It was my turn to pore over all the day's headlines from practically everywhere to see what might turn up. I had only come up with more doubts about the African suspects. Going through Meridian's trashed system, I had managed to piece together a broken version of a trace. Unfortunately, the trail led me in one giant circle. When I had reviewed the security at Meridian, I'd found it to be rather secure already. I wouldn't have thought it vulnerable to such a disorganized attack. Maybe the perpetrator had managed to hold it together at first, long enough to bounce and reroute the signal and then get in before succumbing to Zero. Under normal circumstances, I might have been able to trace the signal back to its true source, but the records left over in Meridian's computers were in a very sorry state.
The night before, I had written a tool to increase our productivity in the matter. Creating a crude word association index, I was hoping to coax the computer into sorting the headlines by relevance for me. Either way, I would end up going over it all anyway, so I wasn't taking a risk with trying the application out.
I came across a likely suspect not buried too far down in my ordered list. An unidentified man had been found unconscious in an alley in Bonn. He had been transported to a local hospital, where he was found to be in a persistent vegetative state. All John Does were registered in an international database, so it was easy enough to get my hands on the real report.
All of the medical terminology took a bit of work to wade through, but certain facts were obvious: the man had suffered severe neurological trauma that left him in his condition. There were no signs his brain activity would ever recover to functioning levels, and no clues as to what trauma he might have suffered. There were no physical signs of damage. His higher brain functions had simply become impaired.
Judging from his physical health aside from the brain injury, the doctors concluded that his condition was a recent one. They had no idea how he had ended up in that alley. With his state of dress, he couldn't have wandered far, and no one in the area claimed knowledge of him. They came to the quiet, unpleasant conclusion that maybe someone had dumped him there.
What bumped the article all the way to number three in my list was the number of links to it from certain shady sites. Apparently, there was a popular theory going around that the man had been kidnapped by aliens, had his brain leeched of information to be used in an assault against the Earth, and then returned to a remote location by the mothership that had abducted him. The conspiracy theory involved a lot of vocabulary that I had flagged in my search. Figures. But who was I to question good providence?
After informing my teammates of the find, I went off in search of more information. Consulting several medical references, I interpreted the man's condition and found the symptoms to plausibly have been the result of an encounter with the Zero system. There was both relief that we had found a lead when we were sorely in need of one, but also sadness that this man had suffered such a fate. It was possible that this man had plugged into the system, and then proceeded to have his neural connections fried by an improperly configured neural interface. It would certain explain why the attack on Meridian had been so haphazard. Glad as I was for at least a possible partial explanation, that was not a pretty way to go.
In the effort to identify the man, a photograph of him had been distributed to the relevant authorities. There was something about him that looked familiar. It was difficult to tell with the man's sunken cheeks and sallow circles under his eyes. I ran the image against my computer's cache, trying not to imagine how quickly Zero could have produced results, and found a match. I stared at the two images for a long while, coming up with unpleasant associations in my mind until I blinked and remembered to share the wealth. I hailed the others. "I found something suspicious."
Quatre glanced up from his reports, then winced, bringing a hand up to rub at the back of his neck. "Bring it on." Trowa exhibited a similar desire for something, anything new.
I turned my laptop around to show them my discoveries. "Mario Stewart. Assistant director of technology in the biomechanics department of Meridian Biotechnologies. I asked after him when I was there. I had some question on his data integrity. I was informed that he had taken ill and hadn't been at work since the day of the incident, so I was referred to one of his underlings."
I switched over to the image the Bonn authorities were distributing. "Mario Stewart. Found yesterday in a permanent vegetative state in an alley in Bonn, Germany. Circumstances unexplained."
"A convenient coincidence," Trowa observed mildly.
"I'm not liking what it says," Quatre said, shaking his bangs irritably out of his eyes. When that didn't work, he pushed them back with his hand. "It doesn't match with what we've got. I assume you're thinking his condition is the result of an accident with a neural interface and Zero?"
I nodded. "It's conceivable. Of course, I've never seen it actually happen."
"First time I think I've actually been glad that Zero was what it was." That was, that Zero had been a highly sophisticated, remarkable, and most importantly, tested piece of engineering. He shuddered. "Anyway. So, what do we think this means? I don't suppose Stewart worked with a group in Africa while in Germany?" Trowa snorted. "Or the Condasans kidnapped him?"
My turn to snort. "Nice try, Quatre."
His shoulders slumped. "Fine." He exhaled gustily, inadvertently dislodging his hair again. "So maybe Stewart had a grudge against the company. Or maybe... okay, let's not go down the path of maybe right now. Let's go with facts."
"There was no reason for Stewart to be in Bonn," I stated. "There was no way for a person in his condition to get himself into that alley."
"Someone dumped him there," Trowa finished decisively. "Someone he was working with, likely."
Quatre leaned back in his chair, his wishful thinking now replaced with the cool analysis we were used to seeing from him. "His partners don't seem the hardcore type to me. They're soft, new to the game, indecisive, maybe. A real band of terrorists out to conquer the world with Zero would have killed Stewart once he had served his purpose, once he showed no signs of waking. They wouldn't have left him somewhere for others to find and possibly identify and trace."
"The fact that the attack involved a Meridian employee cancels out the possibility that the attack may have been targeted at someone else," Trowa volunteered.
"Hm. Conceivably," I started, then repeated again for emphasis. I wagged my finger at them to complete the image. "Conceivably, it is faintly possible that Stewart was a random guy picked off the street, who just happened to have a grudge against the company. Conceivably, the malicious people who picked him up may have plugged him into Zero as a guinea pig, and the attack just happened to be the result."
"Let's ignore that conception for now," Quatre proposed.
"I agree." Better a false positive than a false negative at this stage in the game. Besides, that was a reach. I just wanted to make sure we kept an open mind.
"Let's also assume that Stewart had no grudge against his employers unless we find some evidence to support the theory. If that's the case, what then?"
"Either Stewart acted independently to acquire the Zero system..." Trowa started.
I finished it. "Or else Meridian has acquired Zero." A number of connections were made in the blink of an eye. "Dammit," I muttered, resisting the urge to smack my face with my palm.
"What is it?" Quatre asked edgily.
"There were signs. Lots of signs." I let my head drop for a moment in self-castigation. "None of it proves anything... but it's so possible."
"What do you mean?"
"Their security, for instance. They had a secure network. It didn't seem like a signal should have gotten in. Maybe nothing did. Maybe it was already inside, and we're lucky they were as tight as they were, otherwise it might have gotten out. And the hack trace, which ended up right back at Meridian, only I assumed the hacker had buried his tracks that way, or the real trail was lost in the destruction. And their CTO, who was less than cooperative. And--"
"Enough, Heero," Quatre cut in gently. "Enough. None of us saw the possibility."
"I was in a position to." A stray thought whispered to me that Zero would have seen it. I don't know if that made it better or worse. Maybe it just was. Did I miss Zero? I had a brief flash of Zero as my ally, and how wrong it was to leave an ally in enemy hands.
"Maybe Meridian doesn't have Zero."
I bit back my retorts, just resting my face in my hand and taking steady breaths to calm myself. The last thing I needed was Quatre trying to deny the possibilities just to placate me. It didn't even matter if Meridian had Zero. It was possible, and I should have seen the possibilities.
Well, I hadn't. All that was left was to deal with it now. One final breath, and I was ready to face the world again. "We should go back through Meridian's files. There might just be some credence to the Condasan claims, after all. Even if Meridian doesn't have Zero, there's something shady going on there."
They blinked at me silently, thrown off, perhaps, by my return to business. What else were they expecting? If the situation warranted more self-flagellation at a later date, I would take care of it then. Now was not the time.
Trowa nodded, accepting the shift in gears, and promptly followed my suggestion. Quatre studied me for a few seconds longer. I met his gaze evenly. He looked away, and research commenced.
Although Quatre could certainly have picked the company's records apart given time, we headed over to the department of forensic accounting to make our inquiries. In return, the experts there delivered to us a report on the matter. Money had gone missing. Numbers weren't adding up properly. Funds were being misappropriated. With all of the different causes that Meridian supported around the world and through the colonies, it was easy for a little bit of it to disappear, especially in the L2 cluster, where they had programs to research and treat the diseases that swept through the colonies periodically. Duo had had a thing or two good to say about what he knew of the company's efforts in his native cluster, but he would be vindicated to know the suspicions that every L2 kid harbored had proven true.
We decided to hunt up the accountant and have a little chat with him. Records indicated that he had liquidated all of his assets shortly after the incident and moved to Italy. Unfortunately, a little further digging indicated that he had died in a hit and run accident later that year.
Once again, eyebrows were raised. A bit much of a coincidence, wasn't it? Suspicions were mounting against Meridian, especially when a close look at the man's financial records didn't seem to show the man living outside of his means. For a man that had supposedly been embezzling from the company, he had lived a very modest life. No large purchases showed up on his credit report; no large deposits showed up in his account history. The only money regularly deposited was his paycheck. His was not a life an auditor would look twice at.
Another handy patsy, to be used, and then set up to take the fall? The situation reminded me of Brisbois, who had been taken in by promises of genetic purity. Meridian would certainly have had the information necessary to convince a man of such a cause, but what reason did Meridian have to pursue such a thing? And how many people at Meridian, if any, were involved in the scheme?
We were just about to contact Wufei and Duo with our findings when they contacted us first. Wufei's image on the vidscreen was troubled. Duo hovered over his shoulder, an equally upset look on his face. "We have a situation."
We looked apprehensively at each other, hoping perhaps that they were referring to the same situation that we were facing on our end. Quatre responded first, regaining his professionalism with the ease that distinguished us all. "Explain."
Wufei did. "The Condasan community just got hit hard by an unknown agent."
Had we heard that correctly? Trowa expressed our shock quite succinctly. "And here we were just about to clear them as suspects."
"What?" Duo demanded, leaning into Wufei's space to get closer to the screen. "Why?"
Why did Quatre and Trowa look to me to answer? I chose to oblige rather than protest, keeping our findings clean and simple. There would be more time for elucidation after they had shared their side of the story. "We've found signs that the hack job may have been an internal matter; in fact, not a hack at all, but an experiment with Zero gone wrong. All circumstantial, though. Now what did you mean by the Condasans being attacked?"
Duo retreated again, leaving Wufei to take the fore. "By a virus. This morning, everyone was fine. This evening, almost two-thirds of the community had fallen ill. There have been three deaths so far. More seem imminent."
"But the area is prone to the occasional endemic, isn't it?" Quatre asked. The members of the community refused GSDC assistance with local health matters, after all.
"Historically, yes, but nothing so widespread, and yet so limited. It's confined to their community. The GSDC say that so far, it's looking like a new strain of something local, but they've never seen it so severe."
"Were you exposed?" I asked sharply.
Both of them avoided looking at the camera for a moment. Finally, Duo answered. "I was there this morning talking to people. I came back, got a call this afternoon, and went back with the GSDC, suited up and all. They checked me out, though, called me clean. I haven't shown any symptoms, yet..."
"But they don't know how long of an incubation period this thing has, or--"
"Cool it, Yuy," Wufei commanded. "The doctors know. We know. All possible precautions are being taken. The situation is under control."
Of course. They were two extremely competent people. They knew how to handle things. And yet, a virus was one very difficult thing to control. I put that thought out of my mind and reined in the rest of my concerns. "What are the symptoms?"
"Victims report a cough, fatigue, alternating periods of fever and chill, severe headache. Our three casualties appear to have suffered acute pulmonary edema. The GSDC is still studying the course, but they're tentatively saying it looks like a resurgence of one of the diseases they thought they'd wiped out seventy-five years ago, only faster and deadlier. They haven't finished mapping the virus yet, so they aren't sure if it's just that the people have lost the immunity to it, or if it's something new and especially virulent."
"And we think the timing on this seems just a bit suspicious?" Quatre asked, hardly expecting a negative answer. It seemed impossible that the endemic was mere coincidence when the group was being investigated for its possible link to a major crime. "How is the disease transmitted?"
"They're not certain yet, but it doesn't seem to be airborne, at least. They were testing water supply, livestock, and everything else last time we checked. I don't think the results have come back yet. It's hard to tell how targeted of an attack this might have been. The Condasans are a close, isolated community. It would have been relatively easy to get all of them at once, and only them."
For a moment, I felt a surge of relief that biological weapons had never been used during the war of AC195. With a closed system like a colony, where resources were constantly recycled, things could have gotten brutal and ugly. I shuddered even more to think of what sort of mind could order such a thing. "Did you find out anything that might link them to the attack on Meridian?"
Wufei moved aside, and Duo took his place. "They're decent people out here. Got a few non-traditional beliefs, and they got a lot of faith in those beliefs, but they don't seem the militant type to me. I've been talking to them a bit. They're rather xenophobic to begin with, but once you prove you're not out to get them, they're more than willing to tell their stories to a person that'll listen. Most of their activity seems on the up and up to me. They do a lot of public records crawling. Did you know a few years back, there was some financial scandal involving Meridian?"
"Yes, we found out about that."
"Turns out it was some Condasan digging that sparked the investigation by the commission."
Yet another fact to be added to our list of things too coincidental to be coincidence. "Turns out the guy Meridian blamed the scandal on ended up dead later that year."
"No shit? Curiouser and curiouser."
I was, as often, fascinated by Duo's ability to juxtapose crudity and learnedness. "Hit and run. No suspects. And no indication that he was actually involved in the scandal."
"Not to mention our man in Bonn," Trowa brought up.
I explained Stewart to the others. The total outlook was not cheerful. Trading theories amongst ourselves, it seemed unlikely that the Condasans had acquired Zero. According to Duo, it wouldn't fit with their MO, and they had found nothing to support the idea during their sojourn there. At the moment, that left only Meridian as our primary suspect. We decided that it didn't make much sense that they would take retribution for a minor annoyance from four years ago. The scandal had not set Meridian back in any visible way. Their stock had taken a small hit, but they had recovered well enough after they had found a person to take the fall.
Perhaps Meridian had some new reason to silence the watchdog group. Perhaps the activist community had found something else to bring to international attention. Had they found evidence that Meridian had acquired illegal property? Had the scandal been merely cover for something larger that Meridian had to hide?
Duo and Wufei would investigate on their end, we on ours. We asked if they needed any of us to fly down and assist them, but they declined, citing it better practice not to put more of our team in the hot zone. As much as I understood that, I didn't like it. I didn't like having two of our team members in a potentially dangerous situation about which we could do nothing. The enemy there was invisible to the naked eye. They would never see it coming.
last modified : 12/30/2005 14:41:38 PST