Issue #49 – George

This entry is part 1 of 14 in the series The Descendants Vol 5: How the World Changes

The 33rd floor of Quintillion Information Services corporate headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland was dedicated to high security laboratories and servers. No one was allowed in or out without top level security clearance, or being escorted by someone who had it.

Yet another layer of security separated the rest of the 33rd floor from the area designated Corridor Tau. Behind those doors was something like a separate facility entirely. A server room, generator, climate and ventilation system, break room, and employee washroom were all set aside there to service a single lab and attached observation room.

Like everything else, the observation room was build to task: a central monitoring station occupied a raised platform in the center of the room with state-of-the-art holography serving as it’s display. When an image wasn’t being thrown up, it provided a direct view through a large window into the laboratory. The window was flanked by two more stations with traditional flat screens displaying every possible measurable piece of data coming from inside the other room.

The lab itself looked like a large, comfortable bedroom, complete with a bureau, nightstand, writing desk, and a television on the far wall. One of two doors led back out into Corridor Tau, the other to a private bathroom with a shower.

The bed was unusual even in that setting; it had the usual necessities: a quality, queen-sized mattress with plentiful blankets, a soft, down comforter and cotton sheets. But it was locked into a metal frame studded with sensors. Two flat arms emerged from the headboard on either side of the sleeping occupant’s head, while a device, like some huge, mechanical spider, descended from the ceiling to stretch still more sensor studded spars about two feet above his body.

And in a set of intricate clamps in the center of the headboard was a cracked piece of rough, white stone, about the size of a man’s fist.

Quiet snoring filled the room, occasionally interrupted by the clearing of a man’s throat.

Back in the control room, all three stations were being manned by alert young people in lab coats. No one on the staff that worked in Corridor Tau was over forty. They’d been picked up by Quintillion right out of college and, after a period of wondering what degrees in statistics, criminology, abnormal psychology, and sleep medicine had to do with internet searches, were trained to have at least a working understanding of those desired fields, and introduced to a much larger world.

At one of the lower monitoring stations, something flickered from green to red. The young man attending it noticed instantly, and tapped the screen over a different window. “R.E.M. cycle ends: 0537 hours, 26 seconds.” He reported. He was at the tail end of his twenties, and with his dark skin, square chin and a few days worth of stubble, he looked more like the lead in a movie than a researcher.

“Five, three, seven, two, six. Got it.” The woman at the other panel was a year or two older than him with short, curly brown hair and glasses. Once she keyed in the time, she went back to the screen she was working on, reviewing frames of still video and highlighting areas on screen with her stylus. “Insight’s first run should be complete in four minutes. So far,it’s only showing a .0389 percent deviation from the third cycle last night.”

“Should we wake him now?” The first man asked of the third person in the room; a skinny man with long, curly hair and a narrow chin. He was lab supervisor for the shift.

The supervisor, whose name was Arnold, sat back in his chair and observed the night’s data as it hung in the air in front of him. What they said, in a rough sense, was that this night’s data collection was likely a waste. He pursed his lips and looked back to the first man. “What do you think, Hugh? Based on his readings right now, can we induce R.E.M. again tonight?”

Hugh, the resident sleep medicine expert reviewed his own information. “It’s not likely. He’ll wake up on his own in about an hour.”

Arnold nodded and waved his hand in the direction of a row of icons hovering above his console. Sensory devices in the lab began to fold up and retreat into recesses in the headboard and ceiling. “Better wake him up then.”

“I should have Insight’s first and second passes by the time he’s awake and dressed.” The woman, Andrea, said. She never took her eyes off the images on her monitors.

“Let’s just hope it gives us better data this time. 57.083% is too slim to hang our hopes on.”

***

Twenty minutes later, following the lab subject’s regimen of morning stretches, a trip to the bathroom, and dressing, the research team gathered in the break room with their findings and a breakfast of rehydrated steak and eggs.

They had only just started eating when he came in.

He was strikingly tall, especially for someone his age (which they placed around sixty or so), and held his shoulders straight even as he leaned on an unadorned, wooden cane. His skin was a rich brown, verging on rust colored from years of harsh sun.

In most situations, he dressed in well loved suits and nice shirts, but at the moment, he was dressed as he usually did when taking part in their work on Corridor Tau: loose linen pants and a button down shirt. He’d taken the time to brush his white hair and gather it into a short tail, and to shave despite the urgency of his mission.

As he stepped in, cane clicking on the tile floor, he nodded cordially, as if they were his co-workers instead of his employees. But his expression wasn’t a happy one as he sat down. “From what I remember, and your expressions… we’ve got nothing new.”

Arnold returned the forkful of egg he’d been about to eat to the plastic carton and shook his head. “Cycles one and three were repeats we’ve already captured and analyzed this week. Two was new, but it’s deviance was 98.033 repeating; too far out of our frame. If there’s something we can do, it’s a long shot.”

The old man nodded unhappily. “Was there a fourth R.E.M.?”

“There was. With a .04% variance. Insight ticked off your target outcome by a few thousandths of a percent in favor of the course of action you’ve been outlining: 57.087%.” Arnold looked at his fellow techs and thought about the day crew as well. “It’s almost the percentage of us who are against.”

Hugh nodded. “It is a very large risk.”

Andrea said nothing. They’d had this fight before. For once, she was in agreement with their boss.

“I know.” The old man said. “I don’t agree. I’ve taken your expert opinions for or against on this into consideration, but when it boils down to it, I’m almost embarrassed to say that I was going to do this even if it came down as negative if it was within the margin of error.”

“We can’t really stop you short of threatening resignation…” Arnold started.

“The other 43% is frightening, I know.” his employer said in a calming tone. “The most frightening ones stick with me the most, I’m not going to lie. But if it comes down that way, we can fix it, divert it. We’ve done it before.”

He rose from his seat. “This is just as important as our work. Without these people, we couldn’t work toward it. But in doing that, we’ve… I’ve meddled in their lives a great deal. They deserve this. And it’s the best probability we’ve got short of destroying Insight and setting ourselves back months.

I’ll happily pay anyone who wants out full retirement benefits. If you want out. As long as you’re aware that I don’t begrudge you being uncomfortable after all you’ve seen. All I ask as that you know how much I’ve valued your service and friendship.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get ready for a house call.”

***

“Do you mind if I ask how you got the parts I asked for so quickly?” Christina ‘Tink’ Carlyle sat at a relatively clear table in Laurel Brant’s workshop with her tablet to one side, propped up on its built-in kickstand and the carefully ordered box of components Laurel had just handed her on the other. She had her hair up in a ponytail to keep it out of her face and wore an attachment on her glasses that could swivel various lenses and lights around to help her work.

It was Saturday, only a week and change distant from the events surrounding Descendants Appreciation Day and less than that from the day she’d shown the schematic for a Chaos’s new gauntlets to the older woman.

Laurel smiled and gestured to a cabinet under one of her computer desks. “A rapid prototyper is a must in this business. This one’s a ceramic press: just buy the right mud from a hobby shop and print from any design program that supports 3-d printers. I’ve got a regular 3-d over there, too.”

“Nice.” Tink said, glancing around the room. She wasn’t one to go snooping in other people’s drawers and cupboards, but the workshop offered tons of technological goodies that she could scarcely resist.

“And for obvious reasons, we don’t really need to machine metal.” the older woman added with a small smile. The smile got larger when she saw the fond look in Tink’s eyes. “Speaking of which, why ceramic and plastic for this? You wouldn’t have had to wait at all if you’d gone with metal.”

“Between you and me?” Laurel nodded. “Mind control. I was there to see the first time it became an issue and all things considered, I think all of you would benefit from using as little metal as possible in your costumes.”

She looked a little self conscious, “It’s probably not my place, but I think you should also think about fireproofing, giving everyone some sort of breathing apparatus, and… well I’d suggest something against freezing, but with the new thing Jun can do, I’m not sure that would help.”

Laurel’s face was unreadable for a second and it made Tink flush.

“God, I must sound so stupid. You’re a super-genius. Of course you’ve thought about all this.”

Laurel almost snorted a laugh, but caught herself. “Tina, don’t discount yourself like that because of my powers. Hyper-cognition means I process and recall information very well. I’m smart, not omnipotent. That said, I have thought of it.”

“So… “ Tink picked up a segment of the palm assembly and idly played with it. “Why didn’t you go with it?”

“Acceptable risk.” Laurel said. “You’re absolutely right about the danger some of the others might pose if they came under mind control, but, for example, Warrick always carries more than enough metal to make him reasonably dangerous even without other metal around. But until I saw your design, I would have thought it wasn’t worth the weight trade off with ceramic components.”

“…until you saw my design?”

“Yeah. I was locked into the idea of a solid gauntlet, but your scale on ballistic cloth design keeps weight down while really using the added protection of the ceramic. I also like your design for the water reservoir; turning it into a vambrace.”

Tink visibly relaxed and put down the piece of ceramic she’d been playing with. Instead, she tapped her tablet a few times to bring up the gauntlet schematics. “Sorry if I’m being, well, weird. It’s just that I’ve heard from the others about all the gadgets you’ve built for them, all the different programs you’ve coded… I’m just all kinds of intimidated.”

“Well, I don’t intimidate easily, but I’m not the only one with a reputation, Tina. And not just for invention, but invention under pressure and with limited resources. Have…” She cut herself off because her mouth had gotten way out ahead of her brain.

This drew an arched eyebrow from Tink.

“I guess I have to come out and ask now: Have you been tested? For theta markers?” That was the commercial name for the genetic markers for the various ‘strains’ of chromosome mutation responsible for the distinct theta brainwave pattern found in about sixty percent of descendants. It was a poor method of detection with a thirty-five percent rate of false positives, but they’d been all the rage among parents for a time.

Surprise painted Tink’s face. “N-no. But I don’t think anything I do is all that special. I’ve always been obsessed with physics and tech. I’ve built so many practice science fair entries, I can just do them in my sleep, more or less.”

Nearly a minute passed in awkward silence.

Tink picked up her tablet and tapped through a few more files, typing in a password at one point. “Ms. Brant? Maybe this is the time to ask…could you take a look at this and tell me what you think?”

Laurel nodded. Tink showed her a new set of schematics. Laurel blinked.

“Are you sure this is something you want to do?” Nod. “It’s pretty dangerous.”

The young inventor touched her stomach meaningfully. The scar there itched sometimes. Sometimes it felt hot. “I know. And I’m not even sure I’ll ever use it. I just want to test out my design idea for now.”

“Not my place to stop you.” Laurel said, “You’re eighteen, a grown woman, and besides that, you’re smart enough to be making this as an informed decision. But due diligence for when the others find out that this is yet another thing I know but didn’t tell them. I’m still in the doghouse with Alexis and Ian over Lisa…”

“How did you know I was going to ask…”

Tink was cut off by a shrill sound from one of Laurel’s computers. The screen turned on instantly and started helpfully cycling through camera views Tink recognized as from around Freeland House.

“Hold that thought.” Laurel said, moving quickly to take a seat in front of the active monitor. “We’ve got a visitor the security system doesn’t recognize.”

“When you say visitor…” Tink got up to watch over her shoulder. “Do you mean an attack? Is it Tome?”

The camera settled on a view from the top of the monumental set of stairs marching from the street up to the hill Freeland House sat upon.

Laurel adjusted her glasses and screwed up her face in bewilderment. “It looks to be an elderly man getting out of a cab and coming up the stairs. Not that this discounts an attack: anyone can have powers or firepower these days.”

“Do you have to do this every time there’s a new delivery guy?”

“I get the alerts, yeah. And I usually give them a once over to make sure.” Laurel nodded, As she spoke, she captured a still image from the video feed, enhanced it. Then she started running it through a program of her own devising that compared it to a number of remote facial recognition databases. “We haven’t had to make the defenses the ROCIC gave us hot yet.”

“Hot?”

“If Tome or someone else with the power to target us tries to attack us at home?” Laurel said absently, “It’s personal.” Tink made an impressed noise just as the program chimed that it had a positive identification. The possible intruder was only on the first of the staircase’s three landings.

“Got it.” Laurel said, bringing the program’s window to the forefront. What she saw shocked her. “This can’t be right. George Chea?” She could see the question forming in Tink’s head via her reflection in the monitor. “My father knew him. He used to be a big player on Wall Street; an insanely successful broker.”

“Maybe he’s figured it out.” Tink hypothesized, frowning at the man’s progress up the stairs. “Traced everything through Brant Industries… maybe he’s here to try and blackmail you.”

“He never handled the Brant accounts though, my father didn’t think it was possible to be doing that well in the stock market and still be honest.” Laurel read further into the compiled dossier. “Besides, according to this, he suffered a nervous breakdown over the war and hasn’t worked since.”

She stood up so abruptly that Tink had to jump back, ending up sitting on a work table. The younger woman pressed her glasses firmly back into place and gave Laurel an askance look.

“I don’t like this.” Laurel grabbed her palmtop off the desk near her primary computer rig and flipped it open, sending a text message to the others. “But if he does think he knows something, no use in giving him any confirmation. Let’s go down and give him a friendly hello.”

“Me?” Tink asked, sliding off the table.

“Sure. If you want to be more involved, this sounds like an low impact exercise.” Her serious expression melted into a gentle smile. “It’ll get you ready for all the lies and hoop jumping that come with the territory.”

Series NavigationIssue #50 – Operation: All In >>

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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