Writing > Code

Chapter 14


Chapter 14

Vicky had hoped for a few moments to catch her breath upon returning to Archcrest, but she didn't get them. Steven Perry was there in person, apparently champing at the bit to get the coding surgeries underway. He practically abducted Devin the moment they got through security, whisking him away to brief the surgeons.

Dr. Shalmers was there too, and he appropriated Tom right away. Finally, Max wanted to talk to her, in private. He led her upstairs, into the security office where all the camera feeds were displayed.

Vicky had been in here a few times, but not for very long. Because only a fraction of Archcrest was in use, there were only thirty-four cameras installed and running. From what she could see, they were displaying ordinary activity from an ordinary day.

Until Max changed them, that was. He brought up a new set of feeds, covering the operating room, the recovery area outside of it, the hallway leading to her and.. Amir's makeshift rooms, and the door outside the archive room.

"I thought that none of these cameras were installed yet," she said casually, as Max singled out one of the cameras and ran the footage back.

"Well, I'm a little more cynical, and I assumed they would be. The Coleman-Saito technicians were the ones who set up the cameras in the first place. They told you it was just thirty-four, but they've been watching these too, secretly. Like I said early on, I've worked for companies like CS before. Secretly recording you and your friends is the very least of what they can do." He paused the camera briefly. "And I was right."

That was a little disconcerting. Vicky remembered seeing the hemispherical black orbs on the ceiling when they'd first been installed. There were a bunch more than were needed, naturally. The point of a camera system wasn't just to monitor sensitive areas, but also to discourage inmates from breaking the rules. Because they didn't know which black orbs had cameras and which didn't, a lot of them behaved as if they all did. Some ignored them entirely, though.

"How long have these other cameras been on?" Vicky tried to keep her voice steady.

"As long as you guys have been here," Max said sadly. "I found the hidden feeds on day two. I would have told you, but they just show hallways and doors. Besides, for all I knew, you were in on it," he added wryly.

Vicky gaped at him. "You thought-" She took a deep breath and tried to keep an even tone. "If you thought that, then why are you telling me now?"

"Because now I'm sure you aren't. Look," he gestured at the camera positioned outside the archive room.

The time stamp on the footage was from the night before, when she and the others had been on the first leg of their trans-Atlantic flight home. A person walked down the hallway but instead of passing by the door, turned and unlocked it. Vicky had seen him before: he was one of the technicians working for Coleman-Saito. She didn't know his name. He looked one way and the other before going in.

"I'm the only one who has a key to that door," Vicky said angrily.

Max shook his head. "He didn't pick the lock. My guess is that they copied all of your keys before giving them to you. He was only in there a few minutes," he fast-forwarded a bit to where the door opened again, "before locking the door and leaving."

"He was after the brain scans, I'm sure of it. There's nothing else in there of value. I was wondering why the CS people stopped pressuring me to give them the rest of the data. I guess they just decided to steal it." Vicky wished she could be more surprised at this, but between her own paranoid streak and Tom's long experience with corporate backstabbing, she was clearly developing a cynical outlook on life. "Come on. Let's get down there."

Max switched the cameras back to their normal mode and followed her out. He seemed hesitant on their way to the archive room, but when they got there, he finally spoke up. "I don't know you that well, ma'am, but shouldn't you be more upset about this? They stole months of research from you and Mr. Penderton. And from Dr. Hoberman," he added sadly.

"I told you, call them Tom and Amir. And who was that technician, anyway?" Vicky asked, ignoring his question for the moment. "I've seen him around a few times, but we never spoke."

"His name is Richard Ellis. He's worked for CS for almost five years, as a second shift electronics guy. There was nothing in his personnel file that stood out, at all. No criminal record either. That's normal for people trained in corporate espionage. It's possible he's not even really a CS employee. He could be working for one of their competitors. They'd want those brain scans just as badly."

"Well, whoever he works for, he didn't succeed," Vicky said with some relief, after examining the computer tower underneath the desk. "I put in a failsafe a while back. If anyone turns this thing on but me, that EM coil over there was supposed to scramble all brain scan data. It looks like it did its job perfectly."

"Oh," Max said quietly. "That's a bit of a letdown."

Vicky felt a stab of fear. Was Max working with this Ellis person? "Why do you say that?" She asked cautiously.

"Because I stole it back from him," he said casually, and pulled a compact hard drive out of one of his pockets. "I got one of the empty drives from storage, waited until Ellis was away from his locker, and then switched the empty with the one he stole." He looked at the drive in his hand ruefully. "I guess this one's empty now, too. Sorry about that."

Vicky chuckled as she took back the hard drive. "So Coleman-Saito, or whoever this guy works for, stole from me, and then you stole from him, but I didn't trust them in the first place, so both of you stole something worthless? Talk about self-defeating espionage! Still, why are you telling me this in the first place? And why did you take the risk at all? CS may not sign your checks, but they can give you a bad reference. They can make sure you never work in corporate security again!"

Max's expression darkened. "From what I've seen, that's no great loss. Besides, you and yours took my daughter in when she had no place to go. She and my grandson are doing much better now, thanks to Mr. Penderton, Dr. Hoberman, and you. It was, uh, Amir, who said I was family. Even though he's gone, I won't forget that."

Amir just kept on giving to them, didn't he? Vicky resisted the urge to wipe her eyes, and blinked instead. "Well, you may not have stopped a theft, but you did identify the person who tried to steal from us. That's valuable on its own." She looked around them for a bit. "Are you sure there are no hidden cameras inside this room?"

"As sure as I can be, really. If there were, they might not have had to send anyone in here to steal from you in the first place."

That was a good point. Feeling a little less apprehensive, Vicky nodded. "All right. I'm calling Tom down here. Could you stick around while I tell him what happened? I want you here with us, to help us decide what to do next."


At first, Tom wondered why he was in the archive room with Devin, Vicky, and strangely, Max as well. Then Vicky explained about the attempted theft of their data, and he felt a sense of growing disgust. Not just with Coleman-Saito's leadership for trying this stunt, but with himself as well.

If this had happened a year ago, or even a few months ago, Tom would have called it normal. Of course businesses try to cheat and spy on each other. That's how business works: you do whatever you can to advance your bottom line. If the law gets in the way, you either ignore it, cheat it, or pay someone to change it.

But he'd been out of that life for some time now. He'd been living with people who had no money to protect, no donors to appease, no public persona to carefully and fraudulently cultivate. Aside from the BOP and the CS people, neither of whom he considered himself to be a part of, the only people here were.. actual people.

How had he ever thought of himself as happy being a part of that old life? Thank God for Vicky. If she hadn't agreed to help him, Tom was sure he would have slid back into old habits of greed and power brokering. Instead of being aware of all these problems, he would be a part of them.

"We've got bigger problems than Coleman-Saito, though," he put in after Vicky was done. "According to Dr. Shalmers, those three potential surgery candidates aren't actually inmates."

He pulled out the paperwork Shalmers had given him and laid it out next to the computer screen. "This is all Greek to me, but maybe you can make some sense of it. The doc says that all three of them have psychological traits associated with military training and service. A lot of it."

Devin frowned. "I looked over their files. One of them signed up for the army, but he was disqualified. There's no mention of any actual service for any of them."

"I get the feeling those files are about as truthful as Coleman-Saito's mission statement," Max said darkly. "But why would the BOP lie to you about these guys? It would be a lot easier to find inmates that actually fit the requirements you gave them, right? They have plenty to choose from, that's for sure."

"It's probably not the whole BOP," Tom put in. "Steven Perry is their liaison to us, and he answers to Oliver Corey up in DC. This could just be Perry himself. Either way it doesn't matter much. Right now you're the only successful case," he nodded at Vicky, "and they can't examine you without risking our goodwill. Those three candidates are military, probably under orders to cooperate. If we go ahead with the surgeries, then Perry or whoever else he's working with in the armed forces will use their new coded people to figure out how to create and install codes themselves."

A silence pervaded the room for a moment.

"Well, we're not gonna let that happen," Vicky said grimly. "You said on the plane that we have more options now, thanks to Amir and Dina. Do we have to move again, and abandon Archcrest?"

Tom thought about it. Just like with her decision to go ahead with the surgery, he had a sinking feeling they didn't have any option now but the nuclear one. "It's bigger than just moving now. We can't trust Coleman-Saito or the BOP. That means no corporate help, and no more inmate volunteers to study. That means.. we have to go public. And we have to do it from somewhere outside the United States. It's the same as the situation with the BT102, only bigger this time. The only way we can maintain control over this project is to do it outside American jurisdiction. We just need to decide when to leave, and where to go."

He pondered several options, none of which seemed very attractive, and Vicky stood up. She went over to the other side of the table where Devin and Max were standing. "I trust Tom's instincts about this. That means we're both about to uproot our lives entirely. That's fine for us- it wouldn't be for the first time- but I can't ask you to do the same. I don't know much about you, Devin, other than what Amir told me. But Max-"

"As long as Angie and Joey are cared for, I'm with you," Max promised before she could finish. "Wherever you go, you'll need some kind of security. I can't make any promises about the guards who work for me, but if they stay behind, I can look into hiring others." He paused. "I hope we don't go to Mexico, though. My Spanish is awful. Even ordering Mexican food is a chore."

Vicky smiled. "And you, Devin? If you want to do this, we'd be glad to have you. Oddly, we can pay well for once in our lives, and we could certainly use your skills. If not I'll miss you, but I understand."

Devin was still for a long time. Idly, Tom tried to calculate his chances of sticking with them. For Tom, joining Vicky had been desperation and redemption. For Amir it had been love, whether he'd known it at the time or not. For Max, it was apparently grateful loyalty.

"A lot of those prisoners out there have been talking," Max put in. "Word about your code is getting around. I've been getting questions about why you did it, and what you get out of it. What their lives might be like if they didn't have to worry about right and wrong anymore. That's how it works, right?"

Vicky glanced over at Tom, and then nodded. "Mostly. It'll probably be a little different for each person."

Max shrugged. "Either way, they like you. They like how they've been treated here. How this place has been about hope and training and the future, instead of just being shut in a box until they die of boredom. Most of them will be done with their sentence in a year or less; or parole even before that. I'd bet a bunch of them would want to join you wherever you go. Unless it's on the other side of the world or something. Within reason, you know."

Vicky looked surprised at that. "Well, I don't suppose it'd have to be too far away. Canada, maybe. I'm not sure."

"I'll do it," Devin said abruptly. He looked up at them, his face serious and set. "I still don't know what that thing in your head means for the future, Vicky, but I get the feeling it's gonna be big. My mom would say I'm crazy for even thinking this, but I want to be a part of whatever's gonna come."

He took a deep breath. "If the DOP figures out how you and Amir did it, there's no telling what they'll do. Maybe they'll use another area of the brain- one that's easier to predict and control. Just like that," he snapped his fingers, "self-control becomes mind control! Besides, if you really want to keep this procedure and implant from being duplicated by them, you'll need to give me one of those codes. If I survive the surgery, then I can do the same for other people. Only coded people will be able to code people, and then only if they volunteer for it. That way we can keep it in house. Metaphorically speaking, anyway," he looked around. "I'm actually going to miss this place."

"Hold up there," Tom said carefully. "Joining us is great- especially for us- but getting a code is a much bigger decision. You know about the physical risks better than any of us, but I already went through this with Vicky. There's a mental component to this that you may not be able to handle. I still think we got lucky with her," he said to Vicky apologetically, and she nodded back understandingly.

"I didn't make this decision on a whim," Devin went on. "And it's not just to help you with your project, either. It's personal for me. Ever since Amir explained the procedure and how Vicky's implant works, I've been curious about it myself. For the first time in history, we have a means of regulating not just physiology, but actual behavior and decision-making! I want to get in on the ground floor of that." He winced. "Sorry, not in a corporate sense. That's a bad topic right now. I mean in an historic sense."

"We get it," Vicky assured him. "What about Dr. Shalmers, though? I never did get his first name," she added thoughtfully, looking at Tom.

"Oh, he'll hit the roof. He already went ballistic at Amir for doing your procedure. There's no way he'll sign off on this. As frustrating as it is to admit, we do need a shrink's evaluation. None of us is trained for that, and we can't expect another miracle."

"I still have my psych eval results from med school," Devin offered. "I could ask him to evaluate me just like he did those three fake prisoners. It would be like updating a resume."

Tom thought about it. There was always the chance that Shalmers would tip off the BOP, and then their move would be a lot more complicated. Shalmers didn't like the BOP very much though, especially after they had faked prison histories for three career soldiers. It was a chance worth taking. He nodded to Vicky.

"All right then," she said solemnly. "We're agreed. Tom and I will find someplace new to set up shop, and then we'll quietly make arrangements to move. We'll have to leave a lot of our equipment behind," she looked genuinely distressed at that, "but we don't have much choice. Max, could you talk to those inmates and try to get a feel for how many would volunteer to get a code, once their sentences are up? It would help us predict how many procedures we'll need to do in the next year or so."

Max nodded. "Could you plan to bring two more along, just in case, though?" He added. "I don't want to leave Angie and Joey behind. I don't know if people will be looking for revenge on them for what we're doing here, but I don't want to risk it."

"Of course," Vicky responded. "Just don't tell them what's happening until we're about ready to leave. And if they want to stay, you have to let them. Free will and all that," she added wryly.

Looking a bit more serious, Max headed out of the room. Vicky turned to face Devin. "And you, Dr. Chen, just have to have your head shrunk. May God have mercy on your soul, right?"

Tom chuckled with the joke more by habit than out of humor. Despite the constant challenges in the way, the backstabbing by their so-called friends, and the gut-wrenching loss of Amir, they were still moving forward. Vicky's sense of purpose had been blunted, but it hadn't been broken. Tom might not have much faith in God right now, but he had plenty in her. That would be enough.


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