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Maniacs Of Con City - Excerpt Three

Roarke Nanotech stood on the western edge of Brickton. Vincent Roarke's shiny new nanotechnology facility was a huge steel and glass building with five floors above ground and another five below it. The supercomputer was down on Basement Level 5, but the army of interns who used it for data processing were above ground on the second floor, spread across three huge open plan offices. At quarter to nine in the evening only two people remained on the number crunching floor. One of them was a young intern named Danny, while the other was the woman who normally worked on the top floor, in the Director's office.

Earlier in the evening, Doctor Layla Roth found herself spending a lot more time than she liked on debugging the data processing program Danny had emailed her in the morning. When she finally found the source of the errors in the program, the head of Roarke Nanotech decided to invest time in explaining to Danny all the things he had done wrong, so he could avoid them in the future. Vincent Roarke, if he knew anything about programming, would have fired Danny for even half of the mistakes in the code. Layla did not share her boss's views on problem solving. She firmly believed in giving people a second chance.

`There, you see?' she said, pointing at one of the longest lines of code on the screen. `You're using a dynamically allocated array that you never defined and never set to zero before adding values to it. Which means, the initial value in this array is completely random. You run the code like this, it's like adding random noise to your data.'

`Oh, so that's why I get a lower signal to noise ratio than we expected?' Danny said.

`Exactly. Now, how do you fix this error?'

`I declare the variable and set it to zero at the start of the code.'

`Correct. You also turn off implicit variable declaration. That will force you to manually declare everything, and then you'll avoid these mistakes.'

Danny made a face that looked like he'd just bitten into a lemon. `That'll make the code very long.'

`Yes, but that's how you write good code. Code that is clear and can be debugged with ease. Which brings me back to what I said earlier. Make sure to structure your code. Visually. With indentation for loops and if constructs. Don't worry about file size. Just make the code clear so next time it won't take us a whole day to find out why it says that your samples contain ten times as many impurities as they should.'

`Okay. I'll do it like you said.'

`Good. Well, that was the last bug I found. Rewrite the code. When it's done, show it to me. We'll test it and if it works, you can go back to measuring the samples.'

`Yes, of course. Thank you, Doctor Roth.'

Layla stood up and stretched her legs. `I'm heading home now. You should do the same. Get some sleep, and rewrite the code with a fresh brain.'

`Sure. Just, before you go... can I ask you something... well... something weird?'

`If it's quick.'

`Well, Ben and I have this bet that we'd like you to settle.'

`A bet?' For a moment Layla felt like being back in high school. She couldn't help but smile. `Humor me.'

`Yeah. Well, it was Ben's idea, really. Your father is Stuart Roth, isn't he? The scientist who works as an adviser at the City Hall?'

Layla crossed her arms on her chest. She no longer felt like smiling. `I make no secret of it. Mister Roarke knows.'

`Yes, of course, but that's not what the bet is about. So, Ben thinks, that you took the job here because there's some quarrel between you and your father and that you came here to spite him. But I don't think so. I don't think someone as brilliant as you would be so shallow. So, uh...'

Layla's phone rang. She took it in hand. She instantly forgot about the childish bet when she saw that it was the Lieutenant.

`I'm sorry, I have to get this.' She raised the phone to her ear. `Go ahead.'

`Are you alone, Doctor Roth?' The Lieutenant said. His voice sounded even more raspy over the phone. Two years, and Layla still wasn't used to it.

`No,' she said. `I was about to go home.'

`Come downstairs. It's happening.' The line disconnected.

Layla lowered the phone and stared at the blank screen for several seconds. She put the phone away.

`Doctor Roth? Are you okay?' Danny said. `You look a little pale.'

`It's nothing,' Layla said. `I'm just tired.'

`So, about that bet...'

`Tell Ben he lost,' Layla said. She had no time or inclination to provide details. `I have to go. I'll see you tomorrow.'

She turned and headed out of the office. Danny said something behind her but she couldn't pay any attention to it. As soon as she was outside the office she ran for the elevator. She summoned it from the ground floor, got in, and pressed her keycard to the sensor. Then she pressed the button for Basement Level 3.

On her way down to the depths she replayed the Lieutenant's words in her mind. `It's happening,' he had said. No further details. Just that the horrors Layla had feared for two years had, supposedly, begun. She shuddered to think of all the possibilities she might have to face, each more terrifying than the next.

The elevator door opened and she stepped out into the lobby. The sight of the white solid walls immediately made her feel like a mouse trapped in a maze, and the sign on the single glass door ahead of her which said,`authorized personnel only,' made her think she was an intruder in her own lab. Layla hadn't had this reaction to the architecture of the underground levels since the first day she came down here. She quickly swiped her keycard at the door and pushed it in. Beyond, the labs were separated by glass walls, just like in the upper levels. The Clean Room before her was completely deserted, as it should be this time of night during election season. Layla turned away from the empty lab and made her way to the Security Office. This room had solid walls but the door was glass, and she immediately saw four figures beyond it.

Stevens and Kruger sat by computer terminals connected to large monitors. The Corporal sat further away with his hands clasped together in his lap and his eyes closed, yet Layla knew from experience that the man was very much awake and paying attention. The Lieutenant stood behind Kruger and Stevens, arms folded, eyeing the screens. They all wore the uniforms of the lab security crew, the Lieutenant's jacket sporting the words `Chief of Security' on the back. Layla had never believed the cover jobs would work, but thus far the Lieutenant's approach had panned out fine.

Layla opened the door and stepped inside. The Lieutenant gave her a glance and nodded, then gave all his attention back to the displays.

`What's going on?' Layla asked.

The Lieutenant nodded at the monitors. `See for yourself.'

The screen in front of Stevens showed the map of Brickton, where a tiny red dot blinked roughly where Brickton Central should be.

`The train station?' Layla asked.

`Yes. Worst place in town for remote surveillance.'

`Why?'

`No street cameras nearby,' Kruger said. `All we can do is watch feeds from nearby streets. Nothing so far.'

Layla had a look at his monitor. There was a row of small images of live video feed at the top. Kruger cycled between them, putting a new one on the screen every couple of seconds.

`What about the station itself?' Layla asked.

`Whatever cameras they might have are not on the network,' Kruger said.

`And that's her?' Layla pointed at the red blinking dot on the map. `Are we sure?'

`It's the signal you expected the target to broadcast,' the Lieutenant said. `Picked it up about five minutes ago.'

The receiver was next to the keyboard in front of Stevens, connected to the computer. Stevens was monitoring the signal from the device Layla had built over a year ago out of an old analogue radio. The software converted the signal to a waveform and displayed it on the screen in red, the reference waveform overlapping it in green. The shapes matched quite closely.

Layla shivered. This was the first time they'd detected the signal anywhere in Con County in the past two years. And it was right on her doorstep.

`Do we know which train she was on?'

`No,' the Lieutenant said. `But the signal flared up at the station, not along the tracks.'

`So she might have been there for some time already? Then why did she start broadcasting now?'

`Ma'am,' Stevens said. `The signal just went dead.'

Layla stared at the map. Indeed, the glowing red dot was no longer there. The red waveform on Stevens's monitor had turned into a nearly flat line with a low amplitude noise superimposed on top of it. Stevens adjusted the amplification in the program but the end result was just magnified noise. He tried the frequency tuning knob on the receiver itself, but the red waveform remained void of structure. `It's gone,' he said.

`Could it have been a fluke?' Kruger considered. `Some amateur radio enthusiast broadcasting some BS on this frequency by chance?'

`Unlikely,' Layla said. `It's not just the frequency, it's also the content of the broadcast. It's a code. The receiver won't confirm that it's her unless that code is in the broadcast. Can't be replicated by a pirate station.'

`We need to deploy and scour the area,' the Lieutenant said.

Layla shuddered. This was what she had been waiting for. Two years, it's been, since she, the Lieutenant, and the Corporal had set themselves on this path. She always hoped this day would never come, but also knew that her hopes were most likely in vain. They had to act, and quickly.

*

For more, please proceed to the novel Maniacs Of Con City.


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