Part Forty-Six: That Laid The Swale In Rows
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows--
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises)—--and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
--- Robert Frost
"Jeet?" Hilde's voice came over the comm.
There was no answer. Heero lifted a hand and pressed the earpiece closer. Silence.
"Jeet, where are you?" Hilde repeated her question.
"Sorry, sorry," the young man's voice came back. "The... headphones were hurting my ear... just took them off for a second."
"Don't do it again," the team leader chided him. "What's going on? What was that about someone being lost?"
"Oh, that." The young man's nervous laughter came over the system. "Some woman was down here for an interview with the kitchen manager. She's a chef or something. I drew her a map to the management office."
Heero frowned a little. He didn't recall any discussions about non-employee personnel in the staff areas.
"Where's Terry?" Hilde's voice was sharp. "What's the word on that computer malfunction?"
"It's not getting any better," Jeet replied. "He's still up in the computer room, talking to the day manager. Terry had to escort some computer guy who came to fix it, but the guy can't figure out what the problem is. He says they're going to have to reinstall the program causing the... " Jeet paused. "Waterfall failure? Something like that."
"Cascade failure," Heero growled softly.
Heero could tell the boy had shrugged from the tone of the statement, and he nearly rolled his eyes. Across the room, Duo was smirking. Duo's eyes were trained on the three representatives from the Asian area, presenting their arguments for future market developments.
"Are they still going to need Day?" Enny's voice broke in.
"I don't think so," Jeet said. "Terry said this guy is pretty sharp, knew all his stuff. They're switching to channel six, by the way."
"Keep us posted," Hilde said, and sighed. "Over and out."
"Next on the agenda are the regional preferences for Preventer issues," Relena announced, nodding as one of the assistants came forward with handouts for the representatives. The short woman was nearly hidden as she passed between the ranks of syndicate dignitaries and their seated employees, her auburn hair just visible above the broad backs and cropped hairstyles worn by most of the personal bodyguards. The hotel's carpet muffled her footsteps, and the only sound for a minute was the slap and swish of paper being laid before each representative.
"We have last year's requests, to refresh your memory," the North European Alliance representative continued. "You'll notice the preferences are ranked in order of need, so we'll start with the Earth regions and then move numerically through the colonies."
Sean Renton, the representative for the incomplete L5 colony and the asteroid settlements, made a face at the young woman. "Say, next year can we start with L5 instead of end with it? I hate always being last."
The attendees laughed, and even Relena chuckled as she began her list of Preventer assignments. It soon became clear to Heero that the true meaning behind the list was a far more insidious one than the laughter had indicated. The lists were for President Haune to relay to Director Une of each region's requests. In every case, the regions had a list of smaller operations they were willing to sacrifice for the Preventers to find or destroy, but those were coupled with requests for specific Preventer investigations to be shut down. The entire procedure was a systematic undermining of every single Preventer objective. Heero could only listen, his face carefully frozen in indifference.
What if Relena wasn't pretending? What if all this time... she had only been waiting to move into a position of true power?
He refused to believe it. Heero gritted his teeth, willing his breathing to stay calm, his heartbeat to continue evenly. He fought too long and too hard to achieve peace, with this very woman at the center of his actions. There was no way he'd be wiling to believe that she would turn on him, and all he'd done, this completely. His attention was caught by Duo's lazy smile. Heero frowned mentally, uncertain. He'd refused to believe Duo would willingly work for the syndicate, he reminded himself, and after all that, he'd found out he was wrong. The Deathscythe pilot did, and to some extent supported the very organization the mission was supposed to expose.
Maybe people can change that much, Heero thought, and felt something break, just a little, inside.
Narrowing his mental vision away from the questions roiling in his head, Heero focused on the speaker from L1 listing the colony's needs and sacrifices for the next fiscal year. The short man scrubbed at his shock of gray bristly hair, and concluded with the amount L1 would be donating to the anti-gun organization that funded the majority of the Preventers' budget. Several people nodded, impressed with the number, and Heero was reminded of the fact that the organization was Winner-founded, and Winner-run.
Had Quatre known about this, too? Had he known about this from the beginning? It was his organization, after all...
Heero cut off that train of thought, and sighed as he watched the President's beet-red face as the man grinned, acknowledging the syndicates' offers of ill-gotten funds. Money from crime, used to pay for the only organization left to fight major crime, and used to tie the hands of that same organization. Heero could pull out his gun, now, and take out ten of them before he'd have to eject the magazine and slam a second one home. Then he could take out the rest, and he knew he could. Take aim, fire, continue until done. Simple. He wondered if he would automatically make sure to leave a bullet for himself. If it came to that, he realized, he wasn't sure. If what he was seeing was the true state of things, he wasn't sure he was willing to fight one more time, knowing that each time the peace was destroyed so easily.
His thoughts were interrupted as the door bolt mechanism unlocked, then slid home again with a resounding thud.
"Hito," Jeet's voice came over. "The other line just went dead. They're doing something to the computer system. I think they unplugged the system and turned it back on."
Rebooted, Heero's mind automatically supplied. He noticed Alan turning to stare pointedly at Duo. The longhaired man hopped down from the riser, strolling casually as though he didn't even notice every person in the room was watching. Several of the larger bodyguards had to twist in their chairs, too muscle-bound under their double-breasted suits to flexibly turn and look over their shoulder at his approach. Duo ignored them, and walked the thirty feet to Alan's seat. Bending over, he whispered in Alan's ear.
"Resetting the system," Duo said softly. Heero could hear it faintly over the mike system. Duo waited until Alan nodded, and then returned to his spot.
Alan chuckled, and waved away the other representatives' worried looks. "It's the system," he said, ad-libbing easily. "The doors are locked through our server, and they're randomly reset once a day as the system backs up. It's perfectly normal."
There was a pause, and the South American representative laughed. "Computers will be the death of us," Louise cracked, and the tension was past.
Heero shifted in place, against the wall, his mind returning to the earlier problem. He could kill everyone in the room. But that wouldn't solve the problem, something whispered deep down inside him, and Heero paused to reflect on that. Every person here, including himself, could be easily replaced, and would be, and the dance would start over. The point of the mission wasn't to destroy the syndicates. It was to remove the link between the President and the syndicates, and thus between the syndicates and the Preventers.
The way the system was set up, Heero reminded himself, the Preventers were reliant on the money that rolled in from non-governmental sources. The regions in the Interstellar Earth Sphere Union had not set aside funds for the Preventers, preferring to let it be funded by outside interests in the hopes that this would keep the Preventers free of political interests. That same design, however, was the sole reason the Preventers' work was now so easily diluted. To break that cycle not only would they have to remove the President, but also the mechanism that tied him to the syndicates. If they didn't restructure the entire system funding the Preventers, the syndicates would simply look to the next President to pick up where the last left off.
And with the amount of money each regional syndicate was naming, there was little chance that a civil employee like the Council President could pass up such offers. Heero wondered if he could, either, if that much money was involved. He wasn't sure he could even comprehend the amount the Russian representative had named, or even just the total amount allotted by the Asian representatives.
So President Haune has to be implicated beyond a shadow of a doubt, Heero realized. The true mission isn't to destroy the syndicate, but to free the Preventers.
His gaze fell on Relena, who was listening to the North American representative. The young woman's expression was pleasant, and open, but her blue eyes were steely, and the fingers of her right hand were caressing the lip of her empty teacup. Heero frowned slightly, and wondered if he was being taken in by the act along with everyone else. The problem was that he couldn't figure out why Relena would offer Trowa to the South European Alliance. He sensed there was a reason for the move -- everything she'd ever done had a specific reason -- but he couldn't see it from where he stood.
"Wake up... " The voice was a breath, barely a whisper.
Belatedly Heero realized the topic had shifted, and Mikhel, the florid Russian representative, was speaking. Heero glanced over at Duo, who closed his eyes slowly, then opened them again. Heero frowned and turned his attention back to the meeting.
"We've followed the lead of L2 for twenty years now," Sean was saying. "I see no reason why we should alter that strategy now."
"The colonies are reliant on the Earth regions," Vincent replied hotly. His bald pate was flushed again as his irritation grew.
"Our future is in space, not on some dust ball," Mark, the L3 representative, retorted. "L2 has led us well in the past, despite their occasional missteps." He shot a look at Alan, who smiled self-effacingly.
The conversation continued for several more minutes, with each representative jumping in with comments at various points. Heero listened closely, finally comprehending that they were debating, in a roundabout way, the selection of a leader for their council. President Haune was quiet, but smiled as some people spoke, and nodded seriously at other comments. It was obvious the President stood to gain or lose little based on who was in charge of the syndicates. His position, as the link to the Preventers, was assured.
It soon became apparent to Heero that the majority of the representatives were beginning to agree on L2 taking the lead role in the syndicate alliances. Although the South European representative had argued eloquently, it seemed that L2's ignorance of Trowa's real identity was not enough to counteract the vast sums of intelligence at the colony syndicate's disposal. There were too many other areas in which L2's network was clearly superior.
"Relena... " came the half-whisper again.
Heero glanced at Duo, who had begun to smile broadly, a cold expression that promised mayhem. Heero turned his gaze to Relena, startled to see her smiling as she shook her head in an exaggeratedly patient movement. The dark-haired man frowned, then started as there was a click in his ear and the line went dead. Heero glanced back at Duo, who raised one shoulder and dropped it in a subtle gesture: he didn't know either. Heero tapped the transponder with his elbow, only to find the system was dead on the hotel security line as well. His gut clenched, and he took a moment to force his body to relax.
"Mr. Kessler," Relena said. Her hands were folded in front of her, and her entire body language was prim, but pleased.
Behind her, Wufei glanced down at her, and then back at the attendees, his eyes sharp. The man's stance was unchanged, but Heero instantly recognized the sharp awareness thrumming through the other pilot's body. Wufei was bracing himself for battle. Heero glanced over at Duo, nonchalantly crossing his arms, with all five of his fingers showing as he placed his right hand over his left arm. Duo's eyes followed the gesture, glanced at Wufei, and back to Heero. The dark-haired man nodded. Duo's smile didn't change, but his eyes narrowed.
"I have been instructed," Relena continued, "as speaking representative for the North European Alliance, that L2 has a history of progressive thinking. However, Mr. Fiori is right that the real balance of power lies in the hands of those who have knowledge."
"Of course," Alan replied smoothly, with a humble nod of his head. "L2 holds power because it has the knowledge."
"Are you sure?" Her voice was crisp.
Alan's smile froze slightly, but he recovered quickly with a soft chuckle, leaning back in his chair casually. "What are you getting at, Miss Darlian?"
"It seems there is a considerable amount of information the North European Alliance holds, that no one has mentioned yet." She smiled sweetly, and tapped the rim of her teacup. "And this is information that could be highly detrimental to your cause as potential leader."
"What information might that be?" The copper-haired man's voice dropped its silky tone, becoming flat at the edges as Alan struggled to mask his irritation.
"The fact that L2's security is swiss cheese," she replied smoothly. "Your tardy discovery of a second Gundam pilot in your ranks is not the first time you have had infiltrators walk past the doors of your syndicate. I know of another such example, but that makes two, and... " She shrugged, a delicate gesture that spoke volumes despite her gentle smile.
"I know of no--"
"I want to hear this," Louise said, cutting Alan off. The woman's blue-black hair brushed her shoulders as she turned her head to Relena. "What are you getting at?"
"If you know something, tell us," Mark added. His gaunt form was tensed, and he turned towards Alan. Heero could clearly see the man's profile, glaring at the copper-haired representative from L2.
Alan started to raise a hand, that indolent smile back on his face, when the L4 representative spoke up.
"You steamrollered us," Michelle snapped. "I wouldn't mind seeing someone do it to you."
The Russian representative barked a laugh at Michelle's comment, then cut it off and gave an apologetic half-bow to Relena. "Sorry, my dear, my humor gets away from me sometimes. Please, tell us."
Relena smiled at Mikhel, and then paused for a moment. Heero couldn't help but be impressed with the skill she displayed at making sure she had everyone's undivided attention.
"The team on which you discovered your Gundam pilot," she began, appearing to choose her words carefully, "is a team that was originally created as a Preventer investigation into interstellar gun smuggling."
The room was silent, and several people glanced at Alan, who laughed. "If you mean the one I'm thinking of, that team was shut down early. The Preventers didn't find anything."
"Do you even know precisely which team it was?" Relena's response was fired back with precision. She raised an eyebrow as Alan shifted a little in his seat.
"Not off the top of my head," he said, and shrugged. "When President Haune alerted us, we told him to shut it down."
"It wasn't shut down," came the immediate reply. The young woman smiled suddenly, a gracious expression, and she tilted her head at Alan, her eyes wide. "One of my priorities as representative is to discover where this breech of communication occurred."
Alan dropped his charm long enough to scowl for a second. He stared pointedly at the President, who looked surprised.
"President Haune?" Relena turned her blue eyes on the older man, her entire body displaying expectation.
"I had them shut down," the President replied, and then shrugged. "Director Une refused."
"And what happened then?" The young North European Alliance representative's voice was sweetly coaxing.
"I... had a core of syndicate Preventers shut them down for me." President Haune looked calm, but his voice quavered slightly as the entire room of syndicate dignitaries trained their eyes on him. "These are trustworthy Preventers, handpicked from syndicate ranks. I've used them for other jobs, too. They always get it done."
Heero struggled to keep his breathing steady, his attention focused totally on the President's words.
"But you didn't tell us," Alan said, and his voice was icy. "We should have known. Which ship was it? Who was the leader?"
"I don't recall the spy's name," President Haune replied, a defensive note creeping into his voice. "The ship had an unusual name... Something boy... " He paused, pursing his lips as he stared into space, then nodded. "Dirty Boy."
"Dirty Boy," Alan repeated softly.
"The ship was sabotaged by my men," President Haune continued, confidence returning to his voice as Relena smiled at him. "The project was shut down as a failure, and Director Une did not attempt another investigation."
"But she did," Relena said softly, her voice cool, ignoring the President's stunned expression. "And that team not only followed on the heels of the first one, it used the original investigator as its reference." She paused, and folded her hands in front of her, leaning forward to emphasize her words. "Which means that due to the lack of communication, the L2 syndicate willingly accepted a new team based on its connection to a known infiltrator." She leaned back with a smile. "I'd say that's important to know."
"Damn you," Alan hissed, glaring at the President. "You're supposed to keep us informed." The man ran a hand through his tousled hair, and canted his head at Relena. "I'd say this indicates a flaw in the President we selected, and not in L2's organization."
"But L2 was the predominant voice in the selection of this President, wasn't it?" Relena's tone was casual.
"She's right," Louise added, leaning over to jab a finger at Alan. "You argued for hours for Haune over Bremen."
"Bremen had no vision," Mikhel retorted. "The man was a lazy slob who drank cheap vodka."
"And the brand of vodka is always important," Mark said, laughing. Several others laughed as well, and Mikhel shrugged good-naturedly.
"I have my priorities," the Russian representative was saying.
"Miss Darlian," Alan said, when the room had quieted down. "This seems like a single incident, which cannot entirely be laid at the feet of L2. The President misjudged the situation, but that's not our fault, even if it has become our problem." He smiled, clearly certain the situation was under control. "And I assure you, we will make every effort to make sure it does not happen again."
"It's too late for that," she replied softly, but slowly, measuring her words precisely.
"What do you mean?" Alan smiled, returning her charm with equal measure.
The other representatives' heads swiveled as they tried to take in the tension between the two figures at opposite ends of the conference tables. Heero pulled away from the wall to stand up straight, feet shoulder-width apart. His arms were crossed, and his chin down, as he watched the room from under his brows.
"When you discovered what you believed was an infiltrator, in this second investigation... it was not news delivered by your own highly-touted network, was it." She shrugged, and tilted her head at the man, speaking as though to a child. "You weren't even aware that one of the planners for today's security was a Gundam pilot."
"Filthy terrorist," Louise interrupted, shaking her head. "I still can't believe you didn't shoot him on sight."
"Common criminals," Andrew, the L1 representative, murmured. His shock of bristly gray hair caught the overhead lights as the man shook his head. "Our colony was glad to wash its hands of any connection with those mass murderers."
"They should've done the war crimes tribunals and put all five of them to death," Vincent muttered to Mark, who nodded. "We would've been satisfied with that, but nothing? They just let them walk." He snorted, a disgusted sound.
Mikhel pressed his paunch up against the table, looking down the row at Alan. There was a dubious expression on the man's broad face. "I still can't believe L2 already had one on its payroll. Rabid dogs, trained for war. I'm surprised you didn't keep the second one, too."
Alan shrugged, but frowned slightly as the blonde L4 representative answered Mikhel's comment.
"They're not rabid dogs," Michelle retorted. "They're wild animals, and they'll turn on anyone who feeds them."
Relena held up her hand, waiting until the room fell silent again. "My point is not to discuss the validity of the Gundam pilots' original missions nor their pedigree, but to clarify that L2 was ignorant to the point of allowing this pilot to assist in planning today's meeting. Furthermore, it was not L2, but the North European Alliance, who identified the man L2 has since locked away."
Heero could see the L1 and L5 syndicate dignitaries blinking as they registered Relena's meaning. Both men immediately looked to their right, raising their eyebrows in obvious silent questions at the L2 representative.
"Technically, this is true," Alan replied. "But I understand you met one or two of the Gundam pilots in your time, Relena. It's only fair that you would inform us of knowledge, just as we would for you."
"I am not in this position to baby-sit you," she said mildly, but a reproving tone was lurking in her words. Relena waved a hand, dismissing Alan's startled expression. "It appears that my region contains the information, and L2, while good at using it, is not the font of knowledge it claims to be."
Heero dragged his eyes off Relena long enough to notice Wufei's eyes dart back and forth between the doors, and then up to the clock. The Chinese bodyguard only looked once, but once was enough for Heero. Wufei and Relena were waiting on something. A movement across the room caught Heero's eye, and he glanced over at Duo, who was studying him closely.
"L2 has long had the best intelligence," Sean pointed out. "This seems to be something that only you would know, and not something the syndicates could be expected to know."
When Duo realized he had Heero's attention, he released his arms and let them fall to his sides.
"But it's the syndicate's job to know everyone who works for them," Relena told the gentleman from the L5 syndicate. "At what point does a syndicate take responsibility for determining the true histories of its employees? This team was in place for eight months, I might add. And in all that time, the only question the L2 syndicate had was the man's whereabouts for two years after the Mariamaia incident."
Duo's right hand, half-hidden from the room by his body, flickered in three quick gestures. Heero frowned, and Duo paused before repeating each gesture, a little slower.
"How do you--" Alan's mouth was open, and he could only stare at the composed young woman sipping tea.
"And not only that," Relena continued as if Alan had not spoken, "that two year gap was not enough to prompt the syndicate to suspend the employee, let alone the entire team that had vouched for this infiltrator. An entire team, let me remind you, that was vouched for on the word of another known infiltrator." She clicked her tongue softly against her teeth in a chiding sound. "Really, Alan, your security is swiss cheese."
"How do you know about... "
Heero glanced back at Relena, then at Duo. The man nodded, once, a subtle gesture, but made no other move.
The L2 representative's question trailed off at the sight of Relena's beatific smile, but her blue eyes were sharp as she steadily gazed at each representative in turn. She sipped her tea again, nonchalantly, then placed the teacup back down as she graced Alan with another smile.
"Because it's my job to know these things," she told him calmly. "As it should also be yours."
The room was quiet, and Mikhel nodded his head as he stared at the papers in front of him. Louise, her back to Heero, seemed to be agreeing as well. Slowly most of the attendees appeared to give their silent concurrence by gesture or expression.
Girl: Relena? Go. Long. Heero scowled. It had been five years since he'd used or seen the silent signals they'd made up when sharing missions. Go. Long. What the hell does that mean, he wondered, and studied Relena some more. She was pouring a fresh cup of tea from the decanter. When she set the carafe neatly back on its holder, Heero noted the set of her chin, and recognized the tiny sign that indicated her nervousness. He'd know it anywhere; it was the look she'd had just before they kissed, that first and only time. Then it dawned on him what Duo meant.
Relena was stalling.
Alan snorted. "I've been doing this for far longer than you, young lady. Nearly all of us have, for that matter. You can't presume to walk in here and tell us how to do our jobs."
"I'm not telling you how to do anything," Relena said, and shrugged, her hands out, palms up. "I'm simply pointing out that you didn't do your job. How you fix that is entirely up to you."
"And how do you suggest we fix things?" came the sarcastic reply.
"First, pay attention." Relena stood up. Wufei held her chair away and she nodded as she walked slowly around the tables, nodding politely to the seated bodyguards as she made her way to the podium. "The North European Alliance, for instance, knows the whereabouts of every Gundam pilot."
"No one's been able to find out that information, for five years," Anil, the South Asian representative, burst out. His eyes were wide as he stared at the young woman. "How can the North European Alliance know? How did you find out?"
"Because we're willing to use whatever method to get the information we need," Relena said with a smile. "We don't take our employees' word for it when they hand us a line." She paused, seeming to study her fingernails, before she held up her right hand, the fingers splayed wide. "Pilot 05 is on my personal payroll in the syndicate."
There were several muttered comments, but none audible. Relena smiled again, a cold expression, as she folded down her thumb to display four outstretched fingers.
"Pilot 04... well, I'm sure the L2 syndicate's reliable sources have already informed you of his status." She folded down another finger. "Pilot 03 is being held in this hotel, awaiting transfer to the South European Alliance's care." Relena glanced at her hand, and folded down her ring finger. "Pilot 02 is an L2 lapdog, unwilling or unable to do anything but remain on his own colony."
She didn't glance at Duo, but Heero did, and noticed Duo's quick smile flash at Relena's description. The chilling look in the unsmiling eyes sent a shiver down Heero's back, and he turned back to stare at Relena. Every soldier's instinct he had was warning him, and he instinctively prepared himself with a deep breath, his arms lax, his hands unclenched.
Relena studied the room for a minute, and then folded down her ring finger, leaving only her index finger pointing up. "And, Mr. Kessler of the L2 syndicate, the person you thought was an infiltrator was not." She swung her hand to point at Alan. "Your questionable team member, had you taken the time to truly investigate his past, would have revealed himself to be someone cleaving to an old wartime colleague. You would have discovered that Pilot 03 had no other home, and had genuinely hoped to create one in the only organization that might still use his few talents."
Heero braced himself.
The young woman smiled again. "The true infiltrator was not the man you took, Alan. It was that man over there." She swung her arm, sweeping past the astonished representatives' gazes, and her hand came to rest with her forefinger pointing directly at Heero. "I give you Pilot 01."