Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Know Circuit - Chapter 17.5

Chapter 17.0

The geeks led Bridge into the Engineering Center at one of the entrances not affected by the fungus covering the tower. Through the mostly deserted parking lots and empty bike stands, into a confusing series of hallways, past classrooms, offices and labs decorated with the usual geek décor and college campus fliers, they led Bridge deeper into the complex. Up a flight of stairs, the group entered a covered walkway suspended over the street. On the other side of the walkway, the fungus grew on the interior walls, covering the hallway in shiny coal black gunk, like dark polished marble that shimmered in the cold fluorescent light. “What the fuck is that stuff?” Bridge asked, poking a finger towards it before retracting his hand in fear. “Is it safe?”

Janicki urged him onward. “It’s safe. Go ahead, touch it.” Bridge did so. It felt like a mixture of cold tar and liquorice and it oozed underneath his touch. “It’s an amazing new strain of nanotech construction material. Balfour came up with it one long crunch session. Of course, the uni wouldn’t allow us to test it on campus, but well, they’re gone now so we did. Program in your specs, stand back for a few days and it constructs things for you. It’s safe enough to be around while it does all the work, no need for costly labor and as strong as current construction materials at half the cost once we perfect the goop formula. All it needs is a power source, a rather big power source.”

Bridge marveled at the sheer naivete of these incredibly intelligent people. “Do you know how many people this would put out of work? Do you realize the kind of leg-breaking assholes in the construction industry you’d threaten if this ever went to market?”

Lydia’s earnest response was almost painfully innocent. “But those displaced workers can go on to learn a more lucrative, less labor-intensive trade. They don’t need to toil in such dangerous conditions…”

“Mmmmm, innocence, it tastes like candy. Look lady, you ever heard the expression ‘somebody’s got to dig ditches?’ Well, some people, that’s all they know and all they want to know. You think they give two fucks about improving their education? They want their GlobalNet titties, they want their reality vids, they want to drink and fuck themselves into a stupor every night until the day they die with as little hassle as possible.”

Lydia huffed. “I fail to see why we should retard human progress because some humans are lazy, lice-picking monkeys.” She turned quickly on her heels and continued on down the corridor.

“Because those lice-picking monkeys will burn your fucking house down,” Bridge yelled at her retreating back. Janicki smirked with cold humor and followed her.

As they penetrated further into the areas of the complex affected by the nanotech constructors, Bridge began to notice the thrumming hum of electricity. It grew in intensity until his fillings practically vibrated. It was as if the very air was supercharged with electricity, the constructors’ power needs so great they created a web of static charge that made his interface jack tingle. Finally, they reached a set of double doors and pushed through into a lab unlike anything Bridge had ever seen.

The room he entered had originally been very large but these geeks’ experiments with nano-constructors had made it cavernous. The lab was constructed as two interlocking rings. The outer ring was a series of workstations, crèches, and white boards. A barrier of transparent safety glass walls protected the outer ring from the machinery of the inner ring, which was full of robotic arms, worktables, assemblers, laser mechanisms and other machinery Bridge couldn’t identify. At one point in the near past, however, the roof had been destroyed. The nano-constructors were hard at work stabilizing and restructuring a new internal configuration. Where there had been at least three floors above this lab, now there was only a metallic silo reaching to the sky. That silo was filled with light, the shimmering light Bridge had seen rising from the tower to feed the dome. The shaft of light terminated in a machine about six feet tall by ten feet wide in the center of the inner lab. The machine was lined with glowing circuits and capacitors and appeared to have no moving external parts whatsoever. Oblivious to the marvel glowing behind him, another scientist toiled at one of the worktables on the far side of the machine.

Standing barely five foot eight, the scientist was balding, his shiny scalp showing through a halo of graying brown hair. Dressed in a lab coat with goggles reflecting the sparks his experiment produced, he waved his empty hands in the air as if working with invisible tools, manipulating the robotic arms of a constructor just as Wong had controlled his football players. “Mark,” Lydia shouted across the room. The man jumped as if shocked and stopped working.

“Oh, didn’t see you there,” he muttered. “Is this him?” He threw off his goggles excitedly and ran over to greet Bridge.

“Yes, Mark Balfour… excuse me, DR. Mark Balfour,” Lydia began. Balfour waved away the honorific with an irritated gesture. “Meet Artemis Bridge. He likes to be called Bridge. No Mister.”

Balfour reached out both his hands to give Bridge a handshake which Bridge clumsily refused. “Sorry, don’t do handshakes. Germs, nanoviruses, never know what somebody’s going to give you.”

“Nonsense, these things are sterile as a surgeon’s scalpel.” He held up his hands, both of which glimmered in the light, their metallic surfaces as smooth and shiny as any cybernetic limbs Bridge had ever seen. Though mildly insulted, Balfour accepted Bridge’s phobia. “Fair enough, then. I’m glad to finally meet you. I’ve heard a great deal about you.”

Bridge’s eyes narrowed into a suspicious squint. “From who? Who the hell told you about me?”
Balfour seemed to ignore the question momentarily. “Forgive our manners. Tea? Coffee? I’m sure you must be parched after walking all that way to get here.” When Bridge refused, he prattled on. “We have a mutual friend, Mr. Bridge. I’m sure you are familiar with Michael Freeman?”

Bridge scowled. “Freeman. That shut-in gave you my name?”

Balfour nodded. “Yes, Michael was kind enough to provide me with a full accounting of your services. He’s quite impressed with your ability to… bullshit shall we say?”

“Yeah, I bet he is.” Freeman was the god of hackers, a world-class GlobalNet runner of exemplary skills. He had saved both Bridge’s and Angela’s lives during the election fiasco, providing the leverage Bridge needed to escape from a no-win situation. Freeman wasn’t just an accomplished credcrasher, information thief and all-around security expert, he was an interplanetary genius. Despite his past and present illegal activities, he worked for Chronosoft in Los Angeles. Bridge wasn’t exactly sure what parts of the corporation’s operations he didn’t have a hand in. Bridge also wasn’t sure when or if Freeman ever slept because he’d work just as tirelessly on his freelance projects outside of work as he did anything during office hours. And because Freeman had done Bridge such a huge solid before, Bridge was now stuck in this mess. He cursed the hacker silently. “How do you know Freeman?”

“Michael was a student of mine at UCLA years ago. We kept in touch. I’ve been known to get his thoughts on a few thorny problems. He has an absolutely breathtaking ability to analyze systems and point out the flaws, even in areas he’s not well-versed in. I’m hesitant to name him a super-genius, but he would certainly qualify. I think he’s a mutant, personally, a once in a generation evolutionary marvel with astounding mental capabilities. Why he spends his time working for those corporate bloodsuckers, I'll never know.” He walked over to a coffee maker and poured a cup. “You sure I can’t offer you a cup? It’s Blue Mountain.”

The smell of the coffee was intoxicating and Bridge relented. “Yeah, I’ll take a cup. I could use the pick-me-up.” Bridge took the cup in both hands, barely allowing it to cool before sipping at it.

Balfour seemed to finally realize someone was missing. “Where are Wong and Rolfsberg?”

Lydia started down at her feet. “There was an… incident.”

“Incident? Somebody got dead and that’s what you call it, an incident?” Bridge fumed.

Balfour’s raised an eyebrow, but seemed otherwise unconcerned. “Dead? Who’s dead? Wong?”
Lydia shook her head. “No. Rolfsberg instigated a showdown with Wong. Wong didn’t back down and they fought. Wong won.”

“He dominated, you mean,” Janicki said with an unsettling glee. He held up the melted cyberarm. “This is all that’s left of that cocksucker.”

Balfour grabbed the arm and began to examine it intently. “Impressive. Nothing else left? Everything ashed?” Janicki nodded with an irksome smile. Bridge had always considered himself cold-hearted, but Janicki and Balfour seemed to have no remorse about the death of their colleague. “The energy conversion rate is even greater than I’d calculated. That explains why our first large scale conversion was so explosive. Rolfsberg’s math was dangerously inaccurate.”

Bridge shouted angrily, “Your buddy got toasted and all you’re concerned about is his bad math? You geeks are amazing!”

Lydia put a hand on Bridge’s arm. He yanked it away angrily. “No, seriously, you’re sitting in a ghost town talking about the temperature required to ash human bone like you’re discussing what to have for lunch. Is not one of you concerned that there are thousands of ghosts running around this place and the National Guard is outside your doorstep and your buddy Carl is out there showing off as a flame dragon? Do you not think they’ll come kicking down your door any minute now? Or that somehow I’ve been in this place like two hours and it’s gone from morning to night in that time?”

Balfour shot a puzzled glance at Lydia. She nodded. “The temporal distortion we’d been observing is accelerating. Bridge says that Carl was alive three hours ago.”

“Hrmmm. Mr. Bridge, how long has it been since we contacted you?”

Bridge totaled up the days in his head. “Five days. Maybe six by now, I’ve lost track. It was dead of night when I was on the other side of the dome, and daylight when I got to this side. How’s that work?”

“I’ll try to explain this so a layman can understand,” Balfour began, with the tone of an exasperated parent talking to a thick-headed child. “Our experiments had a certain side effect, one not entirely unanticipated. This dome has sort of shifted us in time, as it were.” Seeing Bridge’s confusion, he continued to elaborate. “You perceive time as a straight line, an unalterable path from here to here, or more accurately from then to now. The value of that time is always constant, can always be expressed as X, correct? But really, the value of that X is only a perceived value based upon our limited consciousness, our restricted ability to see in only three dimensions. The altered dimensional vibrations we’ve created to amplify our original energy source so as to create enough power to generate and maintain the dome has altered the value of X, at least from our three-dimensional perceptions. Maybe X squared, cubed? I’m not entirely sure. I’ll have to run some calculations.” Balfour ran over to one of the workstations on the outer ring, his attention diverted from Bridge almost completely. He muttered as he worked. “In essence, your perception of the passage of time while within the dome appears as constant as it does outside the dome. But in actuality you are moving along the time path at a much slower rate than normal. Your mind creates the illusion that time is moving at the same rate you’ve always experienced because it cannot process the distortion.”

Bridge shook his head as if he’d been slapped. “You’re not making sense, Poindexter.”

Janicki grunted. “Time moves slower in here than out there. What’s been five or six days for you has been over two weeks for us in here. Your two hours in the dome has been a full day.”

“Right. And you say you spoke to Carl mere hours ago?”

Bridge nodded. Balfour continued to tap numbers into a terminal while talking to Bridge. “We received a message from him days ago saying he’d been attacked by the National Guard, and then nothing since. But perhaps what we received was not a message from our current point on the time path but one further up the path?”

“The future? You’re saying he spoke to you from the future? Does that make this the past? Oh shit, my head hurts.”

“I’ll have to do some more calculations to be sure, but yes, that’s entirely possible. And if we haven’t perceived that event on the time path outside of the dome yet, it’s possible when we leave the altered time path within the dome we could actually be on the path before said event occurs. We could change that future.”

Bridge slammed his coffee cup down. “Ok, that’s it. I don’t know what the fuck you guys are talking about, but I have had enough of this shit. You owe me an explanation. A clear, linear explanation. Start from the beginning and bring me up to speed assuming I know bupkiss. Assume I am a complete dumbass. Use the goddamn white board if you need to map it out for me. But please, explain to me what you did and what you expect me to do. Because right now, I’m ready to just leave you geeks here and head the fuck back to L.A. and let you fend for yourselves. Got it?”

If Balfour was insulted by Bridge’s anger, he didn’t show it. “Certainly, Mr. Bridge. It all started a year ago.”

Go to Interlude - Mark Balfour - Part 1.0

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