-haired man grunted in surprise. It was Trowa.

The Heavyarms pilot was leaning over the videogame console, his profile to the camera, which was angled up and high above him. He didn't appear to be aware of the camera. As far as Heero had been able to tell, Hilde and Trowa believed the only devices on the ship were listening, not watching; it was possible Duo had additional devices set up for his own purposes.

If so, perhaps the only purpose was capturing images of Trowa, Heero theorized. Rat had entered four more forum addresses, and each one was another picture of Trowa. Eating dinner, piloting the ship, sleeping on the gathering room sofa, working on his bike. And all of the images were sent to Quatre's address. Heero remembered the video capture shots on the table at the house in Paris, and nearly choked on his breath.

"All the files are like this?" Heero asked.

"Yup," Rat replied. "Same encoding, but we only opened these five."

"It's another Gundam pilot," Mike burst in. "Am I right?"

Heero paused, then gave up with a small grin. "Yeah," he said. "But no need to let it get out."

"Consider them forgotten," Rat replied.

"Thanks, and I'll check in again when I can," Heero replied, and cut the connection.


Hilde was lying across the lounge in the gathering room, watching a video when Heero returned. He leaned against the doorjamb, his arms crossed, as he watched the girl stretch indolently. She sat up on her elbows and cocked her head at the dark-haired pilot.

"Get me some water, wouldya?"

Heero smirked, and a minute later was handing her a glass of water. She took it with a weak smile, drank it all without pause, and set the glass down on the low table.

"Day's awake," she said. "When he gets out of the shower, go with him. He's got to finish the decryption program, and the ship's systems can't handle the processing right now."

"Oh?" Heero caught the emphasis on the last two words. He raised his eyebrows at the blank system monitor in the wall of the gathering room.

"Trey's compiling the programs attached to the modifications Day made yesterday, and the ship's too much like Day." She shrugged and lay back down, grinning wickedly. "Short attention span, multi-tasking challenged, y'know."


Heero heard the bathroom door swish open, and noticed Duo exiting. The man was leaning over and squeezing long strands of his hair between a towel as he walked. There was a palm-sized tattoo on his left shoulder blade, but Heero couldn't catch a good look. Duo was wearing black jeans, and nothing else, revealing pale skin, streaked by the white of old scars. He didn't look up as he headed straight back to the right-hand bunkroom.

Heero refilled Hilde's water glass without having to be asked, and waited, watching the movie absent-mindedly. Five minutes later Duo reappeared, his hair braided roughly, wearing a black long-sleeved shirt, and his long black coat. There was a satchel over his shoulder.

"Trey's got the keys," Duo announced, his eyes sliding past Heero to rest on Hilde. The girl grinned, a lazy expression matching Duo's flashing smile.

"He's not going to give them to you," she said.

Duo snorted.

"She's right." Trowa's even baritone came from behind Heero. Before he could turn around, a set of keys was being dangled in front of his face. Trowa laughed softly. "Hito, you drive. Don't let that maniac pilot anywhere near my bike."

"Maniac?" Duo made a face, and laughed. "You're letting Hito drive? After he killed a hundred and seventeen pedestrians in Universal Auto?"

"Good point." Trowa's keys stopped jangling. "Both of you, take a cab."

Heero grabbed the keys before Trowa could pull them away. "We'll be fine," the dark-haired man said, and headed towards the exit without a second look. Duo realized his intent a half-second later, and was quickly on his tails. Both men were chased from the ship by Hilde's catcalls.

"Don't forget to write," she called. "But no cookies for you if you smash the bike!"


Heero ended up driving after Duo agreed to be pillion, if only because the headache medicine still hadn't kicked in. At each corner, Duo would mutter directions in Heero's ear, just barely audible over the engine's racing hum.

"When we get there, follow my lead," Duo said at one intersection.

The photographer thought about this as he carried out Duo's navigation through the Sector. The scenery changed from the industrial elements of Sector Four, into the lower-income working class environment of Sector Three.

"It won't always make sense, but it's not for your benefit," Duo said at another stop sign. "Take a right here."

Several blocks past before Heero realized Duo was continuing the line of conversation he'd intermittently introduced on the short trip. As far as Heero could tell, Duo was going to be the one to speak, but some part of the speaking was dangerous. Or, Heero contemplated, it was getting to the safe speaking location that was hazardous.

"Best if you say as little as possible until I say otherwise," Duo said.

Heero nodded. I can do that, he thought. I have no idea what to say, anyway. He was too busy feeling Duo's back against his own, too busy trying to ignore Duo's arms around his waist. It felt comfortable. It felt like they were fifteen again, before he'd ever hurt Duo. At the next light, Heero spoke first.

"Do you still play basketball?"

There was a pause, and then Duo tapped Heero on the left knee. "Left here, and park halfway down the block." He didn't reply to Heero's question.

Once off the bike, Duo unlocked a door tucked into the wall between a Chinese herbalist and a pizza delivery shop. The door led to a flight of stairs lit by a dusty light bulb. The stairs creaked under Heero's weight, and he noticed Duo's passage was silent. Cat-light feet, Heero thought, or simply a facet of knowing the stairs so well the thief could avoid every ill-met panel and ancient creak.

At the top of the stairs, Duo unlocked a second door and ushered Heero into the small apartment over the herbalist shop. The front living room was bare of all but a mattress, several boxes, and two sofa cushions. From his place by the front door, Heero could see a kitchenette, a bathroom, and what would probably be a bedroom at the back of the apartment. Every visible floor surface was covered with a nasty lime-green vinyl material. The cabinets in the kitchen were metal, painted in a lurid avocado. Heero winced, hit with temporary homesickness for his L1 apartment.

Duo had dropped his coat on the floor, by the door, and Heero slipped off his own jacket and dropped it next to Duo's.

"Help yourself to reading material," Duo was saying as he put his satchel down in the center of the room, then kicked the two sofa cushions over to sit next to it. Heero glanced at the boxes. One was over-filled with tattered comic books. The other two boxes were piled high with game and videodisks. It took a second for Heero to realize Duo was waving him away from the boxes and over to the sofa cushions, and directing him to sit.

Seating himself cross-legged on one of the cushions, Heero watched carefully, trying to puzzle out Duo's lecture.

"This is going to take at least three hours," Duo was saying. "Hopefully you can stay housebroken for that long." He'd pulled out a trim black folder that turned out to be a laptop. Flipping the top open, Duo knelt, typing in rapid-fire commands until the screen glowed. From Heero's line of sight the screen was black, but the screen's light reflected off Duo's hands in the apartment's mid-morning gloom.

Duo then brought out a device about the size of a remote control, as long as his hand, a few inches wide, and a half-inch thick. He noticed Heero's puzzled expression, and flashed another Cheshire grin as he slipped a sky-blue romchip from his pocket and pushed it into a waiting slot on one end of the device. He connected the device to the laptop and sat back, watching the screen for several seconds.

"I'm going to get some sleep," Duo said in a slightly sterner tone, but Heero was puzzled to see Duo winking at him. "Wake me only if it's the second coming or you like an early death."

Heero nodded, his brow furrowed, but remained silent. Duo grinned again, and pulled a short metal tube from the satchel. Twisting the bottom a half-turn, he studied the red lights at the opposite end before setting it on end in front of Heero. He then pulled out four blue plastic boxes, each the size of a cigarette case.

Dropping three in his lap, Duo studied one end and expertly flipped several toggle switches, watched the lights flickering on the metal tube, and then flipped several more of the toggles. After a pause, Duo nodded in satisfaction and gathered up the three other boxes, flipping their toggles to match the first box. He then set the four boxes in a square around Heero, and pushed the laptop and romchip reader outside the perimeter.

"Stuff to drink is in the fridge," Duo then said, jerking his head towards the kitchenette. Taking the hint, Heero got up, coming back a minute later with two bottles of lemonade.

Duo beckoned him back to his spot as the longhaired man pulled off his boots and threw them across the room to land next to the coats. Heero followed suit, although less noisily, preferring to lean over and place his boots quietly outside the square's perimeter. Duo watched, flipping open a butterfly knife and using the handle to pop the tops on the bottles.

"You still strong enough to do that with the skin on your forearm?" Duo's tone was conversational. Heero gaped, and the Deathscythe pilot laughed, a faintly hollow sound. "We're in a dead zone, now. That lovely gadget in front of you is a dampener, and those strange blue boxes are broadcasters. If anyone's listening -- and someone probably is -- all they're going to hear is what sounds like snoring and pages being turned."

"This is all planned?" Heero took a sip of the lemonade and stared at the nearest blue box.

"Hilde and I created it, a year ago. It's useful for when the three of us needed to discuss things without our neighbors catching the details." Duo shrugged, and another grin slid across his face, a casual action. "We can't do it often, since it'd look suspicious if we had to use this old place too much, instead of decrypting on the ship's systems."

"You're sure it works?"

"As sure as we can be," Duo said. There was a momentary uncertainty in Duo's eyes. It was gone as soon as it appeared, to be replaced with that easy-going expression Heero remembered so well.

There was a moment's pause. Heero stared at the dampening device, and wondered whether he was supposed to repeat what he'd said in the note. He fingered the label on the bottle and thought about whether he should say something about what Trowa had said, about not having been Duo's friend.

Duo spoke first.

"You've stuck it out this long," he said, with a soft laugh. "Now you get to hear the rest of the story, I guess." Duo took a long swig from the bottle and stared across the apartment, away from Heero's even gaze. When he spoke again, his voice was low and melodious, but devoid of emotion.

"And since the best place to start is at the beginning... " Duo grinned, and did a little bow from the waist. His blue eyes were nearly purple in the unlit apartment. "June before last, I was asked to join the Preventers for an undercover case... "


Lady Une had come to L2 for a political conference, and made a point of arranging a visit with Duo. He had just finished his third year exams in the school of engineering and technology on L2, and had a day to kick around before a two-week stint with the Sweepers during his early summer break. The Preventers needed someone who could hold his own in a tight spot, think fast, and had ties to the Sweepers. Duo was the obvious choice, between his history, his skills, and his contacts. It also meant additional income, although he wouldn't be on the front line and wouldn't be officially listed as part of the operation. His role was merely to act as a backup and contact point for the person going undercover. Duo was granted the title Une had originally set aside for him: Agent Night.

Two weeks later Duo met Joe Casserly, also known as Agent Shark. Joe was from L1, first-generation, his parents immigrants from Jamaica. He'd worked as a Gundam mechanic on Earth for OZ, and had been with the Preventers during Mariemaia. Joe's mission was to infiltrate the syndicate and find evidence of gun smuggling. If he did, the mission would be bolstered with additional personnel and funding. Not finding proof could also be a successful mission, as there had only been general rumors so far. None of the rumors warranted sending in a complete team.

Joe's entry was through the Sweepers, courtesy of Duo's introductions. From there, the undercover agent was able to extend his influence outwards, moving from the aboveboard Sweepers actions to the shadier side of the Sweepers world. Even as he moved into the underground, Duo's name and reputation carried weight, as a mechanic and a thief. Duo wasn't known as Duo, however; Duo had taken the name of David Waters when he'd entered the L2 engineering university.

At this point in the story, Duo took pity on Heero's inquisitive look, with a soft laugh. "Waters," he said. "As in... Wells? Max Wells? Water, Wells, get it?"

Heero nodded, vaguely. He seemed to recall Max Wells being one of the pseudonyms Duo had used during the war, and at other points when carrying on in less than legit operations. Duo shrugged and continued with the story.

Howard acted as vouchsafe for the entity David Waters, also known as Day Waters, who in turn vouched for the entity known as Joe Cassidy. It was a complex series of ties, but required. The Sweepers weren't known for outright trust, and it would require more than one person to get Joe through any doors. Having a reference for a reference was the safest way to maneuver into the underside of the Sweeper operations.

After a month, Joe returned to L2, and stayed with Duo at the apartment they'd set up as home base for the duration of the operation. Hilde visited under pretense of being Duo's sister, although her own apartment in Sector 1 was where Duo had lived prior to the assignment. He had to be available for reference backup for Joe should anyone in the Sweepers want to check to make sure Joe's references still held water.

Duo laughed at his own joke and finished his lemonade. He wiped his mouth with his shirtsleeve and went back to the story.

Joe started visiting Duo between Sweeper trips, and Hilde made appearances more often. The three became good friends, and Joe was making progress, providing encoded reports that Duo would send to Lady Une. Sometimes he sent the files piggybacked on apparently unsolicited advertisements; other times he'd hack into Preventers systems and leave the reports on Une's desktop.

Just before the operation was to end, Joe discovered something. Whatever it was, it was enough to make Une decide to keep Joe in the line of fire. Duo wasn't sure what this news was, as he never read the encoded reports; he merely delivered them, if in as many obnoxious ways as possible. Une responded, uncharacteristically, breaking her radio silence to have Hilde deliver the message that Joe's mission was extended another six months. The only change Duo could honestly report was that Joe had been invited into the syndicate, as an operator. Joe, in other words, was running a team much like Hilde was now running their team.

Five months later - a month before the extension ended – Joe came to see Duo and Hilde with another encoded report. Duo forwarded it as usual.

Two weeks later Joe was dead.

Duo smirked at Heero, and got up to get another lemonade. His socked feet padded softly across the vinyl floor. He didn't offer one to Heero, who'd barely touched his own after the first few sips. The photographer had forgotten all about the drink, too busy focusing on the story. Duo seated himself again, popped off the top, and got back to the story.

Une came to see Duo, several weeks after Joe's death. Again she had a political venue on the colony, and met with Duo in top secret, during a time he was supposedly in logged in for class. Joe's last report had indicated that the syndicate operating on L2 had joined a loose alliance of colony syndicates that included five or six resource satellites and the syndicates from L1 and L3. The Yakuza and Mafia, back on Earth, were reportedly receiving substantial funding from operations by the various Colonial syndicates. Despite the disarmament practiced by the United Earth Sphere Alliance, gun running and weaponry sales were still strong, and thanks to the same firearms restrictions, sales of those items naturally had exorbitant profits.

The problem was tying the sales, and the minor operatives, to the syndicate leaders. Joe had stumbled on a connection, somewhere, that was proof of a connection. Following that thread would allow the Preventers the legal grounds to shut down one or more syndicate leaders, and hopefully destroy the organizations from the top down.

Lady Une had taken Joe's reports and presented them in her fiscal year end presentation to the United Earth Sphere Alliance President, Mr. Haune. This was a closed doors meeting, and a simple preface to the formal address she had been required to make before the Council of Cabinets and the Prime Minister. The President, in effect, was as much a figurehead as Relena had been as Queen of the World, Duo explained. But the President's right to preview was a nicety granted so he could effectively plan ahead in his political dealings, as part of his primary position as a peacekeeper.

A day later, Une was invited to meet with the President in a follow-up meeting. During that conversation, President Haune explained that there were several projects that should be shut down as part of budget cuts. Three of the projects he recommended be closed were operations already slated for ending within a few months of the new fiscal year. The fourth project was Joe's. Lady Une reviewed his suggestions, and a week later told him she'd end the first early, and the next two on their projected closure dates. She also told Mr. Haune that Joe's operation had revealed significant connections, and in light of the potential for solid evidence, she was willing to sacrifice two additional projects to provide Joe with additional undercover backup.

Forty-eight hours later, Joe was dead.

His ship, Dirty Boy, exploded a half-hour outside L2's docking station. All hands on board perished. The formal cause, determined by the local authorities, was a malfunction in the Carn lines connecting the main engine to the oxygen-environment thrusters. When the lines were literally crossed, the system read the thrusters as overloaded on oxygen, and flooded the tanks. This pushed fuel back the main engines, where it caught fire from the imbalance. The rest was cascade failure.

Duo's face was still, and his voice low. Almost too low, at times, for Heero to catch the words over the midday traffic drifting through a crack in the apartment's dirty windows. Carn lines aren't crossed normally, Duo explained. There's no need; they run through the body of the ship, from fore to aft, connecting the port rotary wing directly to the left thruster, and same for the starboard. Crossing them would require substantial effort, and would send a definite message of purposeful sabotage.

It was clear the timing was too suspicious, but one fortunate aspect was that Duo wasn't a known part of the operation. Lady Une had never mentioned his name in her reports, nor had Joe had reason to include Duo's name or alias in a progress report. Duo, and Hilde, were able to do the one thing no one else could do, at Lady Une's request: continue the operation.

To do that, though, they needed a way to capitalize on what Joe had done without raising questions about their purpose. In the end, Hilde provided it, and not entirely out of an altruistic goal to help the Preventers.

Hilde wanted vengeance.



On to Chapter twenty-three

Back to chapter twenty-one

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