Chapter 24


"We've been checking the wrong company."
Fernandez frowned, then looked over at the Conley-White table. Meredith was nodding with Ed Nichols and pointing with one hand, her
other hand flat on the table for balance. Her fingers were touching Ed Nichols. He was peering at the sheets of data over his glasses.
"Stupid glasses . . ." Sanders said.
No wonder Meredith wouldn't press harassment charges against him. It would have been too embarrassing for her relationship with Ed Nichols. And no wonder Garvin wouldn't fire her. It made perfect sense. Nichols was already uneasy about the merger-his affair with Meredith might be all that was holding it in place.
Fernandez sighed. "You think so? Nichols?"
"Yeah. Why not?"
Fernandez shook her head. "Even if it's true, it doesn't help us. They can argue paramour preference, they can argue lots of things-if there's even an argument that needs to be made. This isn't the first merger made in the sack, you know. I say, forget it."
"You mean to tell me," he said, "that there's nothing improper with her having an affair with someone at Conley-White and being promoted as a result?"
"Nothing at all. At least, not in the strict legal sense. So forget it."
Suddenly he remembered what Kaplan had said. She was looking in the wrong direction when they fired her.
"I'm tired," he said.
"We all are. They look tired, too."
Across the room, the meeting was breaking up. Papers were being put back into briefcases. Meredith and Garvin were chatting with them. They all started leaving. Garvin shook hands with Carmine, who opened the front door for his departing guests.
And then it happened.
There was the sudden harsh glare of quartz lights, shining in from the street outside. The group huddled together, trapped in the light. They cast long shadows back into the restaurant.
"What's going on?" Fernandez said.
Sanders turned to look, but already the group was ducking back inside, closing the door. There was a moment of sudden chaos. They heard Garvin say, "Goddamn it," and spin to Blackburn.
Blackburn stood, a stricken look on his face, and rushed over to Garvin. Garvin was shifting from foot to foot. He was simultaneously trying to reassure the Conley-White people and chew out Blackburn.
Sanders went over. "Everything okay?"
"It's the goddamned press," Garvin said. "KSEA-TV is out there." "This is an outrage," Meredith said.
"They're asking about some harassment suit," Garvin said, looking darkly at Sanders.
Sanders shrugged.
"I'll speak to them," Blackburn said. "This is just ridiculous."
"I'll say it's ridiculous," Garvin said. "It's an outrage, is what it is."
Everyone seemed to be talking at once, agreeing that it was an outrage. But Sanders saw that Nichols looked shaken. Now Meredith was leading them out of the restaurant the back way, onto the terrace. Blackburn went out the front, into the harsh lights. He held up his hands, like a man being arrested. Then the door closed.
Nichols was saying, "Not good, not good."
"Don't worry, I know the news director over there," Garvin was saying. "I'll put this one away."
Jim Daly said something about how the merger ought to be confidential.
"Don't worry," Garvin said grimly. "It's going to be confidential as hell by the time I get through."
Then they were gone, out the back door, into the night. Sanders went back to the table, where Fernandez was waiting.
"A little excitement," Fernandez said calmly.
"More than a little," Sanders said. He glanced across the room at Stephanie Kaplan, still having dinner with her son. The young man was talking, gesturing with his hands, but Kaplan was staring fixedly at the back door, where the Conley-White people had departed. She had a curious expression on her face. Then, after a moment, she turned back and resumed her conversation with her son.
The evening was black, damp, and unpleasant. He shivered as he walked back to his office with Fernandez.
"How did a television crew get the story?"
"Probably from Walsh," Fernandez said. "But maybe another way. It's really a small town. Anyway, never mind that. You've got to prepare for the meeting tomorrow."
"I've been trying to forget that."
"Yeah. Well, don't."
Ahead they saw Pioneer Square, with windows in the buildings still brightly lit. Many of the companies here had business with Japan, and stayed open to overlap with the first hours of the day in Tokyo.
"You know," Fernandez said, "watching her with those men, I noticed how cool she was."
"Yes. Meredith is cool."
"Very controlled."
"Yes. She is."
"So why did she approach you so overtly-and on her first day? What was the rush?"
What is the problem she is trying to solve? Max had said. Now Fernandez was asking the same thing. Everyone seemed to understand except Sanders.
You're not a victim.
So, solve it, he thought.
Get to work.
He remembered the conversation when Meredith and Blackburn were leaving the conference room.
It should be quite smooth and impersonal. After all, you have the facts on your side. He's clearly incompetent.
He still can't get into the database?
No. He 's locked out of the system.
And there's no way he can get into Conley -Whiter system?
No way in hell, Meredith.
They were right, of course. He couldn't get into the system. But what difference would it make if he could?
Solve the problem, Max had said. Do what you do best.
Solve the problem.
"Hell," Sanders said.
"It'll come," Fernandez said.
It was nine-thirty. On the fourth floor, cleaning crews worked in the central partition area. Sanders went into his office with Fernandez. He didn't really know why they were going there. There wasn't anything he could think to do, now.
Fernandez said, "Let me talk to Alan. He might have something." She sat down and began to dial.
Sanders sat behind his desk, and stared at the monitor. On the screen, his email message read:
"I don't see how," he said, looking at the screen. He felt irritable, playing with a puzzle that everyone could solve except him.
Fernandez said, "Alan? Louise. What have you got? Uh-huh. Uhhuh. Is that . . . Well, that's very disappointing, Alan. No, I don't know, now. If you can, yes. When would you be seeing her? All right. Whatever you can." She hung up. "No luck tonight."
"But we've only got tonight."
Sanders stared at the message on the computer screen. Somebody inside the company was trying to help him. Telling him he was checking the wrong company. The message seemed to imply that there was a way for him to check the other company. And presumably, whoever knew enough to send this message also knew that Sanders had been cut out of the DigiCom system, his privileges revoked.
What could he do?
Fernandez said, "Who do you think this `Afriend' is?"
"I don't know."
"Suppose you had to guess."
"I don't know."
"What comes into your mind?" she said.
He considered the possibility that `Afriend' was Mary Anne Hunter. But Mary Anne wasn't really a technical person; her strength was marketing. She wasn't likely to be sending routed messages over the Internet. She probably didn't know what the Internet was. So: not Mary Anne.
And not Mark Lewyn. Lewyn was furious at him.
Don Cherry? Sanders paused, considering that. In a way, this was just like Cherry. But the only time that Sanders had seen him since this began, Cherry had been distinctly unfriendly.
Not Cherry.
Then who else could it be? Those were the only people with executive sysop access in Seattle. Hunter, Lewyn, Cherry. A short list.
Stephanie Kaplan? Unlikely. At heart, Kaplan was plodding and unimaginative. And she didn't know enough about computers to do this.
Was it somebody outside the company? It could be Gary Bosak, he thought. Gary probably felt guilty about having turned his back on Sanders. And Gary had a hacker's devious instincts-and a hacker's sense of humor.
It might very well be Gary.
But it still didn't do Sanders any good.
You were always good at technical problems. That was always your strength.
He pulled out the Twinkle CD-ROM drive, still in plastic. Why would they want it wrapped that way?
Never mind, he thought. Stay focused.
There was something wrong with the drive. If he knew what, he would have the answer. Who would know?
Wrapped in plastic.
It was something to do with the production line. It must be. He fumbled with the material on his desk and found the DAT cartridge. He inserted it into the machine.
It came up, showing his conversation with Arthur Kahn. Kahn was on one side of the screen, Sanders on the other.
Behind Arthur, the brightly lit assembly line beneath banks of fluorescent lights. Kahn coughed, and rubbed his chin. "Hello, Tom. How are you?"
"I'm fine, Arthur," he said.
"Well, good. I'm sorry about the new organization."
But Sanders wasn't listening to the conversation. He was looking at Kahn. He noticed now that Kahn was standing very close to the camera, so close that his features were slightly blurred, out of focus. His face was large, and blocked any clear view of the production line behind him. "You know how I feel personally," Kahn was saying, on the screen.
His face was blocking the line.
Sanders watched a moment more, and then switched the tape off. "Let's go downstairs," he said.
"You have an idea?"
"Call it a last-ditch hope," he said.
The lights clicked on, harsh lights shining on the tables of the Diagnostic team. Fernandez said, "What is this place?"
"This is where they check the drives."
"The drives that don't work?"
Fernandez gave a little shrug. "I'm afraid I'm not-"
"Me neither," Sanders said. "I'm not a technical person. I can just read people."
She looked around the room. "Can you read this?"
He sighed. "No."
Fernandez said, "Are they finished?" "I don't know," he said.
And then he saw it. They were finished. They had to be. Because otherwise the Diagnostics team would be working all night, trying to get ready for the meeting tomorrow. But they had covered the tables up and gone to their professional association meeting because they were finished. The problem was solved. Everybody knew it but him. That was why they had only opened three drives. They didn't need to open the others. And they had asked for them to be sealed in plastic . . . Because . . . The punctures . . . "Air," he said. "Air?" "They think it's the air." "What air?" she said. "The air in the plant." "The plant in Malaysia?" "Right."
"This is about air in Malaysia?"
"No. Air in the plant."
He looked again at the notebook on the table. "PPU" followed by a row of figures. PPU stood for "particulates per unit." It was the standard measure of air cleanliness in a plant. And these figures, ranging from two to eleven they were way off. They should be running zero particulates . . . one, at most. These figures were unacceptable.
The air in the plant was bad.
That meant that they would be getting dirt in the split optics, dirt in the drive arms, dirt in the chip joins . . .
He looked at the chips attached to the board.
"Christ," he said.
"What is it?"
"I don't see anything."
"There's a space between the chips and the boards. The chips aren't seated."
"It looks okay to me."
"It's not."
He turned to the stacked drives. He could see at a glance that all the chips were seated differently. Some were tight, some had a gap of a few millimeters, so you could see the metal contacts.
"This isn't right," Sanders said. "This should never happen." The fact was that the chips were inserted on the line by automated chip pressers. Every board, every chip should look exactly the same coming off the line. But they didn't. They were all different. Because of that, you could get voltage irregularities, memory allocation problems-all kinds of random stuff. Which was exactly what they were getting.
He looked at the blackboard, the list of the flowchart. One item caught his eye.
D. Mechanical
The Diagnostics team had put two checks beside "Mechanical." The problem with the CD-ROM drives was a mechanical problem. Which meant it was a problem in the production line.
And the production line was his responsibility.
He'd designed it, he'd set it up. He'd checked all the specs on that line, from beginning to end.
And now it wasn't working right.
He was sure that it wasn't his fault. Something must have happened after he had set up the line. Somehow it had been changed around, and it didn't work anymore. But what had happened?
To find out, he needed to get onto the databases.
But he was locked out.
There wasn't any way to get online.
Immediately, he thought of Bosak. Bosak could get him on. So, for that matter, could one of the programmers on Cherry's teams. These kids were hackers: they would break into a system for a moment of minor amusement the way ordinary people went out for coffee. But there weren't any programmers in the building now. And he didn't know when they would be back from their meeting. Those kids were so unreliable. Like the kid that had thrown up all over the walker pad. That was the problem. They were just kids, playing with toys like the walker pad. Bright creative kids, fooling around, no cares at all, and
"Oh,Jesus." He sat forward. "Louise."
"There's a way to do this."
"Do what?"
"Get into the database." He turned and hurried out of the room. He was rummaging through his pockets, looking for the second electronic passcard.
Fernandez said, "Are we going somewhere?"
Yes, we are."
"Do you mind telling me where?"
"New York," Sanders said.
The lights flicked on one after another, in long banks. Fernandez stared at the room. "What is this? The exercise room from hell?"
"It's a virtual reality simulator," Sanders said.
She looked at the round walker pads, and all the wires, the cables hanging from the ceiling. "This is how you're going to get to New York?"
"That's right."
Sanders went over to the hardware cabinets. There were large hand-painted signs reading, "Do Not Touch" and "Hands Off, You Little Wonk." He hesitated, looking for the control console.
"I hope you know what you're doing," Fernandez said. She stood by one of the walker pads, looking at the silver headset. "Because I think somebody could get electrocuted with this."
"Yeah, I know." Sanders lifted covers off monitors and put them back on again, moving quickly. He found the master switch. A moment later, the equipment hummed. One after another, the monitors began to glow. Sanders said, "Get up on the pad."
He came over and helped her stand on the walker pad. Fernandez moved her feet experimentally, feeling the balls roll. Immediately, there was a green flash from the lasers. "What was that?"
"The scanner. Mapping you. Don't worry about it. Here's the headset." He brought the headset down from the ceiling and started to place it over her eyes.
`Just a minute." She pulled away. "What is this?"
"The headset has two small display screens. They project images right in front of your eyes. Put it on. And be careful. These things are expensive."
"How expensive?"
"A quarter of a million dollars apiece." He fitted the headset over her eyes and put the headphones over her ears.
"I don't see any images. It's dark in here."
"That's because you're not plugged in, Louise." He plugged in her cables.
"Oh," she said, in a surprised voice. "What do you know . . . I can see a big blue screen, like a movie screen. Right in front of me. At the bottom of the screen there are two boxes. One says `ON' and one says 'OFF'.
'Just don't touch anything. Keep your hands on this bar," he said, putting her fingers on the walker handhold. "I'm going to mount up."
"This thing on my head feels funny."
Sanders stepped up onto the second walker pad and brought the headset down from the ceiling. He plugged in the cable. "I'll be right with you," he said.
He put on the headset.
Sanders saw the blue screen, surrounded by blackness. He looked to his left and saw Fernandez standing beside him. She looked entirely normal, dressed in her street clothes. The video was recording her appearance, and the computer eliminated the walker pad and the headset.
"I can see you," she said, in a surprised voice. She smiled. The part of her face covered by the headset was computer animated, giving her a slightly unreal, cartoonlike quality.
"Walk up to the screen."
`Just walk, Louise." Sanders started forward on the walker pad. The blue screen became larger and larger, until it filled his field of vision. He went over to the ON button, and pushed it with his finger.
The blue screen flashed. In huge lettering, stretching wide in front of them, it said:
Beneath that was listed a column of oversize menu items. The screen looked exactly like an ordinary DigiCom monitor screen, the kind on everybody's office desk, now blown up to enormous size.
"A gigantic computer terminal," Fernandez said. "Wonderful. Just what everybody has been hoping for."
"Just wait." Sanders poked at the screen, selecting menu items. There was a kind of whoosh and the lettering on the screen curved inward, pulling back and deepening until it formed a sort of funnel that stretched away from them into the distance. Fernandez was silent.
That shut her up, he thought.
Now, as they watched, the blue funnel began to distort. It widened, became rectangular. The lettering and the blue color faded. Beneath his feet, a floor emerged. It looked like veined marble. The walls on both sides became wood paneling. The ceiling was white.
"It's a corridor," she said, in a soft voice.
The Corridor continued to build itself, progressively adding more detail. Drawers and cabinets appeared in the walls. Pillars formed along its length. Other hallways opened up, leading down to other corridors. Large light fixtures emerged from the walls and turned themselves on. Now the pillars cast shadows on the marble floors.
"It's like a library," she said. "An old-fashioned library."
"This part is, yes."
"How many parts are there?"
"I'm not sure." He started walking forward.
She hurried to catch up to him. Through his earphones, he heard the sound of their feet clicking on the marble floor. Cherry had added that-a nice touch.
Fernandez asked, "Have you been here before?"
"Not for several weeks. Not since it was finished."
"Where are we going?"
"I'm not exactly sure. But somewhere in here there's a way to get into the Conley-White database."
She said, "Where are we now?"
"We're in data, Louise. This is all just data."
"This corridor is data?"
"There is no corridor. Everything you see is just a bunch of numbers. It's the DigiCom company database, exactly the same database that people access every day through their computer terminals. Except it's being represented for us as a place."
She walked alongside him. "I wonder who did the decorating."
"It's modeled on a real library. In Oxford, I think."
They came to the junction, with other corridors stretching away. Big signs hung overhead. One said "Accounting." Another said "Human Resources." A third said "Marketing."
"I see," Fernandez said. "We're inside your company database."
"That's right."
"This is amazing."
"Yeah. Except we don't want to be here. Somehow, we have to get into Conley-White."
"How do we do that?"