Dimensional Tourist, Part IV

(The sci-fi mystery continues)

“Highly unlikely,” Pundel said.  “He has too much control over the ship’s systems to qualify.  If he were on a suicide mission, we would already be dead.  The engineer, on the other hand, is not in the clear.  The captain is our best recourse, for now. In the meantime, Lumbsden, can you see what can be done with the power core, assuming we need a straightforward fix?  I know it is out of your specialty, but we need to start a proper repair attempt.”

“Yes, sir,” I said with a smile and a short salute.

“Xiang,” Pundel said, turning to the professor, “this may be a stretch, but is there any way you could determine if the dimensional module or shields could be modified to use less power?”

“It is unlikely I could assist you,” Xiang said.  “My field of study is mostly theoretical.”

“I understand,” Pundel said, standing up and pulling his shirt straight, “but you are more qualified than anyone aboard, with respect to the physics.  You are also very intelligent.  The system specs are all available to us, so you are the only one who could help on that end.”

“It would take several weeks to explain the complexity of the task you request,” Xiang said.  “It seems highly unproductive.”

Pundel half-turned to go.  “As you will,” he said, “however, we may die for lack of a solution.  Consider that before you give up.”  Xiang looked eager to retort, but Pundel was gone too quickly.

“He is such a bastard,” she finally chirped, moments after he was gone.  “He is in no position of authority to order me around.”

I was already bending my mind toward solutions to the power core problem, but heard her clearly.  “True,” I said, “but he is right.”

[Story switching to Pundel’s perspective]

Lumbsden was a bright tech, no doubt about it.  He had picked up on the matter of the engineer quickly.  If I could count on that kind of reasoning from him, we might just have a chance.  It would be important to reach the captain and access the engineer’s records and personal logs.  A long shot, yes, but if the engineer was the saboteur and foolish enough to record her activity we would be in a better position.  I knew how to find the bridge from the ship specs and the computer reported the captain was there.  Jordan intercepted me in the corridor before I made it.  He was unhappy I had left engineering unescorted.

“You all require escorts while outside passenger areas,” he said tersely, before agreeing to bring me to the bridge.  “What do you need the captain for, anyway?”

“I need some general information about the transit of the ship and so forth,” I said, carefully adding, “as well as taking up a personal request with him.”  I did not want to give insult to the acting engineer.

The bridge was a cozy spot, certainly a change from the stark, functional ones on military ships.  If fact, it looked more comfortable than the lounges on military vessels.  Captain Trussman was slouched back in a padded, oversized seat, focussed on a personal viewscreen to his left.  The other bridge crew looked disinterestedly busy at their stations.  What struck me was the utter silence of the room.

The good Captain Trussman was surprised and hesitant in his greeting.  I was subtle about requesting private information, though Jordan may have picked up on my desire to leave him out; Trussman definitely read my signals.  I was in a briefing room with him a minute later.

“I may not be a seasoned military man, Pundel,” he said, offering me a drink with a gesture, which I declined with a wave, “yet I know when something unusual is happening.  I would prefer you get straight to it and spare me the nonsense.”

“That is fair, captain,” I said, joining him at a briefing table.  “I will try to be brief, but there are some layers, here.  To start, I think the vessel has been sabotaged.  Your injured engineer is likely the culprit, or involved somehow.  If we are to survive this, I will need your help.”

The captain poured himself a drink, after all, looking deep in thought as he did.

“So,” he sighed, “you think it was foul play.  Fair enough.  What do you need from me?”

“Several things, actually,” I replied.  “I will need access to the engineer’s personal logs and effects.  I will also need to speak with your officers and crew.  It would also be helpful to borrow your dimensional technicians during this.  Xiang is knowledgeable, to be sure, but her potential is wasted without guidance.”

“Is that all?” Captain Trussman said with a smirk.  “You do know that we are already operating on emergency protocol.  How do I pull my people away for this little hunt of yours?”

“Good question,” I replied.  “It’s a simple matter of logistics, really.  The general repairs in engineering should be a matter of hours, really.  Then there is the power core and computer system.  Those will require substantially more time, even if we can be sure of the computer and devise a fix.  You don’t have enough crew hours, even if the engineer was available, to make that happen.  Is this ship provisioned with stimulants?”

“Stimulants?” Trussman asked, suddenly looking uncomfortable.  “You mean the military variety designed for full duty hours?”

“Exactly that sort.  According to my understanding of things, we are a few days from our exit point.  If we do not have this vessel ready for dimensional transit by then, it might be pointless.”

Trussman looked pensive and troubled.  I felt bad for him.  This was not a scenario he, or his crew, were prepared or equipped for.

“The personal affairs of our Engineer are a detail,” he said, up and pacing now.  This emergency gives me full authority over privacy matters.  Ordering this crew to full duty hours, assuming we have the proper stimulants…that is more difficult.  Very few of them have a military background to handle that.  That level of stimulation, for so long, it could be lethal.”

“No less lethal than the alternative,” I countered.

“True,” the Captain agreed.  “I will see what we have available.  Access to the crew is yours, only let me advise them, first.  This will be difficult.”

“And one last thing, Captain,” I asked.  “Your officers seem set on monitoring our movements.  I appreciate the need for this, under ordinary circumstances, however we well past that, are we not?”

“I can have those restrictions relaxed,” Trussman said.  “But I have to review it with my security people.  Until then, let’s have a look through my engineering officer’s personal effects.”

He summoned a security man and we made our way to the officer quarters.  They were comfortable, compact cabins designed for modest comfort on short voyages.  The quarters of engineering officer Major Peggy Flint were simply and sparsely decorated, nothing suspicious in that; pictures of a few relatives and friends amidst her credentials hanging on the walls.

Trussman opened her private consol and gave a coded command to unlocked everything in the room and open her computer files.  He motioned for me to proceed as he began opening compartments and searching.  I also began with a physical search.

“What do you know about her?” I asked him.

“Standard information has her as single, divorced a few years back, actually,” he answered.  “A bit too dedicated, perhaps, not much room for a relationship, on top of regularly being away.  She is from one of the mining colonies on the periphery.  The space program gets a lot of recruits from remote places like that.”

“She mixes well with the other officers and crew?” I asked.

“Near as I can tell, yes,” Trussman answered, rummaging through her things.  “She is not overly social, mind you.  As I said, very committed to the job.”

“How about her politics?” I asked, cutting closer to a dangerous possibility.

“Not much there,” Trussman said.  “She is almost apolitical, really.  In addition to standard screening, our crew was then screened by the military.  I went through it, too; and they leave nothing to chance.  If you have the slightest gripe, you had no chance.”

“I see,” I said, having completed the search of her cabin.  “There is nothing obvious here, not that it matters much.  She would be unlikely to have left a physical clue.  Still, if your security man is worth anything, he should be familiar with a full search procedure and execute one.  Hopefully, her private computer files offer something.”

Trussman was already at her consol, glancing through her private information.  “I do not access officer and crew files lightly, Pundel,” the Captain commented.  “There is something I need to ask you, however.  You seem…almost too versed in the investigation process.  You were a technical officer, correct?”

I smiled at his comment.  This question was bound to come up at some point.

Dimensional Tourist, Part III

(More of the same!)

“I will answer your last question first,” Captain Trussman replied.  “We have lost roughly seventy percent our power capacity.  The precise figure is somewhat unimportant, for now.  As to what happened, we do not know with any certainty.  Lieutenant Jordan has been trying to work this out, but we need all the help we can get.”

     “The patchwork looks mostly complete,” Pundel said.  “What is it that you need?”

     “Lieutenant Jordan, you have a better technical sense of all this,” the captain said.  “Please continue.”

     Jordan paused a moment before speaking, the slightest hint of a nervous tick starting.  “The damage is relatively superficial, but has crippled key components of the power core.  We have lost most of the activation inputs and equalisation arrays, which is the majority of the problem.  This is not a fix that can be handled with the core in operation.”

     “Perhaps you should let us in on what happened, in the first place?” I asked.  “It might help to know what caused this before we attempt a fix.”

     Jordan exchanged a knowing, uneasy look with Patel, the security officer.  “We don’t know anything, for certain.  The diagnostics are inconclusive, but it could have been a system malfunction.  We have not ruled out foul play.”

     “So what do you know, beyond the immediate state of the damage?” Pundel asked.

     “Six hours ago, the computer detected a power surge in the power core arrays,” Jordan explained.  “The system compensated in time to prevent damage, except for the equalisation arrays; most of which overloaded and burnt out.  The activation inputs became damaged when the core became unstable.  We have managed to correct the instability by lowering the core’s output and making manual adjustments, which is extremely difficult with so few equalisation arrays operating.”

     “And you don’t trust the system to handle it,” Pundel suggested, “which is probably wise, considering.”

     “Yes,” Jordan continued.  “We haven’t had enough time to dissect the computer functions for signs of foul play or malfunction.  Even then, we do not have the personnel for a full diagnostic if it was a carefully concealed sabotage.  The basic functions are operating normally, though we are monitoring them carefully now.”

     “You need our help to brainstorm up a stability solution for the power core,” Xiang said, bluntly.

     “That is most of it,” the captain said.  “We would also need to know if there is an ongoing issue that needs addressing before we even try to play with the power core.  A repeat of the previous issue would be the end of us.”

     “I cannot speak for the professor, but Terry and I will need to see specs, system reports and diagnostic data before we can do anything,” Pundel said, sounding ready to jump in.

     We were brought to a terminal alongside the control panels.  A screen displayed a series of hub menus, all of which were familiar to me.  Jordan set the screen to an observation only mode and pulled up a file.  A series of files opened, presenting time stamped readings from system sensors.  It was slightly different for the format I knew, but made sense to me.  Jordan forwarded us to the point, just prior to the power surge that set everything off.

     “This is the point where the power surge began,” Jordan pointed out, probably for the benefit of Xiang.  “I compiled this file about an hour ago, trying to chase down answers.  My time has been limited, so I have only looked it over briefly.  Let me know if you find anything.  I will not be far, if you need me.”

     The next hour was spent looking over the information.  The sequence of damage that happened after the fact was easy enough to evaluate.  The lead up was far more mysterious.  Pundel and I made comments, here and there, but largely just reviewed the information.  Xiang had watched with cool interest, not speaking until Pundel and I were finished.

     “So,” she asked, “what happened?  Is there an ongoing concern?  Can we begin to find a solution to the power core damage?”

     Pundel rubbed his temples, squinting.  “I think Jordan is correct about finding a computer flaw, created or otherwise.  In either case, a technician’s solution is a full power down, disconnection and data wipe.  We can’t do that on an operating vessel.  Everything relies on the computer.”

     “So you don’t know what happened, then?” Xiang said, sounding angry again.

     “To be blunt: no.” Pundel said, completely calm.  “My opinion is that foul play is the most likely cause of all this.  A power surge of that magnitude should not occur in any system, especially an essential one.  Then the system disperses the surge to all but one type of array, and the excess power funneled back to these panels, blowing them out quite violently.  All of this together is too suspicious to be anything but a careful sabotage.”

     “Could this have been done before the ship departed?” Xiang asked, calmed down by Pundel’s assessment.

     “I suppose,” he said, “but I am speculating on that point.  Nothing is certain.”

     “So the saboteur could be on board,” Xiang muttered.

     “It is possible,” Pundel said, looking absently at the screen.  “Such a person would be insane or suicidal, if they were.”

     “Did you notice the smell when we arrived?” I asked Pundel.

     “Hard not to,” he replied.  “I take it you have the same concern about the fate of the engineer?”

     “It only makes sense,” I said.  “And it might just explain the foul play.”

     “What are you two talking about?” Xiang interrupted.

     “The sanitizer we smelled,” I explained, “is rarely used in this environment, unless there is…a biological cleaning.  Jordan is the acting engineering officer, which is unusual aboard a ship of this size.”

     Xiang expression told me that she needed no blanks filled in.  We were all on the same page.

     “What do we do now?” Xiang asked, very seriously.  “Is there a solution?”

     “I have a long shot hunch,” Pundel said.  “It assumes the engineer was the saboteur, and sloppy about his task.”  He waved Jordan over to us.

     “Please have good news,” Jordan muttered.  He looked tired.

     “No promises,” Pundel said.  “I am going to be direct with you.  I mean no offense, and I am not trying to cause difficulty.  This is all to strike a solution.  Am I clear?”

     Jordan’s brow furrowed, plainly surprised at Pundel’s approach.  He nodded in agreement.

     “Good.  I have some questions that need quick answers.  Was the engineering officer killed when the panels blew?”

     “No,” Jordan responded slowly.  “He is seriously injured, however.”

     Pundel looked at Xiang and me before continuing.  “Has he been questioned?”

     “Her injuries were quite substantial,” Jordan said.  “She has not been conscious since.”

     “Is she expected to live?” Pundel asked.

     “What are you getting at?” Jordan asked, sounding slightly defensive.  “If you want to wake her for more information you are out of luck.  The medical staff has already said her condition is terrible and will not push her.  We have already asked about this.”

     “Have you tried looking into her files?” Pundel went on, unfazed by Jordan’s agitation.

     “There was nothing unusual about her entries to the engineering log.  I’m sorry, Pundel, but that is a dead end.  We would love to have her expertise, as well, but her condition is too dire.”

     “That is too bad,” Pundel said.  “It would have been helpful to know what happened immediately before the incident.  Anyway, we are almost finished with our review.  Thank you for the information.”

     Jordan nodded coldly and left the engineering area.  Pundel looked pensive as we watched Jordan depart.  “What was that about?” Xiang asked.

     “I always thought I would die in space,” Pundel half-mumbled.  “I am concerned about our situation, here, deeply concerned.  We need to speak with the captain.”

     “Why?” Xiang asked.  “Do you think Jordan might be involved?”

Dimensional Tourist, Part II

(Sci-fi, mystery adventure.)

Captain Douglas Trussman made his entrance a few awkward moments later.  He was a middle aged man, though he looked quite fit for his years.  I had the sense he was competent but rattled, out of his element.

     “I am glad you are all here,” he said, quickly.  “We have a matter of great concern and potential urgency upon us, and we could benefit from your assistance.  I cannot risk panic among the other passengers, so I need this to be kept private.  Is this understood?”

     “You are asking us to keep something private before we know what it is?” Xiang objected harshly.  “What if I refuse?”

     Trussman grimaced slightly.  “I can have you arrested and confined, though I would hate to do it.”

     “You can’t do that,” Xiang shot back.  “I am not a member of your crew, only a passenger.  This is preposterous!”

     “As captain of a registered space vessel, I am fully within my authority to arrest anyone on my ship who presents a risk to her overall safety.  I cannot afford to quell frightened passengers while we have greater concerns.  I can also compel you to service aboard the vessel as I require.  Please, professor, I am confident you will understand when I show you the state of our situation.”

     The professor looked incredibly suspicious, even taking a half step back.  She glanced at Pundel and me, as though we could offer some help.

     “Professor,” Pundel said, trying to be reassuring, “the Captain has complete authority on the vessel.  If you feel you are being mistreated there is a tribunal you can contact later on.”

     “Thank you,” the captain said.  “Now let me get to the heart of the matter.  Jordan, please lead the way to the drive room.”

     The ship was large enough for this to be a fair walk.  Captain Trussman explained things along the way.  “This ship operates by generating a barrier, a dimensional shield that protects the hull from direct exposure to this dimension.  After that, we activate a dimensional module that shifts us to beta dimension.  While we are here, the drive systems are useless.  As far as we can tell, we simply glide while we are here, as though a wind or current was propelling us.  The drive is not reactivated until we return to our own dimension, so we have excess power while we are here.”

     We entered a room that looked like an engineering centre.  It was a long room, and fairly spacious for a functional room.  Several crew were bustling about, glancing at us as we entered.

     “The biggest single use of power by this ship is made on our return from Beta,” the captain continued.  “The dimensional module is an energy sop, in general, but worse for the return.  Also, while we jump, the dimensional shield must be maintained until we have completely left Beta.  The power requirement of the shield and dimensional module combined are about ninety percent of the Trailblazer’s capacity.  Our power core was designed to handle this, with some excess.”

     We stopped in front of the drive and power core, ship elements I was familiar with.  Blast damage was plainly evident.  Several panels were missing, and several more removed; a technician was busy testing connections at one of the exposed areas.  The smell of sanitizing agents was in the air.

     The captain turned to us, looking a tad less confident than moments before.  “Which brings me to our issue: we are damaged and low on power.”

     “What happened here?” Xiang asked, suddenly sounding less defiant.  “How much power have we lost?”

     I was too distracted by my assessment of the damage and concern over the sanitizer smell.  A lot of the standard technical training and testing involved flash assessments of damage; it was designed to make you quicker at recognising and prioritising repairs when damage was not isolated.  It became second nature to run everything through your head and devise a game plan.

     The sanitizer also bothered me.  Damage did not need quick clean up, especially not enough to notice the smell in the air.  It was commonly used to make a quick clean up of biological messes.  I had experienced fairly few deaths in my career, but enough to know how they were cleaned up.  I immediately connected Jordan’s acting status as engineering officer with this recent clean up; which also answered the question of our summons.

Dimensional Tourist

(The last couple of weekends have fallen through for posting. Just life on the go. All is well. This post is a bit of science fiction mystery and adventure, inspired by too many sources to get into. Like so much of what I do, it needs an edit and tune up. Still, it is fun to write. Enjoy)

Sharing a stateroom was the only way I could afford the trip.  Lars Pundel was going to be perfect, though.  For starters, he was clean, pleasant and educated.  What rounded things out was how much we had in common.  Lars had recently retired from a long career as a senior drive technician with the military.  I was a class four technician, with my specialty being in navigation systems.  Different specialties, yes, but techs are techs.  Other than that, the only major difference between us was age; Lars was in his early sixties, about thirty years ahead of me.

     It was going to be a unique vacation.  Cruising to alternate dimensions remained new after many years of being scientifically possible.  The Trailblazer was the first of several ships planned for extra-dimensional tourism.  It had been operating for over a year, travelling to another dimension twice a month without as much as a hiccup.  Level four techs did not exactly make a fortune, but I was intrigued by this new frontier.  What was a bit of money compared to the opportunity for a unique experience?

     For safety reasons, the ship was stationed in a remote area, away from settled planets or inhabited stations.  Even then, it spent two days travelling from the docking station, just to be extra safe.  My trip had been pleasant, anyway, and the anticipation was half the fun.  Lars and I spent the evenings chatting in the lounge over drinks, discussing the technical trades, regular space travel and comparing notes on military versus private spacecraft.  The days were spent gambling, mixing with other passengers, and, well, more drinking.

     When the time for the dimensional jump approached, we were herded to a viewing deck to take in this new dimension; dubbed the Beta Dimension by D-Voyages, the company who owned and operated the tour.  The deck was a clear, high density polymer supported by internal shields.  The deck gave a nearly perfect view of the surrounding space.  Once we were assembled, there was a short safety broadcast about maintaining composure and reporting any nausea or medical disturbances.  Another brief message outlined the history of dimensional travel and threw in a bit of marketing and promotional information; sell, sell, sell.

     When the hoopla of broadcasts ended the captain issued a final message from the bridge.  It was meant to create a bit of drama, I figured, except the passengers around me looked vaguely bored.

     “Ladies and gentlemen,” the captain said through the audio speakers, “this is your captain speaking.  Prepare to be amazed.  I will have the dimensional shields raised in a moment.  After the shields have stabilised, the dimensional transit module will be activated, propelling us to the Beta Dimension in seconds.  After that, you are free to enjoy the sights and sensations of a new frontier.  Commander Clarke, engage the dimension shields.”

     There was no noticeable change as these shields engaged so we were really just standing around for a few moments.  The passengers were generally quiet.

     “It makes me wonder if this dimensional travel is some sort of ritual that requires extended broadcasts,” Lars joked.

     “I hope not,” I replied.  “I forgot to bring any goats or incense.”  We must have chuckled a bit too loudly because several passengers shot us unfriendly glances.

     The speakers sent us the voice of the Captain again.  “Ladies and gentlemen, the dimensional shields have been stabilised.  We are ready to travel to the far reaches of existence.  Commander Clarke, please engage the dimensional module for final transit.”

     This time, there was something noticeable.  The air seemed to hum, almost to a buzzing level, before fading.  The view into space blurred and faded, slowly turning a light purple, swirling with yellows, pinks, greys and some colours I had never seen before.  The interesting part of the experience was that I saw shapes and configurations that I could not describe.  The promotional information and client testimonials had mentioned there were certain elements of Dimension Beta that could only be understood by experiencing them; and now I could agree.  Holo, video and audio taken in this dimension was always incomplete, sometimes looking like a jumble, when viewed.  A popular theory suggested there was an ambient psychic energy or field that permeated even the dimensional shields, altering our perception.  My first impression was awe; the second impression was I had made a great choice for my vacation.

     “Welcome to Beta Dimension,” I said after a couple of minutes gawking at the incredible, impossible view.

     Lars was smiling as he gazed into the depths of this new space; like a kid entering his first holographic action game.  “I’ve been to almost every corner of explored space in the last forty years,” he said, reverently, “and I’ve never seen anything like this.  Bloody fantastic.”

     We sat as the view shifted slightly, suggesting movement.  The captain issued another audio broadcast.  “Ladies and gentlemen, I have one last thing to mention before our cruise commences, and I promise this will be the final interruption.  The view is never quite the same here, so even if this is not your first voyage with us, I advise you remain watchful as we move along.  Remember you will experience things differently, even for different passengers, while here.  Any questions or concerns can be directed to any of our crew.  Thank you and enjoy your cruise.”

     “What do you make of that?” Lars said.  “I don’t even know how to explain some of this view to discuss it with you.”

     “Some of the extended information about the cruise mentioned a group of academics are actively creating new words to address the stuff here,” I said.  “Sounded like bunk to me when I read it.  Now I understand.”

     The cruise experience was new to me, but not disappointing.  Food, drink and entertainment were plentiful and available at any hour.  Some foods and drinks even tasted different in Beta Dimension.  The viewing deck remained the primary entertainment, like an impossible holographic light show.  The trip was scheduled to last ten days and I did not want it to end.  Unfortunately, things change.

     Around day five, I was summoned from a gambling table by a petty officer.  The reason for the summons was intentionally vague, even through my drunken haze, though it was clear the captain wanted to see me.  The officer led me into an off-limits engineering area.  Two officers, Lars and a rather attractive lady passenger were also gathered.  Before departing, the petty officer gave me an anti-inebriant spray that cleared my head, ending the pleasant sensation I had cultivated.

     “What’s all this about?” I asked.

     “I apologise for disturbing you,” one of the officers responded.  “The captain will join us shortly and explain things fully.  I am Lieutenant Jordan, the acting engineering officer.  This is Sergeant Patel, our military officer in charge of security.  You are already acquainted with Technical Officer Pundel, retired, so that leaves Professor Xiang.  Professor Xiang, may I introduce Technical Petty Officer Terence Lumbsden.”

     “Pleasure,” she said, coldly, without even a nod.

     “Yeah, sure,” I said, starting to feel a self-conscious wave of sobriety.

     “You gentlemen have technical skills that may be needed soon,” Jordan continued.  “Professor Xiang is a specialist in dimensional physics at the University of Ulator.  She may have input on our…situation.”

     “A situation you have refused to explain,” Xiang interrupted, apparently bothered with more than just me.  “I would like to know what is happening that required this interruption, or do we need to wait on the Captain for everything beyond introductions?”

     “Don’t waste your energy on the poor Lieutenant,” Lars said, looking slightly amused at her outburst.  “He is under orders to say little until the Captain arrives.  I can speculate that some sort of emergency has cropped up that requires our assistance, otherwise, I would still be swilling gin and gazing into the wonders of Beta Dimension.  Nothing else explains it.”

     Lars was right, judging by the reaction of the officers.  He was right that we wouldn’t get any answers until the Captain arrived.  I had also noticed the use of the rank acting engineering officer, suggesting the engineering officer was ill or incapacitated; the gravity of this did not hit me at that moment.

     “You have our deepest apologies,” Jordan went on.  “I can assure you that we will fully reimburse you for this inconvenience.”  This was more discomforting than anything that had been said yet.

Even More Casserole

(The holiday season looms. My posting frequency may be erratic through the end of the year. It is so good to be my own boss on this. I will try for something different on the next post. There is such a thing as too much casserole)

The drive took us off the main highway and onto a secondary road until noon.  We were in the heart of farm country and the world suddenly seemed far away.  Mal took a side road for several minutes, coming to a place called Bhrycal Corners, with all of an independent gas station, family restaurant and antique shop to differentiate it from any other country crossroad.  Mal slowed and pulled into the gas station.

“This doesn’t look much like a meeting place,” I observed.

“No,” Mal said, getting out of the car.  “We could use some gas and more food, though.”

The meeting was clearly some time into the future.  I didn’t object.  After gassing the car, Mal parked and insisted we try the local cuisine.  The Quiet Corners Family Restaurant was true to its name, we were the only guests and it was not yet one o’clock.  The menu was limited but Mal found a way to order a feast.  An appetiser of cheesy garlic bread was followed with a hot turkey sandwich and an order of apple pie for desert.  I was hungry enough to order a similar quantity of food.

“It always makes me sad to see places like this,” she said while stirring the sugar into her coffee.  “The people work hard to build a business, even out in the boondocks, and it too often sits empty.  The owners don’t want to make a million dollars, they only want to make a decent living.  Sad.”

Her attempt at chit chat felt forced, awkward.  I didn’t care much for talking when I only wanted to find out more about why I was being called in, and what was wrong with Corbin.  Mal did not take the hint, or chose to ignore it.

“I hope places like this last forever,” Mal went on.  “It’s not fair that they go out of business and fail.  There must be a way to fix that, you know?”

“Places like this tend to fail because they are not properly planned or managed,” I said, anxious for the silence of our car trip.  “I could care less if they make it or not.  Not my problem.”

“Charming,” Mal said, flashing her smile for the first time in a while.  “You should write a motivational column or something.”

“I’m not feeling very chatty,” I grumbled.  “This was not how my day was supposed to go.”

“Ah, yes.  You were supposed to go back to your boss and make a delivery; a worthy use of your skills and responsible contribution to society.  Somehow, I am not bothered about disturbing your day.”

“You can spare me the crap about doing the world a favour,” I said, feeling resentful again.  “I did enough.  All I wanted was a full extraction, and they couldn’t do it, so I left.  It’s a free country, the last time I checked.”

“Then why didn’t you take a labour job?  Or anything other than crime?” Mal rose to the challenge.

“Because labour jobs that pay well don’t exist, and the pension the program offers doesn’t exist,” I shot back.  “And I lost too much time playing secret agent to jump back into a normal life”

“Let me get this straight,” she said, getting more agitated, “you want a pension for ten years of work?  Fuck!  How about a gold watch and a retirement party?  You can’t be that selfish.”

“Oh, but I can.”

“You would be dead if it weren’t for Corbin,” she said, crossing into sensitive territory.  “The only reason you can handle this insane life of yours is because of him, too.  You know how he is, how do you think he feels about your career choice after what he gave you?”

I was pissed off by this point.  “I got over that a while back.  Corbin saved my life, and I can only thank him for it, but I didn’t sign up to be a slave.  I’m not only one to leave the program, either.”  The truth went deeper than this, really, but I just wanted to stop talking about it.  Mal had opposed my leaving from the moment I first mentioned it, before I chose a criminal life.

“Don’t give me that bull shit!” she kept on going.  “Paul became a police officer and Nancy got an office job.”

“Listen, Mal,” I said, working very hard to keep my voice down, “I just don’t give a shit.  I haven’t given a shit for while.  So how about not talking about it?”

Our server saved me from more distress with the prompt arrival of our garlic bread.  I engaged in a brief, and awkward, conversation with the woman.  She was a chubby lady in her early fifties with pleasant features and work-worn hands.  Mal’s earlier point about the plight of little businesses like this hit me, just a little, when I looked at the woman.  She was polite, and friendly, but clearly wanted to leave our table.  Mal was bubbling over, searing anger obvious in her eyes; stoked hotter as I obviously extended a meaningless conversation with our server.

Mal leaned in after the server was out of earshot, looking like pure venom.  “You don’t want to fucking talk?” she hissed.  “Fine.  Then you can save it for the meeting because I’m done talking, too.”

“That’s the best thing you’ve said since you showed up,” I said, not contented to let her off too easily.

“Fuck you,” she responded.

Our meal was very ordinary, other than being too salty.  True to her word, Mal not only stayed quiet but she never once looked at me.  She even told the server that I would be paying.  I had clearly struck a nerve.

The rest of the drive took us into a remote area of southern Ontario; even the farming seemed to peter out.  At one point, it was clear that Mal was doubling back and circling a certain area to check if we were being followed.  Some of the roads we took were hard on the car, not being much better than pairs of ruts in the bush.  The car was a right-off, anyway, as Mal had put out several cigarettes on the dash since lunch.  It was nearly dusk when she finally turned down a particularly rough track.  The overgrown track jostled us in the car, the undercarriage taking a beating as branches scratched the exterior.  Mal drove on with a satisfied look on her face as the car took a beating.  When the bush around us cleared, we were at the edge of cliff.  Mal stopped the car and got out.  I had a bad feeling about her intentions toward the car and got out quickly.  As expected, Mal gave the car a shove over the edge, ending about fifty feet below and into watery grave.

She didn’t even look back as she headed into the surrounding woods.  I had one final temptation to run for it before I followed her in.  She kept a quick pace, not quite jogging, through the woods until we broke into a field dotted with patches of bush.  It felt like an abandoned farm area, dotted with stones, thistles and trees.  In the early twilight, it felt very remote, as if the world outside didn’t exist.

Our path kept us in the direction of a distant barn.  The closer we got, the clearer it was that the place was nearly a ruin.  It was deathly quiet, other than the crickets and occasional bird chirping.  When we were about fifty feet from the barn, Mal slowed her pace and changed her course to circle around.  I followed carefully, it being obvious that we had reached the meeting place.  A complete circle later, we went toward the barn.  The door hung open enough to slip through; the outside twilight just barely illuminating the interior through the damaged roof and walls.  I immediately noted the smells of gun oil, perspiration and fabric.  Years of living a dangerous life made me want to reach for my weapon, which might have been fatal in the company I was meeting with.

A tiny light, the same colour made by fireflies, flashed before us in some unknown, coded pattern.  I was familiar with this type of coded communication, only the code had probably changed many times since I had last used it.  Mal signaled back with a penlight of her own, the firefly colour matching.  We moved forward to what looked like a tent, turning out to be an ancient tractor under a tarp.  Beneath the tractor was a trap door to a cramped basement below.  The basement was only just high enough to stand straight in.  The lights were dim, but I recognised everyone there.  Palmer, Smith, Jarredsson and several others I knew too well.  Good, upstanding members of the program.  In all, there were a dozen of them; I estimated another two or three in the barn above us.  I was acknowledged with a combination of silent nods and a variety of mumbled greetings; none of it felt terribly friendly.

To Be Named Later, or The Casserole

(This is the beginning of a much longer story. Call it very near future. Loosely speaking, it is a spy/underworld/perhaps-alternate-timeline story with all sorts of science fiction bits and pieces thrown in. A casserole of fun stuff. It is definitely gritty, not lacking in violence, and involves characters with questionable ethics. It is also unfinished, unedited and untitled, but I work on it between other things.)

               The downtown had the usual, dingy, rundown look of every small, northern town I had ever seen.  Patchy attempts to improve the visual rot only made it worse.  The waterfront was probably the only decent place in the downtown core, though the rot was seeping into it, as well.  The place was dead and just hadn’t noticed; a zombie town.

               I strolled to the docks, discovering the harbour area was smaller than it looked from a distance.   Really, it was a parking lot set next to a walkway along the water, with a restaurant on one side and a very industrial looking complex on the other.  Charming.

               If autumn had an upside, it was in being cold enough to keep riff-raff from sleeping outside during the night.  I had seen two distant joggers earlier but the place was otherwise deserted.  I continued along the larger of two main docks, figuring it was as good a place as any to do some thinking while I waited.  A car sped past in the distance, an ancient hatchback, rotting away like the town, and disappeared into a side street.  As quickly as that, I was alone.

               The waterfront was on a bay off the great lake.  The water was icy still and dark; the predawn light seemed to cast shadows on everything, and those shadows seemed to collect in the water.  It had a peaceful quality, all the same.  I kept my back to the town, enjoying the view across the bay, a mostly undeveloped area that gave an illusion of purity.

               Time passed and I fell into a deep, thoughtful state, almost a trance, aware of my surroundings yet deep within my own mind.  There was no ritualistic or spiritual element to it.  I had learned to do it as a boy and got into the habit.  The opportunity was sometimes scarce, though I never lost the knack.  It was like being awake and dreaming at the same time.  Thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations swirled in a gentle maelstrom; they crossed, merged and sometimes settled with each other, creating a kaleidoscope vision of my mind.  I had found that the longer I was able to hold myself in this state, the more likely it was for the elements to generate the semblance of a message, or concept, or something meaningful.  It had a dreamlike quality, without the random, shifting and confusing nonsense.  The maelstrom had inertia, yet I could guide it along with gentle pressure; I always envisioned it as the same sort of pressure a tugboat exerted on a large ship.  The trick to holding the state and manipulating the storm was in not putting too much or too little pressure; too much pressure caused the elements of the maelstrom to weaken and fade, eventually breaking it; too little pressure made the intensity strong, but made it more difficult to find guidance from the mess.

               Minor distractions were another weak spot.  The solitude and tranquility made it easy to form the whirlwind; the increasing wakefulness of the town, rotted and sluggish as it was, wore down my focus.  It was difficult to estimate the passage of time, just like in a dream, so I was unsure of it when the final straw fell.  The light suggested that the sun had been up for a little while.

               “Fine morning,” a voice offered, sounding old, attempting to engage me in conversation.  My maelstrom collapsed into itself and disappeared, a fading memory in an instant.  I turned to the old voice, extending my hand to it.  Energy surged through me, nearly unbidden.  An elderly man, looking shocked at my quick, aggressive motion, stood a few feet away.  He had been right behind me.  The flicker of rage I felt at his interruption spiraled away in time for me to collect myself.  I had wanted to harm him for his lack of manners and inconvenient presence but it would do no good; I had my own business to attend to, and it would not serve to draw attention to myself.

               The man was a little scared, judging by his reaction.  I guessed his age at sixty.  He wore tan slacks, a plaid shirt and a windbreaker.  Just an old man with a big mouth, taking a morning walk because he had nothing better to do.  “Whoa,” he said, holding up his hands defensively.  “I didn’t mean to –“

               “Shut up,” I snapped, venting my ebbing anger at him without attempting to soften my words.  “You shouldn’t sneak around and surprise people like that.  It could go badly for you.”  I lowered my arm and walked away.  The old man simply stood there, too frightened to speak.

               Downtown closed around me before I was a block in.  It was a new town but a familiar place.  I had worked the central northern beat for Porter long enough to recognise the same old thing in a different place.  I had studied the map enough to know where I was going in this new piss hole.  My dawdling was wasted, anyway.  The maelstrom had yielded nothing, even before I lost it.  Something was not right in this place, only I could not place it.  Normally, I would have come away with something.

               I was in a pissy mood when I arrived, three blocks later, at 119 Foundation Street.  The Pawn Prince was a dismal sight; it was another relic, only brightened the slightest with a cheery, white banner proclaiming Cash for Gold in red letters.  The building had a second floor of apartments that merged with the adjacent buildings.  The entrance to the 119 apartments was a heavily abused wooden door to the right of the pawn shop.  The door handle had broken off, probably years earlier, and been replaced with a small length of rope.  It was already open a crack, which made it a bit more convenient for me.  The stairs were solid but filthy.  I turned left at the top of the stairs and made my way down the hall.  The lighting was dim, likely a by-product of cheap, low wattage bulbs and never-cleaned light fixtures.  The smell of stale cigarette, pot and beer almost masked the undercurrent of stale mop water, garbage and urine.  If it had been unexpected, I might have been thrown off.

               As it was, I felt my energy flow through me, accumulating like a charge.  It was doubtful I would need a lot, but apartment 2C had to know a visit was coming; and it was tough to say what countermeasures there would be.  The door to 2C was open, just slightly.

               I let my energy level build a bit more before I made my move.  A hard kick flung the door wide open, exposing a smoky room within.  Two men jumped up from a moldy couch, knocking over a coffee table in front of them; they both looked high as kites, one of them made a clumsy move for something inside his belt.  I unleashed a blast of energy that hit him square in the chest, knocking him through the wall; heavy bruises, broken ribs and a mild concussion were guaranteed, unless he was unlucky and I had collapsed his lungs and damaged his spine.  It didn’t matter.  The second man was the subject of my visit, and he was already on his knees and in shock.

               I kept a solid reserve of energy at the ready.  Something still felt wrong.  A quick check revealed no other guests in 2C.  Bobby O’Mara was on his knees begging me not to kill him.  Someone in a neighbouring apartment was hollering about keeping the noise down.

               “For Christ’s sake, shut the fuck up,” I said, closing the apartment door.  “I don’t have much time for this, so pay fucking attention.  You should know better than to disrespect Porter the way you have.  You are way behind this year and you don’t even bother to call last month when you pay nothing.  That’s not cool, Bobby.  So this…”  My attention trailed off as I felt something familiar, something dangerously familiar, from behind me.  Someone was building up their energy and they were damn close.  Instinct took over and I formed my energy into a shield, encasing me in a protective cocoon.  A blast zipped past me and struck Bobby O’Mara squarely in the head, pulping it in one strike.

               I wheeled around, stirring up energy as fast as I could for a fight.  Standing at the back of the room was Mallory Stelton, an old associate who I thought I was finished with years ago.  She had changed her look, but was recognisable despite the Goth-ish wardrobe and makeup.  “What the hell, Mal?” was all I could think to say.

               “Nice to see you, Peters,” she said with a grin.  I had not dropped the shield.  Mallory was releasing her energy passively as she strolled forward.

               “Why are you here?” I asked bluntly.  “This bullshit is going to make things awkward for me back in the city.”

               “When did you get so sloppy?” she asked back.  “I couldn’t have got this close to you before without getting noticed.”

               “Fuck,” I growled, partly at Mal, partly at the mess in front of me.  It would take some explaining to keep Porter off my ass.

               “So,” Mal said, getting up and lighting a cigarette, “you are some sort of hit man, or something like that?”

               “Collections, actually,” I said, realising there would be no easy out.  I began a quick search of the place in the hopes I could find enough cash or dope to mitigate the screw up.

               “What a waste,” Mal said.  She was clearly amused by my frantic search.  Her nonchalant attitude had not changed in the years since I last saw her.

               “Is there something you want from me?” I asked, distracted by my search.  “This is a long way from Montreal, isn’t it?”

               “You always were a suspicious one,” she said with a smirk, watching me rifle through a putrid bathroom.  “Can’t a girl just stop by and say hello?”

               “Probably better you don’t tell me,” I responded, pushing by her and into the kitchen.  All I really wanted was to find a giant stash of dope, get out before the authorities arrived and ditch Mallory.  The last part would be the trickiest; she wasn’t here by chance.

               “Listen, tough guy,” she said, still toying with me, “why don’t we have a little chat?  There has got to be a place that serves coffee around here.”

               “Not interested,” I said without a blink.  I had left the world she belonged to, and that had taken some doing.  I had been left alone for some time, yet Mallory was a sign that world wanted me back.

               “Come on.  What is the rush?  One cup of coffee.”

               “The rush is,” I growled as I headed from the fruitless kitchen to the bedroom, “that I am supposed to have supper with my boss today.  If not, I owe him an advance phone call.”

               “Right,” she chuckled, “the collections thing.  You will be delivering from this run.”  She paused and finished her cigarette.  “Well, the city isn’t more than a couple of hours and it is morning.  That leaves time for a coffee, or do I have that wrong?”

               The fellow I had knocked through the wall was breathing.  He had a badly broken arm and numerous lesser injuries.  He didn’t look much like hired muscle.  A quick search of him produced a knife, about five thousand in cash and fifty dollars in weed.  It was chump change, in the big picture, but covered most of what O’Mara owed.  It also suggested he was here to buy, which meant there was another five grand in product in the apartment.  I was willing to press my luck by extending the search.  An even ten Gs would cover the debt, plus a little for the hassle.  Porter wouldn’t be happy; but he would understand a situation gone wrong.  It happened, from time to time, and life would go on.

               “Time is money, Mal,” I said, tearing the room apart.  “So if you have something to say, say it.  I am out of here soon.”

               She was uncharacteristically quiet.  I found a very sturdy little end table; heavy oak, bolted together like it was made to survive a bomb blast and locked tight.  I drew up a bit of energy, which got Mallory’s attention.  Fine work like this was not my forte, and I was distracted, so my attempt to blow the lock resulted in smashing up the entire thing.  The contents spilled out, mostly unharmed: bags of pills, powder and a bit of cash.  I grabbed it up and stuffed it into my jacket; big, inside pockets were gold in the collections business.

               “Time’s up,” I said, taking my turn to be funny.  “I got what I…”

               Mallory was gone.  It was hard to sense if she was still nearby or not.  Something was definitely going on and I didn’t like it in the least.  Keeping myself in the moment, I went for the window.  The same neighbour who hollered about the noise was hollering again, and this was the type of place that attracted police attention.  The window had a rusting fire escape to a partly overgrown parking area below.  I made my way down and got moving.  Once I was sure my trail was clear, I only needed to get back to the car; then I was home free.

Hannox, Chapter 2

Link to Chapter 1

(More cyberpunk. I want to let the story get moving a little before wandering around in the coming weeks. If you are wondering about the pace, consider this a book excerpt)

It was a little early but his contact would be up.  He didn’t go there enough to really worry; still, varying the times of day he made his visits was good form.  He stopped by a local vendor and made a couple of insignificant purchases; a bottle of water and a nutrient bar.  From there, he went almost directly to his destination.

     The trip almost took him to the outer rim of the city.  The middle rim degraded steadily as he progressed outward, further from the city core and inner rim.  His apartment was situated in the middle rim, but far enough from the outer rim to be quite nice.  The farther from the middle of the city the more run down and neglected everything became.  The general repair of buildings and streets were the easiest signs to notice; after these, more graffiti, general vandalism and litter were big signs of troubled areas.  The outer rim was far worse.  Business very rarely took him out so far, and Hannox was thankful for that.

     He circled the building once, looking for potential problems or signs of trouble, before parking out front.  The place hadn’t changed much over the years.  Max’s was a fairly popular bar, considering the proximity to the outer rim.  Age had not been kind to the building, inside and out, but the relative popularity held.  It had just turned 1040 when Hannox approached the door and pressed the buzzer.  Nothing happened at the bar until after 1200, at earliest.

     It was nearly three minutes before he got a response.  The exterior speaker crackled to life with the less-than-joyous voice of the proprietor: Max.

     “What the fuck do you want so early?” Max blurted out.

     “I don’t know, old man, how about a martini?” Hannox shot back.

     “This is a shitty time.  Why don’t you come back later?”

     “I hate this place during business hours,” Hannox said, trying not to smile.  Max was a crusty old fuck, but proud of his bar.  It was a front, like Hannox’s security company.  The difference was that Hannox took no special pride in the business itself; his pride in the business was its quality as a front.

     “Too fuckin’ bad,” Max returned; a little bit of hurt pride showing through, despite the half-friendly nature of the exchange.   “The place ain’t any prettier before I open, either.”

     “Then I’ll close my eyes,” Hannox said.

     “Ah, fuck,” Max growled.  Hannox could tell, even through the crackling speaker, he was in.  The automatic door slid open and Hannox stepped into the quaint interior of Max’s.

     The place smelled of old tobacco smoke, with a hint of cleaning fluids.  It had the look of a pre-Shift establishment, even if there were some oddities.  There was a lot of wood, or synthetic wood, making up the furnishings and panelling.  The bar had a mirrored back wall, polished obsidian top and brass rail; pool tables, dart boards and dimmed lighting added to the ambiance.

     Max was behind the bar, as usual.  He always seemed a bit bigger when he stood back there, even though he was a fairly small guy.  By appearance, he was in his middle sixties, though Hannox suspected he might have been older; the few wisps of hair that clung to his head were pure white and he was quite wrinkled.  Max was far from ready for his day, sporting a dirty tee shirt and plaid, flannel pants.  He looked a bit angrier than usual.  Contributing to his angry look was his false eye, a retro hack-job that Max was apparently attached to.  It was a cylindrical socket that stuck out of his face, where his right eye had been, capped with a blue lens.  The lens glowed with a faint light, occasionally flickering and threatening to wink out.  Max always refused to discuss it, but the rumour was he lost the eye in a fight, years ago, and got the artificial one from a low-tech street med; the price being the big consideration.  Despite the eye’s ongoing glitches and Max’s improved finances, he stubbornly refused to upgrade or replace the terrible thing.  Worse, it made him look that much angrier.

     “You got shitty timing, Hannox,” Max said, no happier than before.

     “Yeah, and a busy schedule,” Hannox said with a smile.  “Residential and commercial security is a fast-paced and growing industry, you know.”

     “It’s a shitty fucking business,” Max grumbled.  “You should’ve opened a pet shop or something.”

     “That would make it a lot harder to explain house calls.”  On paper, Max had purchased a security system with a full maintenance package.  It was an easy way to justify the sporadic visits.

     “Maybe you could deliver shit like parrots and snakes?  Specialty shit for rich fucks,” Max said, smirking.  “How about that?”

     Hannox liked Max.  The old man was a zero-bullshit character, and a dying breed; one of the few people in the business he could relate to.  It was highly likely that Max was far more connected than anyone knew.  In the contract killing business, he was an independent distribution contact.  There were still a few, like him, doing business in person, but they were rare.  The underworld of independent killing had changed over the years, with more and more business conducted over the network.  According to Max, the go-between job had bounced between digital and personal contact over the years, usually taking the path of least resistance with respect to the authorities.  Hannox preferred the personal touch, even if it added complicating elements not present on the network.

     “I’ll think about it,” Hannox laughed.  “Anyway, you called me awfully early, so you must have something good.”

     “Oh, yeah,” Max said, like he had forgot about it.  “Another shitty thing that woke me up.”  He shot Hannox a dirty look, complete with a flicker of light from the fake eye.  “I got a call on a job, a fuckin’ monster and a half.  A hell of a payoff, by the sounds of it, but the details are pretty slim.  Sound like something you want a shot at?”

     Hannox was not used to this approach.  Sometimes, if the contract was sensitive, certain details were kept secret until the deal was accepted.  Usually, these details weren’t as foggy as this, and Max wasn’t one to dick around with offers and information; after all, he got a small cut for completed jobs.

     “Max, I know it’s early, and I woke you up, but get serious here,” Hannox said.

     Max gave him an odd look and sighed.  “Sit down, Hannox.”

     Hannox almost felt like arguing, but decided to see what the old man was up to.  He sat down at the bar while Max poured them coffee.  Max’s drinks were standard fare, but his coffee was strong and bitter.  Max always added extra cream to shut the coffee critic up.

     Max sat down across from Hannox, giving him the same, odd look.

     “Alright, Max,” Hannox said, growing impatient, “spit it out.  You’re getting freaky.”

     “Listen, Hannox,” Max said, sounding serious and calm.  “I forget you’re half a kid, so I’ll let you in on the kind of deal this is, unless you’re too good for that?”

     “You have my attention,” Hannox said.

     “Good, now shut up until I’m done; it’ll go faster, that way.  I don’t get business at calls at seven in the fucking morning, just so you know.  When I get a call like I got this morning, it’s not small potatoes.  You won’t be doing some small-time fuck for ten or twenty thou; and it won’t even be some medium-time fuck for a quarter mil.  I ain’t got a call like this for, hell, more than ten years.”

     “So, what are we talking about, then?  A big-time job for a mil?”  Hannox was genuinely intrigued.  Max was never this serious with him, unless he was pissed off.

     “I doubt it will be that low,” Max said, slurping his coffee with a wince.  “No, this one will be big; an absolute fucking monster of a job.”

     “But you have no details, yet,” Hannox said.  “How can you be so sure?”

     “I just know,” Max said, a displeased edge creeping into his tone.  “The last time I got a weird one like this, shit, it was a fucking jackpot.  Money’s changed a little, since then, but that fucking shit paid a couple million.”

     Hannox was starting to wonder if Max hadn’t lost it, somehow.  A few million creds for a job was unthinkable money; enough to retire on, if you didn’t live a flashy life.  What kind of job paid that kind of money?

     “I don’t want to sound like an asshole, Max,” Hannox said, “but why would a job pay that much with no details?  There must be a catch?”

     “I’m guessing the details are given to you, private-like, before you accept.  Then, you say yes or no.  There are probably two catches.  The job is probably a doozy, a major-ass player or something.  The second catch is that once you know who the target is, even if you turn down the job, you’re on a list until the dust settles.  It’s probably not the best list to be on.”

     “Wait a minute,” Hannox said, suddenly concerned.  “This contract is through standard channels, right?”

     “Before you get your balls in a knot, just fucking listen, okay?” Max piped up, finally sounding angry again.  “It’s on the level, mostly, but deals like this have exceptions.  You can’t expect it not to, anyway, even in this business.  The reason they have to know who sees the name is to avoid word getting back.  Sometimes, the price for squealing to the target is worth more than the contract, and easier to get away with.  By knowing who sees the name, they can backtrack.”

     Hannox sat back, tapping his thumb on the handle of his coffee mug.  “Okay,” he said, still running things through his head.  “Why would you offer this to me?  What makes you think this type of job is even in my league?”

     Max gave a rare smile.  “Why?  Because you’re hungry for the money, and you’ve got guts.  I don’t think you’ve ever turned down a job from me, even tricky ones.”

     “And you think I can pull it off?”  Hannox asked.

     “I have no idea,” Max said.  “I’ll never know who the target is, anyway.  Like I said, money and guts is always a solid bet.”

     “So, if you don’t have anybody else looking into this, I’m the best gun on your list,” Hannox mused out loud.  “You don’t get a cut if the contract isn’t completed, so you wouldn’t send your second choice.”

     “Those are some long shot ideas, if I ever heard any,” Max snorted.  “Listen, I got some slick-ass fucking guys on my list, as you put it; guys that are high-powered, psycho death machines that could fuck up any target you point them at.  If you were their target, you’d be royally fucked.”  Max took a swig of coffee and went on, Hannox was content to listen.  “Thing is this: you may not be the best I’ve got, but you’re the best shot to pull off a job like this.  Sorry to bust your bubble.”

     “So, if I’m interested, what then?”  The idea of being put on a list of has seen the name of target was not appealing, but equal parts curiosity and interest made him ask.

     “I can’t say exactly, but I make a call and follow instructions from there.  Chances are you get a name and basic terms offered to you.  You probably won’t get much time to decide, after that, so be ready to make it quick.”

     “This sounds pretty fucked to me, Max,” Hannox said.  “I don’t like working outside of the standard system.  What you’re saying sounds risky.  I haven’t kept a low profile for nothing.”

     “Deals this big are always fucked,” Max said.  “The pay is about more than the job, it’s the whole ball of shit you deal with.  It’s up to you.”

     “How long do I have to let you know?”

     “I can’t wait long,” Max said.  “This offer is probably out to a few other guys, right now.  If I don’t make contact in a few hours, someone else will have the job.  You want another coffee?”

     Hannox looked at his empty cup, not realising he’d finished.  “No, one was enough, thanks.”

     “You don’t want the job, do you?” Max said, taking both their mugs to the cleaning unit.

     “The way you acted when I got here makes me think you don’t want it, either,” Hannox said.

     “You woke me up,” Max said, turning back to Hannox and looking him square in the eye.  “Besides, if I didn’t want the fucking job, I never would have offered it.  It doesn’t mean shit to me, one way or the other.  You’re a reliable guy, so I’d rather not toss you into a deathtrap contract, if that means anything to you.  I think you like your safe little contracts and comfortable life too much to take the job.”

     “You’re dead right, Max, you old bastard,” Hannox said, standing up.  “My gut reaction says this job is trouble waiting to happen.  I’ve worked too hard to jump on thin ice.  I assume you don’t have anything else, right?”

     “Nope,” Max said, turning back to the cleaning unit and replacing the mugs under the bar.  “That’s been the first thing to happen in over a week.  Anything else, chickenshit?”

     “I’m good, Max,” Hannox said with a smile.  “I’ll see myself out.”

     “Good enough, maybe I can catch some sleep, now,” Max growled.  “Call me if you grow a pair in the next few hours.”

     “Screw you, too, Max,” Hannox said, as he stepped out the door.

Hannox, Chapter 1

(After what feels like too little thought, I am going to post up some chapters of a long, long story I wrapped up several years ago.  These will be put up, here and there, just because.  It is future science fiction, cyberpunk flavour)

Hannox could have sworn his morning alarm was louder than usual.  He didn’t recall adjusting the volume, but the thing chirped at him with gusto.

     “Alarm stop,” he said, being intentionally loud; there was no point in having the voice system miss his command.  He lay there for a few moments, trying to shake his fatigue.  The wall display showed the time at 0901.  He didn’t have much to do, but he never let himself get up later than 0900.  It was good to stay busy, if only to keep up the front.

     “Home system, voice activate command,” he said, exaggerating his enunciation for the program.  At least, he could stay in bed for long enough to check messages.

     “Home system responding.  Security code, please,” his ancient, home network responded through the wall speakers.

     “Security code, alpha 4-6-7-2-9 epsilon hummingbird, end code.”  He spoke back to the bedroom receiver, planted in the ceiling.

     “Home system activated.  Good morning, Gerald.”

     “Good morning, program,” Hannox replied.  The good morning bit was, in fact, the third layer of security for the program.  Voice pattern recognition and the basic code could be worked around, but the specific reply to the program greeting would be far harder to figure out.  The system was designed to be an all-purpose, home assistance aid.  It was intended as your message taker, home security, network facilitator, file storage, door opener, etc, etc.  The original launch for the product, Allhome, was nearly two hundred years ago, and product support ended twenty years later.  Allhome was the flagship product of the Home Tech Corporation; they released a few upgrades and some parallel products, but the failure of Allhome was the end of them.  Now, a full-blown Allhome installation was impossibly rare; as far as he knew, Hannox might have the only one in operation.  The approach was security through obscurity.

     “List new voice messages,” Hannox commanded.  He was already sitting up, despite his early intent to keep resting.

     “One new voice message.  Today.  0734.  Maxwell Henderson.  Two seconds.

     Hannox knew what that was about.  There was no need to actually check the message.

     “Delete new voice messages,” Hannox said.

     “New voice messages deleted.

     “Activate agenda,” he kept on.

     “Agenda activated.”

     “List entries, current day,” Hannox ordered.  The agenda was more of a backup, really; it was rare that he forgot about anything.

     “Entry one.  General reminder to review account statement activity…”  The program paused to allow him to modify or delete the entry.  He let it keep going.

     “Entry two.  1045.  Follow up with price quotation at 6978 Filnom Street, Middle Rim…”

     “Expand entry two,” Hannox commanded.  It was an old quote, and he was sure it would amount to nothing, but keeping active with the business was important.  After all, a front was a front.  Hannox couldn’t remember the specifics of the quote; the agenda entry would have the basics he needed to remind him.

     “Entry two expanded.  Price quote for Tyton Star 905x.  Full installation, with and without service.  Two bedroom bungalow, city lot, no interest in package upgrades, no interest in alternate systems.  Original quote of 23,000 credits, five percent discount not offered.  Aldo and Melissa Whitman, retired corpers, middle sixties, sole occupants.  End of entry two…

     The quote was over a month old, meaning it was practically dead in the water.  Better for them, really; Tyton Star was a low-end brand of systems that made a business of renaming obsolete tech to make it sound impressive.  The markup wasn’t ridiculous, but still on the high side.  Aldo had been focussed on a low-cost option, even though he could probably have afforded much better.  Guys like that were more interested in winning the price negotiation than getting value.  Usually, they would bite when the price dropped enough to brag to their friends.  Considering the sale was going cold, five percent was a last ditch offer to close the deal.  The listed price was 23,500, but Hannox always knocked off five hundred for first time customers.  The five percent figure was explained as a Tyton Star rebate that would only be available for a few days.  Even with five percent off, the system still made reasonable money.  Hannox was fairly certain the Whitmans would pass on the offer.  They had either purchased a competing product or decided to stick with a non-automated security system.

     “Entry three.  1400.  Contact Winston.  Discuss apartment maintenance…

     Which was Winston’s way of doing house calls without suspicion.  His real business was arms and ammunition.  Hannox had a Magnus 1400 rifle that used a rare type of ammo; Winston was the only reliable supplier that Hannox knew.  His supply of ammunition for the Magnus was fine, but he planned on spending some range time with it in the coming weeks, so a top up was in order.

     “End of entries.

     “De-activate agenda.  Exit home system.”

     “Home system exiting.  Have a nice day.

     “You, too,” Hannox said.  It was another security prompt for the system.  The security portion of the program had a ton of features that were set to notify him automatically, so there was no point in looking into the security log.  His apartment was in a decent area of the middle rim and there had never been a serious security problem.

     The time was almost 1000 before Hannox finished washing up and eating.  The joy of running a security sales and consulting business as a front was lots of easily-explained down time.  The 1045 call to Whitman was flexible, so there was plenty of time for the real job.  A trip to see his main contact was in order, even if it was a little early.

     The apartment took up the entire second floor of a two story building; the downstairs occupant, a retired accounting executive, was quiet and inconspicuous.  Hannox had thoroughly checked his background after he moved in.  The building was owned by Hamitomi Corporation’s property holdings division.  They owned a lot of buildings in the middle rim.  The choice of a Hamitomi building was intentional; it meant he had no specific superintendent.  His unit was just a number, in a large list of numbers.  The yearly inspections were a farce, a double check that the building was still standing and in good order.  Hannox had made a few interior modifications that weren’t on the books, and though they were technically allowed in his rental agreement, he preferred to keep them to himself.  In six years, he made sure that any repairs and maintenance were done without the knowledge of Hamitomi; and he was sure they didn’t mind.

     The building had an attached garage that was exclusive to him.  The other tenant didn’t own a vehicle, which was perfect.  The garage had also been slightly modified to improve security.  Hannox entered a complex code into the security lock and confirmed with his voice signature.  The lock requested confirmation of the code, and Hannox entered the same code with two characters transposed, opening the lock.

     The car was an older model Honda-Tirudachi 1100 series.  They were reliable, had great longevity, and remained common enough to blend in with traffic.  Like so much else, Hannox had made changes to the car.  The 1100 series came with a one hundred and eighty horsepower engine, which was more than peppy enough for civilian use.  There was an 1100x package that upgraded a few things, but mainly bumped the engine to two hundred horses, and that was downright quick.  Sure, there were bigger engines and faster cars, but very few that weren’t monitored with extra care.  Hannox had made enhancements that would attract no immediate attention, and they were all legal enough that a fine would be his worst punishment, if he ever got caught.  The motor had been adjusted to put out two hundred and fifteen horsepower.  The 1100s also used an old-style power train and transmission, which had been enhanced to give the car maximum acceleration from slow speeds.  Most situations where speed was needed in the city meant getting off the mark quickly; top end speed was rarely a worry because there were very few places it could be reached.  The vehicle had a silicon-based coating that made it resistant to casual ballistic impact and other blunt damage.  The tires had an interior coating to make them self-sealing and nearly wear proof.  He had also installed his car’s transponder into a remote control toy car that he could deploy from the undercarriage.  He had never used it but if he ever got in too deep with the authorities, it would make a great, short-term decoy.  And, like his apartment, there were a couple of hidden compartments for stowing hardware.

Electric Soul, Part II

Part IPart IIIPart IV

(Near future sci-fi stuff, in case you missed it last time. I was very tempted to break this into more than three parts due to the length. Part I is posted below.)

Director of Operations Office, Regeneratix, 11:20am, Thursday, June 26, 2087

“Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike,” Bert Sanderson said, looking at me from across his rather expansive desk.  “Did you know that I lost a hundred dollars the second you walked through the main doors?  I had a bet going with Wells in accounts that you’d never show your face here, again.”

     Bert had a large office with every modern amenity possible.  It was all flash and display, of course, but that was a reflection of Bert; he was a showy, shallow type who liked his own hype.  He should have been born a peacock; instead, he was the Director of Operations for Regeneratix Canada.  He wasn’t all bad, just mostly.  My earliest dealings with Regeneratix were with Bert’s predecessor, Ralph Darington, who was remarkably similar to Bert, so my connection to him was sort of forced.  I believe he was a junior executive in the company at the time I hooked up with them, but I never clicked with him the same as I did with Ralph, who was a little less annoying.  Anyway, Bert could be colourful, at the best of times, but our relations had grown strained and broken.  The odd message he would send seemed to seethe with aggressive language and accusation; what made it worse was that he only knew half of my wrongdoings.

     I was distracted by the movement of fish in the wall-sized tank behind him.  They were all recovery creatures, used as a showcase for the healing technology of the future that was Regeneratix’s stock and trade.  What I was working on for them represented an attempt to break into a different area, and I expected they were disappointed.

     “Well, I figured it was overdue,” I said, hoping that I would be better off cutting the crap and getting straight to business.  “I have something to run by you.  I think you’ll approve.”

     “Really?” Bert laughed.  “A thousand messages, mailings and attempted visits later, and you have something to run by me?  Well, this should be pretty damn good, Mikey.  I’m almost thinking I should have a few drinks first, but I might die of old age before I hear your voice, again.  So lay it on, I’m a captive audience.”

     “Okay,” I continued on, without responding to his bull.  “The project has had several hiccups along the way, as you know, but I’m almost at the point of wrapping it up.  The early results threw me off, but I’ve isolated all the issues and dealt with them.  I know I’ve told you this before, so I won’t go over the details.”

     “Whoa there!” Bert chirped up suddenly.  “I just want to cut you off for a second, in case you’re about to waste our time here.  Everything you’re about to run by me, just now, is it going to answer this question: do you, or do you not, have a fully operational bio-processor that comes anywhere close to the specifications in our original designs?  That’s easy, right?  You’re a smart guy, so just answer me that question.”

     Stupid bastard, I thought.  I wanted to bounce his smug face off his giant desk, but I had years of experience in keeping my cool through stuff like this.  “The short answer is yes.  Would you like me to go on?”

     “That’s great news!” he piped up with more mock enthusiasm.  “So, before you go on, do you have test results?  Maybe we could go see them together?  I’m sure I could find a brainiac or two who would ride shotgun.  Whatchya say to that?”

     “I would say that in October, I will be happy to do that.”

     “Oh, now it’s October,” he jumped in again.  “Well, that’s great.  Here I was thinking it would be next year.  I guess your predictions are getting tighter, at least.”

     “I’m willing to go a step further, if you want to hear it.”

     He was interested, even if he was suspicious as hell.  I felt slightly better.  If I had his interest at this point, even slightly, then he wouldn’t be able to say no to the juicy little offer I was going to pitch.  He wouldn’t say no because the offer was too good to be true, and it was.  The reality was that someone needed to be screwed in this equation, and I didn’t have the heart to throw the university under the bus.  Greedy, corporate pukes like Bert were simply part of a money machine that only cared about the bottom line.  Where I was at, it really was just a detail that mattered less and less; all I needed was to be left alone until the end of October.

     “I do want to hear it,” he growled.  “But first, I want you to hear something.  This fucking project of yours has been a massive pain in the ass.  It’s been an embarrassment for too long.  I won’t go over the fun and excitement we’ve had since you shut us out, because I’m sure you have a good idea.  What you might not have as good an idea about is the flurry of activity in our legal department.  We actually have an amazing case, right now, but the legal guys want it rock solid.  They want it rock solid because I threatened to cut their fucking balls off if we didn’t have your head on a platter when the dust settled.  You see where this is going?”

     “Yeah, I follow,” I said, “and I know you’re pissed.  I don’t blame you.  But I have something for your legal department.  If you like, I can just present it directly to your legal monkeys.”

     “What, and miss the chance to have the first look at it?  No chance.  Hand it over.”  I gave him the pack of papers.  I had them drawn up about a year before, for a situation just like this, when my back was to the wall.  After Morgan dropped by, I knew what I had to do and got my attorney on it.  Rolly Paluamalau was an old buddy from before my own university days.  He was an odd duck, but he was an amazing lawyer and had my stuff ready in two days.  I couldn’t have made it as far as I did without that guy.

     “It’s fairly involved, but the short version is that you get full rights to all of my findings and work, including the final product, and I will leave up an offer to work for you that is damn near slavery.”

     Bert was quicker than I had thought; he had already covered the document while listening to me.  “Mikey, Mikey,” he said, returning to pure sarcasm, “you sure like to sweeten a deal, I’ll give you that.  Tell me, though, where did you get a figure like two hundred thousand a year from?”

     “Easy, really.  I did a little looking, and it seems the going rate for someone of my qualifications is around eight hundred thousand.  So, I did some more looking and found out that if you factor in the damage I’ve done to my reputation in the last few years, assuming my work falls short, I’m still worth about four.  So, I work another twenty years and Regeneratix recoups a few million.”

     “Getting a few million back over a few years…I dunno, Mikey,” he said, wheels turning just below the outward veneer.  “That falls a little short of the mark, in case you haven’t kept track.”

     “I thought of that,” I wound up for the whammy, now.  If this didn’t get me until November, nothing would.  “I also thought about the alternatives.  If the project falls flat, not that it will, but if it does, the university will get their equipment back.  The court might tie up access for a while, but Regeneratix won’t keep it, and I think you know that already.  There’s no point in working your legal team to death over a lost cause.  In that case, you sue me and get next to nothing because I have drained my personal finances into my work.  If you push me too hard, I promise my notes and whatnot will be posted on public domain networks the same day.  I would be happy to do time for that, too.  So that’s scenario one.”

     I took a quick breath, surprised that the smartass hadn’t interrupted.  “The second scenario is that my work is a wild success.  Regeneratix instantly becomes the world leader in bio-computation.  I know my competition, Bert, and they’re so far behind me it’s not even funny.  Your only concern, at that point, is keeping out of a monopoly suit.  The university won’t care much about the academic loss, as long as they get their equipment back, free and clear.  That’s the good scenario.”

     “So you’re suggesting I take your word that you’ll soften our losses with a long service.  Is that right?  Why should I trust you?”

     “Bert,” I asked, “what choice do we have?  I’m offering Regeneratix a contractual guarantee that softens the blow, which is a hell of a lot better than getting nothing.  In that case, I’d be perfectly happy to have the job, even for that pay.  I know I’ve stalled for a long time, and you have no reason to trust me, but this is a contractual deal that puts a time limit down.  I’ve put it in writing, this time.”

     The wheels were turning and Bert was hooked.  He would never give me the satisfaction of an answer on the spot, so I rose to leave.

     “You know I have to run this by legal?” he asked.

     “Yes,” I said, “but you know the offer, so it’s up to you.  I’ve already signed your copy, and left a registered copy with my lawyer.  If you decide to go ahead, contact him.”

     “I’m still trying to think of a good reason why I shouldn’t just shut you down and take a chance that legal gets a piece of the equipment.  You got any contracts to cover that?”

     “No,” I responded gently, “but you’d lose the chance to soften the loss or win big, if I strike gold.  You finally have my deadline in black and white, Bert.  I have nothing left to offer you.”  And that was essentially true.  I walked out of his office knowing I had him and knowing Regeneratix Canada’s legal crew wouldn’t be going home early.


The Lab, 2:11pm, Friday, June 27, 2087

Rolly called in the middle of a tissue scan.  Most calls never came through to the lab, but I had programmed a chosen few into the system that would alert me.  It was a bitch to interrupt the scan; however, things were in the balance and I couldn’t afford to let the call pass.  Rolly was an awesome guy, who I owed a million times over.

     “Hey, Rolly, how are things?”

     “Very, very strange, my genius friend, very strange indeed,” Rolly boomed back with that giant, Polynesian voice of his.  “You sure get into business with some strange people.”

Rolly was one of those people who are always happy, no matter what.  You could see it on his face and posture, and really couldn’t help but hear it in his voice; my phone system was automatically programmed to drop the incoming volume a little from Rolly’s number.  I first met him at a party in Aurora that had spilled over from a pre-university mixer.  Rolly is as big as his voice and didn’t need any help taking care of himself.  At the time, I wondered if he weren’t on a football scholarship or something.  Anyway, some drunken guy, who was almost as big as Rolly, knocks him over from behind and makes a slurred racial comment, hoping for a supportive laugh from the crowd.  I had been chatting with a group of people, including Rolly, when this happened.  I was drunk, and my need for immediate justice high, so I suckered the drunken guy; and by some miracle, knocked him flat.  If I threw that punch a million times I probably wouldn’t have scratched him, but that night he dropped.  Rolly never, ever forgot that night and we have remained friends, ever since.  He passed his bar and worked for a few firms over the years before opening his own office.  He charged me next to nothing and didn’t care that I took forever to pay.  All for one drunken punch in his defense.

     “Very true, Rolly,” I laughed back.  “Lately, it seems to be getting worse.”

     “Well, I can’t help you with that part, Mike, but I can’t chit chat too much.  I’ve got one of your strange people on the other line, right now.  Some guy named Bert, sounds like a jackass.  Anyway, he says he’s ready to go with your deal, but he has to talk to you right now, or it’s no dice.”

     “That’s strange,” I pondered.  “Do you think there’s a legal angle to it, like recording my verbal agreement or something?”

     “It wouldn’t mean anything if he did,” Rolly said.  “Sounds more like he’s got something personal to say.  I tried to put him off but I can tell you he won’t sign without some chit chat.  It’s your call on this.  There is no legal harm, either way.”

     “All right, Rolly, put him through then,” I said, trying to switch gears from science to Bert.

     “Okay, Mike,” Rolly said, “Call me back if you want, I’m around for a few more hours.”

     The line switched over to Regeneratix.  “Hi Bert, what can I do for you?”

     “You could tell me you’ve figured out how to change lead into gold,” he opened sarcastically, “or maybe found the meaning of life.  Right now I’ll settle for your word on something.”

     This was strange.  I had abused and abased my word for a while now, so I couldn’t figure out where he was going, or why he cared.  Bert was too sly to take my word, anymore.

     “All right, Bert, what is it?”

     “I’m ready to go ahead with your offer.  I’ve got enough support from the board to move forward, even though it feels wrong.  I’m the only guy left to kibosh this thing, and I’ll kibosh the fuck out of it if I don’t get your word on something.”

     “Okay, go ahead.”

     “It’s going to work, right?” he asked.  “When you’re done, you’ll plug it in and it’ll work.  I have your word on that?”

     “This project has gone on for about ten years, Bert,” I said, sounding more tired than I intended, “I can’t remember the last time I took a full day off.  My social life doesn’t exist.  I’m broke and my academic career is a wreck.  I didn’t do that to myself for a maybe.  Bert, you wanted my word that it will work out, now you’ve got it.”


The Lab, 9:14am, Monday, June 30, 2087

“Good morning, Morgan,” I was positively beaming into the vid-phone.  I felt good, even though I was being rushed to complete the project of my life.  I had bought off Regeneratix with a meaningless offer and I had a goal, a real deadline; it was the first, real deadline in a long time.  I was happy to have avoided losing it all right away, which was almost the case.

     The weekend was comprised of several tests and retests, before breaking down a condensed schedule into roughly fourteen weeks.  It would be tough sledding, but I allowed for almost a week of buffer.  Barring the worst, I would be ready to initiate the final experiment on schedule.  I could have called just about any science grunt in my field to help me with the final run, maybe even have automated it, but I preferred Morgan’s good judgement and experience; besides, I couldn’t necessarily trust anyone else.

     “Hi Mike.  Long time, no see,” Morgan was smiling, too.

     “How does your October look, again?” I asked.

     “Pretty busy, but what did you have in mind?”

     “The third week of it,” I said, taking a sip of coffee.  Even the coffee seemed to taste better than usual.  It was definitely a good day.

     Mike looked a little shocked and set his scheduler to vertical display, flipping the screen ahead to October.  A myriad of notes dotted the days on the display.  He had a full schedule.  “Give me a second, here…” he mumbled as he scanned through his appointments.

     “Listen, Morgan, if it helps at all, I don’t actually need you for the full week.  I just need you available during that week.  I won’t need you for more than a day.  Two, at the most.”

     “I see,” he said.  “That doesn’t entirely help, but I do have some flexibility.  I can put off some of this, and probably get away with cancelling a thing or two.  How much notice will you give me?”

     “Unfortunately, I can’t say for sure.  Let’s just say a maximum of a day, unless I’m ahead of schedule.  I’ll have a better idea in early October.”

     “The best I can do,” Morgan offered, “is forty-eight hours notice, unless you can give me more time.  It’s a busy stretch.”

     “Okay, forty-eight hours will do fine,” I said.  “I’ll try to keep you in the loop as things progress.  Thanks, Morgan.”

     Morgan made a quick series of notes on his schedule as he spoke.  “No problem, Mike.  I’m sure it will be interesting.  I’d chat more, but I’m about to give a tour to some undergrads-to-be.”

     “Yikes, how did you get roped into that?”

     No lectures in a long time means I have to do crap like that, now and then,” Morgan sighed.  “My alternative was to review the chemical storage inventory, so I chose the three hour tour, instead.”

     “Good call, Morgan, and thanks again.  I’ll be in touch.”


The Lab, 11:08pm, August 27, 2087

     “Hello?” I mumbled into the phone.

     “Is this Doctor Michael Hawlorne?” a cold, flat voice responded.  I had been sleeping when the call came through.  My phone didn’t alert me unless it was a call from a preset list, so I was surprised I didn’t recognise the voice; the bigger surprise was the use of Doctor as my title, because nobody called me that.  Phone hacks were still possible, and this smelled like one.

     “I think you have the wrong number, mister,” I said, still a bit muddled.

     “Dr. Hawlorne,” the caller went on without acknowledging, “you probably don’t know who I am, but I suspect you know the group I represent.”  It was one of those psychos from PureLife, I could just tell.  No one else opened up with creepy shit like that.  I was a little dozy, so I didn’t hang up right away.  “I realise that previous contact from PureLife may have been threatening or peculiar, by your standards.  I must apologise for their behaviour.  Things have changed, and I thought I should discuss that with you.”

     “Did you know this was a secure line?” I asked.  “And did you realise it’s eleven o’clock?”

     “You are correct on both counts,” the crazy voice went on, “and I hope you understand the nature and timing is not my preference, but you are difficult to reach and I felt the need to give you an update on how PureLife will behave in the future.”

     “Awesome,” I blurted out, perhaps too rudely.

     “Dr. Hawlorne, your work with bodily tissues remains a transgression in our eyes.  That fact has stayed the same.  What has changed is our approach to dealing with it.  Your laboratory cannot be permitted to continue with the blasphemy of the flesh, but I felt it was best to warn you of our action plan.  Our intent is to punish the sin and not the sinner.”

     “Punish?” I replied, awake enough to be pissed off and too dopey to hang up.  “This might just be the weirdest threat yet.  I thought you said things have changed?  Sounds like they’ve got worse.”

     “On the contrary, Dr. Hawlorne.  For now, I will be brief.  You have until the end of September to close down your lab or we will take physical action against it.  It was important you be warned so you could save yourself from harm.”

     “The end of September, eh?” I was about to add another name to my fuck you pile.  More than any of the rest, even the money whores at Regeneratix, the band of PureLife shitheads had it coming.  “Seeing how you’re being reasonable and all, what if I made you a deal?  Something that would help us both, perhaps?  Or are you just like your predecessors, really?”

     There was a pause.  The self-assured, self-righteous dick was off balance for the first time in the conversation.  I’m sure that my speaking to him, almost respectfully, was unexpected.  Some of these protesting types got it into their head that they were going to be reasonable, honourable or decent, unlike their previous leaders.  If I was lucky, I could shame this one into a deal.  The pause grew awkward.

     “All right, Doctor Hawlorne,” he finally spoke up, “I will hear your proposal.”

     “You are clearly in charge of things, so you understand what deadlines and other obligations are like, right?”

     “I’m not sure I follow the general line of thought, but I understand.”

     “Good,” I went on, “that’s the first thing you need to follow.  Are you familiar with my connection to Regeneratix?”

     “I am.”

     “Okay, then I’ll explain it all,” I said.  “Regeneratix has been pushing me to get my work done too soon.  They are threatening to put someone else in charge.  What’s worse for your cause is they have been pushing me to take a far less ethical approach.  My work is generally against your beliefs, I know, but if you knew what Regeneratix was planning, you might be happier with me than a Regeneratix replacement.”

     “You are not making sense, Doctor Hawlorne.”

     “Sorry, I can be longwinded,” I apologised.  “What I’m trying to say is that Regeneratix has ticked me off.  They are giving me unrealistic deadlines and pressing me toward unsavoury uses of the project.  If you’ve read my paper on bio-ethics, you’ll understand my view of things.”  He probably hadn’t read anything I’d published, including the paper on bio-ethics, but it always threw a wrench into their thinking.

     “Please get to the point, Doctor Hawlorne.”

     “Here’s my side of the offer,” I said.  “I will make sure my current research doesn’t find its way into military or other hands.  I will also provide you a complete list of the projects in the Regeneratix database, including the locations and contacts for all of them.  I’m not happy with some of their work, so I can only imagine the outrage you will feel.”

     A slight moment of hesitation; fishy had taken the hook.  “An interesting offer, but what is it that I can offer you for that information?”

     “A small reprieve would be enough, one that would be helpful to you, anyway.  Leave me and my lab alone until November.  That’s the Regeneratix deadline.  If I don’t get the project done, the next guy will be less scrupulous.  You wanted to stop me at the end of September, and all I’m asking is for another month.  That month will get you the naughty and nice list from Regeneratix, if you’re interested.”

     Another pause.  “Give me a moment, Doctor Hawlorne.”  Consulting with his fellow nutcases, no doubt.  It didn’t matter much, either way.  PureLife had threatened action before and was sure to do so again.  It would be nice to screw them over, though; a firm kick in the teeth for all the love and affection over the years.

     “Doctor Hawlorne,” Captain PureLife came back, “what assurance do you offer for your side of this…bargain?”

     “How about this?” I said, feeling giddy inside.  “You give me a call on the first of October, perhaps at a more reasonable hour.  If my lab is still running, I will send you one location and project that you don’t currently know about.  How does that sound?”

     There was no hesitation, this time.  “I look forward to speaking with you on October first, Doctor Hawlorne.”

     So will I, I thought, so will I.


Old Henry’s Pub ‘n’ Grub, 8:31pm, October 19, 2087

“Mike, is there any particular reason why you’ve chosen this…place?” Morgan was laughing.

     “There is, Morgan,” I replied cheerfully.  “It was the last place I could remember going out to eat before I went into my little seclusion.  I admit it has lost some of the charm I remembered, but the beer is still cheap and the ambiance, well…”

     Morgan and I looked over the place.  Of course, I had already been there for ten minutes, but the second look was amusing.  The place was one of those originally a sports bar turned family restaurant turned karaoke bar turned cookie cutter franchise bar turned pseudo-authentic pub kind of places; and it had seen better days.  Most of the tables had been carved into with all the eloquence of a typical, knife-wielding patron.  Luckily, I had found a spot in the corner with a less mutilated table and balanced chairs.  The lighting was fairly low, probably hiding certain failings from the cleanup crew.  The walls had been painted a burgundy colour with a line of wooden trim about halfway up.  The bar had a matching set of brass rails along the top edge and foot rest.  The mirrored wall behind the bar, sporting innumerable types of alcohol, had lost a bit of shine from years of cleaning.  A couple of illuminated beer advertisements cut through the dim haze of synthetic tobacco smoke.  Some of the patrons looked like the type to rob you on the street.

     “It’s not the nicest place,” Morgan said, testing his chair before sitting down.

     “Yeah, I guess so.  Did you want to go somewhere else?”

     “No,” he said, smiling, “I’m probably overdue for a place like this.”

     The waitress had made her way over, and I hoped she hadn’t listened to our conversation.  She was a cute, young blonde with a bit too much makeup and a provocative outfit; late October seemed a bit cold for a short skirt and tight tee shirt.  A girl like that was clearly aware of how gratuities worked.  She was easy on the eyes, but I couldn’t help noticing the crooked nose.  It looked like it had been broken.

     “Can I getchya somethin’, honey?” she asked Morgan, barely a second after he was seated.

     Morgan took a quick look her way, and I could tell he noticed the nose, too.  “I’ll, uh…have one of those,” he said, pointing to my beer.

     “You got it, darlin.’” she said in her perky little voice.  She was pleasant to look at as she walked back to the bar.  Broken nose and all, I found her attractive in a fleeting, meaningless way.  Too much time in a lab, I guess.

     “What the hell are you drinking, exactly?” Morgan whispered.

     “I believe she called it Jagerhundt,” I said, trying to pronounce the name in German.  “I just asked for the best stuff they had and she brought me this.  It’s actually pretty good, but I’m not much of a judge.  This is my first alcoholic beverage in…shit, it must be three years.”

     “That’s quite an endorsement; you should have gone into marketing.”

     “And it’s a good thing you stayed out of comedy,” I said, trying hard not to watch the waitress returning.

     “There y’are,” she declared with a wink, “I think you’ll like it.”  I didn’t even bother trying not to watch her leave.  Morgan stayed quiet as I watched her go.

     “I have to admit I’m really excited,” he said.  “Whatever you’ve been working on must be amazing.”

     “It is, Morgan.  I’m also excited, and the final test has yet to be conducted.  Even if it fails, I regret nothing; the advances I’ve made will be passed along.”

     “You make it sound like you’re ninety, Mike,” Morgan sipped his beer, his face still deciding if he liked it.  “I know your career is in a pinch, but you have lots of time to recover.  And maybe a fresh start will is just what you need.”

     I couldn’t tell him yet, so I smiled and drank.  I knew I would have to be a little careful with how I worded things until I aired it all out.  “I suppose.”

     “So, while we’re on the topic of work, what is it you need me to do?” he inquired.

     “Not a lot, really,” I explained.  “Mostly, I need you to observe and record.  Depending on how the test progresses, I might need you to monitor some of the equipment and make minor adjustments to the settings.  It will be straightforward.”

     “Very mysterious, Mike,” he chuckled.  “How long will the test take?”

     “That’s completely open-ended.  If the experiment goes poorly at the beginning, we will be finished very early, like an hour or less.  If the experiment is a wild success, we will be tied up for the whole day, and possibly beyond.  Don’t worry, though, I will try to have you home for supper.”

     “That’s okay, Mike,” Morgan assured me, “you have me for all of tomorrow, even through supper.  My schedule has been easier to rearrange that I thought.”

     “Oh, how’s that?” I asked, even though I had suspicions of why.

     “Well, you remember that Chinese lab that was driving me forward?  It turns out they were doing work, very unofficially, for none other than your precious Regeneratix.  Nobody would have known, except that those PureLifers got wind of it and burned the place down.  So it’s not that I’m coasting, but the immediate pressure is off.”

     “That’s good news,” I said, hiding my smile by taking a slug of beer.  “Those PureLife types must have good sources.  You are probably the only one doing meaningful research in that specific area.”

     “Basically, yes, but to change the subject, why have you asked me here tonight?  I thought we’d be reviewing some notes or covering my side of things for tomorrow.  Now you’re telling me I’m mostly observing.  What’s really going on here?”

     Morgan was a shrewd cookie; he already suspected there was more to my research.

     “I need to leave a couple of things with you, Morgan,” I said.  “Before I go too far, I also need you to sign this for me.  There’s nothing freaky about it, just something to cover my bases, down the road.”  I handed the envelope to him.

     “Hard copy.  Very official.”  Mike pulled out the contents and squinted his way through reading them over in the poor light.

     “The nondisclosure thing is legal crap for Regeneratix, really.  Because you’re not a permanent employee of the lab, I need you to sign it.  It covers me against another of the million pieces of legal shrapnel I’ll have to dodge.  The other paper authorises you to deal with my lawyer, in case of emergency.”

     “Emergency?” he raised an eyebrow.  “Like what, the sky falling?”

     “Or tripping and falling on a sharp pencil; that sort of thing.”

     “Interesting,” he mumbled.

     “There’s also another envelope there, but don’t open it.  It’s a compilation of notes regarding cellular regeneration and stabilization in neural systems, and a hodgepodge of other stuff you might find useful in your own research.  If things go badly for me, it’s all yours.”

     “Wouldn’t it all be Regeneratix property by then?” Morgan asked.  He looked like a kid at Christmas who had been given the wrong present, knew it, but wanted to open it, anyway.

     “That stuff is fringe material, not quite worth a patent,” I said.  “You could put it to use without citing it because anyone could have discovered the information with enough work.  Anyway, it might not be that useful to you, so don’t thank me yet.”

     “Okay,” he said, producing a pen and signing the agreement, “are there any other things you wanted to go over before we adjourn?”

     “Not specifically.  I have a few odds and ends to update you on.  I’ve modified some of the equipment, mainly to keep it on par with the current stuff, so I’ll need to go over that with you.  It’s nothing too outrageous.  My testing method is peculiar, by current standards, but it works.”

     “Has Regeneratix given you specific expectations,” he asked, finishing his JagerHundt, “or are you working to your own standard?”

     “A little bit of both.  There are some tangential aspects to my final product that definitely fall outside of my corporate arrangement, but that’s okay.  Considering my current situation and the adjustments I’ve had to make, they can fuck themselves if they don’t like it.”

     That got both of us laughing.  It felt like old times, and that was good.

     “You boys like another one?” our waitress asked on her approach.  She moved nicely and I couldn’t help but smile appreciatively.

     “I think we would,” I said, ignoring Morgan’s protesting look.

Electric Soul, Part I

Part IIPart IIIPart IV

(This is a neat bit of near future, science fiction. The entire thing is on the long side, so I have broken it up into three parts. A mere 5420 words to kick things off. Enjoy.)

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? -Mark 8:36

The Lab, 10:35am, Tuesday, June 24, 2087

Morgan looked at me with an expression bordering on shock.  I knew my appearance was lacking, I hadn’t been taking very good care of myself.  At least it wasn’t the dean, or the president of Regeneratix.  It had been raining and Morgan was soaking the entrance lobby, just looking at me as though I were someone else.

“I think you should get your coat and boots off, Morgan,” I said to him, ignoring the look.

“Yeah, good idea,” he responded, hanging his coat and shaking a boot off.

I brought him into my front office and offered him a chair.  I offered him a coffee when we had settled, which he declined; he looked vaguely uncomfortable.

“Mike,” he began, “there’s a lot going on.  I’m not sure where to start, but I figured you needed to hear it before things get ugly.”

Morgan was a really good guy, long time colleague, and about the only person I could kinda-sorta trust.  He actually worked with me in the early phases of the project.  I knew he meant well in coming by, only I had already figured out, or guessed, most of what he was going to tell me.

The university was after me for a few things, really.  They had partially funded the project and I had heavily borrowed some of the physical resources from the school.  Throw in the fact I hadn’t published anything in, well…forever, and you have an angry university.  If I didn’t produce results soon, my options would fall into publishing like a madman and taking a loan to repay the school, or loss of tenure; but the university was the least of my concerns, really.

Regeneratix was the major source of funding and they had already lost patience with me.  If I didn’t give them something to chew on, I would be in all kinds of trouble.  Mostly, they would sue me to death, which I could have lived with; the real problem was the potential for losing my research.  That would have been worse than anything else they could have done, and they were almost in a position to do it.

Another issue that had cropped up before all this was a collection of interest groups who entirely misunderstood the nature and intention of my work.  They wanted it shut down and banned.  Isn’t that nice?  Work that could revolutionise the human race, and they would put a stop to it.  The positive ramifications of success were enormous and it was beyond me why they were so adamantly opposed to it.  PureLife was what the media had dubbed them, and they embraced the title.  Some of the coalition had been on Regeneratix’s back for years over a variety of issues.  I was anxious for them to grow bored with me and move on.

“How bad can it be, Morgan?” I asked.  Morgan’s first name was Sam, but I hadn’t called him that since I first met him.  Seems everyone just calls him Morgan, and he likes it that way.

Morgan rubbed his temples for a second.  “It’s, uh, pretty bad.  I’m not sure where to start, really.  Maybe I’ll have that coffee, after all.  It’s still that same nasty tar you always brewed, right?”

I laughed.  I had forgotten that old machine and the terrible coffee it spat out.  How many cups of that crap did we drink setting up the lab?  Too many.

I got up to fire off a coffee.  “The old beast died about a year ago,” I said.  “I almost had it bronzed.  This new one actually makes reasonable stuff.  I forgot how you take your coffee.”

“Just some cream is fine,” Morgan said.  “Didn’t that old machine come from a second hand shop or something?”

“Nothing that glorious.  It was a yard sale.  I think I paid five dollars for it.”

“You sure got your money worth, even if the coffee was terrible.”

“Coffee is a luxury, no matter how bad it is,” I said to him.  “I hated having to replace the thing, but this new one works well.  It’s almost done, already.”  I slid a paper cup under the dispenser and it started pouring.  I would have joined him, except I was already three cups in and it wasn’t even noon.

“How is your work going, Morgan?  It seems like so long since we’ve properly talked.”

Morgan perked up a little bit.  This delay in his message delivery was helping him relax.  It occurred to me that Morgan, several years my junior, was not the young man I had worked with before.  He had aged gracefully, but he had aged, all the same.  It was a strange thing to notice, all of a sudden, but it struck me.  Where did the time go?

“It could be better,” he said.  “The lab results just haven’t been consistent enough for me to move forward yet.  I’ve refined a few things for the next set of tests.  I’m hopeful this will put me over the top and I can begin testing on human subjects.  I’m overdue to lecture and I haven’t taken a sabbatical since I was tenured.  If that bloody Chinese lab wasn’t right behind me, I might be able to relax.  I just can’t let them beat me to a solution.”

I set his coffee in front of him.  I was pretty sure Morgan was still working on the replication issue with synthetic nerve cells.  The synthetics were good, but didn’t regenerate or replicate, at all.  Early attempts to have them replicate went badly, often spawning cancerous, synthetic nerve cells.  If I remembered correctly, and I wasn’t sure I did, Morgan was three or four years into working out a solution.

“You must be pretty close, by now, so I wouldn’t worry too much,” I said, sitting down across from him again.  My front office was fairly tidy, other than vacuuming and dusting being overdue.  I kept nothing of importance there, except the coffee maker.  The walls were bare and I only kept a few dated magazines and journals around for general interest.  As I thought of it, I realised they were the original chairs and desk I had started with.

“Thanks for the coffee, Mike,” he said, taking an eager sip and smiling.  “Yep, much better than before.  And, no, I’m not too worried about that Chinese lab.  They started up after I did and a lot of their early results turned out to be, well…exaggerated.  They’ve been more cautious since then, but I still wouldn’t trust their science for a while.”

When he mentioned the Chinese lab and fudgy results, it came back to me.  It was a total embarrassment for the Chinese, in general, and the lab was a laughing stock for a long time.  Apparently, several other labs couldn’t repeat their published work and several international NGOs came close to pulling their recognition of that lab, altogether.  From what I had read, it seemed like they had published some questionable stuff prior to that final incident.

“Me either,” I reassured him, “and that’s my point.  That lab has a credibility issue that will take a million years to shake.  They have set the bar pretty high for themselves.  Nobody’s going to accept anything but perfect results from them.”

“Yeah, but I still can’t afford to let them close the gap, even if it’s bigger than I think.”  He paused and sipped his coffee again.  “I guess I should get back to why I’m here.”

“The university, Regeneratix, PureLife, and my strange conduct,” I interrupted, thinking it would set him up nicely.  “Is that it?  Unless there’s been a major change, I am aware of those troubles.”

“Just so you know, Mike,” Morgan said, looking tired and old again, “I’m not here in any official capacity.  No one sent me.  I really am here as a friend.  This place was the last major project I worked on before I was tenured, and I would hate to have it end badly.  That’s why I’m here.”

“Okay,” I told him.  “Go on, then.”

Morgan looked uncomfortable, but went on.  “I know you are aware of what’s going on, but I’m more worried about where you are at.  You look like hell, Mike.  I’m guessing you haven’t been sleeping much, lately.  You’ve missed practically all the university business for over two years.  When did you last use your office at the university, Mike?  It can’t have been in the last year.”

“I’ve been working out of this location for a while, they know that,” was all I could think to say.  It was essentially true.  The fact I had all but ignored the university for a year or more was definitely something they hadn’t expected.  My work had taken over, but it had to be that way.

“Mike,” he said, exasperation showing, “it’s not about the university or the department.  We don’t need another old sweater at an undergrad wine and cheese, and we sure as hell don’t need another opinion in our mindless department meetings.  That’s all a bunch of shit that goes on without you, anyway.  It’s about showing your face once in a while.  You got on well with the department guys, you always did.  If you showed up, maybe talked about your work, or even just asked about their work, the heat would be a little less.  Do you follow me yet?”

I followed him, but he didn’t understand the full extent of my situation.  There were things he didn’t know.  I didn’t have the heart to give him a canned response; he said he was coming on his own, and I trusted that much.

“Morgan, do you trust me?”

This caught him off guard.  He was probably expecting me to defend the importance of my work and the value to science, and crap like that.  I knew the whole trust thing opened a can of worms, but I had little to lose, and a funny feeling Morgan might have a place in my work again.

“Mike, why do I have the feeling there’s something funny going on here?” he finally uttered.

“Probably for the same reason that you just answered a question with a question,” was my response.  “Listen, Morgan, I know how things look from the outside.  The knives are freshly sharpened and pointing straight at me.  Whatever time I have left to work with is precious, and I can’t be hampered by external forces.”  I got up and started making myself a coffee, more for something to do than a desire for coffee.  “You want another one?”

“No, I’m fine, Mike.  Listen, if there’s more to this, just tell me.  Maybe I can help.”

I got the machine going and turned to him.  I ran my hand along my cheek and was suddenly conscious of a three or four day beard.  It was probably that long since I’d showered, too.  It occurred to me that Morgan might be a harder sell than I thought.

I started to laugh.  “Morgan, old buddy, I must look like a mad scientist, right now, but you are right.  When my work is finished, you’ll understand.  Perhaps you are the wakeup call I have needed for a while.”

“Now you’ve really lost me,” Morgan said blankly.

“I know.  I’m probably not giving a good account of myself, either.  Listen, what does your schedule look like over the next few months?  Do you have any spare time?”

“I’m not crammed at the moment,” he quickly replied, “but I think you need to understand something first.”

“If it’s a money thing, I can’t spare much, but I do have a small reserve,” I said, partly thinking out loud.  “I would probably just give you the lot, if you can spare the time.”

“It’s not that, Mike,” he said emphatically.  “There are some developments you don’t know about.  It’s partly why I came here.”

My coffee was ready, and I sipped at it before I sat down.  “Go on, then.”

“The university has probably sent you a ton of mail lately, so I won’t trouble you with the paper trail,” Morgan said, that aged look coming back.  “They are coming for the borrowed equipment.  They have approved plans for an advanced study wing and most of your big ticket equipment is involved, but they will take it all.  The wing is supposed to be ready by the start of the January term, which means they will need it in place by November, sometime.”

I was glad I had sat down before he told me.  The timing was brutal.  I had put years into my work, and was within a year of readiness for final testing.  It was late June, and I was faced with making it happen in four or five months.  This was not good.

“I could try for an extension,” I said, sounding more desperate than I intended, “even if it is a long shot.  They’ll be hard pressed to have a facility up and running even if they had the equipment now, so what loss would a few months be?”

“I was at the meeting last night, Mike,” Morgan explained.  “The move is pre-emptive.  The word is that Regeneratix is getting really close to pulling the plug on this place.  The department is worried the equipment will get tied up in the legal crap that follows.  If they can get it out early enough, it’s less likely to become lost.”

“There has to be a way around this,” I muttered.  “I’ve put too much time into it now.  The equipment isn’t even up to date, anymore.  I have made some modifications to keep it updated, but even the latest stuff is three or four years past its prime.”

Morgan leaned forward in his chair, speaking firmly now.  “There is a chance to salvage something from this, if you’re interested.”

“What do you mean?”

“Okay, right now you are in deep.  Something hasn’t been working out for you, and you think you’re close.  That’s great, but you have said that a few times too many, lately.  Whatever is happening is probably not worth publishing or you would have done that.  Sound about right, so far?”

“I’m still waiting for the salvage part,” I said, still coping with the foreseeable loss of my project.

“It’s coming, Mike, really.  The thing is this.  Right now, if you fight this equipment thing to the bitter end, and Regeneratix doesn’t see anything from you and so on, then you are finished.  You’ll be sued for everything you’re worth, probably lose, and odds are good you will have your tenure revoked.  If you’re really, really lucky you might be allowed to stay and lecture until you die, and how lucky would that be?  So here is the salvage bit.  A couple of the other profs, the dean and myself have a potential plan.  It’s nothing firm, just something that works for everyone, and the details would be a cinch.”

“I thought you were just here as my friend,” I cut in.  “Now you’re making an offer from the department.  What are you pulling here?”

“They don’t know I’m here, Mike, so don’t get the wrong idea about this.  I’m not actually making you the offer, it hasn’t been agreed to and the details are far from figured out.  What I’m saying is: you still have allies inside the university, and if you are cooperative there may be a way to come out of this with your career intact.”

“All right,” I said, finishing my coffee without tasting it.  “Approximately what does the preservation of my career look like in this unofficial, incomplete deal?”

“It looks like this.  You agree to hand over the equipment without making a fuss, no stalling or anything.  You help install it at the campus and start training staff and students for a few years, at least.  There’s no reason you might not be given some sort of formal position within that wing, God knows you have the experience.  The lab work and equipment contribution of the last million years would essentially be a write off for the school, but they can try to fluff it up.  Anyway, I’m sure you could cobble together something to publish from your years here.”

“And what about Regeneratix?” I asked, feeling a headache coming on.

“That is the tricky part,” Morgan said, “and it’s why nothing official has being proposed to you, yet.  The department wants you to accept full liability for that side of it.  Technically, their involvement is separate from Regeneratix and the equipment was only left in your care, not actually donated.  It would bankrupt you, but I can’t see the department going along with this, otherwise.”

This is where Morgan was in the dark.  He didn’t understand a couple of things, at least not properly.  The deal was fair enough, on the surface, even though it torpedoed years of work at the last moment.  I had stalled before, said I was close to something, sure, but now it was true.  The real problem was much deeper.  I had deliberately misrepresented my work to them and the university.  I might be able to fudge up my notes enough to con the department, however, Regeneratix would recognise that I had been doing my own thing, even if it was pure gold for them, anyway.  In addition to bankruptcy, I would probably face a few years of jail time, which would also end my tenure.  I would be lucky to get a job cleaning test tubes in a discredited Chinese lab, if I made it that far.  Wiggling out of so many tight spots had made me good at it; unfortunately, I had become so good I also knew when there was no wiggle room left.

“Not that I want to seem ungrateful,” my dry, old lecture voice began, “but what if I made one last counteroffer, something that would be legally ironclad?”

“It would have to be pretty amazing, Mike.  What would it be?”

“I’m not even sure I could pull it off, but let’s say I made a onetime contract with both the school and Regeneratix.  It would look like this: I would be given another year with the status quo, that’s my part.  The university would be guaranteed the equipment, after that, with no legal holds or leans from Regeneratix.  Regeneratix would be given first dibs on the results of the work.”

“Sounds pretty light,” Morgan said, sceptically.  “What if the work falls through?  The department might be happy with their equipment back but Regeneratix will want something more, I would guess.”

“At this point, if the work amounted to nothing, which it won’t, then I would walk away from the school and work for Regeneratix at a reduced rate.  It would never pay off their losses, but it would mitigate them.  They could play it to the investors as a continuance or something.”

“From the rumours and rumblings I heard at the meeting, you have run out of good will with the execs at Regeneratix, so the idea sounds pretty thin.  I just don’t think they trust you.  If you could produce a summary of your work, it might help…but even then.”

“Yeah, it’s thin.”  I wasn’t sure what else there was to say to that.  Regeneratix had all but cut me off.  I might have allies at the university, but I knew there were none left at Regeneratix.  I was in deep with them.

“Mike,” Morgan’s voice snapped me out of my sudden pensiveness, “are you okay?”

“I’ve been better,” I replied.  The bones of a plan started to form in my mind.  It was sudden and desperate, though full of potential.  “Morgan, when do you think they’ll actually come for the equipment, assuming they want it in place by mid-November?”

He sat back for a moment.  “Well, Mike, I would assume the actual move itself would take a few days, maybe a week at the most.  That would put the move in late October or early November.  What does it matter?”

“It matters a lot,” I returned quickly, thinking out loud again.  I could cram some of the work and get meaningful results, the rest would be risky.  “Morgan, what does your schedule look like in mid-October?”

“You’ve asked me about my schedule twice, now,” Morgan said, pulling out his phone and fumbling with it for a moment before looking up at me again.  “Right now, October could be better.  I can probably rearrange some things if I knew what you had in mind.”

I knew what I had in mind; I didn’t know how to approach him with it.  “I would need a couple of days from you, that’s it.  This is pretty sudden, so I don’t know which days yet, but I could confirm by Monday, if that’s okay?”

“Yeah, that would be fine, Mike,” the old-looking Morgan confirmed.  “You know they might come for the equipment early, right?  I was at the meeting, but the brass doesn’t always do what they say, so anything could happen.”

“I know, Morgan,” I sighed, “but leave that to me.”


The Office of the President of the University Of Toronto, 6:40pm, Wednesday, June 25, 2087

     The place hadn’t changed.  I was told they updated it slightly after the fire in ’26, but actually tried to keep the same look.  For as long as I had ever known it, the office was stuffy and boring.  Sitting across from me was the man himself, University of Toronto President Carl Jones.  Carl was a little guy, maybe 165 centimeters tall with a thin frame.  He was also into his eighties, though I couldn’t remember how far in.  He was something of a university hack, finally given his current position after years of service in various roles.  There was a rumour he actually didn’t want the position at the time, accepting it only because the next probable candidate was an idiot, and old Carl wouldn’t abide that.

     I met Carl shortly after I came to U of T.  It was unusual, but we shared an interest in older movies.  When the film study, or some other arts department, put on an older show I would try to make it out.  I was new at the school, and this gave me a chance to mix and enjoy a decent movie.  Carl wasn’t president at that time, of course, and I forget what his position was when I first met him.  We didn’t have much in common outside of the movie thing, but on that we really clicked.  So, two or three times per year, pretty much up until I started my project with Regeneratix, I would meet up with Carl and a few other profs and enjoy a movie, often chatting with them afterwards.  I had dealings with him after he became school president, mostly relating to the lab, and I’m sure my movie connection didn’t hurt.  Our relations in last few years had become strained as the lab work ran on without results; I had taken to avoiding contact as much as possible.  Carl sat in his usual, rigid way, gazing blankly at me.  He wore a grey sweater over a cheap collared shirt.  The little bit of white hair remaining on his head was kept short and functional.

Carl may have been more figurehead than proper executive, but he was reasonably bright and I had pushed things right to the edge.  It was going to be an awkward meeting with no room for fancy footwork.

The secretary had already left for the day, so I had let myself in.  Carl had been polite in seating me, but there was tension between us, I was sure of it.

“So, Michael,” he quietly began, clasping his hands together on the desk, “to what do I owe this honour?”

He’s opening with light sarcasm, I thought to myself, not a great start.  Don’t get me wrong, I had it coming.  Carl had been quite patient in the early weeks and months before I completely dodged everyone; and more, he had been slow to get after me, the proof being that I was still operating.  All that deserved a few jabs.  I just needed to keep things short and sweet, and get the hell out.  I had deliberately come late to avoid dealing with anyone else, and that had worked out well.  I even stopped by my office, which had been partly converted into storage space for office supplies and hard copies of miscellaneous files.  A year or so away will do that, I guess.  I did catch a few memos posted electronically regarding the new research wing Morgan had mentioned.  Seems they were moving fast on it, so I had to stay ahead.

“I am here to speak with you directly,” I said, trying to sound serious without being too formal.  I suddenly missed the casual nature of our film discussions.  “I have several things to work out and figured it would be easiest to do it in person.  I know I’ve been unavailable, maybe even evasive, but the work is very time intensive.”

“I’m not sure how sympathetic I am to your workload, Michael, but please continue,” Carl spoke quietly again.  He was very still, watching me very carefully.  I don’t know why it bothered me, but it did.

“Okay, here is the situation,” I said, leaning forward slightly.  “I noticed the plans for a new science wing and the type of work that will go on there.  I know that some, maybe all, of the equipment I’m using will be shifted over.  I’m not going to ask for that to be put off or anything.  All I need is to have the equipment until the end of October.  Everything I have worked on can be finished, by then.  That’s it.”

“I’m not quite sure what to say,” Carl sighed gently.

“Say yes.”

“That may be out of my hands, Michael,” Carl returned.  “You know that.”

“I know that.  I also know you have a lot of influence over what happens, even if you don’t have the final say.”  I wasn’t sure where this was going.  Part of me wanted to laugh at myself for even thinking this might go smoothly.

“Fair enough,” he almost laughed.  “Michael, you’ve changed.  You are not nearly the fellow I knew years back.  When this project of yours came into being, I was nearing my retirement.  I hadn’t the slightest notion I would become president, but here I am.  This project of yours has become troublesome, on several levels, and I’ve grown tired of the whole thing; including your antics.”

“Carl, listen–,” I tried to interrupt.

“No, Michael,” he shot out sternly, “enough.  I was not in charge when this lab was set up, and that’s fine.  I could care less about cutting another ribbon or smiling for another photo in front of the latest, greatest school building.  I am here to keep things moving along properly, and I intend to do just that.  I have stood back and let this lab of yours run its course, without interference, for a couple years more that it had a right to.  Now, this company you’ve taken funds from is upset about a lack of return, and who can blame them for that?”

Carl paused, adjusted his glasses slightly and continued.  “I’m not a science type, but I respect the sciences a great deal; and while this represents a relatively small commitment of university capital, I cannot be irresponsible.  I have been advised that most of the equipment in your care has as much as twenty years of meaningful use left.  That may not make this new wing a cutting edge lab, but it lays down a foundation that can be updated over time.”

“I’ve got no problem with that, Carl.  All I ask is that you let me wrap things up.  After that, I will help prep the equipment for transit and even set it up in the new wing.”  I knew what was coming.

“Normally, if any of this can be called normal, anymore, I would have no issue with granting you the additional time.”  Carl was starting to ice up, so the roadblock was about to be set.  “The concern, now, is that millions of dollars, even factoring depreciation, are tied up in a lab that might have legal action taken against it very soon.  This private company you’ve crawled in with seems to share my opinion that you’ve extended your work for too long without results.  I haven’t fully explored the legal side of this situation, Michael, but I know how it could go and I don’t care to have millions of dollars tied up in court for years on end.  That equipment has twenty years of potential value left, and I don’t care to squander it in legal limbo.  The earlier the equipment is back on university property, and out of your hands, the better.  The piper has played your tune, Michael, and you know what happens after that.”

That wasn’t so bad.  I knew the Regeneratix thing would be the major hurtle.

“That’s completely fair, Carl,” I quickly responded.  “I can see that I’ve stretched things out and done wrong.  I know what the equipment represents to the university and I won’t jeopardise it further, so hear me out.  If I can get you an assurance that Regeneratix will leave the equipment be, at least until November or so, will you leave it with me to wrap up my work?”

He squinted at me, just slightly and only for a second, and I knew I had him.  What else could he say?  The new wing probably wasn’t even cleared of whatever it was currently housing, so it would take a while to be readied.  If I took away the risk of losing the capital, what else did he have to lose?

“Michael,” he said, propping his chin up on his clasped hands, “can I ask you something personal, completely off record?”

“Sure, Carl.  What is it?”

“When this project is done, this biological computer thing, what are your plans after that?”  Carl changed his tone in the asking, but his edge was still there.

“It could go a few different ways,” I said.  “I could win a Nobel Prize, or I could end up broken and poor.  Right now, I’m rushing the completion of it all, but I will finish.”

“A Nobel Prize?” he seemed shocked.  “I thought we already had computers made with living tissues?  Are you sure you’re not dreaming a little too hard, Michael?”

“I don’t want to get technical, but the computers we’ve made to date are made with living tissues, but not from living tissues.  It really is a big difference.  And if I’m dreaming too hard, well, so be it.  A lot of science would never get done without someone dreaming.”  If Carl really knew the full extent of my work, he would have something else to dream about.

“What would be the problem with setting up your work in the new wing?” he asked me.  “Then it wouldn’t matter when you moved it here.  Odds are good that we won’t have it all ready for January, anyway.  Why not finish up here?”

That was a heck of an olive branch.  The complete, honest answer was more than I could afford to reveal, so I gave the incomplete, honest answer.  “Carl, the equipment is set up for my project and it would be a major setback if I had to suspend it, even for a few weeks.  It would erase a couple years of my effort, at least.  Even if I could reset it all, Carl, I would need exclusive access to the equipment.  That wouldn’t work in a research wing.”

“A pity,” Carl said, not quite sounding disappointed.  “I must be a fool, Michael, but I will do what I can to leave the equipment in your hands provided the university gets the appropriate legal assurances.”

“I appreciate the confidence,” I said, trying not to sound too happy.

“Don’t thank me,” he said, giving me that hard look again.  “If you don’t produce this time, it will be the end of your career, and there will be nothing I can do to prevent it.”