Further investigation had been made into the source of the infection. GSDC investigators had narrowed patient zero down to a carcass found upstream of the settlement, caught in one of the grates filtering debris out from the water flowing into the purification plant. After the information had been shared with the wildlife department in the area, the rest of the gazelle population had been checked out, but none of the sampled creatures showed any similar sign of infection. It wasn't unknown for the gazelles to be host to the plasmodium that served as the vector for the infection; they ruled it just plain bad luck that the virus in that one gazelle had developed a mutation deadly to humans. The creature in question had actually drowned, unable to remove itself from the river on account of its broken leg. The researchers did not believe the mutated virus to be deadly to its original host.
They also thought it was just plain bad luck that a virus survived the trip through the plant, and that in that much water compared to such a small amount of virus, it managed to get where it needed to go to infect a human.
I didn't believe in luck. While there could be unfortunate chains of events, I didn't even see that here. Maybe I was jumping at shadows, but I saw the work of Zero behind it. It would have been able to compute the optimal placement of the body in order to ensure infection.
I made a call to Germany and spoke to the hospital caring for the unfortunate Stewart. They assured me that the man was still in a vegetative state and that there was very little chance that he would wake. While there were theories that one could communicate with a person in such a state, nothing conclusive had ever been proven. We would get no information out of him. Some simple research revealed that Stewart had some family, a mother and two siblings. Judging it would harm nothing, I tipped off the officials to Stewart's identity, though I provided no information on how he might have fallen into his condition. At least his next of kin would learn of his fate.
I also put a flag in our systems that would let us know if Meridian put in a purchase for another DNI device. In order for Stewart to have received as much neural trauma as he had, I couldn't imagine that the device would still be in working order, and after witnessing the effects firsthand of the dangers of an improperly calibrated and safeguarded device, I rather doubted they would try to construct one themselves.
We checked in with our remote surveillance setup. Our three team members on-site were all carrying listening devices with them to record their conversations with the Meridian staff. While not quite legal in the strictest sense, it would save them the time of having to completely brief us on their activities once they returned, and give us the opportunity to review the material more thoroughly at a later time. They made periodic transmissions of their accumulated data to our workstations. Combined with some text messaging, we had a pretty good idea of where they were.
They checked in with the Meridian crew. Hoffman greeted their arrival with the same sort of slick enthusiasm as he had the first time, but now that we were looking for it, we could detect the signs of a person eager to help in all the wrong, unhelpful ways. His interest and enthusiasm served to cover his misdirection and changes in subject.
Conzemius was no more useful. Since their systems were up and running again, there was no excuse we could manufacture that would gain us access to their network once more. Under the pretense of follow-up, Duo asked after Stewart again. We were curious, for the sake of being able to analyze the pattern of attack more thoroughly, what loss of integrity he had experienced in his department's computer systems, but Duo was told, just as I had been, that Stewart was still on sick leave, and in a twisted sort of sense, he really was.
It may have been coincidence, and maybe our sense of caution was just a little too heightened, but they may have tried to corner Duo a couple of times. They were not successful. Nor was Duo particularly successful at getting usefully 'lost' in the corridors. With Wufei along to cover his back, he had only managed to wander into a few legitimate labs in the process of looking for the server room before one of Conzemius' aides showed up to escort them.
Once again, Quatre was the one in charge of talking to Hoffman. Trowa and I listened in on the conversation after the fact.
"Have you found out anything on the Condasans?" Hoffman had asked in the recording.
"Nothing conclusively linking them to the recent attack on your systems," Quatre replied. "We did, however, find out more about the link between your two groups. They were responsible for the information that precipitated your accounting scandal four years ago, weren't they?"
"Yes, they were, and we were grateful to them for that, in a way. Of course, scandal is good for no company, but we are glad they helped us in bringing the criminal to justice."
"Dimitriev, his name was, wasn't it?"
"You've done your homework." Of course. Was there a hint of guardedness in his tone? "Do you think he's relevant to this case?"
"We wanted to look him up, see if he held a grudge against your company. Seeing that the scandal ruined his career, he would have good reason to strike back at you."
Hoffman recovered his ground, filling his tone with the proper amount of innocence and concern. "And what did you find?"
Quatre gave no sign that he suspected anything in his response. "That he died in an accident a few years ago."
"Ah, I'm sorry to hear that. Outside of his misappropriation of funds, Dimitriev had always been an exemplary worker. One of those people you would never have suspected."
Especially since he'd been innocent in this matter. "The money was never recovered, was it?"
"No. No, I'm afraid not," Hoffman sighed. It could never have been recovered because it had never been stolen. "That money was supposed to have been going to some worthy causes."
I wondered if some of the misdirected money had paid for the hit on Dimitriev.
Unfazed, Quatre continued to converse pleasantly with the CEO. "Well, that took him out of the suspect pool, obviously."
"Back to the Condasans, then?"
"Matters involving the investigation of their group have been complicated due to outside circumstances," Quatre answered diplomatically.
"Ah. I'd heard about the disease going through the area." We heard a shifting of leather. "Those poor people. This is exactly the sort of situation that Meridian works to prevent, but we can't help those that don't want to be helped. I'm sure they were informed of the risks when they refused inoculations. Why anyone would, I simply don't understand. It was just a matter of time before something like this happened. It's a good example of what we must avoid in the future."
Trowa and I shared a look, each of us expressing silent disdain for the man behind the voice. Ought we to avoid angering Meridian, lest we suffer a similar fate? It angered me that he would spin this into a platform for promoting his company's programs, especially the ones in L2, which he could then use for his own ulterior motives. Hmm. Now there was an idea. Was it possible that he was interested in using the Zero system to create situations where his company would be able to swoop in and cure or prevent?
I gave Quatre credit for being to talk to him so calmly. Then again, I'd been able to get information out of Brisbois. What did it say about us that we were able to converse with madmen? "It was their decision. But the timing is unfortunate."
"I understand that you may have difficulty in bringing any of them to justice. It is, as you say, unfortunate, but perhaps they have been brought to justice by some force greater than you and I."
I was glad Duo was off with Wufei investigating the rest of the Meridian systems. He would have had a difficult time restraining himself from beating the self-righteousness out of the man. I imagined Quatre leveling a neutral smile at him. "Perhaps. But I'm afraid that doesn't help us close the case. I wish I had better news for you."
"No, I understand," Hoffman repeated ingratiatingly. "These things happen. How are they, by the way?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"The Condasan community. I've heard about the outbreak, but nothing really about the details. How many people have been affected?"
He could hide behind his professional curiosity all he wanted, but we knew he was interested in seeing how effective his little experiment had been. "I'm afraid there won't be much of a Condasan community after this is all over," Quatre answered unspecifically. "Have you received any more threats? From them or any other quarter?"
"No, we haven't. But I suppose they've been rather busy attending to their own affairs down there. Have you found out what's infecting them?"
Fishing for information now, was he? Quatre told him what he wanted to hear. "It looks like an outbreak of a new strain of a local disease. I'm afraid the name eludes at the moment."
"Ah." There was delight in that sound, although the unknowledgeable observer might consider it to be the joy of a researcher on the trail of something new. "Can you describe the progression of the disease?"
Enough was enough. "I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to release those details, Mr. Hoffman."
"Oh, of course, forgive me. My enthusiasm running away from me again." How many times could he use that excuse? Then again, the more he used it, perhaps the more credible it became. There was the sound of a knock on the door, and then it opened. Fabric rustled for a bit, becoming increasingly louder, from which we guessed that Quatre was discreetly turning up the volume on his mike's receiver. A low unintelligible murmur was picked up, there was a pause, and then Trowa and I both jumped as Hoffman's voice came across very loudly.
"You'll have to excuse me," he said. A chair screeched across the floor before the fabric moved noisily again and the volume was turned back down. "I have some business to attend to. Were there any more questions I could answer for you?"
"That's it for now, Mr. Hoffman. I appreciate your understanding in this matter."
Hoffman presumably ushered Quatre out of the office, and when the coast was clear, we heard Quatre mutter into the receiver. "He was remarkably insincere throughout the entire conversation." The sound clip ended shortly thereafter.
We backed up the conversation to the whisper we'd been unable to catch the first time and ran it through an audio analysis. Isolating that single time segment, we enhanced and tweaked and filtered and identified and ignored until we finally concluded with a reasonable degree of uncertainty that the person that had interrupted had said, "It's 'him' again, sir."
"Hmm, who, I wonder?" I mused aloud.
"Duo?" Trowa proposed.
A little shiver ran up my spine. "I hope not. Besides, he already knows Duo is there. And there hasn't been enough time for him to have been informed of Duo previously on this visit, so that wouldn't explain the 'again'."
"Hmm. Someone else, then. Someone from a previous day. Someone in the company causing trouble? Or someone visiting the company causing trouble? It'd have to be someone there at that time, or else Hoffman probably wouldn't have had to leave."
"Hm. We had to sign in at the front desk, didn't we? We should give them a call, see if they can't get a look at the entries."
Trowa did that. I pondered further as he did so. Once he had hung up, I shared with him what new thing had come to my mind. "You know, Trowa... why would Hoffman point us in the direction of the Condasan community, and then destroy them? If they had never mentioned the group, we would never have suspected them, and it would have been much easier for them to get away with the attack."
He mulled over it silently. "Perhaps they wanted to give us culprits whom they knew would be unable to defend themselves. If they were planning on killing them all from the beginning, it would have been convenient for them to give us their names. We went looking into the Condasans instead of Meridian, and after they died, hopefully we'd stop looking."
"And they didn't stop to consider that a convenient plague would seem a little too convenient?"
He shrugged, leaning back in his chair. "You know these sorts, Heero. They never think they'll be caught. They probably didn't think we'd figure it out. We weren't supposed to have discovered their interest in infectious diseases. We weren't supposed to have been interested in the scandal four years ago. We weren't supposed to have found Stewart. He's the one that really led us to suspect Meridian. We weren't supposed to have figured out the virus was engineered. It was just good fortune that Duo was there and that the doctors were doing blood tests on him. And we weren't supposed to have figured out that the 'attack' on Meridian was a misuse of the Zero system, even if they knew we were probably there looking for it."
"Hm... I'm surprised Zero let them go through with it all." Then again, maybe my expectations were too high. Again.
"What do you mean?"
"They must have used Zero during this... for the deployment of the pathogen, I'm guessing. And Zero told them where to do it without giving them a hint that it was a bad idea to carry out the plan."
"Maybe they didn't ask it."
"But they must have been thinking about it..." I saw another flaw in my logic. I had to stop thinking like me. "Unless they've stopped using the interface. Maybe they decided it was too dangerous. Or maybe they just haven't gotten a replacement for the one that must have been damaged. If they're using manual input, then Zero would only answer the questions posed to it."
Trowa swiveled his chair back and forth a bit as he considered it. "What does that gain us, if they're not using the interface?"
I didn't have a good answer for him. "Given what we already know... nothing, really. We already know they're not interested in using Zero for real-time applications, otherwise we'd get now that they're not looking for speed. We already know that they're planning on using Zero for running offline simulations. All we really get is that they're not stupid enough to try the interface again after what happened to Stewart. If I had to keep reaching... maybe we get that they don't have anyone on their staff that's an expert in DNIs."
"Speaking of which..." He shuffled through the papers on his desk until he came up with a list of Meridian employees. "We should go through at least the senior staff and check out what sorts of skills these people have. It might give us some idea of who's in on the project."
Given that it was a biotech company, it wasn't surprising that its ranks were filled with people trained in that area, but sorting through specialties, we found that Conzemius had gotten an advanced degree in cybernetics. I hadn't realized at the time that, being their Chief Technology Officer, he might have more to do than running their computer networks.
Hoffman had done his doctorate in the effects of space radiation on the human genome. That matched up with his interest in the genetic variations in the colonies, but we wondered where his intense involvement in disease research came from, and especially infectious disease. After a little thought, Trowa proposed a combination of the two: perhaps he had started studying the effects of space radiation on various viral genomes, especially those in the L2 cluster, where the two interests collided.
The CEO and the CTO showed strong signs of conspiring together. We could only conjecture on the rest of the Meridian staff. There were quite a few people that worked on infectious diseases; several of whom had specialties in the L2 cluster as well. A quick peek into their financials identified two possibilities for people being compensated for their extra work on a side project, one of whom had also been granted a promotion ahead of other more seemingly worthy souls two years ago.
There was one woman that had co-written a small paper on neural interfaces back in college, but she seemed rather low on the food chain within the company. Hoffman and Conzemius didn't seem the types to surround themselves with low-level flunkies. High-level flunkies, yes. Especially in a secret project.
By this time, we had received incoming transmissions from Duo and Wufei. Their work with the staff had been non-incriminating, but something did catch our attention. Between the three of them, they might not have thought enough of it to have mentioned it to each other, but since we had listened to both sets of data, we knew what they didn't. While Duo and Wufei had been speaking with Conzemius, the CTO had also broken off their discussion after being advised of something quietly by an assistant. Though they had not turned up the receptors on their microphones as Quatre had, a comparison of the timestamps showed that the interruptions had both occurred at approximately the same time.
The mysterious man must have been causing quite a bit of trouble to have warranted the attention of both the top men. Pity we didn't know who it was.
I visited her at the embassy, glad that, if we were going to discuss such grim things, that we could at least do it in private. I told her what we had found out about the outbreak in New Condasa. I tried to be delicate about it, but how many ways were there really to sugarcoat the use of a biological weapon that had resulted so far in dozens of deaths, and likely would result in more?
She took it well, all things considered. We discussed the media strategies involved in the situation. The attack was being represented as a natural disaster to interested parties, and would probably continue thusly until we had a villain to present for punishment. Even then, we didn't know if we needed the public outrage that would inevitably spring up against the company.
She knew we weren't the types to go chasing wild conspiracy theories. It wasn't that difficult to convince her of the solidity of our findings since the facts seemed to speak for themselves, but she also understood Une's difficulty in allowing our investigation to take the next step. She was better able to explain to me the exact sociopolitical situation that had resulted in our stalemate, but just because I understood it, didn't mean I agreed with it. Looking into the options, she finally came up with something we might be able to use to circumvent the restrictions. With a little bit of wordsmithing, we were pretty sure we could squeeze our case under one of the bills that had been passed in the wake of the wars. Although we both had been against its passage because of the dangerous suspension of due process, it obviously had its uses. Under its provisions, we would be able to take action against an entity that was threatening world peace, and we didn't have to tell any but a few, so long as our activities were well-documented. Relena was willing to co-sponsor our acts with Une. I felt a little bit leery of putting her reputation on the line, but it was reassuring to know she had faith in us.
Our business concluded, I walked her back to her rooms, during which she felt free to discuss more 'interesting' matters. "So how are you all getting along now?"
She blinked at me with artless blue eyes, and in the space of a heartbeat I was taken back to an imaginary time of gentler affairs. It was no wonder she managed to remain such a dominating force in high society. "Fine. We're getting along fine."
"And how would you define 'fine' exactly?"
She had me there. I shrugged. "It's been mostly business the last few days. And Wufei and Duo have been in west Africa. Now they're out in Luxembourg with Quatre."
"Hmm, speaking of..."
"What? Duo and me?" Did everyone always have to ask?
Couldn't they have asked how I was getting along with Trowa or someone? Having no concrete answers to give her, I sighed. "We're... getting along."
She frowned sympathetically. "That bad, huh?"
"It's not bad," I automatically protested, as if denying it could make it more true. "We're not... actively antagonist towards each other or anything. We just... have a few issues between us that aren't likely to be resolved in a mutually satisfactory manner. They don't stop us from interacting like two normal people; they just... put a strain on things sometimes."
"Ugh." She put on a sour expression that didn't quite look right on her face. "Have you thought about becoming a politician lately? You are just so bloody careful about choosing your words to make everything sound perfectly neutral."
"Should I be insulted?" I asked with a slight smile, realizing after the fact that I was borrowing a page from Duo's book and using humor in an attempt to deflect the point. I was not successful. Being far more skilled than I in this game, she just looked at me steadily until I answered with an uncomfortable shrug. "I don't say things like that to be deliberately vague, you know. I just... don't like being inflammatory. There's so much room for interpretation in words, sometimes. I could say something simple like, 'we've had a falling out,' and it'll sound like we're fighting, but we're not, and I don't want you to think that. That's all."
"You make everything sound like it's not important." Why was that such an accusation?
"I don't get excited easily, Relena. Most things aren't really that important in the grand scheme of things. This included." We came to a stop outside the door to her suite.
"I beg your pardon?" That wasn't the sort of subtlety she employed in her diplomatic dealings.
She stared more deeply at me, locking me into an eye contact I wanted to break, but couldn't. "You're sad. Disappointed, maybe."
Quatre had been giving her lessons, too, had he? Finally, I managed to tear my eyes away from hers. "Well, disappointed, of course. This is hardly how I wanted things to be. But this is the way things are, and that's that."
Her foot connected with my shin, utilizing a mild degree of force. "You are not a doormat!"
"No," I agreed mildly. "I'm not."
"Then stop that!"
Well, that was less than informative. She glared at me, her eyes hard over the pout on her lips. Was this another one of those things I could chalk up to the strangeness of females? "Why are you following this so closely?" I asked. She wanted her friends to get along, sure, but this was a little above and beyond the call of duty, wasn't it? Another question came to mind suddenly, bringing up a possibility I hadn't considered before. "You're not... You and Duo aren't... involved... are you?"
"Heavens, no!" She laughed, a little unease mixed with humor. "We're friends."
"Not even with a little bit of something unsaid hanging in the air between you?" I could see what she could be attracted to in him.
Her eyes widened before she laughed again. "Not even. What have they been teaching you in that school of yours?" I shrugged. Perhaps that had been a strange question, one whose origins I did not completely comprehend. Apparently, she had no such troubles. "Heero... is there a little bit of something unsaid hanging in the air between the two of you?"
A pause, deep and meaningful. I'd never thought so. For five years, I gave it a passing smile whenever I made eye contact with it. Maybe I even snuggled up with it at night on occasion. That was all, until I came back here and started being reminded of how that was all so very much in the past now. I had to swallow around something that had gathered in my throat. "Unsaid... perhaps."
We'd never talked about it, never followed up on it... We'd never had to. We had expected to be dead within a week or two, after all. I didn't mind that it had been brief and fleeting. I didn't mind that it was over and in the past. I didn't mind that it was as if it had never existed now. I didn't mind that I didn't quite know what it had been. It was only that... something not quite good had taken its place.
Her hand on my cheek pulled me back to the present. "Heero," she started, stopping short of further comment in favor of searching my face for answers. Though she ended up asking me a question, I think she already knew what I was going to say. "We'll always be friends, won't we?"
I wasn't na´ve. I knew what she was asking, though why she chose to bring it up now, I didn't quite understand. I chose to answer it innocently, knowing she would hear what I meant, not knowing any better how to put it. I took her hand from my face and slid it to my lips. "Always."
Her eyes lit with a contentment underscored by resignation, and it pained me that I could do nothing to make it better. The feeling was all too familiar.
last modified : 12/30/2005 14:41:38 PST