Meat Machines

Chapter 6

A few days go by when all I do is work on the game. Things are going so well that we've got to the point where the hero realises he's been betrayed by the woman he loves. And as the game goes on, there'll be yet more surprises in store for him. I think this game's going to be really good, even better than Dead Man's Mark. So at least that part of my life's going well. Another good thing: I don't see or hear anything of Vincent Penney. And another thing, not so good; I don't see Rose. So in the end I phone her and ask if she'd like to come out for a drink and a game of pool. If she's busy or if she thinks she shouldn't see me because she's with Karl, then she can say so, can't she? But she says yes, so we meet in the Green Dragon when she finishes work. Only one problem; she brings Tom along as well.

"You don't mind, do you?" she asks. "Tom says he used to be quite good at pool, but he hasn't had a chance to play for ages. A bit like me, really. So I thought you wouldn't mind if he joined us."

"Of course I don't mind," I lie through my teeth. "The more the better." I'm thinking I'd be prepared to bet Tom isn't half as good as he thinks he is, and it turns out I'm right. Rose and I both beat him easily. He takes it well; he's not such a bad bloke, I suppose. A few beers and a few games later, Tom gets a call.

"It's Andy," he says to Rose as he picks up. "Hi Andy. What? No, of course not. No, definitely not, you know I wouldn't do that. No, I don't think — are you sure? Have you called the police? Hang on, Rose and I aren't far away. We'll be right over."

"What's going on?" Rose sounds anxious.

"Andy says someone's been into the lab and made a mess. He was working late and popped out to get a coffee and a snack. When he got back the lab door was open and all his stuff was chucked on the floor. He thinks we've been burgled. I told him to wait till we get there. Come on, we'd better go. Sorry, Nate."

"I'll come with you," I say, finishing the last drops of my pint. "I might be able to help."

So the three of us go to the university. As we get near the lab I notice someone hanging around outside. I don't see him very clearly as it's getting dark and he's got the hood of his black jacket up, but he looks to me very much like the guy from the Green Dragon the other night, the one I thought was probably a cop watching Rose. When he sees us he makes off, walking fast. Doesn't want Rose to spot him and blow his cover, I suppose. So the cops have been watching the labs too? Maybe it's not a burglary, I think. Maybe a cop just decided he needed to search the place and didn't bother to wait for a warrant. Sounds like the kind of thing Vincent Penney might do. I don't think Rose and Tom notice the guy, so I don't say anything about him to them. As it is, they're both looking really worried. We go up to the lab and Andy meets us at the door.

"Thank God you're here," he says to Tom and Rose. He doesn't seem to notice me, but anyway I follow them into the large white room. It's been trashed. There's paper all over the floor, cupboard doors open, drawers pulled out. A box of test tubes has been tipped over on a table and some have rolled off and smashed on the hard floor. But none of this is what's worrying Andy. "You know the thing I've been working on for the past few weeks? The buckytubes? I had a big flask of the nanoculture right here, and when I came back it was in pieces! The stuff was dripping off the bench onto the floor. I'd just about got it all cleaned up when you came. I hope to hell I got all of it."

They look at Andy's workbench. "Looks like you got it all, Andy, I don't see any," Tom starts, but Rose points to some paper on the floor. When I look at it I see there's a patch of something black on it, something that could be mould or a kind of black moss.

"What's that, Andy? Looks like buckytubes to me," she says.

"Oh hell, it is! It'll spread all over the lab, with all this paper around. We'd better kill it."

I stare hard at the paper. "It looks like it's growing!" The black patch is spreading slowly.

"It is," Rose tells me. "It's eating the paper. No, don't touch it, Nate!"

I pull my hand away as Andy comes back with a large bottle. "Stand back," he says as he pours a sticky yellow liquid over and around the black stuff.

"What is that thing?" I ask. "How can it eat paper?"

"It's a kind of nanomachine that builds tubes of carbon with a specially strong structure, known as buckytubes. It's using the paper as a source of carbon. That's why I warned you not to touch it; there's a lot of carbon in living tissue."

"You mean that stuff eats human flesh?"

"Yes, if you let it get on you. That's why Andy's wearing those special gloves."

"That's awesome! Can I use it in my game?" I notice Andy's gloves, which are shiny and look as if they're made from metal foil. He scoops up the black stuff and the soggy paper with a small shovel and puts the lot into one of the white machines. This one's got an orange triangle on it with the words "Warning! Incinerator may be hot."

"My buckytube project in a game! That would be awesome," Andy says. "Rose, why would someone want to break in and wreck our work?"

"I don't know. Do you think they've taken anything?"

"I can't see that we're missing anything. I mean, the computers are still here, and all the really pricey equipment. What else would anyone want?"

Rose frowns. "Have they been in Gilbert's office?"

"I don't know, I didn't look."

Tom's been having a look at what the burglar's done to his own work space, picking up papers off the floor and trying to put them in order. He's the nearest of us to the door at the far end of the lab, so he opens it and looks through. "They've been through his desk, Rose. His papers are all in a mess, just like in here. It's going to take forever to sort it all out."

Rose walks through into Naismith's office and I follow. Tom's not been exaggerating; the room is a mess. Books have been taken off the shelves and dropped on the floor, the contents of box files has cascaded like a paper avalanche onto the wide desk. The drawers of the desk have been pulled right out and left in the middle of the room, with a box of software CDs upended on top of them.

"This is terrible," Rose says. "All our work! Tom's right, it's going to take ages to put everything back." She starts putting books back on the bookshelves.

I pick up a CDROM from the floor. The plastic case is cracked in several places as if someone has stepped on it. "I'll help, if you like," I offer.

"Nate, I appreciate that you offered, but you don't know where anything goes. The three of us will cope. I'll call Karl, he might be able to come and help."

"At least I can put the desk drawers back." There's four of them. I pick them up one by one and slide them into their places in the desk. But when I get to the last one, the bottom drawer, I find it won't push all the way in. There's about an inch sticking out in front of the desk. I pull it out again. Maybe there's something in the way, blocking it. I reach into the space where the drawer should go. My hand touches something I didn't expect to be there. There's something taped to the underneath of the drawer above. The tape's coming loose and something is hanging down just enough to catch on the drawer below. I pull it free and bring it out into the light. It's a memory card.

"Rose," I say, "I've found something."

"What's that?"

"A memory card. It was taped to the bottom of one of the desk drawers."

"Nate! If we're lucky — if we're very lucky — it could be where Gilbert saved his journal article, the one Karl and I have been trying to find for weeks. You are so clever to find it. The police searched in here and they never saw it."

"They didn't search very thoroughly," Tom says. "I was watching them and they just rummaged through the desk, they didn't take the drawers out and look behind them."

Andy adds, "After I told them what would happen if they poked their fingers into my trial, those cops couldn't get out of here quick enough. I'm surprised they bothered to search at all."

So just by luck, I've found something that could hold Naismith's secret work that all the fuss is about. He was probably killed because of it, and Louise certainly was. I've beaten the cops to it, and the burglar as well. If the burglar wasn't a cop. Naismith's computer's been taken away by the police experts, so Rose takes the memory card over to one in the lab.

"Nate, come here," she says. "What do you make of this?"

I go to where she's sitting in front of the computer and take a look at the screen. Under the word "Password?" there's something that looks very much like a crossword puzzle. Rows of squares going across, squares going up and down. No clues.

"I'm not very good at crosswords," I say.

"Gilbert went to a lot of trouble to hide whatever he put on here," she observes. "Why does it have to be such a secret? He didn't show it to me, or Karl, or even Louise, as far as I know. But if he hid the password in this crossword puzzle, he must have meant someone to solve it. But he hasn't given us any clues. So, maybe he's made it something that a stranger couldn't guess, something that even the police wouldn't be likely to guess, but that Karl or I would have more of a chance to get right. So it's probably something to do with us, the research team, or with the work we do here, which is quite a specialist subject. There's a few things we could try."

Tom and Andy come over to help and with four of us working on it, it's not long before we have the password cracked. The files on the memory card are open to us. Or at least to the three of them; Rose opens one and I have to admit I can hardly understand a word of it.

"Look, this is it! The paper Gilbert was writing, the summary of our work on nano arrays! I have to call Karl, he'll be so happy."

While she's on the phone Tom opens another file. "This looks like the project Louise was working on. I didn't know very much about it, Louise always acted like it was a big secret."

I look over his shoulder. There's a lot I don't understand, but from what I can make out, it seems Naismith and Louise were working on a way to use nanomachines to target nukes. So they could use a smaller nuke that wouldn't destroy a whole city, but just obliterate a specific target. I'm not sure this makes nukes any less scary. I can see why the government wouldn't want everyone to know about this. I can see, also, why they'd go to great lengths to stop other governments finding out what they could do with this new invention. I remember what Vincent Penney said, that the codebreakers wouldn't give them the transcript of the letter right away. Now it's clear to me why the spies wouldn't tell the cops what was going on. Naismith was right to hide the memory card. There's probably more than one madman out there who'll think this knowledge is worth killing for.

Rose is finished on the phone. "Karl's coming over right away. He told me to phone the police, but he doesn't want them to know about the memory card. So don't say anything, will you?"

"I've got a card with Vincent Penney's number, if you want it," I offer.

"I think we've all got that," Rose says, but she takes the card and calls Penney's mobile. We listen while she tells him about the break-in at the lab. "He's on his way. He told us not to touch anything."

"It's a bit late for that," Andy says.

"We'd better not put anything else back. Take that thing out of the computer, Tom. I'd better keep it for a while. We can go over it properly next time we're all together."

I've got half a mind to get out of there before Karl and Penney turn up. I don't much want to see either of them. But if he finds out I was here, and my fingerprints are all over everything, Penney's sure to think I've stolen something. So I decide I'd better stay.

Much, much later I get back to the pub. It's nearly closing time and I really need a last pint. Penney has been his usual obnoxious self, but luckily he stopped short of actually charging me with anything. No-one even hinted at the existence of the memory card.

"Hi Nate, you're back," George the barman says to me. "Usual pint?"

"Thanks mate," I say as the beer flows into the glass. "You wouldn't believe how much I need this one."

"What's up? New girlfriend giving you a hard time?"

"She's someone else's girlfriend," I reply. With a sympathetic grimace he gives me my change and turns to serve another customer.

I get that weird feeling that means someone's watching me and I turn round. There at my elbow is the guy in black jeans and hooded jacket who I've seen twice now, once watching Rose here in this pub, the second time earlier tonight, outside the building where she works. The one I'm pretty sure is a cop.

"I need to talk to you," he says in a quiet voice that somehow manages to sound threatening. Definitely a cop, then. "I want to know who you're working for."

"Not the same lot as you, if I'm right about you," I answer.

He raises an eyebrow in Mr Spock style. "So you know who I'm working for, do you? That's interesting."

"It wasn't exactly hard to work it out."

"You can come on board, if you've got something to offer. I'm sure you know what we want. You'll be well paid, I can promise you that. More than you're getting now, I'll bet."

I wouldn't be surprised. Freelance game developers aren't exactly rolling in money. But somehow, having Penney for a boss just doesn't appeal, and anyway I can't believe this is a serious job offer.

"Don't think I'm going to be taking you up on that," I say.

"Loyalty, is it? You'll soon find loyalty doesn't pay the rent. Well, if you'd rather play for the losing team, that's your choice."

Before I can respond he's walking out of the pub. As the door swings shut behind him, George comes over.

"I didn't know you had a brother, Nate."

"I don't."

"Then who was that? I thought he must be your brother, he looks enough like you."

"I don't even really know him," I say, trying to picture him in my mind. Same hair colour as me, thin like me, maybe an inch taller — apart from that, I don't think we look alike at all.

When Alan came round, his headache had eased to the level of a bad hangover. He could move his head and the room did not blur and swim before his eyes. He could hear nothing. Cautiously he sat up and looked about him. He was alone in the study. His arms were tied together at the wrists and his legs were bound at the ankles. He tried to wriggle free of the bonds but they were of strong blue nylon rope of the kind used by climbers, and completely inflexible. He looked round the study, desperately hoping to see a knife or a sharp pair of scissors. A glass-fronted bookcase caught his eye. Displayed inside were mementos of Bergman's professional life, certificates, awards, a copy of his book, Nanoscale Synthesis, and a row of sample bottles filled with the innovative nanomachine products first created using the professor's techniques. With any luck, here was something he could use.

Still in sitting position, Alan shuffled towards the bookcase. Next to it was a heavy armchair. Gripping the arms firmly, he managed to pull himself off the ground and stand up. Now he could reach the glass door of the bookcase. He almost dropped back to the floor in despair when he found it was locked. He had not thought to bring his nanobot kit on what should have been a friendly visit. Alan rallied his courage and hobbled over to Bergman's desk. A short time spent searching revealed the key in a drawer of the desk. Back to the bookcase again; it opened easily. As he had hoped, one of the samples was the famous plastic-dissolving nanobot, created for use in recycling plants. His fingers struggled to turn the screwcap that sealed the small vial. As it came open, a few drops splashed out, fraying the blue rope where they touched it. Alan poured out the contents of the vial onto the rope, and in a few moments his hands were free. It did not take him long to untie his feet. As he pulled away the last of the rope and stretched his legs, he heard the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside.

As the door swung open Alan acted. With one leap he reached Harrison and hit him as hard as he could on the side of the head. Before his enemy could regain his balance, Alan plucked the biopellet gun from Harrison's pocket. Now the tables were turned. Holding the gun to Harrison's head, Alan demanded, "Where is my nanogold, Harrison? Give it to me!"

"Let me go! I don't have it!" Harrison protested. "I gave it to Bergman."

"I expect you sold it to Bergman. Take me to him."

Harrison walked in front, Alan just behind him with the gun almost touching his head. Bergman and Roxy were in the pleasant sitting room at the back of the house, with wide glass doors looking onto the garden. On a small coffee table in front of Bergman was the tube that contained Alan's precious nanogold sample.

"Sit down," Alan muttered, and Harrison took a chair.

"He seems to have somehow managed to free himself," Harrison said, as Alan picked up the nanogold.

"Alan, you can leave that with me," Bergman said, his eyes following the tube as it vanished into Alan's pocket. "I can take care of it from now on."

"No, professor," Alan replied. "I suspect there will be more attempts to steal it, and I don't want to put you at risk. I think I'll be better able to keep it safe. Whatever you've paid this monster," he used the gun to point at Harrison, "I hope it was by cheque. I'd stop payment if I was you."

"No!" Harrison shouted. "I stuck to our agreement. I gave you the nanogold when I had it."

"Never mind, Ken." This was from Roxy. "We'll get it back."

Alan turned to her. "And you, Roxy! I never would have thought it of you. I hoped I'd found a friend in you, someone I could trust. I couldn't have been more wrong. Get out of here."

Without a word, Roxy stood up and walked out of the room, her step as graceful as ever. Alan watched her go.

Harrison made his move. He ran to a glass door and pushed it open. As Alan whirled round, bringing the gun to bear on him, he ran across the garden. In a moment he had reached the high wall and scrambled to the top. A burst of biopellets streamed in his direction too late as he dropped down to the other side and safety.

"Damn! He got away. Never mind, professor, we still have the sample, and that's what's important. I swear he won't stop me from sharing the benefits of nanogold with the world. Shall I report him to the police or will you?"

"I think I'd better do it, after all, it was my house he invaded with his biopellet gun. Are you sure you won't let me have the nanogold? If he comes after it again he'll assume you've got it."

"No, I'll keep it. I don't want to give him a reason to threaten you again. Your safety is important to me, professor."

Alan left Bergman's house, looking around him anxiously as soon as he was out in the street. He wouldn't have been surprised if Harrison and Roxy had tried another attack. Before long he saw a taxi and hailed it. It would be worth the expense to get home safely and quickly.

Password Crossword

Type letters into the squares to solve the puzzle and find Naismith's password. Click the submit button when ready.

"Let's assume the words that fit in here are something to do with our group," Rose says. "Anyone got any ideas?"

"What about our names?" Tom guesses.

"That's too easy," I say, but then I see he could be right.

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