Author: Mel
Principal Beta Reader and Suggester of Cool Lines: Christy
Pairings: 3x4, more later.
Warnings: Yaoi, language, AU, magic.
Disclaimer: Gundam Wing, Sazan Aisu and the Mermaid Saga are not mine, no matter what I like to pretend. And I borrowed the name of Haan's truck from a short-lived character in Inuyasha.

Alarums and Excursions + Part 1

The Gundam pilots were gathered around the kitchen table in their current safehouse, radio murmuring quietly in the background.

"So it's definitely a leak?" Quatre asked.

Heero nodded. "Too many of our missions over the last four months have been compromised for it to be a coincidence, or random message intercepts. There has to be a traitor somewhere in the Doctors' organisation."

Trowa leaned against the bench, sipping at his mug. "Are you sure they're not just following Relena?" he asked.

"I thought of that," Heero said, grimacing, "and factored her in. I think they followed her three times. That still leaves eighteen missions that we've had to abort or modify because OZ has had information on our movements that they shouldn't have been able to get."

"How does Her High-and-Mightiness keep tracking us down?" Duo grumbled. "If I have to abandon one more set of clothes because we have to book it out of a safehouse when she turns up outta the blue, I'm gonna be running around naked!"

"She has enough money to pay the best private investigators and intelligence analysts in the world," Wufei said sourly, "enough charisma to keep them loyal to her instead of working for OZ, and not enough wit to realise that turning up on Yui's doorstep in a pink limousine is a Bad Idea."

"I knew she was thick from the very beginning," Duo said, slumping forwards onto the table. "I think it clicked when I tried to protect her from Heero, and she ended up protecting him from me."

"You should have let me shoot her," Heero muttered.

Duo waggled a finger at him. "Oh, no, no blaming me for the situation. You've had plenty of other opportunities."

Wufei coughed. "Getting back to the traitor...? What, if anything, is being done about our situation?"

"The Doctors are tightening up communications security and need-to-know," Heero said, gesturing at the message on his laptop. "They're going to try to narrow down their suspects by compartmentalising information and seeing which bits make it to OZ. In the meantime, J recommends that we should split up, communicate with them only in emergencies, and determine our own targets until the situation changes. If even the Doctors don't know where we're going to be, nobody in their organisation can find out and pass it on."

"But that means we'll lose access to their intelligence network," Quatre protested. "We'll have less data to select targets from, and be much less effective... and it increases our chances of running into OZ forces that we don't know about."

"But it does decrease our chances of running into OZ forces that do know about us, which is the whole point." Duo grimaced. "Whichever way we jump, it's gonna pinch."

"I'd rather be doing something active," Wufei snapped, scowling. "Can we come up with anything to narrow it down?"

There was a short pause while they all thought, before Duo spoke. "Whoever it is doesn't know me. Probably hasn't even seen a picture --at least, they hadn't four months ago. So it can't be any of Dr. G's assistants, the ones who work directly for him, 'cause I met them all ages ago."

Trowa blinked, interested. "What makes you say that?"

"One of my missions was the first one that went wrong, remember?" Duo grinned. "I woulda been done, if it hadn't been for-- uh, anyway, from what OZ communications I heard, they got an anonymous tip, and it was really sketchy. At first, all they knew was that a Gundam pilot was in town. Maybe an hour later, they got some more info; my name, and a description. The thing was, it was a really bad description. 'Fairly short teenage male, long brown plait, probably wearing black.' That was it."

"If it was an anonymous tip, perhaps the informant is not an 'official' OZ spy?" Wufei frowned. "I would expect them to say 'an intelligence report', or something similar, if that were the case."

"Someone working from personal motives, then?" Quatre suggested. "That actually may make finding them harder; they could have no previous ties to OZ for the doctors to find."

Duo sighed. "'Anonymous tip' also probably means they're not getting paid for it, which wipes out that motive. Joy. We could be dealing with a fanatic."

Trowa shrugged. "They may be getting paid now. The first couple of tips could have been their way of proving that their information was reliable enough for OZ to put them on the payroll."

"The first one wouldn't've got them any credit, then," the braided pilot grinned. "The description was so bad that they grabbed someone else. Une-baby took one look at him and called the whole search off."

"There's somebody else who cultivates a three-foot plait? The mind boggles," Wufei murmured into his green tea; Duo blew a raspberry at him and turned to the others.

"So? Do I have a point or what?"

"You have a point," Heero admitted. "This doesn't narrow down the suspects very much, but we've got so little information that anything is a step forward. Anybody else?"

"I've never had the opportunity to listen to OZ communications while they were hunting me, so I can't add anything," Quatre said dryly, propping his chin on one hand and peering curiously at Duo. "How did you manage that, Duo?"

"Er..."

"You were surprisingly uninformative when you reported your close call," Wufei said, putting his cup down. "We didn't pry, since we felt it would take a very compelling reason to make you hold your tongue--"

"Oi!"

"--but considering our current situation, now might be a good idea to change your mind," the Chinese boy finished.

There was an uncomfortable pause as everybody looked at Duo.

"...I had help," he admitted finally, crossing his arms and rocking his chair back on two legs. "The person who helped me had some... um... interesting resources, specifically a very good camera surveillance system. We used it to eavesdrop on an OZ patrol while they were discussing the pitiful description they'd been given. Okay? I didn't discuss it with you before because this person was probably involved in something illegal --apart from saving my butt, I mean -- and I didn't want to spread around any information that might make life difficult for h-- them."

"I don't think telling us quite counts as 'spreading it around'," Quatre protested.

"Oh yeah? If I'd told you guys, I would've reported to G, too, and we've got a traitor, remember? That little tidbit might've been passed on to OZ along with everything else."

The blond boy winced. "You're right. I'm sorry."

"Are you going to tell us now?" Trowa asked, putting his mug in the sink. "Seeing as we're not going to be reporting to the Doctors until this is settled..."

Duo shook his head stubbornly. "If anything comes up and I think it's relevant, I'll talk. Otherwise, no. I trust you guys, but I can't exactly phone this person and ask permission to tell you everything. They aren't my secrets."

Heero opened his mouth to argue, but Wufei spoke first. "An entirely honourable point of view," he said seriously, flicking a warning glance across the table at the L1 pilot. "If information about this person will not help us find our traitor -- and I don't see how it could --there is no point in discussing the matter further. Instead, we should plan our next move. If we are to split up, we should coordinate at least the first stage of our travels, or we may all sneak off separately and end up in the same place."

Duo laughed. "Wouldn't that be a shit? You've got to admit, Heero, he's got a point."

"And it gets you out of talking about your helper without having to argue. Right?" Heero glared half-heartedly.

"You're so perceptive sometimes."

----------

They had nearly finished working out who would go where when Trowa stiffened, twisting in his chair to look at the radio. "Quiet," he snapped, and reached out a long arm to turn the volume up.

< < --interrupt our regular programme to bring you this news bulletin, > > an excited voice said. < < OZ forces have established roadblocks and patrols surrounding a large area of the Southern Highlands, and are stopping and searching all vehicles and people moving across their perimeter. We have a reporter on the scene now. Ken, what seems to be happening? > >

< < Brian, I'm standing on Highway 54, just outside Brentonville and about two hundred meters away from an OZ roadblock, > > Ken said. < < They're still setting up their barricade, but I can see several Jeeps, two personnel carriers-- > >

< < Two? Are you sure, Ken? > >

< < I realise that's a lot of soldiers for one roadblock, Brian, but OZ seem to be taking this very seriously. I can also see several large armoured trucks parked in a field a little way from the road. I can't say for sure, but I've reported on military stories before, and two of the trucks could be mobile suit transports. > >

< < Ken, if I could just interrupt for a moment, we've received reports of similar roadblocks outside of Caboton, Somersville, Wharton, Elgin, Tilbury-- > >

"We're surrounded," Quatre sighed, slumping in his chair.

"The leak strikes again," Duo announced glumly. "Bugger. So much for our plans."

< < This represents a massive investment of men and materiel on OZ's part, > > the reporter continued. < < Whoever or whatever they're looking for, it must be important. I see some soldiers approaching, Brian, I'm going to try and get a statement-- Sir! Sir, excuse me, I'm with KWIK FM and I just-- > >

< < No reporters allowed, > > a voice growled. < < You'll have to leave. This is now a restricted area. > >

< < All right, but first-- hey! Hey, don't touch that, it's--> > There was a scuffling sound, and then static.

< < Ah... we seem to have lost contact with Ken, but we'll continue to keep our listeners up to date as more information comes in-- > >

Trowa turned the radio down. "Now what?"

"'It must be important'," Wufei muttered, disgusted. "The mass media are masters of stating the obvious."

"We could fight our way out," Heero suggested.

"Bad idea," Trowa disagreed. "They're probably expecting it."

Quatre nodded reluctantly. "The terrain around here is perfect for hiding mobile suit forces. There's forest, rough hills, a lot of valleys and ravines... That reporter only saw two transports, but I'd guess they're only a small force to delay anyone who tries to break through, while the real opposition comes out of hiding."

"We can't just stay put and hope they'll get bored," Duo pointed out. "If they're revealing themselves, they must think they have enough forces in place to keep us bottled up in here. Next step is a search. If we can't shoot our way out, we've got to sneak out, and I'm sorry, Tro," he said sarcastically, "but I don't think wrapping our Gundams up in tarpaulins and putting them on flatbed trucks will work this time."

"I don't do that all the time."

"Deathscythe could probably get out under cloak," Wufei said quietly.

"I am not bouncing merrily off and leaving you guys in here to face the music, so you can just stop that train of thought right now, Wu-man."

"I wasn't suggesting anything like that," Wufei protested. "You could get out of the cordon and create a diversion somewhere else."

"Good idea," Heero said quickly, nodding.

"Nnnnnno," Duo said slowly. "Not a good idea. We're working on the idea that they know we're all in here, right? Otherwise they wouldn't be putting so much effort into this."

"Yes," Quatre said. "They must know there's at least three or four of us in here, or else this is overkill. Of course, if Une is in charge, this is just standard operating procedure..."

"Well, if I show up somewhere else, that's just me, right? 'Oh, he's got the really good stealth setup, he musta sneaked out.' They know the rest of us can't get out so easily, so they won't give up. I'm not going anywhere without you guys."

Trowa sighed. "We need a professional smuggler."

Heero scowled, but Quatre sat up straighter, eyes brightening. "Howard," he said softly. "Howard has contacts... Heero, can we say with reasonable certainty whether or not Howard's organisation is clear?"

Heero blinked, then tapped at his laptop, closing his e-mail and opening a data file. "Checking," he muttered. "Hm... clear. Only four of the blown operations involved Howard and his people, and every time we contacted him after it was blown, asking for repairs or transport out. Quatre, are you suggesting we ask Howard to put us in touch with a smuggler?"

"Why not? If Howard recommends someone, I'm willing to trust them... up to a point."

Wufei grimaced. "I dislike the idea of hiring help, but I don't have any better ideas."

"If we can pay a smuggler to help us, OZ can pay them to betray us," Heero objected.

"So we ask Howard to recommend someone he thinks has really good reasons not to help OZ," Duo suggested. "C'mon, Heero, it's a better plan than the whole 'Duo sneaks out' thing."

Quatre nodded decisively. "It's certainly worth checking out. Duo, could you please contact Howard and pass the request along?"

"Not a problem, Q," Duo said gleefully, rubbing his hands together. "Y'know, if we can pull it off -- sneak out of here like we never got trapped in the first place -- OZ are gonna be so pissed!"

"And they might be less inclined to trust the traitor's reports in future," Wufei realised, starting to grin. "If they put on an operation of this magnitude, and we make it look like a complete waste of time... I invite you to contemplate Une's reaction."

Duo cackled evilly as he got up to get his laptop. "I want spy camera footage. Do you want spy camera footage? I think we should try to get some. I could enlarge the best shots, print off a few thousand copies, and scatter 'em over the next base I blow up."

"Duo, you're evil," Trowa said affectionately.

"I do my best!"

* * * * *

Late that night, Howard called. < < I got your e-mail, > > he said cheerfully. < < So, you wanna set up a surprise party? Sounds like fun. Need any firecrackers? > >

"If things go as planned, we've got plenty already," Duo told him. "Nobody's listening on this end; are you clear to talk it over?"

< < The line's secure and scrambled on my end, too, > > Howard replied, abruptly dropping out of code. < < Damn, kid, you're in a mess this time, aren't ya? > >

"Me? I can get out of here any time I want to," Duo snorted. "It's the other guys I'm worried about. Got any good news?"

< < Well, you seemed to be making up code terms on the fly, but I think I understood your message. You want a good smuggler, right? > >

"Right. Preferably one we can trust further than we can throw him. I mean, we could try to get someone to smuggle the Gundams without telling him what they were, but they're a little hard to disguise, y'know?"

< < Fair enough. I think the guy I have in mind will do. He's damn good --hell, I have no idea how he's pulled off some of his jobs -- he talks less than your friend who does his own first aid, and he hates OZ. I dunno why, but he gives people discounts if the cargo will make life difficult for them. > >

"That would be us," Duo grinned.

< < No kidding. I figured you'd like him, so I spent a little time asking around to find out if he's working at the moment. He's got kind of irregular habits; every now and then he drops out of sight for a while. About three, four months ago he did it again, but you're in luck; word is he's just got back in business and is looking for a job. > >

"How soon can you set something up? We're kind of in a hurry here..."

Howard snorted. < < I bet. Look, he won't talk to me if I try to make the arrangements himself; he refuses to work through a middleman. I can get in touch with him and let him know you wanna deal, though, and from there on it's up to you. > >

"Any tips?"

< < Don't piss him off. > >

"Huh?!"

< < I'm serious. Don't piss him off, and tell your friends to watch it too. He doesn't get mad often, but from what I hear, when he does, the results are fucking awful. If he likes you, he'll take the job and do his best for you. If he doesn't like you, no amount of money will get him to lift a finger. And to be blunt, I can't think of anyone else who can get you outta that hole. > >

"Okay," Duo said, "we'll watch out. Set it up. Give him our contact details or set up a meeting, however he wants to handle it."

< < Gotcha, kid. See ya when you get out of there. > >

----------

"Howard says 'don't piss him off'," Duo announced, dropping into a chair.

"Why are you looking at me?" Heero asked dryly.

"Who else do you know who can't--"

Quatre clapped one hand over Duo's mouth. "Because you're probably going to ask him to prove we can trust him, and Duo hopes you'll do it tactfully?" he suggested. "If-- EW! Duo, that's disgusting!" he yelped, snatching his hand away and scrubbing the wet palm on his pants.

"Bet you don't say that to Trowa," Duo leered.

Trowa glanced up from his book. "I don't lick his hands," he said calmly, smirking as Quatre blushed. "I take it pissing off our smuggler would be a bad idea?"

"Yeah. Howard says, if he doesn't like us he won't work with us. Anyway, Howard's going to either set up a meeting or get him to contact us." Duo frowned. "Maybe we should leave Heero out of the negotiations until after this guy's accepted a down payment?"

Heero glared.

"Didn't think you'd go for it," Duo sighed, suppressing a grin. "It was worth a try, though. Can we at least stay away from personal insults, threats, and accusations?" he continued, sobering. "Howard also said it's this guy or nobody. If he can't or won't help us, we're screwed."

Wufei raised an eyebrow. "Surely he's not the only smuggler Howard knows?"

"He's the only one good enough to pull it off," Duo told him. "Apparently this guy's SuperSmuggler or something. Faster than a speeding rocket, leaps tall barricades in a single bound..."

"It's a truck, it's a plane, it's SuperSmuggler?" Wufei asked sarcastically. "Can he hide a Gundam inside his trench coat?"

"Hey, if Heero can hide a gun in his spandex shorts, anything is possible," Duo said cheerfully.

"So who is this paragon among smugglers?"

"Dunno."

Everybody looked at Duo with disbelieving expressions. He shrugged. "Howard didn't say."

"And you didn't ask?" Heero said incredulously.

"Hey, that's not how these things work!" Duo insisted. "If this guy decides he wants to talk about the job, then we'll find out who he is. Until then, he stays anonymous. That way, he can turn down the offer without prejudice or risk. Howard won't tell him who we are, either, unless he agrees to consider the job."

"You forgot to ask, didn't you?" Quatre said accusingly.

"Well... yeah," Duo admitted, squirming in his seat. "But Howard probably wouldn't'a told me anyway."

"We're hiring an anonymous smuggler," Wufei sighed, tipping his head back and closing his eyes. "This gets better by the minute."

* * * * *

Somewhere, a computer beeped as a message box popped up on its screen.

ONE (1) NEW EMAIL OPEN NOW? (Y/N)

A finger tapped the 'Y' key, and another box popped up.

FILE IS ENCRYPTED DECRYPT? (Y/N)

One eyebrow went up as the person hit 'Y' again. That's interesting, he thought, watching the 'progress' bar inch its way across the screen. I put out the word I was back in business only yesterday, and I'm already getting coded messages? Somebody's either eager, or well-informed...

The message popped up on screen and he relaxed, smiling slightly. Howard. Of course.

TO: <-run-@transport.link.net>
FROM: <howard@howardX.net>
SUBJECT: --no subject--

---message begins---

Hey kid, welcome back. You've got good timing! I have a few friends
in a tight spot. They need to move themselves and some big cargo
on the quiet, fast. Interested? Call me.

- Howard

---message ends---

The other eyebrow went up this time; then he reached out to the keyboard again.

* * * * *

Howard was reaching for the coffee jar when one of his crew yelled in alarm. "Boss? Hey, boss! We're being hacked!"

"Whaddaya mean, we're being hacked?!" he roared, bolting out of the galley. "We've got the best damn firewall software--"

"Look for yourself!"

Skidding onto the bridge, Howard gaped at the scrolling nonsense text on the main screen. "What the fuck is that?!"

"Somebody hacked in through the satellite uplink," one of his engineers explained hastily, hammering on a keyboard. "They're running through our software, starting with our security programs, and I can't shut them out! I can't even switch off the uplink, they've blocked all the commands--"

The scrolling text paused, then started again.

"--huh? Now they're loading something into the main computer!"

"A virus?"

"...no..." The engineer blinked, looking at his smaller screen. "It's an encryption program. It's loaded... they're starting it up..."

The main screen blanked, then opened up a comms window.

< < Hello, Howard, > > Haan said calmly. < < I got your message. What's the job? > >

[part 2] [back to Mel & Christy's fic]