- 17 -

The incursion against Meridian Biotech was carried out smoothly.  Because the execution of warrants against such a large entity was not our forte, the five of us took a back seat to the experienced professionalism of the other Preventers Une had assigned to the case.  We had quite the army of uniforms with us in order to lock down an entire facility.  Since I was the only person without a Preventers jacket, Duo even managed to locate one for me.

After confirming the presence of all the major players, we swept in through the front doors of the building, men and women filing by in quick step as someone stopped by the front desk and showed the warrant to the receptionist.  She stuttered and tried to buzz her superiors, but a polite smile and a warning imparted to her how unnecessary such a gesture was.  Her bosses would know soon enough.

All of the exits were secured with cool efficiency.  Staff were instructed to please stay calm without an ominous baring of teeth.  But while we left the rest of the building to the others, Hoffman and Conzemius were ours.

They were conveniently holding a private meeting in Hoffman's office.  When the door opened, Hoffman immediately stood.   "What you are doing?  We're having a--"  The words died on his lips when he recognized us.  Instead, he put on an appropriately greasy smile.  "Gentlemen.  Is there something I can help you with?  I'm afraid you've interrupted me in the middle of something..."

He was on the receiving end of several nasty smiles.  We were not here on friendly business any more.  Wufei took the lead in delivering the good news.  "Henri Hoffman, James Conzemius, you are under arrest under ESUN law for illegal research involving radiogenic treatment of stem cells, use of the banned substance NBH, and manipulation of the Yersinia bacterium, all of which fall under the ESUN statute BD-three-twenty-six.  Until further notice, you are being held solely responsible for the actions of your company.  You have the right to remain silent--"

"That's impossible!" Conzemius burst out, surging out of his seat.

Duo, with the lovely privilege of standing the closest to the man, leveled a threatening look at him.  "I would strongly suggest that you sit back down, Mr. Conzemius."

He sat.  Wufei calmly finished reciting their rights.

Hoffman was a little more composed.  "I'm afraid we don't know what you're talking about, gentlemen.  Are you suggesting that people at Meridian have been conducting illegal research?"  The CEO reminded me faintly of Treize Khushrenada, only Treize had been ten times better at it.

Quatre decided to cut through all of the useless denials.   "We have solid evidence linking not only this company, but you two personally, to enough illegal activity to shut this company down permanently, prosecute a significant number of your employees, and lock you two away for a very, very long time.  Just how hard we decide to come down on you will depend on you."

There was a coldly furious, calculating look in Hoffman's eyes as he considered the possibilities.  Perhaps he was seeing the inevitability of his downfall.  Conzemius was not as gracious.  There was a reason he wasn't the CEO.  "You're bluffing," he asserted tensely.

Quatre calmly stared him down.  "Are we?  We know you're guilty, you know you're guilty, and soon enough the rest of the Earth Sphere will know it, too.  We have everything from internal memos to corpses to prove our case, and even without that, I'm sure that we'll be able to get quite a few of your own employees to turn and incriminate you once they realize how things are going down.  I would suggest you cooperate with us."

Hoffman took a non-threatening step forward, just enough to take the fore.  "What do you want from us?"

"Everything we've charged you with is a very serious crime, and we will happily prosecute you for what you've done.  Let there be no mistake about that.  But as serious as those charges are, let us not pretend that there is not something equally dangerous that you've done, that you now hold in your possession."

The CEO attempted to pretend innocence even though his expression clearly indicated that he knew exactly what we were talking about.  "What do you mean?"

Quatre continued, unperturbed.  "We were originally brought here because of the claims that Meridian Biotechnology was hacked by some terrorist agency, and in the course of our investigation, we learned that indeed, you were, only it wasn't any by outside party.  The party responsible for the system failure lay within these walls.  There was an accident involving a piece of hardware you had stolen from the Preventers.  No doubt we'll be able to locate it somewhere in this complex, but I think we'll be in a much more pleasant mood if you just tell us where to look.  Otherwise, we'll just have to tear this entire place down in our search."

"Meridian Biotechnologies is a very influential company on Earth and in space.  Our research, our products, and our programs help millions.  We provide thousands of people with employment.  If you destroy this company, you will be destroying much more than just my or James' lives."

So apparently the man had a bit of heart after all.  Or at the very least, he was not above using it to try and preserve his own skin.  Quatre took the pronouncement of doom without batting an eye.  "Do not think that we are not keenly aware of this, Mr. Hoffman, but also do not think that we will let that stop us from bringing you to justice.  There will be others to fill the holes that Meridian leaves in its passing, if it comes to that.  But it doesn't have to come to that.  It is not a question of whether we care for these millions of people.  If you care at all for these people, you will tell us what we want to know, and we will make sure that as much of Meridian as possible survives."

Hoffman walked over to the large windows overlooking the atrium of the company he had built, presiding over the crumbling of his empire with a proprietary air.  The floor below was teeming with activity.  I didn't get the feeling that Hoffman really cared about the people his company affected so much as the company itself.  He struck me as just arrogant enough to want to see his company go on, even if he couldn't go on with it.

Conzemius got that shifty-eyed look that said he was going to try and bolt while we were distracted by his boss, but Trowa and I closed ranks on the door and glared him back into his seat.  He complied, hunching in on himself and leveling a poisonous stare at his comrade.  Perhaps he was feeling betrayed by the fact that Hoffman seemed so accepting of his fate.

Hoffman turned around and pinned Duo with an intense stare, and Duo tensed under the scrutiny.  "It is truly a pity that you were unwilling to provide us with a blood sample.  L2 really is such a fascinating place.  There are so many things to be learnt there."  His gaze released Duo and swept across the rest of us.   "Mutations abound there, you know, giving rise to new adaptations in established, stagnant patterns.  Our research interests started there with the intent to study the genetic anomalies of the indigenous population.  Wouldn't it be ironic, after all, if all this time we had been seeking a cure or treatment for some terrible disease, only to find that years ago, some human had already evolved a resistance to it?  Wouldn't it have been a shame to let such a wealth of possibilities slip through our fingers?"

He turned to Duo again.  I could see that Duo refused to take a step back from the man through a stubborn exertion of will.  "I wouldn't be surprised to find that you had naturally developed some sort of immunity to the illnesses that ravage the cluster.   You might consider donating yourself to science one day.  You could hold some very beneficial answers in your genes."

This time, the tension in Duo's body came from forcibly refraining from taking a step forward and doing something he would have regretted.  I had to admit, I admired his restraint.

Quatre shifted slightly to the right, throwing his presence between the two of them as a buffer.  "Admirable goals, but you seem to have wandered away from them."

We let Hoffman have his final words before his downfall.   Explanations were good, especially when they had been properly warned that anything they said would be used against them at a later date.

The CEO turned back towards the window, hands clasped loosely behind his back.  "If we could have harnessed that power... If we could have found a way to gather all of those beneficial anomalies, all those tiny bits of evolution, and combine them into a single person... we would have had a superior member of the human race.  Although I suppose the government of L2 had similar plans, if a radically different idea of implementation."

"What do you mean?"

"Rather than gathering the positive elements, they decided to eliminate the negative elements.  I was quite captured by the notion when we came across proof in our research that they had deliberately allowed the infections to spread through the lower segments of their ranks."

Duo couldn't stop himself from commenting now.  "Yeah, and it was the self-interest of politicians and companies like this one that let them get away with it."

"Get away with it?"  Hoffman laughed darkly.  "No, they got away with nothing.  It was the disease that got away from them.  They never intended to let it kill as many as it did, but they miscalculated.  Viruses and bacteria evolve at a much faster rate than humans do because of their rapid reproduction.  They forgot that.  They thought they would be able to control the course of the disease, but it evolved beyond their ability to keep up with.  They certainly had an interesting idea, but what they lacked was a way to predict which way the disease would turn."

"Zero," I murmured.  Melancholia must have been creeping up on me again.  I found myself glad that we had spared Zero the fate of being turned to such evil purposes.

"Yes, the Zero system.  What a remarkable piece of technology.  Melded with the sheer force of nature, the potential defies all measurement."

"How does one get from the improvement of mankind to the engineering of deadly biological agents?" Trowa mused from his place beside me.

Hoffman tore his eyes away from his domain below and turned back to us.  "Small steps first.  How can we hope to understand and control the human genome when we cannot even master that of a creature infinitely less complex than we?"

The impact of his words nearly swayed me on my feet.  It seemed that every time we thought we knew what was going on, the rug got pulled out from underneath us again.  That they would decimate groups like the Condasan community for money, I could understand.   That they would do so for the sake of science sickened me.  They could just as easily have turned their minds towards engineering something that would have benefited others, but instead they chose something that would cause harm.

From a distant, objective standpoint, I could see some sort of reasoning behind that, if it weren't something as simple as money.  The development of new medicines and treatments was very carefully monitored and regulated.  If they came up with something effective, they would have had problems bringing it to market without thorough documentation of their experimental progress.  They wouldn't have to worry about what sort of side effects they conjured up if they weren't trying to cure their guinea pigs.  They would always have a market that would be willing to provide them with ideas and targets.  Death was a simpler thing.  There were so many different ways to kill a person, and far fewer to save one.

Stop that! I scolded myself harshly.  I didn't want to keep thinking these cold, callous things.

Quatre, too, had had enough.  "Where is it, Hoffman?"

He breathed in a final breath of freedom before answering.  "The backroom of B-four-sixteen."

Wufei stepped out of the room immediately to inform the search teams to secure the area in question.

Conzemius lashed out at his boss.  "You're a fool, Henri!"

Hoffman had turned back to the window.

Maybe his goals had been 'pure', so to speak, but I didn't think the rest of his employees necessarily shared his vision.  Conzemius was a fine example.  Maybe he was in it for the money, or maybe he had other research concerns, but whatever the case, he and Hoffman had parted philosophical ways, just as, perhaps, Zamora had.  We would have to remember to take that into account.

We called in some of the other Preventers to take the two Meridian executives into custody and begin the search of their offices, then met up with Wufei on the way down to this backroom of B-four-sixteen.  If Hoffman wasn't telling the truth, all bets were off on the informal deal we had struck with him.

It honestly took us a little while to find B-four-sixteen.  Even with all of the schematics that we had gathered during our jaunt through Meridian's halls two nights previous, and stopping to ask for directions from a couple of Meridian employees, and getting two members of the Meridian security team to let us into restricted areas, the labyrinthine corridors almost got us.

I surveyed the people there once we finally got to the lab.  I recognized two of them as people we had pegged as possibly being members of the secret team, according to what we had divined from their skill sets and HR information.  None of them looked particularly sinister.  They looked like they were carrying out absolutely mundane research.  How guilty were they really, I wondered.   Did they understand what they were working with?  Did they have any idea where it had come from?

We startled them as we filed into the lab, our uniforms giving us an instant air of menacing authority.  Either most of them were clueless, or they were really good actors, but I didn't get the feeling that they had any idea what was going on.  After informing them that they were working with a highly sophisticated, illegally acquired piece of computer hardware, they finally seemed to comprehend their situation.

After enduring their stammered answers to our questions, I was forced to revise my assessment.  I still thought they were mostly innocent, but only because Hoffman had this crew doing little bits of related research.  Any of the deeper research would have been done by a smaller, more discreet team, possibly after hours.  There was no way that this many people could have kept quiet about Stewart's condition or the resulting system shutdown the incident had caused.

It took us a while to get into the secured back room of the lab, and when we finally did, we encountered an unpleasant surprise.   Zero wasn't there.  It was clear that it had been at one point, what with the computers and the wires and the interfaces and the mounts, but there was one conspicuously empty spot in the middle of all of it.

I turned on one of the lab techs that had helped us get in.  "Where is it?"

"Where's what?" he squeaked nervously.

Reminding myself of my opinions regarding their innocence in this matter, I forced myself to approach the situation more calmly.  "There's something missing from this room.  Has anyone been in or out of it lately?"

When the man shrugged helplessly, I looked demandingly to his comrades, but after a minute of collective hemming and hawing, we received no answers.  The others started asking about who would have access to the secured room, while I decided to take a more direct route.

On a hunch, I commandeered one of the lab computers and accessed the security subnet with an account that wasn't mine and a password I wasn't supposed to have.  Once again, the team from that department expressed dismay at my rampant disregard for their system integrity, but I ignored them.  There was only so much one could get accomplished when going through the proper channels.  Security systems were secure because it was supposed to be very difficult to obtain any useful information from them using conventional methods.

There was one name that had popped up a little too often during our investigation into this case, and I didn't see his face here now.  I ran Zamora through the system and tracked down his activity in the building.

I got the attention of the rest of my team, and with a few stern looks at the lab technicians, they flocked around my workstation.

"Security has Zamora logged as accessing this room at oh-six-hundred."

"That would have been before any of these guys showed up," Duo observed, casting a suspicious look over his shoulder at them for the heck of it.

"Unfortunately, it also has him leaving the premises at oh-seven-hundred.  He hasn't been back."  This was becoming terribly reminiscent of the time when Brisbois had taken off with the system from HQ.

Wufei cursed softly.  "Did someone tip him off?"

"Let's talk to Hoffman," Quatre proposed.  "And in the meantime, we can let the local authorities know we're looking for him."

Leaving the lab to be secured by the Preventers force we had brought with us, we made our way quickly back to the executive offices, arriving in much less time than it had taken us to track down the lab.  Hoffman and Conzemius had been shut away into one of the conference rooms, two agents watching over them.

"Where is it?" Quatre demanded as soon as the door was closed.

Hoffman looked at him, surprised.  "I told you--"

"It's gone."

"What?"  That came from Conzemius.  While Hoffman looked concerned, Conzemius looked offended.

"Who is Marc Zamora?" I asked.

Conzemius pushed himself away from the conference table in anger and turned on his partner.  "Zamora?  That idiot!  I told you he was dangerous."

"James," Hoffman started sharply, the name a warning.

It was ignored.  "I told you he was unpredictable.  As soon as he showed he had a different agenda, we should have gotten rid of him."

"We were trying to, remember?"

"'Agenda', gentlemen?" Quatre cut in.

Conzemius clammed up sullenly, leaving the CEO to answer the question.  He seemed reluctant at first, but there are very few people that won't cave in under the force of five very powerful stares.  He cleared his throat uneasily.  "Marc Zamora... didn't agree with our decision to eschew the neural interface.  We removed him from the project last week, but suspected him of continuing to conduct unauthorized research with the system after hours."

"Research?" I repeated, a sinking feeling beginning to develop in my gut.  "Was he using the interface himself with the system?"

Hoffman shrugged.  "Maybe.  It seemed likely.  We don't suspect anyone else of working with him."

"We were hoping he would fry himself with it," Conzemius spat out.  His eyes opened wide and he shut up afterward when he realized that what he had said could have been quite incriminating.  We had not brought up the Stewart matter, and they didn't know whether we knew about him or not.

Well, this newest piece of information made things interesting, in a not particularly good way.  Using Zero could have left Zamora in an altered state.  I could easily see a man running off with the system in a paranoid fit.  This did not bode well at all.

"What sort of disagreement was this?" Quatre asked.

Hoffman took the time to straighten his tie before answering.  While he might have been delighted to see the Zero system slip through our fingers, I didn't think he liked the idea of one of his upstart underlings making off with it.  "He thought we were wasting the potential of the system by not using the interface."

"What sort of 'potential' did he believe could be attained?"

"Zamora was one of the first persons we recruited to work on the project.  The man is brilliant, despite his little... quirks.  He believes in the 'harmony' of technology and biology, to the creation of something superior to the sum of its parts.  Once we discarded the interface, I suppose we strayed a little too far from his ideas."

"What sort of man is he?  What will he do if he has the system?"

Hoffman shrugged.  "James?"

Ungracious in defeat, Conzemius scowled, but answered reluctantly.  Unfortunately, he was less than helpful.   "Zamora was a loose cannon.  Always wanted the chance to prove his ideas, thinking he was better than everyone else.  The guy was a nut.  He's probably locked in a dark closet somewhere with Zero in one hand and an interface in the other."

We needed to look into the man's background and see what we could see.  Once again leaving the rest of the operation to the agents assigned to the case, we reconvened in a different conference room and discussed our alternatives while remaining on-site.  Local authorities had put out an APB on Zamora, but he had maybe a six hour head start on us.  A man could get very far in six hours.   Just for kicks, a squad car was sent to his apartment, but there was no one there.

Meridian had a decent record on its employee.  We scrounged up a bit more information to complete the picture.  Zamora was one of the senior members of the biotechnology department.  He had rather broad interests in cybernetics, nanotechnology, computer vision, and neural networks, with two advanced degrees from prestigious colleges.  His files indicated that he had no offspring or siblings, and that both his parents had passed away some years ago.

Of particular interest to us was that he was ex-military.   Federation R&D, to be precise.  A few calls were sufficient to determine that his service had been unremarkable, stationed not too far away from here at a small base that had surrendered peacefully during Operation Daybreak.  He resigned his commission not long after and joined the private sector.

We checked to see if he had any ties to paramilitary rebel groups or the like, especially those we had suspected early on in our investigation, but as expected, we found none other than his old Federation ties.  Given his profile, we found it unlikely he would have kept up with his former comrades unless they had also been in the R&D division.  Our best guess was that he had joined the Federation only because they had plentiful funding for projects in the fields in which he was interested.  After the OZ coup brought the action to his doorstep, probably cutting down miscellaneous side projects such as Zamora's in favor of more relevant research, he had taken off for greener pastures.  We had limited access to OZ records with which to prove our theory, but the fact that the base was eventually shut down after the wars, its funds and personnel diverted elsewhere, confirmed it enough.

Duo went off with Quatre to chat up some of Zamora's co-workers.  He was noticeably disgruntled when he came back.  "Why can't evil villains ever have any friends?" he grumped, plopping back down in a chair.

Quatre smiled.  "What Duo means to say is that Zamora kept to himself.  We weren't able to find out anything useful from his co-workers."

"Other than the same sort of crap we got about Brisbois."

"We got useful information from Brisbois' co-workers," I reminded him.  "You did manage to find out a good part of his motivation, and we used those leads to direct our search."

Duo frowned uncertainly at me, as if unable to decide whether or not I was patronizing him again.  Hadn't he yet learnt that I didn't give false praise?  It was mere fact that he was the one that had uncovered the genetic purity lead.  Funny how that had come back now.  It was an interesting thought exercise to debate whether Hoffman's schemes had been designed to enhance human purity, or pollute it.

"Did Zamora annoy his co-workers in the same way Brisbois did?" Trowa asked.

Since Duo was otherwise occupied, Quatre answered.  "He worked long hours, recently more than usual.  He hinted that he had some side project of some sort, but his co-workers couldn't give us any clues as to what.  It seemed top secret.  Since he was recently diverted to the Zero project, most of his old cronies have had limited contact with him.  No one could tell us if he had any interests other than the ones we already know about.  Judging from his track record, he works on projects for the sake of research and advancement of knowledge rather than caring much for the actual goal of the project.  I don't know what he might do with the system, now that he has it."

I was forced to share my misgivings with the rest of them at this point, even though I knew it would likely bias them even further against the system.  We were all aware of this possibility, but it was one of those things that could be conveniently forgotten.  "If Zamora is unable to handle the system, it might not matter what he was like.  He may be unbalanced enough to do anything now.  Even the smallest idea could be amplified out of proportion if the system picks up on it."

Two dark looks and two pained looks filled the room before Quatre, chewing on his lip for a second, regained his business-like manner.  "Any guesses, then?  Based on what sorts of things Zero might prefer."

That was a very open-ended question.  I took a few moments to gather my thoughts and figure out what might be useful to us.   "Well... Zero is more likely to pick up on goals.  If Zamora had ideals, about the 'harmony of technology and biology', for instance, it might interpret the implementation of such an ideal as a goal."

"So it might decide to..."

"It might influence Zamora to," I corrected.  I preferred to make it clear that Zero wasn't the one that was making the decisions.

He nodded his head slightly in acknowledgment.  "So it might influence him to... try to create some harmonious creature?"

"Try to become some harmonious creature," Trowa suggested.

Duo popped in with the next proposal.  "So what would he do?  Make some sort of cyborg thingie, based on himself or not.  Whatever.  Probably someone else at first, I'd imagine, since it's probably hard to replace your arm with a mechanical one when you've only got one to work with.  So he'd need guinea pigs, maybe, and hardware.  He'd definitely need to acquire components.  I'm sure we can... Heero?"

I blinked, but continued to stare at some point in middle space.  I was too busy imagining the possibilities.  "You forgot to factor in Zero," I said slowly.

"What do you mean?"

"If I were high on Zero, and wanting to create some sort of ultimate hybrid... I'd find some way to fuse myself, or someone, with Zero.  An embedded DNI, perhaps, or a human permanently hooked up to the computer.  A remote or portable device would work well, too.  It'd be perfect.  Optimal.  Ideal."

Wufei frowned.  "I don't like where you're going with that, Yuy."

It didn't matter.  It was coming whether or not it was a pleasant idea.  "Zero is the ultimate computing machine, by its own standards and otherwise.  A human with its analytical power at his fingertips would be... immensely powerful.  Forget hardware.   That's nothing without the mind to wield it."

Silence, nervous and uneasy.  Then Duo.  "You don't have to make it sound like you'd like to try it," he said with a low, even tone.

That wasn't what I had been implying at all, but in retrospect, perhaps my tone had been admiring and intense.  I looked for a good response, and found only a weak one that didn't quite help my cause.  "It's... it would be... 'harmonious'."  I opened my mouth to try and explain more, but after a few half-formed syllables fell from my lips, I quit while I was ahead.

When talk started up again, it was careful and deliberate.  I tried to stay out of it as much as I could since I had become highly conscious of every opinion I had.  They came up with a lot of good ideas on their own.  I didn't want to give them the wrong impression of where I stood.  All I was doing was showing respect for the system and appreciation for the elegant efficiency that would be achieved upon a successful fusion of man and machine.  I hadn't meant anything more.  I didn't know if such a melding would be possible, or if it would be a good idea.  In fact, it would probably be a very bad idea with Zamora at the helm, but that was irrelevant.  I could easily follow the reasoning behind why Zero might suggest such an idea.

With my brooding silence shuffled off to the side without further comment, we re-evaluated our facts.  While Duo and Quatre had been talking to the Meridian employees about our errant biotechnician, they had also confirmed to the best of their knowledge what, if anything, might have been taken by Zamora in his flight.   Though they found his office in a slight disarray, they were assured that Zamora was accustomed to scattering his papers around in a haphazard fashion.  Naturally, his hardware was confiscated for my perusal at a later time since Zamora was apparently on the paranoid side as well.  His data was encrypted in more ways than I could break through in a few minutes.  We were also informed, however, that the man had a laptop, and since it was missing, I was fairly certain that most of the data that we would want access to was no longer within our reach.  Other than that, his office looked the same as always.  Either he had planned on coming back, or he had had little warning before our raid to clear out.  

His personal lab space was as boring and impersonal as his office.  His workstation told us that he had burnt the entire project folder on the computer to disc, but it couldn't tell us what in particular he had been interested in.  A spare neural interface was unaccounted for, as well.  Any other equipment that was missing would have to wait until we got back a complete inventory, which wouldn't be ready for at least a day, most likely more.

When we poked our heads outside of the conference room, I found myself highly impressed by the efficiency that the Preventers had managed to maintain despite the large scale of the operation.   Employees were rounded up and interviewed en masse, sorted by project and rank.  Scientists determined to be innocent were released, with stern admonitions that any attempt to leave the area and engage in any sort of suspicious activity would be interpreted as complicity.   Employees that did not pass the initial inspection were shuffled off into another room for further interrogation.

As our superior officer, Une was briefed on the situation while Quatre and Duo had been speaking to the employees, and re-briefed after we had more information.  Assured that the experienced agents in charge were thoroughly capable of handling things on their own, we were released from the Meridian investigation to start work on this latest offshoot of Zero's story.

This piece of fiction is the intellectual property of the little turnip that could. The basis for this fic, i.e. Gundam Wing, Kyuuketsuki Miyu, et al., is the property of someone else. The author can be con tacted at jchew at This has been an entirely automated message.

last modified : 12/30/2005 14:41:38 PST