by Stephen L. Antczak & James C. Bassett
“Good morning,” Janey said gaily as she approached Evan’s cubicle holding her NASA coffee mug. She stopped behind Evan’s chair. “How’s the new CAD system?”
Evan resisted the impulse to remind her that Diablo was not a CAD system but a fully integrated PrISM factory.
Instead, he straightened his wire-rimmed glasses and said, “Yesterday’s test was flawless as far as I could tell, but I sent the part to QC just to be sure. I spent all last night reading through the manuals. I kind of doubt it can do everything Roberto thinks it can, but…”
“But you never know,” Janey finished his sentence for him. She did that a lot. He liked it.
“Come by and check it out later,” Evan said with a sudden burst of confidence, which quickly faded. “You know, if you’re not too busy or anything.”
“Maybe after lunch,” she said, then breezed away toward the break room. Evan felt foolish. Janey was a red-headed siren, almost his height, with green fire eyes and the face of a Revlon model. She worked out five days a week before coming into the office, and her body showed it. She carried herself with supreme confidence, and she was a whiz with CQ and CQ++, the top programming languages for qubit processors. Beauty and brains. Evan knew he didn’t have a snowball’s chance with her.
He fought the desire to refill his own coffee. It was bad enough that everyone at Reddex knew he was technically a convicted sex offender—the last thing Evan wanted was to have Janey think he was stalking her. Instead, he finished configuring Diablo.
The software was so complex and specialized that it needed a proprietary computer system to run on, a box bigger than most servers Evan knew of—a box that took up almost a fourth of his cubicle. A few years ago, before quantum computers, it would have been the size of a building, harkening back to the days of ENIAC. The sleek case that housed Diablo’s processors may have looked featureless and dull to most people, but to Evan it was the epitome of “sexy technology”—mainly because of what happened at the other end of the thick fiber-optic cable that ran from the back of the Diablo unit through the wall of the office and into the shop.
The shop was where the real magic happened—and all at Evan’s direction. He couldn’t wait to get it fully configured and learn Diablo’s programming language. Then he would see what this puppy could really do.
He heard Janey’s voice as she greeted other fellow employees on her way back to her cubicle. Before he loaded the CAD specs from one of Reddex’s more complex precision aerospace assemblies into Diablo, Evan decided now was the time for a refill. Because his workstation needed to be as close to the shop as possible to minimize the fiber-optic span, Evan’s cube was at the back of the office, near enough to the coffee maker that he could smell the seductive aroma of fresh-brewed Kona.
That was one good thing about working at Reddex—the coffee wasn’t the vile brew that most companies forced their employees to drink if they didn’t want to spend a small fortune at the local Starbucks. The owner, Roberto Sorricelli, was Italian, with the European appreciation of the finer things in life. He wore tailored suits, drove a brand new Ferrari, and owned a four-acre estate in Buckhead as well as a house on Lake Lanier and a villa in Italy. He had a gorgeous twenty-two-year-old wife, and if that wasn’t enough to make any man jealous he also had a brand new IBM ThinkSmart PDA. He wasn’t unapproachable, but very relaxed and personable. “Call me Roberto,” he reminded any employee who forgot and called him Mr. Sorricelli.
Evan hated and admired the man. He had never become rich like Roberto, but he’d been doing all right for himself and might have been well on the way to his own Ferrari by now if not for the bust. It had all started to seem within reach and he’d allowed himself the fantasy that it would happen. Now that it was gone he decided that he desperately needed to get rich like Roberto. Then he could have the life his boss had, with the ThinkSmart and the hot young trophy wife—maybe even a passionate affair on the side with a woman like Janey. Just like Roberto.
Actually, that was unfair—Evan had no proof other than his own jealousy that there was anything going on between Janey and Roberto. Sure, it always seemed like they were flirting, but Janey was bright, cheerful and outgoing with everyone, even Evan. And as for Roberto—well, he was Italian. So what if he occasionally gave Janey a solid smack on the rear and called her “Janey Bella” all the time.
Sometimes Evan felt guilty about hating Roberto. The man had, after all, hired Evan when no one else would. Who wanted to have a convicted sex offender in the office? Evan had written the back end for a porn website called Sexcard.com, allowing the site to process online transactions as WebAccess LLP. He and his best friend, Clay, had sent out e-mails to all the sex sites they could find, offering eighty-five percent if they would provide memberships to anyone accessing their sites via the Sexcard site. Evan and Clay would get fifteen percent. The response was slow at first, but after a few months the site was automatically processing thousands of credit card transactions each week. Sex sites that they’d never heard of before were signing up via the online form. The great thing about it was that as long as the server was up and running, Evan and Clay didn’t have to do anything except watch their bank accounts grow. As Clay liked to say, it was a “beautiful thing.”
The Feds saw it differently. Some of the sites being accessed via the Sexcard were child porn sites. An FBI sting operation had accessed three dozen child porn sites using Sexcard and then tracked Evan and Clay down via their bank accounts. It was easy because they never tried to hide their tracks. It never occurred to either of them that they were doing something illegal. They weren’t making the porn, nor were they directly selling it. But the Feds seized everything. Evan’s lawyer scared him with tales of a minimum five-year prison sentence if he didn’t make a deal; Evan testified against Clay to keep himself out of prison, and escaped with only five years of probation.
Evan wasn’t allowed to access the Internet at all, and couldn’t use a computer without supervision—which meant no consulting. With no degree, and a felony conviction thrown in for good measure, job offers were scarce. Evan was staring down five years of washing dishes until the job at Reddex.
Janey just didn’t understand Evan at all. He seemed like a nice enough guy. He didn’t seem like a felon, that was for sure. But he was definitely strange, and it was the kind of strange that made people less interested in getting to know him. He rocked back and forth while he sat in front of his computer and had a tendency to mutter to himself.
Evan wasn’t exactly bad looking. With the right clothes and haircut he could turn heads at the mall—of course, he wasn’t allowed to go to the mall. He came off as arrogant, and didn’t seem to understand that because of his past most of the people around him thought they were better than him.
He was isolated at Reddex, working alone on some special project for Roberto. Janey knew that Roberto wouldn’t have given him a chance if Evan wasn’t damn good at what he did. Evan’s cyber-criminal escapades had been chronicled in Wired, where he had come to Roberto’s attention, but without the skills he wouldn’t have lasted long at Reddex.
Janey knew that Evan had a thing for her. She was used to that, especially working with engineers and programmers. Evan’s past made his attraction to her slightly disconcerting, but she trusted Roberto’s judgement, and didn’t think she had anything to worry about with Evan.
As casually as he could, Evan sauntered over to Janey’s cubicle.
“Hi,” he said, trying to keep his nervousness hidden.
“Hey, Evan. What’s up?” she asked, barely glancing up from her monitor.
Janey’s cubicle was overrun with brainteaser puzzle toys. On the fabric walls of her cubicle, she had tacked up prints by M.C. Escher and René Magritte. Evan studied the prints. He got an idea.
“I need to borrow something from you,” he told Janey.
She swivelled in her chair to face him, then followed his gaze to a black and white picture showing a parade of lizards emerging to three-dimensionality from a sketchpad to crawl over a book and other objects on a desk before returning at the other end of the pad to their tessellated two-dimensional world.
“Reptiles,” she said. “It’s by Escher. You need it for something?”
“Yeah. It’s perfect.”
Janey pulled out the push pins holding the print in place. “You want me to make a copy of it for you?”
“I’ll do it.”
She handed it to him. “Diablo?” she asked.
Evan nodded. “I want to see what it’s capable of.”
“That should make an interesting test. Keep it as long as you need to.”
“Thanks. I’ll let you know how it turns out,” he told her.
Evan hesitated for a second, hoping for more, but Janey turned back to her work. He walked back to his own cubicle, worried, as always, that he’d come off as a dork—or worse, a stalker.
Diablo was optimized to operate with high-tolerance CAD specifications, but supposedly it could also work with scanned images. Evan put the Escher print on the scanner bed and clicked “Acquire image.” The picture appeared in perfect detail on his 30″ monitor. The computer took a few minutes to compute a materials list. It asked Evan to verify the list and make changes. He clicked “OK” without even looking. The whole point of this test was to see how intelligent Diablo was on its own.
Diablo informed him that it would take ten minutes to process the data and another hour to construct the model. Evan spent the time going through the manual again, learning more of Diablo’s proprietary programming language.
Diablo’s Programmable Intelligent Solid Modeling technology was eminently suited to fabricating Reddex’s jet- and rocket-engine parts—because the nanoelectromechanical systems, or NEMS, created everything atom by atom, Diablo’s products were absolutely pure and perfectly free of materials defects. Roberto also wanted to use it to expand the business into quantum semiconductors. Q-Chips made by Diablo would be faster, cheaper and smaller, use less power, and run cooler than chips produced by standard technologies—if Diablo was up to the task. Putting together a solid hunk of titanium or aluminum or even carbon composite was one thing, but it was an entirely different matter to fabricate something as complex as a microchip, with layer upon atom-thick layer of silicon, boron, phosphorous, copper, dielectrics, and who knew what else. It was Evan’s job to figure out how to make Diablo do this.
A small fanfare startled Evan out of his manuals: the construct was finished. Evan jumped up and ran to the fabrication shop. A green light beside the door indicated that construction was complete and all the NEMS deactivated.
The PrISM hardware—the NEMS storage units and control systems—was relatively small, but the materials banks occupied more than a quarter of the shop, which until a week ago had been a dusty storage warehouse. Sitting on the whitewashed concrete floor of the NEMS workshop was a perfect three-dimensional model of Escher’s Reptiles. The lizards themselves weren’t alive, and Evan was disappointed to see that they, along with the two cactus plants in the small pot on the left of the model, had been made of plain gray plastic. But everything else was true-to-life.
Evan examined the model more closely, and was impressed to find that the book on which the lizards were crawling actually had individual pages, even if they were blank. The lizards themselves, where they emerged from and returned to their sketchpad world, were actually seamlessly melded with the paper.
Diablo had created the interface so perfectly—on an atomic scale—that paper and plastic were effectively one single substance. To model the desktop in the sketch, Diablo had built the whole thing on an 18-by-18-inch slab of mahogany. At first Evan was surprised that Diablo could create organic materials like the wood, but he realized the system would have very few applications if it couldn’t. Its only limitation was that it couldn’t create animal tissue—or anything alive, of course.
He picked up the tableau and carried it out of the shop. He stopped back by his desk to fetch the print from the scanner, then headed for Janey’s cube.
Evan’s heart fell. She was out. He pinned the print back where it belonged and wrote Janey a note asking her to come see him when she got back, then suddenly had a better idea. He folded the note in half and shoved it into his pocket, and simply left the model sitting on Janey’s chair. He retreated to his own cubicle to wait for her.
He wished he could see the look on her face when she saw Reptiles. He knew she’d get a huge kick out of the model; he only hoped some of her enthusiasm would be for him. Evan had never liked a girl as much as he liked Janey, and he’d never had so much trouble talking to one. What woman would want to date a convicted child pornographer? The charges were bogus, but that wasn’t really the point. The label was there, regardless of the truth. Actually, part of him felt like he deserved to suffer a little, if only for what he’d done to Clay.
Evan would never forget the look on Clay’s face when Evan testified against him. When it was over Clay went berserk, lunging at Evan, screaming obscenities, threatening to kill him. Evan felt he had had no choice. He wasn’t about to go to prison for something he hadn’t done. It had all been Clay’s idea in the first place. Evan had gotten involved as a way to hone his skills.
Evan returned his attention to the manuals. He was just starting to get a good solid grasp on the ins and outs of the Diablo language structure when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye and looked up.
Janey stood there, the Reptiles model in her arms. “This is really cool, Evan,” she said. “It turned out great. I guess Diablo works as advertised after all, huh?”
She held the model out to Evan, but he just smiled back at her.
“No, it’s for you,” he said as casually as he could. “That’s yours—you can keep it. I made it for you.”
She seemed somewhat taken aback. “Oh. That’s really sweet, Evan. Thanks. But… Well, you know what a mess my desk is. I really don’t have any place to put it.”
“Maybe, you know, you have a place for it at home?” Suddenly Evan felt like he was about to break into a sweat.
She stood there uncertainly for a few seconds, then said at last, “Well, I really…” She paused briefly, and her eyes darted around the office. “Um, sure. Yeah. Okay, well, I’d better get back over there—I’ve got a lot to finish up today.” She hefted the model and smiled brightly. “Thanks again.”
“No problem,” he said, and then as she walked away he added hurriedly, “I mean, you’re welcome. It was my pleasure.”
As soon as Janey was out of sight, Evan lowered his head and buried his face in his hands. “I am such a dork,” he whispered.
He shouldn’t have pushed so hard. He should have realized when she brought the model back that she really didn’t want it. He should have just taken it and thrown it into Diablo’s materials recycler.
Glumly, Evan sighed, and turned back to Diablo and the real work at hand.
Two days later, Evan returned to his cubicle from lunch to find the metallurgy report from Reddex’s QC lab in his “In” box. The envelope was sealed and marked “Confidential.”
Evan broke the security tape and opened the envelope. The report was twelve pages long, and most of it made no sense to Evan, whose highest level of science education was a year of high school chemistry. But he could understand the half-page summary at the beginning just fine.
The physical dimensions of the part he’d made were so perfect that the computers had not been able to detect any divergence whatsoever from ideal tolerances. The only entry under “Composition” read Titanium (Ti): 99.9999+ %; not a single atom of any other element had been detected. And the results of X-ray crystallography listed zero structural-lattice defects—twice. Apparently the guys in the lab hadn’t believed their findings the first time.
Roberto would be very pleased with this report. Once the PrISM system was running at full capacity, it would increase quality while slashing production costs.
He was halfway across the office on his way to Roberto’s suite when he heard the boss’s big Italian laugh roll down the stairwell. Roberto’s hand-made, patent leather shoes appeared on the stairs, descending, light gleaming off the polish. Beside them was a pair of scuffed red cowboy boots that made Evan stop dead in his tracks.
Accompanying Roberto was Merle King, a man whose mere presence made Evan’s stomach knot up. It wasn’t just that Merle was Evan’s probation officer—and a quintessential good ol’ boy to boot—but the fact that everybody else at Reddex absolutely loved the man. Every month when Merle stopped by he spent ten minutes talking to Evan and half an hour shooting the bull with Evan’s co-workers.
Merle’s relaxed swagger was complemented by Roberto’s equally relaxed European poise. Otherwise, Merle was a stark contrast to Roberto. Where Roberto had the well-tuned body of a long-distance bicycler, Merle had the physique of a marathon beer-drinker. Roberto was always clean-shaven and smelled of subtle cologne. Merle had a bushy mustache surrounded by ever-present five o’clock shadow, and always smelled of sweat and leather. Roberto carried a ThinkSmart in a soft leather case over his shoulder; Merle carried a Smith & Wesson in a worn leather holster on his hip.
Evan swallowed hard and walked up to the two men. If he was about to make his boss very happy, he might as well do it in front of his probation officer.
“There’s the man I’m looking for,” Merle brayed. Evan shook his probation officer’s meaty hand, trying not to wince at the crushing grip.
“Hey,” was all Evan said by way of greeting.
“I hear you’ve been busy this last week, old son,” Merle said.
“Yeah.” Evan turned to Roberto and said, “I have the QC report on the first test piece, sir. I think you’ll be happy with it. It’s perfect, near as I can tell.”
Roberto beamed as he took the report and glanced over the summary. “Excellent, Evan. This is wonderful.” Roberto clapped his free hand around Evan’s shoulder and told Merle, “I am sure I am breaking some law by telling you this, but any money you have you should invest in our little company. What my friend Evan is doing here is going to make us all very rich.”
Merle and Roberto both laughed out loud at this; Evan forced a quiet smile.
“Well, all right, Evan!” Merle bellowed. “Let’s you and me get the show on the road here, so you can get back to it.”
Evan led Merle to his cubicle. As they walked through the office, Merle waved at or said hello to at least a dozen people. Evan gritted his teeth and tried to ignore it all.
“Take a seat, old son,” Merle said as he leaned against Evan’s desk. Evan did as he was told, pushing his chair back to the opposite end of his cubicle while the desk creaked under Merle’s weight.
Right then, Janey walked by.
“Hey there, young lady,” Merle called to her. She stopped.
“Hi, Merle!” she greeted him warmly. “I didn’t know you were here.”
“I want to talk to you when I’m finished with our boy here.”
“All right. You know where to find me.” She continued on her way. She had not even acknowledged Evan’s presence.
“All right, Evan. Have you had any contact with the police since our last meeting?” Merle conducted the interview loudly, and Evan knew everyone in the office could hear.
“No,” he replied as quietly as he could.
“Speak up, son.”
Evan cleared his throat. “No, sir, no contact with the police.”
The sounds of the office seemed to grow louder around his cubicle. He heard Roberto call out Janey’s name. She responded, “Yes, Roberto?” in a voice that sounded playfully seductive.
“Have you taken any illegal substances since our last meeting?” Merle asked.
Evan could hear Roberto say something to Janey in Italian.
“Have you had any alcohol since our last meeting?”
Janey giggled and responded in Italian. They both laughed.
“No. No alcohol.”
Roberto said something else in Italian, the pitch of his voice lower, exaggeratedly rolling the rs.
“Have you operated a computer unsupervised since our last meeting?”
Janey responded in mock anger, “Roberto!”
“Have you accessed the Internet since our last meeting?”
Janey called Roberto a “bad boy.”
“No, sir.” Evan’s response to Merle’s question trailed off.
“Are you sure about that, Evan?” Merle had leaned forward and was now in Evan’s face.
Evan nodded. “Yes, I’m sure about that.” He couldn’t keep the sharpness out of his voice. The exchange between Roberto and Janey was distressing. Why couldn’t Janey relate to Evan that way? And Merle getting in his face that way had annoyed him. Worse, though, his response had annoyed Merle.
“Now you listen here, Evan,” Merle said. “You can make this pleasant or unpleasant. It’s all on you. We’ve had this talk before.”
Evan nodded. “I know. I was just… I don’t know. I’ve got a lot on my mind with this project for Roberto.”
“I understand that. Roberto’s a good man and it’s important for you to do the best work you can for him. But this, what we’re doing right here, is the most important thing you do, period. You understand? If you screw this up, what you’re doing for Roberto don’t count for squat.”
Merle just looked at him for a moment, then leaned back. Evan’s desk creaked even more than before.
“So you got any plans for the Fourth of July weekend?” Merle asked him. “You need a travel permit to visit your folks or anything?”
Evan shook his head.
The interview over, Evan tried to get back to work, but every time he heard Merle laugh or call out to someone, his concentration crumbled. The worst, of course, was when Janey stood talking and laughing with Merle for a good quarter of an hour not twenty feet away from Evan’s cubicle.
When Merle finally left, Janey, coffee mug in hand, made her way toward the break room. She stopped at Evan’s cubicle and said, “Hey, Evan, you look down. Merle give you a hard time?”
Evan shook his head. “No. Just everyone else.”
“What does that mean?”
“Do you guys have to be so nice to him?”
Janey looked genuinely surprised. “Evan, we’re just being friendly.”
“I know, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it makes me uncomfortable. I guess it just seems kind of uncool to me to have everybody being so chummy with him all the time.”
“I’ll let you in on a little secret,” Janey said. Her tone was icy. “Roberto told us to be nice to your probation officer because he thought it might make him want to go easier on you. What do you think of that?”
“I didn’t know. I wish he would have told me.” Evan did not sound conciliatory.
“Merle never talks about your case, Evan, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“He’s not allowed to. I just wish he didn’t come to where I work. I really hoped I could just sort of go through my probation anonymously. Now the whole office knows about me, and on top of that they act nicer towards my probation officer than they do towards me.”
“To be honest, Evan, a lot of people feel awkward around you.”
Janey paused uncomfortably. “A little, yeah.”
“Because of what you did.”
“You don’t know what I did,” Evan blurted, no longer able to contain his frustration. “No one here does.”
“No, Janey, it’s important to me that you at least understand this. We never posted any pictures on our web site. All we did was provide this online pass to give people access. Where they went with the pass was their business. We didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Then why were you convicted?”
“It was a plea-bargain, and the thing I signed said it was not an admission of guilt.”
“But you were convicted of a crime, right?” Janey asked.
“Yes, but it wasn’t like I was tried by a jury or anything.”
“Evan, did you know that people were using your pass to access sites with child pornography?”
Defeated, Evan admitted, “Yes.”
“And you did nothing to stop it. That’s why people don’t like you.”
Without another word Janey turned and strode away to the break room.
That hadn’t gone well at all. He’d imagined that scene over and over, explaining to Janey what had happened, how he’d been railroaded, and it always wound up with Janey empathizing with him and saying maybe she’d come over one Friday night to watch movies and eat pizza. Reality wasn’t behaving.
She tried to understand. Janey wondered if Evan was any different outside of Reddex. Maybe she couldn’t comprehend the stress that he was under, having his probation officer come to work once a month. If he let himself, Evan would see that Merle was really a pretty good guy. He wanted Evan to make it through his probation successfully. To hear Merle talk about some of his other probationers, it was obvious that Evan was no career criminal; it was also apparent that Merle actually liked Evan.
Janey liked Merle a lot. She even invited him once to join her and a couple of the other Reddex employees for their weekly Thursday night gathering down at El Toro for margaritas. He declined, although she could see in his eyes that he had almost said yes. He was no Tom Cruise, and he was carrying around a serious spare tire, but something about him intrigued Janey. She knew that if she got drunk and he made a pass at her, he’d likely get what he wanted. Maybe it was the whole alpha male thing. It was the same with Roberto, although for different reasons. Roberto had that European/Italian charm thing going for him. He’d flirted with Janey many times but had never tried anything serious. There was a moment at an automation trade show in Las Vegas when they were leaning against the bar in their hotel, pleasantly buzzed after manning the Reddex booth all day and Roberto’s hand had accidentally brushed against her left breast. He immediately apologized. She had almost said “any time.”
Evan didn’t realize how lucky he was to have men like Merle and Roberto looking out for him.
Evan kept to himself for the rest of the afternoon and concentrated on his work. When quitting time finally arrived he decided on a sudden impulse to stay late. He stayed in his cubicle and kept working so he wouldn’t overhear everyone else’s plans for the holiday.
No one came to his desk with a friendly reminder to leave already, go home, enjoy the long weekend. Eventually Evan realized that he was alone in the office. He started to shut down his computer, but then canceled the process. Why not stay late? He was getting sick of movies and pizza, which seemed to be all he could come up with for amusement weekend after weekend. He had no computer at home as a condition of his probation. Consequently, what had once been the core of his existence was gone.
In that sense, being at work was preferable to being at home. Besides, he was in the zone—he had just about cracked all of Diablo’s secrets. He stayed for two more hours until he could no longer ignore the rumblings of his empty stomach. On automatic pilot, he picked up a pizza and a couple of videos on his way home, but he found himself paying almost no attention to the first movie.
He turned off the movie and stared at the blank blue television screen. Before he even realized he had made a decision, he was on his feet; he snatched up the pizza box and headed out to his car. He decided to stop at a convenience store on the way back to the office and buy a twelve-pack of beer. He’d already paid his monthly visit to Merle at the probation office that month, and Merle had already come by both Evan’s apartment and Reddex, so he wouldn’t be seeing the good ol’ boy again for at least two weeks. They randomly performed a urinalysis on probationers, but only for signs of marijuana or cocaine usage. The test was not used to detect alcohol in the system because it wasn’t an illegal substance, but since it was part of Evan’s sentence that he couldn’t drink alcohol for three years he was always careful not to drink any at least a couple days before his visit. He never kept alcohol at home, and he always paid for it with cash. Maybe he was being paranoid, but if he was found to have violated the terms of his probation he would wind up in prison.
Evan was allowed to work at the office on weekends. Technically he was working unsupervised on his computer at Reddex, but it wasn’t wired to the Net and Roberto had assured Merle that someone from IT regularly scanned the hard drive for objectionable files.
His ID card let him into the dark and abandoned Reddex building. He left the lights off, and negotiated the path to his cubicle by memory and the dim glow of an exit sign.
With a four-day weekend ahead, no one else would be coming in until Wednesday morning. Evan cracked open a beer.
By midnight he felt he fully understood the PrISM language. Since Diablo’s NEMS constructed their models atom by atom, heterogenous products were no problem at all to build—Reptiles had proved that. Nor would the small size of integrated circuits be an issue; the real trick would not be teaching Diablo how to create such tiny components, but how to layer and interconnect millions of such tiny components within the chip’s plastic package. Then he still had the challenge of optimizing the process in order to make it viable; it would be useless if Diablo took days to complete each chip. The whole point of Roberto’s Diablo experiment was to develop a way to get into the chip market without investing four billion dollars in a state-of-the-art fabrication plant.
When the third empty beer can of the night hit the trash can, Evan decided to stretch his legs. He wandered unsteadily to the men’s room. He shut his eyes hard against the blinding glare of the overhead fluorescent lights, making kaleidoscopes of color bloom in his vision, disorienting him for a moment.
Before going back to his own desk he found himself at Janey’s cube. The Reptiles print was still on the wall, but the model he had made for her was gone. He was almost certain he’d find it in the dumpster out back if he cared to look, and he couldn’t blame her. Sure, it was a cool picture, but not something someone would want as a sculpture. But that wasn’t the point. For a little while he had begun to feel that she, if no one else, might be able to ignore his past and see him as just a co-worker, maybe someone worth getting to know better. It didn’t look like that was the case, though.
Right next to Reptiles was a picture of a structure of columns and arches, where the columns from the front rose to support the arches in the back, and vice versa, interweaving themselves. Better still, there was one where a building rose up in the picture, perspective tilting slightly as though he was straining his neck back to look up to the top—and from the center of the picture where the tiled ceiling of the building lay, the same building rose again, the tiled ceiling also the tiled floor from below, the building rising into itself.
Any of those would have been better than Reptiles. Had Janey actually liked the sculpture from Evan, maybe she wouldn’t have tried to give it back and they wouldn’t have had that whole discussion about his conviction.
Of course, it might not have been possible to build any of the others in three dimensions. Even if it were, the models still wouldn’t be as cool as the prints, most likely. Rendered as models, frozen in solid form, locked into a single reality, they would lose their illusory nature, and the whole appeal of the prints was precisely the fact that they were optical illusions, physical and logical impossibilities.
As he stared at one particular print, Evan realized that the building Escher had depicted there would be quite possible to build. Three staircases formed a triangle about the center of the picture—each rising to a different direction “up.” Faceless, featureless figures in the print walked on both sides of each accordion-pleat staircase; on one staircase, a figure walked down toward the left side of the picture while another figure—facing the bottom of the picture—walked down the underside of that same staircase. On one staircase, two figures walked beside one another, both facing to the right—but where one figure walked downstairs, the other walked up, on what the first person would have considered the stairs’ risers.
Evan unpinned the print and held it up, twisting it to catch the faint light so he could read the title.
“Relativity,” he said aloud. Up and down were relative in the print—relative to the people in the drawing, rather than to the observer of the print. Gravity was the only physical property Escher had played with here; unlike the other prints, Relativity left spatial geometry unwarped. Diablo would be able to model it perfectly.
Back at his own cubicle, Evan scanned the print and waited for Diablo to process the image. When it prompted him to select the scale Evan moved the slider on the screen to the right, until it was set to build the model at full size. Relativity was a building—it was supposed to be large. The shop was more than big enough; his only worry was material. The house would practically deplete the existing material available to Diablo. He’d have to recycle it right after showing it to Janey.
Diablo computed its list of materials. Evan checked the list very carefully, making a number of adjustments—he wanted to be sure this model was absolutely perfect. The building itself would be marble, and the stair railings brass. Diablo had defaulted to plastic for all of the plants in the gardens that were visible through the building’s archways. Evan couldn’t do much about that, but he spent an hour coloring them all to at least look as realistic as possible.
The only big problem was the fifteen anonymous figures inhabiting the scene. Evan waffled for several minutes before finally deciding to just remove them all. That process took another hour, but at long last he finished and clicked “Build.”
Evan leaned back in his chair, stretching wearily, and rubbed his eyes. He noticed with surprise that the sky was beginning to lighten; it was nearly six in the morning. He suddenly realized how incredibly tired he was.
But he couldn’t sleep yet. Diablo hadn’t started to build the model—the screen displayed several thumbnails of Relativity, each turned at a different angle and with a flashing dotted line running vertically through it; a message box said something about setting a y-axis for the model. Evan was too exhausted to see straight anymore. He’d been awake for almost twenty-four hours, and quite frankly just didn’t give a damn which way up the PrISM system chose for the model. It didn’t matter which way was up in the Escher print. This was another good test, then—let Diablo figure it out on its own. He clicked out of the screen and waited another thirty minutes while Diablo processed. Evan zoned out while he was waiting; his vision blurred and his head nodded forward until he fell asleep. Eventually he jerked awake, realized another hour had gone by, and saw that Diablo had figured out the y-axis problem on its own and was actually constructing Relativity. Despite a surge of excitement, Evan pushed his chair out into the aisle and lay down on the floor of his cubicle. He fell immediately into a deep sleep.
He awoke to gloom. He sat up stiffly and checked the time display on his monitor. It was almost nine p.m. So much for the first day of his vacation.
He made his way to the break room, where he started a pot of coffee and threw a couple slices of pizza in the microwave.
He watched Diablo’s slow progress on his monitor, engrossed by the changing array of figures and charts detailing the PrISM system’s extrapolation of what the print’s three-dimensional configurations were supposed to be. Evan was no architect and had no idea what any of it meant.
When next Evan awoke the sky was bright outside. He made coffee again, then ambled through the office to get his blood flowing. He was anxious to get back to work.
The integrated-chip problem had percolated through his brain while he slept; he seemed now to have the program whole and complete at his fingertips, and it just poured out onto the keyboard. Evan could barely type fast enough to keep up with the flow.
When the coffee was gone, he switched to beer. The one slice of pizza he’d eaten wasn’t nearly enough to curb his hunger, so he bought a candy bar from the break room vending machine.
Shortly after dark, he was done. His program would only create a 555 timer—one of the simplest integrated circuits around—but it would be an adequate test for PrISM and Diablo. If his idea worked, he could easily generalize it into a program that would create any integrated chip from CAD specs.
Evan couldn’t create anything until Diablo finished his Escher building though. He checked its status and was surprised to find that it was almost ninety percent done. Eager to see just how cool the model looked, Evan walked to the door that led into the shop. The indicator light beside the door shone red, but he ignored it. The only danger from entering the shop while a build was in progress was that he would step on and crush some of the NEMS; there was nothing that could possibly happen to him. He opened the door and went in.
It wasn’t what he had expected.
It was just a plain room—four walls, floor, ceiling—drab and empty, featureless except for an arched wooden door opposite him and a single staircase rising along the left-hand wall to a landing and a passage through the wall. Light came through a foot-wide circular hole in the ceiling. At first he thought Diablo had completely screwed up, yet the stairs and railings looked just like the ones from the print. Perhaps the model had been too complex, and Diablo had substituted one of its built-in demos, decorating it with bits and pieces from Relativity.
Evan walked to the staircase and tried his weight. It was sturdy: solid marble. He climbed, cautious in the dim light, until he stood on the landing at the top and could see the other side. The landing opened into another cubic room, with its own staircase paralleling the one Evan had just climbed—but its landing also extended forward and down another staircase into a third room. A door led between the two rooms, and still another staircase rose along the far wall of the third room.
In the second room, an archway in the opposite wall showed a small, dim garden beyond. As Evan descended into the room and walked out to this garden—which, he found, was bounded by its own ten-foot cube of walls, enclosing it in a space much smaller than the rooms, and with a similar ceiling hole to admit light—he understood what had happened.
This was indeed his model of Relativity—but undone in its construction by the very qualities of Diablo that made the system so powerful.
Diablo was designed to be intelligent and abstractive, allowing it to fill in parts of a design that might be hidden by other parts, or to decide which way was “up” for a model. Diablo had figured out that there were many different downs, and so it had asked Evan which one to use. He wished he had been paying more attention when he bypassed that screen. Apparently Diablo was unable to decide on one direction as up and still maintain the integrity of the building in the print, so it had built each relative axis as a different room, all spatially separate but still linked together by the structure’s defining integral features: the staircases.
Evan left the garden and tried the heavy wooden door leading into the third room. That room had another door hidden under the staircase on the right-hand wall, leading into the room beyond the first one. Evan walked through that room and back into the first. With no windows, and so many staircases and doorways leading into rooms that all looked the same, he was surprised to see the door leading back out to the office. This model was almost a funhouse, a labyrinth. The more he looked around, the more he liked it. He was sure Janey would like it.
Evan left the shop and returned to his desk. He knew Janey would like Relativity, but she wouldn’t have time to enjoy it on Wednesday. He would have to dismantle the model in order to free the PrISM shop up for other projects. It would take just as long to take a model apart as it took to build it. Which in this case meant almost two days.
He pulled the company directory from his desk and looked up Janey’s home number. It was ten thirty. Since tomorrow was a holiday, it wasn’t too late to call. Stomach fluttering, Evan dialed her number.
She wasn’t home. When he heard her answering machine click on, Evan’s mouth seemed to seize up. He swallowed awkwardly, and found himself stammering dry-mouthed when her message ended.
“Hey, Janey, this is Evan, from work. I’ve got kind of a surprise for you. Give me a call when you get in. I’ll be up late, so you can call pretty much anytime. Or tomorrow.” He left his cell phone number, then hung up and stared blankly at the wall.
Of course she wasn’t home—not someone as outgoing and pretty as Janey. She was probably out with a big group of friends. Or, Evan realized with a sinking feeling, out on a date. It had never occurred to him that she might have a boyfriend.
He stood up, angrily kicking his chair out of the way, and stomped into the break room. He noticed with annoyance that there were only two more beers left in the fridge.
Sipping the beer, he walked to the Reddex lobby, the semi-circular landing of the main staircase protruding out beyond the front of the building, the half-cylinder of glass-curtain wall providing a panoramic view of Atlanta’s skyline. Janey had a condo downtown. He’d never been there, of course.
He headed up the stairs that led to Roberto’s office. Roberto never locked his door. He was proud of his open-door policy, always telling employees they should feel free to come in anytime.
Roberto’s huge antique cherry desk sat in one corner, two leather couches and a very modern maple and mahogany coffee table were in the opposite corner for balance, and against one wall stood a liquor cabinet that matched the desk. The cabinet was locked. Evan found two paperclips in the desk and bent one tang of each so it was straight. He raked the tip of one across the lock’s tumblers while he stuck the other into the lock and pulled it to the side; that tension sprung the lock when he had jiggled all of the tumbler pins into place. It was a little trick he’d picked up in his early teens, before getting into computers.
Evan opened the cabinet and took out an unopened bottle of Maker’s Mark—if he was going to steal from the boss, he might as well steal the best. Not that he was really stealing; he had plenty of time before Wednesday morning to run out to the liquor store and buy a replacement.
He took his Swiss Army knife out of his pocket and ran the small blade around the red wax covering the neck of the bottle, then twisted the cap off and took a sip. He chased it with some beer, then took another sip of the whiskey. With a beer in one hand and the Maker’s in the other, Evan stalked the corridors of the building’s upper floors. This was Executive territory, unfamiliar to Evan. Every door except Roberto’s was locked.
When he finished the beer, he went down to the break room to get the last one. He wandered around downstairs, through the tech office, document production, reception, even the storage rooms. By the time the last beer was gone, Evan had made a substantial dent in the whiskey. There was no way he could drive home now.
The thought of spending another night on the floor made his back ache, so he slowly weaved his way upstairs to Roberto’s office. He capped the bottle and set it on the coffee table with exaggerated care, then let himself fall toward one of the sofas. He was unconscious before his body touched the leather.
Janey listened to Evan’s message and let out a long sigh. She felt bad about leaving work for the long weekend without so much as a “Have a nice weekend.” He probably thought she did it intentionally.
What kind of surprise did he have for her? After Reptiles, which really was sort of hideous looking, she was almost afraid to find out.
She debated calling him back, but decided it would only encourage him. She knew from experience that trying to be friends with a guy who was romantically interested in her would not work.
Evan woke slowly, painfully. The midday sun glared too brightly even through the heavy tinting on the window glass, making Evan squint. He was badly hungover. He sat up and reached for the bottle. Hair of the hound. That seemed to help his queasiness, but it made his stomach knot up. He realized how little he had eaten yesterday.
As soon as he felt able, he went downstairs. He needed a shower badly, but didn’t feel steady enough to drive just yet. He bought two candy bars from the machine to get something in his stomach besides whiskey.
It was too bright at his desk. He retreated to the break room, but that was just depressing and claustrophobic. He picked up the whiskey bottle and took it with him to the PrISM shop.
The red light was still on, which he thought was strange. Nothing looked at all different from last night. He wondered what the system might still be working on. The stairs seemed too much for him in his current condition, so instead he walked to the door and opened it. That room also looked unchanged since last night.
Something else about last night bothered him, and then he remembered calling Janey. Without really thinking, he unclipped his cell phone from its holster on his belt and tapped the redial button. After three rings, Janey picked up.
Evan was much too hungover to feel nervous. “Janey?”
“I know.” She paused before asking, “What’s up?”
“Nothing much,” he hedged. “What are you up to?”
Again she paused. “I’m kind of busy right now. Was there something you wanted?”
“Yeah. I’ve got something to show you, something I think you’ll really like.”
“Well, I’ll look forward to seeing it on Wednesday. I’ll talk to you then, okay?”
“Wait!” Evan tried to keep from panicking. It was obvious that she was trying to get rid of him. Did she have someone there with her now? Maybe Roberto? “I… I don’t know if I can keep it around that long.”
“I’m just going to have to take that chance. I’ll see you on Wednesday. Goodbye, Evan.”
“Who was that?” Allen, Janey’s date, asked. He had just arrived to pick her up for an Atlanta Symphony concert in Piedmont Park.
“Someone from work,” Janey said. Already she decided she wouldn’t go on another date with Allen. They’d met a couple of weeks ago and he’d been trying to get her to go out with him since then. But now here he was asking who’d called when it was none of his damn business.
“Oh, well, we should get going,” he said, looking at his watch.
Janey started towards the door, then stopped.
“Damn it,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” Allen asked.
“You know what? I just don’t feel like going now. I’m sorry.”
“Oh.” He just looked at her. “So what do you feel like doing?” It was too obvious that he was hoping she’d say something seductive about staying in and getting comfortable.
“Nothing. You just go, okay? Have fun.”
Allen blinked, then shook his head and made an exasperated sigh as he opened the door and left. Janey went to the door, then closed it and locked it. Having to hang up on Evan like that had put a bad taste in her mouth. She was angry at him for putting her in that position.
What the hell was wrong with Evan? What did he want to show her? Despite herself she was curious. She had put the Reptiles model up in her closet where she wouldn’t have to look at it. When she thought about it, she was amazed that Evan had actually made the mental leap from using Diablo for something dry and technical to using it for art—for her. Janey had to admit to herself that whatever Evan was doing was probably pretty interesting. Whatever it was would have to wait until Wednesday, though. Especially now that she had drawn that line.
Evan stared dejectedly at his phone for a while then took a long swallow of whiskey, feeling it burn down his throat and into his stomach. He took another drink, and another. The pure white marble walls seemed almost luminescent. The whole room practically glowed, as if in moonlight.
He walked slowly, around the perimeter of the room, letting his right hand trace a wavy line along the cool, smooth wall. When he came to a staircase, he climbed it and kept his hand in contact with the stone. He descended into the next room and continued to walk along the wall until he came to a door; he went through into the next room, still keeping his hand on the wall.
It became a game, to keep his hand in constant contact with the stone. He kept thinking of Janey with another man, or with Roberto, and kept sipping whiskey. Before long he felt dizzy, and exhausted. He stopped in one of the gardens and lay down on the green plastic grass. The world seemed to rotate beneath him faster and faster. He closed his eyes to make it stop, but it didn’t. He was going to get sick if he couldn’t make it stop. He reached out with his right hand to touch the marble wall, and the spinning stopped. The coolness of the marble seemed to flow into him like an ocean breeze.
He woke feeling hungry. The light in the garden remained unchanged, stealing any sense of time. It had to be at least late afternoon. He wanted to go home and go to bed. He walked up a staircase and down into the next room. It wasn’t the one with the door to the shop, so he continued on into the next room on the left.
That room didn’t hold the way out, either—but it did have two staircases on opposite walls, and a door in a third wall. Evan scowled; he thought there were only four rooms, arranged in a square. But if that were the case, it would be impossible to have staircases in opposite walls—there couldn’t be rooms on either side.
Unless Diablo had built more since his first look around. That would explain why the red indicator light had still been on. He climbed up the far stairs and entered the next room.
That room had only one door, to the left of the stairs. Evan didn’t recognize this room; he assumed it was a new one. He walked through the door—into a room with four doors and three staircases. Were there nine rooms now? He sighed wearily. He was really getting bored with this game. He was tired and hungry. He just wanted to go home and sleep in his own bed. He also needed to buy a new bottle of whiskey for Roberto’s liquor cabinet, he reminded himself.
He hurried through the door on the right, into a room with a staircase to either side, but no door directly ahead. The staircase on the left led into another room that didn’t lead out.
He started to worry. There had only been four rooms to start with, so Diablo was apparently still building. The PrISM controller was supposed to have built-in safeguards but what if something had gone wrong and it had built a wall in front of the door?
Evan forced himself to calm down. Panicking wouldn’t help; besides, he still hadn’t checked every room. He returned to the central room, wishing he had a pen and paper so he could draw a map. Maybe he could keep track with a mental map.
He went to one door, opened it, and looked through; the room beyond did not hold the way out. Evan left that door open and went to the next, then to the third, leaving them all wide open. Just to be absolutely sure, he opened the door he’d entered the room through, but the shop door wasn’t in any of the four rooms he could now see into. Which meant it had to be in one of the corner rooms.
Evan walked through the first door he had opened and turned to his left. The wall he faced had a staircase and a door, so he opened the door and looked into the next room. That wasn’t the way out, so he climbed the staircase on the opposite wall and looked across the landing into the other room. That was no good, either.
Evan retreated to the central room and went through the next door, looking into the rooms adjoining that room. Then he tried the third door, and, just to be sure, the fourth. He didn’t find the shop door anywhere.
He went back once again to the four-doored room and sat down in the middle of the floor. He had some whiskey to calm himself and thought about his predicament. The marble walls were obviously too hard to break through and too smooth to climb. So the only way out would be to have Diablo disassemble the whole model. He couldn’t do that unless he was already out. Somebody else could do it for him, though.
Evan unclipped his phone and pressed the redial button.
“Janey, it’s Evan.”
“Listen, Janey I’m sorry to bother you, but I need a big favor. I need your help.”
“Uh, I’m kind of busy, Evan.” He could hear the caution in her voice.
“Please, Janey. I’m trapped at work, and I need someone to come get me out.”
The caution changed to surprise. “Trapped? How? What are you doing at work?”
“Look, it’s a long story, but I had Diablo make a building, and I came inside before it was finished, and while I’ve been in here it built over the door, and now I can’t get out. I need someone to come here and tell Diablo to disassemble the model.”
“Have you been drinking?”
“You sound like you’ve been drinking.”
“I had a few beers, but I’m not drunk.”
“You’re not supposed to drink, are you?” Janey asked.
“Look, Evan, I’m not sure what’s going on. You’re not supposed to drink, and I know you’re not supposed to be at work alone. I don’t want to get involved in whatever it is you’re doing right now. If you need help, you should call Roberto.”
Janey hung up. Evan swore, and took another long pull on the bottle. At the very least he’d thought she was a decent enough human being that she’d help him. It was interesting that she immediately suggested he call Roberto.
Janey debated calling Roberto, but she wanted to give Evan a chance to get himself out of whatever fix he was in himself. He was definitely not supposed to be drinking. If he got caught it would probably mean prison. She didn’t want to be even remotely responsible for that.
Three phone calls in one weekend. Not good. Maybe that little heart-to-heart with him at work had been a bad idea. Was he getting all crazy about her? Why did men do that? Earlier there had been a message from Allen, also drunk, calling her a bitch and hanging up. So Evan was just another guy. Janey found that disappointing.
Evan decided he was now truly screwed. Janey had been his only hope. Even if he had access to the company directory, nobody else at Reddex would help, since they all hated him. He couldn’t call Roberto. If Merle found out, Evan would wind up in jail for violating probation. He had to get out before Wednesday morning, and he had to figure it out on his own.
In desperation, he ran through every room again, hoping he had somehow missed a room. The faint light that managed to squeeze into each room through the ceiling portholes was barely enough to see by; that, combined with the confusing similarity of the rooms got Evan all turned around and mixed-up so he wasn’t sure if he’d already been in a particular room or not. He tried to keep track, but counted first eight rooms and then ten. He tried to make a mental map, but there were too many passages between too many rooms.
Not only was Evan emotionally desperate to get out of the model, but he was physically desperate. The pressure on his bladder was intense. He set the whiskey bottle down and hurried into the nearest garden to relieve himself on the plastic bushes. The acrid, ammoniac smell disgusted him. He could just imagine leading Janey through the model, her nose wrinkling up at the smell of stale urine. No more drinking.
The thought of the liquor gave him an idea. He left the bottle on the floor just inside one of the room’s two doorways and went into the adjoining room. He climbed the staircase on the wall straight ahead and stopped on the landing to make sure he could still see the bottle. Satisfied that his landmark was sufficiently visible, he walked down the stairs into the next room. There was a garden to his left and a door and a staircase to his right. Evan started toward the doorway, but stopped dead.
Just inside the next room, a whiskey bottle glinted in the thin, pale light.
Evan stared at it, dumbstruck. When he recovered his wits, he ran back up the stairs; from atop the landing he stared across the second room and through the doorway into the first. His bottle stood right where he had left it. He quickly turned and tried to look down through the third room into the fourth, but the angle was wrong and he couldn’t see into that room. He descended slowly, step by step, craning his neck and straining his eyes, but by the time he could see the bottle inside the fourth room, the wall blocked his view back into the second.
He went down and picked up the bottle in the fourth room. It looked like his, and it had the same amount of whiskey left in it. The pattern of the hand-dipped wax on the neck of the bottle looked the same. It couldn’t be the same bottle, though. Had Diablo somehow duplicated it? That didn’t seem possible, since it wasn’t part of the original picture he had scanned. Even if Diablo had somehow started copying new things within the model, it couldn’t have done it so quickly.
Evan uncapped the bottle and took a cautious sip. There was no mistaking that taste, and Evan decided this had to be his bottle. Holding it in his right hand Evan climbed up and down, back into the second room. As he descended the stairs, he could already see that his bottle was no longer where he had left it. He expected as much, although he didn’t know why.
There was something else that didn’t seem right. He wandered around the room, but didn’t figure it out until he walked past the scentless garden. There was no smell of urine. It was almost as though this wasn’t the right room after all, which would explain the absence of the whiskey bottle. But they were three rooms in a straight line. How could he have gotten lost in that?
Shaking his head in confusion, he wandered through the doorway once more, and found himself somehow in the wrong room. Straight ahead was a door; a staircase rose along the wall to his left.
Evan backtracked through the other door out of the first room. The new room he entered did indeed have a staircase on the opposite wall and a door to the right, but there were no distinguishing characteristics to prove that this was in fact the second room. Without really thinking about it he raised the whiskey bottle to his lips and drank some. It calmed him. He’d tried to think his way out of the model and couldn’t. He wondered if it might be easier to just wander around and maybe stumble across the exit.
He walked through the rooms at random, sipping whiskey. He couldn’t stop thinking about his predicament, though. Why couldn’t he get out? The twilight darkness and the alcohol could not alone explain his confusion; he had a bit more confidence in his mental abilities than that. There had to be something else behind it.
Escher’s drawing, Relativity, showed a building that was perfectly plausible, if unlikely; a building Diablo should have built exactly as depicted.
It was the specific reality of Relativity—the relativity of its gravity, with down twisting about, recursing, folding over itself, that could not exist in the real world. Yet it was this aspect that Diablo in its artificial intelligence had extrapolated and attempted to construct: the logical Relativity instead of the physical. In attempting to recreate that looping recursive three-plane relativity in a single plane, Diablo’s PrISM system must have created a logical prism—had somehow refracted the building in such a way that, just as the staircases in the Escher print led in different logical directions depending on which side a figure walked upon, here in the model the physical arrangement of the rooms seemed to change depending on which sequence of stairways and doors one traveled through. Evan wasn’t really sure how that could be possible.
He set the whiskey bottle down in the middle of the floor and ran out of the room. He wanted to see how many different paths there were back to this place. He ran through three rooms before he found himself back with his whiskey. He took a drink and tried again. He ran through five rooms, four, seven, and each time he found the bottle he took another drink as his reward for finding it again.
He didn’t see the exit anywhere.
Eventually, he gave up. Out of breath, he collapsed on the cool cement floor and lay spread-eagled on his back.
Upside-down the room looked entirely different—looked more, in fact, like the Relativity print. Evan rolled his head as far back as he could, arching his neck, and stared at a wall with a door just under what was now the ceiling. He scooted around on his back until he could look at another wall this way, a wall with the underside of a staircase leading up to a dead-end at the ceiling.
He scooted around to look at the next wall and immediately sat up. In the darkness beyond that doorway, just for a moment, something had moved.
“Hello?” Evan called out.
He scrambled to his feet and into the next room, but it was empty.
“Hello?” Evan continued to call out as he rushed from room to room. “Hello? Janey? Hey!”
There again, in the next room, a ghostly flash of something whipped across the corner of Evan’s sight. He ran in just in time to catch sight of someone disappearing into another room.
“Hey!” Evan shouted.
He ran up the stairs after the person, still yelling, but whoever it was didn’t stop. From atop the landing, Evan saw him walk through a doorway. Instead of running after him, this time Evan turned around and ran back down the stairs and across the room, hoping to cut this other person off.
He reached the next room as this visitor was walking out through the far door, but caught a good enough look at the man that a chill engulfed him, and he stopped cold. Dressed in brown corduroy pants and a short-sleeve yellow madras shirt, with brown hair, glasses, and a cell phone clipped to his belt, this other person was, impossibly, Evan himself.
Cautiously, Evan followed after his doppelganger. The next room was empty. Evan walked to its center, peering carefully through all the doorways, at the same time hoping to see something and to see nothing.
As he turned slowly, he once again saw movement out of the corner of his eye. His head snapped quickly around, and he saw the figure—saw himself—disappearing out of this room across a stairway landing.
As he started up the stairs, motion out of the corner of his eye made him turn. In the room he had just left, there he was again.
This could not be possible. Diablo could not create human tissue—and even if it could, the machine could never imbue such a golem with life. Evan felt a sudden overwhelming need for the whiskey he had left behind. But he also felt a growing terror of moving into a new room, of going through any doorway behind which someone might be lurking—behind which he himself might be lurking. Could he trust himself? Would he, Evan, hurt another Evan? If he was afraid, he might. And if the other Evan was afraid…
Trying frantically to keep watch on the two doors and three stairways in the room, Evan grabbed his phone and called Janey. He waited six long rings before she finally picked up.
“Janey!” he shouted into the phone. “Janey, it’s Evan. You’ve got to help me! Please!”
“Evan?” Janey’s voice was thick with sleep.
“I’m still stuck in the PrISM shop—”
“Evan, it’s almost two in the morning.”
“Janey, I think Diablo made copies of me. I don’t know what’s going on, but you’ve got to get me out of here. Please, Janey!”
“What the hell are you talking about, Evan?”
“Diablo made copies of me! I’ve seen them—there’s at least two of them walking around in here. Two of me!”
Janey’s voice took on a hard edge. “Okay, Evan, I’ve had enough of this. It’s late, and I’m trying to sleep. Please stop calling me.”
She hung up. Evan immediately hit redial.
“I told you to stop calling.”
“Janey, please, I just want you to let me out. I’m trapped, and Diablo is copying me! Why won’t you help me?”
“You’re getting really scary, Evan. If you call here again, I’m going to tell Roberto.”
The adrenaline from Evan’s fear fueled a sudden surge of rage. “Is he there? Is that why you won’t help me?”
Evan heard a click as Janey hung up. He screamed into the phone. An answering yell echoed from an adjoining room. Evan turned and ran with blinding terror, but the scream echoed from every room and there was nowhere to go to escape it.
Janey put on her bathrobe and walked out to the phone table in the living room. She looked up Roberto’s home number in the company directory she kept there and dialed.
Roberto’s wife answered on the first ring, sounding harried and frantic. “Hello?”
“Mrs. Sorricelli? This is Janey Alvarez. I’m a programmer at Reddex. I’m sorry to call so late, but I think there might be a problem at the office. Can I speak to your husband, please?”
Mrs. Sorricelli made a strange noise, but didn’t reply. Janey heard her talking to someone in the background, and then an unfamiliar male voice, deep and resonant with authority, came on the line and asked, “Who is this?”
“This is Janey Alvarez. Who’s this?”
“This is Merle King, Janey. What is this about trouble at Reddex?”
Janey frowned. She almost didn’t recognize Merle’s voice—he sounded much more authoritative and threatening than when she saw him at Reddex. For a moment she thought that this must be how Evan saw him. “Merle? What’s going on? Is everything okay?”
“Please, Janey, just tell me about Reddex.”
“Um, Evan has been calling me all weekend. He says he’s trapped in the office, and his calls keep getting weirder and weirder. He’s starting to scare me, so I wanted—”
“When did he last call you?” Merle asked. He did not sound like the friendly Merle who made her laugh whenever he stopped by the office. He sounded far more menacing. She could more easily understand Evan’s feelings towards him. “When did he last call you, Janey?” Merle repeated the question, more forcefully this time.
“Just now—just before I called.”
“What about the time before that?”
“Right around dark, I guess. What’s going on?”
“Thank you, Janey. Now you just stay put until someone calls you, you hear?”
He didn’t wait for a response. The phone clicked and Janey stood there listening to the dial tone for a few seconds. She decided to act.
As she was backing her car out of the parking spot she caught a glimpse of someone disappearing around the corner of her building. A man. For a moment she thought she had just seen Evan, but it couldn’t be. He was trapped at the office. Unless he’d been lying to her. Either way, she felt she’d be better off where the police were, and Merle.
When Janey pulled into the Reddex parking lot four police cars already sat there, their flashing emergency lights reflecting off the building’s glass-curtain walls and flaring across the night like fireworks. Evan’s car was there, too. Merle walked intently toward her car before she was out. He wore gray slacks and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, with a badge pinned to his shirt pocket.
“You’re a sheriff’s deputy?’ she asked when he was close to the car.
“Yes, I am. Certain offenders get a sheriff’s deputy for their probation officer. Janey, what are you doing here?” he asked.
“Would you please tell me what’s happening? Is Evan in trouble?” She hated the idea that he might be in trouble because of her. She felt she’d overreacted. Trouble for him meant prison. If they sent him to prison because of her, she’d have to quit Reddex. Walking by Evan’s old cubicle every day would only feed her guilt and make her miserable.
“Roberto was murdered at his home early this morning. Before he died he identified Evan as his attacker. He was stabbed repeatedly in the chest with a small knife when he went out to get the morning paper.”
Janey slumped back against her car. “Roberto’s dead?”
“Why did Evan call you?”
“Evan told me he was trapped. He wanted me to get him out. He sounded really… scared.”
“Trapped? I don’t understand.”
“Have you gotten into the office, yet?” she asked.
“Not yet,” Harris said. “Mrs. Sorricelli gave us the key but she must have forgotten there’s also an access code. We’re waiting for the security company to come out and deactivate it.”
“I can let you into the building,” Janey said. “And I can show you exactly where Evan said he was trapped, too.”
Merle considered this. “All right,” he said at last. “You let us in and show us where you think he is. But you stay with me, and you do exactly as I say. I don’t want him going after you, too.”
Ten minutes later, Janey was leading the police towards Evan’s cubicle. There were two officers in front of her, two behind, and Merle was at her side.
“He’s in there.” She pointed to the PrISM shop door.
The two officers in front put their hands on their guns. One of them turned the knob and pushed the door open.
Merle nodded at Janey. She swallowed hard, her heart thudding rapidly in her chest, and called out, “Evan? Evan, it’s Janey. I’ve come to let you out.”
There was no response. An officer turned on his flashlight and edged into the room, checking quickly behind the door. He nodded, and Merle ushered Janey into the room.
“Evan? Are you in here?”
Evan lifted his head. He’d been hiding behind a tree in one of the gardens when he heard Janey calling to him.
“Evan, it’s Janey.”
“Janey?” Evan stood up and moved cautiously toward the archway. “Janey, is that you?”
“Evan? Where are you?”
“I’m here! Be careful, Janey—they’re still walking around out there. I’ve heard them walking around.”
“It’s okay.” He could hear her voice coming from the next room, and he could see the beams of several flashlights playing about the darkness there. “I don’t see anyone, Evan—I think they’re gone.”
A light appeared in the doorway. Evan was about to reveal his location when a figure stepped into the room. It wasn’t Janey.
It was himself.
Evan screamed and retreated into the garden. Footsteps and flashlights drew closer. He heard his own voice say, “He’s in there.”
“Evan?” Janey called. “It’s okay. Come on out.”
Evan looked up from where he was cowering. Janey stood in the archway, looking in at him with a strange expression; with her were Merle King and four Evans dressed as cops.
“Janey!” he shouted. “Get away from them!”
“They’re not me, Janey! I’m Evan, I swear! They look like me, but they’re not me! Somehow they found a way out and they’re keeping me trapped in here!”
Two of the police-Evans advanced on him. He backed up against the wall. One of them reached out menacingly. Evan tried to rush past them, but they grabbed him and wrestled him to the ground.
“Janey, help me!” Evan struggled to free himself, but one of his captors put a knee in his back and handcuffed his arms behind him.
“Calm down, Evan,” Merle said.
They hauled him to his feet.
“Janey!” Evan shrieked wildly as his doubles led him away into the darkness. “Janey, help me! Don’t let them take me, Janey!”
Janey could hear Evan’s mad screams all the way out, his voice growing ever fainter with distance until at last there was nothing but silence.
“Are you all right, Janey?” Merle asked. It was only then that she realized she was trembling violently.
“Yeah, I think so.” She sank down onto a step and took several deep breaths to calm herself.
Merle shook his head sadly. “I knew that boy was high-strung, but I didn’t think it was that bad.” He paused, then asked her, “You ready to get out of here?”
“Can you give me a couple minutes?”
“Of course. I’ll be waiting out front, all right? You take this. It’s dark in here.”
Merle handed her his flashlight, then left her alone.
Janey thought about what had happened and tried to make some sense out of it. She couldn’t. She stood, and started to look around. There was almost no light, but in the sweep of the flashlight Janey thought the room looked oddly familiar. She remembered Evan’s first phone call earlier that weekend, when he said he had a surprise for her, and it suddenly occurred to her that he might have scanned in another of her Escher prints.
“Relativity,” Janey said aloud, realizing what it was. She wondered why Evan had built it as several normal rooms rather than as a single topsy-turvy one.
She climbed the stairs until she was looking into the next room. The walls felt cool and smooth and solid like real marble. She marveled at the size of the model. She walked down the stairs into the next room, looking all around; she walked through an open doorway into another room that looked almost the same. It really was amazing what the PrISM technology could do. And Evan had done it for her.
Janey had always thought him relatively harmless. Now, the memory of him looking at her with puppy-dog eagerness chilled her. He’d seemed so normal on Friday, just three days ago, aside from the outburst about his plea bargain.
Could he really have snapped so quickly, or was it a long, slow burn that no one had noticed? Had he programmed Diablo to make this model because of his madness? Or had the model somehow caused him to lose his grip on reality?
Had he really gotten trapped in here? It seemed possible. The rooms were similar and it was dark inside even with the police flashlight. She supposed Evan could easily have gotten turned around and confused, especially if he’d been drinking. Janey looked around as she considered this, and suddenly realized that she herself had somehow lost her way. She had been walking for quite a long time without coming back around to the way out.
She turned the flashlight back through the doorway she had just come through. Its powerful beam shone through a seemingly endless series of rooms until the light faded away into an overwhelming darkness. Janey realized with a sinking feeling that it was going to be a long, long way back.
She heard something move behind her, and turned to see a figure.