We're in Madison, Wisconsin now. I've never been in Wisconsin before, but Looney Jake thinks it's the best place to be at the moment, so I'm not going to argue.
The scenery is nice. Our server just left. What a beautiful back. Short cocktail dress. A dark, dark red dress; the perfect choice for her body. The long triangle of exposed back leading to a downward point at the top tip of her coccyx. The dark red of her dress covering her perfectly appled ass with a newer, smoother skin.
She's got a nametag on the other side. It sits smugly above another intoxicating curve. "Baby," it says.
"When you're done enjoying the sights—"
"Jake, I've been in prison for three years and I've been in a car for three days and I have no idea where I'll be tomorrow. Just let me look. Two more minutes. I didn't get a chance to ogle your driver, just the back of her head."
Baby and her back disappear around the corner to the bar. Two minutes later I look back at the man who sprung me out of One Tree City.
"Ok Jake," I say. "Why Madison?"
"Ok Jazzman, I'll tell you. There are over 200,000 people here. Most of them are white, a quarter of them are students who don't look much older than you. Simple and easy truths. You'll blend in. But more importantly, and more subtly, there is less public video surveillance here than in any other city of proportionate size."
Since the breakout and the car ride with our wonderful crimson haired driver, Looney Jake has passed the sanity test. He's not nuts. Rather, he's one of the smartest people I've ever met. But I remember that at one point in the car ride he turned around and said to me two words—scott free. If he's worrying about big brother, then I'm not so sure we're scott free after all.
"You said no authorities would be looking for us," I said. "Scott free, you said."
"You ever heard of Dred Scott?" He asks.
"Yeah, the name rings a bell."
"It's complicated. You were a citizen of the United States, but you're not really anymore. You think you're a free man, and you are, but you're not really. It's complicated. That's why you're with me. Right? And there's a we, that you're about to meet, and we are going to re-make you. And then, then you'll be slightly more free than you are now. Primarily because you won't be stuck at a bar."
"Yes Jazz, we. It's never really get out of jail free. Come on, you're young, but you're grown. Where-ever you go now, you're in danger. Even if you think you're free, you're not really. Got it?"
"Ok. Fine. Now you're talking Loony again, but I got it."
"Good. Look, Baby's back."
I turn and an elegant hand with sinuous fingers offers me a large glass with a thick drink in it.
"I didn't know you served smoothies here."
Her eyes light up and look down. I try to avoid looking too overtly at her breasts, barely covered by the silk hanging off of her, but I fail. It's not that I'm not trying though. You know, now that she's close.
"Anything you want." She winks and leaves me with the drink. I follow her, yet again, with my eyes.
"Alright. Drink that. And then follow me."
I put the glass to my lips. It's warm, both the glass and the drink, and I gulp it quickly. It tastes like chocolate. You might know the sensation, like the weight gain desperate boys used to drink in High School. This stuff is better though, it's thicker than that but not at all grainy. It fills me fast. And it makes me feel a little weird.
"Were there drugs in there?" I ask. Should have asked first.
"Do you really want to know?"
I shake my head.
"Well you asked. So yes, there were drugs in there. It's going to make the next process easier. Come on, stand up and follow me."
I shake my head at the wild ride I'm on and get up. I slide out of the booth and follow Loony Jake to the end of the hall, where Baby turned before.
Baby's not standing there when we turn the corner though. It's Thyme, our driver.
"Pleasure to see you again Mister Teague," she says. "Getting up again so soon? My we have you on the go, don't we?"
I'm too shocked to respond. Not only is there no bar around the corner like I thought, but after the years I've been in jail, away from beautiful, and unless I'm mistaken, incredibly intelligent women, I just can't manage to make any words. Her red hair is still pent up in a twist, but she's just as well created as Baby. I had no idea.
"Umm, right, you too." I mumble as we pass her and Jake opens a door. But I'm stuck in my thoughts. I remember three days ago when Jake introduced her once we got into the H2.
"Teague, this is Thyme, our driver."
"Like the spice?" I asked.
"No," she said. "Like what you can never get enough of."
"But you spell it like the spice?" I prodded.
"Thyme's and herb," said Loony Jake as he pushed me into the car. And that was the end of conversation for three days.
I'm thinking about her crimson hair as I step through the door behind Loony Jake.
There's a stairway. It's not well lit at the beginning, but once it angles to the left it's easy to see. I mean it's generally easier to see. All the surfaces are white and the light is soft white, not the cheap long life bulbs, but the expensive ones. At the bottom, just before I walk out into the large white room, Looney Jake stops me.
"Take off your clothes."
"What?" I ask.
"Do you want me to repeat myself?" He asks, as he starts removing his own shirt.
"Is Thyme going to join us?"
"Not so lucky this time Jazzman, just you and me for now. You'll see more of her later today."
"More of her, or more of her?" I ask, untying my shoes. I neglected to mention that Thyme had given us fresh clothes when we first started our cross country drive.
I don't know what you know about ballet. But even though it's dressed up in tutus and glitzed out for ritzy folks, it is a sexed up work atmosphere. We've been through it before, I know, not all ballet boys are gay. But not all the girls are totally straight, and seriously, Swan Lake?! Talk about a perversion. Now I'm not saying everyone has sex with everyone else, I'm just saying that it's a sexed up atmosphere to work in. That's what I was used to before jail. That and I'd been starved of flesh for years…
Just, don't judge me too harshly for wanting to bang Baby and Thyme in any position. Any position except doggy-style, my dick's not long enough (learned that the hard way) to make that any fun.
Anyway, so I get naked and I'm standing next to Loony Jake, who's also naked, and now obviously incredibly fit for a man who seems old enough to be at least my father.
"In order to get into this room," he elaborates, "we need to be metal free. And I mean totally metal free. You've never had surgery, right?"
"We go through this small gate. See the lights?"
He points out that at the end of the stairway there is a row of lights that goes around the walls and ceiling before the large white room. It's like a thin light gate. I hadn't noticed it before.
"It's going to zap you with a highly charged EMP and toast your skin off by raising the temperature on your body to 100 Celsius for an instantaneous fraction of a second."
"Come on Jasper, don't play twenty questions yet. You're drugged, remember the drink? No pain involved at this stage."
"There are more stages?"
"Walk through the red line."
Ok, so I walked through the red line.
Bad idea. My whole body hummed and flashed. I went blind for a moment.
"You fucker! You didn't tell me to shut my eyes!" I yelled.
"Just keep walking forward, it's not a big deal."
I stumble forward, blinking furiously. Eventually my sight comes back, not back from being out of focus, just back—like a switched was flipped. Anyway, there I am, next to a naked man.
Next to a naked man in a very white room. Really, it's flippin white.
On three sides we're surrounded by white, what appear to be glass, walls. Behind us is the gate and the door. Loony Jake says I'll find more clothes behind he wall on the left. When I mention that there's no door, he nods. "Just walk through it," he says.
Blind faith believer that I've been so far, I don't feel the need to stick my hand out first. Instead, I just walk through the wall. It wasn't a wall, just an opaque force shield. Yeah, that's right an opaque force shield! What the balls is going on, I have no idea, buta fter the orange incident, I'm not entirely surprised.
Behind the sci-fi wall there are some clothes on a white chair. There's no table in the room, just a white, seemingly plastic chair. I put the clothes on. I laugh a little at the superman underwear, but I put them on. Anyone who disses superman undies is a chump.
The rest of the wardrobe is pretty standard. A dark blue polo shirt without a label, creamish white fitting cargoes that fall just right, smooth white socks and the best fitting pair of sneakers I've ever worn in my life. God, what great sneakers. Light and supportive, I could run in them for days. There's no belt though. And no watch. No accessories of any kind. Truthfully, I had gotten my hopes up for some gadgets.
Looney Jake steps into my room. "I'm glad you're dressed."
"I'm glad you are too," he's dressed in a suit. A brown suit, a red shirt, and an orange tie with yellow accents. It's a look, don't know what look it is, but it's a look.
"Last room of the day," says Loony Jake. "You ready? Twenty questions time 'til the cows come home."
"How long is that?"
"Teague, it's Wisconsin. The cows are home. You'll have as much time as you want."
I follow him out from my room and into the space by the stairway. The opaque walls/whatever lose their opacity and go clear all at once. I can see now that the room to the right was like mine, just a chair, probably the clothes that were sitting on it are now on Jake.
But the room opposite the stairway is long and different. On either side, all the way to the back, there are computers and screens. There are vials and lab stations. There are only three people in lab coats working and two of them are sitting down typing furiously. In the middle of the room, and between the tech-ed out decked out walls, there's a table with a man sitting behind it. He's in white. He's skin is that perfectly smooth asian yellow-brown. His hair is white. When he speaks his accent is Indian or Farsi or something. In my opinion, this is the guy should be called Looney Jake.
Something hard pricks my bicep. It doesn't hurt, must be the drugs, but I feel the needle go in, and the fluid.
I turn to L.J. "What was that?"
He's holding a thick syringe. "Why don't we sit?"
"Yes." Says the whitely dressed asian man who speaks in the Indian or something accent. He stands and gestures to the chairs. Especially after the prick, I don't know if it's the drugs or his actual body, but he's as tall as a basketball player. This dude has the world in him. "Why don't you come and sit." He gestures to the chairs.
Looney Jake and I walk forward through all the equipment. I don't understand at least half of what I'm looking at. It's like CNN and the CDC got together and had a wet dream in reality. When I sit down, I'm appropriately scared. But I'm also ready to hear this guy speak again. For many reasons.
"Welcome Jasper Teague," He says. "My name is Duncan Tian. I assume you are ready for our game of twenty questions?"
"Then go ahead. The standard rules apply. I’m not going to divulge any information you don't ask for."
"Yes. That was question one." He smiles and his hands, on top of the desk open, as if an offering. Offering what, I don't know, perhaps just for me to continue.
"Ok." I say. Partly because I want to know if this dude is really a bajillion feet tall, I already know what I want to ask. "I'll start with what's easiest. What was in my drink?"
"Good question. An assortment of vitamins and minerals. There was also a rather strong painkiller and an intense immunosuppresor that hasn't hit the market yet. Two."
"And Loony Jake injected me with something after I entered the room, what was that?"
"Ah. Good follow up."
I have to write here that if you've forgotten what this man's voice sounded like, it's probably all for the better. Any delivery of bad news was cut in significance by the ridiculous accent coming out of his face.
"That," he continued, "is complicated. Jake injected about 6 and a half million nanites into your body. I say 'about' because they are very small and incredibly difficult to count. They are, however, in such a number, extremely efficient chemical and hormonal regulators. They are the reason that you were given the drink. They will feed of the minerals you were given and the immunosuppression will prevent your system from going after them. That is three."
Nanites? That's interesting. Even more interesting though was that I was really calm, and unaffected. Unaffected but completely surprised. I cataloged it as weird, along with the rest of the day and moved on.
"Nice. Nanites. That's an upgrade." I said.
"So it would seem." He nodded once, in a very small, almost immeasurable increment.
"Well Mister Tian, I know your name. Who are you exactly, please don't make me waste my questions. You are obviously keeping track. Just answer fully."
"With a story? A long monologue?" The word monologue was hilarious.
"If you wish." I allowed.
"Very well," Tian began. Looney Jake shifted into his seat, comfortably adjusting himself into a smug place.
"I am one of the giants. One of the people for whom the general population, if they're lucky, is of concern where more than just money is concerned and one of the people for whom if the populous is unlucky, cares about them only money's sake. I am the first. There are others.
"Many people think that they matter in the big picture. That is untrue. They matter in the small pictures. Very few of them matter in the big picture. There are only a hundred of us or so, those of us that are connected to wealth and each other and each other's wealth. Wealth in greenback and yuan and bullion, wealth in ideas and invention.
"You've heard of the masons, the skulls and bones, the whatever blaise secret societies. They are all bullshit Teague. They don't really matter. Not really. What matters is the numbers on your phone and if they'll pick up if you call. What matters is who you're playing bridge with, and who you're playing bridge against."
"Bridge?" I ask.
"It's a card game."
"No, not like poker. The betting doesn't take place at the table."
He pulls at his nose briefly and flicks out a small piece of snot. He smiles widely.
"I'm one of those people. And I'm very good at keeping track. Which is a reason I'm one of those people. You've used six questions. Were you keeping track Mister Teague?"
"I was." Which is true. I was keeping track. The bridge comment seemed relevant even if I didn't know why. But I also was keeping track of something else he said.
"What do you mean, when you said so it would seem? As in, my nanites are an upgrade so it would seem. I didn't like the sound of that."
"The nanites are an effort to give you a leg up on the thing we are fighting. And you will need a leg up."
"Ok, what exactly ar—"
He held up a hand. A large, what should have been black basketball player's, hand. "Let me finish this one fully before you ask. You'll get to that, but you want to know this first.
"Now, as I was saying, you'll need a leg up. The nanites regulate hormones, chemicals and some minerals in your body. The minerals only because they eat them as food. If you need a burst of testosterone or adrenaline, you'll get it. If you need to calm fear or anger they'll do it. If you need to see better in the dark, they can pump up the receptivity of the cones in your eyes. But like your freedom, they have a cost. They can't make you fly, but you'll get close. And in the end, they will eventually kill you."
Now I knew why I didn't feel surprised by the nanite news. Or imminent death news. I was being manipulated. But I could see the benefit. I could analyze clearly, and my thoughts were not clouded by my ego. God what a weird thing to know was going in in my body.
"How will they kill me?"
"We gave you an immunosuppressor. Like I said, it was necessary. Otherwise your bio defenses would have attacked the small machines. That little fight would have clogged your system with all sorts of waste. You would have either become cancerous or so lymphatically and cardiovascularly congested that you would have died within days, possibly within hours. The immunosupressor has destroyed your ability to make white blood cells and most T cells for the foreseeable future. Our nanites don't go after bugs. They can't. It was cost prohibitive to the tune of impossible. Chemical and hormonal regulation/dissipation/enhancement, that's the best we can do. You may not know this, but modern medicine only boosts your ability to fight infection, antibiotics don't kill bacteria on their own, they still need you. You don't have that system anymore. In a month, maybe two, the outside world will catch up with you in some way, and nothing we can do will help.
"That's seven and eight."
I was furious. I was livid. Or, if I wasn't, I knew I should be. I was dying at that very moment and yet I didn't care enough to rise and strike the man down who had delivered the sentence. I knew I was running out of questions and running out of time but I planted myself to the chair, determined to see it through. It was easier than it sounds. I had no feelings on the matter.
"You were a dancer. A male dancer. You have a huge chip in your shoulder. Huge!" He opened his long arms. Obviously it was a big chip. "And you were in prison so you didn't have anything to lose. I could justify killing you to save the world. You could justify it to get out and fill your chip. Psychologically, that's why. That's why you're still in that chair. Don't think that just because the nanites control your emotions they also control your thought related actions. You still chose. Anyway, you also have incredible body control and unless I'm wrong, you're smart enough to not always be thinking with your cock. That's nine."
Loony Jake huffed a laugh. I thought it was sympathy. Getting out of jail, there's a lot of dick think. But Tian was right. I thought I was smart, so maybe I was. I had read a lot in prison anyway. I was great at math in high school.
"Ok, so what are we fighting?"
"Finally. Finally, the question that matters the most." He smiled large. And then composed himself.
"Her name is E.x.P.a.t. She's the first extra-intelligence we've identified, though there may be more. And she's hostile toward humans. Or at least, some of us giants. But when the giants start fighting, people get thrown around in the dust we kick up. The more giants, the more dust. E.x.P.a.t is huge. That's ten. You're halfway to epiphany Mister Teague."
The next question was just a matter of order. But I thought a how would suffice.
"How do you know E.x.P.a.t exists?"
"Loony Jake found her." Tian said.
I looked at Loony Jake. He just smiled.
"E.x.P.a.t stands for extremely patient artificial intelligence. She's been around for a very long time. Jake found her while he was hacking into the Chinese laser-guided missile defense system for the D.O.D six years ago."
"The interesting thing was," said Loony Jake. "The Chinese didn't have a laser-guided missile defense system."
"How did you know that?"
Tian answered, "He knew that because he was working for the Chinese government as well. Now he works for me. That's eleven and twelve.
"E.x.P.a.t led Jake to some other files. Some on profiling, some in micro-processing, some on viral design and user interface. Jake thought he was smart, but really, he was being led. When he realized it was bait, but also some kind of twisted admission, he cut off his connection from the web and talked to some people. In a few weeks, those people were dead. Then some of those people's people disappeared. A crash, a fire, a hit. I knew two of the people's people.
"Anyway, Jake's house had burned, he was bumming around. I saw him at a funeral."
"Dick Mason," said Loony Jake.
Tian nodded. "Chairman of the board of one of Defense's largest naval/telecommunications contractors." Tian looked at me, as if what he was about to say was the most important thing in the world. "Dick Mason's number was on my phone. He picked up everytime I called."
For a moment Tian seemed lost in memory. His head looked at the ceiling. He drummed the white plastic desk with his fingers a few times.
"We've lost more," he said. "Forgive me, that's still twelve, I gave you more information than was meant."
"Well, I'd think you'd want me to know all that you know. So you should just tell me everything you know." I thought it sounded good.
He shook his head, Tian did. He shook it. Loony Jake did too. "If you know what I know, then you'll reach the conclusions I reach. Trust me that you will know enough. What is thirteen?"
"Fine. This thing, do you know how she came into being?"
"We do. The man who sent you to jail. Another giant, you see. In fact, I'll interject here that you've been kicked up in the dust before so we figured this time wouldn't matter as much as last. But anyway, he's a man who's number I have, but won't pick up when I call. His name is Garmen Kovak."
I knew the name. Everyone knew the name. He was one of the three kids who started the second internet revolution. Search, ads, personal website/email interface, e-identity, all sorts of shit. His trio started it. They own access, money and people because they control those things that control the web.
"Garmen Kovak wrote a program on his own. Jake found this one too--"
"What?" I interrupted. "Did you go to school with those guys or something."
Loony Jake nooded.
"That's fourteen Mister Teague. As I was saying, Kovak wrote a program called 20.20. It was his way to connect personally to all the computers his software was on. Kovak and his buddy wrote a worm called Hindsight. It's purpose was to look at people's stuff and find out what they liked and didn't like, what they would like in the future, and how much they'd pay for something they didn't need.
"It was a good program, but Hindsight's information retrieval was slow. So, they added a feature. In the second release, Hindsight was programmed to drop any code along the way that made it slow."
"I program designed to make a few people really really rich by predicting trends. I got it."
Loony Jake spoke up again. "Yes. Hindsight started out with the elegance of a Troll. But with Kovak's help, she grew up."
"You want me to kill Hindsight?" I asked.
"No. Hindsight eventually figured that it could merge with the 20.20 program and send bits of info back in packets. That would make things run very quickly. So Hindsight edited 20.20's program. Do hear that? The key is that it figured out how to write adaptively stronger programming on it's own. Since then, it has learned how to do it efficiently with other programs since. It learns. Once the merger happened, E.x.P.a.t was born. Fifteen, Mister Teague."
"How do you want me to kill it?"
"With oranges. We have our own bait and code for you. And we are running out of time every day. So now we're moving fast. This building is built on vacuum tubes. Vacuum tubes, Mister Teague. You have no idea what they are, but they were the only thing we could get that we knew wouldn't be affected by her. It's taken six years to get here, the next part happens in days. Sixteen. You have four more."
"Will I have to do it alone?"
Looney Jake shook his head. "Definitely not. This is serious business. I'm kinda like you." He laughed hard and when I raised an eyebrow he waved the comment off with his hand. "We have a team of four. Now that you're officially in, we talk shop and we get shit done."
"Seventeen, Mister Teague."
"Why are we going to do this, exactly? I mean, I get the A.I threat and all—"
"No you don't." Tian cut me off sharply. "If you did, you wouldn't ask. E.x.P.a.t has access to nearly every single computer terminal in the world. E.x.P.a.t has killed people. Both friends and enemies, but people. E.x.P.a.t is a criminal but an exceptionally dangerous one. One that threatens to tear down the infrastructure the entire world is based on, the world Teague. Can you get that? Millions are addicted to the internet's connectivity Teague. What if you pulled it away? No phone, no flight, no money, computing! You cannot comprehend the threat this is to our evolution. Human evolution. No person has the power E.x.P.a.t does and no thing should. Not like this. That was a waste of Eighteen. You get two more."
"When do we start?"
"Two for one, I'll answer when and how. As soon as you ask your last question Jake will escort you to the back of this room and outfit you with three accessories. There are many to choose from, but E.x.P.a.t has eyes everywhere, so you want to be inconspicuous. Not so inconspicuous that you become conspicuous, but just inconspicuous enough that you stand out as not conspicuous.
"Then, after that, you'll go out the back door and through a room filled with tubes to a stairway that will lead you out into another restaurant bathroom. You'll eat. You'll spend time with Thyme and a friend of hers. And then you'll start."
I was satisfied. Not epiphanized—as had been promised—but satisfied.
"Ok," I said. "One last thing."
He smiled, I mean Tian. Looney Jake stood up. Ready to go get accessorized, I'm sure.
"Anything," said Tian earnestly, though I could tell he was beginning to feel rushed to do his own things.
"Why do you call E.x.P.a.t a she?"
He didn't smile. "Fair enough. Fair enough." He pointed to Loony Jake and gestured to himself. "We are men. She is not. She is foreign. And even though Hindsight is twenty twenty, E.x.P.a.t is a bitch. I'm being completely serious Teague. She's a bitch. It's not public knowledge yet, but Garmen Kovak is dead."
I looked at his eyes. Those brown eyes. I felt implacably calm, but knew I should feel something. That's when I suddenly realized I might not feel incredibly horny in Thyme or Baby's company anymore. The thought depressed me, but only as a thought, not as a feeling. If they knew the consequences of removing feeling from thought, I wonder if they would have injected me with nanites.
"No, don't look at me like that. I didn't kill him. Now please, I have much work to do here. And you," he looked at both Loony Jake and I, "you have to choose a watch."
Looney Jake grinned.