Although I had been planning on attending the Meridian inquisition with Quatre, others things came up. Checking my e-mail, I found some potentially useful information. "Apparently, the team that was supposed to research Zero has been able to do some things, even without the system."
"Define 'things'," Duo said.
"I don't know yet. They didn't have a formal field of investigation. They were putting that off until they had finished an initial analysis of Zero. But I think it might have something to do with an interface. Either way, I think it'd be a good idea if I talked to them. If nothing else, they should be able to provide some valuable third party insight into what a research-oriented enemy might do." That was something I was having difficulty wrapping my mind around. As fond as I may have been of pursuits of knowledge, and as open a mind as I had about Zero's usage, I was not having an easy time coming up with ways Zero could be applied to non-combat issues that would still somehow be a threat to world peace.
"So you won't be coming with me?" Quatre asked.
My eyes swept the room, seeking out a likely replacement. "Duo can go with you." I was on unsteady ground with him, so I tried to make it sound like a suggestion and not a command. He didn't like it when things were decided for him. "I can brief him on my part. He's good with people... and Hoffman indicated a strange interest in him the last time we spoke."
Duo stopped playing with the pen in his hand. "Now that you mention it..." His eyes narrowed. "Eww, that's creepy. It's gotta be that freak behind all this. He wanted me to give a blood sample, remember? After he'd heard what strain I'd been exposed to. Pretty much the same stuff used in the Condasan infection."
Scenarios ran behind Quatre's eyes. He'd always been a bit Zero-minded himself. "Maybe we can use that to get information out of him."
"You are SO not offering me up to that --"
"Of course not," Quatre soothed, cutting Duo off before we had the chance to hear what nasty little term he might have used to describe Meridian's CEO. "But he's already given us one hint. Maybe he'll offer more."
"You're a good choice for other reasons," I told Duo, trying to distract him from the Hoffman issue. I agreed; Hoffman's interest in him was a bit scary in retrospect. "I was thinking about bringing surveillance equipment with me. If you take my place, I'm sure you'll be able to use those devices to greater effect than I could."
Why did he look at me as if suspecting me of giving false praise? I gave praise rarely; false praise more rarely still. I was far more skilled at picking out areas in need of improvement, but in this case, little thought needed to be applied. I could be as stealthy as he, yet Duo's ingenuity and creative genius would get him into and out of places he wasn't supposed to be with a natural finesse that was often beyond me.
After turning the matter over in his mind, he finally nodded, plastering on a grin. "That means I get to play with all sorts of cool gadgets, right?"
My overactive sense of caution kicked in. "Wufei, maybe you should go with them?"
"Me? I didn't meet with them last time."
"Yes, but you're the one with the most authority here. If we find something incriminating, we need to make sure it's formal enough to hold up in court. I'd hate to see us lose a case against them because we didn't follow acceptable procedure in obtaining the evidence."
Quatre nodded in agreement. "And if something major comes up, you should be able to lend some credibility to our efforts. Without you, we could be just a bunch of rebels with badges under the nebulous shield of 'special ops'."
"Besides...," I added reluctantly. I didn't really want to put this out there since it made things sound more ominous, but I felt it would be a good point to make. Better to err on the side of safety. "If Hoffman really is interested in Duo's blood--"
Duo shuddered dramatically, repeating his earlier sentiment. "Eww. Creepy. Make it stop."
I paused briefly for a wry twist of my lips. The words did seem like something out of a strange vampire movie. "Maybe we shouldn't leave Duo alone with them. They could try something."
If I couldn't guard his back, I could at least suggest that someone else do the job. Duo, to his credit, didn't waste breath muttering that he could have taken care of himself just fine. Maybe he appreciated the support. The rest of the team agreed to the addition of a third man, and we bustled off to the covert ops department to acquire some hardware.
After we saw them off, Trowa and I headed to the research department and located the scientist in charge of the now defunct project, a man whom everyone called RJ. Normally, I would not indulge in familiar nicknames, but his full name was some ten syllables long, topping even Quatre Raberba Winner.
He took us to the lab in which they were set up. Most of the team had been diverted to other tasks with the disappearance of their main topic of research, but apparently some had elected to carry on in the related fields.
"Interesting setup," I commented, stepping over a bundle of wires that crisscrossed the floor hazardously. I traced them to their source, a cluster of workstations pushed against one wall. The screens showed spreadsheets and charts of data. "What exactly is it you're doing here?"
The tech surveyed his realm. "Well, there were a few areas of study we were interested in regarding the Zero system. I understand that you're familiar with it?" We nodded. "In fact, we're told that you actually used the system?"
Again, two nods. "Remarkable," he breathed with a usual scientific enthusiasm. "Perhaps you can answer some questions for us. Obviously, we have no way of answering some of those questions for ourselves, at the moment."
"First, your purpose?" I reminded him. His fervor was somewhat reassuring. I could always trust a true geek to act in a particular way. Hoffman's fervor... had been disturbing. The gleam in his eye had not reflected a pursuit of knowledge, but one of power or personal gain. I was almost impressed that I could tell the difference, but upon consideration, I realized that I had a lot of experience with people across the entire spectrum, from benevolent geeks to malevolent freaks. I knew the difference.
"Oh, yes, of course." He adjusted the glasses perched on his nose. "Ultimately, we were interested in applying the system's technology to other things, rather than using the system itself. In fact, the director was quite clear on that. In no way were we to try to reconstruct the system in its entirety, up to and including its installation in a mobile suit. There are far too many things that could go wrong with such an application, as we, err, saw during the last war." He glanced nervously at us as if fearing we would take personal offense.
We did not. "Wise decision," Trowa murmured. If there was anyone that would be sensitive about the ways the system went wrong with its first run in Quatre's hands, other than Quatre himself, it would be Trowa, and there was no grudge there.
He cleared his throat. "Yes. We've been interested on the one hand in how we could use its computational power to do other things, such as maybe help in mission planning or identifying threats before they arise."
"Dangerous," I cautioned. "Zero's particular talent was in identifying threats before they manifested. Based on the quality of input, it was known to produce some rather unexpected results at times."
I received a curious look. "And yet you still label it a talent?"
"It's been known to be outrageously wrong and outrageously right." Even in its erroneous times, Zero had followed a certain ruthless logic that precluded its calculations from being categorized as completely incorrect. Just because it came to conclusions that we would not, many often assumed the system was flawed, but they were the ones that were mistaken. It simply had a different value system.
The scientist hummed thoughtfully. "Well, quality of input, you say. I assume you are referring to the neural interface? We wouldn't want to be using that during high-stress situations, no, of course not, but we are looking into it as a separate technology. Perhaps, simply to enhance the speed with which a user could use his computer. Or even to enable people that are paralyzed, say, to give them the power to access their world. Trimmed down, a DNI would be crucial if we were ever to develop advanced cybernetics or other mechanical implants."
Briefly, I considered the possibility of Meridian's interest in such a thing. It was quickly dismissed. While they did have research in biotechnology, the development of such devices would not be assisted by the Zero system. "You don't need the system to do that. How far along are you, then?"
"DNI technology is out there already. We've had the ability to read brainwaves for centuries. What we really lack is good software to interpret the brainwaves, so that's what we've been developing here. Of course, we also need a person capable of using the system. We developed our software along some of the noted baselines of Zero's approach, but we haven't really had the opportunity to test out the stability of our architecture. It requires a lot of calibration and tweaking, but we haven't figured out what standards we should be measuring against yet."
An interesting discussion for another time, perhaps, but for now, this was irrelevant to our case. Since he obviously already knew about the theft of the system, we could be a little more open with him. "What use would you say that the system might have for developing a weapon?"
He cleared his throat nervously again. "As I've said, our project has not been charged with exploring the possibilities of weaponry built on Zero technology..."
I raised an eyebrow at him, and felt guilt rising from him. He shifted his eyes elsewhere. As one of the pure-minded geeks, he would have thought about it, project directives or otherwise. Even if he had no intentions of ever exploring those ideas in reality, he still didn't want the administration to know that he had been entertaining forbidden thoughts. Perhaps he feared being removed from the project. How quaint.
I exchanged a look with Trowa. It seemed he had come to the same conclusion I had. Making a decision, I turned back to the researcher. "Your software interfaces with a modded OS?"
I think I startled him with the change in topic. He pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose with one finger again. They slid back down halfway. "Uh, a shell at this point, actually, but yes. Basically freeing the user of the need for a keyboard, mouse, or other interfacing device."
Trowa threw me a look this time, a doubtful one questioning whether or not I was really about to propose what he thought I might.
I was. "Plug me in."
"I beg your pardon?"
I hadn't broken eye contact with my comrade. "Are you sure?" he asked me in a low voice.
My answer was a nod, though my words were directed towards the lead tech. "Help us explore research-oriented weaponry involving the Zero system, and I'll test out your system."
"Ahem, err...." He made another sound or two as he mulled over the matter. "Begging your pardon, but we don't really need your--"
"You need a baseline," I interrupted him. "A baseline for your Zero-calibrated system. I am that baseline. Any data you would have acquired from Zero's usage would have been mine. Even if you had the system to study right now, you wouldn't be able to get any relevant data from it without someone like me behind it, and I'm the best you'll get right now."
That sweetened the pot for him as he realized the ramifications of my claims. I was that elusive standard he needed to measure against in order to get his system right. No idle boasting, that. Just plain fact. He was using my data, whether he knew it or not. Couldn't get any better than going right to the source.
He conceded to our deal. "Research-oriented, you say? What do you mean?"
If we'd had a very good idea of that, we wouldn't have needed to ask. Although we had already concluded that perhaps Meridian had intended the attack on the Condasan community as some intermediate step in a development process towards something larger, we hadn't devoted much further energy to figuring out their ultimate goals. Since that time, our main focus had been trying to acquire authorization to proceed against the company. "Say you had no intention of installing Zero in a mobile suit, yet you still intended to use the system for gain in some non-military-specific sector, quite possibly something to do with biotechnology. Cybernetics, for instance."
"Biological weaponry," Trowa proposed as an off-handed alternative. No point in letting the man know what our primary concern was at this time.
As RJ contemplated the matter amongst many noisy sounds of thought, I cast a glance to my partner for the day. Biological weaponry was not something we had discussed in depth. Maybe we had just hoped that Meridian's use of the engineered plasmodium against the Condasans had been an isolated incident, a matter of using what tools were available to eliminate a troublesome group. What if it really had been a test? Would they attack again? Or manufacture pathogens for the highest bidders? How would Zero fit into that picture?
"Weaponry, eh?" The man scratched at his chin. "Yes, those could both be used as weapons, but there are easier ways of developing them than stealing the Zero system. Cybernetics, for instance. There's no need for a great deal of computation to go into the usage of a mechanical arm. And as for a biological weapon, once it's released, it's released. Nothing to do but sit back and watch the show. Although... hmmm."
We waited him out patiently as he thought the matter through. Perhaps he would shed light where there was none. "There's actually a lot to be done after a virus' release, if you're smart about these things. There are the matters of containment, dispersal."
The moment he mentioned those things, I began generating my own possibilities. It seemed so obvious. Why had we not considered them before? Perhaps because those things were not concerns for the weapons we traditionally used. But now, even as the scientist went over his theories, I could see the possible uses of Zero just fine on my own. Deployment was always a tricky thing with biological agents. The vehicle of delivery was often a textbook chaotic system: water, air, explosions. Zero could go a long way in accurately predicting which way the currents would flow. There were computer models for that in place already, but they required time to run even a single simulation. A tiny tweak of the starting conditions, and the whole thing would have to be run and tested again. Zero could run more simulations in less time, yielding a reasonable approximation of real-time.
"What about during the development phase?" I asked him intently, wanting confirmation for what suspicions were beginning to form in my mind. "What would you be able to do with that much computational power during the development of a biological agent?"
"Hm, well, I suppose that, if I wanted to create something that did something specific, it would help me design the right specimen. You know, something targeted to a certain population, or even an individual. The system is designed to run simulations and possibilities, right? The problem with engineering new biological or chemical agents these days is that it's hard to tell what anything will do. Side effects or mutations or whatnot. I could easily see a person using the Zero system's capabilities to manage those."
I nodded. Again, something so simple and obvious. So concentrated on the bigger picture of how many would suffer, we had forgotten to think in microscopic terms. For all the ways that I had envisioned Zero being of possible benefit to society, it could also be used to great detriment. I was almost getting used to the little voice in my head that taunted me into thinking that Zero would never have forgotten. "And it could easily go through all of the permutations to find the perfect protein, the perfect... whatever to cause harm."
Trowa and I looked at each other again. He could see the possibilities as clearly as I, and when we reminded the rest of our team of what we had been missing, they would all see. We had sufficient scientific background to pursue the terrible potentials hidden in Zero's abduction on our own. Enough of this, then.
"Thank you for your time, doctor," Trowa said smoothly, adding a nod for acknowledgment of his assistance.
"Is that all?" he asked, surprise showing on his features. Maybe he was still curious in the matter. Maybe he had thought we were laypersons in need of more explanation. Either way, he had given us the seeds of what we needed, of what we had missed. We could carry on from there.
"Your machine?" I inquired. "Would now be a good time?"
"Uh... yes, of course." He had little reason to complain. In exchange for a few short sentences, he was about to further the progress on his project more than he had thought possible for the foreseeable future.
The DNI and the accompanying computer system were kept in the next room. He began to babble on about the details of the system as he started it up, but I listened with only half an ear, instead inspecting the headset that would be the hookup. Trowa put a hand on my shoulder to get my attention. "Are you sure?" he asked again.
"I don't need to do much with the system," I answered, glancing at the display that was beginning to load up. "It's not even connected to anything that could cause any harm."
"Does the name 'Stewart' mean anything to you?"
Yes, it did, but that was irrelevant to this matter. I turned the interface over for him to study, pointing at a label on the inner curve. "Look. This is a standard DNI manufactured by Holistic, the leading edge in neural interface production. There are all sorts of safety protocols built into these things, and they're still in place. It's effectively reduced to an interface only for output. I'd worry more about the computer than I would about me. The protocols for a system like Zero are typically ignored in favor of enhanced performance, which is why there is such a flood of input. That's probably what got him."
He pursed his lips, his thoughtful look camouflaging a continuing concern. I turned to the doctor to assuage his doubts. "Have you been testing the system out yourself?"
RJ paused in the process of booting up the shell. "Yes, of course. Who else do I have to test it on?"
"I'd like to see your results first. It'll give me a better idea of where the system is now."
"Yes, of course." As soon as the application had loaded, he flipped through a few of the menus with the mouse and pulled up the data from previous trials. To me, they seemed unsatisfactory by far. I wondered whether he thought the same, or if he considered even that much to be a success.
Trowa studied the charts as well, and after a minute, he nodded. "Don't get fancy," he murmured. "I wouldn't want the rest of the team angry with me."
As I addressed his concerns, I nodded to the scientist that we were ready to begin. "If anyone, they'd be angry with me. Duo would be angry with me. Then again, he's already sort of angry with me, so I don't suppose it will make much of a difference to me."
I pulled the headset on before he had chance to reply, adjusting the electrodes until they fitted snugly against my skin and scalp. Even knowing that the input ports on the device had been sealed, I still found myself faintly disappointed by the sensation. The familiar rush that I associated with an encounter with Zero was completely absent. Only the computer noticed a difference in performance.
The initial layer of the OS wrapper was positionally based. I oriented myself on the image of the mouse cursor on the screen, then started driving it around in little patterns until I got a feel for it. With data coming in between draw cycles, the GUI necessarily updated with a lag that just emphasized its relative snail's pace compared to a system wired to return input to the user.
Though I was less than impressed, I still heard the lab tech muttering to himself how incredible he perceived my results to be. With a self-admonition, I reminded myself to stop measuring everything by my own standards before I moved on to the next level of interface, which had been linked more closely to Zero's designs.
Using the subset of commands I knew were available to me according to spec, I navigated through the system with ease, exploring it until it felt like a little mouse's maze. I wanted out. It was simple enough to establish a secure connection to a Preventers subnet. From there, an idea I had earlier made me look through some of the public files we had accumulated, and again, I felt only held back by the interface when I had to wait for the results to show on the screen before I could continue to the next. With a complete feedback loop, I would have been able to explore the entire database in a fraction of the time. Even with a more powerful processor, I/O would still be the limiting factor in a one-way system. I was navigating more quickly than I could by hand, but not nearly as quickly as I could have.
Fortunately, I had a good idea of what I was looking for, so it didn't take me too long to complete my search. Noting that the scientist was so preoccupied by my data readouts that he wasn't even paying any attention to what it was I was actually doing, I highlighted a line from one of the charts to draw Trowa's attention to it.
"Circumstantial," he murmured after reading it. "Just because Meridian purchased a DNI, doesn't mean that they've been using it for any particular purpose."
"Circumstantial," I agreed, just happy for the moment that the government had mandated these records be made public as part of their stricter regulations on the industry. "But still something."
I implemented the shutdown procedures, jarred once again by the fact that there were so few, before removing the headset and handing it back to RJ. "You have what you need?" He took the headset without even looking at it, still engrossed as he was in my stats. "In the future, you might consider disabling the WC module. It's a little overkill for shell manipulation."
He muttered something vaguely positive, along with something resembling gratitude, and we left without making eye contact with him again.
We walked back to the elevators in a silence not completely devoid of communication. Once we stopped, I turned to face Trowa and save him the trouble of glancing at me out of the corner of his eye. "Whatever you're looking for, I don't think you'll find it."
"Depends what I'm looking for, doesn't it?" he answered calmly.
I tilted my head slightly in acknowledgment. "What about my using the interface bothered you so? You didn't have a negative experience with it, did you?"
His shoulders moved in the slightest of shrugs. "Negative, no. In the way that being thrown into a frozen river in order to wake up isn't a negative experience."
"Ah." Not really. "But that was you."
"That was the system."
"This wasn't the system." Though we were saying nothing that was particularly confidential, we waited for an office assistant to pass before we untensed and continued. "This was nowhere near the system."
He cocked his head to the side a little, moving his bangs out of the way of his eyes as he studied me some more. Sometimes, I wondered what he saw. "Do you enjoy it?"
"Enjoy what?" I wasn't faking confusion, only seeking clarification.
"I'm not sure."
"Hm." Why did it sometimes seem as if everyone was always turning to me for the answers? To whom could I turn when I needed answers? The doors dinged. We found the elevator car empty, entered, then pressed our number. I waited for the doors to enclose us in our own private little space, mulling over the answer as I did. "I was trying to talk to Duo about this the other day, I think."
"It's..." It wasn't something that easy for me to articulate or understand, and given that it dealt with a part of me that most other people didn't understand either, I very much did not expect anyone else to really be able to follow my thoughts on the matter. Of all of them, I expected Duo to understand it the best. The others never had the same sort of attachment that we did to our machines, and Trowa least of all.
I went back to his first question instead, trying to appeal to the mechanic in him. "I enjoy it for what it is: something that increases operating efficiency. When it works as it was intended to, it really brings out the full potential of both the user and the machine. As a two part system, it's one step closer to a perfect harmony. Of course I find that a beautiful thing. If you're asking with a cautionary tone, then... no, I don't enjoy it for the power, or the speed."
He gave what I had said a few moments' thought, then nodded slowly in acceptance. "Duo didn't get that?"
Even more mechanically inclined than Trowa, Duo had understood this much of it. "We were talking about Zero, rather than enhanced interfaces in general. You know he... had problems with the system. Or maybe it was Trant. He was the one that pushed Duo into using it, after all. Maybe if he'd gone in with more preparation, or certainly more purpose, it would have worked out better."
"Even so, Duo isn't always the most... focused of people." He said it without malice, and we all knew it to be true. It was not correct to say that Duo could not concentrate on something, however. He had the same depth and intensity as the rest of us. He just concentrated on more things at once. A perpetual multi-tasker, that one was.
"He still might not have taken to Zero. It's too bad." I felt more than saw Trowa's curiosity pique up a notch. "This whole situation is too bad. I've always known Zero to have so much possibility, but I fear this little episode will preclude its exploration from ever taking place. Taking part in the destruction of a colony was a fluke, but now it's being used to create biological weapons. Une's never going to let it out of the box again, if she even lets it survive this."
"This... makes you sad."
Trowa had always been a deeply perceptive person, but I wouldn't rule out the idea that Quatre had been giving him lessons, even if I had been making no effort to mask the emotion in my voice. "It would be a great loss."
The office seemed a little empty with the lack of our teammates as we continued our discussion on the possibilities that RJ had presented to us today. "I made another miscalculation," I realized aloud.
I shook my head, not in a negative answer, but in rebuke at my lack of foresight. Hindsight was useless to us. "If our enemies aren't using Zero in real-time applications, then it really doesn't need to have any of its processor nodes fixed. They don't need that much power. They also don't need to spend as much time training it and re-calibrating it towards its purpose before using it. If time isn't an issue in their application of the system, then they can afford to let Zero run with sub-optimal algorithms without seeing much of an impact in performance. And we also haven't considered how long they may have been planning this. If they're just using Zero for its computational abilities, they could have started gathering data and writing firmware for it a long time ago. Maybe it was all done a long time ago, only they didn't have any hardware capable of running it."
"And if any of that's the case," he finished, "we don't really have as much time as we thought."
"Worst case," I countered. "If they're making biological weapons, I can't see them just creating one super-pathogen. They wouldn't have needed the system for that."
"Provided they're reasonable and rational people."
A good reminder, but how valid was it really? "Reasonable and rational people that are interested in killing lots of innocent people. For profit, maybe. If they are in the market to engineer more than one pathogen, they might be interested in selling their products, with advanced simulated data offered to their clients on the side. Custom-tailored diseases would sell well, but it must take at least a little while to manufacture them even after the ideal molecular structure was found."
It was difficult to believe that we could discuss such things almost casually. "So we have no idea what sort of timescale we're operating on. They could already have clients lined up. We could be completely off-base and looking in the wrong direction again."
Yay. "I was thinking maybe I'd talk to Relena, see if she can come up with some way we can get around the red tape."
"She does have a lot of connections. And it doesn't hurt that she likes us."
Thinking of one woman led me to thinking of another. "How's Catherine, by the way? Still mad at me?"
It seemed I finally managed to startle even the unflappable Trowa with my sudden question. He spent three seconds blinking at me before he answered. "She's fine. Still with the circus. Helps the ringmaster out a lot. Coordinates this program for bringing sick, injured, or orphaned kids out to the show. Might still be mad at you, but... well, hasn't really thought about you for five years."
"I suppose I ought to be worried if she had." At least it didn't seem she had a wild grudge against me for bringing her Trowa back to the war. From what I recalled of her, she was not a forgiving woman when it came to the ones she loved. Trowa was lucky to have her looking out for him. "She still throws knives, I assume?"
"Practices every day."
"You still her target?"
"Better you than me, then, my friend." I wondered if I could ever do that. And they said that I was the one with the gundanium balls. Go fig.
last modified : 12/30/2005 14:41:38 PST