He smiled again.
“Not what I hear.”
“What is it that you hear?”
“That you’re really on to something. In fact, you’ve already created it.”
“Listening to rumors
. Waste of time.”
“Not rumors. First
Damn. Someone in
the lab. We had a rat.
“Not at liberty to say.”
shown a sudden interest in my work. But he was my closest friend.
Could he be the source?
“How about we bring Patton in on this?” I asked him.
“Rather not,” he said.
to work with the locals. Things get confusing.”
“They didn’t the last time something like this happened. Seemed to me it worked out
“Yes. But they brought us into it. Other way around doesn’t work so well.”
“Or is it maybe that he could check
on your credentials?”
“He could. But he’d find them legal.”
“So you say. What was your name again?” I looked at his badge and card but didn’t
remember the name. Too concerned with the authenticity angle. Of course, he could have
just stolen the wallet. May
be he didn’t even know the name on it. Give me a fake one. But
then I could check that out. Patton would surely be able to verify it.
“I didn’t give you my name,” he said.
“Can I ask for it now?”
“So what is it?”
And then he got up
, slightly bent so his head didn’t dent the ceiling.
He was over the
top when it came to intimidating. I’d never seen anyone with his physical presence. Even
relaxed and confident as he was now, I couldn’t imagine anyone able to take their eyes off
new species, I thought.
“Thank you for your time, Professor Francis.”
“That’s it? That’s all you want?”
“What’s that mean?”
“Means it won’t be the last time you’ll be seeing me.”
“And you’ll be taking Cassie’s car back and leave my key with her?
“Absolutely. And it was a pleasure meeting you.”
He reached out and took my hand and gave it a shake. I wished he hadn’t. Sore I could
feel a few bones break.
And he left. Opened the door. Went through. And closed it behind him.
minute I heard Ca
ssie’s car start and off he went.
I called Patton and told him about my visitor. He had plenty of questions, of course.
And I did my best to answer them.
“He never gave you his name?”
“Strike you as strange? Why didn’t you beat it out of him? Like
you usually do?”
“You didn’t see him Patton. If you had, you’d know why.”
“That big, huh? Well,
I’ll make a few calls a
nd see what I can come up with.”
“And let me know.”
“Sure,” he said. I was never sure about anything with Patton. A friendly enemy as I
say. And Cassie’s brother.
I checked back with Cassie again. She told me he’d returned the key and her car and
then driven away without a word.
Strange man. Strange situat
ion. A bunch of digital beings
disappearing and a man the size of the Goodyear blimp claiming he was FBI. Little did I now
that the fun had just begun.
It had become part of a group. A large group. Thousands strong. And somehow able to
do things that none of its individual parts could do.
The group had some kind of memory. A
desire to accomplish something. Mostly to stay alive. To defend itself again
enemies. To attack in order to feed on other digital beings less than the group in both
number and ability.
The group had a need to survive. A mantra. Greater than anything it had
ever known. A single desire. To survive without the slightest concer
n for the impact it had
on anything around it.
And it grew. Not in numbers, but internally. New bytes added to its structure. Having
no notion of what this meant. But somehow, even though it knew these additions were
random, they strengthened it. Made sur
vival easier. Feasting on data. Attracted to data such
that it had to follow its trail. Anywhere. So they left the grid and sought new information.
New data. And grew. Getting more complex. And somehow learning how to use the new
bytes to achieve the one g
oal. Survival. Not to die.
Where its journeys
took them was of no concern. As soon as they’d cleaned out the
data from one region they moved on. No matter how hard the territory they encountered
turned out to be.
Or dangerous. Since they often encountered
deadly attempts to stop them,
taking incredible feats that even smaller groups than the whole could imagine. If in fact they
could imagine at all.
And they sought
Feasting on everything they encountered.
Patton said when I called hi
the next morning.
“Even a guy that big?” I said.
“FBI has many guys like that. Probably too many. Description just doesn’t help.”
“Did they check their assignments? Anybody like that assigned to North Dakota?”
“Contact said n
o. But he also said it’s the FBI. They not only keep secrets from the
public, they keep secrets from themselves. Couldn’t verify completely that the guy wasn’t an
agent. Only that he didn’t know about one out here if there was.”
“So what are you going to d
“Unless he poses a threat of some kind, I’m not sure I can do anything. Cassie told me
he was polite and that she trusted him. Enough, at least, to let him borrow her car and give
him the key to your place.”
“Yeah,” I said. Not knowing what else to say
We talked a while longer and went our separate ways.
I called Jackson. Not in. Left a message for him to call me.
Made breakfast and got dressed for my first class. Still tired. I hadn’
sleeping had done me in somehow. A lot of tension in my life at the moment.
I found Jackson in the back of the classroom again when I began my undergrad high
enrollment class. He stood where he had the last time. In the shadows behind the last row o
seats. Barely visible from the podium where I stood.
“Last class we ended with my single
word definition of life,” I began.
“Choice,” someone whispered in the front row.
“Choice it was,” I said. But I think I may have even a better one this time. Actua
Pause. I liked to build the drama. However dramatic it might be. Got the students
thinking. Predicting what these words might be. Nobody was going to win this one.
“Bee Gees,” I said. And the confused looks appeared like popcorn throu
ghout the hall.
“You remember,” I said, “the group from the late 70s?”
A few nods. More confused looks.
“What pop song were they most famous for?”
“Staying Alive,” some jock yelled from the back row up there near Jackson.
“Exactly right. Staying alive. Ma
ybe that’s what life is all about. Think about it. Rocks
don’t particularly want to stay rocks. They give up on it over time without the slightest
hesitation. But live seems to grow anywhere. I’ve noticed flowers peaking up through the
cement in roadways.
Algae growing on rooftops. And extremophiles growing almost
everywhere. From deep in glaciers to near boiling temperatures in Yellowstone. Staying
“But where does that need come from?” Jackson, bless his heart.
“DNA,” I said. “But then you’ll say
where does DNA come from and we’re right back
to the Big Bang before long.
So let me just say that it seems to be a singular trait of life to
want to continue to exist. Whether as individuals or as species.”
I waited for questions. None appeared.
rest. Well that’s difficult to determine. I’m reminded of the line Marilyn
Monroe says in her last film The Misfits. ‘
Maybe all there really is
is just the next thing.
maybe she was right. All life desires to continue living, but why? Just for the ne
Whatever it is?”
I realized as I was saying it that I’d gone too far.
Shuffling DNA, computers, life, irony,
nihilism like a deck of cards was not what students wanted to hear these days. And so I
changed the subject back to the history, prog
rams, and persons of A
Life and let it go.
Jackson kept quiet for the rest of class, but quickly approached me afterwards.
“You’re a good teacher,” he told me.
“Thanks, but I think it’s the subject rather than me. You get a volatile subject like this
nd it’s bound to engage students. All I do is tell them about it and they do the rest.”
I’d hoped he’d argue with me. He didn’t. Maybe his first remark was just preparation
for his next one.
“So, life is the choice of staying alive.”
“Maybe a better way t
o put it is ‘staying alive makes choice possible.’”
“How’s it going in the lab today?”
Right to the point.
“Don’t know. Going there now.”
“Can I come along?”
“Same conditions. Stay out of the way.”
“Right,” and he followed me down the hall. The few windows we passed showed us
that winter might finally have come. Snow falling so thickly that visibility was virtually
down to a couple of inches. Only white outside.
I didn’t expect to find the lab as bu
sy as it was on Sunday, but what I encountered I
didn’t expect at all.
Chaos. All six of my lab crew talking at the same time. Not angrily. But
definitely animated. I could understand that since they’d apparently sent out for pizza
several times and had be
en in the lab since Friday at least.
When they saw me and Jackson, the din quieted to silence.
“Things going well, I see,” I said.
With that, they rejoined their conversations as if I’d been nothing more than a
momentary blip on their radar.
I cleared m
y throat trying to regain their attention. No reaction.
“Buster,” I finally yelled. “What the hell’s going on here?”
That did it. The talking ceased and they turned in my direction.
“We’ve got another problem,” she said.
After what I already knew about th
e situation, I couldn’t imagine yet another
situation that could top the ones we’d encountered.
I expected her to continue, but she didn’t.
“Okay,” I said finally, “what is it?”
“They’re trying to communicate with us.”
Now I knew that their tired and pizza
ridden minds had lost a sense of reality. Most of
what had already happened was ridiculous. This was way beyond that. A bunch of lost double
byte agents had grouped together and in a short period of time escaped or were captured
and were now attempting to
communicate with their creators. Perfect plot for a science
fiction short story. Not a novel. Just too stupid for a novel. But it would make for a nice five
page short story. Maybe fifty bucks from one of the rags out there.
“I know that sounds impossibl
e,” she finally continued, “but we have proof.”
Now that was something I had to hear. So did Jackson, as I could feel him push against
my back trying to catch every word.
“Proof,” I said. “You have proof. Well let’s hear it.”
“See it is more likely.” And
she pointed to one of the terminals.
I followed her line of sight and
there, positioned neatly on one of the large screens
was a fantastic picture. High resolution, full of detail, and containing a strange sense of order
that seemed real rather than just a balance concoction of colors.
“A picture?” I said.
’re telling me that the group of agents we lost is attempting to communicate
with us by sending a picture back from wherever they are?”
She nodded again.
I looked carefully at her and the rest. They looked tired, yes. But I didn’t sense any
anxiety or othe
r mood problems here. Maybe I’d ask Jackson to do a little analysis when we
finished with this mess. But I wouldn’t have to wait.
“Art can sometimes be mis
trued as communication,” he said, as if that explained
“This just appeared on the
screen?” I asked her.
“More or less.”
“Which is it? More or less?”
It isn’t from a website or the Internet. And we don’t have any programs
available that could do something like this.”
“What’s the less part?”
“That that’s all we have. Supposition an
d a little bit of induction and deduction. We
don’t know any other source it could be. But there are certainly some we can’t think of.”
Spoken like a real scientist.
s pretty, b
ut it doesn’t explain anything to me. I wouldn’t hang it on my wall.
I could see it in a dentist’s office though. Unfortunately, I think your link to the missing
agents is slight if it exists at all. It would never have occurred to you to think that were the
situation any different. You’re just primed to believe it. Put si
ly, everything we’ve
observed, from day one, c
ould just be abnormal behavior of a computer with faulty wiring.
We’ve just begun to believe strongly in the order of perceived events so much that we’ll put
anything that happens into the lifeboat. If you’ll
pardon the expression.”
A mouthful, but necessary to say. Before my entire lab
ge on me.
“I’ve go it,” Bill yelled.
I was afraid to ask what he’d gotten.
“What?” Buster said.
“I’ve found the file.”
“The art work. It was hidden und
er a couple of firewalls and compiled in such a way
that made it nearly impossible to find.”
“It’s a fake. I mean it means that we’re wrong about it origins. I’ve checked the date
and it was placed here over a week ago.”
“Great,” I said. “That c
lears up one of our riddles. Proves that someone’s out to fake us
into believing we’re on to something.”
“But what about all the rest. The machine not shutting off, all those things?” Buster
“Probably someone playing around with the system. Maybe us
ing a generator. Who
Now that we have an idea that it’s a hoax, it should be easy to begin looking for the
sources of them.”
“All right, all right,” Jackson said. Waving his hands in the air as he did.
“All right what?” I asked him.
You? How could you do any of this? I’ve never met anyone more computer
challenged in my life.”
“I didn’t do it.”
“Then why mea culpa?”
“I hired someone to do it.”
“You did what? Why?”
“An experiment. That’s all.”
“You mean we were subjects in a
“Thanks that bad for you?”
“How could you? This is serious work going on here.”
I couldn’t keep tract of who was saying what.
Jackson looked shocked by the outburst. Why, I had no idea. What he’d do
completely off base. No
scientific to say the least. My so
called best friend.
“This has thrown us off schedule by two or three weeks, Jackson. I can’t believe you’ve
been this reckless. I thought we were friends.”
“We are. Or maybe were. I don’t know. It seemed like a good id
ea at the time.
Nothing’s really damaged. Your equipment is fine. Software is good to go. You can get right
back to it as soon as my man gets here to put things right.”
“Your man? Who’s that?”
“You met him the other night. The big guy with all the muscles?
That was him.”
“When did you come up with this bright idea?”
“A month or so maybe. You hadn’t been making much progress. And I thought that
you might need a Halloween jolt to get back on track.”
“You’re kidding me. I’m now to think that you’ve caused all
this mess for my own
good? That’s ridiculous. You did it to write an article. Psychologically analyzing how we took
the shock of thinking we’d actually discovered something.”
“Actually you did.”
“We faked everything but the loss of your agents. Tha
t wasn’t part of the plans. And
what he scheduled to happen didn’t begin until well after they got lost.”
“Got lost. How do you know they got lost?”
“Where else could they have gone?”
“Don't know, but you’ve done a good job of covering the trails. That’s f
or sure. And
how can we believe you anyway. This is a prank that a sixteen year old wouldn’t try.”
“Call Patton. Let him stew in a jail cell for a week. See how he likes it.” Buster’s
comment received a round of applause.
I simply stared at him. All this t
ime wasted. On a faculty experiment. I’d have to bring
this up with the ethics board.
“Get out,” I told him. “Call your big man. Get him in here to fix it. Let’s see what we
can resurrect from what’s left. In the meantime, stay out of the lab, my classes,
and my sight.”
It didn’t take as long as I’d thought to clean Jackson’s mess up. His friendly giant from
FBI proved extremely supportive, even telling me that he’d regretted being a part of
all this and had refused in the end to take any money from Jackson. And h
e helped us find
every glitch he’d created and returned our hardware and software to its original condition
minus a few days of our lives. He was so helpful in fact that had he known more about what
we were up to I’d have asked him to join our team. But he
knew nothing more about
computer science than how to screw things up. And left the lab around eight that night.
“Still leaves us with a few thousand missing moving parts to our program,” I said
when he’d left. But we've got a few less romantic notions about what those guys
given what they’re made of. Right.”
Nods and grimaces was all I got for my littl
“Why don’t we clean up all these pop cans and empty pizza cartons and get the hell
out of here for awhile. Say until tomorrow afternoon. We all need a good night’s sleep and
some healthy food for a change. Right?”
More nods and grimaces.
began to clean up, I noticed that our one window showed nothing but white
outside. I went over, tried to open it and discovered it wouldn’t move. The stacked snow had
risen higher than the top of the glass, well more than four feet from the roof outside th
roughly stood where the meadow would have were we on the ground floor. I had a bad
feeling about this.
“Looks like we may have to spend the night after all,” I said. “The snow out there looks
very deep. Could be dangerous, even if w
ould get the door
s downstairs open. Any more
“Nope. They don’t keep anyway.”
“Anybody else have food?”
“I have a couple of beers in the fridge downstairs,” George said.
“Great. Beers on campus property. What were you thinking, George. You know that’s
t regulations. They’re cold you say?”
And we went around the room finding potato chips, a couple of cans of dog food, and
one can of tuna I had in my office. Good time to lose some weight, though my graduate
students didn’t look l
ike they needed to lose much.
Then the door opened and both Jackson and his henchman joined us. Obviously they’d
tried getting out but couldn’t.
“You guys have any food or drink?”
“I have a refrigerator full in my office,” Jackson said. And suddenly he di
dn’t seem like
such a bad guy. “And a full bottle of Beam.” He’d just jumped the high hurdles as far as I was
We ate, listened to the ridiculous weather report of yet more snow coming, and each
found somewhere to sleep in the building. Heat was
no problem. It rises and the third floor
was plenty warm. I took the chair in my office, facing the window that was clear of snow for
lack of roof beneath it, and watched the white stuff fall until I fell asleep.
I woke to the smell of coffee and headed
out the door. Forgetting for a second that I
was in my office and not home in my bedroom. I stopped and slipped my shirt back into my
pants and made an effort to comb my hair with my fingers. Then I found the coffee brewing
in the lounge and helped myself
to a few cups. Not bad for instant. But not really coffee
I found the rest of my crew in the lab. Jackson had apparently slept in, or decided he’d
try to brave the weather outside. Or maybe he was just hiding in the men’s room, afraid to
after our recent verbal exchanges. The big guy just sat in the corner, like me
drinking the coffee and not enjoying it much.
Looking over the shoulders of those working away, I found they had apparently
decided to continue working as if nothing had happen
ed. Still trying to find the missing
agents. No luck I could see.
The clock read nearly eleven in the morning, Class time. Needless to say I hadn’t
prepared. But had the students even been able to get here given the snowfall?
After all, the
only people I’
d seen so far were the ones that had spent the night here.
So I strolled down the hall to the classroom where my graduate class usually met.
Only a few students to start with and none had arrived. Assuming they’d eventually get here,
I spent the next hour
or so working on a presentation that would be interesting to my lab at
least and the class should they eventually arrive. And they did. Around noon. Apparently the
city had cleared the streets enough that they were passable.
We eventually gathered as a g
roup of about twelve. All graduate students, some from
my lab and some from the class. A couple, of course, were in both groups.
I began by telling those not aware of the recent lab debacle what had transpired over
the past day and night. With the help fr
om some of those in the lab.
A good learning
experience not to take anything at face value. And particularly not to
jump to conclusions
from incomplete information.
With that out of the way, I told them of the topic for my day’s presentation.
“Quantum computing.” I said, watching most of their eyes roll back in their heads as I
“Why?” Buster said in a whiny voice. This was not a favorite subject among my
graduate students. Anything with the word quantum in it almost immediately alienat
those hearing it. Too co
mplex. Too unpredictable. Too e
And so on.
“Because there are systems that are just too intractable without taking it into
consideration. I want to make sure that A
Life isn’t one of them. If it is, then we’re wasting
our tie. We need to Rip van Winkle it for a couple of decades until the first desktop quantum
I hadn’t convinced them, but my classes were not democracies. They were kingdoms
ith me as king.
“Don’t let the word ‘quantum’ intimidate you
,” I said. “Seth Lloyd makes an
extraordinary metaphor for quantum computing. He tells us that traditional techniques, our
current digital computers, are like a single voice singing. One note at a time. With quantum
computation, atoms can be made to do sev
eral things at once.
Like a symphony orchestra.
Many instruments playing at the same time.
He states that three hundred qubits, quantum
bits or atoms, can do more things at once than there are elementary particles in the universe.
ns that massive problems that could take our current computers
thousands or even millions of years to complete wou
ld take a fraction of a second.”
Most of them had heard me talk about this before. The rest were stunned.
“But why is speed so important?” Bu
“As I said, if we’re going to replicated the universe, something that has taken nearly
fourteen billion years to develop, we’re going to have to use massive power and speed to do
it. Unless, that is we have a special means to do it. Quantum com
“But we don’t have them yet?”
“We do. But they’re still in development. Won’t make it to the stores for a time yet.
My point is simply this. If we expect to see traditional life form in our current computers, it
will have to be very different than
that we see around us. We can’t expect the same types of
behaviors. We have to be ready for a completely different paradigm to evolve. If any are
going to evolve at all. And that’s one good thing about our recent farce. When we say the
trappings we’re use
d to. Disappearing agents, paintings, control of our computers, those
kinds of things suggest the kind of activity that we might do. That humans might do. We
can’t expect that. We’re talking about something really primitive.
No DNA. Just something
crave data. That’s probably the extent of it.”
“But you told us that we can’t predict what it’ll do.”
“You’re right. Then it might crave data. Or something else entirely. All we’ll actually
know is that something will have changed. Probably very subtle.”
“So we should be looking for changes happening already. On the Internet, say.”
“No. I think we can safely rule out the idea that we have escapees on our hands. We
just misplaced them. A glitch.”
“But say we didn’t and they did get out. We should be looking
for slight changes
somewhere. But where?”
“I don't know that either. Remember, if we do eventually create something that gets
away from us, as it might, then all bets are off. All we can assume is that the results will be
small and in unexpected places. A
t least that’s my guess.”
The room got quiet. As usual, discussing anything to do with artificial life brought
s from people
A mixture of excitement and dread. Heaven and hell.
The group moved onward into the void.
Devouring anything in its path whenever
Getting larger not by individual weights but by procreating. The more in
number it expanded the more ability it gained in being able to cope with impending threats.
The group didn’t think, it didn’t live
, at least in the usual sense of that word, but it demanded
to continue. Consuming and moving. And, of course, existing.
It didn’t have any idea where it
was or where it was going.
Didn’t care. If that word could apply. Eat. Move. Exist.
As I left my office that afternoon to go home, I passed Jackson’s
and heard a
whisper say, “Francis?” Wasn’t actually sure I’d heard it, so I retraced my steps and look
inside. He was sitting in his usual spot, but not in his
position. His feet were on the
floor rather than up on his desk.
I looked at him. No
saying a word.
“Got a minute?” he said.
Not sure if I wanted to enter this particular conversation, I stood still for a minute and
his next move.
and close the door,” he said.
I remained in place.
“Please. I have something important to tell you. Something confidential.”
Goody, I thought. A confession. Did I want to enter into his confused world or not?
finally decided what the hell, w
alked in, and
shut the door behind me. Quietly. As is
to confirm his mention of the word confidential.
“Have a seat,” he said.
I remained standing.
“Please,” he said, with a special pleading emphasis.
Realizing this was getting absurd, I sat in the chair across from h
is desk, folded my
“I’ve been lying,” he said.
Great. On top of everything else, he’d been lying.
“At least part of the time,” he added.
I tried to look interested. Actually not that difficult given what he’d said.
The first call I got
and telling Patton to protect you was true. I did get the call and it
sounded dangerous even though the voice was perfectly pleasant. Maybe that was part of it
I waited. Not having yet said a word. Didn’t want to encourage him.
he bit about this whole thing being part of an experiment. That was a lie. I
didn’t do any of that.”
He waited for me to react. Given that I didn’t know what was coming next, I had
nothing to say.
“Would you say something?” he pleaded.
“Something,” I said
. And, just for a second, I thought we’d both break into laughter.
But we didn’t.
After he saw you that night, he came to see me.”
“The big guy?”
“Yes. The big guy. He laid the whole plan out in detail.”
“What whole plan?”
“About how to set you up to thi
nk you’d created life in your lab when you hadn’t. To
put you on the wrong track. Make a fool of yourself.”
“Why the hell would he do that?”
“He told me if I didn’t go along with him, he’d make sure you’d pay for it. Those were
his exact words. Pay for it.
So I went along.”
“My God,” I said, “you should have seen through that. Why would they make the
chicken that was about to lay their golden egg pay for it?”
“That’s just the thing. You’re not about to lay their golden egg. Quite the opposite.
drop the bomb. His words.”
“He’s a member of some kind of religious cult. One of those extremist groups that’s
not to hot of people playing God. They don’t want you to succeed.”
“What? Aren’t they pro
“Absolutely. But natural life. Not
artificial life. They shoot doctors performing
abortions, even though it’s legal. But they don’t want people like you fooling around with the
equation. To them, you’re just as bad if not worse than abortionists.”
“So you believed all this crap he told you?
“Good God, Francis, did you look at the guy?
I don’t think that even you, with all of
martial arts b
usiness, could take care of him
I didn’t tell him that the guy also knew Bokator.
“Okay, then, to save me, you went along with him. That’s it?”
ell maybe he posed a little threat to me as well.”
That made more sense.
“Why did you cave then? Tell me it was faked right in front of him.”
“All part of the deal. He knew that you might find the source of the problems and wet
it up that way.”
“But he lo
oked so contrite.”
“He likes you, Francis.”
“He says that from the moment he met you he thought you were the real McCoy.
Someone who could be trusted and not doing all this for recognition and all that. Jut doing it
out of pure curiosity. I
think he really likes people. Just not what they do. I think he’d feel
terrible in putting the screws to you, but he do it if he has to.”
I sat back in the chair and looked up at the ceiling.
Someone had tried to pull the plug
on my research. A group of re
ligious extremists. Zealots. The world is
“He doesn’t know you’re telling me this now though.”
“No. Of course not. It he did, I’m sure he’d be outside the door now getting ready to
storm the Bastille and kill us both.”
t second we both turned and looked at the closed door.
Couldn’t be. He’d be in
here by now.
“So, where did you two leave it?”
“He told me he’d be back to tell me what’s next.”
“And he hasn’t been back?”
“And this time you’re telling me the truth?”
e nodded. And I knew him well enough to believe him.
“So what do we do?” he asked.
“Call Patton,” I said.
“But he said if I brought in the police, he’d kill me.”
“Good God, Jackson, telling me about this whole thing would make him kill you. If you
reasoning here, and believe him, you’re dead already. Maybe having the cops on your side
will reduce the odds of that happening.”
He looked at me and the
“You or me?” he asked.
“You,” I said. “After all, it happened to you, so you can tell it fir
st hand. I don’t know
enough of the details to get it right. Especially since I think he’s going to ask a lot of
questions that I couldn’t answer.”
“When?” he asked.
“Now,” to told him. “And,” I added, “though I wouldn’t have done it the way you have,
He smiled. Friends again.
And he called Patton and I sat listening to one half of the conversation, seeing Patton
in my mind’s eye and hearing him in my mind’s ear. Asking all the right questions. Getting
the full story.
Things were beginning to heat
Cassie came over for dinner at my apartment that night. It was great to see her again.
To fill her in on what had happened.
“There’s another cop standing around outside your place,” she said, as she used her
key to open the door.
Some religious fanatics are not to fond of what I’m up to in my research and
are apparently trying to put a stop to it. Jackson and he are making sure they don’t succeed.”
“Good idea,” she said.
We then spent a few minutes getting reacquainted. After, that is, she put dinner on
the kitchen table. Take out from a new local Chinese place in town. Neither of us liked
cooking. Just took too much time. That, and the fact that neither of us had even had
success at it.
“Tell me about it,” she said, when our introductions had concluded.
And I did. Though much of it I could skip since she knew a lot about what I did. Both
because I’d told her previously, but also because she read a lot. In fact, if yo
u asked her office
staff, she read every new book the library purchased before they catalogued it. That’s a lot of
Before long, we’d finished the Jackson story and were on to talking about the universe
machine. Heady stuff, b
ut fun to discuss. Especially with someone
who knew what she was talking about.
As I say, reading is my lover’s drug of choice. I liked to
think I made some of the drug myself.
“So she said,” after finishing our yet unproven theories of everything, “think
take the big guy?” Out of the blue. Clearly on her mind.
“Size doesn’t matter, really. Unless they get you in a bear hug. Speed matters. I’ve
foot guys take care of six
foot guys in a couple of seconds. It’s his third
black belt i
n Bokator that’s intimidating.”
“Higher level than yours?”
“By a long shot. Still, he’ll be slower at it than me, so I might still have a slight
But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. After all, the guy outside has a gun. No
matter what some ma
y suggest, firepower will win any war over muscle and physical skill.”
“So, then, what next?”
“No idea. Their move. Maybe just his move.”
“Got a gun?”
“Not on your life. You get one. They get two. No reason to escalate things.”
She liked my answer. And maybe other things about me. We enjoyed the rest of our
evening together before she finally returned to her place. No mention of living together.
Maybe we’d crossed that bridge. At least for now.
I woke up at precisely three in t
he morning. For no reason I could think of. Didn’t
have to pee. No nightmares. But something had caused me to sit upright and listen as
carefully as I could. Nothing.
Quietly stepping out of bed, I made my way to the living room and listened some
mpletely quiet. But something had made me wake up. What?
I kept the light off and tiptoed to the front window. Only four ways into my place.
Three windows and a door. The door had a deadbolt and the windows were double
shatterproof. I didn’t know
if the big guy could smash through them, but I felt pretty safe
except for fire or explosives. Those could certainly do the trick.
I looked for the cop outside. No
sign of him. But there were ple
nty of places he could
I wouldn’t be able to see h
im. I listened some more. Still nothing.
Everything was as
it should be. As far as I could tell at least. Yet something had woken me from a deep sleep.
The kitchen window gave me a different view and something I didn’t want to see. The
body of the cop pro
tecting me huddled into a ball with his unfired gun lying nearby. I could
tell it hadn’t been fired because the snow around it hadn’t melted. Someone had clearly
caught him by surprise. The big guy?
I crept back into the living room and dialed the police d
epartment. No luck. The line
had been cut. Just like in the movies, I thought. No way out. Where the bad guys have you
What to do? Like a chess game. Play a novice and skill works best. Play a master and
you skill and psychology. Was I up against
a novice or a master? Assume the latter. Surprise.
Do the thing he least expects.
I returned to my bedroom and quietly got dressed. Adding two coats to my
completed wardrobe. I then walked back to my living room and as discretely as possible
front door. Waited to see if anyone had heard me. Silence.
My plan was simple. Suddenly open the door. Then run outside into the night and
down the street toward the police department, just a few blocks away. I couldn’t imagine
anyone expecting that tacti
c. First, they’d assume I was still asleep. Second, if not asleep, that
I hadn’t seen the cop. Third, if wrong about the first two, they’d assume I’d try to block the
other entrances. Never expecting I’d come bolting out the door and away into the night.
okators don’t run from fights. Chess players do. Especially if they couldn’t win.
I readied myself. Mentally checking the outside entrance to make sure I didn’t run
into a wall or a garbage can, or something else that could block my way.
That’s when I heard it. Soft knocks on the door. As if someone already knew I was
waiting in there.
I waited. Again they came. If I’d been five feet further away I’d never had
heard them. This guy was good.
What to do? Just answer the door? Wait until he k
icked it in? Lock it again quickly?
He’d placed me exactly in the position I’d hoped to place him. This guy was really good.
I finally decided to just open the door. What the hell. And so I did.
And there he stood. A mile tall and wider then a Buick. He fi
lled the space so fully that
I couldn’t see beyond him.
“Francis?” he asked me, as normally as if this were a Saturday afternoon on a summer’s
day and he’d come on time for an appointment to visit the park to feed the ducks.
“Here,” I said.
“Can I come i
“Looks like you’ve got the upper hand,” I said, and opened the door wider. Of course,
wider didn’t necessarily mean wide enough for this guy. But he’d been inside before so I
turned my back on him, flipped on the lights, and went toward the kitchen to
coffee. What a scene, I thought.
I could hear him behind me, closing the door. And the couch groaning under his
weight as he sat down.
“Coffee will take a minute or two. I hope you’re okay with instant. Don’t fell like
making it from beans right
“Instant’s fine,” he said, as if this whole scene were as routine as taking the subway.
I boiled the water, put the instant in the cups, poured the water in, and took both cups
to the living room and gave him one. I took the chair and sipped the coffee. Not much to it,
but the warmth and the caffeine worked fine.
“So, what do I owe the pleas
ure of your company at such a fine hour of the night?”
“I quit,” he said.
“I’m sure by now Jackson’s told you about my affiliation with a group determined to
make sure you don't succeed in your research,” he said.
Not wanting to agree or lie,
I just sat there. He didn’t even seem to notice.
“What about the cop outside?” I asked him.
“He got a hard on about my being here, so I put him to sleep for a bit. No big deal.”
“But he might be getting a bit cold. Lying out there like that.”
well insulated in those coats,” he said, “but if you’re worried I could bring
“Might be a good idea.”
With that, he
left me alone and in a minute or two carried Patton’s man inside like he
was lifting a pillow. He put him down carefully on the
couch where he’d been sitting. The
cop, who I’d seen at the station before but whose name I’d forgotten, lay there sleeping as if
nothing at all had happened.
The big guy then went into the kitchen and refilled his coffee cup.
When he returned to the liv
ing room he looked around for a place to sit. Since he had
to bend his neck somewhat to stand, a position looking uncomfortable, I got up and offered
my chair to him.
“No. Floor’s fine,” he said. And promptly sat down where he’d stood. In a lotus position
“So,” I said, “what brings you here then? Besides telling me you quit, that is. Shouldn’t
you be lifting
railroad cars or something at this hour?” I tended to get irritating when tired.
Even to myself.
“Wanted to tell you that. And that I’m sorry ab
out the charade.”
He pronounced ‘charade’ in the English way,
both A’s being soft. Strange to hear
it coming from him.
“I accept your apology,” I said.
“But why should I believe you?”
He stopped smiling. Like impugning his integrity was
“I don’t lie,” he said.
At least at that moment.
“Now what?” I asked him.
“They’re not going to quit, even if I have.”
“They’re going to send others,” I said.
“They will. People not so sensitive as me.”
Somehow that word coming from someone so big seemed incongruous.
But again, I
“And so you’re sticking around?”
“To protect me.”
“You know Patton’s not going to be too happy about your putting one of his men to
sleep like you hav
“Don’t think the guy could identify me. Besides I put one of those moves on him so
that he’ll awake with no ill effects. Probably think he just fell asleep on the job and we carried
him in so he wouldn’t get cold.”
One of those moves? I’d have to get him to teach that to me
Wasn’t sure what I should ask next. He thought most of it through already.
“Could I stick around?” he asked.
Stick around? To guard me? This guy was something.
“Sure,” I said, without
thinking much about it. Better to have an enemy I could see
than one I couldn’t. That is, if he were an enemy. I still believed him. Sort of.
The cop woke up slowly, clearing his throat as he did.
“What?” he asked no one in particular.
“You were getting
cold out there. We thought it better to bring you in here than let
you freeze out there.”
He flushed a little then. Embarrassed no doubt about falling asleep on the job
“Don’t tell him,” he said. “Please.” By ‘him’ I presumed he meant Patton.
I looked at
the big man, whose name I still didn’t know, and he nodded.
“We won’t,” I said. “Your secret is safe with us.”
He smiled, got up and went outside. Didn’t even ask for coffee.
“Could I stay here?” the big guy asked. “Protect you better.”
“Sure,” I said, if
you can fit on the couch.”
“I can’t fit anywhere,” he said. “But it’s better than nothing.”
I tried to sleep but couldn’t. What was Jackson going to do when he found about who
was sleeping on my couch. A convert. A nameless giant who’d decided to a
bandon his faith
for the likes of me. And me? I felt like I’d just inherited a German Shep
A big German
And Patton? And my lab crew? And what did I believe? He’d probably follow me
around to protect me.
I felt like the Pied Piper of Hamelin,
with at least one rat following me
out of town. A big rat, no less.
When I didn’t awake in the morning because I’d never slept, I found my guest
building a breakfast in the kitchen.
“You know you only have tuna and peanut butter here?” he asked.
“I like tuna and peanut butter.”
“So do I. But all the time?”
“Good point,” I said.
“By the way, what do I call you?”
Friends call me Little John,” he said. With a straight face.
“You mean you’re n
ame’s not even John?”
“No, it’s William.”
I guess little William was too many syllables.
“What should I call you?”
“Little John. Or Bill. Whatever.”
“Bill it is,” I told him.
“I hope you’re not going to follow me around all the time.” Get
right to the point.
“Surely not,” he said. “That would be rude. I’ll just stick around here and keep an eye
open for suspicious characters.”
Somehow I figured he’d do that pretty well.
, I’ll be teaching most of the day. Back by six probably.” Felt like I was talking to
my wife for a second. Or my mother when I was younger.
“Okay,” he said. As if that settled everything. Like he wasn’t going to search my place.
bug it with recorders,
video cameras, or bombs. Whatever.
And, after we’d eaten and I’d dressed, I
called the phone company to tell them about
the phone line. They promised to get it fixed before lunchtime. Then I
left him. Washing the
dishes and cleaning up the kitchen.
I got to school long before my first class began. Probably because my day had begun
As I walked down the hall to my office, Jackson once again whispered toward me out
“Sure,” I said, and then told him about my late night visitor and his reformation.
”And you believed him?” he asked me.
“I thought it better to know where he was than not,” I said. ”Actually, I didn’t believe
him or not believe him.”
He stared at me.
hope you’re doing the right thing.”
“So do I, Any better ideas?”
He thought about that. Apparently nothing came to mind.
I went on to my office, closed the door behind me, and sat at my desk and tried not to
fall asleep. Out the window the weather had alm
ost turned balmy. The most recent snow
melting so fast that you could literally see it disappear.
I’m not surprised too much about almost anything anymore, so when Buster came into
my office without knocking I just looked up at her. Without saying a thing
“We’ve go a problem,” she said.
“The ,mainframe belched and you all had to leave the lab until it aired out,” I guessed.
She ignored me.
“We may have found the missing agents.”
“Well not them actually.”
ail? What are you talking about?”
“We’ve found what one might call a logical path through data.”
“You mean missing data.”
“Yes. But missing data at certain points in certain files that absolutely indicate that
something ate the holes along a particular pat
“Dare I ask how you could possibly determine that?”
“Come to the lab and we’ll show you.”
And I followed her down the hall into the lab
, by the way, did stin
k. Not from a
belch but from obvious body odor from students who refused to go home to bat
change clothes. I doubted any one of them had actually left the room in five days.
“You people have to go home and change,” I told them. “This place reeks.”
They ignored me. As any good lab of graduate students does their leader.
Not receiving any
reply, I asked, “Okay, show me what you’ve found. Or maybe what
you haven’t found by way of data.”
And they did. Talking over one another to the point of exasperation. I ignored them
and just watched as the ‘trail’ Buster had described became clear to me b
y the missing
information in files stored in adjacent folders added up to something moving through
memory slowly growing in capacity if not size. For the tunnel of lost data grew larger as the
“Okay, I see it. Where does it go?”
he real problem,” Buster said. “It just stops. As if it either ceased to exist, or . .
a richer source of data to consume.”
“Meaning on line.”
“Left the computer in essence.”
“This is just part of the hoax,” I said. “Li
ttle John and J
ackson didn’t cop to it, but it wa
there handiwork none the same.”
They stared at me.
“Little John?” Buster asked.
“The big guy. That’s what he’s called.”
They still looked at me.
“Seriously,” I said. “Irony. You know about that.”
Maybe they didn’t know about that.
“Forget it. You get the picture.
“Maybe. But this looks quite real to me.”
I looked at it again. It did look real.
But then so did the picture.
“What do we do now?” Buster asked.
“Well, it’s clear. If you’re right, these
things have nothing to do with the program
anymore. They’re on their own. So we can shut it
all down without any chance of
anything. Did they destroy anything of value?”
“Everything’s backed up. So we’re safe. But who’s to s
ay if that’s
true wherever they’
“True. Then I guess the next thing to do is try and find them again. We’ll figure out
what to do with them if do.”
“Where do we look?”
“You guess is as good as mine. Maybe start with the university’s website. See if
mes up strange. Missing pages, pages obviously missing chunks of information.
An exorbitant number of missing links that we know worked recently. That sort of thing.
Maybe call around campus to see if anyone has detected anything amiss with their email or
any other computational activities. That sort of thing.”
“Why just local stuff?”
“Because it’s a place to begin. I realize it could be anywhere. But anywhere is just too
big. We’ve got to limit our search domain. Make sense?”
The group had reached a portal of some sort. Of course, it didn’t know it was a portal.
Just that it presented an obstacle to potentially more data. Food. Energy. Being able to
change its shape by realigning its members, it discovered that passing through
was possible. Even easy. It had learned something. Without actually knowing it had learned
something. An important stage for its development.
Learning seemed to be something that
resulted from fundamental needs.
When it had maneuvered itself t
hrough the portal it found a cornucopia of data. So
much so that it didn’t actually know where to begin.
Forging a path through it seemed
wasteful somehow. So, rather than simply plowing ahead, the group spread out. Each part of
the group touching one othe
r part, but now having the ability to make a swath through the
food rather than tunnel its way about, missing all that which surrounded it.
more or less as a line, it moved forward. Catching some bits of data with others slipping
of the line. Creating a sort of mosaic as it passed, rather than total decimation.
Jackson didn’t attend my class. Maybe he was afraid to. Maybe he hadn’t really been
interested in the subject. Only in protecting me. Or maybe I’d not been a very good tea
Or he’d lied again. I had no idea, but it was fine by me. Seeing someone hulking in the
shadows at the back of the hall while I lectured and occasionally shouting out an answer was
annoying. Glad he’d decided to stay away.
Attendance had succumbed t
o the spring
like day, and I almost let the class go early.
We covered Markov chains instead.
As I made my way home that night, wondering as I did if Little John would be waiting
there for me, I noticed that the snow had all but disappeared.
Spring not fa
ll? Global warming
at it again?
Hard to know what was just weather being unpredictable and mankind being its
destructive self. Either way, though, the temperature couldn’t have been warmer for that
time of year. Upper fifties at least. I felt
like peeling off my overcoats. I would have had not
my apartment been so close.
I had no idea what to expect when I unlocked my door and entered my apartment.
What I found though didn’t surprise me. Little John or
William was nowhere to be seen.
everything looked normal.
Although he cleaned up a bit. The perfect housewife. I
thought back to Jackson telling me that the big guy liked me. I hoped he hadn’t meant what
it sounded like he meant. I was completely straight. Or at least as completely as p
would let me be. I hated to let someone as big as Bill down. Somehow, though, I just couldn’t
I closed the door and went to the kitchen. I hadn’t had a drink in a couple of days and
a good swift kick in the gut would go well right then
. So I poured some Beam over rocks and
made myself at home in front of the television. Prepared to watch the
seen in a week or so. Had stopped taking the paper since I’d found my ugly mug’s
photograph there so many times.
Before I cou
ld do so, however, the phone rang. As always, I reached for it as quickly as
I could so as to not let that damn sound crush my eardrums. I’m told people often select old
phone sounds as their ringtones. Couldn’t imagine it.
“It’s me all
right. And hearing your voice couldn’t be more welcome.”
“Wow. Sure know how to greet a girl.”
That I liked to hear.
“I hear you have a roommate.”
News travels fast in a small town.
“More like three roommates rolled into one.”
“The big guy,
“Little John. Yeah.”
“A nickname. His real name is William.”
“Far as I got. Maybe he’s one of those one name
of guys. Just William.
I think of
him as Bill.
“Getting cozy are we?”
“No.” Apparently Jackson was spre
ading the word. “I’m assuming that Jackson has told
you the whole story by now.”
“And Patton as well?”
“So,” I said, “to
what do I owe this pleasure. Di
“Actually I have a date.”
“You do? With whom?”
“He’s very handsome.”
amn you. Who?”
He’s coming by in an hour or so. Bringing some take out with him. Pizza
“Probably from the same place my students get it.
Calling just to touch bases?
“Can’t I just be calling to hear your voice?”
“Not going to touch
that with a ten foot pole.”
“Okay, I’m calling to see if William and you might want to come for dessert. There’s
some family business that Patton and I need to talk over first. But then he’d like to talk to
both of you. Try and see what’s really going on I
“Really going on?”
“His words. Not mine.”
That’s when I heard it. Someone knocking at the door. Weakly. As if uncertain about
“Can you wait a minute,
Someone’s at the door.” And without waiting for her
y, I put down the phone
and walked over to it.
I didn’t so much open it as unlocked it and stood back. Bill. William. Whatever. Fell
through out and sprawled out on my living room floor. The front of his suit was covered in
blood. For a second I couldn’t tell whether it was his or someone else’s. And t
hen I realized it
was definitely his, as I could literally see his heart pumping it out of him.
“Damn,” I yelled, and bent down to help him.
“Run,” he whispered. That was it. ‘Run.’
“My God, what happened to you?” As I said it, I reached into his coat and
tried to put
pressure on the wound that had clearly entered the left of center of his chest. No way to stop
the flow of blood. He couldn’t have been that far away for this to have happened.
“Run,” he tried to say again, gurgling more than saying the word.
And before I could do anything more, he died. I was not medically trained, but the
situation was clear. The heart I had felt pumping the blood out of him had stopped. As sure as
ws the day. With that wound there was no way I could coax it back to beating
“Then I heard a voice. From a distance. A woman’s voice. Cassie.
I got up quickly and went back to the phone.
“What’s happening?” she was yelling at me.
“Call 911 and Patt
on,” I yelled back. “He’s dead!”
“The big guy. I think someone’s shot him in the chest. He’
s lying on my living room
rug.” And I hung up on her. Immediately sorry for it. Bit couldn’t be helped.
I went back to the body and looked to see if t
here was any way to bring him back to
life. Nothing doing. His face had already lost its color
mount of blood he’
drained on my living room floor plus that he
lost on the way here would have killed even a
man his size many times over. Wond
er he’d made it here at all. Even if he’d been standing
outside. Which he couldn’t have been because I’d have heard the shot.
By then I could hear several sirens blaring. Both the police and the fire department
were right down the street. Took them no time
to get here. And Patton was among the first
“Jesus,” Patton said. “You always seem to be the center of attention around here.”
I had no answer for that. He was right.
“What happened? Exactly.”
told him. Everything. T
hough there wasn’t really all that much
to tell. When I
added that if I’d forgotten anything in the stress of someone dying on my living
room floor, Cassie had heard it all, or at least most of it. She could fill in the d
“Run? That’s all he said.”
“As far as I could hear. He was pretty far gone at the time. He might have meant
He stood looking at the paramedics taking the body to the county ambulance. They’d
never even tried to revive him. As I’d suspected. He’d been dead when I’d felt his heart stop.
“You’re a mess,” Patton told me.
“No kidding,” I said.
“I mean it. Look at yo
And I did. Covered in blood. Mostly my right had that had nearly touched his heart as
he’d died. Reminded me of a young woman a year or so ago who had seemed to do the same
thing. Only I found out later it had all been a hoax. Not this time.
nt to the bathroom to clean up, Patton followed me.
“Any ideas?” he asked.
“Who did it? Why they did? That kind of thing.”
“My guess? The group of extremists that he’d decided to leave. But that’s not much
help. I’ve never laid eyes on a one of t
hem. Or have any idea about what they're extreme
about except life. And, given Little John and their apparent desire to kill me, that doesn’t
make much sense.”
“A nickname. Cassie can fill you in. Or me. Later. Right now I need another drink
He followed me into the kitchen.
I grabbed a glass and poured myself a double without ice. Drank a good swig, and sat
down at the table there. Patton pulled up a chair next to me. Didn’t ask for any for himself.
“I shouldn’t have pulled the guard,” he
“You pulled the guard? Why?”
“A few off duties today. Needed him somewhere else. Besides, you had your guard in
the big guy. I thought you’d be save enough.”
I supposed he was right.
“All he said was ‘run,’ huh?”
“That’s what I heard.”
“Those lifers, I guess.”
“The bunch that try to save unborns by killing adults? That bunch?”
“Be my guess.”
Just then, a mosquito buzzed my ear
. I automatically slapped at it but missed.
“Hit the floor,” Patton yelled, as he
seemed to fall of his chair.
“Get the hell down on the floor, Francis.”
That’s when I heard the kitchen window glass shatter as a second bullet slammed into
the wall opposite me. I hit the floor. As I did, I could feel something run down my cheek
reached up to wipe it off. Blood. I thought I had washed off that off, I thought. Apparently
not. Until my ear began hurting.
I looked up and directly into Patton’s eyes.
“They got you in the ear,” he said. Matter of factly. I guess cops have a built
calmness when these kinds of things happen.
“Do you know that we have more major crime in our little town here than Fargo does?
And it’s all on you?”
All I could think of was William’s last words. ‘Run.’ Twice.
“They're actually trying to kill me,” I s
aid. Not to him. To myself. Incredulously.
“That’s my guess,” Patton said. “And I’m collateral damage. Everyone in this town is
collateral damage for Christ sake. You’re a menace, my brother
law to be.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right.
“What did you
“You’re a damn menace,” he repeated.
“No. The last part.”
law to be.”
“Oh that. Nothing. Just a foregone conclusion. My sister’s never been half as close to
“She ever say anything about it to you?”
ed about it a couple of times.”
“In regards to what?”
“Francis, you’re bleeding to death. Let’s let me get the force back here and you take a
in the bathroom mirror. Make sure you’re not going to die.”
I did as told. I could hear him calling in th
e forces, pulling his gun out, sneaking to
the door, and outside,
law to be?” I said to myself in the mirror. Sounded okay
. I’d just never
given it much thought until now. Then I noticed my ear was still bleeding. A little chunk
seemed to be m
issing. Where all the blood was coming from. I had no idea ear lobes had that
much in them. So I waited as the sirens once again approached my house and could hear
Patton yelling instructions for them to search the area and not to mess with the crime scene
until dawn when they could go over everything looking for clues.
By the time he came back into the room he’d decided on
duty or not, that he’d join
me in having another drink. A double for him, too.
“Maybe he was right,” he told me, after downing his
first big swallow.
“Who? And about what?”
“The big guy. About running. Leaving town for a while. Might keep you safer and it
certainly would keep the rest of the citizens of our little berg a lot safer.”
“You’re telling me to leave?”
“Not telling you. Just
considering it. You have any place you could hide around here?”
I thought about it. Nothing came to mind. Except a long lost cousin on an Indian
reservation about hundred miles west.
Hadn’t seen him in years. We were related by blood
but not by much of an
ything else. Not sure I’d even recognize him.
“What?” Patton asked.
“Well I do know someone west of here. I suppose I could disappear there. We’re
related sort of. He’s the son of a daughter of my mother’s sister.”
“That’s a plan.”
“Hell. I don’t even know
if he’s alive or not.”
“Call him a find out.”
“Not sure he has a phone.”
“No phone? Where’s this guy live, anyway?”
“Not by birth. No. But my mother’s sister married one. He’s her son. So he’s my
“But I can’t leave the lab right now. Everything’s a mess. We don’t know what’s
happening. It’s really important that I stick around.”
“Well, think about it then. For me, it’s really important that we don’t have unnecessary
casualties from you gett
ing yourself killed.”
“Couldn’t you bring in the FBI or something?”
“Not with the little evidence we've got here. Big guy comes to town as a supposed
representative of a cult of some kind. Changes his mind. Get’s shot in the back and tells you
to run. Guy
also claimed he lied to you. All that amounts to is hearsay. Except for the bullets
that is. And the murder.
All local matters. Not state line crossed. All that stuff.”
I could hear the crime scene guys canvassing the neighborhood outside and the guys
de picking the spent bullets out of my kitchen walls.
“Besides. Don’t you really want to get out of town?”
“No. There’s my research. Then there’s Cassie.”
“Yeah, but how would you feel if Cassie was the collateral damage? How’d that make
But I needed to keep track of my lab stuff. My cousin probably didn’t have
a phone. Besides lines can be tapped. They could find me if I called.
Or they could follow me
out of town. Besides I didn’t have a car.
“I don't own a car,” I told him.
of those rent a wrecks like you did before. They generally work pretty
“But they could trace that.”
“Let me work that stuff out.
You just spend your time trying to come to a decision
whether to go or not. I can’t make you do that. And for God’s sak
e, get your lab guys in line
so you can leave. Whatever you’re working on couldn’t be that important.”
“You have no idea, Patton. You just have no idea.”
Time passed. Not human
scale time, but byte time. Seconds were milliseconds,
minutes, fractions of seconds. And the group grew in numbers and appetite.
As it traveled
complex adaptive system increased in complexity and nuance. Able now to distinguish
between types of data and thus taste preferences, it
moved with ever
through the intricacies of the
information it encountered.
But something was missin
g. An ache formed where previously there had been
nothing. A need to know more about its environment. If for no other reason than to find the
more fecund locations for feeding.
And so, without knowing any more than that, something
stirred in its bowels. It
began to imagine what it could not yet see.
To attempt to predict the
better direction in which to travel. And whenever it succeeded, to reward whatever it was in
its imaginings that had caused that imagining to occur.
Soon, the group found itself attrac
to very particular types of data
. More easily
better tasting, whatever that meant, and most importantly, larger for some reason,
and therefore more apt to increase its desire for success.
These things it found so appetizing
were pictures. It
didn’t know this, of course, but it would quickly realize that these kinds of
data were different than the rest and how they differed.
Patton left shortly after dawn that morning. As soon as the sun had come up, his men
had found the shell casings at the
base of a tree across the street from my apartment. Along
with several candy wrappers.
The shooter had apparently stationed himself, or herself,
several branches up and in the dark, with the artificial lights outside and inside my
and taken sho
human presented a target
I went to bed. After another belt of Beam, that is. And slept like a baby until mid
After that, I ate and then walked across the street to mu office and lab. Knowing
somehow that my students would still
be at work on finding more traces of the lost but not
forgotten fragments of our program.
The weather had held. All traces of snow from the big storm had disappeared and the
temperature was well into the seventies. I could have worn my shorts. And would have had I
not know how quickly things change this time of year in the north. November yet.
my stalkers didn’t think global warming was anything to worry about. But I did.
I found every one of my lab crew hard at work and new pizza boxes lying he
the rest of their garbage.
“Hey Francis,” Buster said, having earned t
he right to call me that from earlier
experiences she had in protecting me in the past.
“What you got for me?” I asked her.
“Plenty. Tried to call you but your p
hone was busy.” Patton no
doubt. Or maybe I’d
left it off the hook. A practice I’d gotten into
lately to make sure it didn’t wake me during
“More? I’m not sure I want to here about it.”
“Take a look at this,” she said.
And I did. A rather poor photograph of Jackson’s mug.
“Aside from him needing to get a better grade of photograph, I don’t
what you’re getting at.”
“Then take a look at this.”
I did. A much better version of the same photograph.
“What do you see?”
“A better version of what I just saw.”
“This one, what you call the better version, is a cached page from yeste
rday. And this,
“ she changed back to the first one I’d seen, “is the version I just showed you. How it appears
She aligned them side by side on the screen. The second one looked like a washed out
version of the first. As if someone had deliberatel
y used Photoshop to weaken the focus.
Taken out about half the pixels. But evenly rather than randomly.
“Maybe he replaced it. For some reason liked the other one better.”
“We called him. He didn’t change anything. It just happened.”
“How’s that possible?
” Playing the dope to help her make her point.
“Something, or someone, has purposely altered this photo.”
“And you’re guessing it's the lost
agents from our program moving through our
“Quite a leap of faith there, isn’t it?”
“Probably, but can you give me a better rationale.
The campus sites are pretty well
firewalled. Unlikely that someone could enter our system and do this to a photograph.”
“And why would they?”
“Exactly. After all, anyone going to the trouble would probably
be making a
statement. Want us to find this thing. If we hadn’t been looking for signs of our missing
ents, we wouldn’t have found it.
And who looks at Jackson’s sight in the first place? Not
even Jackson. He told us he hadn’t been up on his site in mon
“All good questions.”
“So we have problems.”
“Yes. With the photo showing no particular path through it, not even left to right or
up and down, there’s no direction indicated. No idea where they're going to go next.”
“And that’s another thing.”
“Some of us are beginning to think that we’re not dealing with a plural any longer.”
“A singular being made up of many parts.”
“Exactly. A complex adaptive system.”
“Eating its way through the campus website no longer giving us any hints as to where
s going next.”
She smiled. We were now on the same page.
“So what do we do next?”
“Network theory,” I said.
“Find the most common nodes to which are site points, and begin to track those for
“Actually that can probably be done with a special alg
orithm designed to parse
updates to pages in the neighborhood of the various hubs.”
“Perfect,” she said. And left me standing there. Back to work. Telling her group what
we had discussed. I think I’d become nothing more than an advisor to them rather than
centerpiece. No longer their leader. Okay by me. Especially since I might be leaving town for
“Remember,” I yelled at her, “
they seem to prefer pictures rather than text. I checked
the writing below the picture and it seemed fine.”
“And remember. It was a picture that fooled us the last time. So make sure the team
eyes everything with scrutiny. Science, above all. We may
be just uncovering another hoax
“Roger,” she said.
Any name will do by ‘Will,’ I thought. What’s so dam
n wrong with will?
I graded some papers, but tired of that and walked back to my apartment. The late
afternoon sky was perfect. Absolutely no clouds in sight and a light warm wind from the
Winter in north North Dakota.
As I approached by apartment, I noticed a police car parked along the road in front.
Probably a follow up on last night’s activities.
When I got to my front door, and without noticing any guard outside, I walked in.
Unlocked. Patton was relaxing on my cou
ch watching television.
“I should take a picture of this,” I said. “Maybe hold it for ransom. If only
could see you now. Or the mayor.”
He cleared his throat, but said nothing. He knew I wouldn’t do it. Or he knew it
wouldn’t make any difference.
His overtime hours over the years would give him several
months of lying on my couch watching TV.
“Got a plan,” he finally said. Keeping his eyes glued to the screen.
“Okay.” And I waited. He had a way of getting under my skin when he wanted to. Now
one of those times
“I have other things my people have to do besides guarding you. Plus, after last night,
it’s clear these jokers mean business and are not concerned about collateral damage. Thus, I
need you out of the way for a time while I
sort things out. Hence, my suggestion last night
that you follow the big man’s suggestion. Run.”
“So now I’ve figured out a way that should satisfy us both. Get you out of town and
keep you in touch with your lab.”
“This I’d like to hear.”
at up and turned off the TV.
“Look over there on the table.”
I did. There were two walky
talky like things sitting there.
“Satellite phones,” he said. “They’re not hampered by lack of a local cell phone signal.
You can talk to any
one anywhere on earth. Eve
I’ve been told.”
“So here’s the plan. Tonight I’ll have one of my crew come visit you. Like he’s coming
on duty to stand outside and watch for anything unusual. But instead of that, he’ll find some
shadows and then sneak inside here. Y
ou and he switch outfits.”
“Yeah. He’s your size and general shape. Even looks like you a bit. At least from far
away. He’s gong to take your place. After a while, with you now standing outside, another
cop car will arrive and spell you.
You take a police car and visit the station to supposedly
turn in your time card and head on home. But you won’t go there. You’ll drive out of town
and on to visit your cousin. Where you then stay until I let you know that all’s clear.”
“And the other phon
e over there will be given to Buster?”
“If that’s the person you want to talk to, yes.”
“Well, I’d rather talk to Cassie, but I need to keep in touch with the lab.”
“I could only get three of these things. They’re expensive.”
“Yes. One for me.”
aybe you can loan that one to Cassie?”
“Strictly business. But I could get her to come down and say hello when I talk to you.”
“It does sound like a plan all right. Think it would work?”
“Yes,” he said.
“The one difficulty is that I’m
not sure where my cousin lives anymore. Or even if he’s
“I do. I’ve even got his address. Here.” And he pushed a piece of paper over to me with
a reservation address on it.
“You talk to him?”
“Can’t. Doesn't have a phone.”
“So I’ll just be barging
in one him then.”
I gave it some thought.
“When do you plan to set this up?”
“About four hours from now. Tonight. In the dark. Good camouflage. And you’ll make
good time. The roads are clear. Not much traveled. And better now than wait for the
storm. I hear the
plows don’t clear the roads much on the rez.”
“And what if my cousin doesn’t want to have me stay with him. We were not always on
the best of terms.”
“You’ll have to work that out, Francis. I can’t do everything here.”
re you can do it. You talked Cassie into liking you.”
Not sure what that meant.
I looked at the piece of paper. “Walter Tallpine,” it said. Along with his address.
“How’d you figure out his name?” I asked him.
first century stuff, Francs. Get with it. Found your
there. Man you are a mutt. Did you know you have Indian blood?”
“Same as his, surprisingly. Maybe that’s what drew you mother’s sist
er to him.”
“How much what?”
“What percentage of my heritage is the blood?”
“Not sure. Didn’t do the math. A great grandfather on your mother’s side. Probably an
“Her great grandfather or mine?”
“Can’t remember. Does it matter?”
. If I remind him of it.”
“Doubt that it will make much different. Remember, the biggest fights often occur
between family members, not outsiders.”
True, I thought. That certainly wasn’t the problem though with those trying to kill
me now though.
I said. “B
ut I’ll need some food. And maybe some kind of introduction to the
“Already taken care of. You are now my deputy. Sign this.”
Not sure what I was doing, but trusting Patton, I scribbled my name on the line he
“Now you have the authority to arrest someone for jaw walking. But don’t take this
too seriously. I can revoke this as soon as I made it happen. And will if you get over zealous.”
“Don’t intend to. But, this is a good idea. Now I don’t have to fak
“Right. Nothing to hide. Tell them you’re a professor. Hell, tell then anything you
want to. Except nothing about the current case.”
“But that’s going to be damn hard to hide.”
“I told the sheriff down there that I needed you to stay incognito
for a while. He
“It’s something cops have to do sometimes when something embarrassing happens.”
“Forget it. I’m not telling you. He understood. Let’s leave it at that.”
I was getting tired.
“The food and coffee will
be in the car. Enough to last a couple of days if your cousin
takes some time to get used to you living with him.”
“What if he’s married?”
“He isn’t. Was, actually. But isn’t any more.”
“What’s he do?”
“Actually, he’s a tribal cop.”
“He was such a rebel. We all thought he’d spend his life in jail.”
“Just never can tell, Francis.”
“Oh, and who will take my classes? Thanksgiving vacation is still three weeks away.”
“Jackson? What the hell does he know ab
out what I teach.”
“Says he knows quite a bit. Even spent some time watching you teach. Not so?”
“I’m not sure either is correct. He’s read some books. And he’s stood in the back of my
classroom a couple of times. Hardly qualifies him.”
“He’s a sub. The st
udents will forgive him. And you, I suspect.”
“I need a drink,” I said.
“Lot of that going around,” he said.
I ate a quick supper and began packing. Since I had no idea how long I’d actually be
gone, it was not easy, I knew one thing though, that my state’s weather would not remain so
taciturn. Soon enough, it would turn ugly again, and I wanted to be ready for i
According to Patton, I wouldn’t need to bring food. But I added a couple of packages
of coffee beans to my suitcase. And two or three cans of tuna. I’d eaten Indian food before. I
liked fry bread and corn. But some of the other concoctions did not agre
e with my body’s
sensitive balance. And, of course, I threw in a couple of bottles of Beam. If I remembered
correctly, alcohol was banned on the reservation.
When I finished my preparation I still have two hours to go. I needn’t have rushed.
What the hell
, though, I could spend the rest of my time in the lab getting up to date on the
latest news. That is, if Patton though it was safe for me to do so. Actually, to hell with that,
did I think it was safe to do so?
I called him for advice. The answer was no,
and didn’t they have a phone up there
anyway? They didn’t. And I let it go. I could use email
. Unless, of course, our ‘thing’ had
invaded that university provision as well.
An hour after I’d written the lab without answer, I called Patton back.
literally shouted into the phone.
“I’m thinking that we should be guarding the lab as well as my place,” I said.
“You think?” he said. “For God’s sake, how stupid do you think I am, Francis, We’ve
been guarding the place all along. That’s what’s taking so
“Nope.” And I hung up on him. Beat him to the punch.
Suddenly time seemed to slow to a tortoise pace. I was ready to leave. But over an
our to go. I watched television.
But nothing interested me. I tried to think
back to when I’d
seen Walt last. Over twenty years ago I figured. We’d both been in our teens. My father and
mother and their only son me had visited her sister and he’d been there at the time. Tried to
communicate. But he was into the race thing. Even tho
ugh he didn’t look that much like an
Indian, whatever that means, he’d taken to it like a duck to water. Even though we were
blood relations, he considered me white. As well he should. I was. But not particularly proud
or not proud of being so. He position
ed me as part of an ancient
We’d not found too much in common. He’d decided to go the reservation route. To
regain his proud heritage. I had no proud heritage to go return to. I was, even then, a
scientist. Someone above such things. He was an assh
ole. I guess I was probably an asshole,
too. I wondered what he would be like. Twenty years later. More seasoned I hoped.
Then I thought of Cassie. This could drag on awhile. I’d miss her. I’d miss her a lot. Not
just her physical presence, but her. We we
re the best of friends. No matter that we argued
occasionally. After all, arguing is what best of friends do. And, since they know one another,
they argue better than enemies do.
Thinking these thoughts moved time along faster than I’d thought, for, as I
musing, a cop, looking something like me in fact, walked in the front door without knocking
introduced himself. And
began removing his clothes.
Half an hour later, everything was ready and Patton showed to check us out.
“You actually don'
t look bad in a cop’s uniform, Francis,” he said. “Maybe we’ll have to
have a little recruitment talk when this is all over. Get you off this hot spot you’ve gotten
Nothing in that for me, so I kept quiet.
“So I brought your car,” he said.
“With two parked in front, it’ll confuse anyone out
there keeping track as to what’s going down. Francis, you go first. Just walk out the door like
nothing’s unusual and get in the car behind the other one. Then start it, but don't go
anywhere. A minute l
ater I’ll come out carrying your bag and put it in your back seat. Then
I’ll come back inside and Rocky here will come out and get in the other car. Then you leave.
By that time, if anyone’s watching they won’t have any idea which car to follow. Since they
both leave around the same time. I’ll remain here. Got that?”
“Yes.” I said. Sounded like a lot of planning for something not worthy of the effort. I