All operations at Meridian Biotechnologies had come crashing to a halt the previous day. The entire complex had gone into a complete lockdown, its computer and electronic systems disrupted so thoroughly that emergency procedures had to be implemented to safeguard their biological research. They'd had difficulty evacuating all of their personnel because many had been caught in electronically secured areas when the systems had gone down. Precious man-hours were lost, and a couple of research projects set back a bit, but fortunately, they reported no injuries.
Meridian Biotech had been one of the leading industry proponents of loosening restrictions on genetic research.
We made the early morning trip out to the company, which was about a two hour drive from Brussels. As soon as we made contact with the proper people and established a line of communication, we started getting information from them. They were very cooperative, telling us that an activist group based in Central Africa had been threatening them on account of their research. Apparently, the 'terrorists' were against the manipulation of the stuff of life.
Quatre had the fun job of hashing it out with the company on why they had never reported such threats before. Their claims would have been taken seriously by the Preventers, especially when it involved an international dispute. We were informed that the threats had never been taken seriously by Meridian before, found to be nothing more than fundamentalist rumblings and bizarre conspiracy theories. We were taking the group seriously now.
Wufei and Trowa pursued the lead into this group that hadn't even been on our radar before that day. Shifting through reports, we found that Wufei had dismissed them as a possibility for being underfunded and not militantly inclined. Their fundamentalist stance did not move them towards the use of cutting-edge technology.
Quatre, Duo, and I were shuffled around for a while as we made our way from the public relations people to the director and CEO, Henri Hoffman. He invited us into his office to talk privately.
The entire complex had been designed with a modern, cutting-edge look. There were elegant lines and simple colors, with lots of glass and metal and open space. Hoffman's office, lofty as it was, overlooked an atrium, where we could observe scientists, researchers, and whomever else was on staff striding down hallways and going about their duties. It was impressive, but impersonal.
Hoffman himself was a man in his early forties or thereabouts, with a neatly manicured mustache and tailored suit. He didn't have many wrinkles around his eyes. Either he maintained his skin, or he didn't laugh much. I would have wagered on both. His view over his empire gave off a proud, paternal air.
He started off with effusive gratitude that the Preventers had taken an interest in his case. Being nothing more than a research firm in a small country, they did not feel they had the resources to pursue the crime themselves, especially against people that were on another continent. Quatre deftly cut through the obligatory niceties with his usual courtesy and flair, and managed to get us to the point.
"We have a lot of projects running here at Meridian," Hoffman answered in response to our questioning. "In general, we do a lot of research into technologies that can be used to improve the quality of life for people everywhere. Testing devices, non-intrusive medical supplementary devices, that sort of thing. Pacemakers, dialysis machines, incubators, glucose pumps -- we research a lot of areas that are currently susceptible to human error and require a lot of maintenance or equipment. On the testing side, we have developed and are continuing to develop new tests to root out the signs of diseases, specifically genetic diseases, as early as possible. Many of these tests are available today in pre-natal care facilities around the world and in the colonies."
"I'm not unfamiliar with your company," Quatre responded, his experience on the world stage and as a businessman naturally making him the best leader in this discussion. "You fund a lot of independent projects, not just in-house ones. You sponsor educational programs, health outreach programs..."
"Yes, we do that as well," Hoffman answered modestly. "One of the projects we've started in recent years has been our outreach programs in the L2 cluster. We're very proud of what we've setup there. We're just starting to gain momentum, but we're positive that it'll be flourishing in no time."
"I remember now," Duo interrupted. "This company was the major backing behind the clinic that went up on X13386. The Benning Outreach. And the Sunrise Rehab Centers on L2-X2834 and 17890."
"Yes. The main focus of the Benning facility is to investigate and hopefully control the numerous infectious diseases that seem to run through the colony periodically. The rehab centers were built to provide assistance to the people that had a genuine desire to change their lives. Are you from L2?"
As usual, Duo displayed his wary hesitance before answering, though it didn't show in his eventual tone. "Yeah. You've got good causes." But knowing Duo, that statement didn't mean he thought they were doing any good with them. It was important that someone make the effort, but L2 was a tough nut to crack.
"Ah. Would you by chance have been there when the TDC-3 infection hit, during the summer of 190?"
Duo's expression darkened in little ways, subtle enough that perhaps Hoffman didn't realize what dangerous ground he was treading. "TDC-2."
In contrast, Hoffman's expression brightened surprisingly, the gleam in his eye telling us he'd heard something he'd wanted to hear, but hadn't expected. "Ah, is that so? You were very lucky, then. It's been difficult for us to procure samples from that time. If at some point you'd like to contribute, I'm sure--"
Lucky? To have survived? To have been there during such an 'interesting' time? It was hard to determine just what Hoffman was talking about. Either way, Duo was displeased. He cut Hoffman off before he could speak of some arrangement. "Another time, perhaps."
The executive blinked at Duo's flat tone before apologizing in an ingratiating manner. "I'm sorry. My research enthusiasm gets away from me sometimes. There are just so many vital things to discover out there. I really don't see how anyone would find that to be a threat. I would never have suspected that we would become a target for such a terrible crime."
"As I recall," Quatre cut in smoothly, before Duo could question what enthusiasm a person could have towards a plague that had killed thousands. "You also lobbied against bill ESC289, against the stricter regulation of genetic research."
"Absolutely," Hoffman responded after a brief pause. "There is so much knowledge to be gained from a better understanding of ourselves, both before and after birth. The bill's opponents seem to be most afraid of the extreme cases, things we only see in science fiction and horror cinema. It's difficult to believe that any rational person would bring up the possibility of shooting laser beams from one's eyes before the ESUN senate. And why should we be interested in creating such things in the first place? There are so many other ways by which mankind could benefit."
His words put me on edge. They were uncomfortably similar to the rhetoric that Brisbois had spouted against that very thing. Hoffman's advantage lay in being shrouded by legitimacy.
We went over a few of their other projects, trying to find a reason that the activist group would be interested in striking at this particular point in time. Granted, if our theories were true, then it was in large part due to the fact that the organization had gotten their hands on a rather integral piece of computer hardware, but we had no intentions of letting Meridian know of our suspicions.
I managed to excuse myself from the discussion to begin talks with their chief of technology, James Conzemius. He showed me to the center of their computer systems, and allowed me to take a look at the destruction their hacker had wrought, but the trial was not without its difficulties. Everywhere I turned, I tripped over yet another polite blockade set up under the guise of sensitive, classified research and data. With his obstructions, it was difficult to get a good feel for what sectors may have been targeted by the hacker, but I managed to get a decent impression from examining their other systems.
There was almost a palpable decrease in my tension levels when I surveyed the damage and declared it inconsistent with a full-scale Zero attack. Yes, there were signs that Zero had been involved with the computer malfunctions. There were certain disruption footprints leftover in the bit patterns, a particular ruthlessness in the way the system was overloaded, but it lacked the familiar logic behind its actions.
There was no pattern to the attack, no focus. Systems all across the board had been overloaded, but no permanent damage done -- at least, none that I was allowed to see. For an attack, this one had been remarkably ineffective. Given a few weeks time, Meridian would be back to normal. It was possible that it was just a test, but a test with a rational mind behind it would have followed some logical scheme. This was too haphazard, which led me to conclude that Zero had been used in the attack, but without any proper preparation. Its circuits were still damaged, perhaps, its memory corrupted, and most importantly of all, there was no tightly controlled mind behind it. They were unfamiliar with the system, and they did not have anyone that could yet meld with it and bring it to its true potential.
When we regrouped, I reported my findings. "Their CTO was being less than helpful, but I found out what we needed to know."
"So? What's the diagnosis?" Duo demanded impatiently. If I hadn't known the answer to the question, I probably would have been just as impatient.
"We still have time," I said, getting straight to what was really the heart of the matter. I held up my hand to delay the collective sigh of relief. "It was Zero. There was no mistaking that. But it's not a major threat yet." My hand came down, unpausing the relief.
"So what's the skill level of our thieves?" Quatre asked, getting back on track.
"They don't have full working knowledge of how Zero works. From the lack of coherence, I would say that they're almost definitely using a neural interface. Even a damaged computer has to run an algorithm. Only the human mind could be this chaotic. Even if they were going to cut corners on its reconstruction, they would definitely have chosen a better subject for the system's use. He was unable to control it. There's no way of telling what their intentions were, but I don't think it was to cause the widespread disruption that they did. If it were me... I'd consider the test a failure. Then again, I have very high standards."
"Is it possible that Meridian wasn't even the target?" Duo asked. "Could the system have just gone haywire and Meridian just happened to get in its way?"
I mulled it over before shaking my head. "Possible, but unlikely. I don't think the attack would have been confined to a single network if it had been random."
Quatre had on a contemplative expression. "So they're testing it out... And we don't know what they were testing, or what the results were. I think there's a good chance that they won't try anything again immediately. Even if yesterday's test was a success, it wouldn't have been what they were shooting for as an ultimate target. Anyone should be able to see there's a lot of room for improvement. They'll look at yesterday's results and dwell on them for at least a while before they decide how to proceed."
"They're heading down the route of not repairing Zero, unless the system was intact, or they've done a crude job of it," Trowa added. "They've leapt straight into the use of the system. It's working. I doubt they'll stop to go back now."
Yes, the system seemed to be working. Though it was spitting out oranges instead of apples, at least it was spitting out something. I didn't like it, but I was having trouble separating my own feelings on the matter from what our thieves might be experiencing. For anyone else, the hack job on Meridian may have exceeded all of their expectations. For me, all I could see were the signs that Zero had sustained some damage, that it was acting erratically and unpredictably, that it needed to be fixed and put back together properly. It was both infuriating... and frightening.
I blinked myself out of my thoughts and deduced by the expressions on their faces that I had missed out on a good portion of the conversation. My ears had listened to the words, even though my brain had put off processing them, so I reviewed my memories and put myself back on track. "Sorry. Yeah, it should be pretty simple to go over a few things they can do to rebuild their security. I can try and put some things in to trap an intrusion, should there be another, but I can't predict what degree of success that will have since we don't know what form of attack will occur next."
"It can't just be a 'Zero' attack?" Wufei asked. "You said there were certain patterns."
"Certain basic patterns, yes, but none that could easily be discerned by a computational algorithm. Besides, once, or rather if, Zero gets properly trained, or trained further, the patterns could shift."
"Do what you can," Quatre decided. "After we're done here, go have a chat with the CTO or whomever's in charge down there. Wufei? Trowa? What have you found on this group?"
"This group isn't even organized enough to have a name," Wufei said sourly. "It's mostly based out of one particular town, New Condasa. The citizens there adhere to a set of philosophies defining a 'natural' life. Reports indicate that the philosophy may have started fifty years ago with the writings of one Lamar Timesen."
Quatre shifted in his seat. "So they're like a cult?"
"Depends on your definition of 'cult'," he responded. "As part of their 'natural' living, they believe it is unnatural to attempt to divine all the secrets of the human body -- genetic research being what is relevant to us. The GSDC is the source of most our on information on them. They've had an unholy time of the region since the Condasans refuse routine vaccinations for illnesses common to the area. They believe it violates some greater plan."
"Something akin to 'survival of the fittest'," Trowa said.
"Which is a tenet of evolution," Duo completed. "So maybe Brisbois' not as much the patsy as we thought he was. Damn."
Quatre chuckled lightly. "You're just saying that because you don't like him."
"Well, duh." He rolled his eyes.
I almost cracked a smile. "What can they do?"
Trowa took up the report. "So far, they've done nothing provably illegal. Thanks to modern technology and a few progressive minds, the Condasans are capable of sniffing around the affairs of others, digging up dirt to use against them in the public forum. Meridian is not the only organization that they've researched and protested, but thus far, none of their action has been aggressive. They simply don't strike us as a likely suspect."
"I was thinking I would fly out there tomorrow," Wufei said. "Check it out. From what the local field office has told us, they haven't exhibited any unusual activity in recent weeks. I've asked them to check up on this group, but it might be a wise idea for me to make some inquiries in person."
We agreed that that would be a wise idea, and once again, we discussed and delegated tasks. Once we were adjourned, I found Duo lingered as he passed me by. Hovering until the others had gone, he turned to me, eyebrows drawn together slightly as if in consideration. His mouth opened, but nothing came out for a couple of seconds. When he finally asked me his question, it came out almost irritated, as if there was an accusation in there that I had forced him to ask. "Are you okay?"
"Hm?" I blinked at him with silent inquiry.
"I mean..." He waved vaguely with one hand. The motion was not gentle, and as my eyes got distracted by the gesture, he took advantage of the moment to direct his gaze towards the wall. "You were kind of out of it."
I didn't really see why he was asking. He obviously didn't want to. Had Quatre put him up to it while I hadn't been paying attention? I wouldn't have been surprised. But now Duo had asked, and I would answer. Perhaps I would even ask some questions of my own since he was conveniently here. If there was someone to be inflicted with my presence at this time, Duo could possibly have been the best choice. Such good fortune almost reeked of Quatre's plotting. "You loved Deathscythe, right?"
The look he threw me was more than merely puzzled. Once again, there was that suspicion to it, as if I were asking purposely to throw him off. "Well... yeah."
"What about... what about your ECM, for instance? Your hyperjammers? Were you fond of them as well?"
His shoulders twitched in a minute shrug. I must have thrown him enough for him to decide to just go with it. "Yeah, sure, I guess. I mean, they didn't have nearly the personality 'Scythe did, but yeah, they got me in and out of quite a few jams. Why?"
I hesitated, not really wondering whether I should inform him of my thoughts, but rather how I might phrase them, or what my ultimate purpose was. "Zero... was a part of Wing for quite a while."
"Hence the name, Wing Zero," Duo pointed out slowly. Testing the waters of my sanity, perhaps.
"We went into a lot of battles together, worked together..."
His eyes, those odd indigo eyes, widened. "Good god, Yuy... Tell me you're not fond of Zero."
I shrugged helplessly. "It was a computer system, a tool... but something I counted on, something I tweaked with my own hands. I knew that system, inside and out. It literally molded itself to me. How could we not...?"
He took a dramatic step backwards. "You're freaking me out here, Yuy."
I made a small exasperated sound, wanting him to understand. Wanting to understand it myself. "And if you saw someone take your systems, your ECMs or your hyperjammers, or god forbid, your 'Scythe, and you saw him using them wrong, or leaving them damaged... would you get the urge to go in and fix them? Or... or shake them for their stupidity? Or something?"
Maybe he picked up on something in my voice. He pulled a chair out slowly and took a cautious seat next to me. "What's the problem here, exactly?"
I was still freaking him out, but he was taking the time to sit and talk anyway. That was nice, no matter his reason for staying behind. "I'm just... having a hard time trying to picture what anyone else would want to do with the system," I rephrased, putting myself deliberately on the mild side. I'd get into the nitty-gritty if it came to that, but until then, we could sort of build up to it to soften the blow. "I see the results of Zero's usage... and I'm having a hard time of seeing it as anything other than a failure. I know what Zero's capable of. This isn't it."
"Well, that's what the rest of us are for," he ventured. "Perspective. A second opinion."
The corner of my lips quirked up, whether in smile or grimace, it was difficult to tell. "I'm not being a very good consultant on Zero if I'm making you do all the work."
He snorted. "Yeah, well, we all know consultants have the cushiest jobs."
"True." That one was more of a smile than a grimace, even if quite firmly on the wry side. "Does it excuse me from wanting to reach out and... fix Zero? Put him back together again right?"
He laughed abruptly, bringing himself back under control within seconds after I shot him a hurt look. "Sorry. I just had this sudden image of you cooing over a circuitboard, talking babytalk to it. Um, but..." His mirth faded, and he chewed on his lip for a while. "I guess I understand. I mean, I'd understand if it were one of 'Scythe's systems. It wouldn't really matter who was using it, or what for. I'd just want to show 'em all how it's done. Professional pride, maybe. But..."
He paused to run a hand through his bangs. "I'm not getting the Zero vibe. I guess I never used Zero all that much. Thank God," he muttered before returning to a normal tone of voice. "So it figures that I wouldn't feel any more for it than I would for Wing or Sandrock or something. But even so. I mean, geez, Heero. Zero?"
"Why not?" I wondered if I was the only one that heard the defensiveness in my voice. "Sure, it drove some people mad, but..." The lameness of that statement was made manifest by the way Duo raised his eyebrow at me. I hurried to finish the thought. "...we always worked well together." His other eyebrow rose, compelling me to append to my statement. "...After we got a few things straightened out."
He laughed again, this time a much softer sound. "Okay, fine. Zero's your little buddy. Is that a problem? Are you asking us to account for that, or what?"
I shook my head, wondering if I had gotten my point across at all. I couldn't tell if Duo was just dismissing it, humoring me, or accepting it. "No problem, I guess. Maybe I just wanted to ask if I was the only one that felt that way."
"Guess not, almost sort of," he answered brightly, springing out of his chair. "Well, then. Back to work?"
"Back to work," I echoed with a sigh.
I borrowed a corner of the fine landscaping outside to place a call to a good friend. The phone had barely rung once when it was picked up. Good sign. That meant she was at her computer.
"Trix, it's me."
"Heero? Hey, stranger. Where've you been?" Her tone was between a friendly inquiry and an outright demand.
"On a job."
"And you couldn't have seen fit to tell me?"
"It... just sort of came up. Emergency."
That caught her attention. She was familiar in vague terms with what it was I sometimes disappeared to do. "Ooh, that sounds like fun. Whose security broke down this time?"
Naturally, I didn't tell her for whom it was exactly that I worked, nor what it was I did. I usually covered it with the blanket statement of 'government work' or 'security work'. I think she had her suspicions, but she never made an issue of them. That was one of the things I liked about her. She knew when to just let things lie. "I'm trying to track down a hacker right now, and I was wondering if you could just save me some time by asking around, or telling me if you've heard something."
"Hey, now. I don't want to get anyone in trouble..." Trix wasn't entirely on the hacker circuit, but she knew people. I knew people, too, but she actually cultivated relationships with them.
"I don't think it's any of the regulars," I reassured her. I appreciated her loyalty. "The MO isn't... consistent with how things should be done. I was just wondering if there was anyone out there claiming responsibility or something. I'd hate to miss the obvious."
"You could just drop by and look yourself, you know," she said teasingly.
I sighed. I'd been resisting becoming an active member of the community for years, but Trix had a different opinion. I'd dabbled long enough to get a feel for things and prove that I was up to snuff, but that was all I really needed. While there was nothing wrong with the people that I had met, being sucked into some anonymous underground subculture held no fascination for me. "I know I can, Trix. But I'm--"
"Never mind," she cut me off cheerfully. We'd had the discussion before. "I know. So. What are we talking about here?"
"Has there been any news on a hack job done on Meridian Biotech? It's a company in --"
"Yeah," she interrupted again. Her mind ran at a swift pace. "I heard about that. But just about it happening. No word from anyone, although people've been talking about it. Wondering the same as you. Any dirt you can give me?"
"Not really." While news of the attack on Meridian systems had already hit the media, I was not one to go sharing the finer details. "We have a lead... but I have my doubts."
"So you think it's one of the crew?"
Zero had definitely been involved. Was it possible that a regular hacker could have been contracted to do the hit using the system? I thought it unlikely. Hackers of that level would have known what systems to attack. Even if Zero overwhelmed them, their latent will would still have directed the intrusion, and I saw no such direction in Meridian's system. The mind behind Zero had been unfocused, unknowledgeable. Could it possibly... have not been an attack at all? "Not really. I just wanted to make sure. What have people been saying?"
"Not much to talk about. No one seems to know anything about it, but they all wonder. It sounded like it was a pretty thorough job, but it seemed sort of amateurish, too. I mean, no one in our crowd would do that, right? Complete system shutdown? With dangerous stuff involved, too."
"No, probably not." The true elite of the hacking world weeded out people that were in it for malice or bravado. None of them needed to prove anything anymore, so any random and pointless hacks would probably point in a different direction. The elite that participated in the community didn't generally condone acts that were disruptive and destructive, either. That would only bring the authorities down on them and make trouble for everyone. "I don't think they'll find the person that did it."
"Ooh, but you will, right?"
"We'll see," I answered vaguely. "Well, thanks for your help, Trix--"
"Hey." I could almost envision the pout on the other end of the line. "You don't get to call me for work and then just leave it at that. Tell me what's up."
I knew her games. "You just want me on long enough to try and trace my call."
"Well, if you'd just tell me where you are, I wouldn't have to trace you, now would I?" As happened on occasion, her logic reminded me of Duo's. "No, wait, you're probably onsite, aren't you? Where was Meridian again? Somewhere European... one of those places you don't hear much about..."
There was a brief silence during which she waited for me to give her something more, but when she realized that nothing more was forthcoming, she continued. "Fine. Why would they hire you anyway? And hey, you disappeared before they ever got hacked." She gasped with an overdramatic flair I was familiar with. I had met her in my improv class. "You didn't hack them, did you?"
I suppose that was a reasonable conclusion. Sort of. I snorted. "Why would I do that?"
"Why would you be trying to find the hacker? You won't give me answers to either question!"
She should have been accustomed to this by now. "I was looking at something else. This just came up."
"Well, maybe I can help, then."
"That won't be necessary. We have an outstanding team assembled to deal with this." And yet we knew surprisingly little.
"What are you doing to track the guy down? Have you managed to trace him?"
I threw her a scrap of inconsequential knowledge to appease her. "The system logs were pretty trashed, but I'm working on a trace. I should be able to get something out of it in a day or two. Speaking of which. I have to get back to work, Trix. I'll call you later?"
last modified : 12/30/2005 14:41:38 PST