Meat Machines

Chapter 2

At first I think I'll never get to sleep. It's like I can't switch my brain off. I'm remembering everything Louise said to me, going over it again and again. It seems she thought I was someone else, I can't imagine why. When she realised I wasn't the person she thought I was, she couldn't get rid of me quick enough. If she had taken me with her, I might have been able to save her. Or I might be lying on the hard floor of Naismith's office, waiting for the cops to come and find my cold corpse in the morning. But in the end of course I sleep, and I go on sleeping till late in the day. It's so late when I get to Rick's place, he's already out of bed and making coffee. While he's putting bread in the toaster, I take the folded paper out of my pocket, the one I found in the desk drawer at Quiller Supplies. It's a leaflet about the jobs you can get with a degree in biochemistry. I supposed it's aimed at University students. On the front, under the Quiller Supplies logo, is a picture of a scientist working at some kind of complicated machine. I know he's a scientist because he's looking serious and wearing glasses. Also, he probably understands how to use the thing in front of him. Or maybe he's trying to work it out, and that's why the frown. I turn it over and on the back is a picture of a DNA molecule showing how it's made up of different smaller molecules, with a diagram of how they all join to each other. I've got a vague memory of seeing something like this at school. I stick it up on the pinboard, next to the photo of the mysterious green graffiti.

Two cups of coffee and three slices of toast later, I'm starting to think about getting down to some work. Rick's already started coding. I'd have more toast, but we've just had the last of the bread. The game, working title "Nanogold", is all about nanomachines. I guess that's why Penney got so suspicious when he saw my website. There's some awesome pictures up there already, artwork for the game. I found a brilliant artist on DeviantArt who does some of the best game art I've ever seen. I don't know why some big megabucks developer hasn't snapped her up, still, their loss is our gain.

You play as a scientist who describes himself as a modern alchemist. He's a young guy trying to work out a recipe for the elixir of life, a liquid with nanosized gold particles in it, which he wants to use to cure cancer. There's an evil scientist who wants to use the nanogold for his own evil ends. Of course the player doesn't need to know a thing about nano or even about alchemy, though I've learned a lot about both from various websites in the past few months. You just solve a few puzzles and shoot the bad guys. You get to use some cool new weapons, so at least the combat's a bit original. I'd play it.

Alan Columbus returned to his cramped two-room lodgings in a run-down part of the East End of London. His journey to the place mentioned in the note was a wasted effort; his friend never showed up. He looked at the pale pink paper again; it looked like her handwriting and was signed with the letter R. Was his friend in worse trouble than he had imagined? Or could the note have been a forgery, a trick to lure him away from the place where he worked by day and slept by night? With trepidation he approached his front door. He was right to be anxious. Two hulking figures emerged from a shadowy alley. Without hesitation they attacked the young alchemist. He fought them off with the help of his own invention, the nanotube mesh shield. Their heavy fists bounced harmlessly off its glimmering surface. Alan knew he hadn't got long before the charge ran out, leaving him at their mercy. When they persisted with their rain of blows, he had no choice but to use his stunbeam gun. Dazed, they staggered around like drunks before they passed out.

Alan locked the front door and bolted it. He went straight to his lab, where he worked every day, obsessed with the search for the secret of making liquid nanogold. But what's happened here? Someone's been messing about with the papers that hold the notes for his research. He was sure they were tidily filed away before he left. Rage filled him as he went to the drawer where he had concealed the only sample of his latest formulation. This was the most promising version yet: a satisfying amount of nanogold dissolved in a water-oil complex of his own design. The drawer had been forced open, grooves scoured in the wood by a blunt tool. The test tube of Elixir was gone.

As he stood in shocked silence, he heard a little scratching noise from the other room, his bedroom. It stopped at once, but it was enough to let him know the thief had not yet got away. Gun in hand, he pushed open the connecting door. As he stepped through he saw a flock of tiny silver beads rushing towards him. Biopellets! He got the nanotube mesh up just in time, and aimed his stunbeam at the man he could see behind the lethal droplets of viral culture. The intruder, somehow unharmed, drew a stungun of his own. What shield is he using? A nanotube screen can't block those beams.

When Alan came round the intruder had vanished. But he hadn't got away with it; not quite yet. Alan had got a good look at his face. He'd do whatever it took to track him down. There weren't too many people in the world who would understand the papers fanned out on his desk, and very few lived in London. He had thought it was only himself and his mentor, retired Professor Bergman, who understood the medical possibilities of nanogold. He should visit the older man, who had given him the ideas that started him on this line of research. Perhaps the wise professor would know who the mysterious intruder might be.

"Is Roxy here today?" he asked when the professor had let him in. Roxy was Bergman's secretary, employed to type the retired man's memoirs. She was a slim, elegant blonde with a voice as soft as velvet.

"She was here all day, but she's gone now. She left about half an hour ago. I'm not such a slave driver as to make the poor girl waste her evenings with an old man like me."

"How is she? Did she seem worried or upset about anything?"

"She seemed fine; quite as usual. I hope you've not done anything to upset her, Alan." Bergman frowned. He knew that Alan had taken Roxy out to dinner more than once.

Alan recounted the day's events to the older man. "I thought you might be able to guess who would want to steal the nanogold," he finished.

"Only two other men in the world know enough to understand my research, apart from you yourself, Alan." Professor Bergman puffed at his pipe. "One is retired and lives in Venezuela, so it's not likely he would be burgling your lab. The other is a Dutchman, Doctor Van Eysenck. I did hear that he was expected in London to deliver a series of lectures. It's likely that he, or someone working on his behalf, is behind the raid on your premises."

Alan went to the college where Van Eysenck was lecturing. He got there just as a lecture was ending. The bearded face of the man speaking was certainly nothing like the intruder in his room. Still, it wouldn't hurt to ask him a few questions.

"Dr Van Eysenck, it's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Alan Columbus. Professor Bergman has told me about your skill and expertise in the field of nanotechnology."

"Bergman? That second-rate charlatan? Is he still alive?"

"He is, and I have to say, I resent the way you speak of him. He has taught me all I know of the theory of nanogold. You should show more respect for a man his age, and a professor, too!"

"A man who for the past twenty years has been searching for a way to make a nanogold suspension which he claims will be a cure-all and a path to eternal life, and he does this not for the advancement of science, but to evade his own mortality! I'll speak of him as I please."

"Then before I leave let me say this. Professor Bergman is hoping the liquid nanogold he has worked all his life to make will be a cure for cancer of all kinds. So far is he from the selfish monster you describe that he plans to give the formula to medical science free of charge, and rejoices that he can be of use in diminishing the suffering in this world. I, as his apprentice, share these aims wholeheartedly. Goodbye, Dr Van Eysenck."

Alan turned, but before he could leave Van Eysenck said, "Hold on! Perhaps I have misjudged the man. He might have altered with age. If so I'm sorry. You sound sincere enough, at any rate. Columbus is your name? Why haven't I heard of you?"

"I came to the field just a few months ago, from a background in cancer research." And if I get my sample back, Alan thought, and it works as well as I hope, you'll be hearing quite a lot about me.

"That explains it. There aren't many serious nanogold researchers and I thought I knew them all. Myself, Bergman, Harrison. Gray, but he's retired and buries himself in South America. And now you."

"Harrison? Bergman didn't tell me about him."

"Oh yes, Kenneth Harrison is very promising indeed. I expect great things from him. He used to be my student, but now he's branched out on his own. He has a place here in London. I'm surprised you don't know him. Nanotechnology's a small world. Well, it was a pleasure to meet you, Columbus. I hope we meet again."

It didn't take long for Alan to find a photo of Kenneth Harrison. He had played cricket for his college at Cambridge. Alan used his magnifying lens on the team photo to get a close-up of Harrison's face. Aged by a few years, he would look very like the man who had stolen his only sample of the successful formula. Now all he had to do was get the address of Harrison's lab and find a way to break in and steal it back.

The scene I'm working on now is the one where the hero has broken into the evil scientist's lab after hours. It's dark and you can't see where you're going at first. If you're lucky, you find the lamp before you find the tank of genetically modified bacteria. But not to worry; if you do fall into the tank and the bacteria kill you, there's an autosave just before you entered the lab. When you get a good look at the tank, you'll see the bacteria turning little gear wheels. This is Rick's favourite puzzle in the whole game. It's the kind that looks incredibly complicated, but when you finally get it you'll be wondering why you didn't see it ages ago. Your next task is to find the safe and get it open. You'll just have time to grab your test tube of nanogold from inside before the security guards burst in and start shooting at you. By this time though, you've had a bit of practice with your weapons and it should be no trouble to kill a few and outrun the rest. If you lose, you're back to before you broke into the lab. With any luck, though, you're out of there with what you came for. Unlike me last night. I just realise life has been imitating art yet again. Except I came out with nothing and I don't even know what I was doing there. Curiosity I suppose, and I wanted to impress Louise. Wish I'd said no, now. I wonder if she'd have gone in without me?

The phone rings and I pick it up. Surprise, it's Vincent Penney, my favourite cop. Not. I can't believe what I'm hearing. He wants me to come down to the police station, now, for an identity parade. There'll be a car outside in three minutes, he tells me, but when I look out of the window I see a cop car already pulling up to the pavement. There's no way anyone could have recognised me last night in the dark, is there?

"Rick," I say, "you're not going to believe this. The cops want me for an identity parade."

"It's police harassment, that's what it is," he says.

When I get there they give me something to read. It's headed "Notice to Suspect" and contains a description that I have to admit sounds vaguely like me. This is scary. Before I can finish reading it, it's whisked out of my hands and I'm taken to a large room with no window. I line up with half a dozen other guys who don't look very much like me. They're all about my height and weight, same hair colour, but there it ends. A uniformed cop takes a photo of the line-up. Another cop, built like a weightlifter, brings in a pale, thin, worried-looking woman who looks at all of us in turn. I'm pretty sure I've never seen her before in my life, and the way she's looking at me I think it's mutual. After they go out we hang around for a bit, then a cop comes in and tells us we can leave. The whole thing's taken about fifteen minutes. I'd love to know what that was about.

I'm almost at the door when the big cop comes back and stops me. "Not you, Penney wants to talk to you," he says. I should have known I wasn't going to get off so easily. He takes me to Penney's office and waits just inside the door, standing there looking tough, I suppose to intimidate me if I've got thoughts of escape. And of course, that makes me want to run out of the room. But there's Penney, behind a desk heaped with papers. On top of one pile is a white A4 envelope that looks familiar.

"One of my men saw you hanging around outside Quiller Supplies yesterday," he says. "Talking to a girl. Who was she?"

Time to play innocent. "She's called Louise. I'd never met her before. I just talked to her because she looked nice."

"Are you planning to see her again?"

"I don't know. I'd like to."

"Did she give you anything?"

"No, not even her phone number."

"So, she's not a friend, not a girlfriend? Then it won't be too distressing for you to hear she died last night."

"She's dead?" I do my best to fake surprise. "She seemed fine yesterday. Oh hell, you're not going to tell me she's been murdered!"

"Yes, she was shot dead last night, with the same gun that killed Professor Naismith. She was a member of his research team, Dr Louise Davis. Where were you last night at about midnight?"

"I was at home. You can't think it was me, I hardly knew the girl. Is this what the identity parade was about? Because I was seen with her?"

"No, a stranger was seen coming out of the block of flats where Naismith lived, shortly after the time we think he was killed. You were the only person connected to the case who fitted the description. Was it you?"

"You know it wasn't! I told you, I only met him once, in a pub. Why would I want to kill the old guy anyway?"

"I've only got your word for it. And now you've got a connection with Louise Davis, and she's been murdered, we think by the same person. Too many coincidences here, Nate Lively. Just tell me why you went to see Naismith that night. Was he still alive when you got there? If you tell me the truth now, I might believe you didn't kill him."

"I didn't go to his flat; I've never been to his flat. I don't even know where his flat is. And as for the girl, Louise, I wouldn't even have met her if you hadn't dragged me to see you yesterday. I'd have been at work, which is where I ought to be now. Did that woman pick me?"

"No," he admits.

"Then I'll be on my way." The good thing about not being offered a chair is I can just turn now and walk straight for the door, before he can think of a reason to detain me. The big cop looks at Penney for the signal to grab me, but it doesn't come. I push past him and walk out a free man.

Back to work and the tank of hungry bacteria. On the side of the tank is a large sign with a yellow warning triangle that says, "Danger! Genetically Modified Organisms." If you go into the close-up view, you can see the eight gears turning. The goal is to get them all locked to each other and turning together. There are switches you can use to change the oxygen supply to various parts of the tank. This controls how fast the tiny creatures move, which makes a difference to the gears. But what's this? Something's wiping bacteria off the screen as fast as the game can generate them, swimming back and forth across the tank like a shark devouring whole schools of smaller fish.

"Rick," I say, "we've got a huge bug."

"Where?"

"In the tank of bacteria."

Problems with the code are Rick's department. But I've been doing this long enough now to have some idea of where to look for the problem, and I'm right. Still, it's hours before the puzzle's finally working, streams of bacteria floating by, the gears turning like clockwork. I get up to get myself a well-deserved can of beer and the stuff I pinned to the notice board earlier catches my eye. All that reading code must have somehow got my brain into gear, because I realise something I should have seen before. I sit down with my beer and the photo of the weird graffiti. Soon I have it worked out. Would it have meant something to Louise? If she'd seen it and understood it, perhaps she would still be alive now. I suppose I'll never know exactly why it happened.

Green Graffiti

Type a letter you want to change in a green box. Type the letter you want to replace it with in the red box.

= = = = =

I look again at the leaflet I found in the desk at Quiller Supplies. It's got a picture of a DNA molecule on it. I've got a vague memory of learning about this at school. It zips and unzips itself, using bits that go in pairs to make the bonds. I look up the Wikipedia article on DNA. It's so complicated I can see why I didn't take to this stuff at school. I expect Louise was an expert on this kind of thing.

Can't waste time at Quiller Supplies, the papers are in the car.

So that's why the murderer thought he'd have the building to himself that night! He left this message for Louise, and expected her to go and search Naismith's car while he crept in to look for the papers. He'd probably already checked the car so he knew the papers weren't there. But what could be on these papers that would make them worth killing for?

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