Hector Simmons wasn’t looking forward to the post-murder meeting that awaited him. If there was any time at which a member of his workgroup was going to try to betray the others, it was at their first meeting after the death of their nominal overseer Dr. Fredricks. Afterwards, double dealing would become much more complicated and difficult.
He wanted to trust them. Gale Park, Kief Objawani, and Vivienne de Mers. They were the brightest engineers he knew, and the people he’d come to most respect through long hours and difficult days. Without their trust and support, Simmons knew he would be bleeding out on the floor with Dr. Fredericks gloating over his cooling corpse.
Objawani had been the one to crack the behavior modification routines buried deep in the NME transformation code. Without Kief’s genius reworking of those routines, Fredericks’ enhanced body would have allowed him out think any attempt they made to shut him down, instead of laying there, trapped and unable to fight back as Simmons pushed the button that ended him.
It had been a risk allowing Fredericks to achieve a fully transformed state. The team knew his plans for them from the future schedule of payments he’d setup to go into effect after the procedure was completed. It was an oversight on his part to think that his secure administrative account was something they each hadn’t unlocked within a week of starting their employment.
They’d read his private journal entries for years, and no one had failed to notice that all of their paychecks were scheduled to begin depositing into dummy accounts under his control effective with the completion of the tests they had just run.
Fredericks’ goals had been the conquest of the world, but he had still focused on something as petty as the project’s budget not for any practical reason but because he was a micromanaging control freak.
And now he was dust.
That had been de Mers doing. She’d engineered the destruct sequence into the NME’s transformation code. Without that, Fredericks would have eventually overcome the behavioral modifications and killed them all anyways. Vivienne had shared the poison pill which destroyed Fredericks without prompting, and that made it almost too easy to trust her.
She could have inserted it without telling anyone. She could have waited until Fredericks was transformed and had killed the rest of them before activating the switch to reduce him to dust. That would have left her with sole access to a technology that could control the world.
Simmons wasn’t entirely sure why she hadn’t.
There were plenty of practical concerns with such a betrayal of course. She might have been the first one targeted by Fredericks when he decided to kill them. Explain why she hadn’t let the others know what she’d done in that situation would have been difficult.
Or one of the others on the team could have discovered the code and removed it without mentioning the change. Or reprogrammed it to obey only their directions.
Simmons didn’t think it was any of those considerations which prompted de Mers to share her finding though. From everything he’d seen, she simply enjoyed the camaraderie the four of them shared. If Simmons could rely on that, he would feel so much better, but a part of him, the part that had been submerged too long in Tython’s cut throat culture, told him that those who you most trusted were also the ones you’d given the best reason to stab you in the back.
“Did he suffer?”
Simmons was shaken out of his brooding thoughts by Park as she took her seat in their small and well isolated conference room.
Privacy was imperative for a large part of the work they’d done. That the privacy screens in the room would also allow any of them to kill the rest without leaving the slightest trace chewed on the back of Simmon’s mind, but there was nothing he could do. This is where they always met, and the only place they could risk discussing their plans before they put them into effect.
Feeling at risk and vulnerable, Simmons had his defenses ready, but he prayed he wasn’t going to need to use them.
“Not much,” Simmons said. “He was cutoff from most of his systems when the kill command was received.”
“Damn,” Park said. “Shame we can’t bring him back and do it right this time.”
Park’s dislike for Fredericks was better expressed as a white hot rage that she compressed into the center of her chest where it burned with the fury of a thousand stars. Fredericks had mistreated all of them, but he’d been exceptional dismissive of Park’s work.
Her contribution to the team was understanding the kinesthetic responses between the body and the nano-drones which worked on it. Fredericks saw her work as too “touchy feely” to have any real value once they completed their project, but even he couldn’t deny that her expertise at the body’s overall sensory processing lead to fewer earlier terminations among their experimental population.
He couldn’t deny the results, but his nickname for her, “Placebo effect”, spoke volumes about what he believed the true source of the improvements she brought was.
“It is good the end was quick,” de Mers said, entering the room but clearly distracted by a series of virtual charts only she could see. “If it had taken longer than the expected timeframe, the NME’s preservation systems might have managed to invert the kill command and weaponize it for use on others.”
She took her seat, after adjusting it to sit slightly closer to Park. Simmons knew they shared a bond deeper than the rest of the team. Would they betray each other, or would they work together to cut the team from four to two?
Objawani was the last to join, closing the door and invoking the full privacy protocols on the room before sitting down opposite Park and de Mers.
“I just sent the finished project to all of your workspaces,” Objawani said. “We’ve got a full check done on it, and a comparison map with Frederick’s changes. Everything was at or above spec. We’re done. We’re actually done!”
The relief in his voice was palpable.
“Are we ok with the tests that were over spec?” Park asked. “We didn’t have Fredericks online for very long, so is it possible that there’s a run away thread that we missed?”
“Of course,” de Mers said. “But it doesn’t matter. Even if there is a problem, we’ll be able to fix it before it gets out of hand. The overall structure of the transformed system is solid. That’s all we needed to move forward.”
Park frowned but didn’t say anything. She was the most cautious of them all, possibly because she was able to see more cases where the functionality could go profoundly, and in some cases tragically, awry.
“This is as good as we’re going to be able to get without testing live subjects in an uncontrolled environment,” Simmons said. “However, we can’t move ahead just yet.”
That got everyone’s attention focused on him like a laser. Belated he heard the words he’d just said but in Fredericks voice. It sounded like a prelude to something more omninous, which it was, but not originating from him or directed at them.
“We still have to deal with Mr. Heartless,” he added quickly, to dispel the looks of concern that were growing on his face.
“I thought Fredericks tasked the Medusa Cluster with that?” de Mers said.
“He did,” Simmons said. “That seems to be the problem. Check out the Medusa’s latest progress reports.”
Each member of the team swiped away the dozens of various windows that cluttered their heads up displays until the found the Medusa’s most recent update.
“Hostile forces detected?” Park asked. “That’s not much of an update.”
“It’s the prelude to a status shift,” Simmons said. “The Medusa’s facility went on full lock down three microseconds after that update was posted.”
“What’s happening inside it?” de Mers asked.
“We don’t know,” Simmons said.
“You couldn’t get anything with Frederick’s executive override, or you haven’t tried it yet?” Objawani asked.
“It wasn’t able to unlock the security,” Simmons said. “It’s not disabled, it’s still working on the seven other Tython facilities I tested it on. Just not the Medusa’s.”
“Should it be? What level clearance are you supposed to need to get by the lockdown?” Park asked.
“We’re supposed to have it. Or Fredericks was,” Simmons said. “I tried using Harcroft’s most recent codes too – no luck there. The security front end just flat out doesn’t acknowledge them.”
“Are we sure it’s Tython’s security anymore?” Objawani asked.
“Yeah mean could Heartless have locked down the Medusa’s entire facility?” de Mers asked.
“I don’t think so,” Simmons said. “Not with the Medusa active inside. The Cluster has too many remote processes that could break through any external locks that tried to shut down the main processor.”
“Then what has happened?” de Mers asked.
“Heartless. He didn’t trap the Medusa. He corrupted her,” Park said. “It’s the most likely explanation isn’t it? If the Medusa was turned, it would be powerful enough to secure the facility and prevent any outside sources from accessing it.”
“That’s what I’m afraid might have happened,” Simmons said.
“It seems we must deal with this Mr. Heartless then,” Objawani said.
“I agree,” Simmons said. “Though perhaps not in an adversarial fashion.”
The others looked at him, waiting for an explanation, but guessing most of it on their own.
“We knew there would be others pursuing the same end that we were when we started out,” Simmons said. “Heartless has proven to be resourceful and intelligent beyond any projection we made. We don’t know why he’s working to perfect the Omnigrade, or how far his research on it has progressed but it’s clearly in close step with our own.”
“From the variant NME that attacked Harcroft,” de Mers said, nodding in agreement.
“And the fact that he and his mercenary survived an encounter with two of them,” Objawani said.
“Fredericks was an idiot,” Park said. “I still can’t believe he ordered that.”
“We’re lucky he did,” Simmons said. “It was a pointless waste of resources, but it distracted him when we needed him distracted and it’s shown us the depth of Heartless’ knowledge of the Omnigrade’s base functions.”
“There’s still the problem that we don’t know what this Heartless person’s objectives are,” de Mers said.
“Which is why Simmons wants to speak with them,” Park said, reading Simmon’s eyes.
He had to wonder if she saw all of his aims with the meeting.
Together, their team was potentially unstoppable. They held the key to binding the entire world together and lifting everyone up to a better tomorrow. The only thing that could bring them down was one another, and one of the few things Simmons could think of that would keep them solidly joined together in the absence of the hated Fredericks was another outside party who none of them could feel comfortable with.
It wasn’t a dynamic that would have worked for all groups, but Simmons felt that the need to present a united front before an outsider was part of the DNA of their social makeup.
Park nodded slightly, the gesture reinforcing the idea that she saw that aspect of the situation as well and agreed with him.
“It’s dangerous,” Objawani said. “Bringing anyone else into the mix at this point. We know what we want to do with the Omnigrade. This Heartless could have some very different ideas though.”
It was every bit a valid concern. Unlike Fredericks, Simmons checked his natural refusal to listen to it. The objection was one that someone planning on betraying them might put forward, but it was also a serious consideration and Objawani was right to put it on the table.
“There is one other reason to speak with Mr. Heartless,” Simmons said. “The Medusa Cluster was given priority clearance to some of our earlier work.”
“When?” de Mers asked, her eyes narrowing as the implications of that became instantly apparent.
“After we unlocked the activation sequence,” Simmons said. “And it’s part of the Medusa’s crisis protocol that she is allowed to utilize any Tython resource for her self-defense.”
“So the facility?” Park asked, drawing in a breath.
“Everyone there…” Objawani said, unable to finish the thought.
“They are probably all fully activated NMEs now,” Simmons said. “And they’re under Heartless’ control.”