Meat Machines

Chapter 4

So now I've got loads of ideas for the scenes in the two nanomachine research labs, Alan's and Harrison's. I get on to the artist and tell her what I want included, and describe the lab equipment I've seen, particularly Rose's glass glovebox. She tells me she's already done some research online, and has some ideas of her own that will give the labs the Steampunk style we want for the game. This means all the shiny white surfaces will get changed to polished wood and gleaming brass. Rick and I soon get the breaking into the lab scene sorted and pretty well bug free. I tell Rick we can expect Rose to show up on Saturday.

And she does show up on Saturday morning, after emailing me first to check that it's still okay. Though there's not much to see, just the two of us and our computers which are nothing like as state of the art as I'd like them to be. I show her some of the latest artwork and she approves. She gets on well with Rick and his girlfriend Jeanine, who is there because it's a Saturday. Jeanine cooks us all a brunch of bacon and eggs and toast, and of course we invite Rose to eat with us. So she stays for the afternoon, and not a lot of work gets done. But it's good having her around and I'm sorry when she gets up to go.

"I wish I could stay," she says. "I've got to go out to dinner to some friends of Karl's. They're from Germany and they've just found a flat in London. I've never met them, but Karl used to know them in Frankfurt. They'll probably talk about old friends all night, speaking English when they remember to be polite."

"How long have you and Karl been a couple?" I ask, trying to pretend I knew all along.

"Nearly a year. Of course we met through work. I find it quite hard to meet anyone who doesn't work in Biotechnology. That's why it was so nice to come here today."

"You must come round again," Jeanine says. "We'd really like to see you."

"We're here pretty much all the time," I add.

In the end we all exchange phone numbers before Rose leaves.

"What's Karl like?" Jeanine asks me as soon as she's gone.

"Nothing special," I reply. "I suppose he's brainy, since he knows all about nanomachines."

"I think she's getting bored with him. She's not looking forward to seeing him tonight, anyway." That's Jeanine's opinion.

"Maybe she'll decide she likes you better. You should ask her out, Nate." That's Ratstar, incapable of minding his own business.

"Shut up, Rick," Jeanine and I both say, in chorus.

That was Saturday. On Tuesday, we have a visitor to the studio who I didn't expect at all. He turns up about ten minutes after I've got to work, before I've really got started on anything. As soon as I open the door he pushes in, not waiting to be invited. Why does he think I've never got anything better to do than to answer his questions? Yes, you've guessed right, it's Vincent Penney.

"You could phone first," I say as he marches past me into the flat, or studio as I should call it when we're working. Though Rick's vanished into the bedroom; he hates cops. "I was in the middle of something. It's not really a convenient time."

Of course I'm wasting my breath. The first thing he does is put a white A4 envelope on my desk. It's starting to look slightly crumpled at the edges. Then he says, "Do you remember a photograph I showed you? A picture of five of the people in Naismith's research team. You said at the time you might have seen one of them before, but you couldn't remember where. Have you remembered? Can you tell me anything about him at all?"

"Dr Karl Steiner. I saw him on telly, soon after you showed me that photo. There was a documentary about nanomachines. I watched it to get background for the game and I recognised him then as the guy in the photo. But I thought you would know who he was. I mean, obviously you'd be talking to the people who worked with Naismith."

"You didn't see him anywhere else? For example, close to Naismith's flat?"

"I told you, I don't even know where Naismith's flat is."

"Are you absolutely sure? Here, look at this again." He takes out the photo and hands it to me. "It would really help if we could put him in that neighbourhood the night Naismith was killed."

"I'm sure I didn't see him at all that night," I say, looking at the photo. But I'm not really looking at Karl. I'm wandering where Rose has got to; she's the only one not there. Maybe it was her that took the photo.

Penney frowns. "It's hard to believe..." he starts, but his phone rings and he answers it. While he's talking he goes to the window and looks out, his back to me. I look down at the white envelope on the table. A corner of a sheet of paper is poking out. I pull it towards me with the tips of my fingers.

"No, no," Penney is saying to one of his minions, "we need to get hold of him as soon as possible. Catch him at work, if you have to. And the girl, if she's there. I'd like to hear what she has to say. Yes, I know it's more than likely she'll back him up, wherever he was."

It's a letter. I can't read a word of it. It's in some language I've never seen before or, more likely, in code. While he's busy talking, I put it on the scanner, which luckily is switched on and right there on my desk. In a moment I've got my own copy. Careful not to rustle the paper, I slip the letter back in the envelope. Penney's still talking, still with his back to me. Why do people feel their phone calls are more private because you're not looking at their face? By the time he hangs up and turns round I'm scrolling through some screenshots, the very picture of a game developer hard at work.

"Do you expect me to believe," he starts on me again, "you really didn't go to Naismith's flat that night?"

I stare at him. "Why the hell not? I already told you, I hardly knew the man. I had a drink with him once in a pub, that's all. I had no reason to go to see him. I didn't know where his flat was, and you've got no evidence I've ever been there, never mind the night he was murdered. You told me yourself, that witness didn't pick me. I'll repeat it; I wasn't there and I have no idea who was. I liked the old guy; if I knew who killed him I'd tell you."

"And you don't remember ever seeing Dr Steiner before I showed you that photo?"

It's a good thing he's put it like that. Now I don't have to lie about seeing Karl last week. "Yes. So could you leave me alone, I've got a lot of work to do."

"I have to go anyway. But don't worry, if you're lying to me, I know where to find you." He picks up the photo and puts it in the envelope, suspiciously checking the letter's still in there.

"Always happy to help the police," I say as he shows himself out. Then I yell, "Hey, Rick, he's gone. You can come out now."

"Sorry," he says, emerging from the bedroom. "You know how I feel about cops. I looked out of the window and saw the car."

Next time I'll look out of the window before I open the door. But at least I can finally get a look at what was in that white envelope. I open the document I just scanned in. Yes, it's definitely a code. Shouldn't be too difficult to crack: just on a first reading I can make a good guess at two of the letters. But that can wait; right now I'd better get on with some work.

Alan Columbus paced up and down the street outside the high stone wall around the premises owned by his enemy and rival, Dr Kenneth Harrison. It was already dark. He knew Dr Harrison was expected at the dinner held for the alumni of his famous college. Would he attend tonight, leaving his lab empty and vulnerable to Alan's intrusion? The suspense was making Alan nervous. He paced, turned, and paced some more. At last something happened. The iron gate opened and Harrison's black car rolled slowly out. As soon as the red tail lights had disappeared around the corner, Alan climbed the wall and jumped down to the soft grass on the other side. He crept across the lawn to the large stone house and peered through the first window he came to. He saw a dimly lit sitting room, empty of occupants, the TV screen blank. The next window was dark and he could see nothing. At the third window he smiled. Here was the lab; a large well lit room filled with equipment he recognised. The iron bars would delay him, but not for long. He had come prepared with a full set of tools; his kind of tools, working small scale miracles. He took out a vial and poured a generous amount of green liquid onto the bars. Genetically modified bacteria began to turn the iron to rust.

He pulled two crumbling bars from their places, squeezed through the narrow gap and gazed round the room. Where would Harrison have hidden the elixir? He began a systematic search. He would look in every single drawer and cupboard. This would probably be his only chance to reclaim what had been stolen from him. But at the end of half an hour he still had not found the precious tube of nanogold. The only place in the room he had not managed to search was a locked drawer in the small desk that stood in one corner. The tool kit would come in useful again. He took out another vial containing tiny nanorobots. To the naked eye they looked like specks of dust, suspended in a viscous fluid. He used a micropipette to insert a few drops into the keyhole. After a few moments his sharp ears heard a click as the lock gave way.

At first he thought the drawer was empty. Then he saw a tiny torn scrap of paper scrunched into one corner. Alan took it from its place and smoothed it out. It was blank except for a black dot no bigger than a full stop. Not much to show for his search.

Two doors led out of the room. One Alan guessed was the entrance to the lab from the rest of the house. The other was a narrow door labelled with the words, "Danger! Biohazardous materials." Behind this door, Alan thought, must be the place where Harrison did his most secret work. It was more than likely that here was the hiding place of the stolen elixir. The door was locked, of course, but he still had some nanobot suspension left.

It was dark in the room beyond the door. He moved through the doorway cautiously and felt the wall for a light switch. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dark he could see looming shapes across the room. At last his groping fingers found the switch. The room was filled with the light of a fluorescent lamp of a type which Alan knew contained a high percentage of ultra violet radiation. Directly under the lamp a large shallow tank was set into the floor. A remote controlled moving microscope was set up over the tank, relaying images to a screen on one side. His scientific curiosity distracting him for a moment from the urgency of his search, he sat down at the controls and peered into the depths of the bacteria culture tank.

He had read about this fascinating new branch of biotechnology but had never seen it in action. Millions of bacteria swarmed in the tank, swimming one way or another in currents of warm water, and as they swam they pushed past the teeth edging tiny gearwheels, revolving them lazily round, clockwise or anticlockwise at their whim. He examined the controls around the tank. He thought they could be used to increase the oxygen flow to different areas of the tank, energising the bacteria so that at the turn of a dial they would swim faster. But there was no time to test his theory. He had already delayed his search long enough. He looked round and saw several pieces of lab equipment, most of them similar to those he used in his own work. There were also some he recognised with envy as being beyond his budget. The largest of these was a scanning electron microscope.

Within a few moments Alan had mastered the controls of the expensive and complicated instrument. He used it to examine the dot on the piece of paper. As he had thought, it was a microdot. Harrison had used it to store information not meant for the prying eyes of his staff.

All gears rotating. 8 C 5 A 6 C 3 A 7 C 5 A. That was the mysterious message of the dot. Could the word gears be somehow connected to the gearwheels in the tank of bacteria? He would find out. He turned up the oxygen at the nearest corner of the tank. At once the closest gear span faster. There were eight gearwheels and each one could turn clockwise or anticlockwise, fast or slow. What about the rest of the message? C could stand for clockwise, A for anticlockwise. The numbers puzzled him. He could not work out how they might relate to the gears. There were two number 5s, and no 1, 2 or 4. He decided he would first try to see if he could get all the gears to rotate at the same time. Not so easy, he found, as when he had a few turning, the next dial often switched off the ones he had just got working.

At last Alan found the right combination of settings and got all the gearwheels turning together. There was a whirring sound like a small motor starting up and a panel behind the bacteria tank slid smoothly to one side. Behind it was a wall safe.

Alan turned the dials of the safe clockwise and anticlockwise in the sequence he had found on the microdot. The safe door sprang open. Inside was the test tube, neatly labelled in his own handwriting, containing his nanogold elixir. As he picked it up, he heard a door open and heavy footsteps in the lab behind him.

"Someone's here," said a deep voice. "The door's open."

Alan put the elixir in one pocket and took his stungun from the other. Silently he moved round the tank to stand just inside the door. He shot one guard as he came through; he passed out instantly. The second was more careful. He shot a stream of biopellets through the door, only just missing Alan, who dived sideways.

"Backup needed." He heard the guard's voice. "The biohazard room."

Alan rested the barrel of his stungun against the edge of the doorway and fired blind into the room. He heard a stifled cry as a shot clipped the guard. He risked a look to see him clutching his arm. One more shot and the guard lay unconscious on the floor. As Alan climbed over the man he heard the sounds of running feet in the corridor outside. No time to reach the window. He took the biopellet gun from the unconscious man's weak grasp and took cover behind the desk. As the men ran in he shot at them with both guns. Soon four more guards were out of action. Alan hoped someone with an antidote to the biopellets would find them soon. Not waiting to find out if any more were on their way, he crossed to the window. A quick look through showed no waiting men and in a moment he was outside, running across the lawn. He scaled the wall and gained the safety of the street. Patting the pocket where he had put his sample of nanogold, he glanced round but saw no pursuers. In spite of the rapid beat of his heart he slowed his pace, trying to act like a man out for an evening stroll. He was under no illusion that this was the end of the matter. He would have to find a secure hiding place for the elixir very soon.

The next Saturday Rose phones. "Would it be a terrible nuisance if I came round again?"

"No, of course not. Please come. We'd love to see you," I tell her. But when I tell Rick and Jeanine she's coming, Jeanine says she wants to go shopping. Then she persuades Rick to go with her, on the grounds that if Rose is there not a lot of work will get done anyway. So they go and when Rose gets there I'm on my own.

"How have you been, Rose?" I ask.

"Okay. Well, no, not really. It's been the week from hell at work. The police have been in every day, asking questions, getting us all in turn to go to the station for questioning. They've asked Karl four times now, and the rest of us twice. Karl's convinced they're trying to frame him because he's German. So whenever we try to plan a meeting, we have to postpone because one of us gets hauled away. Or we go ahead and when the person comes back they don't like what we've agreed. I admit that was me once, but I do think they should have consulted me before they tried to pull out of the agreement with the Heisenburg foundation. And Karl's hardly been at home all week, he's been either at the police station or catching up at work. And when he's been at work, I've been at the police station or gone home. So I've hardly seen him in the last few days. Sorry, Nate, I really shouldn't bore you with all my troubles."

"I'm not bored. I've seen the cops once myself. Vincent Penney came here and showed me a photo. Louise, Karl, Naismith, Tom and Andy. Maybe at a party, all drinking what looks like champagne. He was asking if I saw Karl outside Naismith's flat. I don't know where he got that idea; not from anything I said."

"Oh, God, Nate, they do suspect Karl. I thought he was imagining things."

"I told Penney I'd never been to Naismith's flat and I didn't even know where it was, but I'm not sure he believed me. If they do find someone who says he saw Karl, you can be sure it wasn't me."

"I know you wouldn't do that, Nate. Do you think they would really try to frame someone for the murder?"

"If Penney wanted to frame anyone he'd probably pick me. But I don't think that's what he wants. I expect he's no worse than any other cop. But he's a suspicious bastard. I know he suspects me, and I think he suspects all of you, all the people who used to work with Naismith."

"And it's not only Gilbert, it's Louise as well. That's how I know it couldn't possibly be Karl. Naismith was his hero; he came to London just for the chance to work with him. He would never have done anything that might hurt our chances of success. And there's no way he would harm Louise. Karl took to her as soon as she started working with us. He liked her so much I was a little jealous sometimes. She was so pretty, you know, I couldn't help it. Though I don't think I had any reason for it really."

I'm not sure if this is a good time to tell Rose I met Louise. No, better not.

"What do you think happened, Rose? You probably knew Naismith and Louise as well as anyone. What's your theory?"

"I told the police, Gilbert was worried about something in the last few days before he died. I think it was tied in with information he thought was getting out of our lab. Some of the results of our research were being leaked to the Americans, Gilbert thought. I don't think he particularly suspected any one of us, but perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe the police know something I don't. It's horrible to think that someone I've worked with might have been a traitor. But whether he suspected us or not, Gilbert got very secretive. He started taking paperwork home at night, rather than leaving it in the lab as he used to. He was writing a paper that he hoped to publish shortly and he carried all the paperwork for that with him wherever he went. I remember Louise laughed at him once for being paranoid, and he got all serious and said it was essential that his notes should not fall into the wrong hands. He wouldn't even let us see them before he was ready to publish. He hinted more than once that this paper would make a big splash in the nanotechnology world. You see, he was the only person who had an overview of all the strands of research the team were engaged with. Of course we all had some idea of the general direction we were taking, but no-one knew as much as Gilbert did."

"So what happened to these notes? Are they still going to be published?"

"Yes, if we can find them. They disappeared when he died. Karl and I will have to finish writing it, I suppose."

"Do you mean no-one knows what happened to them?"

"Not unless the police have got them. They refuse to tell us anything. Karl was going to ask; he's with them now. They've taken him for questioning again."

So she's here because Karl is busy at the cop shop. I should have known.

"That Vincent Penney," I say. "If you asked him the time he'd ask you where you hid the stolen clock."

"It's so good of you, Nate, to listen to me going on about all this."

"That's okay," I say, "I don't mind at all."

"Well anyway, I'm going to stop now. Tell me about the game. Did you get the scene in the lab finished?"

So we talk about the game for a while, and when Rick and Jeanine get back from shopping Rose is still here. So we all go out for a meal together. Rose and Rick both like Chinese and Jeanine and I don't care as long as we get food, so Chinese it is. Before we leave, Rose tries to call Karl but he's not answering his phone. That's good, she can come with us.

The next morning I'm at Rick's, because game developers work on a Sunday, specially when they've had most of Saturday off. I get a call from a cop, who tells me Mr Penney requests the pleasure of my company. Though he doesn't put it quite like that. So it's back to the police station once more, to be called at best a liar and at worst a murderer.

"I'm finding it hard to believe you never saw Dr Steiner before I showed you that photograph," he says, as soon as he sees my face. No friendly greeting. Not that I expected one.

"I told you, I thought he looked familiar. I might have seen him on telly."

"And if that's the full extent of your contact with him, could you explain to me exactly why his girlfriend spent the afternoon at your place of work yesterday?"

"I don't believe this," I say. "Don't tell me you've been following Rose."

"How we found out is none of your business. I'm waiting to hear your explanation."

"She plays computer games. I met her online, when she posted on our forum. I've met her in person a couple of times since then. I've met Karl Steiner once; he'll probably tell you himself if you ask him. But all this happened after you showed me the photo."

"If this is all true, why didn't you tell me you knew them on Tuesday?"

"You didn't ask me if I knew them. You asked me if I'd seen Steiner anywhere before seeing his photo and I gave you an honest answer to the question you asked. And I suppose I didn't want you to think I was more mixed up in this than I am."

"You'd be better off not mixed up with them, believe me. I seem to keep telling you this, but my advice is to stay away from the lot of them. It looks like one of them is a murderer. So anything you know about the people Naismith worked with, I want to hear it now. Start talking."

"There's not a lot to say. I met Rose online, like I told you. I wanted to see what a nanomachines lab was like, there's a couple of scenes in the game I'm working on that happen in a lab. Rose said I could come and see hers so I went down there and met the team. Rose, Karl, Tom, Andy. That was the first time I'd seen any of them, apart from seeing Karl on telly and the photo you showed me. I got friendly with Rose and she's interested in games, so she came to see where I work. Then she came again on Saturday, just to chat. That's it, really. Did I tell you anything you didn't know before?"

"I'll be checking this with the rest of them, Nate, so it had better be the truth."

"Why would one of them want to murder their boss? Or Louise? Why are you so sure it's one of them?"

"If I tell you, will you come to me if you find out any more about them?"

If I say no, he'll probably think I know one of them is a murderer and I'm covering for him. So I say, "Well, I suppose. I mean, it's not like they're my best friends."

"We found a coded letter among Naismith's possessions. He wrote it the day he died and never posted it. It indicates that the murderer is probably one of the people in that photo. We would have known this earlier, but the intelligence people who decoded it wouldn't let us have the transcript until it had been cleared with military research. Too scared we'd find out about their latest secret weapon or something. We're trying to get verification from the man the letter was addressed to, but he's away from home and we're having trouble finding him. When we do, I hope we'll be able to pinpoint the man we're looking for. Until then, if you see any of them, keep your eyes and ears peeled and report back to me. You can get me at any time on this number." He gives me a card. "Remember, if you're really not involved, you've got nothing to lose by helping us. And you'll be quite a hero if you help us to convict a double murderer. So get in touch if you find out anything. I'll be seeing you, Nate."

Resisting the temptation to answer, "Not if I see you first," I see myself out. So now I'm a police spy. Not at all what I'd planned when I got up this morning. Anyway it's not going to stop me telling Rose I think Penney is having her followed. And I expect she'll tell Karl and the others. I never got around to decoding that letter. Now it's become more of a priority.

The Coded Letter

To break the code, type the correct letter into the box below the code letter.

Dear Ernst,




When Rick and I first started out, we made a short game with a few codebreaking puzzles. I remember E is the most frequent letter in English. T, A, S and N are used a lot as well. A word of one letter must be I or A. The most common three letter word is usually THE. There are only so many words of two or three letters, so the short words should be a good place to start.

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