Nightwatch: Jigsaw Creek
By Robert Moriyama
Nightwatch Created by Jeff Williams
Developed by Jeff Williams and Robert Moriyama
Simon Litchfield shrugged and leaned closer to the fold-out monitor occupying one end of the table in the Popular Culture section of the Nightwatch Institute library.
"I still fail to see why the Institute -- particularly our part of the Institute -- should be interested in traffic accidents in an old mining town," he said. "We do have a much larger problem to deal with, and not much time to spare."
"Just pay attention," Callow repeated.
The screen filled with a view of an intersection in what Callow had said was the town of Jigsaw Creek, West Virginia, population 1,682. From the look of it, this was probably the center of what passed for 'downtown' in a community of this size; single-story storefronts lined both sides of the two streets, with the occasional two- or three-storey 'skyscraper' with apartments on the upper floors. Two wires formed an 'X' over the middle of the intersection, and a four-sided traffic signal hung from the center of the 'X'.
"Quite busy, for a ghost town," Simon remarked. The number of cars and more, the apparent newness of many of them, seemed odd somehow. Callow had said that the town's main employer, the Jigsaw Creek Coal Company, had folded nearly two years earlier, and over a thousand jobs had been lost. Still, Simon could see no vacant stores, no signs of neglect or decay, and there were a lot of shiny new cars. Something was keeping the town alive.
After a few minutes, Simon said, "The timing of the signals is a bit odd -- are they controlled entirely by traffic sensors in the road bed?"
"Not exactly," Callow said. "Keep watching."
Suddenly the view panned away from the center of the intersection and zoomed in on a single car -- a late-model convertible -- still perhaps 20 meters from the corner. The convertible slowed to a stop at the intersection to wait for the green light.
"What's so special about that car?" Simon asked.
The camera zoomed out again to show traffic on both streets. Traffic on the cross street diminished until there was only a single vehicle, a large black SUV. And then --
"Bloody hell -- both signals are green at the same time!"
The convertible pulled into the intersection, just in time to be struck by the SUV. Simon's memories of accidents in his own past supplied the crunch of collapsing metal and plastic to go with the silent images on Callow's monitor. The driver's side of the convertible crumpled like an empty beer can, and the two vehicles, locked together by the impact, skidded at least 10 meters further before coming to a stop.
"Poor bastard! Probably never knew what hit him -- or why," Simon said. "Was it some kind of sabotage? Where did this video come from? And who was in the car that got T-boned?"
"The video came from one of the Town of Jigsaw Creek's traffic cameras," Callow said. "It feeds directly to a supercomputer, which, to answer your earlier question, also controls the traffic signals in the town -- not that there are that many to control. The driver was Peter McTiernan, a local man."
"How could a town that size afford a supercomputer-driven traffic system?" Simon asked. "And how could any computer, 'super' or not, make a mistake like turning opposing traffic signals green at the same time?"
"The supercomputer belongs to the American subsidiary of CE International -- that's Cerveaux Électroniques, in case you haven't heard of them. The company recently opened a branch facility in Jigsaw Creek, and employs about half the adult population -- including Mr. McTiernan, until his unfortunate demise."
"Cerveaux Électroniques -- electronic brains," Simon said. "Based in France, I presume --"
"Quebec, actually," Callow said. "They do have offices in most of the European Union capitals, but head office is in Montreal."
Simon shrugged. "Fine. So CE has a branch office in a little mining town, and they're using the town as a test bed for some fancy traffic control system -- one with some nasty bugs in it, from the looks of things. But why are we interested?"
"CE provides computing resources for several U.S. government agencies, including military and intelligence services," Callow said. "The computers serving those requirements are based in Jigsaw Creek."
"Those 'requirements' wouldn't happen to include measures to deal with that imminent unpleasantness I mentioned, would they?"
"A CE supercomputer in Jigsaw Creek plays a critical role in that effort, yes," Callow said.
"The same supercomputer as the one controlling the traffic system?"
Callow shook his head. "It's impossible to tell. From what Ms. Keel tells me, CE's supercomputers are actually -- what was the term she used? -- massively parallel networks of smaller processors. At any given moment, a particular demand may be served by some thousands of nodes in those networks; a picosecond later, an entirely different array may be involved."
"They've at least debugged the traffic control program, I hope," Simon said.
"They tried," Callow replied. "There was nothing wrong with the code, as far as they have been able to tell, and nothing wrong with the hardware -- vision systems, control systems, communications protocols, and the processing nodes themselves appear to be working perfectly. As you can imagine, given the importance of the -- other work -- those processors are handling, they tested and retested every component and replaced anything that appeared to be even infinitesimally off spec. What you just saw on my screen was -- an untraceable glitch."
"Untraceable and fatal," Simon said. He scrubbed his face with both hands, then ran his long-fingered, scarred hands through his unruly mass of silver hair. The images of the mangled convertible had revived memories of a crash similar to the one he had just seen -- a crash intended to end the career of one Simon Litchfield. That time, Alan Pritchard had been driving, and he, not Simon, had paid the price for Simon's meddling in areas where he was not welcome. He'd almost forgotten Alan Pritchard, but now he had to add the construction foreman to the list of friends, colleagues and strangers who had died for sins not their own.
"Are you still with me, Simon? This matter is quite urgent, as you well know."
Simon shook his head and exhaled sharply. Callow was, for a change, right. There were larger issues at play here -- and thousands, if not millions of lives at stake.
"I presume we are investigating in case there are more -- glitches -- that affect something a bit larger than a traffic light," he said at last.
"Astute as always," Callow said. "But there have already been more glitches -- just none with consequences that have become public. Signals and gates at railway crossings have malfunctioned, computer-controlled drug delivery systems in the local hospital have scrambled dosages and even the type of medication -- two other people have died, several more have been injured, and there have been thousands of dollars in property damage. Not that you would care about that last item."
Simon frowned. "Bloody right I wouldn't, not when people are being killed. CE and the government can't just pull the plug, I suppose."
Callow shook his head. "The backup systems are CE as well, although not in Jigsaw Creek, and they don't have the capacity to carry the load for long. And the backups for the backups might as well be a roomful of chimps with abaci -- abacuses -- slide rules by comparison."
"I'll need Stephanie on this one, of course," Simon said. "I'm a civil engineer, not a computer expert."
"She has already been briefed," Callow said. He smiled thinly. "I am well aware of your many skills, Simon -- including those you prefer to hide -- and equally aware of your lack of current computer expertise."
Simon said nothing in reply, but he hoped the look in his eyes told Callow how much he would like to demonstrate some of his less-documented skills. It was a shame he'd had to return that Magnum to Squibb's version of the Cave of the Forty Thieves; even if Callow hadn't quite believed that Simon would shoot him, the size of the thing alone had made the bastard sweat. Then again, Squibb had insisted that Simon pay for the extra rounds he had fired down in Callow's underground lair, and the damn things were surprisingly expensive.
He stood and walked out of the library without looking back.
"I really would have preferred to take my car on this trip," Stephanie said. "This thing makes me feel like a soccer mom." As if to compensate for the ungainly appearance of the Nightwatch mini-van, she was driving in a fashion that had Simon struggling to look nonchalant while maintaining a white-knuckled grip on his armrest. The trip through the Appalachian Mountains on curving, swooping Highway 33 had been a memorable one, with breathtaking views of the thickly-forested mountains -- all blurred due to the speed that Stephanie insisted was justified by the urgency of their mission.
"A Shaolin Soccer Mom, perhaps," Simon said through gritted teeth. "You know, a Soccer Mom who commits mayhem in spectacular and mystifying ways."
"I don't do that flowery kung fu stuff, Simon. Would you like a hands-on demo of how I actually fight?"
Simon winced and quickly changed the subject. Stephanie's combat skills were not at all suited to sparring or no-contact demonstrations, and he wasn't at all certain that he could defend himself without at least one of them sustaining a painful injury or two. "I do agree that this warehouse on wheels lacks style," he said. "But you were the one that said the gear you wanted to bring along wouldn't fit in that little sports car of yours."
"Not unless we wanted to spend the whole trip without a change of clothes -- and I know you'd never stand for that," Stephanie said. She sighed. "Anyway, I guess it's just as well -- this way, I'm not risking my baby's paint job on crappy West Virginia gravel roads," Stephanie said.
Simon spent the next several minutes looking at Stephanie out of the corner of his eye. She looked quite fetching, as always, with her glossy black hair pulled back in a ponytail and her face still looking freshly-scrubbed even after hours of driving. The bubble vest and sweatshirt over loose-fitting jeans did a fair job of hiding her other charms, but Simon had seen her in tight workout clothes in their semi-regular racquetball matches, and was all too familiar with how lithe and strong she was. His feelings for her had evolved beyond the original fraternal or even paternal protectiveness that had emerged when he had found her in William Gryphius's little chamber of horrors -- he knew only too well that she no longer needed that kind of protection. Now he felt -- what? Admiration for her beauty, courage, and remarkable repertoire of skills, certainly; affection, mixed with just a hint of lust, perhaps. But she was no Gillian Eckleberry; many more years of living a much different life would be needed to even approximate that dear woman's qualities.
"Damn it, I missed the turnoff," Stephanie said. "The files in this navigational rig must be ten years out of date."
"I must admit there seem to be quite a few new roads, and even the older ones seem to be in remarkably good shape, considering the state of the economy in this area," Simon said. "We may not even encounter any of the gravel roads you so feared."
"Oh, ha ha. If you had any idea what that custom paint job cost me, you'd congratulate me for my prudence in trying to protect it."
"There's another turnoff just ahead," Simon said, just managing to spot a small sign as they rocketed past.
"Got it," Stephanie replied, cranking the steering wheel so fast that Simon would have sworn that they made the turn on at most two wheels.
"We'll have to go back," Simon said. "I think my digestive tract spun out and landed in the ditch back there."
"Sissy. You should be glad this trip is too short to use one of the jets. Imagine the fun you'd have with Bill Starsmore trying to land Nightbird One on a grass airstrip that's a couple hundred meters too short. I hear trying to bring a plane in is loads of fun when there are mountains in the way."
"At least Nightbird One is supposed to spend its time airborne --"
"You want me to slow down? People are dying, Simon," Stephanie said. "That traffic fatality -- I'm not sure you could call it an accident -- scrambled medication orders in the hospital, the railroad crossing gate that trapped a car in the path of an oncoming freight train, all traceable to CE's Jigsaw Creek computers. And worse things could happen if we can't figure out why and how the CE supercomputer is screwing up. CE systems will be doing the tracking and aiming for the laser and particle beam platforms, and the first major test is in two weeks."
"Too much money and too many powerful people involved -- and too little time -- to find an alternative to CE's machines, I suppose," Simon said. "Besides, Tom Weldon would be rather annoyed if all that training he's been doing is wasted because some machinery isn't ready in time."
"The test is going ahead no matter what we find," Stephanie said, "so we not only have to locate the problem or problems, we have to fix them, or --"
"In this case, I suppose there is no 'or'", Simon said. "All right. No more witty repartee. You're the computer genius -- how do you plan to approach the problem while I do the old-fashioned legwork?"
Stephanie frowned. "Since we're not cleared to poke around in CE's business, I'll have to hack my way in," she said. "It won't be easy to break into their systems. Since CE has NSA and Homeland Security programs running on the machines in Jigsaw Creek, the security is sure to be state-of-the-art."
"I hear a 'however' coming," Simon said. "I presume that means that your art is ahead of their art..."
"We have some pretty high clearances and remote access to high-security networks through the Institute's computers," Stephanie said. "Ordinarily, that wouldn't be enough to do an end run around the Jigsaw Creek firewalls, but --"
"Crap. Did the sign at that intersection we just passed say Jigsaw Creek?"
Simon consulted the GPS map display. "I don't think it could have, unless they moved the whole town after the mine closed. Finish what you were saying, please. But what?"
Stephanie glanced at the map display, looked back at the road, and stopped the van. She pressed a button to switch the dashboard display to rear-view video, and put the van in reverse until they reached the crossroads sign they had been unable to read.
"Jigsaw Creek, 5 miles thataway," Stephanie said. "Nice navigating, Mr. World Traveler."
"But the road goes in entirely the wrong direction!"
"That's assuming that the road is more or less straight," Stephanie said. "This road and that road could both turn into freaking spirals over the next hill for all we know. I'm following the damn sign anyway, because our navigational display has been worse than useless out here."
As Stephanie had anticipated, the new road curved sharply and went through an underpass, ending up aligned almost perfectly with the GPS display's bearing for their destination. The road, although narrow, was in perfect condition, the nearly-virgin blacktop an inky line scrawled through the surrounding forest on a gradual descent into a narrow, curving valley. They arrived in town -- what there was of it -- a few minutes later.
"This is it," Simon said. "This is the intersection in Callow's show-and-tell video."
Stephanie pulled the van up to the intersection slowly, coming to a full stop in spite of the green traffic signal suspended above the center of the crossroads. "Let's look both ways before we cross the street," she said.
"No traffic," Simon said. "Where is everybody?"
"Working, I guess," Stephanie said. "It's a little before 5 o'clock, so most businesses haven't closed for the day. Mind you, I don't know what hours the CE facility keeps, and they employ half the working population of the town."
"Even so, there should be some traffic, and some people on the street," Simon said. "Retirees, children, stay-at-home parents... Assuming that all the little shops we can see are open, where are the customers?"
Stephanie shrugged. "Okay, it's a little spooky. But we're the brave and resourceful Nightwatch Flying Squad. We're used to spooky."
"If you say so," Simon said. "Anyway, let's find the hotel and see if there's anybody there we can talk to."
"It should be just a stone's throw away," Stephanie said. "In fact, in a town this size, it pretty much has to be."
Stephanie accelerated through the light, which had gone through a full cycle without the appearance of another vehicle, and found the Jigsaw Creek Hotel less than a kilometer away. The four-storey wooden frame building was painted a cheerful yellow with dark brown trim and seemed to be in excellent condition. Aside from its resemblance to structures in century-old photographs, it looked like could have been built yesterday.
"I guess they don't get a lot of big conventions here," Stephanie said. "Couldn't be more than a couple dozen rooms in there, and that's if they're the size of your walk-in closet. Grab our bags and see if you can get us checked in -- just the suitcases, I'll take care of the electronic stuff after I tie our noble steed to the hitching post."
Simon raised one eyebrow. "Hitching post?"
"I was trying to get into the spirit of the place, but fine, be that way. I'll bring my gear in after I park the van, okay? The sign says guest parking is around back."
Simon retrieved their suitcases from the back of the van -- a suit bag and small duffel bag for him, a somewhat larger duffel for Stephanie -- and carried them toward the front doors of the hotel. As he walked, he noticed small dark-glass half-domes in surprisingly many places -- security cameras for the hotel? A glance at the neighboring buildings disproved that theory; the cameras seemed to be everywhere.
More eyes for the supercomputer, perhaps. That might make any clandestine movement around town somewhat challenging.
The clerk at the hotel desk appeared to be sleeping with his eyes open. Simon had to ring the old-fashioned bell twice before the man stood, yawned and stretched.
"Sorry to keep you waiting," the man said. "I was just wool-gathering there -- thinking, I mean." He looked to be close to Simon's age, but was comfortably rotund and all but completely bald.
"Name's Jim Fordham," the man said. "I guess from that gear you're lugging that you're checking in?"
Simon smiled. "Excellent guess. Actually, we'll need two rooms, one for me, and one for my colleague. She's just outside, parking our vehicle."
Fordham tilted his head to one side. "Gee, two rooms. Right in the middle of our peak season, too." He laughed. "You folks'll be the biggest crowd we've had in here in months. If you'll just sign the register --"
To Simon's surprise, the register was an old-fashioned hard-bound ledger.
"With CE in town, I'd have expected everything to be done on a touch-screen," he said as he wrote his name and Stephanie's into the book.
"They offered," Fordham said. "But I figured the paper-and-ink register kinda went with the look of the place." He retrieved the register and glanced at the Institute address Simon had entered for both himself and Stephanie.
"Georgetown, eh? Guess you must be government types -- we get a few now and then, because of those contracts CE has with the Feds. Well, I hope you have a pleasant stay, anyway."
Simon handed over his Institute paycard, and Fordham waved it past a scanner hidden under the desk before returning it. "Some things you have to do the modern way, whether it goes with the decor or not."
Fordham produced two keycards from a dispenser under the desk after pressing a few keys -- Simon could hear the clicking of the keyboard and the whir-clunk of the card machine. "You're in Rooms 1 and 2, just down the hall. No point in making you climb stairs -- the rooms are all the same anyway."
Stephanie entered, carrying several small metal cases in her hands, with two more small bags suspended from shoulder straps that criss-crossed her chest. Simon knew that most of that gear was heavier than it looked, and in total might have been as heavy as the luggage he had carried in. Stephanie carried the load with no apparent strain, probably thanks to her fondness for strenuous exercise.
Fordham came out from behind the desk in a rush, his face lighting up as he got a good look at Stephanie. "Here, little lady, let me help you with some of that!"
He stopped short as he ran headlong into a less-than-welcoming stare from Stephanie.
"I'm not that little, and Simon here will tell you that I'm frequently not a lady," Stephanie said. "Anyway, this gear is rather delicate, and I prefer to handle it myself. You can help Simon with the other bags, if you like."
His face red, not quite cringing, Fordham retreated to Simon's side and picked up Stephanie's suitcase. "Your rooms are this way," he said meekly, and headed towards the rear of the building.
"Don't worry, Mr. Fordham. She treats everyone with equal contempt," Simon said, earning a glare from Stephanie that would have turned his hair white if it hadn't been pigment-challenged already.
With the bags deposited in their respective rooms, Fordham turned to leave. Stephanie stopped him with a touch on the shoulder.
"Mr. -- Fordham, was it? Sorry if I was a little bitchy back there. It was a long drive from Washington -- especially with Simon, there, navigating -- and I'm a little tired."
Fordham grinned, his face turning red again. "It's -- you weren't -- I'm sorry if --"
"Is there a restaurant nearby? It's been hours since we ate," Simon said.
Fordham blinked several times, trying to get his mind back in gear. "Millie's is just a few doors down," he said. "Nothing fancy, but good home cooking and easy on the wallet."
"That'll be fine," Simon said. "Do we have time to freshen up before she closes the kitchen, or should we go now?"
"She? Oh, no, the cook at Millie's is Johnny Ardmore. Millie was his wife. Passed away from lung trouble a few years ago, poor dear." Then Fordham remembered Simon's question, and said, "I'll give Johnny a call, in case he was planning on closing early. You two can go over in a little while -- he'll wait for you."
"Thank you so much," Stephanie said, and Simon rolled his eyes at Fordham's obvious pleasure at receiving any signs of warmth from her.
Simon hung his suit bag on a coat hook in his room, then took a quick shower. He donned clean underclothes, but put on the clothes he had worn in the van. He would have preferred to change into one of the other suits he had brought along, but there was no telling how long they would be staying. Anyway, he had lived in the same clothes for weeks at a time on some overseas jobs; a day or two wouldn't kill him.
He set one of the pea-sized security cameras that Melvin Squibb had included in the standard travel kit to cover the door, then exited from the room and knocked on Stephanie's door.
"Are you decent, Stephanie?"
"I'm too hungry to make moral judgments right now, Simon," Stephanie answered. "Come in while I finish fixing my hair."
Simon entered to find that Stephanie not taken the opportunity for a shower. Despite her reference to fixing her hair, she was tapping away at the keyboard on one of her specialized computers.
"Hey, Simon, you clean up real nice," she said without looking up. "You should bathe more often."
"And apparently, you should bathe, period," Simon retorted.
"I have at least two hours left on my 24 hour deodorant," Stephanie said.
"Did you notice the cameras? They seem to be everywhere."
Stephanie nodded, but held one finger to her lips while she retrieved a small device from a pocket in her bubble vest. After a few seconds, a green light on the device started to blink rapidly.
"The room's not bugged -- at least I don't think it is. There's a lot of EM flying around, probably signals from the cameras and God knows what else CE has put in this town, but nothing strong enough to indicate a source in here."
"A few cameras covering their major intersection to feed a traffic-control program makes sense, at least as a test bed for a marketable product," Simon said. "But what are all the other cameras for?"
Stephanie shook her head. "I've read about these coal mining towns," she said. "People used to be virtual prisoners in them, as long as they owed money to the company store -- which they always did. But why CE would want to monitor people's movements, I have no clue."
"It wouldn't be a security measure demanded by NSA or Homeland Security," Simon said. "I've been in a lot of places with higher security requirements than this, and ubiquitous video surveillance has never been part of the protection."
"Weird," Stephanie said. "Anyway, I guess I should answer your question."
"Back in the van, you asked, 'but what?'"
Simon frowned, confused, then grunted. "I am getting old. You're supposed to tell me what wonderful shape I'm in when I say that, you know."
"Oh, Simon, what wonderful shape you're in -- for an octogenarian," Stephanie said. "Anyway, the 'but' is that CE uses a lot of wireless networking in all its facilities. The networks themselves are protected by enough black ice -- to use an old cyberpunk term -- to fry most intruders, but I'm not most intruders. So -- if I sample enough of the data flying around town, I should be able to pick up enough of the protocols for our Institute computers to slide through the firewalls. Then if we come in via the Institute network, through a DOD hub --"
Simon winced. "You're telling me that you plan to hack into a Department of Defense system just so you can con your way past CE's security? I hear Leavenworth, Kansas is lovely this time of year. Too bad they closed down Guantanamo Bay, though -- it would be nice to spend time in the Caribbean with winter overstaying its welcome as it has been."
Stephanie wrinkled her nose and stuck out her tongue. "For a man of action, sometimes you're such a wimp."
"We'd better go eat," Simon said. "I'd like to see some more of the local residents to see if our Mr. Fordham is typical."
"What does that mean? Did Fordham do something odd before I came in?"
Simon grinned. "My turn to be a pain in the ass," he said.
"That would imply that you occasionally take a break from being a pain," Stephanie retorted, but she followed him out of the room and closed the door behind her. She pressed a small wad of what looked like chewing gum into the crack between the door and the frame, close enough to the floor that it was hidden by the shadows cast by the wall-mounted lights.
Stephanie waved to Fordham as they passed the desk on their way out, but Fordham did not react. "Seems funny that he was all puppy-dog eager to please earlier, but doesn't acknowledge our presence now," she said.
As they walked down the street in the direction that Fordham had indicated earlier, Simon said, "That is what Fordham was doing when I first came in. I had to ring the bell twice before he so much as blinked."
Stephanie shook her head. "Maybe he has narcolepsy," she said. "Or even petit mal epilepsy."
"I'm sure he'd wave back if he was entirely with us," Simon said. "I think the old fellow has a crush on you."
"I hope not," Stephanie said. "It's bad enough having you hanging around all the time."
Simon sniffed. "I do not hang around you. Our work, and our racquetball matches, just happen to bring us together fairly often when we are both in town..."
"Uh huh. And every time you get a new outfit, you have to show it off for me first."
"I am hoping to improve your own sense of style by example," Simon said. "Speaking of style, that was a rather unsightly way to dispose of your chewing gum -- sticking it to the doorframe, I mean."
"It was piezo-electric crystals in a pliable semiconductor matrix, not chewing gum," Stephanie said. "Once the stuff dries, if anybody opens the door, the current generated will power a transceiver chip. The chip will send a signal to my comm box, which will relay a message to me on my -- you know all this, don't you?"
"Melvin showed it to me last month," Simon said, grinning. "I told him I prefer to use the micro-cameras -- you can see who the intruder was that way. And there's no external signal to be picked up..."
"I set up a micro-cam, too," Stephanie said. "But my way, I'll know someone's been messing with my gear before I go into the room."
"Here's Millie's," Simon said.
Millie's, like the hotel, was a wooden frame building, this one a single storey in white with navy blue trim. A wooden sign (Millie's Home Cooking) hung from a wrought-iron support over the door; a few tables and a diner-style counter with a half-dozen stools was visible through the plate-glass picture window.
As they entered, the man behind the counter smiled. "Evening, folks. I'm Johnny Ardmore -- Jim Fordham said I should keep the grill hot 'til you had a chance to eat."
"Thank you for staying open a bit late for us," Simon said. "I gather the townsfolk tend to dine early."
Ardmore ushered them to one of the tables near the front window, holding the chair for Stephanie as she sat down.
"The few who don't cook for themselves come in before 5 o'clock and head home as soon as they finish," Ardmore said. "Since CE came to town, we get satellite TV for next to nothing -- you can see the damnedest things these days, a lot different from getting a lousy signal from Weston or Buckhannon."
"Well, we won't keep you too long," Stephanie said. "What would you recommend?"
"Meatloaf and mashed potatoes you can have right away," Ardmore replied. "Or if you like, I can do you up a steak, pork chops, or a burger. No wine or hard liquor, I'm afraid, but we have cold Cheatwater Gold... "
"The meatloaf sounds fine, and the beer sounds better," Stephanie said. "Simon?"
"I'll have the same," Simon said, smiling.
"I'll have your food out in just a minute," Ardmore said. He went through a swinging door to one side of the lunch counter -- presumably the meatloaf was in a warming oven.
"Meatloaf," Simon groaned. "And I always look forward to eating Stateside after living on whatever the local cuisine is on a project site."
"Oh, stop whining," Stephanie said. "It beats grubs, or cobra guts, or whatever the hell it was you said you ate in Sri Lanka."
"We'll see," Simon said. "Who knows what constitutes the 'meat' in meatloaf?"
"Mr. Ardmore seemed lively enough -- a lot livelier than Fordham," Stephanie said. "But then, he knew we were coming and was waiting for us."
Simon nodded. "It would be interesting to see what state he would be in when he's not expecting anyone."
"And satellite TV or not -- there are just not enough people on the streets," Stephanie said.
Ardmore returned, placing heavily-burdened plates in front of each of the Nightwatch agents. Two generous slices of meatloaf, a mound of mashed potatoes with gravy, and what looked like a full cup of baby peas covered each plate, and the aroma of braised beef and onions made Simon and Stephanie bow their heads to capture more of the scent. Simon found himself salivating in spite of his earlier complaints, and ate with considerable enthusiasm. Stephanie filled her mouth with potatoes to smother her urge to tease Simon, then lost interest in anything but the food.
"Mmf. Mr. Ardmore, this is wonderful," she said.
Ardmore grinned. "It's all genuine home cooking," he said. "The 'taters I peeled, boiled and mashed the old fashioned way, with butter and milk; even the breadcrumbs in the meatloaf are from bread I baked yesterday."
Simon said nothing, but nodded to indicate his approval while continuing to shovel food into his mouth.
"I have some apple pie for dessert, if you'd care for some," Ardmore said. "From the looks of things, you two must've been running on empty when you came in."
After dinner, Simon and Stephanie staggered out into the street, sighing in contentment.
"I would never have believed that such simple fare could be so compelling," Simon said.
"It nearly compelled you to lick your plate clean," Stephanie said. "I had to tell Mr. Ardmore that your table manners have been compromised by too many campfire meals."
Simon blushed. "At least I am not wearing a mashed potato dickey."
Stephanie pulled the front of her sweatshirt out and peered down at it. "Crap. Guess I'll be changing clothes sooner than I'd planned."
"Most of the other storefronts are dark," Simon said. "We won't be able to see if anyone else suffers from Mr. Fordham's -- narcolepsy."
Stephanie nodded. "If we find a bunch of people with the same condition, it'll be another piece of the puzzle. If it's just Fordham, it's just Fordham, and probably has nothing to do with whatever is going wrong with CE's computers."
"I wonder how soundly Fordham is sleeping, or whatever it is he's doing," Simon said. "He called it wool-gathering, but it would take years to make a sweater the way he was doing it."
"What did you have in mind?" Stephanie asked.
"If we can do so without waking him, I'd like to try the ultrasound scanner on him," Simon said.
"Man, you love that thing," Stephanie said. "You never go anywhere without it."
"I'd give him a full-body MRI instead, but I don't happen to have a multi-ton imaging device in my pocket," Simon said.
"Are you thinking implants?"
"According to my research, CE International recently purchased Pharmatronics, a company that produces -- produced, it isn't clear what they do now -- neuromorphic chips. Cochlear and retinal implants, and cerebral interface chips for control of prosthetics. It seemed like an odd thing for a computer hardware and software company to do -- branching out into medical hardware."
"Your research, huh," Stephanie said. "I seem to recall that some of my staff were tied up doing an urgent job for you just before we left Georgetown..."
"Be that as it may, I find myself wondering exactly what jobs coal-miners and shopkeepers can do for a cutting edge computer and bio-electronics company."
"Secret guinea pigs for new implants, maybe?" Stephanie said. "Not necessarily illegal, if they have informed consent from the participants, but probably borderline. That still wouldn't explain the supercomputer glitches."
Fordham was still 'wool-gathering' when they returned to the hotel. Stephanie and Simon returned to their respective rooms, Simon to retrieve the ultrasound scanner ("Contrary to your claims, I was not carrying it on my person."), Stephanie to get some of her less-obtrusive signal sniffing gear. They returned to the lobby a few minutes later and began working as quietly as possible, in spite of Fordham's near-catatonic state.
"There's a lot of EM traffic here -- both incoming and outgoing traffic, it looks like, with a transmitter right in this room," Stephanie said.
"Well, Fordham does have the usual point-of-sale gear and a keycard printer under his desk," Simon said. "Could you be picking up typical network polling for that sort of thing?"
Stephanie shook her head. "Way too much traffic. Has to be data streams, in both directions. But what kind of implants would be receiving that much data from an external source?"
"Let's see if we can confirm that our Mr. Fordham is the local transmitting and receiving station, and then worry about what he may be inputting and outputting," Simon said. Carefully, he sidled around Fordham's desk until he could bring the probe from the pocket-sized ultrasound imager to bear on the hotel clerk's motionless form.
"Nice footwork," Stephanie said.
"My sensei at the Kodokan thought so, too," Simon said. "Morna, on the other hand, said that I have two left feet on the dance floor. Now hush, please -- I have to bring the probe as close as possible without touching Mr. Fordham's nicely polished cranium."
Moving his hand with the slow-motion grace of a tai chi practitioner, Simon made several passes around Fordham's head and shoulders with the ultrasound emitter/pickup, doing his best to cover all angles. Then he straightened and extricated himself from the tight confines of Fordham's work space, ending up at Stephanie's side in the middle of the room.
"Couldn't scan his back below the shoulders -- the chair was in the way," Simon said. "But if there's anything unusual in his head or neck, we should be able to spot it."
He triggered the visualization sequence, and the imager produced a wire-frame picture of Fordham's head. A white fog of varying densities then filled the wire-frame, with the more solid elements represented as distinct, opaque or nearly opaque shadows.
"You missed a few spots," Stephanie said.
"It was that, or poke him in the nose with the probe," Simon replied. "I rather suspect that he might have awakened if I did that."
Thumb pressure on a directional pad set the completed image rotating slowly. Almost immediately, Stephanie said, "Bingo. We have a fairly large structure right at the base of the skull and extending into the visual cortex, and one -- two -- shit, there must be a half dozen smaller implants in the temporal lobes, the hippocampus --"
"Pretty fancy gear you have there," Fordham said.
Simon spun in place, tossing the ultrasound imager to one side. His hands moved automatically into position to strike or to deflect an attack. Beside him, he could sense Stephanie shifting into a kickboxer's half-crouch.
"Whoa, whoa, no need to get all worked up now," Fordham said, raising his open -- and empty -- hands in surrender. "Were you two talking about the little doohickeys CE put in my head?"
Simon took a deep breath, forcing himself to relax. "Yes. I was concerned by your -- condition, and used some diagnostic tools I had with me to give you a sort of check-up."
Fordham smiled. "Oh, yeah. You signed in as Doctor Simon Litchfield. Guess you thought I might be sick or something."
Simon glanced at Stephanie and saw that she was smirking, obviously stifling the urge to shout, "He's not that kind of doctor!" as she had done more than once in the past, spoiling his approach to some rather attractive women.
"That's right," Simon said, glaring at Stephanie until she managed to suppress her amusement. "My nurse and I were just discussing the readings I obtained. You do have some very unusual -- doohickeys -- in your head."
"I work part-time for CE," Fordham said. "A lot of the folks in town do -- without the extra money CE pays us, we would have had to pack up and leave by now."
"Since the mine closed, you mean," Stephanie said. "We were wondering how the town could afford so many improvements, the roads, the cameras everywhere..."
"All provided by CE," Fordham said. "Those people are angels. They shaved my head -- not much different from its natural state anyway -- and poked a few little holes in my skull, so small I never felt them, didn't need so much as a Band-Aid afterwards. After that, the money started coming in, regular as clockwork. And all I have to do to earn it --"
"Is 'wool-gathering'," Simon said.
"Not much to keep a fellow occupied, in this business or most of the others left in this town," Fordham said. "So in my idle moments, I lend CE some of my thinking power, or so they told me. I told 'em that I didn't have that much going on between my ears, but they said it didn't matter. Didn't need special training, or even regular education, the doohickeys would take care of everything."
"The supercomputer," Stephanie said. "At least some of the nodes in the network must be people like you."
Fordham laughed. "Me, part of a supercomputer? Now that's pretty funny, when I can barely balance my bank account without taking off my shoes and socks."
Simon frowned. "You said you work part-time for CE -- I guess you get your brain back when you need to do something like check in a guest."
"Something that demands your attention in the real world must function like an 'interrupt' in a computer -- a key press or mouse click, or the reset button -- taking priority over the CE processing," Stephanie said.
Fordham shrugged. "If you say so, Miss -- er, Nurse Keel."
"Does anybody work full time for CE? I mean, anyone who lived here before CE arrived," Simon asked.
Fordham nodded. "Quite a few of the boys who used to do the actual mining are on full-time," he said. "I think they go in and stay for a couple weeks at a time, then take a couple weeks off, sort of like firefighters."
"I presume this would be at CE's offices in Jigsaw Creek," Simon said. "I don't think we saw the building on our way into town. Could you tell us where it is?"
"Sure thing," Fordham said. "It's easy enough to find. You go back to that intersection with the four-way signal light, and hang a right. It's about a mile past the edge of town -- which means it's about a mile and a quarter from the intersection!"
Simon retrieved his ultrasound scanner from the corner where he had thrown it when startled by Fordham's sudden awakening. It was undamaged; it had been designed for use in the field by pipeline engineers, and enhanced for other purposes by -- one of Melvin Squibb's sources, whoever or whatever they might be.
"Thank you for your openness, Mr. Fordham," Simon said. "I'm very glad to know that your -- 'wool-gathering' -- is no cause for concern."
"It's like taking naps and getting paid for it," Fordham said, stretching his arms over his head and yawning. "That might concern some big-city Type A workaholics, but it worries me not one bit."
Stephanie waved to Fordham as she and Simon headed for their rooms, and this time Fordham responded with the puppy-like enthusiasm she had expected earlier.
"If those implants are doing him any harm, he certainly doesn't know it," she said quietly.
"The technology CE acquired when they took over Pharmatronics presumably allowed them to produce implants that have minimal problems with rejection," Simon said. "I wonder, though, how much harm the implant wearers -- implant hosts? what do you call it when you 'wear' something inside your body? -- how much harm they may be doing."
While Stephanie continued her efforts to infiltrate CE's computer systems, Simon took the opportunity to do 'legwork' in the literal sense, walking around town. Fordham had seemed sincere enough, but there was no harm in seeking out corroborating evidence.
Surprisingly, Jigsaw Creek had a small bookstore, an oddity in the age of online shopping. Simon supposed that the extra income from 'working part-time for CE' subsidized its operation, as it did for Fordham's little hotel, but wondered how it had survived B.C. (Before CE).
A bell over the door announced his entrance, but the proprietor did not appear. Simon took the opportunity for a leisurely examination of the books available, inhaling the mingled aromas of dust, old (and unfortunately not acid-free) paper, bookbinding glue, and sun-warmed leather.
"A couple of old sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica -- Reader's Digest Condensed books -- textbooks -- last year's bestsellers -- cookbooks -- travel books -- and at last, the proprietor!"
The shopkeeper, a small, grandmotherly woman with blue-tinted gray hair, was seated in a straight-backed wooden chair near the rear of the store. Like Fordham, she seemed to be in a trance, 'napping' with her eyes open.
"Excuse me," Simon said.
The woman remained motionless.
"Excuse me," Simon repeated, louder. Then he noticed the 'flesh-tone' hearing aids in the woman's ears. (He reflected briefly that he had never seen anyone with flesh that color, in spite of having worked in dozens of exotic locales over the years.) Leaning closer, he gently tapped on the woman's shoulder.
"Eh? Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn't hear you come in," the woman said, blinking rapidly. "These damn hearing aids don't work very well anymore. Or maybe my hearing is just getting worse -- I'm Mrs. Peabody. Can I help you find anything?"
"I wouldn't mind a book on local history," Simon said. "I've only just begun to learn about the way these old coal mining towns functioned, and it seems amazing that anyone would put up with the way the companies treated the workers back then."
"Even I'm not old enough to remember the worst of it," Mrs. Peabody said. "Those poor people were practically slaves." She stood and ran her finger along a bookshelf as she read the titles.
Pulling a slender volume from the shelf, she said, "Here's a good one -- 'The Smokeless Coal Fields of West Virginia: A Brief History'. It's not specifically about this county, but it gives a good accounting of how the coal companies ran things."
Simon took the book and read the cover copy, nodding. "Yes, this looks like a good start. Could you ring that up for me?"
"My pleasure," Mrs. Peabody said. "You're my first sale today."
"Do you work for CE?" Simon asked. "Mr Fordham mentioned that a lot of people in town pick up a little extra money that way."
Mrs. Peabody took Simon's paycard and waved it over a scanner, did likewise with the book, and then placed the book and receipt in a small bag before returning the card. Simon wondered if she'd ever worked as an express cashier in a grocery store -- skill like that wouldn't come from making a handful of sales a day in a bookstore like this one.
"Well -- yes," Mrs. Peabody said. "The money from CE lets me keep this place open. I wasn't crazy about some of the things I had to do to qualify, or some of the problems the -- er -- job causes..."
"Problems?" Simon asked.
"I'm almost sure I've lost a few customers because I didn't notice they came in," Mrs. Peabody said. "I'm lucky that nobody's stolen anything -- as far as I can tell -- when I've been busy."
"Mr. Fordham calls it 'wool-gathering'," Simon said.
"Not much of a reader, that Jim Fordham," Mrs. Peabody said. "But then, hardly anybody is in this town, especially when anytime you're not busy, you just -- go away."
"I suppose the satellite TV doesn't help with demand for reading material, either," Simon said.
Mrs. Peabody laughed. "No, no, it certainly doesn't. I can't complain about that, though -- I'm addicted to those Mexican soap operas, even though I can't understand a word they're saying!"
Simon smiled. "Thank you for your time, and for the book. I hope business picks up..."
Visits to the barbershop (another throwback to the middle of the preceding century), General Store, and other businesses produced similar results. In each case, Simon found a 'wool-gathering' proprietor who expressed varying degrees of enthusiasm for the surgery required to install the implants and for the effects the 'part-time work' had on his or her life. All were grateful to CE for keeping the town alive, however, and there was no hint that any would willingly endanger their arrangement by sabotaging the systems controlled by CE's computers.
Simon's tour also confirmed the presence of the small dark glass camera domes on almost every building. To bypass them would require traveling away from the CE facility and circumnavigating the whole town, which would appear suspicious in itself. Fortunately, Simon had brought two of Melvin's stealth devices along on general principle. They still had the basic function of spoofing electronic surveillance cameras across the whole electromagnetic spectrum, as they had on the Alconost investigation, but had been tweaked and upgraded so they were even more effective. Simon had spotted nothing that suggested motion detectors of any kind, barring the presence of pressure-sensitive pads buried under the pavement, so he thought it should be possible to travel from the hotel to CE's installation without being seen -- if it came to that.
Simon strolled along in the direction Fordham had indicated, passing the edge of town (defined only by the sudden decrease in the number of buildings from few to zero) and continuing for less than a kilometer before he caught sight of CE's Jigsaw Creek facility. The complex was a low, sprawling concrete structure, with the uninspired and uninspiring architecture dictated by fanatical adherence to energy conservation principles. There were relatively few windows, but the roof featured angled solar panels that moved visibly as Simon approached, tracking the autumn sun like iridescent (and rectangular) sunflowers.
There were no guards, no fences, nothing except more cameras, this time mounted on the light poles that lined the driveway leading to the building and its parking lot. The lot was relatively empty; Simon supposed that those Jigsaw Creek natives who worked on the two weeks on, two weeks off schedule usually walked here as he had.
As he came closer to the front doors of the building, Simon noted that several of the mounted cameras pivoted to follow him. Small bulges on the side of each camera unit might have been weapons of some kind, he supposed, although the architecture of the building would be enough protection from almost any attack, especially if the few windows and the glass doors were as tough as he suspected them to be.
No one stopped him from entering the building. There were two uniformed men at a reception desk, and Simon walked over to them without being asked.
"Good morning, gentlemen," he said. "My name is Doctor Simon Litchfield. I don't have an appointment, but I was wondering if I might speak with the director of this facility -- Mr. Andrew Charbonneau, I believe his name is -- or with Doctor Chandramurtri."
Those names had been included in the information package that Stephanie's staff had assembled for him, and he had made a point of verifying them before setting out to do his 'legwork'. Long experience had taught him that it was amazing how far you could get if you knew the right names and acted as if you had legitimate business somewhere...
The guards, one blond with a haircut that would have been acceptable in Marine boot camp, the other with dark crewcut hair, were both lean, fit-looking men with remarkably similar jaw lines. Simon wondered if they were related in some way. They exchanged glances, then the blond said, "Mr. Charbonneau and Doctor Chandramurtri are very busy men. If you'll give me your card, I can try to make an appointment for you."
Simon sighed. Sometimes things were easy, sometimes they were not. He handed his Nightwatch Institute business card to the blond guard, and said, "Could you let them know that a representative from the Nightwatch Institute is here? It's quite urgent, and I believe they will want to see me as soon as possible."
This was a bluff -- while their dealings with the government made it likely that Charbonneau and Chandramurtri had at least heard of the Institute, they would not assume that a think-tank consultant would know anything about the nature of the work being done at Jigsaw Creek. On the other hand, they might at least phone Washington -- which could be good or bad, depending on whom they called. In certain circles, it was known that the Institute was involved in the current 'large problem'; in others, it was not. In the former case, they would be willing to meet with Simon; in the latter, they would give him a polite runaround, suggesting a meeting in a week or two.
The blond guard grimaced, and with some reluctance picked up the phone to relay Simon's request. His expression changed from irritation with Simon for insisting that he disturb The Powers That Be to surprise as he listened to the response.
"Uh, both Mr. Charbonneau and Doctor Chandramurtri are tied up in a meeting right now, but they expect to be finished in another ten minutes or so. If you could take a seat over there, I'll let you know when they're ready for you."
Simon walked over to the waiting area near the doors and sat down on a new-looking leather couch. He glanced at the selection of magazines on the glass-topped table -- as one might expect, there were fairly recent editions of industry magazines for manufacturers of electronics and bio-electronics, in both print and disk forms. A disk-reader / web access unit provided access to other publications in electronic form; the last person to use it had left the webpage for 'Modern Mutant, the Journal of Gengineering and Gene Therapy' on screen.
Simon called up the 'Astronomy' magazine site, looking for indications of public knowledge of the 'larger problem'. Things had been remarkably calm so far; the full story was still as close to secret as anything could be in the age of anonymous blog sites. But that could only last for so long...
Back at the hotel, Stephanie watched as her pattern-detection program chewed its way through the terabyte or so of packetized data she had captured from the wireless traffic that filled the air in Jigsaw Creek. The program was designed not to decode the actual data packets, but to isolate the header and tail data that authenticated each packet to the host systems. With enough samples to work with, she would be able to construct her own messages and ride them through the firewall and 'black ice' into the belly of the beast. She smiled as she realized that in this case, there was a beast -- or beasts -- involved, an unusual occurrence in the computing world. The human components in CE's supercomputer array were still animals of a sort, however much Monkey Trial mentalities liked to deny it.
The program terminated and displayed a summary of its findings. "Nice," Stephanie said. "Rotating identifiers, time-shifted validation schemes, quantum encryption. Couldn't have done better myself. But what you put together, I can take apart."
Within minutes, she had logged into CE's housekeeping systems, affording herself supervisor privileges. Consulting the list of questions Simon had left for her to investigate, she set up a query in the payroll system to identify those 'full-time' human processing units who had been working during the known 'glitches'.
The list of those people who had been part of the system during all the incidents was remarkably short; apparently, the two week rotation schedule was set up on a staggered basis, so only a few people had the same schedule. Stephanie frowned as she cross-referenced this list with the hire dates -- there was a pattern there, so simple that she didn't need a program to catch it.
"The guys who've been 'working' the longest," she said. "Every incident -- glitch, accident, whatever -- happened when the guys who've been 'working' the longest were on the job."
She stretched, making her spine crack (something Simon hated, so she usually saved it for when he was around).
"Fordham said that he didn't know what he was processing -- and didn't care," she said to herself. "He didn't even have to know what kind of operations were being performed in his gray matter. So he didn't -- couldn't -- influence anything like the traffic lights, or the railroad crossing gate, because he couldn't even know if that was what was happening in his head."
She shook her head. There was something, some vague memory from the psychology classes she had taken back in college. An experiment -- a few minutes with a search engine brought up a relevant article.
"Special glasses, prisms -- they took people and put special glasses on them so they saw everything upside down," she said, skimming through the abstract. "Naturally, they nearly killed themselves just trying to walk across a room."
A second website yielded video clips of young people dressed like escapees from a NostalgiaNet sitcom, each with a crude-looking contraption of lenses and prisms strapped to his or her head. As she clicked from clip to clip, the experimental subjects became less and less clumsy, until they were able to walk and handle objects without any trouble.
"They adjusted," she said. "Their brains adapted so they could function and move around. Their brains adapted to the modified input. So -- the brain learns, or can learn. If a part of it is damaged, in at least some cases, the brain can be retrained to work around the dead zone. Stroke victims learn to walk and talk again -- and maybe, just maybe, people used as dumb processors can learn to understand the data that's pushed through their heads."
She pulled her Nightwatch-issue satellite phone from another pocket in the bubble vest that she had worn since her departure from Georgetown , and pressed the speed-dial button for Simon.
"That may explain how these things have been happening, but I believe we need to understand why as well," Simon said. "Supposing that you are correct -- that the 'veterans' of this business have learned to interact with the data flows and processing, why would they use this ability to harm others? The car crash in particular looked -- deliberate, aimed at the driver of the convertible."
"I think I may have something on that," Stephanie replied. "Peter McTiernan, the guy in the convertible, was engaged to marry a girl from the next town, uh -- Janet Eckhart..."
"Which is relevant because? And how do you know this?"
"I know this because I asked Mr. Fordham," Stephanie said. "It's a small town -- everybody knows everything about everybody else. As for why it's relevant -- one of the guys on my short list -- Evan Milford -- was engaged to the same girl first, but lost her to McTiernan."
"Hello, motive and opportunity," Simon said. "Do you think the other incidents can be traced to similar connections?"
"I'm not sure -- not yet, anyway," Stephanie said. "Some of the names of the victims weren't familiar to Mr. Fordham -- people relatively new to town, that sort of thing. I've been trying to find connections through searches of the local newspapers, but gossipy or not, they don't have much of that sort of information."
"Doctor Litchfield? Mr. Charbonneau and Doctor Chandramurtri are ready for you now."
Simon waved to acknowledge the guard's words, then said, "Stephanie, I have to go. I've actually managed to get in to talk to the high muckety-mucks here. I'll see you shortly and we can discuss what we need to do next." He folded his satellite phone and returned it to an inside pocket, then stood and joined the guard at the doorway leading deeper into the building.
"I'll take you to Mr. Charbonneau's office," the guard said. "He and Dr. Chandramurtri are waiting for you there."
The guard waved a proximity badge at a sensor beside the door, and the heavy glass slid open.
Charbonneau's office was large, but somewhat sparsely furnished. Charbonneau, a tall man with markedly Gallic features and brown hair just starting to turn gray, shook Simon's hand with gusto. Chandramurtri, shorter, rounder, and resembling a dark-skinned Oliver Hardy, also offered his hand, but his handshake was more of a light caress than a wrestling match.
"Doctor Litchfield, welcome to our little kingdom," Charbonneau said. "We are familiar with the work of the Nightwatch Institute, and are happy that a well-known representative has come to visit."
"I believe you personally assisted with a project near my home in India," Chandramurtri said. "While we have no shortage of engineers, the specialized equipment your Institute contributed made the job much easier, as I recall."
Simon smiled and nodded. "I do get around quite a bit," he said. "A water treatment plant, was it? That's the most recent project I worked on in India."
"Yes, yes, you are correct," Chandramurtri said. "The incidence of disease in that area declined considerably once the plant was operational. Such simple things often go undone while money is spent on other priorities -- weapons, armies..."
Simon could see that Chandramurtri was ready to expound on the follies of nationalistic governments that ignored the needs of their people at some length, so he interjected, "Allow me to tell you why I'm here, please. As I said, this is a matter of some urgency."
Chandramurtri frowned, obviously irritated at being cut off before he had made his point. Charbonneau, however, patted the doctor on the shoulder, and said, "Come now, Chandra, our guest seems to be in a bit of a hurry. Doctor Litchfield, please proceed."
The group sat on a leather couch, a more luxurious counterpart to the one in the waiting area, and Simon began to speak.
"You are probably aware that the Nightwatch Institute, aside from its efforts to assist in special engineering projects, also serves as a consultant to governments and major corporations on a number of sensitive issues. In particular, we are working on a certain problem that involves your firm as well."
"'The sky is falling'," Charbonneau said softly.
"That's the one," Simon said. "Certain of our government contacts expressed concerns about the recent -- glitches -- in systems controlled by the computers you have here."
"Those have been resolved," Charbonneau said. "Every piece of hardware and software has been checked and rechecked by our own experts and the best minds in the country."
Simon smiled. "I have a colleague who might dispute that claim," he said. "But I believe that there is software that hasn't been checked."
Charbonneau grimaced. "I have no idea what you mean," he said. "Every line of code --"
"The human mind doesn't have 'lines of code'," Simon said. "And a good deal of your computing power depends on the brains of the residents of Jigsaw Creek."
Chandramurtri threw up his hands in disgust. "They are not supposed to reveal this," he said. "Did your government contacts tell you this thing? Did they tell you that we have been authorized to carry out the procedures we use?"
"As a matter of fact, they did not," Simon said. "I suspected that there was something odd about the people here, and my curiosity was further piqued by the knowledge that your former firm, Pharmatronics, had been acquired by CE International. We managed to verify the presence of cerebral implants in one of the residents, using equipment we had with us, and had even started to deduce their function -- but then, one of the residents told us the whole story."
Chandramurtri rolled his eyes. "Fordham, I wager. That man loves to talk, talk, talk. He is not even a very good processing unit."
"I still don't understand what you mean by stating that the -- software -- in our human processing units may be responsible for our recent problems," Charbonneau said. "The subjects are completely unaware of the content of the data they are handling; the interfaces are designed to bypass any direct interaction with the subject's sensorium. If they can't 'see' what is happening in their heads, how can they affect it?"
"That is not the question," Simon said. "My colleague suspects that the question should be 'can they see what is happening in their heads?'. And she believes that the answer is yes."
"This is nonsense," Chandramurtri said. "I am the most knowledgeable man in the world in the field of brain-to-silicon interfaces, and I tell you, they can't know anything about what they are processing. The brain circuitry isn't there!"
"Brains learn," Simon said. "New synaptic paths form all the time. Apparently, in at least one of your subjects -- one of those who have spent the most time as part of your system -- the brain has learned to tap into and interpret the incoming data. More importantly, the brain -- and the mind that it contains -- has learned to affect the outgoing data."
"Evan Milford was 'working' during each of the incidents involving systems controlled by your computer," Simon said. "In particular, he was part of your system the day that Peter McTiernan was killed due to a 'glitch' in the traffic control system here in Jigsaw Creek."
"That proves nothing," Charbonneau said. "Chandra, please calm down. You'll have an asthma attack if you keep seething like that."
"Peter McTiernan stole Evan Milford's fiancé," Simon said. "Evan Milford's understandable resentment over that affront may have caused him to take revenge when the opportunity offered itself -- although I would not presume that he did so consciously and deliberately."
Charbonneau blinked several times, his face slack. "Could it be true? Chandra, could it happen?"
Chandramurtri frowned, shook his head, but Simon could see that he had gotten through. The bio-electronics expert's certainty was wavering as he considered the possibility that he had missed something.
"We have not been able to establish a connection between Milford and the others who have been killed or injured recently," Simon admitted. "However, we just arrived in town, and we've had little opportunity to investigate any relationships that are not recorded in a database."
"The others -- the railroad crossing incident, the medication errors -- it's a small town, so Milford probably knew the people affected," Charbonneau said. "If our systems can be influenced by Milford's feelings, then anyone who has ever earned his dislike could be at risk."
"I still can not believe it," Chandramurtri said. "But at the very least, we must talk to Milford. I will have him awakened and we will ask him about the other incidents, see if there is any chance that he has developed this unexpected ability."
Simon smiled. "Thank you for agreeing to look into this -- admittedly outré -- suggestion of ours."
"The transition will take some time," Charbonneau said. "Milford and the others are lightly sedated, fed intravenously, and catheterized during their 'shifts'. Even after the sedative drip is turned off, it will be some hours before he's fully conscious and able to talk."
"Just in case our idea is correct -- is there a way to get him out of the system in the meantime?" Simon asked.
Chandramurtri nodded. "It is a simple thing -- an external radio signal can command the communications circuit to shut down. I will make sure that this is done as well."
A soft whirring sound made Simon look up. There was a slightly larger version of the camera domes he had seen everywhere in town in the far corner of the ceiling.
"You have surveillance equipment in here?"
Charbonneau nodded. "Sound and vision -- the computer can actually pick up and relay requests for food, maintenance, that sort of thing, as well as calling security in case it detects an intruder. It recognizes Chandra and me, of course, and the regular staff; you're okay, since you're with us."
"Interesting that it seems to be focusing on me, then, if it knows I'm harmless because I'm with you," Simon said. "Well, I'll get out of your way so you can start the process to revive Mr. Milford --"
"I hope you are wrong about this," Chandramurtri said. "We did extensive testing, and this sort of thing never occurred -- but the way you have explained it, I can no longer dismiss the idea."
"My colleague suspects that it may be that the effect never occurred before, because the total duration of your test subjects' immersion in the system never approached the amount of time that Milford and his friends have spent 'working'," Simon said. "Besides, you were testing for the functionality of the technique and watching for any ill effects suffered by the subjects, not subtle corruption of the output. In other words -- who knew?"
Simon stood, shook hands again with his hosts, and walked to the door.
"It should be fine," Charbonneau said. "It can be opened from the inside unless there's a security lockdown. The same thing applies to the exit to the lobby."
Simon tried to turn the doorknob -- and failed. "If there was a security lockdown, I presume that you would be informed..."
Charbonneau frowned. "That's odd. There would be an audible alarm before the door locks engaged, if there was a lockdown." He joined Simon at the door and quickly confirmed that it could not be opened.
"A minor malfunction of some kind," Chandramurtri said. "I will call Security and they will take care of it."
He picked up the phone and brought the receiver to his ear, then said softly, "I believe we may have a real problem. The phone is not working either."
Simon pulled out his satellite phone. "If you can give me the number to call from outside, I can -- oh, bloody hell. Do you have jamming equipment in this building?"
"Not as such," Charbonneau said. "But with all the transmitters and receivers, you could probably generate the same effect --"
"If you controlled all the hardware, which the supercomputer array does," Chandramurtri said. "Your conjecture appears to have been correct. Mr. Milford, or one of his friends, has been listening, and is not happy with our plans."
"The windows?" Simon asked.
"Half-inch thick armor glass," Charbonneau said. "If you have a shaped charge of C4 in your pocket, you might be able to get through it."
"Damn, I knew I forgot something," Simon said. "The locking mechanism on the door is electronically controlled, obviously. Let me think -- what do I have in my pockets?"
After a moment, he raised one finger. "This may do the job, or it may not. This wasn't what the gadget was designed for -- interfering with electronic locks, I mean. It was meant to -- never mind, it's probably better that you don't know."
He withdrew the latest version of the stealth generator from one of his larger pockets and activated it. At the very least, Milford -- or one of his friends, or their collective will, or -- whatever you would call the man / machine composite -- would be seeing an oddly out-of-focus empty space where Simon was standing, with visual information from his surroundings fed to the camera, minus Simon himself.
The camera mount whined plaintively as it spun back and forth in a vain attempt to find its vanished quarry. So far, so good, Simon said to himself. He was less confident of the stealth device's ability to mask any noise he might make, so he tried to move as quietly as possible, and breathed slowly through his open mouth. He raised one finger to his lips to signal Charbonneau and Chandramurtri to say nothing, then stepped closer to the door.
There was an audible clunk as the lock disengaged. Simon opened the door and stepped through quickly, knowing that the movement of the door would be a major clue that not seeing him did not mean that he wasn't there. The door swung shut again, apparently controlled by servomotors, trapping the CE executives inside the office.
Here in the corridor, the cameras again whirred as they searched for the man who was there, and wasn't. Simon was grateful that the internal cameras lacked the maybe-weapons on their lamppost-mounted exterior cousins; being effectively invisible to the cameras would do little good if he got lasered or otherwise shot anyway.
Now he had a choice. He could try to escape, using the stealth generator to disrupt the locks -- or he could try to reach Milford and 'unplug' him. The stealth generator could probably disrupt the man / machine wireless link just as well as it did the locks, although it might be a literal shock to the nervous system of the subject.
If there were weapons on the lampposts, it was possible that they would tag him in spite of the stealth field. In bright sunlight, his shadow or a puff of dust or movement of the grass might reveal his position before he could gain enough distance for his phone to function. If Stephanie came to his rescue, she might be next to fall.
Milford -- or whichever of the 'full-time' crew was controlling things -- had to be stopped before anyone else got hurt. If it weren't for the role CE was to play in dealing with the nastiness to come, he might well have considered using C4 to shut things down permanently. Of course, CE was too important in the larger scheme of things to blow it up, and anyway, he didn't have any C4...
The hard way it is, then, he thought, and turned to go deeper into the building.
Someone was knocking on the door to Stephanie's room, hard enough to make the old solid-core door rattle in its frame. "This is CE security. Open the door immediately, or we will break it down!"
"Shit. Looks like I stayed too long at the fair." Stephanie shut down the tablet computer she had been using to tour CE’s personnel files and slid it under the bed. The other gadgets would survive what was to come or not; they could be replaced (although Callow would whinge about the expense). Some of the data on the tablet computer could not.
Suddenly Stephanie realized that if CE security was breaking down her door, Simon must be in trouble as well. She hadn't heard from him since he hung up to meet the CE honchos over an hour before; now she wondered if no news was very bad news.
"You’re not cops – I don’t have to open the door for you," she said. "Go get the cops or the sheriff or whatever the law is called around here, and bring a warrant when you come back."
The door boomed as someone kicked it, but held fast. Stephanie grinned -- some CE goon was going to be limping for a while. But then something large and heavy struck the door near the lock, and the deadbolt tore through the wooden frame as the door slammed open.
"Get the manager up here," Stephanie said. "I am not paying for that damage."
The two men who entered the room had to turn sideways to fit through the doorway. They had the too-solid look of men who had used gene therapy to produce hypertrophied muscles; hitting them would be like hitting large trees. Stephanie was giving serious consideration to cooperating with Kong and Mighty Joe when one of them picked up her favorite wireless router from the bedside table, dropped it on the floor, and then crushed it under one size fourteen boot heel.
"Where's your computer, lady? You've been poking around somewhere you shouldn't have, and it's time to pay the price."
Stephanie sighed. "You know, right up until then, I was thinking of giving in. But nobody messes with my gear, and nobody calls me 'lady' in that tone of voice."
"Grab her and shut her up, Barney. I'll toss the room so we can get out of here."
Stephanie let Barney close to within about one meter of her, then drove the tip of her shoe -- steel-capped under the scuffed leather -- into his kneecap. The big man howled, bending forward at the same time as he raised his injured leg.
Now she stepped in and struck the side of Barney's neck just below the left ear. She put everything she had into the blow, digging in with her knuckles at the moment of impact. For one long second, it looked like she had miscalculated, like the thick layers of muscle had blunted the nerve strike -- but then Barney grunted and collapsed.
"Barney! Holy shit, what did you do to him, you bitch?" The second man charged at her, flailing at her head with one massive hand.
This time Stephanie sidestepped, elbowing the man in the kidney area and then stamping on the back of his knee as he stumbled past. His balance broken, the man fell face first into the wooden bureau. Like the door, the bureau was solid, hand-crafted wood; it held its shape admirably, while the nose and cheekbone of Stephanie's assailant did not.
"Nurse Keel! Are you all right?"
"Oh -- hi, Mr. Fordham," Stephanie said. "Sorry about the mess."
Fordham looked at the two rhino-sized thugs, both unconscious, and then looked at Stephanie. "How --?"
Shaking the kinks out of her wrist -- it felt like she'd strained something when she hit Barney in the neck -- Stephanie said, "The one in the middle of the room called me a lady. That one called me a bitch."
She gathered up her computer and other electronic gear, stuffed it into her duffel bag, and said, "I think we'll be checking out. Seems we've worn out our welcome here."
Fordham proved to be downright eager to help carry Stephanie's and Simon's bags down to the van …
Simon moved quickly through the corridors of the CE building, using the stealth field generator to disrupt the electronic locks of door after door after door.... The place wasn't quite a labyrinth, but it came close enough to make him wish that he'd asked Charbonneau for a map while he had the chance.
"Excuse me, sir, but you shouldn't be in here!"
Simon froze, wondering how the guard had seen him in spite of the stealth field. Then he cursed under his breath as he remembered -- the man had used his naked Mark I eyeballs, against which the stealth field provided no defense at all.
"Sorry," Simon said. "I was looking for a friend of mine -- Evan Milford. Doctor Chandramurtri said he was back here somewhere, but I must have gotten turned around somehow."
The guard looked rather ordinary compared to the eerily-similar pair in the reception area. Simon might almost have taken him for a local who had opted for a relatively menial job rather than undergoing the surgical procedure to become a 'human processor', but then he noticed that the man's stance indicated the kind of balance that only came with extensive training. That meant that he was either a ballet dancer, or a martial artist, and the absence of an orchestra made the first option seem unlikely.
The guard shook his head. "I'm not buying it, Gramps. There's a full lockdown in effect, which means a security breach. I'm thinking that you being here qualifies in that department."
"I've been able to get through the doors as I wandered about," Simon said mildly. "Surely that indicates that I must have clearance to be here."
"How did you get through the doors to get in here?" the guard said. "Even my keycard won't work during a lockdown, and I'm cleared to work anywhere in the building --"
Simon shrugged, trying his best to look like a harmless old man. Gramps, indeed.
"Come on, old man, you'd better come with me," the guard said at last, grabbing Simon's wrist.
"I'm sorry," Simon said.
"Hey, if you're really just lost, as soon as the lockdown is lifted, I'll take you to see your friend myself."
"No, I'm sorry about this," Simon said. He stepped closer to the guard, using the strength of his whole arm against the guard's thumb. Then Simon caught the man's hand and twisted sharply, bringing his other hand in to apply pressure at the elbow.
The guard was highly trained, and because of this, he didn't struggle. "Okay, okay, take it easy, Gramps. I know you can dislocate my arm before I can make a move, and I'd rather keep all my limbs intact."
Simon sighed. "In that case, I'd strongly suggest that you stop calling me Gramps." He increased the pressure on the elbow joint slightly to emphasize his point.
"Ow! All right! I won't try to fight you, sir."
"Better. Now, kindly direct me to the room or rooms where I might find Evan Milford and the other townspeople who are on duty today."
As it turned out, he had been only a few doors away from his goal when he had been intercepted. Still maintaining the submission hold on the guard, Simon peered through a wire-reinforced glass door at something resembling a hospital ward. Perhaps two dozen beds lined the walls of the long, narrow room, each occupied by a motionless man connected to intravenous drip lines.
"This appears to be the place," Simon said. "I am going to release you now. Please don't do anything foolish. I can assure you that Mr. Charbonneau and Doctor Chandramurtri would approve of what I am about to do."
"I wish I could believe that."
"Believe this," Simon said softly. "I am quite certain that you are a highly trained fighter. The only reason I was able to subdue you so easily was that you took my hair color -- or lack of it -- for evidence that I was too old to be a threat."
"Guess you showed me," the guard grunted.
"My point is that if we do fight, at least one of us is likely to be badly injured," Simon said. "Since I refuse to put myself in a position where I am the one who gets hurt, if I must, I will try to render you unconscious before I release your arm. I will try to do so without doing any serious harm, but... "
"Shit. Where did you train, anyway?"
"I've traveled extensively over the years, and have picked up a few tricks here and there -- but I spent several years in Japan. A friend on the Tokyo police force introduced me to her aikido sensei; later, I had the honor of training briefly at the Kodokan, a rare thing for a gaijin."
"You're serious about this, aren't you?" the guard asked. "You'll do exactly what you've said -- try to knock me out if I won't promise to behave when you let me go."
"I wish it wasn't necessary, but the situation is much more serious than you know," Simon said. "Did you notice that the alarms did not sound before all the doors locked? Mr. Charbonneau said that was unusual. And have you tried using a phone or your radio to find out what is happening?"
"Shit, shit, shit. You're right -- the phones are out, my radio just gets white noise, and the alarms should have sounded before the doors locked. But for all I know, you did all that. This place is working on some heavy duty stuff for the government -- I don't know exactly what, but I know it's the kind of thing that people would kill to steal it or destroy it."
"I wish I could convince you of my good intentions," Simon said. "But I don't think I can afford to waste any more time."
"Ah, crap. Don't --"
Simon lifted the hand that had held the guard's elbow locked straight and brought it down in a shuto knife hand stroke at the base of the guard's neck. The blow wasn't perfect, and the guard tried to roll away, favoring his half-sprained arm. But Simon managed to finish the job with a second blow, this time a hammer fist to the temple.
"Ah, the foolishness of youth," Simon said, stepping over the guard's unconscious form. "Next time perhaps you'll show a little more respect for your elders -- er, even those not much older than yourself."
He stepped forward until the stealth field generator did its magic and the electronic lock clicked open.
Stephanie covered the distance from the hotel to the intersection and from the traffic signal to the CE complex in under a minute, leaving black tire marks on the pavement at every turn. She was surprised to note that a lot of people had emerged from their homes and businesses and were standing on the sidewalks or walking aimlessly. From what Fordham had said, most of them were CE 'part-time' workers; if they were all cut off from the system, then something big had to be happening.
"Simon, what have you done?" she murmured. "Thrown a sonic screwdriver into the works, as usual... "
She parked the van in the Visitors' Lot near the front doors, and climbed out with her stealth field generator at the ready, but not yet activated. She didn't want to risk wiping her tablet computer clean after fighting to save it back at the hotel, after all.
A whining noise from overhead drew her attention to the cameras mounted on the lampposts. Like Simon, she noticed the extra bulge on the side of each camera housing, and wondered if the security for the building included automated weapon emplacements. Then a flat crack and a sudden sharp impact that drove her shoulder back against the side of the van removed any doubts on that topic.
"Smart move, Stephanie," she hissed. "What a nice target you make!"
She dropped to the ground, managing to crawl under the van just before a second shot struck the pavement only a few centimeters from her face. Then she thumbed the activation switch on the stealth field generator, hoping that it would give her a chance to run for cover.
She had second thoughts about making any sudden moves when her vision dimmed and then brightened again, as if the sun had been momentarily obscured by dense clouds. There hadn't been a cloud in the sky, so... Her left arm was numb, and sharp pain and a cringe-worthy grating sensation told her that her collarbone had probably been broken by the bullet. Worse, her shoulder was bleeding badly. She had to stop the bleeding, or the blood trail would make her position obvious even if the stealth field generator did make her completely invisible to the cameras. If a computer alone, or even an artificial intelligence, was controlling the cameras and guns, that might not matter. But a human intelligence would be able to make that leap -- especially if Simon had used his stealth field already.
She rummaged through the contents of her pockets with her one functioning hand. Fortunately, the compact first aid kit was in a pocket she could reach without too much screaming, and it was some help, providing a small roll of gauze that she managed to stuff into place over the entry wound and anchor with awkwardly applied pre-cut strips of tape. But there was nothing she could do about the larger exit wound, especially while hiding under the van; she could barely reach it to apply pressure with her fingertips.
It was hard to stay focused, to even remember what she had to do. Shock and blood loss were pulling her down like warm, black quicksand...
"Sorry, Simon," she whispered. "You're on your own... "
Simon walked quickly down the right hand side of the room, looking at the chart attached to each bed he passed. Evan Milford was not among the names he found.
It was not until he reached the middle of the row of beds on the other side of the room that Simon found the man he was looking for. Milford was thin and pale, but so were most of the others in the room. Apparently most of them did not use their time away from the CE facility to exercise or work on their tans.
Simon moved to the head of the bed, bringing the stealth field generator as close as possible to Milford's head. Milford's face twisted, and his body spasmed, lifting itself almost completely clear of the bed before crashing down again.
"Wake up, Milford," Simon said sharply. "Wake up before you cause any more trouble."
Milford's eyes flicked open, but closed again almost immediately.
"The sedative drip. Simon, you're an idiot."
Simon yanked the needle from the back of Milford's hand, in no mood to be gentle. Besides, a little pain might help to bring the former coal miner out of his drug-induced sleep.
Milford groaned, opened his eyes again, and said, "M' hand... hurts... where... "
Simon heard a click, and the door opened, admitting the now-conscious guard. Simon stepped away from Milford's bed and took up a ready stance, preparing to fight.
"It's okay," the guard said. "My radio started working a minute ago and I managed to get through to Doctor Chandramurtri. He said we were to assist you in any way possible."
Relaxing, Simon removed the stealth field generator from his pocket and placed it on the pillow next to Milford's head. "Let him know that I've temporarily disabled Milford's link to the system, but he should follow through on deactivating it properly."
The guard nodded, keying his radio and speaking softly. "There's a problem out front," he said suddenly. "A woman was shot by the defense systems during all the craziness. She's unconscious, lost a lot of blood --"
Simon felt the floor moving under his feet, wondered if West Virginia was earthquake territory, but then realized that he was the one that was swaying from side to side. "Stephanie!"
He looked down at Milford's barely conscious form, and snarled, "If she dies, I promise you that you will suffer the consequences."
"I don't think he can hear you," the guard said, but Simon caught him by both shoulders and shook him.
"I don't give an airborne fornication about him. Take me to Stephanie -- the woman who was shot -- now!"
CE's infirmary was better equipped than the local hospital, and Doctor Chandramurtri had used it well. By the time Simon reached Stephanie's side, her wound had been cleaned and her collarbone had been set. An intravenous line fed whole blood into her to replace some of what she had lost.
"She is still unconscious, I'm afraid, but her condition is stable," Chandramurtri said. "The bullet passed through her shoulder, damaged her clavicle, and caused much bleeding -- but she should recover fully."
"Milford's awake, more or less," Simon said. "I pulled his I.V. line out, and the gadget I used to fool the cameras and open the door has disrupted his link to your computers. You'd better make sure that his implants are deactivated so he can't cause any more trouble."
"You are certain that he was responsible for everything?"
"The doors unlocked, the jamming stopped -- everything went back to normal the moment I short-circuited his implants. At the very least, he was behind the trouble we had here today."
Chandramurtri shook his head sadly. "In a way, all the damage he caused is my fault as well. Mine, and Andrew's, I suppose, for first proposing the human processor project."
"Did you ever see the old flat-screen movie, Forbidden Planet?" Simon asked.
Chandramurtri frowned. "I think so, yes -- ah, I see what you mean. In a small way, our devices made it possible for Milford to act on his darkest desires, ones that he would never dream of realizing by normal means."
"Whether Milford understood what he was doing, or whether his subconscious was running the show in a sort of dream state, I don't know," Simon said. "In any case, you'll have to figure out a way to monitor your other subjects for any signs that they are developing similar abilities."
"Surely it would be safer to shut down the project -- or at least to use only the 'part-time' workers," Chandramurtri said.
"There isn't enough time to develop an alternative computing resource," Simon said. "The cosmic clock is running, and Jigsaw Creek's full capacity will be needed when the time comes."
"Perhaps after the crisis has passed, we can shut down and determine if the process can ever be safely used," Chandramurtri said. "In the meantime, I will do as you suggest. Perhaps if we run the same processes in parallel on two or three subjects, and scan for discrepancies between their output... "
"I'll leave that up to you -- although Stephanie may have some suggestions when she wakes up," Simon said.
Three days after Simon's rude awakening of Evan Milford, the Hephaestus laser platform, with Jigsaw Creek performing tracking and aiming, successfully destroyed twelve targets of varying sizes launched by the experimental mass driver in lunar orbit. By that time, Stephanie was home, having been driven back to Washington at what she considered to be 'little old lady speeds' by Simon.
She was examined at Walter Reed, but quickly discharged after arranging for visits from a Nightwatch-hired nurse to change her bandages and monitor her condition. Chandramurtri had done a fine job of cleaning up her injuries, although it had probably been years since he had dealt with any part of the body below the neck.
When the package arrived a few days later, she was able to pick it up from the floor below her mail slot, and open it (using her one usable hand and her thirty-two usable teeth). It was a small video disc -- the smallest that would work in a standard player. Not that it mattered -- she had gear that would play anything made in the last half-century, and even prototypes of players for standards that hadn't even made it to high-end stores yet.
She loaded the disc into the appropriate adapter and cued it up to play back on her handheld computer.
"Mizz Keel? Doctor Changamurky -- what? Oh, sorry. Doctor Chan-dra-mur-tree said I should record this as part of my therapy. I don't think I need any therapy -- I didn't do nothin' wrong, anyway --"
Stephanie laughed. "I don't believe this. Simon has to watch this with me... "
Simon's cell phone rang and he flipped open the display to find a slightly-pixelated image of Stephanie's hand holding a small video disc.
"Did you get a copy of this thing, or was I the only one to have the privilege?" Stephanie asked.
Simon shook his head, then remembered that he hadn't turned the phone's video camera on. "No -- I haven't received any discs that I know of."
"You have to come over to my place," Stephanie said. "You'll want to see this."
"An invitation into your sanctum sanctorum?" Simon said. "I am honored."
"Don't be. The place looks like hell, and I look worse."
"Somehow I doubt that," Simon said. "The part about you, at least."
"Ha! You've never seen me when I can't even brush my hair properly, let alone dress myself."
"You're not dressed? Then I am even more honored!"
"If a ratty bathrobe and sweats really turns you on, you're in for a treat," Stephanie said. "Come on, get your skinny safari-suited butt over here so I can watch this thing."
"But I have a meeting... er, never mind that last part. It's the Major Projects Committee."
Simon made it to Stephanie's apartment at speeds that would have surprised her. It wasn't going fast that made him nervous -- only going fast when someone else was driving. He hoped that he would be able to make the speeding tickets acquired en route 'go away' -- his insurance rates were already ridiculous, and that was with his unofficial Nightwatch activities well hidden from the insurance carrier.
"Ms. Keel. You look --"
"Like an extra from a George Romero zombie flick?"
"How is your shoulder?"
Stephanie shrugged, then winced as her damaged shoulder sent pain lancing through her body. "You bastard -- you knew I'd do that!"
Simon raised his hands. "As Callow is my witness, it never occurred to me. I was just changing the subject --"
"-- From my appearance to anything but, huh?"
Simon sighed. "You are somewhat less ravishing than usual, I must admit. But I am so very glad that you are back on your feet -- which could use washing, by the way."
"I've seen you when you've been injured," Stephanie said. "You're not exactly a treat for the eyes when you're banged up, either."
"It is hardly my fault that hospital gowns lack style," Simon said. "Now -- before I tire you too much -- what is that disc you were so eager to show me?"
Stephanie grinned. "Believe it or not, it's a video message from Evan Milford."
Simon raised one eyebrow. "You were right. This I must see."
Stephanie redirected the output from the disc player to her wall screen and joined Simon on her sofa.
"Mizz Keel? Doctor Changamurky -- what? Oh, sorry. Doctor Chan-dra-mur-tree said I should record this as part of my therapy. I don't think I need any therapy -- I didn't do nothin' wrong, anyway --"
"He's right," Simon said. "He didn't do nothing wrong -- he did quite a lot wrong."
"Hush! I want to hear this."
"They told me that I killed some people somehow," Milford said. "I don't believe none of that. Making traffic lights and hospital stuff and railroad crossings act up -- I'm a coal miner, or I was, and my daddy and his daddy were the same. I wouldn't know how to do things like that --"
"But the brain learns," Simon said.
"If I had popcorn, I'd throw it at you," Stephanie hissed. "Quiet!"
"I mean, okay, it's kinda weird that the folks who got hurt were folks I didn't like much -- that a-hole McTiernan especially. Did you know that he stole my girl? We was gettin' married and everything 'til he came along."
"Lucky girl," Simon said. "Well, not so lucky, as McTiernan's out of the picture, but at least she's shed of Mr. Milford."
"I still have one good arm," Stephanie said. "Don't make me break it on your hair."
"Anyway, the Doc says I should apologize to you, 'cause the security system messed you up some. Like I could have anything to do with that! What?" Milford looked off camera, listened to muttered instructions, and rolled his eyes.
"Fine! I'm sorry. Ess-Oh-Arr-Arr-Wye, sorry. They turned off them chips in my head, and made me take a dumb job cleaning the floors here that don't pay a quarter of what my brain job did, and all for somethin' I never did. I hope you're happy, you and that old guy that hurt my hand rippin' out the needle and all."
The video ended.
"'Old guy'," Simon snorted. "He should ask the guard I disabled how old I am."
"One guard? Was he one of those gene-therapy muscle-heads?" Stephanie asked.
Simon blinked. "No, he was an ordinary-looking fellow, but highly-trained. He called me 'gramps', for pity's sake."
Stephanie snickered. "One ordinary-looking guy. I had to take out a pair of those two-legged rhinos just to get our gear out of the hotel."
"They were no doubt stunned by your feminine charms," Simon said.
Stephanie simpered and tossed her head to make her tangled and greasy hair bounce, then yelped as her shoulder told her emphatically that this was a very bad idea.
"They were stunned by my steel-toed shoe, my fist, and my elbow," Stephanie wheezed. "Oh, Simon, when I get back in shape, I am going to humiliate you on the racquetball court. I think I'll have somebody record the match for posterity -- the most one-sided game in the history of the sport --"
"I'll leave you to your charming fantasies, my dear," Simon said, standing and moving quickly out of reach. "Rest now, so you can return to work as soon as possible. I have a few speeding tickets that I hope you can help me with."
"I'll help you insert them where the sun don't shine," Stephanie said. "I'll help you learn how to bend your elbows and knees in the opposite direction --"
Simon closed the door behind him, smiling. She was obviously on the mend, and would probably keep her promise to humiliate him on the racquetball court. He only hoped it was soon.