This book is intended for a more mature audience, so be advised.
╗ SIX ╚
Anna tore into her lunch with a vigor that surprised even her. The last three hours had approached grueling in their intensity and food had never looked so good before in her life. Despite the greasiness and lack of taste of Central Admin cafeteria chicken, she was determined to have her fill before someone else grabbed her and whisked her away for more orientation.
Her hands still shook from the sheer physical exertion they had endured since she arrived. Her right index finger in particular ached, and now that salt and oil covered her fingers she realized painfully that she had rubbed a raw patch on both her finger and the web of the same hand. Terry's mention of one hundred more shots had proven entirely misleading; she had made Anna fire five hundred rounds before she was satisfied. But satisfied she was in the end, and their training had turned to cleaning the firearm.
Anna had no idea a gun could become so filthy so quickly. When she had first handled it out of the box it smelled new, a crisp scent of oil and fresh plastic. After five hundred rounds it smelled of propellant and ash. In her usual matter-of-fact manner, Terry had taken the gun and demonstrated how to brush out and oil the barrel, slide and stock. She was not squeamish about dirt and grime, and by the time the gun clicked back together clean, both her and Anna's hands were covered in black. After washing their hands, Terry had shown her to the cafeteria and left her to eat by herself for the next forty-five minutes.
Anna now silently thanked her for the solitude; it gave her some time to reflect. Her mind still reeled from the events of the morning and it was good to let everything settle. Since her arrival she had been accosted, searched, scanned, probed, and suddenly granted unmolested access to the Central Admin building. On top of that, she had gone from never having touched a firearm in her life to firing, taking apart, cleaning, and reassembling one. Her own, no less. The thought somehow refused to sink into her consciousness easily. The bulge in her waistband begged to differ, however, and she reached back to touch the weapon that nestled under her shirt in the small of her back.
Terry had given her that as well, an in-the-waistband holster that fit both her gun and her body perfectly. Terry had shown her how to draw the gun properly from behind her back and Anna had again impressed with her quickness to learn and her accuracy. With only ten or fifteen tries she had satisfied Terry's critical eye, at least for today.
She glanced at her watch: forty-two minutes had ticked by. Looking up from the remains of her lunch, she saw Terry enter the cafeteria with a business-like stride, accompanied by a very short stout man who was forced to run to keep up with his much taller companion. He looked to be in his late forties, dark skinned with a fringe of gray hair framing his ears. He wore a long white lab coat and a pair of glasses pushed high up onto his forehead.
The odd pair did not immediately approach Anna but instead visited the food counter first. Anna studied the small man with increasing curiosity and a growing sense of wonder; she realized she knew who he was: Dr. Konrath Jarrod, reactive computing specialist extraordinaire. His picture featured prominently in the news she had seen regarding the breakthroughs in reactive computing, and he looked every bit the scientist in real life as he had on the broadcast.
In a few moments they were headed in Anna's direction and Anna quickly wiped her mouth and hands in embarrassment, still oily from her chicken. Terry approached first and gestured to Anna: “Anna, I'd like you to meet the man who invented reactive computing, Dr. Konrath Jarrod. Dr. Jarrod, this is Annalise McLean, the one who will be writing your transfer protocols.”
Dr. Jarrod, all smiles, eagerly proffered his hand to the star-struck Anna. “It is good to meet you, Miss McLean,” he rumbled agreeably. His accent leaned Caribbean, but Anna found it impossible to narrow down any farther. “Officer Garnham has told me how smart you are already, but she did not mention how beautiful as well.”
Anna unexpectedly blushed hard. It had been ages since someone had called her beautiful, at least as sincerely as he just did, and her heart melted a little. Her instinct told her she was needy for being so touched, but for once she didn't care. She held her hand out to him. “I am so pleased to meet you, Dr. Jarrod. I've heard plenty about you as well.”
She was taken completely by surprise when Dr. Jarrod, instead of shaking her hand, took it in his own and kissed it gently. He looked into her shocked face and smiled, showing a full set of very white teeth. “All good, I sincerely hope. I wouldn't want my newest programmer to harbor any animosity.”
Anna stammered something unintelligible and the scientist laughed and sat next to Terry, across the table from Anna. “One would think a man had never paid you any of the proper courtesies due to your sex,” he chuckled almost to himself. “I cannot imagine why or how.”
The offhand comment bit right through to Anna's core and she winced inside. He was more correct than he knew. She pushed the garbage from her lunch to the side and leaned on the table in front of her, searching for a way to change the subject. “So, how far along are you with the whole reactive computing process?”
Terry tapped the doctor on the shoulder. “That is my signal to leave. She is in your care for the rest of the day.” She turned to Anna. “Please review the agenda for tomorrow's orientation before you arrive in the morning.”
“Yes ma'am,” Ann replied, then turned eagerly back to Dr. Jarrod, who had begun to dig into his own lunch. She repeated her earlier question as Terry exited, and he held up a finger as he chewed his first bite. Finally he was ready to speak.
“To be honest,” he said with a sudden seriousness, “now that Officer Garnham is gone, we are far enough along in the reactive computing process that I am surprised they even brought you into it.”
Anna frowned. “Wait, what?”
He looked deep into her face and for the first time she saw a troubled flame in his eyes. “We are almost done. Them bringing you into the project almost seemed like an externally-motivated stunt. I am sorry to say that most of the interesting work is already complete.”
“That's odd,” Anna mused, her spirits falling. She hadn't realized how eager she had been for this challenge until it had apparently evaporated. “So then why did they get me at all?”
Dr. Jarrod leaned back in his chair and chewed silently for a moment before he replied. “The day that I submitted my latest progress report to Central Admin, I included a small action item that I needed fulfilled at their earliest convenience. I told them that I needed a software person to provide a badly needed fresh pair of eyes. We had hit a small snag with the transfer protocol and needed an outside opinion.”
This sounded better than nothing. Anna perked up as he continued: “The reactive tech, as you know, works the same way the human brain works. And the human brain is notoriously...eh...nonlinear in how it processes information.” He rolled his eyes, searching for the correct explanation. “Making that last jump between computer and brain is a bit like trying to pin a fly to a table while it's flying around. The brain attempts to reject the information at every turn.”
“That is fascinating,” Anna remarked. “So the reactive computer simulates the brain that well?”
“Simulates may be a strong word for it. We actually use real brain tissue in the computer, so we are working with essentially the real thing.”
Anna started. “Real brain tissue? But I thought-”
“Most people think the same thing,” Dr. Jarrod said, smiling. “And we did originally build a computer simply based on the structure of the brain. Now we've enhanced it with some of the real thing and run into the problem. We didn't have this transfer issue with the man-made version. A major oversight on our part.”
“Ah.” Anna wasn't sure what sort of reply was appropriate.
“Let's just say that we are finding it much easier to extract muscle skills and thought patterns from the human brain than to put those skills and thoughts back in.”
Anna nodded, again unsure of a proper reply.
“The protocol is finished up to that point. And once we-or you- figure out that particular algorithm, then the project is complete. Central Admin and HomoGen will have instant education at their disposal for the Versions.”
“Then it doesn't sound as bad as you were making it out to be,” Anna said with a dry chuckle. “It leaves me something to do, anyways.”
Dr. Jarrod smiled briefly. “I suppose.” He fiddled with his fork. “The question is, what will you be doing after the project is complete? They seem to want you for the long haul. Officer Garnham really hammered the firearms training this morning, did she not?”
Anna blushed again, this time for other reasons. “Word really gets around in here, doesn't it?”
“She told me herself,” Dr. Jarrod laughed. He became serious again and leaned forward closer to her. “Miss McLean- may I call you Annalise?”
“I prefer Anna.”
“Very well, Anna.” He wiped his mouth with his napkin. “I would recommend that you keep your eyes wide open. Something is going on here that is bigger than you, I think. As much as I will enjoy working with you, I feel your time with my laboratory will be brief. They didn't bring you in here just to program a protocol for me.”
A cold sensation washed over Anna as she listened. She could think of no explanations but in her gut she felt he was correct. She moved closer to him and asked in a lowered voice: “Why am I here then?”
The man across the table from her gave her a perturbed shake of the head. “I have no idea. All I know is that neither I nor any one of the scientists I work with keeps a gun on their person. You'd be the first in my laboratory to do so.”
The cold feeling settled into her stomach and began to wind it up in knots. “Should I be worried? Or should you be worried? I was never told to...to keep an eye on you or anything of that sort.”
“I wouldn't worry for the moment,” the doctor replied. “I don't think. But...keep your eyes open. I like you already, Anna, and I wouldn't want to see you get hurt.” His face was gloomy for a few moments, then it suddenly cleared and he smiled his wide toothy smile again. “Speaking of laboratories and projects, shall we go get you acquainted with mine?”
“That would be wonderful,” Anna said.
They both were eager to change the subject and both left the cafeteria with Dr. Jarrod leading the way. They walked for what seemed like an eternity, down several long hallways and up another elevator, then down a long windowed gallery similar to HomoGen's huge windowed upper stories. Anna slowed down and Dr. Jarrod, realizing he was no longer being followed, slowed as well. She insisted on pausing here, and with her back to the windows she stared with wonder at an enormous mural on the wall opposite.
The painting must have stretched for fifty feet in either direction and easily stood twenty feet tall. Darker hues dominated the leftmost portion, gradually growing lighter as the eye moved from left to right. The individual images crowded together into a fantastic mass of chaotic motion, and yet each was distinct enough to easily make out. Men fought each other; tanks battled, bodies bled, and in the background of the dark section of the painting rose a glowing mushroom cloud. Anna wasn't sure if it literally represented the nuclear terrorist attack of 2024 or if it stood merely as a symbol of past violence, but either way it made an effective image.
Towards the middle of the painting the individual images began to change, forming into a charging slew of men and machines facing off against another army charging in the opposite direction. A different flag flew over each army, the one on the right she recognized as the blue and white flag of the Party of the Reunited States. The flag on the left she did not immediately recognize; it was striped red and white, with a blue field studded with white stars. She guessed it belonged to the rebellion forces, judging from the ugly snarl of the man carrying it. In fact, the entire rebellion army showed the bias of the painter with their bloodthirsty open mouths and animalistic poses.
Moving farther to the right along the painting, the images changed again to dark rivers and fields that gradually yielded to sunshine and brilliant light. From that point onward no darkness or violence lurked, no men fought, no blood ran. At the far right end stood a shining representation of the Central Administration building, with a portrait of a man emerging from behind it. Anna recognized him as Secretary Bono Clark, the first Executive Secretary of the Reunited States. The entire mural, she realized, was a history of the last one hundred years.
“Quite a stunning piece, is it not?” Dr. Jarrod remarked quietly, his hands behind his back and his gaze on the wall. Anna nodded.
“Maybe a little over-the-top, but yes,” she replied, taking in the vast picture. It reminded her of an image she had seen long ago as a little girl, in a book that her parents owned; she only remembered that the picture was titled The Divine Comedy and that it depicted a similar progression of images. Hard to forget, those images of twisted and agonized bodies in hell, of fire licking at damned souls, of the two men walking through the midst of it all witnessing the brutality of their surroundings. She had gone running to her mother in tears after seeing the picture, after which the book disappeared without a trace. To this day Anna could not find it.
She sighed and turned to Dr. Jarrod. “I'm sorry, I've never seen it before, that's why I stopped. We can keep going.”
Dr. Jarrod smiled graciously. “I do not object.” He turned and continued walking down the gallery with Anna in tow. She could not help but give the painting one last glance before they passed through another door and another hall. Finally they stood in front of a door marked Laboratory A1A, and Dr. Jarrod swiped his badge against the sensor pad. The door clicked sharply and he pushed it open, waving Anna inside.
“Welcome to my humble but very well-equipped abode,” he said grandly, spreading his arms wide. Anna grinned at him and, entering, looked around.
Everything was white: the walls, the floor, the equipment. It all gleamed and exuded the feeling of new and expensive. Most of the equipment stood in the middle of the room, forming an island around which the workbenches were arranged. Every work station featured its own omni-monitor and data inputs. Anna felt her spirits rise as she took it all in; this put her setup at HomoGen to shame. She finally felt at home. She poked and probed around, and Dr. Jarrod watched her with an increasingly amused smile. “You are allowed to touch, you know,” he laughed. “Although whatever happens in this lab stays in this lab for security purposes.”
Suddenly she gasped and pointed to the corner. “Is-that it?” she asked, looking to Dr. Jarrod. He nodded.
“That is the crown jewel, yes,” he said, walking to the corner where a large bank of monitors sat atop a shelf that hung suspended over a long black box. As Anna approached she saw that the entire corner was bursting with support equipment for the reactive computer, with wires and cables of all sizes and shapes snaking in and out of the black box and feeding information to the monitor array. She ran her hand along the tops of the glass screens, reveling in the feel of high technology under her fingertips. Looking down past the complex wiring harness, she suddenly found herself disturbed staring at the black box. It looked like nothing so much as a child-sized coffin made of black metal. She shook herself and willed the thought out of her head.
Dr. Jarrod cleared his throat and sat down in front of the monitors. “Sit down if you would, Anna, and we'll get started.”
They spent the next two hours sitting in front of the computer screens, Anna asking many questions to which Dr. Jarrod almost always had an answer. The scope of his knowledge and expertise was truly vast, and Anna thought she could never tire of picking the man's brain. She watched with rapt attention as he demonstrated the wave patterns the reactive computer core generated, and the thought patterns that he and his team were attempting to input. She soon found herself puzzled, though. “Dr. Jarrod? I have an odd question.”
“You said earlier that it was a lot easier to extract thought than to put it into the brain, correct?”
“That is correct, yes.” Dr. Jarrod pulled his spectacles off his head and began to clean them.
“And you are trying to input a specific thought pattern into the reactive computer core?” Anna continued.
“Then, if you don't mind my asking, where did the thought patterns come from? The ones we are trying to input? Who did you record them from?”
Dr. Jarrod seemed surprised by the question, but he shrugged and replaced his glasses atop his head. Anna wondered offhandedly why he bothered to clean them when he was just going to stick them back up there. “Now that is an interesting story,” he said. “I didn't get my choice of subject for the thoughts and muscle motor skills I was extracting. Central Admin, in their infinite wisdom, picked my subject for me. I would have chosen...oh, I don't know, a violinist, perhaps? Someone with finely honed artistic skill of some sort. But no, they decided I would get someone else.”
“His name was Daniel Marcus, ex-military Elite Combat Unit. The best of the best, or so they told me. Story goes that he fought his way single-handedly out of Mogadishu during the Allied campaign there and rejoined his squad with barely a scratch. Anyways, he supposedly represented the pinnacle of physical prowess so we recruited him to donate his motor skill thought patterns to us.”
Anna frowned. “You said his name was Daniel Marcus. Where is he now?”
Dr. Jarrod became silent for a long moment. He rubbed his fingers together and with a discouraged look on his face turned to Anna. “Something went wrong. Very wrong. He got mixed up with some woman around here and got into a huge fight. Even started demanding that I erase the brain data he had donated to me. Finally he disappeared into some Central Admin prison and word came out that he was actually an agent working for Verité.”
Anna drew in breath. “Were they attempting to break into something?”
Dr. Jarrod shook his head. “I have no idea. But Central Admin naturally wanted him as dead as they could make him so a brief went out just last week that he was to be executed. It was going to be televised, as a warning against any further Verité intrusion attempts. Then the whole affair just disappeared.”
Anna's eyebrows shot up. “What do you mean? Did they execute him?”
“If they had executed him they would have made it public, like they promised. But they haven't said a word about it since. So I think he either killed himself in his cell, or- and I know this is insane- he escaped.”
Something in Anna's mind instantly clicked. “He escaped,” she breathed.
Dr. Jarrod sat back and raised a doubtful eyebrow at her. “How the hell do you know?”
“The Central Police were stopping all traffic out of D.C. at checkpoints just a matter of days ago,” she explained. “And they refused to tell me why. I'd say it's a good bet that he escaped and they are looking for him.”
Dr. Jarrod chuckled grimly. “Heh, well, I wouldn't have known about roadblocks or checkpoints. I am almost chained to these desks; I sleep here many nights. Just over the weekend I got to go home for the first time in weeks, and I plan on leaving here at decent hours from now on.” He grinned. “Now that I have a savvy programmer in my lab to do my work for me.”
“You can expect work from me, not miracles,” Ann replied, catching his infectious humor. “But I already have some ideas as to how to fix your problem.”
“I'm glad to hear it.” Dr. Jarrod said, then stood as another man entered the lab. The new man stood much taller than Dr. Jarrod and sported a much younger face, a face which he was in the act of stuffing full of doughnut as he walked through the door and sat down.
“Anna, this is Dex Lynch, my assistant,” Dr. Jarrod said, motioning to the other man. Anna nodded to him and he nodded wordlessly back, the doughnut still obstructing his speech. Without another word he plugged his ears with digital music and pulled himself up to one of the computers to work.
“Not much of a conversationalist,” Anna remarked dryly. Dr. Jarrod chuckled and sat back down.
“No, and I prefer him that way. Nepotism at its best; Dex the Second, son of the founder of Dexworks. He's a whiz at brain pattern analysis but he spews some of the most obnoxious crap when he gets started.” The doctor tapped the data pad in front of him. “Shall we get back to the task at hand then? All of this talk of escaped convicts has derailed my train of thought.”
Click here to read Chapter 7!
Click here to read Chapter 7!