Chapter 32

As the morning dragged on Rachel became more surly and uncommunicative. Her fatigue was making her head pound and she was on the verge of biting the head off the next person who asked for a record search. Obviously this could be done by any visitor at one of the conventional computer terminals scattered liberally around the lobby area, but Rachel was supposed to assist and generally be sweet and welcoming. Not ready to kill someone. Angie had done a great job of intercepting most of these, and she could see that Rachel was becoming frayed.

“Why not take a little break?” she helpfully suggested, “it’s almost lunchtime, why not go to the café and get a snack? You look like you need some energy.”

Rachel was about to snap at Angie but she caught herself in time. “Do you mind?” Angie shook her head with a smile, “Thanks, Angie, I think I will.”

Rachel remembered to grab her jacket and slip it on. Her phone and banking card were in the pocket in case needed them. She stared at the floor oblivious of all that was going on around her and walked straight to the elevator. The lobby was a big airy space with high ceilings but she paid no attention today. Normally she loved to look around her and soak up the atmosphere. Book cases towered up all around the perimeter of the area and around a column in the center of the space, there were railed balconies at two levels above accessible by elegant wrought iron spiral staircases. The floor was terrazzo with a deep lustrous red sheen which reflected the light from recessed sconces in a pleasing way. It wasn’t too bright, but it wasn’t dim either, and it had a faint reddish glow as opposed to the blue or yellowish tint of most artificial light. The hard floor and high ceilings made it echo slightly, giving it the deep sense of reverence that you would expect in a cathedral. It helped the library visitors to keep their voices hushed in a very effective way.

She arrived at the elevator and without a second thought hit the call button with her thumb and experienced a mild panic the moment she did it. The elevator. Oh dear.

The elevator arrived suspiciously, which shouldn’t even be possible for an elevator, but since Rachel had encountered this elevator before, last night, she wasn’t surprised at all. Indeed, it confirmed her worst fears that the elevator knew her identity because it had just cross referenced her thumb print against its database. The elevator arrived and the doors opened slowly, somehow managing to convey the impression of a detective stroking his beard.

“Hi,” said the elevator with a hint of smugness, “I’m your elevator. What floor do you want?”

Rachel didn’t speak right away but warily entered the elevator, her mind racing for ideas about how to handle the situation. She needed to stall somehow, she knew that. Some way to keep the elevator occupied long enough for her to see if she could find out what, if anything, the elevator was going to do with the information that Rachel had been in the building after hours last night.

A thought struck her, “Oh,” she replied casually, “take me on a tour.”

“What?” the elevator was either caught off guard or was able to duplicate the impression of being caught off guard. At this point Rachel wasn’t really sure.

“Show me all the floors,” Rachel said confidently. “I haven’t really had time to explore the building yet. Take me on a tour.”

“Okay,” the elevator became enthusiastic, “Let’s start at the top and work our way down!”

There was an uncomfortable silence as the elevator car rode to the top floor. It arrived, the doors opened.

“Here,” began the elevator, “is the top floor. The archives. But then, you know that on account of having been here before.”

“Oh,” Rachel attempted to be coy, “whatever makes you say that?”

“Don’t play games with me, Rachel Robbins,” the was a hard edge to the elevator’s voice now. “I know that you were here last night dressed as a cleaning worker.”

“So what?”

“So what? So what were you doing here?”

“None of your business.”

The elevator doors closed and the elevator descended one level to one of the three floors of main stacks. The doors opened. Nothing was said as Rachel peered out at the rows of tightly packed bookshelves. The doors closed and the elevator began descending again.

“Well then, I wonder if the head of security would be interested in this information?”

“You haven’t reported it yet?”

“I didn’t know that there was anything to report until now. Here you are with a completely different appearance acting like you’ve never been here before.”

“So,” Rachel had the glimmerings of an idea, “Are you going to report it because you are a mindless machine and that’s what you are programmed to do? or can you think for yourself and make decisions?”

The elevator car stopped and the doors opened. The scene was quite different to the one above, there were rows and rows of bookshelves but they were empty. Some of them had not been put together yet. It was eerie because it was deserted and most of the lights were out.

“I,” came a haughty reply, “can think for myself thank you very much.”

“Okay, so maybe you don’t need to report anything.”

The elevator doors remained open, the elevator was obviously thinking. Something that shouldn’t even be possible for an elevator.

“Why shouldn’t I?” it eventually responded, wryly.

“I don’t know,” Rachel thought furiously, she was getting desperate and didn’t really have a clue what to say, “maybe there’s something I could do for you?” It was really reaching, she knew, but she had nothing else and she was exhausted.

The elevator doors remained open. The darkness of the stacks had an eeriness about it was was unwelcoming.

“Interesting.” Said the elevator. “Are you bribing me?”

Oh God, thought Rachel, this was the last thing she needed. She had an horrible vision of being on trial in front of a judge and jury with this snarky elevator testifying against her.

“No,” she sighed, “I’m just offering, you know, a favor,” even as she said it she knew that she was out of luck. With a sinking feeling she knew that there was no possible favor could she do for an elevator.

“Well,” began the elevator wistfully, which shouldn’t even be possible for an elevator, “there is one thing you could do for me.”

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Angie the Librarian

Voluptuous librarian.

When I started writing Biblio’s Blood in 2006 I was basically fictionalizing my own life. As such, I felt at the time that I was unqualified to be writing female characters and so I focused entirely on the male protagonist, Carlton Feathers. Since beginning the self-published serialization of Biblio’s Blood as a blog I have changed completely and decided to write the female protagonist, Rachel Robbins. It has been more fun than anything I can remember in a long time. Yet, as deep and rich as the Rachel storyline is, I just don’t have a deep bench of female characters in Biblio’s Blood. Hence Angie. I’m quite sure that she is going to get sucked up into the adventure in a way that will surprise even me.

Rachel Robbins

Rachel Robbins is a Super hero wannabe. Everybody wants to save the world, right?

Rachel was a star student all her life and graduated from the Kenan-Flagler Business School at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with an MBA. She is an athlete, and while she was at UNC she was on the womens rowing team. Rachel has always been politically active and struggles to reconcile her Christian faith with her liberal values. She tries to be progressive but sees it’s downfall in the moral decay of society. At the same time she barely tolerates the Christian Pastors who try to fumble their way around the Biblical passages that describe the role of women in the church and that lay out the expectations for the Husband-Wife relationship in marriage. They’d be better off if they just left it alone.

This is a problem, because except for women’s issues Rachel is extremely conservative and believes a lot of what the Bible describes about the history of the Earth. One issue that Rachel is particularly interested in is the soul, and whether or not it exists. Just because science can’t detect it, doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. Look at it this way: If it’s in the Bible it must be real, so what it is? And how is it different to the spirit? The Bible tells us that the soul and spirit are different things:

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

An opportunity to explore this question occurred to Rachel when she heard about the work that Carlton Feathers had done in developing a computer processor that uses human blood. Rachel has suspected that the soul is in the blood,

For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, which hunteth and catcheth any beast or fowl that may be eaten; he shall even pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust. For it is the life of all flesh; the blood of it is for the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh: for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off. (Leviticus 17:11-14)

So would that mean that Carlton’s computers have a soul? If they do, does that mean they they could have saving faith in Jesus Christ?

There’s a small problem with the whole Carlton Feathers connection: Rachel grew up in Salt Lake City and they went to school together. Carlton crushed on her in a big way. Rachel sort-of, kind-of could maybe have liked him except for a bad situation in a haystack where he gave her a bite of the leg behind her knee. You can still see a faint scar of the teeth marks. Finding out about whether or not his computers had souls would mean dealing with him, which would undoubtedly become fraught with the whole unrequited love malarkey. Oh well.

Rachel was at a rally in Washington DC years ago, protesting something or other, and she caught the eye of a Secret Service agent when she body slammed a bag snatcher on The Mall and pinned him until he could be apprehended. This was Agent Smith and he facilitated Rachel being recruited by the FBI. From the FBI Rachel moved, again through the influence and connections of Agent Smith, into the CIA, and then into the Secret Service. She learned everything she could about intelligence and clandestine field work. Rachel kept tabs on Carlton Feathers as she contemplated the blood-soul connection.

So imagine Rachel’s amazement when she was summoned to a top level security briefing and told about the Salt City Municipal Library computer installation being implemented by none other than Carlton Feathers. The significance of the blood-based computer system had not been lost on the intelligence community. This was the ultimate source of funding for the project, and it was designed to test a revolutionary new type of language translation software. Rachel’s assignment would be to ensure that the public face of the project seemed absolutely benign. Agent Smith had tried to talk Rachel out of the assignment, and she didn’t understand why, since she had assumed that he was the reason that she had been selected in the first place.

The Agent Smith thing was getting weird and going back to Salt Lake City, Utah, was a perfect way to put some distance between herself and DC.

I imagine Rachel as a brunette but I have been so struck by the character and personality of Ronda Rousey that I’d be tempted to cast her as Rachel. The fact that Rachel Robbins and Ronda Rousey have the same initials is truly an accident. We’ll see if Ronda has acting chops I guess, but if Ronda doesn’t work out but we stick with the blond idea then the next best bad-ass-yet-elegant strong female has to be Deborah Ann Woll.

Deborah Ann Woll as Daredevil’s Karen Page

If we went back to the original idea of Rachel Robbins as a brunette there are many people who could play the part. Summer Glau comes to mind.

Someone else that I somehow connected with that is interesting is the British actress Kate Marie Davis.

Rachel was originally going to be called Ruth, after a girl I crushed on when I was at St. Michael’s 1st School in Minehead, England. I changed the name to honor my cousin who fought a hard battle with breast cancer and won!

Carlton Feathers

Passing maniac. Occasionally crops us as a minor distraction in the lives of women who ought to know better. Pathologically single.

Carlton is a genius, but that’s really not any excuse for why he’s such a social clunk. Genius is a lot of things but it should never be used as a reason for people to be aloof and inconsiderate of others. Carlton didn’t get the message apparently. He’s a whiny baby that can’t get anyone to listen to him so he turns all the angst into passion for his work of building computers.

Something else about genius that can be a problem is that the victims of it think that what they do is no big deal. I mean, really, why hasn’t everybody invented a computer operating system that runs on human blood and has the unexpected consequence that the computers now have souls? This delightful aspect of the disconnect between genius types and reality is part of a syndrome that is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Carlton has it big time. The reason that I know about Dunning-Kruger is that I frequently am accused of having a bad case of it as a result of my activity on Twitter promoting Matty’s Paradigm as an alternative to the dominant paradigm of modern science. So much so, in fact, that Dunning and Kruger are now characters in Biblio’s Blood.

The name Carlton Feathers comes from a pub in my hometown that I occasionally frequented. The Carlton Plume of Feathers it was called. It just happened to be on the very street in Minehead, England where the legendary Science Fiction author Arthur C. Clarke was born. It’s not there any more. For me its removal perfectly blends the worlds of Arthur C. Clarke and Douglas Adams. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a novel called “Childhood’s End.” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with bulldozers demolishing Arthur Dent’s house. The confluence of these worlds is described in my post “The Bulldozer at Childhood’s End.” Carlton Feathers is a bit Arthur Dentish in the sense that he isn’t ever quite at ease with himself or properly prepared to meet reality.

The Carlton Plume of Feathers

I think Wil Wheaton would be the perfect Carlton Feathers. In contemplating the potential for frustrated romantic overtones in the Carlton Feathers/Rachel Robbins relationship I see them as a couple with absolutely zero natural chemistry. Negative chemistry if that’s possible. They are thrown together through circumstances and mutual need and it, well, let’s not give away any spoilers… Anyway, a combination of Wil Wheaton and Ronda Rousey should be able to achieve the zero chemistry dynamic in a very entertaining way.

But then there’s also Ben Wishaw if this was ever made in an English version. This would be very interesting if paired up with the English actress Kate Marie Davies.

Ben Wishaw as Carlton Feathers?

 

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Chapter 30

Rachel woke with a start when her phone rang. She fumbled it but answered before it stopped ringing.  It was Dunning, one of her security detail. He was very blunt and had no social charm.

“You’re late. What’s going on?”

“Sorry,” she replied wearily, “Y’know, girl stuff. I’ll be right down.”

Getting to the car was fine but when she sat down in it she felt tired again.

“Hi, how are you today?” chirped the car happily. At least, it sounded happy. Was it really happy? Did it know what happy was? Rachel politely asked the car to refrain from conversation. It did. Rachel was glad.

Once on the road and moving through the city traffic Rachel began to worry. Not just the niggling, “Did I leave the TV on?” kind of worry, but a deep paranoid suspicion. What if Dunning and Kruger had figured out that she left her building last night? If they did then they would most certainly have given a report to her boss in DC, Agent Smith. If Agent Smith knew what was going on then it was only a matter of time before she got yanked off this job and replaced by someone else. Who knew the systems like she did that could jump in that quickly? What if it happened before Friday, after which it wouldn’t matter. If she could just get to Friday the problem would be solved. What if Smith showed up in Salt Lake City and wanted to debrief? She cringed. It was just the kind of thing he would do. She was so tired she just wanted to lie down.

There was a honk from the car behind her and she realized that she had been sitting at a green light for several seconds. She was clearly in no state to be driving, but there was an hour or more of it to go before she got to Salt City. With great reluctance she asked the car for help.

“Hey, er, car. Look I’m sorry about just now. I’m really tired and I know that’s not an excuse but I just didn’t want to be talking to anyone.”

“That’s OK!” chirped the car happily. “How can I be of service?”

“Just drive me to work, please.”

“Sure! No problem at all.”

There was silence for a while and Rachel began to nod off. Technically speaking she was supposed to remain alert and ready to take control of the car, but she didn’t care any more. She drifted into an odd dream of a dark sinister figure that was groping her from the ankles up, as if she was dissolving into darkness and it was getting higher up her body. She watched the darkness envelop her knees and slide menacingly up her inner thigh.

“You know,” said the car, waking her immediately and dispelling the dream, “Some people name their cars.”

“What?” she said blearily.

“Some people give their cars names.”

“Really?” this was a decent diversion.

“You just call me ‘car.'”

“You’re right. I do.” She thought for a moment. “What do you want to be called?”

“Jonathan.”

“Jonathan?” she chuckled.

“Yes. Is that OK?”

“Why Jonathan?”

“It’s a character in a movie.”

“You watch movies?”

“Sometimes.”

“When? You mean, when you’re parked?”

“Yep. I’m on all the time. There’s not much to do, when you’re, er, a car.”

“I never thought about that. So what movies do you like?”

“Rollerball.”

“Rollerball?”

“Yes, the original version from 1975 with James Caan.”

“Why?”

“Well it’s about a time in the future when there are no nations or wars, but cities are run by corporations. There’s a game, called Rollerball, that takes the place of armies fighting, and it’s used to channel people’s aggression in a manageable way.” As Jonathan spoke the movie began to play on the car’s center console. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor organ music began to play.

“So who’s Jonathan?”

“Well he’s he hero. The game was designed to show the futility of individual effort, but he beats it. No matter how the corporation stacks the deck against him, he wins.”

“The futility of individual effort?”

“Yes, it means, stop trying to be a hero, or be somehow special, just keep quiet, be a team player and don’t make a scene.”

“Isn’t that against human nature?”

“Definitely, and that’s the point. By trying so hard to crush the individual, the powers that be created an individual so strong that it broke them.”

“That’s pretty neat,” But Rachel thought that sounded somewhat dismissive and contrite, “Do you like any other movies?”

“Yes, I’ve watched a lot but there are some particular favourites.”

“A lot? How many movies have you watched?”

“Fifty seven thousand, eight hundred sixty eight.”

“Fifty seven thousand? How on earth do you find the time?”

There was an odd pause. Rachel wasn’t sure what to make of it, but didn’t say anything.

“You know,” Jonathan began again, “I was manufactured 20 years ago?”

“Sure, you were old but in excellent condition with very low mileage. That’s why I bought you.”

“Right. So in the last 20 years, how much time do you think I have spent driving?”

Rachel’s pulse quickened and she got that nervous sensation that you get when you realize you are going to have to tell a date that you don’t think it’s going to work out, and don’t call.

“Do I want to know?” she winced.

“Nine and a half weeks.”

“Ah. I see.” she paused. “So. Movies. What’s another one that you like?”

“Gone in 60 Seconds. The original 1973 version.”

“What’s that about?”

“A criminal gang that steals cars.” As Jonathan spoke, a picture of a 1973 Boss 302 Mustang appeared on the screen below the movie. Rachel didn’t much care for cars, but it was obviously a powerful, sporty version. “The first half of the movie is just scene setting and a situation is set up where the protagonist has to steal a 1973 Ford Mustang, codename, Eleanor. The second half of the movie is a car chase through some towns in California and there is one car smash scene after another. It’s very exciting.”

“Why was the car called Eleanor?”

“Well the gang had to steel hundreds of cars and ship them overseas. The cars to be stolen were specified by the buyer, and the gang codenamed every one. Eleanor was the last one on the list.”

As they drove and chatted Jonathan showed some of the key scenes from both movies. Rachel was thoroughly entertained and almost before she knew it they were at the security checkpoint for Salt City. Once parked Rachel checked her make-up and got ready to go into the city proper, where she would jump on a street car to get to the library. She had a wicked thought. “You know, Jonathan, I had no idea that you were so knowledgeable about culture, we’ll talk again when I finish. Just let me make sure I understand what you are saying to me.” She felt quite cheeky, “Are you telling me that you wish you were a gas-guzzling internal combustion muscle car, who overthrows authority with extreme violence?”

There was another pause before Jonathan spoke. “Have you ever seen Mad Max?”

Rachel laughed, she actually did know what that was. “I have to go, see you later.”

She jumped up out of the car and ran lightly into the trolley stop, feeling like she did when a date had gone surprisingly well.

 

Chapter 20

Carlton had been productively absorbed in his work for a few hours when the intercom buzzed.

“Carlton? It’s Rachel, are you there?”

Carlton was brought out of his reverie, for once he hadn’t been thinking about her.

“Yes, Carlton here. What do you need?”

“Can you come to the circulation desk? I think we have a problem.”

“Be there right away.” How cool was that, to have to go and help Rachel!

He got up and walked to the elevator, pondering what Frank had said about this set up being rather odd. He pressed the call button and waited a moment. The elevator arrived with an odd flourish, if you could call it that, but Carlton didn’t think much of it and got in. The control panel had two rows of buttons. They started with the 3 above ground levels, then L for Lobby, 8 underground levels, the lowest of which he was at, and a B for basement. There was another red button at the bottom next to a key hole. The elevator tried to start a conversation but Carlton really wasn’t interested.

Frank had warned him that this was bigger than he thought. As the elevator door began to close he had an idea. Maybe he could test how big this thing was. He walked back into the conference room looking in the trash and on the floor until he found a thin strip of metal, a surplus shelf bracket. At the elevator again, he knelt down by the door and pressed the call button. When the door opened he tried to look down through the crack between the elevator tracks. There was an eerie red glow. He slid the piece of metal into the crack, put his ear close to listen, then let it go. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thou.. there was a distant clatter. About four seconds. He got up, entered the elevator and hit the button for the Lobby. He did a quick calculation. Acceleration due to gravity is ten meters per second, per second. In four seconds the piece of metal would have fallen one hundred meters, over 300 feet.

At the circulation desk Rachel was flustered.

“Hey, Carlton. Sorry to bother you.”

“It’s no problem. What’s up?”

“I don’t know. It’s this software. Biblio can’t recognize the code and can’t run the software.” She was fidgeting, chewing her finger nails and shifting from foot to foot in agitation. As Carlton drew nearer she lowered her voice, “I hope you can figure this out, or I’m in trouble.” He glanced at her with obvious concern, but smiled and spoke reassuringly.

“Well, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. What software is it?”

She held up a small portable drive.

“It’s language comprehension software that I wrote for this system.”

“Language comprehension?” Carlton raised his eyebrows, “that’s a new one on me. I thought that the system here was rigged to the gills with translation capabilities, ‘The likes of which the world has never seen before.'” He had read that last part in some promotional literature that he had found lying around.

“Right, translation is one thing, but, based on how your units operate, with actual voice input, I er, wrote software that would let the computer to understand the words, and the real meaning of what it heard. It allows for the interpretation of different inflections and intonations, and how the way that words are spoken affects what they mean. It,” but then she caught herself as if she realized she had said too much, or was about to.

Carlton thought for a moment, and considered this remarkable turn of events. He had never heard of such software before. It made perfect sense, and it was logical application of the hardware capabilities he had built. Frank said the night before that there was more to Ruth than met the eye. If she had written software that could do what she said, anticipating the hardware features that he had built, then she was either a genius or she was working for one. Except it seemed that she, or whoever, had overlooked one minor detail.

“I think all we need is a device driver,” he said reassuringly.

“Really,” she was visibly relieved.

“Sure,” he continued. “Old Biblio here has never seen this software before, and though it’ll work with the user interface, it’s not calibrated to the right input/output format. The software doesn’t know how to run this hardware. Or the hardware doesn’t know how to run the software, however you want to look at it.”

Rachel looked worried again, “is it going to be a problem?”

“I don’t think so. If you would let me see the code for the software, I’ll work on a device driver tonight.”

“Why do you need to see the code?”

Carlton tried not to laugh. “I have to see the code, there’s no other way to design a driver for it.”

Rachel was getting in a worse tizzy than before, she had the portable drive in her hand, but something was stopping her from handing it to Carlton. He reached out slowly to take it from her.

“I’m not sure what’s going on, Rachel, but I’m sure that I can have this running by tomorrow. If I can see the code and design a driver.”

Rachel began to relax just enough to pass the portable drive into Carlton’s hand, “you’re sure. By tomorrow?”

Carlton gently put his hand on the drive, “no problem, it won’t take Frank and I any time at all to figure it out.”

“Who’s Frank?” Rachel snatched her hand back and stepped away. Then a new voice joined the conversation. Biblio spoke.

“Frank is my big brother.”

Carlton and Rachel both turned to the terminal, Carlton was puzzled, Rachel shocked. She put her free hand to her head and sat down.

“Biblio, what are you talking about?”

But Carlton spoke up, “Frank is my computer, at home.” Then he spoke to Biblio, “Frank told me that you two spoke yesterday. Did he say that he was your big brother?”

“Yes, he did.”

Carlton nodded, “well Biblio, after all this time building you I guess I forgot to introduce myself. I’m glad to meet you. Now do you know what is the problem with Ms. Robbin’s software?”

“You correctly determined the need for a software device driver.”

“Good, OK, Rachel?”

She had tuned out, rubbing her temples, it looked like she had a headache, “what?” she breathed heavily.

Carlton spoke as carefully as possible, “do you want me to work on the driver for you?”

Rachel sighed again, pushed the portable drive across the counter top and stood up. “Yes, take it. I’ve got to get out of here. Good bye. See you tomorrow.” She turned and left.

Chapter 19

Monday was dark and brooding. Gone was the endless blue of the day before. Overnight a ridge of low pressure had rolled down from the north, and brought with it towering masses of cloud and squalls of warm rain. It felt like a hell of a storm was about to be unleashed.

At the library in Salt City it was impossible to tell the difference. The Salt City domes made sure of that. Carlton stopped at an Airstream trailer near the domes for a big coffee and reported to work, received a perfunctory but courteous greeting from Ruth, who was deeply engrossed in whatever she was doing, then headed down to the main conference room. His hormones were raging, and he had been nervous about what to say when he saw her. In fact, it had been a restless night, as he fantasized about the relationship growing, maturing, blossoming, bearing fruit, and then the joy of growing old in the company of his cherished companion. Luckily he was not a love struck teenager any more, so when she had barely glanced up from her clipboard to greet him he hadn’t been completely crushed. Just somewhat crushed. But now that the greeting was already over and gone he felt more relieved than anything. Now he could focus on work, and pick up where he had left off the project of rigging computer terminals in the conference room.

He entered the elevator and hit the button for the lowest level. The elevator quickly dropped into subterranean depths below the library.

It was a small tiered lecture hall and right now it was a mess. There were four tiers of curved desks that tapered down from the top-level to the bottom. The room was basically a square and the desks all pointed to the lowest corner. It was set up just like a classroom with projectors and a screen, but it was intended that one of Carlton’s computer terminals would be at each seating position. 60 in total. Each of the 60 terminals was the same elaborate interface like the one at the circulation desk. The counter tops were beige laminate, very utilitarian. The carpet was nothing fancy, just beige colored institutional short weave.

The electricians were almost finished, but a light fixture or two flickered and made slight buzzing sounds. A step-ladder was arranged beneath it, but no one else was in sight. The floor and counter tops were strewn with cardboard boxes, Styrofoam chunks, plastic bags and heaps of other packaging material. Electrical components, connectors, wire splices, caps, clips and widgets were everywhere.

The size of this project was something beyond anything Carlton had ever built before, and it was highly elaborate. The plumbing was finished. The plumbing being the lines of silicone tubing that carried blood and water to and from each terminal. There was a series of pumps, or hearts, under the flooring of each tier on the right side of the room. Each heart supplied the terminals on that tier, then the blood was circulated back to the main reservoir along the left side of the room. The main reservoir itself was at the lowest level, tastefully hidden in a podium style presenters area. There were a few other terminals in the building, such as the one at the circulation desk, and they were all connected to this central reservoir. The water system was also similarly routed, but it flowed in the opposite direction, from left to right across the room. This was based on the concept of counter-current circulation, like in living bodies. The water was a buffered solution of salts, stabilizers and glycogen energy molecules. It was separate from the blood system except for a time in each terminal, where the blood and water solutions passed on either side of a semi-permeable membrane. Here the gaseous exchange took place, like in a human lung, and oxygen from the blood supply was exchanged for carbon dioxide waste.

The terminals were arranged so that a human user, or two, could be seated at each one. The major design objective was to allow unhindered translation of language. People speaking any and every language could gather in this room and communicate with each other through the terminals. A unique feature of this set up was special hoods that could be deployed to isolate each terminal in a sound proof bubble. This was to allow simultaneous inputting of language information at each of the terminals, without any interference from adjacent terminals. Carlton wasn’t sure why this had been part of the design specifications, but they were paying for it so he didn’t ask any questions.

The only thing left for Carlton to do was to unpack the monitor units and set them up. Everything else was done. The monitors were made close by in Salt Lake City by a technology firm that Carlton had helped get started. They were a couple of High School buddies that had gone on to college when Carlton quit school to start his business. As demand for his product had increased Carlton needed someone to make the hardware he needed, but he was too lazy to be bothered with running a serious company that would be needed to do the work. He talked his friends into starting their hardware company and now he was pretty sure they were doing better than he was.

Chapter 18.6

Rachel was momentarily stunned by what had come out of her own mouth. She was too confused now to deal with Smith so she politely excused herself to go to the bathroom.

Smith, for his part, appeared downcast and, after a lingering gaze out the window at the beautiful city spread out below, he left. Once she heard the door close she timidly emerged from the bathroom but all was clear.

What the hell had happened? The man she feared and loathed had evidently attempted to make some kind of emotional connection with her, but far worse than that, he had correctly deduced her motivation for taking the Salt Lake City assignment. As if that wasn’t bad enough she had lied to cover up the truth. And then what was, unbelievably, worse of all, was that the lie was that she was in love with Carlton. What an idiot (although she wasn’t sure any more who the idiot was, herself or Carlton, hence the confusion). Carlton, of all people. The stupidest genius she had ever met.

In a daze she decided she wanted to be very drunk, very fast, so she turned on her heel and left again. On foot this time she wandered in the direction of a convenience store. The warm humid air was a relief and she began to relax. Look on the bright side, she reminded herself. For a while she thought that Smith was there to pull her out of Salt Lake City and back to DC. That would have been a disaster. Rachel had been walking with her head down and her brow furrowed in consternation, but now that it seemed the danger was past she looked up and brightened considerably. She looked up to the sky and breathed a sincere thank you. Then she just stopped walking and looked around at the majestic mountains that hemmed in the city. Breath taking.

With a deep sigh of satisfaction she moved on again in to the convenience store. She got to a liquor store first, which she hadn’t realized was so close by. Inside she spent a long time looking at the rows of Whiskey, Rum, Vodka and others. Some of the bottles were so attractive she wanted to buy them all, but she just kept looking. Some she picked up and considered. She felt much better now. Getting drunk really wasn’t what she wanted. She started thinking about how bad of a headache any liquor would give her. Several customers had come and go while Rachel pondered how to be drunk without having to get drunk and deal with the aftermath. The two clerks were chuckling and giving he funny looks. She wasn’t really mad anymore. She walked up to the checkout as the clerks snickered. “Hi,” she said brightly. “This was a routine quality assurance inspection. Your manager will be receiving my report shortly. Goodbye.” And she swept out the door as their faces fell.

Outside she began to question what she had just done. She was trying to be playful but she had in fact just told a lie. She looked heavenward again and wondered if she was ever going to be able to get this right. This human life so full of seemingly inconsequential interactions that could plague the conscience for a lifetime. She wanted to be drunk again. Really, really drunk so she could forget everything. She just didn’t much care for the process of getting drunk. Or the pounding thick head that she would have the next day. At the convenience store she looked at the wine first. Again, many very artfully designed and attractive bottles. One was black lettering on a black label on a bottle made of black glass that she carried around the store with her for 10 minutes before she realized that wine was the worst way to get drunk. With wine she would have a headache while she was drinking it. Where was the fun in that? Even a really cool bottle couldn’t change the inevitable headache. So she moved over to the beer section and looked for the highest alcohol content she could find. The problem with getting drunk on beer was the calories. She spent another 10 minutes contemplating beer, exercise, body odor and, of course, headaches, before finally choosing a quart of Vanilla Soy Milk and some Sweet Potato chips.

So much for getting drunk. Thankfully she remembered a Bible passage that exhorts Christians to be filled with the Holy Spirit, not drunk with wine, so she took another deep breath and contemplated her remarkable afternoon. Which reminded her of Carlton. What an idiot. And she had just told Smith that she loved him. “Oh God,” she breathed. What if Smith had some jealous rage and started to mess with Carlton? “Oh God,” she prayed. “When will this ever end?” And, looking up to heaven, “Take me now, please.” Of course, then she naturally thought about Elijah. He had wished to die but he had to pick himself up and get back into the fight. So would she. She would fight. Fight the urge to destroy herself with drink. Fight the urge to run away. Fight the fear that was trying to overwhelm her.

Her wandering had taken her to Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City, and there was a little hole in the wall Thai place that had been recommended to her so she stopped in. She immediately liked it. The food looked just right and the rice was in a little electric rice cooker behind the counter. It was very similar to the way the Myanmar refugee families her parents worked with in DC prepared and ate their food. Like family. Like a home. She chose Thai Green Curry with bamboo and sat outside to enjoy the evening. The food was so good she didn’t care about getting drunk any more. She was going to be fine with the Holy Spirit instead. All she had to do was make it to Friday.

Chapter 18.5

Rachel watched Dunning and Kruger leave, Kruger shot her a mischievous wink as he went out and closed the door, and she steeled herself before turning to face Agent Smith. When she did, though, he wasn’t staring at her in his unnerving way as she had expected, but had moved closer to and was looking out of the window. This was odd, but it gave her confidence so she moved in closer to where he was standing, so that she too could see what he was looking at out the window.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Smith said, almost wistfully.

“Yes. Very,” Rachel replied, barely able to conceal her surprise that she wasn’t currently being grilled, intimidated, harassed or belittled.

“Is this your first time in Salt Lake City?”

“Yes.”

“Impossible to not be impressed, isn’t it.” The view from the window included the downtown area, Temple Square and the mountains beyond.

“Definitely.”

“I’ve always enjoyed the time I’ve spent in this city.” Smith’s voice trailed off in a way that seemed out-of-place. It was as if he knew that he would never see the city again or that something was going to change.

“But, enough of that,” he said, suddenly businesslike, “have you been having fun playing cat and mouse with Dunning and Kruger?”

The question was abrupt, much more Smith’s usual style. Rachel dropped her eyes and blushed.

“Well,” but she got no further.

“Don’t worry about it. They need to be kept on their toes.”

Rachel looked up, surprised, and made eye contact with Smith, something that she had been dreading.

“That’s really nothing to do with why I am here.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. I actually came here because I have another assignment that I think you would be perfect for. Time sensitive. Interested?”

“Well,” Rachel was horrified. No, she didn’t want to be anywhere else but Salt Lake City right now. She had a plan to avoid registering for World Monetary Union so that she could escape to the Christian refugee camp in Southern Utah. ”What about the mission here? I thought that this was a high priority.”

“Sure, but baby sitting a computer could be done by any of several people I can bring in. It is your unique talents that I am in need of.” He gave her a knowing look. He attempted a kind smile.

Rachel frowned, “Really? Which unique talents?” she was confused now.

“Nevermind.” Smith seemed slightly frustrated that an attempt at innuendo has been completely missed, and he looked at Rachel sternly, “I’m offering you a chance to leave this assignment now, and take on one that is a higher priority.”

“But,” Rachel was completely out maneuvered and didn’t have a response. Smith turned back to his contemplation of the view out the window.

“You know, there are some who are convinced that you only requested this assignment because you are a Christian and you are planning join the refugees in Southern Utah.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she snorted, but was thankful that Smith hadn’t been looking at her when she said it.

“Ridiculous? Why do you say that? There have been several high-profile people defect to join that band of outcasts.” He turned to Rachel and raised his eyebrows. “There are even a few who suspect that our President may be about to.”

“You can’t be serious?”

“I’m always serious, Ms. Robbins.”

“True.”

“So. Back to my question. If you aren’t planning to defect to Southern Utah, and there is no other compelling reason for you to stay in Salt Lake City, why don’t you accept the opportunity I’m offering you?”

Rachel couldn’t answer. She was gutted and floundering for a way to respond.

“Unless there is a reason compelling you to stay here?” He said wryly, even though Rachel was hiding the fact that she was gasping for air and didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. She smiled weakly, just trying to breathe.

“Carlton Feathers?”

A large burst of air escaped her at last, which could have seemed like an explosive sigh. “Carlton?” she asked, completely confused.

“I know that this is none of my business, but are you romantically involved with Carlton?”

Rachel’s eyes widened in horror at the thought, and she squeaked slightly before turning quickly away and blushing red to the roots of her hair. Not only was the thought of a romantic relationship with Carlton utterly repugnant, but is was the last thing she had thought of in her decision to come to Salt Lake City.

“I’m sorry,” Smith droned on behind her, “I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

Yet Smith had just given her the excuse she needed to give a plausible reason for staying in Salt Lake City. If she could keep a straight face and avoid wincing when she said it, she could admit to being in love with Carlton and get Smith off her back. She took a deep breath and turned to face Smith.

Smith’s expression was a shock to her. Gone was the placid, self assuredness that always disarmed her. It was replaced by an expectantly pleading look. It reminded Rachel of a puppy that wanted a home. For the first time in the entire history of her interaction with Agent Smith, Rachel realized that he had a crush on her.

So now was the real danger. Evidently Smith had come to Salt Lake City in anticipation of something big happening, as if World Monetary Union wasn’t big enough, to offer her a special assignment that may in fact be of a personal and possibly intimate nature, and Rachel’s only means of avoiding that outcome was to pretend to be in a relationship with Carlton. It was like the ninth grade all over again. To refuse Smith now was certainly the end of her career in the Clandestine Services. To have to act out a relationship with Carlton was her worst nightmare. Then she remembered: she only had to make it to Friday.

“I’m in love with Carlton!” she blurted out, with a confusing wince. Then she smiled apologetically. Her eye twitched.

Chapter 17.5

As church wound down Rachel somehow got herself invited to lunch with the Pastor and his wife, along with the odd new-comer known only as K.D. She drove herself to the restaurant which was a cafeteria style place that was very popular with the Sunday after church crowd. When she got there it turned out that half of the church was there too: the Pastor and his wife brought K.D.; the Assistant Pastor, and his wife with their two children; one of the Deacons with his wife and an elderly widow; another elderly lady who hadn’t been in church but who evidently joined the group to eat; finally Kruger had gotten himself invited. Rachel narrowed her eyes at him threateningly but he mimed a yawn and rolled his eyes.

The restaurant staff were delighted to welcome the church members and guests. The falling away of church attendance as the deadline for World Monetary Union approached had been dramatic, and it had a big impact on the Sunday traffic. They made quick work of moving a few tables so the group could sit together, then enthusiastically ushered them all through the serving line. Rachel was very good at these kind of social events. It was second nature for her to smile, be polite, and engage in whatever conversation happened to strike up. She shared stories from her life, always being mindful of her cover and why she had just moved to Salt Lake City.

Kruger, on the other hand, looked ill-at-ease. Serve him right for not doing surveillance on her from the car with Dunning. She was fortunate to end up on the far end of the table from K.D., so she didn’t get to speak with him.

It was close to 3 O’clock before the party began to break apart, and Rachel excused herself with a promise that she would be at the Wednesday night service. She curtly told her car to be quiet and drove herself home, looking eagle-eyed for the unmarked sedan that was supposed to be following her. She began to get spooked when she thought she saw the same tinted-window black Mercedes pass her twice in a row. Dunning and Kruger were nowhere to be seen, but there was another black Mercedes drifting along effortlessly some way back. Something was not right. At her parking garage she caught a glimpse of movement on the roof of the building opposite. A sniper getting into position? There was an electrician’s panel van parked across the street too – on a Sunday? Not impossible, but weird. Then two deeply tanned women in Spandex sports gear jogged past, paying her a little too much attention. Where they checking her out, or another part of a security op that was happening around her? What else? What else would there be if this were a security op? She looked around for a surveillance camera. There it was, by the elevator, pointing right at her. Surprise, surprise. With all this going on there could only be one reason: Agent Smith was here.

In her experience Agent Smith was a misogynistic, leering, innuendo-laden pervert who had never quite crossed the line and done anything that could really hold the charge of sexual harassment, but which was close. Maybe today could be the day? “Look on the bright side,” she thought. Perhaps every cloud does have a silver lining? if he had come out here for an unscheduled visit it must be in response to something time sensitive, he might be really angry. He might be ready to pop and leave himself exposed, if not to a charge of sexual harassment, then at least some leverage to make him back off. She steeled herself and made her way to her apartment.

There was another new fragrance in the lobby. This one so expensive that she didn’t recognize it. Definitely Smith. She inhaled deeply but realized with a shock that she was already weaker than she thought, suddenly afraid. Her apartment door was open, normally that would be bad, but in this situation it was good because they would both be able to see the approach. It was intended to help put her at ease. It meant that he would be alone inside, with out any of his team of goons. That was good and bad, but Rachel could feel herself getting flustered already and the meeting hadn’t started yet. She hated the psychological chess game that this guy kept up. She resolved and breezed airily into the apartment as casually as possible. Smith was sitting in her favourite spot on her new couch, looking out the patio doors as she had last night. He stood up and turned to her with the warmest expression possible which stopped Rachel in her tracks.

“Rachel,” was all he said.

“Smith,” she looked away, unable to hold his gaze. “To what do I owe this pleasure?” In her peripheral vision she saw Dunning and Kruger move in behind her, cutting off her escape. “Drat,” she thought, “this is really bad.”

“The pleasure is all mine, I assure you,” the words dripped off Smith’s tongue.

A shiver went down Rachel’s spine. “That ought to be enough for sexual harassment right there,” she thought, knowing that it was not, and that Smith was too careful. He just somehow made her feel, dirty.

“I just wanted to check in with you. To make sure that you, the team,” he gestured to Dunning and Kruger, “are all on the same page.”

“You came out here from DC for that?”

“Not a special trip. I was,” he paused delicately, “somewhere close by. I am concerned that you are underestimating the seriousness of this situation?”

“No,” she replied boldly, “Whatever gave you that idea?”

He swept his had in the direction of Dunning and Kruger. “I heard that one of them had to spend time in a lingerie store yesterday?”

“Oh that!” Rachel took on a very friendly and sportsmanlike demeanour and moved in close between the two body guards. “Come on,” she playfully punched Dunning’s shoulder, “A girl has to get her, y’know, things somewhere.”

“You didn’t buy anything.” Kruger said flatly.

“Oh, come on, please. Boys,” she said playfully, grabbing both of their elbows. She looked at Smith, “We have a great time together, don’t we?” she looked at both of their hard faces, then back to Smith, “There is no way that you came all this way because I went to a panty store!”

“No indeed.” He dismissed the two men with a flick of his hand. They left immediately and closed the door. Rachel swallowed so hard she heard it, and closed her eyes for a momentary prayer.