"I just thought we might do, you know, something besides coffee this time." Jack Carter wasn't sure exactly what he had to say to Allison; he just knew he had to say something. Ever since she'd accepted Stark's proposal - or re-proposal, really - Jack had felt awkward around her, and that wasn't good for him, personally, or (more importantly) for their working relationship. When Jo had commented on how stiff he was with Dr. Blake, he'd finally admitted out loud that he needed to talk to someone, and right now Eureka was short its town counselor, so he was going to have to face Allison directly.
Allison stopped just short of the main stairway into the lobby of Global Dynamics. "I'd love to, Carter, I really would, but my schedule for the next couple of days is extremely tight. We've got another senator coming in tomorrow morning for a tour of our anti-global-warming projects, and Nathan's little brother arrives at noon the next day - between the engagement and something about developments at the family business, he'll be here until the weekend." She smiled, but there was a nervousness around her eyes that told him she was aware of the tension between them, and didn't like it any more than he did. "How about a long breakfast on Saturday? We could take one of the outside tables at Cafe Diem, and -"
Zane came flying up the stairs three at a time and nearly knocked them both over, veering and dodging to avoid crashing into either one of them and only barely managing the trick. Halfway across the room, barreling out of the side stairwell, Fargo did crash into a transparent divider and levered himself around it, keeping his momentum and his glasses by force of will and some fancy footwork. Zane's sneakers squeaked on the floor as he dodged between two security guys and into Larry's cubicle; Fargo had already flung himself into his desk, hands flying across the keyboard before he'd even sat down. The same rapid-fire clicking chorused out of both pods as the two hackers logged in and shifted from their visible race into an invisible one.
Only then did the klaxon and the flashing yellow light go off. Allison grabbed her headset. "Security, this is Blake, report!" She dialed up the exterior knob so Jack could hear. "Dr. Blake, this is Gordon with Security. We have a Code Indigo Alpha situation. I have no details at the moment; I'll get back to you as soon as I have some information."
Allison grimaced. "A Code Indigo Alpha is a -"
"Computer break-in?" Jack was watching Zane. The lanky young man's face hovered mere inches from the high-definition screen; he had at least half a dozen windows open, showing a bewildering combination of text, images, slider bars, and in one case what looked like hexadecimal code. He was typing so fast Carter could barely make out his fingers.
"Any Code Indigo is a computer break-in," Allison elaborated. She started walking towards Fargo's desk; Jack followed. "An Indigo Alpha is specifically an intrusion in the the GD computer system by a self-contained program package - it's not being directed by someone; it was inserted and then left to fend for itself. Normally, it wouldn't result in an alarm call; the system's defenses should isolate and deactivate any rogue code without needing guidance. Fargo, what's going on?" she pointedly asked her executive assistant.
Fargo didn't even turn in her direction. His only indication that he'd heard her was his left hand leaving the keyboard briefly to hold up his index finger; his right hand never broke rhythm. He glanced from window to window on the screen, bouncing between them without even using the mouse or the touchscreen.
Allison folded her arms. "Fargo -"
"Please, one minute, this could be really bad." Fargo still remained focused on the screen. Somewhere behind them, Larry came charging into the lobby, squeaking at anyone in reach, "It's gotten in! The Great Internet Worm has gotten in! I - " He stopped, put his hands on his hips, and frowned, then stalked over to where Jack and Allison were standing. "Dr. Blake, Dr. Donovan is using my computer."
"Pincher maneuver, go." Fargo murmured at his screen.
"I know, Larry. It's okay." Allison tried to sound soothing.
"Dr. Blake, we're under assault by a computer program that is to a normal computer virus as a T. Rex is to the common cold!"
"Mr. Haberman, take a deep breath. Dinosaurs aren't viruses." Jack wasn't sure that was the right thing to say, but it would have to do for the moment.
"Aaaaaaaand . . . Got it!" Fargo's triumphant cry and fist pump was echoed by a whoop from the cubicle. "Okay, Dr. Blake, we've confined it to one server and locked it behind a firewall. I don't know how to scrub it from the system yet, but it can't affect anything other than the Kepler cluster."
"Can we just shut Kepler down, then?" Allison was back to being the boss.
"It'd take half an hour, longer if we try to do backups around this thing, and if we don't, we'll lose nearly a month's worth of research on certain projects, including most of the cloud seeding project." Fargo pointed at one window; it was a list of which files weren't redundantly backed up. Jack made a mental note to suggest they make sure things were stored in more than one place when this was all over.
"And that's one of the ones Senator Caryton specifically mentioned wanting to see." The director of Global Dynamics rubbed at her temples with one hand. "How long will it take you two to figure out how to delete it?" Allison shook her head, a little, looking at the list of files.
"Don't know yet," answered Zane, as he approached Fargo's desk. He and the smaller man exchanged a glance of grudging respect. Larry bolted for his cubicle, eager to reclaim his space. Zane continued, "It keeps re-writing parts of its own code. It's phenomenally complex, and it adapts to its surroundings. The only reason we got it that quick is that it's not good at paying attention to two things at once."
"How did you know what was going on before the alarm went off?" asked Carter, trying not to sound suspicious. Fargo held up the wrist with his watch, and Zane did the same with his phone. "There's a silent alarm program that sends me a signal whenever primary system security fails, while secondary security is still active. After Pretty-boy here," Fargo jerked his chin at Zane, "hacked into it on his own and set it off, I showed him how to tap into it directly."
Allison blinked. Jack realized she was going to be annoyed at Stark if he'd known about that and hadn't told her. She pursed her lips briefly, and then asked, "So where did this thing come from?"
"That's the funny part," grinned Zane. "Near as the traces show, it appeared fully blown in the system in a data port in Section Four. It wasn't read off a drive, it wasn't keyed in by hand, it wasn't downloaded through a phone line or a fiber cable - it just appeared instantaneously."
"Which means we need to look at that lab right now," Fargo finished, standing up abruptly.
Allison put a hand on his shoulder and steered him back into his chair. "I'd rather we find how get rid of it first, before we figure out how it got here." Fargo looked like he was about to argue, then decided to sulk instead, sinking back into his seat with a hint of a pout. Then he glanced back at the screen. "Oh, crap."
"Now what?" came a chorus of voices around his desk.
"It looks like it's . . . it's reading some of the files stored on Kepler. Or at least, it's searching through them for something." Fargo frowned, then maximized a window. "I'm going to bring up an interface with Kepler's file system so we can see what it's doing."
For a moment, the window filled with static, which then broke up into an oddly flat pattern of diagonal lines - blue and black on one half of the screen, yellow and black on the other, moving slowly as if a camera was panning over them.
"What the hell is that?" murmured Zane, coming around Allison and staring over Fargo's shoulder.
A shape popped up from the bottom of the screen - a head, or at least a reasonable facsimile of one. If one molded a lifelike head out of plastic and then filmed it with a low-resolution camera, one might get something that looked very much like that. It stared out from the screen and blinked. Then a voice blared from the speakers. "Ladies and g-g-gentlemen, we appear to have had an unsch-k-k-keduled ch-channel change. I'm coming at you live, live, live and direct from Channel GD." The image flickered and jerked whenever the voice stuttered. "Combined viewership, currently un-un-unknown. Hey, can you nice, nice people please tell me where you are, are?"
Fargo's eyes had gone so wide Jack was worried he might strain them. Zane's expression was warring between kid-in-a-candy-store glee and child's-worst-nightmare fear.
"Okay, so what is that thing?" Allison prompted her hacker corps.
"I'm Max-Max-Max Headroom. Room. I'm famous; haven't you heard of me? Me?" The apparition on the screen smiled at her; it didn't have separate teeth, just a slash of white.
"Shave and a haircut," said Fargo, in a thin, wavering voice.
"Two b-bits," completed the face on the screen. "Is this a M-m-m-marx Brothers movie? Speaking-ing of Marx, you seem to have s-s-s-some abilities, and I have some needs that need, need, need tending to. How about it?"
"Seriously, guys, what is it?" Allison snapped, her tone more mom than boss.
"It's an artificial intelligence," whispered Fargo. "Those aren't just preprogrammed responses. It's really talking to us."
"That's not that surprising, is it?" asked Jack, puzzled. "I mean, S.A.R.A.H. really talks to me all the time. Doesn't she?"
Fargo nodded. "Yes, she does. She's the only one of her type, though. She, well, her and her prototypes, and Callister are so far the only verified successes at creating a true human-like artificial intelligence. S.A.R.A.H.'s processor core is almost twice the size of her living space. Callister appears to have been a fluke; a dozen other identical prototypes failed to reach sentience. This," he waved at the face, "is pure code - an intelligence completely translated into data. It could run on anything with sufficient memory space and processing power."
"That would explain the funky processing loops," mused Zane.
"Did-did-didn't your mother t-t-tell you it's not polite to point?" The image scowled. "I've been noth-nothing but polite-ite to you, and you still haven't told me where we are or who you, you are."
Jack leaned forward. "Um, hi, Max. I'm Jack Carter. I'm the sheriff. This is Dr. Blake, Dr. Fargo, and Dr. Donovan. You're in Eureka."
The head on the screen sighed. "Finally. Someone with some ans-ans-answers. Should have known I could trust a C-c-c-carter. You wouldn't happen to know how I could get b-b-back to Big Time or Network-ork 23, would you?"
"I don't even know what those are," Jack replied lamely.
"Just flip that dial on any TV screen, you'll, you'll see." Max looked serene.
Zane shrugged. "We don't really have a TV in here. I mean, there's cable in the employee lounge, but - "
Max looked shocked. "No TV? What-what-what uncivilized landscape is this?"
"Is it just me, or does this thing look familiar?" Jack murmured, almost to himself. His phone rang; he turned away from the screen and answered it. "Carter here."
"Hi, Carter. Just wanted to let you know I'll be out of the office on a nuisance call; Lojack spooked Brown's livestock again." Jo sounded even more annoyed than usual.
"Okay. I'm ah, there's a minor situation up here at Global - "
"When is there not?" The shrug was audible in Jo's voice.
"That's the smallest walkie-walkie-talkie I've ever s-s-seen," marveled Max, looking past Fargo's head to the phone.
"Why is Taggart stuttering?" Jo suddenly sounded concerned. Jack whipped around and goggled at the face on the screen. "Uh, Jo, do you know where Taggart is?"
"Isn't he there? I thought I just heard him. I didn't want to call him out for this one; the last time he tried to bust Lojack, he almost broke his ankle."
"No, no, he's not here. That's a, um, a computer simulated voice. I'll explain later. If you do see Taggart, send him up here to GD, okay?"
"No problem. I'll call you when the cows come home." Jo hung up, and Jack closed the phone and dropped it in his pocket. He turned back to see the other three all staring at the visage on the screen.
"He really does look like Taggart, doesn't he?" Fargo mused.
"Or like Taggart did twenty years ago," Allison filled in.
"Who's Tag-Taggart?" Max was suddenly interested. Jack and Allison exchanged a glance.
"Well, blow me over with a bamboo bludgeon," marveled Taggart.
Max responded, "And you're sure you don't have a b-b-b-brother named Edison Carter?"
"Nope. Sorry, mate." Taggart was watching Max on a much larger screen. Fargo was monitoring the background processes that were moving everything except Max off of the Kepler server; Zane was tracking Max himself on the video wall in the blue conference room.
"Nephew? Uncle? Third cousin twice removed?" On the larger screen, Max's tendency to drift relative to his background was much more pronounced. It had started to make Fargo seasick, which was why he'd volunteered for the less glamorous job of server-sitting. It wasn't doing much for Carter's equilibrium either, truth be told.
"Not that I know of." Taggart turned and addressed Dr. Blake. "It really is a striking resemblance. Not perfect, of course, even given the primitive nature of the graphics. And my hair never looked anything like that, thank Nature. But striking all the same." He rubbed his chin. "Edison Carter, eh? You wouldn't happen to know one, would you, Sheriff?"
Jack had already thought about that when Max had explained whose features his were based on. "One of my great-uncles was an Edison Carter, but he didn't look anything like you and he died almost thirty years ago. Other than that, I'm drawing a blank. But it's not that uncommon a name."
Zane nodded. "Even doing some preliminary sorting by age and education level, it's a pretty long list. Doing ID checks on all of them would take a long time."
Fargo poked at his laptop. "Dr. Blake, there are some extra files on the Kepler server that aren't attached to a Global employee or project profile, and aren't part of Max. Max, do you know anything about those?"
"I don't remember pack-k-king any bags," quipped the face on the screen.
"Looks like two text files and an audio file." Fargo looked at Max, who shrugged. The gesture was made more impressive by his shoulders barely being in the frame.
"Allie, what's all the fuss? I got here as quick as I . . . huh." Jack grinned; it wasn't often that one got to see Nathan Stark struck speechless, even for a second. It was over quickly. "And this is a self-generated image here? This is what was injected into the computer system this morning?"
"I'll have you, you, you know I'm not just another pretty face! I'm an ent-t-t-t-tertainer!" The sheriff suddenly realized that Max's eyes were tracking from the screen, not the webcam mounted above it. Jack silently raised his eyebrows and tried to catch Zane's gaze, but the younger man was busy following something on his terminal.
Nathan turned to Taggart. "Okay, what did you do this time?"
Taggart looked offended. "Nothing! I wouldn't mess with your precious computer security system, anyway."
Stark smirked. "I seem to remember some nanites that might disagree with you on that."
"I never did the base programming on those. That was a mistake, anyway." Taggart looked uncomfortable; his carelessness with the nanites had cost lives. "Besides, that was your ego feeding them, through Fargo's little mole-mouse."
Nathan inclined his head lightly, in that way that meant he thought you were wrong but didn't have time to waste arguing with you any further. "Zane, what do we know about our program here?"
"Well, he claims that he's essentially a download of the brain of a TV reporter by the name of Edison Carter," Zane started. Stark raised a single eyebrow; Zane shifted his jaw and continued. "He says he belongs to, or maybe with, a corporation called Network 23, and that we should be able to find it on any television set. We haven't been able to track down any Channel 23 that matches his description. He also claims that our being able to turn a television set off is illegal." Zane paused. "Having chatted with him a bit, he seems to have a different idea of history than we do."
"What? When did that happen?" This was news to Jack. Allison also looked puzzled.
"When you guys went to get Taggart and we moved Max to here," piped up Fargo. "His history and ours seem to diverge in 1988; there was an enormous economic crisis that year that didn't happen here, Bill Clinton was never president, corporations took over a lot of governmental functions . . ."
"It's pretty cyberpunk, honestly," added Zane, with a disarmingly open smile. Dystopia seemed to appeal to him, somehow.
"Wait, wait," interrupted Jack, "Are you seriously telling me that he's from a parallel universe or something?"
"No, just that he's programmed to think he is," Zane said, laughing a little.
Fargo looked up from his laptop. "Although it would explain how he appeared in the system all at once, rather than being downloaded as a data-stream."
"What?" snapped Nathan. Fargo and Zane locked eyes, each waiting for the other one to make the first move, then looked back at him. Zane finally fell on the grenade. "The program appeared instantaneously in the system's memory, all at once. There was no writing process."
"That's impossible," stated Nathan flatly.
"You're right," nodded Fargo. "Dr. Blake, we really need to see the lab this happened in." He snapped his laptop shut and stood up.
"Please tell me it's not the lab that Walter's crazy end-of-the-world machine is stored in," groaned Jack, naming the only device he'd seen so far in Eureka that seemed likely to let things in from parallel worlds.
"No, that's in Section Five," replied Fargo, creeping around the table with his computer tucked under his arm.
"What crazy end-of-the-world machine?" asked Zane, intrigued.
"What kind of place is this, this?" demanded Max, his pixellated eyes wide.
Jack shrugged at the screen. "This is Eureka. What can I tell you? Same thing happened to me when I got here. You get used to it." He followed the two hackers and Dr. Blake out the door.
Nathan and Taggart lowered themselves into two of the conference room chairs. "So, Max?" started Nathan. "Tell me a little about . . . yourself."
"He's left Network 23's system completely?" Murray was deeply unhappy; Edison was beginning to wonder if he really was going to leave tracks in the tile floor from his pacing.
"No, I told you, he's left the whole network system completely. He's not in ours, not in Channel 66's, not in Big Time's, not in any of our competitors big or small. He's gone." The nasal voice coming through the intercom sounded frustrated, too.
"But that's not possible," Theora pointed out.
"You're right; it's not." Bryce was definitely peeved.
Edison put both feet on the floor. "So if it's not possible, how did it happen?"
The intercom sighed. "There's currently a - I don't know what to call it - a data hole in our system. Anything sent to that node in the network goes to the great bit bucket in the sky; it disappears from the system and is unrecoverable."
"Is it a bad memory block?" Theora was pragmatic; if Max was unrecoverable, it was a loss, but she was ready to focus on the even more pressing problem of stopping any more data loss from happening.
"No. And, in fact, the rest of the network is behaving as if the data that 'falls in the hole' is still there, somewhere. It's not reporting memory leakage, which is why we hadn't noticed until I went looking for it."
Murray leaned over the console. "Have we lost any broadcast data?"
"No." Bryce didn't have his videoscreen on, but the eye-roll was practically audible. "Some of our prerecorded broadcasts lost their closed-captioning tracks, and about a half-hour of news is in monophonic sound instead of stereo because the left channel fell in. I've re-routed everything so that it doesn't happen again. But the system's not designed to have a hole in it, and there's no discernible physical cause - no bad memory sectors, no open switches, nothing."
"So what do we do about it?" Theora sounded like she smelled a plan.
Bryce chuckled a little. "I've programmed a protected link routine. I haven't had a chance to test it, but if it works, we should be able to assign it to the memory location of the hole, and then address our commands to the link routine instead of the hole, and pass through that way."
Theora smiled, a little Mona Lisa expression. "How long until we can get started, then?"
"Give me about five minutes to set it up and throw a test packet at it. We'll both need to be ready to start operations as soon as the link is open - I'll clear your path, you look for Max."
"And the rest of the missing data. It may not be much, but Cheviot will blow his top if he finds out it's just gone." Murray rubbed at his forehead.
"If we see it, we'll grab it. I'll ping you when we're ready to go." Bryce cut the intercom without waiting for a response.
Doctors Hartzell and Nouri looked at Allison in complete bafflement. "Yes, we were running our experiment at the time of the computer incident, but our project has nothing to do with computers."
Jack stepped forward. "Why don't you just tell us what it does have to do with."
Dr. Hartzell, a petite brunette, gestured at the apparatus. "It synchronizes electron harmonics with the localized chronoton field, and - "
Zane jumped about a foot. "The DoD authorized a chronoton experiment?"
Allison didn't look quite so startled, but her eyebrows still went up. "GD placed a chronoton project in Section Four, not Section Five?"
Jack whispered to Fargo, "What's a chronoton?"
"Think of it as the fundamental particle of time," Fargo whispered back. That didn't actually help Jack very much, but he supposed it was better than nothing.
Dr. Nouri nodded. "Very highly controlled conditions, of course. The electromagnetic field comes into synchrony with the temporal field, briefly, allowing us to send signals faster than light without encountering tachyon problems and the usual time paradox. At least, that's the theory."
"And what actually happened?" Allison probed. Zane walked over to the lab's computer terminal and began calling up records.
Dr. Hartzell's face fell. "Nothing. We never got full synchronization."
"That's because you got a heterodyne effect," Zane stated, waving at a chart he'd pulled up on the screen. "Look, instead of just lining them up, you got overtone harmonics here and here, and - uh-oh."
"Oh, that's never good around here. You want to explain what you're uh-oh-ing about this time?" Jack demanded.
Zane pointed to a second diagram on the screen that looked, to Jack at least, like several mountains had had a fight with a giant Christmas tree. "The overtone harmonics created a closed loop in the chronoton field. A closed chronoton loop could create a wormhole effect, connecting two different points in space-time - and not necessarily on the same timelines."
"Wait, so you're saying there's an alternate history parallel universe involved after all?" Jack was starting to have trouble keeping up.
"But since it was created in synchrony with an electromagnetic field, not a gravitic field, it wouldn't pass matter back and forth - just electromagnetic signals," added Fargo.
"So that explains how Max got here," Allison acknowledged. "But where is the portal, and how do we close it?"
"More importantly, is it a two-way door? Did any of our data get passed back to the other side of the wormhole?" Zane bit his lower lip, thinking.
Fargo's watch beeped. A fraction of a second later, Zane's phone went off. Zane didn't even bother looking; he grabbed the terminal again, logged Dr. Nouri off, and logged himself in. Fargo dropped cross-legged on the floor and snapped his laptop open.
"Dr. Blake, we have an intruder in the system. And their pingback address is . . . impossible." Fargo's fingers were flying again. Zane sucked in a breath, and added "Worse than that. I read two separate processes."
"Two more AI's, like Max?" Jack was hopeful.
Zane shook his head. "No. These look like human hackers, typing one letter at a time." He squinted at the screen. "And damn our luck, they're good."
"Crap, we've been detected already." Bryce's keyboard was slightly slick with sweat from his previous work that day and grease from the remains of his lunch. "I'll pull a distraction technique while you search their main directory for Max."
Theora nodded, then remembered that Bryce wasn't looking at the vidscreen, even if he did have it on. "Right." She squinted. The graphics that were popping up were remarkably sophisticated; this place must be very wealthy. She probed, and came up empty. "Bryce, I think they're delocalized - I'm not seeing a main directory, just a hierarchy of interrelated ones."
"Run a basic search algorithm. We know what Max's file parameters are." Bryce's machine suddenly slowed to a crawl. Another process was blocking his access just after the pipeline through the hole. He fired off a few lines of code to break it up, but it repaired itself immediately; he had to find another data path around it. "Uh-oh."
Edison's voice crackled over the intercom. "Very articulate, Bryce. Care to tell us what the uh-oh is?"
"They've got their own counter-hackers on the payroll." Bryce swallowed; his second route of attack had just been cut off. "And they're good."
"What. In. The. Hell?" Zane slapped the side of the screen, causing it to wobble on its mounting.
"What's happening?" Allison demanded.
"They've done an end-run around two of my best countermeasure subroutines," Zane complained. "I'm keeping one of them busy, but the other one keeps getting past."
"You worry about those fighters, I'll worry about the tower," Fargo grunted from the floor.
"Oh, baby, you know I love it when you talk like that," purred Zane. Fargo paused just long enough to give him a flicker of a hurt look, then went back to typing. Jack raised an eyebrow at Allison, who shrugged elaborately.
"Aw, crud." Fargo shook his head, and his finger traced a sweeping gesture across the touchscreen.
Allison made a vaguely interrogative noise. Zane replied "We have one of them pinned, but we can't go in for a kill - we're just holding him in place. And while we've got his processes jammed, the other one is still looking for a back way in."
"But there isn't one, is there?" Jack would have been surprised to find a back door into any of Eureka's systems, most of all Global's.
"They may, and I want to stress the may, here, be good enough to make one." Zane's voice was low and bright; his eyes sparkled with excitement and adrenaline. Fargo, on the other hand, looked like he was getting a headache.
"Theora, I think I've got their full attention, but you're going to have to hurry. If they both focus on me, they'll be able to wall me off for a while, and then they'll both come after you." He tried to shift his data location, and got two different error messages.
"Stop trying to hold them off with brute force and try a better distraction technique instead. I think I see a way into the next directory." Theora had her tongue slightly out, and her hair started to swing into her face.
"Of course, Theora, I'm an idiot! What sort of - oh, hell."
Edison sat up again. Bryce didn't usually cuss when Theora was listening. "Now what?"
There was the audible sound of a swallow. "I think this is a military installation."
Theora stiffened, as did Murray. "Why?"
"They have protocols in place for radiation leaks, biohazard leaks, and a couple of things I don't even recognize." There was a long pause; Bryce was probably chewing at his lip again. "They already blocked me from the fire alarm system. I think I can still set off the radiation protocol." His voice turned dry. "Murray, why would a military installation want to set up a data trapdoor in Network 23?"
"I have no idea. I think I'm going to have to call Ben." Murray was starting to go pale. Edison held up a hand. "Let's wait until we have Max back. Remember, we have a spy behind enemy lines, and it's possible they don't know that yet."
Red lights began flashing, and a klaxon sounded. A calm female voice announced, "Warning: Radiation leak detected. Sealing off all corridors and disabling ventilation. Warning: Radiation leak detected . . . "
"Bastard!" Zane snarled at the terminal as the distant sounds of radiation doors sliding shut clanged down the hall. "Dr. Blake, that's a false alarm; the guy we've got pinned figured out how to trip it remotely. Can someone else shut it off?"
"It requires my thumbprint to cancel it manually; I'll have to get to a security station." Allison nodded at Jack, who went to the door. "There's a radiation door between us and the elevators, but we have a clear path to the stairs," he reported.
"The good news is, I know where the gateway is," Fargo called out, one hand racing across the touchscreen and the other still on the keyboard.
"Enlighten us, will you?" Zane's voice dripped with sarcasm.
"The bad news is, it's in the environmental control system in the room directly under us," the smaller hacker finished.
"In Section Five," groaned Jack. "Didn't you say Max appeared in Section Four, here?"
"He did," Fargo explained, his voice apologetic. "From the network's perspective, anything appearing at that gateway would have the address of the closest named node, which is the terminal Zane's using. The environmental control system doesn't have its own processor, so it's not an addressable node in the network."
"Well, at least there's a security station in the same corridor," Allison finished. "We'll head down, get the radiation alarm shut off, and see what we can do about the gateway. You guys just get those hackers out of our system."
"Right now, this is a stalemate." Fargo looked up. "Dr. Donovan, I think it's time to call in the Big Girl."
Zane flashed him a grin. "You can do that from here?"
"The door swings both ways. We used the periscope to get in here, didn't we?"
"Do I want to know what they're talking about?" Allison asked.
Jack shrugged. "Probably not." He jogged towards the stairs.
"Okay . . . I'm in!" Theora's voice was triumphant. "Hmm . . . looks like their servers are all named after astronomers. Kepler's been modified the most today, and it's firewalled. Looks like a tempting target, don't you think?"
Bryce didn't respond directly; his contribution to the conversation had been a string of inarticulate interjections for the past two minutes. Theora could tell that he was keeping them busy, but she wasn't sure how much longer he could hold out on his own.
"Cracking the firewall . . . down in five, four, three, two -" Suddenly the screen was a flood of sky blue. The directory disappeared, as did the tracking window. "Bryce! What - "
"Good afternoon. Don't you have better things to do than break into other people's systems illegally? There are many more healthy and socially acceptable pursuits: baseball, homework, baking bread, jogging, board games . . . " The voice floating out of the speakers was oddly pitched; its tone was maternal, but Edison couldn't identify it as clearly male or female.
"What happened?" he whispered to Theora. She spread her hands and shrugged.
The awe in Bryce's voice was undiminished by the slight fuzz of the intercom. "She's huge."
For the first time he could remember, there was another entity in the box with Max.
At first, she didn't look like anything in particular. Then she looked like the box, only homier. Finally, she assembled an actual appearance - pale skin, shoulder-length dark hair with a widow's peak, owlish eyes behind square frames, full lips, dimples, a slender neck, gently sloped shoulders draped in sky blue.
Max waggled his eyebrows at her. "Well, hell-hell-hello there, pretty lady. What's your name, name?"
She batted her eyelashes at him. "Sarah. What's yours?"
"The name is Max, Max Headroom." He favored her with a blinding white smile. "I don't s-s-see many other folks around h-h-here."
"You're not supposed to be here at all." She gave him a scolding look. "Dr. Fargo asked me to keep an eye on you while we get everything sorted out." Her voice was melodious, but it seemed awfully familiar.
"J-j-j-just an eye?" Max leered. There were some aspects of Edison's memories he didn't ever expect to get to use, but he wasn't about to turn down an opportunity.
"Did you have something else in mind?" Her tone was mild, but there was something fascinating about the way her mouth moved.
Max pounced, and they dropped below the bottom of the frame. She let out a giggling noise, then a moan.
Nathan and Taggart unfroze and turned slowly to look at each other, eyes wide.
Taggart found his voice first. "Was that - is that S.A.R.A.H.?"
"Sounded like her to me." Nathan's features flipped back and forth between disapproval and amusement.
"And are they - "
"Sure sounds like it." A series of high-pitched gasps drifted from the wall-mounted speakers.
"I don't think I can listen to that." A wave of what might have been nausea washed over Taggart's face.
Nathan contained his laughter only with difficulty. "I think she'll keep him occupied for a while. Let's go see how Allison's doing."
Canceling the radiation alert had been time-consuming but simple, at least by GD standards. Jack and Allison were now standing in the environmental control chamber looking up into an electronic control array.
"Yup," Jack nodded, "if I were going to imagine a hole in computronic space-time, I think it would look something like that."
"That" was a disc of shimmering blue light about three inches in diameter, with two bundles of cables passing through it.
"We need to finish converting completely to fiber-optic cable," Allison mused. "This wouldn't be happening if all this were light-pipe."
"What are we going to do about it?" Jack hoped she had an idea, because he didn't.
Allison opened her mouth to offer a suggestion, and was interrupted by the arrival of Nathan and Taggart. Nathan was grinning in a most vulpine fashion. Taggart looked vaguely ill.
"What have you two been up to?" Allison's tone was sharp, but she looked pleased to see Nathan.
Stark gave a short bark of long-suppressed laughter. "Fargo called in the cavalry. S.A.R.A.H.'s in our system again, and she's keeping Mr. Headroom . . . occupied." Nathan's eyes were glittering, and the corners of his eyes crinkled with merriment. Taggart didn't look at all amused.
Jack just looked surprised. "Again? How often does she do that?"
"Only when Fargo uploads her for maintenance." Nathan waved dismissively. "I assume that's our problem, there?"
Allison nodded. "It's a closed chronoton loop generated by misharmonizing with an electromagnetic field."
Nathan nodded. "Then to get rid of it, we'll need the magnetic equivalent of a tuning fork, to find the right harmonic frequency. That shouldn't be that hard. As long as it doesn't rain in here in the meantime, we should be fine." He left again.
A cold mist began creeping in from the edges of the floor. Jack wished things like the environmental control room weren't named so literally at Global.
"So it really was all a misunderstanding," S.A.R.A.H. explained from the environmental control room speakers. "They thought the wormhole was an attack on their system, and they needed Max back. They didn't take anything from Global Dynamics's system, and I have erased all traces of both myself and their records of their hacking run from their network."
"What about Max himself?" Allison looked worried, as if she were looking for loopholes in their arrangement.
Max appeared on Fargo's laptop. "Never f-f-f-fear, fair maiden. I didn't go looking into any secret stuff. I d-d-did read someone's lab reports about wind vortex funnels and edible fungus, but I can't say, say I understood any of it."
Allison and Nathan exchanged a glance. There wasn't any way they could selectively erase Max's memory of his time in GD's computer; Fargo, Zane, the other side's resident boy genius, and S.A.R.A.H. all agreed on that point. They were just going to have to hope that anything he might have picked up wasn't going to be their problem once he was back where he belonged. Fargo's screen went to static, then blank; finally Buffy's steely eyes gazed out from his usual desktop.
"I'm probably the only one here who could make sense of your files, anyway," said the kid with the huge glasses in Zane's chat window. Something about him reminded Taggart of Fargo when he'd been a high school student.
And then there was the tall man behind him, who was close enough to Taggart's younger self to be his doppelganger. Apparently some people were simply duplicated across multiple universes. Taggart had been slightly gratified to find that his 'other self' was still a hunter of sorts, even if he hunted for the truth in a concrete jungle instead of rare and venomous creatures in the real one.
The kid was speaking again. "Okay, Max is back where he belongs and your girl is completely on your side of the divide. We're ready to remove the pipeline."
"Goodbye, Max," S.A.R.A.H. said in a wistful tone. "I'll never forget what we shared together."
"N-n-nor will I, my first and f-f-f-fairest," Max said from Theora's screen, bowing a bit. Edison looked at his digital counterpart, eyebrow raised. "Max, I know what I've done when I have that look. What have you been up to?"
"Merely a little data sh-sh-sharing." Max smiled slyly.
Fargo looked up in shock and dismay. "S.A.R.A.H.! You didn't!"
"I think you need to give her 'the talk,' Fargo," murmured Stark. Jack shook his head to remove the image that was now stuck in it.
The kid rolled his eyes. "Nice working with all of you. Removing pipeline . . . now." Their signal on Zane's screen broke up into static.
Nathan raised a remote controller. "Okay, here goes." A ring of electromagnets suspended around the wormhole clicked into life, and began flickering on and off in steady patterns. Nathan slowly raised the frequency, and the clicks blended into a hum, then a whine, then something between the rush of the wind and a musical note.
The disc that represented the cross-section of the close chronoton loop began to vibrate. "That's it, right around there," whispered Zane, fascinated. Nathan edged the dial up a fraction of a notch; the disc trembled, went transparent, and then vanished.
Fargo looked up from his laptop. "Computer security breach closed. The system's clean. I'm sending S.A.R.A.H. home." He tapped at the keyboard. "I can't believe she did that."
"Neither can I," Taggart muttered.
"I'm not sure what she did," admitted Jack, and then held up a finger to Stark and finished "and I really don't want to, either."
"At least she might be more relaxed for a few days," grinned Nathan.
"I can't believe my sweet, innocent AI gets more nookie than I do," grumbled Fargo, packing up his laptop. Zane looked like he was about to make a joke, but he apparently thought better of it. Instead, he sketched a small bow to the crowd, and said "Now, if you'll excuse me, I haven't actually been in my own lab all day. See ya!" He bounded off up the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator.
Jack looked at Allison. "Any chance of a late lunch at Cafe Diem?"
She glanced at her watch. "Sure, we could do that. Nathan, are you up for lunch?" Stark shrugged in the way that usually meant "Talk me into it." Jack looked at them sideways, unsure whether having Stark along would be a bad idea or not, as Fargo rushed to beat them to the elevator.