Brother, Frank

Back then, little Frank Miller held my heart in his hands. Now, it’s the other way around.

When the Millers first brought their boy, all stunted and crooked, into my clinic in Cleveland, I knew he wasn’t long for this world. A year, maybe more. I was almost exactly right. What can I say? Bad things happen, even to the Amish.

The clinic was a pro bono service I provided to Amish families who either could not afford, would not use, or found no help from the traditional medical system. I did it, the pro bono work, for myself mostly. For the prestige and the philanthropic credit, and for the research too. And then there were the tax breaks. I could hide a lot of income by running a free clinic. I’m no saint. But for some reason I can’t explain, I loved Frank from the first time I saw him. Or maybe it was pity. I can’t say I know enough about love to know the difference.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that Jonah and Ellen Miller were losing Frank to a condition caused by disproportionate dwarfism, a surprisingly common trait in some of the Amish communities of Ohio due to the tight and shallow gene pool. But that’s not all. Frank wasn’t just short and bent. He was autistic too. Is autistic. Present tense. It’s not like he’s dead. Only his old body is.

For now, Frank still has a shot at life. And I’m the only hope he has.

The boy was only moderately autistic when I met him. Autistic enough that it made treating his other health problems even more difficult. Not that there was ever much hope for Frank. It hurt me to say this then, and it hurts even more now, but… Frank never had a chance in his old body. He was going to die no matter what.

I was only doing the free doctoring bit part time, and as I said, helping the Amish wasn’t even one of the main reasons I was doing it.

I’m just trying to be honest here.

That first day, when Frank came in with his parents, I saw how insurmountable his troubles were.

His crooked little body.

His fractured mind.

Rocking back and forth and gripping two big bolts in his malformed hands, his body already showed signs of the genetic afflictions that would kill him.

He said prayers when he got worked up or when something riled him. Sometimes in English, the prayers, but usually in Pennsylvania Dutch. And he only communicated to me after I’d been working with him for over six months. Before that he’d submit to examination, but that was all. There was no relationship or communication between Frank and me at the beginning. And at that first meeting, it was like I didn’t exist to him.

Death is a part of my job. It’s my business.

I probably didn’t.

But eventually I broke through, and as unbelievable as it might sound, Frank and I became friends. Not that I was doing all of this because I’m some kind of angel. I’m not. I had selfish motives then and I have selfish motives now. I’ve said that already, but it’s true. I try not to lie to myself. But I did love Frank.

I do.

The first time he spoke directly to me, he looked me in the eye and asked me if I knew what it was like to die. That question is harder than it seems. I’ve seen men die up close. And I’ve been responsible for deaths, too. I’m a doctor and a scientist, and I work for the government making weapons that kill people and break things. Death is a part of my job. It’s my business.

It’s why I drink so much. It’s not the genetics. My father was a teetotaler, and so was his father before him. My mom would drink a glass of wine at parties, but I never saw her drunk. Believe me, if I could blame my problems on my parents, I would.

“Mother says you might be able to save me,” Frank said to me the first time he ever spoke directly to me. Six months into our relationship and I’d been seeing him three or four times a week. Suddenly he talked.

“I’ll do my best,” I said. But even then I knew.

His eyes met mine in a moment of clarity. A moment of prophecy. “You’re not God, you know.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”

Frank half-smiled then. No one else would have called it a smile. It was just a glint in his eyes and a slight upturn at the corner of his mouth. But I could tell he smiled.

“I’m going to go to heaven, and when I do I’ll be big,” he said.

“I know, Frank. You will. But we’re going to try to keep you here a bit longer. Is that okay?”

Frank shrugged and began to rock back and forth. He gripped his comfort bolts, one in each hand, and looked up at me again.

“You’re not God, you know.”

And that was it. The light went out, and I was dead to him again.

The next time he talked to me, he told me how to milk a cow.

* * *

We became friends, Frank and I. Sometimes when he’d see me he’d drop one of his bolts and take my hand in his tiny grip and hug my leg. His head came up to my waist.

By the end of that year with Frank, I was enamored with him. And it wasn’t easy. He often had his “events” and his fits, but he was the most beautiful soul I’d ever met. And if I’m being totally honest, I have to admit that I was jealous when Frank talked to God. I’m a scientist and a doctor and as far as I was concerned, I was a god too.

I take life and I can give it. Isn’t that what gods do?

That mindset was probably the root of my problems, but who knows. I’m no psychiatrist. I was drinking a lot then. I still am, but I was then too.

Frank was the one beautiful thing in my life. The one shining light that kept me from putting a pistol in my mouth or jumping off a bridge. Everything else was darkness.

And that was about the time, at the end of that first year, when what I had known since the first day I met him became painfully obvious:

Frank was going to die, and soon.

Chapter One

A heart and mind aren’t all that make us human, but they’re a good start. Oh, we’re made of the incorporeal stuff, too: thoughts, feelings, personality; envy, compassion, anger. A jazzman once said that pain, sorrow, and love are all a man really has. I’m not sure that’s true. Not that I know much about love. I’m just a scientist. I deal with facts and data. Those other things are out of my purview.

And now I hold a human heart in my hands. It isn’t the first time, but it’s almost certain to be the last. Because in every sense but one, what I’m doing is wrong. Unambiguously wrong. There has been no consent for what is about to take place. The boy, Frank, would never have understood even if I’d asked, and the parents… well, they believe their son is dead and gone. As does everyone else not in this room.

But I’m saving a life. So there’s that.

I place Frank’s still, warm heart into the chest cavity of the HADroid robot, then step back to let my medical team go to work. They’ll perform the actual procedure; I’ll observe and supervise. That’s my official duty and obligation. But as I nod my permission for the team to begin the process, the whole world isn’t big enough to contain the fear that floods over me like a baptism.

Brotherfrank

A Humanoid Adapted Droid. That’s what Frank is becoming. He will live again. Though for how long… there’s no telling.

You see, Frank is the second patient to undergo the HADroid procedure, and it would be an understatement to say that the first transplant didn’t end well. The last time we tried this, the donor’s brain and abbreviated cardiovascular system—which initially appeared to have been successfully transplanted—ceased to function within days of the operation.

Ceased To Function.

That’s how you say the organs died. The human died.

A soul left this plane of existence.

That’s how you say it when you want to avoid the reality of what happened. And I’ve embraced that terminology because I drink a lot and don’t deal well with my problems. But it’s all tougher this time, since this time I know the organ donor and his family. Since the donor is someone I love.

That first procedure, half a year ago—rushed in order to meet a DARPA funding deadline—is still fresh in my mind as I watch Clarence and William suturing Frank’s heart to the engineered arteries (a hybrid of polymer support structures and human tissue grown in a lab) and the mechanical interfaces that will eventually provide it with sustenance and power. It’s a long, complicated, and painstaking procedure. It feels doubly so when you know your patient will die anyway.

Naturally, the functionaries in charge at DARPA were unconcerned with the fact that a real, living, and functioning human heart and brain had died. Or with the fact that the death had been a direct result of their meaningless and arbitrary bureaucratic deadlines, which had led to the accelerated schedule for the first transplant attempt.

Or should I call it an “animation” attempt? After all, what we’re doing is much more than a transplant. We’re trying to bring a robot to life. Or maybe we’re trying to use a robotic body to keep a young boy’s heart and mind alive.

Which is it?

I suppose that question is something that will torture my soul for the rest of my life.

But DARPA… well, DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is government. There‘s no soul there to be tortured by moral questions. So, rather than being sad about the death of a fellow human being after the first failed HADroid procedure, the ghouls at DARPA, truly heartless and robotic (only without the promise of applications beneficial to humankind), ordered that a second test be initiated within a year.

That year is only half over, but what else could I do?

Six months in, just a few weeks ago, was when I became convinced that Frank was dying. His heart and mind are fine, but his body is killing him anyway. If I hadn’t moved quickly, Frank would already be dead. Permanently and irretrievably dead. The kind of dead we used to think of as “dead” before science started to blur the lines.

What I’m doing is not something you get forgiven for.

At least this way, my little friend has a chance. (I tell myself that whenever I try to convince myself that I’m doing this just for Frank.) A small, almost inconsiderable chance, but a chance nonetheless.

I look around the lab, a place I’ve treated as home for the last few years, and there is Frank, in the center of it, and I know that whether he lives or dies, everything else I have is gone. The entire program, everything I’ve worked for in the HADroid project, the years I’ve invested—it’s all gone either way. What I’m doing is not something you get forgiven for.

Sweat runs down my face, and I wipe it off with my sleeve. And maybe there’s a tear there too. But I’m not sure whether the tear is for Frank, or for everything else I’m poised to lose. You see, when I’m forced to face the truth, this is really all about me. Yes, I want to save Frank. I love the boy, and I always have. Still, my selfish motives fly up and hit me in the face if I think about all this long enough.

I’m trying to save Frank because that is all I really have in the world.

This second test was rushed too, just like the first one. Only this time, it wasn’t DARPA that was responsible for the accelerated schedule; it was me. And it will be my sole responsibility if I fail.

If I fail to animate the first living, breathing, thinking humanoid robotic creature. And even if I succeed… even if Frank lives for a few minutes, or a few days, or a few years, I’m screwed.
I fast-tracked this second operation the minute I learned that Frank was going to die. How dumb is that? I threw out every protocol, every requirement that I’d established for a donor. I threw out everything, including my career, all so I could save the life of a friend.

There I go, lying to myself again, as if I did this just to save Frank. I’m shameless. Maybe I’m trying to save myself.

And that life I’m saving is so tenuous. So precious. It’s not likely to be saved in the long run anyway.

I guess in the long run, we’re all dead. But that doesn’t change the facts. What I’m doing is stupid. It’s career suicide. I’ll certainly lose my license to practice medicine. And that’s if I don’t go to jail. Or worse.

* * *

Maybe you think I did pro bono doctoring among the Amish because I’m really a good person. Nope. I did it because it helped me get grants for my work, and because I got to keep one hundred percent of the data I gathered for my own research. Money and information. That’s why I did free work.

What I did, it helped people too. The Amish work did. I mean… I do care for these people. I’m not a complete sociopath. And treating the Amish is always interesting. Some plain people have no problem using advanced medicine. Some use it only reluctantly. Some not at all. The Amish are not the monolithic cult of sameness that many people think they are. Every district, every group, every family… they’re all different.

The problem is, what I’m doing with Frank right now… well, strictly speaking, it’s not medicine. It’s monstrosity. That’s the only way I can think of to say it. I’m building a monster. The Amish wouldn’t approve, and no one else would either.

Truth be told, I probably considered this solution even before the first transplant, way back when I first learned that Frank was dying. But I pushed it out of my mind. We already had a more suitable donor subject. An adult. Someone who had volunteered to be used by science. Someone who’d made a choice. Someone who had no family, no ties to the world he might be leaving.

Yet even as I was performing that first transplant, Frank was on my mind.

Here, I thought as I looked down at the HADroid, if it could be made to work, is the perfect body transplant for a sparkling, beautiful soul like Frank.

I’m schizo about this. It only fully makes sense when I’m really drunk at night, but a remnant of why I’m doing this stays with me in the morning. Just a notion, but it has something to do with this: I really want to save Frank to save myself. Because I seem to have the need to save something. I don’t have it all figured out. I don’t know what unseen force compelled me to try and save Frank. Pride. Delusion. A god complex. The need for power over life and death. Maybe all of that.

Yeah. All of it.

Frank was dying because of a simple and sad reality: his brain, heart, and vascular system were growing too large for his small body. Or you might say he has died. Or will die? The time tense of all of this is difficult. His body is already buried and in the ground.

There was no saving Frank—at least not in his old body. Modern medicine had pronounced him incurable, and I concurred, because what Frank really needed was a whole new body. And I’m probably the only doctor in the world who can provide what Frank needs to survive:

A full-body transplant.

People have received robot hearts before. Not even remotely the same thing as what I’m doing.

I’m helping Frank survive. Even that may not be an entirely accurate way to describe what I’m trying to do here. It all made so much more sense last night. After seven scotches and a bottle of cabernet, and me laid out on the floor of my kitchen, the cool travertine helping to keep the room still. Me thinking about the funeral, and lowering Frank’s little body into the ground.

You see, the Millers believe that their little Frank has already died. I used my government security clearance to harvest Frank’s brain and heart just before his body killed him. I’ve kept his organs alive artificially since then.

Sometimes cutting-edge science can be a sticky wicket.

We couldn’t keep his organs alive indefinitely, but we needed some time to make certain the HADroid was ready. We’ve made improvements this time. We’ve fixed what we thought needed fixing. And while all that was going on, I attended Frank’s funeral. I watched his family bury their boy. I stood with them and told them how much I’d miss little Frank.

Part of me is so invested in the science of the HADroid, and in the immense potential of humanoid robotic defense applications, that I’m willing to accept the price that must be paid. Imagine: an army of advanced robotic soldiers who can think, initiate, create, adapt, and empathize like a human, but without a human’s physical limitations. Or, what if you could enhance a human soldier—provide him with a computer to aid regular brain function, and install machine defenses to make him terribly difficult to kill?

Sure, movies and TV have taken a crack at it. The Six Million Dollar Man was an early Hollywood take on the idea, and RoboCop—both the original and the suckier remake—looked into the idea as well. But this, what I’m attempting right now, this is the real thing, and it’s never been tried before. And no one will ever know about it. It’s not the kind of thing the government advertises.

The goal of the HADroid program is to make a robot that, on the surface, is a normal, adult human—but which, in reality, will be almost a living contradiction. It will marry flesh, computers, robotics, and advanced weaponry that far surpass the limitations of any purely human soldier. All with the heart, soul, and mind of a human being; with the ability to reason, to show compassion and mercy, to care. In effect, or maybe I should say in theory, the machine can be overridden by its human control mechanism—the person it really is—before it can do something cartoonishly evil, like maybe deciding that humanity is a virus plaguing the earth and thus should be wiped out. We’ve all read and watched those stories. Science fiction does teach us sometimes.

What the program is trying to achieve… it’s a noble goal. At least, I think it is.

Or was.

Because now I’ve hijacked that program to save a friend. And maybe to save myself, too. I have made the choices of a god.

And as a result, this dangerous creature, my invention — this living, breathing super-soldier — will have the heart and mind of an eleven-year-old boy.

An autistic eleven-year-old boy.

* * *

We’ve kept the whole thing compartmentalized. Even these heart surgeons don’t know what’s really going on. They’ve signed releases and they’ve been told that what we’re doing is a top-secret government operation, and it is. They have no clue what the HADroid really is.

Most of my own staff doesn’t know what I’m doing either. I’ve confided in Carlos and a few of his BDD hacker brothers, but that’s it.

It’s been just over eight hours since I held the boy’s heart in my hands, and my team of surgeons has finished the implantation procedure. Now they’re attaching leads for stimulation—electrodes that will soon deliver a current that should jump-start the heart and get it pumping again. And this is the moment when I see an aide enter the surgical suite with a note.

A note for me.

I open the letter with shaking hands because I fear I know what message it contains.

And there it is. Eight simple lines, bereft of emotion or feeling or any human compassion. It’s a note that will have enormous implications for Frank’s new life. However much of it he has left. And mine, too.

My eyes dart from the paper to the operating table. I have a few seconds. I can stop it. I can shout to William and Clarence and tell them not to flip the switch. But I hesitate. For some reason, I hesitate. I know exactly where we are in the procedure. Whatever happens next, it will be on my head. Because I can stop it.

And then…

The memo orders me, Dr. Christopher Alexander, to kill Frank.

I see the heart lurch twice; it throbs into motion. Too late. Frank is alive, and the note from DARPA, that single sheet of bureaucratic memorandum, is going to change everything for everyone involved. Especially me. After all, I had a career and a life that both now seem to me—because of this memo—to be over. I knew I’d end up on the run, but I thought I’d have more time.

The memo orders me, Dr. Christopher Alexander, to kill Frank. Actually, to never vivify him in the first place. The program itself has been killed. Maybe they found out I’d moved forward with the operation. Or maybe some officer or agent somewhere needed to start shoveling my money into some other off-budget ops or something. Who knows? Governments start and then drop programs all the time. It’s the way of the beast.

The why doesn’t matter. All that matters is that funding has been pulled for the whole HADroid program. Any evidence that the project ever existed, including Frank, is to be destroyed.

And I don’t plan on letting that happen.

God help us.

Chapter Two

“I tripped a wire at Social Security and they’re searching, but I’d already finished up and buried the new account, so they won’t be able to find what I did.”

“You sure?” Carlos asks.

“Yeah, pretty sure. But they’re looking now. I’m out and brushing my tracks.”

“Dammit, Pat!”

Patrick rolls his eyes, then looks back at his screen. “This is an art, not a science.”

“You’re telling me.”

Smoke rises from the ashtray where I just crushed out a cigarette. There are no windows in here, and the garish light from the recessed compact fluorescent bulbs emphasizes the wispy trails of cigarette smoke as they swirl upward and disappear into a cloud above our heads.

The place smells like rum and sweat and an ashtray and spilled coffee.

Yes, I smoke cigarettes. Not all the time, though. Only whenever I’m depressed or mentally overwhelmed. So, most of the time. I’m not a perfect representative of my profession. In fact, if I’m being honest, I’m probably not even a good representative of my species.

The BDD geeks don’t mind if I smoke in here since everything else we’re doing is illegal anyway. In fact, I first learned that Carlos Luna was a world-class hacker during a smoke break early in the HADroid project. Not here, though. This is a warehouse office rented with cash and under a fake name. Over at my lab—that’s where I met Carlos. He works for me both there and here.

Over a cigarette I mentioned that my ex-wife, Cruella, was defaming me daily in her blog. She knows that I can’t really tell people what I do for a living, so she was having fun offering some artificial, alternative theories. She’s that kind of lady.

Carlos was part of the team that was writing the programs for the HADroid brain interface. He was compartmentalized like everyone else, but once I met him and got to know him, we became friends… and now we’re cohorts in crime.

Her real name isn’t Cruella, of course. It’s Marilyn. But I call her Cruella. It’s not a hard puzzle to solve. Anyway, on that day Carlos and I were out in the breezeway sucking on cancer sticks, and Carlos gave me a sideways look through a slanted eye, and when I paused as I was bringing my cigarette to my mouth, that’s when he made the offer.

“How’d you like to see her blog disappear?”

“Permanently?” I asked.

“Nah. Maybe for a day, and I can make it hell for her to recover her old files.”

“You could do that?”

Carlos shrugged. He shrugs a lot. “It’d be something to do, I guess.”

“I’d love for that to happen.” That was all I said. I thought about asking Carlos if it would be illegal, but I realized that I didn’t want to know. Besides, at that moment, I didn’t know if he was serious.

He was.

I felt bad about it for about five seconds. It’s like I told you: I’m probably not a good person. But getting one over on Cruella was something I savored. I didn’t get a win very often, so it felt good to make her suffer for a change. She never did find her old blog posts, and Carlos made it so that her site was invisible to search engines for almost a year. Don’t ask me how he did it. It took him all of about three minutes.

* * *

“A good rooster that crows strong, that means you’re blessed.”

brofrank2

That’s what Frank told me last night before I put him down to sleep in a cheap room in that rundown motel outside of town. I’m not all that sure what he meant by that, or if it was just some Amish wisdom his daddy shared with him. Something in him sparked the notion, but I can’t imagine what it might have been.

But it did make me think of context, since in the CAINing process, context is everything.

I lived in the country some as a boy, but we weren’t farmers. I’m not one-hundred-percent city though, not at all. I remember black smoke rising from the chimney in the mornings before the warmth of the day could settle in, and I remember the smell of apples on the tree, sweet like candy growing right within reach. And going with my great-uncle Jeffrey when he went to rob a beehive of its honey and I stood way off, like half a football field away, and was still afraid those bees were going to get me. I remember all that.

And wet grass and leather boots and fishing for catfish in the neighbors’ pond.

So, I’m not all city. Still, I need to realize that Frank has very little context for everything that’s happening to him. And he’s handling it all after waking up in a grown man’s body. How would you handle that?

When he first woke up, after the operation, he hugged me and said, “I’m big. Is this heaven?”

No, Frank. This isn’t heaven.

He did well last night and he wasn’t all that freaked out, considering everything he’s been through. I read to him from the Gideon Bible I found in the bedside drawer. I had no idea what I was reading, but it seemed to keep him calm, and he really did listen to what I was saying. I’ve been running the CAIN program in his computer on and off for twenty-four hours; maybe that’s helping him keep it together.

At one point last night I asked him if he missed his mom and dad, and all he said was, “I’m to help Father milk the cows in the morning. Four hundred twenty-two steps to the barn and back.”

This morning I left him in the motel room with the television playing on the cartoon channel. All I can do is hope he doesn’t flip out and kill everyone. I could have powered him down and left the CAIN program running the whole time I’m gone, but he’s yet to show any tendency to change on his own, and since I had him CAINing for over four hours yesterday, I figured he needed a break.

But what do I know? This is all new to me too.

If there were a way for me not to leave him alone at all, I’d do it. I’d certainly do it. Because it’s dangerous leaving a weapon like that unattended. But there’s no way I’m going to have him with me when I’m dealing with the BDD team. Hackers get raided and arrested, and with what these particular hackers are doing for me… well, the odds may be somewhere around fifty-fifty that I end up in a jail cell or the morgue by the end of the day.

* * *

In the year after Carlos hacked Cruella’s blog for me, he and I became very close friends. That’s when he let me meet the whole geek squad. The BDD. Carlos, Patrick, Paula, and the rest of them. Some of them already worked for me, and I’d never known they were in cahoots with Carlos. They were something like an Anonymous-style cyber-terror squad. Havoc makers. Lords of e-darkness. Their hacker clan was called the BDD, which stood for Brazos de Dios (the Arms of God), but they usually just referred to themselves as the Arms. And they had elements, branches, all over the country. All over the world. Most of them were twentysomethings with government clearance positions, terrorizing the Internet on the side. Exacting retribution for social wrongs, perceived slights, or just for fun. In the same way you might collect stamps or beer cans or something in your spare time, only they destroy evildoers or corrupt companies or sometimes lives.

There is something deeper there, too. Something scarier. There is often talk that uses the verbiage of war. Of war coming. Dark things hinted at in moments of humor.

I wonder if the government knows how many hackers like Carlos are working inside the fence, doing government jobs and pulling down government checks, and all the while destabilizing the system from the inside.

Now the BDD crew works for me. At least on this project they do. And I pay well because I’m rich. Made most of my dough a decade before I began working on projects for DARPA. Medical school was just a sidelight—something to make sure people would let me do my experiments. To make it legal I had to be a doctor, so I became one, but med school never taught me anything I didn’t already know. I’d held and sold patents from the time I was nineteen years old, and at some point the money wasn’t even a way to keep score anymore. It was just there. A seemingly endless amount of it. And once I started taking government projects, DARPA didn’t mind shoveling more and more green into my account every quarter, as long as my projects made progress.

Well, up until now they haven’t minded.

From today on, they’ll probably mind. A lot.

That’s what the geeks are doing for me now. Hiding everything so I can disappear with Frank. I’m done with all of it, and I’m not going to let them kill the boy. Man. Man-boy. Hell, he’s an adult-looking robot, but he’s just a boy by every accounting that matters. So the team is making us go away, Frank and me. Erasing every vestige of the HADroid project. Creating new identities for us, including new driver’s licenses, passports, bank accounts, and credit cards. Several identities, and safe houses to get us fully disappeared. All at a very stiff price. This stuff ain’t easy post-9/11.

We’ll hide out in some BDD-provided safe houses for a while, and then, once the searching dies down… an island somewhere. I can afford it.

The Arms boys and girls know their business. Most of them will probably end up in jail one day, or who knows? Maybe they got their government jobs because they’d already been threatened with jail. Hard to tell. But right now, they’re working like a well-oiled machine. Until they realize the gig might be up.

Maybe they're already on the way.

Because that’s what happens next.

“The IP we’ve routed this through, the fourth hop, well, they just got served from Homeland.” Paula looks up from her screen, calm as always. “A contact there just private channeled me, and they have papers in hand. He’s dragging his feet but it won’t be long. Someone there might have already spilled. The Social Security trip-up must have really pissed someone off—they’re halfway back through the route.”

Carlos sighs and looks around the room. “That’s it then. Let’s pack it up, people. They’ll be here soon.”

“How long?” I ask.

Carlos shrugs. “Maybe they’re already on the way. Or maybe if they just now served the IP, and Patrick got the warning in time, we could have hours.”

“So it could be hours or minutes?”

“Or less.”

This time I’m the one who shrugs. I pound a new cigarette out of the pack and light it. “This isn’t helpful.”

Carlos is still staring at his screen. He hits a few keys and I see his eyes light up—and not in a good way. Maybe we don’t have as long as we thought.

He slams his laptop closed and places it in the middle of a table next to what looks like a huge and very expensive toaster. The black box. “Right here and right now, friends!” he shouts.

Laptops slam shut throughout the room, and each hacker adds a device or two to the stack. Two men wearing medical gloves are polishing everything quickly with a towel that smells like ammonia, and each electrical device is quickly wiped of prints. They’re even vacuuming the place and spraying the whole carpet with something out of an exterminator’s can. They move quickly; they’ve done this before.

“All right, people, we’re finished here,” Carlos says. “Light it up!”

I notice the men unconsciously covering up their private parts with their hands, so I do the same, not knowing what’s about to happen but feeling queasy about the whole thing.

Patrick presses a button on his smartphone and a loud buzz-pop comes from the toaster, followed by a frazzled clap that sounds something like lightning snapping through the air. The compact fluorescents blink and go dark. A door opens in the back of the room and everyone starts moving toward it. Carlos throws his smartphone on the smoking stack of electronic hardware and then jerks his thumb at me.

“Your phone’ll be dead too. It’s fried. Don’t leave it here because yours is traceable, but when you get wherever you’re going, make it disappear completely.” He turns his back on me and heads for the light that shines through the open door to the alley.

“Really? I just got used to this phone.”

“Get another one,” Carlos says over his shoulder. “It’s probably time to put the rest of the plan into action anyway.”

I follow him toward the exit. “Are you sure they can’t retrieve any data from all of this stuff? I’ve heard they can do that.”

We step outside, and the bright sunlight causes us both to blink and squint. Carlos puts on his sunglasses and throws his bag over his shoulder. “That stuff is toast,” he says with a grin.

“They can try all they want to salvage data from that pile—it’ll be a waste of time. And that’s why we leave it all. To make them waste time trying to get something on us.” He winks at me. “Besides, you’re rich.”

That’s when it hits me. The cigarette butts. DNA. I’ve watched CSI and those other forensics shows. I head back toward the door.

“We got everything, Chris,” Carlos says. “Even the ashtray. We even took the trashcan liners. We’re good at what we do.

We start walking to Carlos’s car, an old beater he must have picked up at a used lot for a few hundred bones. I notice that the license plate is just a piece of paper that says “In Transit.” Great. That can’t be legal. That was something I didn’t notice when he picked me up to bring me to the location. I look over at Carlos; he shrugs again.

Just then, the high-pitched squealing of brakes and the sound of tires sliding over pebbles come from the front of the building. I’m glad we’re in the back. Carlos bolts for the car, and I follow. Something is going down.

Carlos and I jump in and slam the doors before we can be seen, and in a split second the car is moving. Half a block and he hooks it to the right, then left again down the next alley.

A few more turns and a double-back, and we’re gone. We pass under an overpass with a parking lot built under it, and I notice that the rest of the team has already arrived and the lot is filled with cars manned by people who work for Carlos.

I get it: he’s hiding us from satellite surveillance. Making sure they can’t “roll back the tape.”

For me, actually. They all really work for me. Half are BDD members, many of whom I recognize because they worked at my lab. Half are unemployed day laborers, I suppose, whom Carlos has paid twenty bucks to be parked there at that moment.

We all pull out at the same time, like fans letting out of an NBA game, and each vehicle heads in a different direction. Whoever was on our tail never had a chance to catch us.

“You spend my money quite freely,” I tell Carlos as I reach in my pocket for a cigarette. “But I thank you. I thank you with all my heart.”

“I’m not doing it just for you, Doc.”

“I know.”

“There are other agendas. Things on the breeze. It’s a dark world out there, and a darker world coming.”

I go to light the cigarette, but Carlos stops me with an upraised hand.

“Not in here, bro,” Carlos says. “This is my real car, and Brenda doesn’t like anyone smoking in it.”

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