A geeky love story

by Steve Ford - account sdford

(Some readers might like a short introduction.)


If the building seemed alive, it's because it almost was. It was made primarily of a composite material consisting mostly of long polymer strands, each encased in helix of carbon fibers. An electric potential applied "along the grain" of the composite caused a slight contraction. Each 1-meter-square slab of composite contained an embedded microprocessor which communicated directly with the 8 adjacent slabs, and indirectly with all the 2.1 million slabs in the monolith.

The maintenance worker didn't think about this as he turned the latch bolts to release a defective section of inner wall. He was only vaguely aware of the fact that as he pulled the wall unit away, 2 microprocessors in the main outer slab lost contact with the removable section and sent a broadcast message to the rest of the building. If he could see pure data, he would see a thin circular ripple expand from the point of disconnect and flow quickly across the surface and floors of the building. It took about a half second for the message to be completely routed.

A few minutes later, the defective wall unit was on a cart and a new unit was put into its place. The worker gave the latch bolts a twist to engage them. The 2 microprocessors in the main outer slab detected the addition and started a sync sequence to establish communications with the new wall unit. As the worker wheeled the defective wall to the service elevator, another ripple of data spread from the contact point. The building itself registered no particular surprise that the new wall unit contained a master control console.

The worker, however, would have been very surprised, considering that there was no console on the unit.


Jan suppressed a yawn. It wasn't easy. The software design review had been going on for two hours, and promised to double that before it ended. She started to fantasize about stuffing things in the mouth of the idiot who was laboring an unimportant point. So far, in her mind's eye, she managed to get 7 dry erase markers in there (in an attractive variety of colors). The eraser went in next, followed by two or three soda cans. And still the bottomless maw clamored for more. Soon she was shoveling coal into that black portal.

Thick black smoke was pouring from his butt as the train picked up speed. The wind whipped her hair into tangles across her face, so she pulled her cap on and yanked the whistle cord. Steam spat from his ears in a deafening scream as the train rounded a mountain and started across a bridge. The 200 meter gorge was hungry and tried to suck the train down. The bridge swayed dangerously, but Jan just piled more coal into the furnace, picking up more speed.

Then, the bridge just wasn't there and Jan was falling. She clawed for some hold, and a cup of coffee spilled into her lap. That brought her back into the conference room and the design review, but it didn't stop her fall. Everybody was on their feet, scrambling for the door, leaning crazily. Jan toppled backwards, collapsing into a tangle of OSHA-approved chairs.

As Jan fought to get back on her feet and figure out which way was up, the sensation of falling stopped. Then came a sickening shift, and she suddenly weighed more. The pile of chairs started sliding across the floor back toward the conference table, carrying Jan with it. Just before the corner of the table connected with her temple, she remembered her father once telling her that her imagination would get her in trouble some day.

If he only knew.


As the new wall unit became part of the building network, it learned the addresses of every other microprocessor in the building, including the 284 earthquake sensors. When the wall unit's control console requested 284 virtual circuits to those sensors, the building was happy to oblige. The console put the sensors into maintenance loop-back mode and started feeding them data. The sensors dutifully echoed that data back out it's telemetry port and the rest of the building started receiving a data pattern. A pattern it recognized. A pattern of an earthquake.

And the building knew just what to do with an earthquake.


The building assistant manager pounded his fist on his console in fury. The big board was lit up like Las Vegas at night. Seven thousand different anomalies vied for the manager's attention. And the building seemed bent on self-destruction.


"FUCK!!!" He threw the phone against the screen. "That's it. I'm outta here."

He made it to the stairway.


Channel 5's "Eye in the Sky" had quite a view of the building. The footage that was broadcast across the country showed a tower seemingly made of rubber. The antennas on the roof were almost horizontal before the building finally broke up. In a final spasm, the middle of the structure buckled and the building broke into two parts. The lower tried to spring upright, the upper simply drove itself sideways into the lower. The base of the building exploded outward and the sides split apart.

There were 253 survivors.


Go Steve! Makes perfect sense, too - dynamic stabilization might mean the building could dance.


                              *  *  *

Phil hated flying coach. You would think that on a mission this critical, they would at least send him buisness. Especially given his height.

He again shifted his 1.9 meter body, trying to get the kinks out of his legs. His knees wouldn't even allow the tray table to lie flat. The laptop kept tilting away from him as he typed.

    I. Initial possibilities:
       A. Unreliable communication.
          1. When a node loses contact with all surrounding nodes, it
             goes to fail-safe.  If the last extention was corrupted,
             it would go to default.  Lets say a strong wind was pushing
             the building one way.  If all nodes lost contact and all
             went to default extension, the building would rapidly swing
             away from the wind.  If contact were restored, the building
             would see the wind and re-compensate.  Cycle this at exactly
             the right frequency and it might go into resonance.

Phil closed his eyes and turned the Doors a little louder. What could cause all the nodes to lose communication simultaniously like that? Solar flare? Nuclear EMP? Gamma ray burst somewhere in the galaxy? He shook his head. Even if it were something like that, the nodes wouldn't re-establish and lose connection repeatedly, especially not at exactly the right frequency.

Possibly something going on inside the building? Some kind of EMI from an unknown peice of equipment? Jeeze, if it were that, then the people inside would have died long before the building collapsed. Tests in the EMI chamber proved that the nodes were shielded well enough that the building would have to be a fucking microwave oven to generate enough radiation to disrupt communication.

And besides, he saw the videos. The resonant frequency was about .5 Hz. But it took a building that size about .5 seconds to reestablish communication after a fault. After that, it would take another 1.5 seconds for sensor telemetry to be re-enabled, and ANOTHER 1.5 seconds for the building to respond. 3.5 seconds. The highest frequency would be a little under .3 Hz.

It couldn't possibly be communication failure.


Phil continued his outline.

       B. Sensor failure
          1. If the enough sensors started giving garbage readings,
             the building could tear itself apart trying to compensate
             for non-existant motions.

Again, Phil closed his eyes. This seemed even less likely. Sensors were configured into 3-way voting groups. If one sensor gave a reading that was outside of tolerance from the other two, it was excluded. If two sensors gave garbage readings, presumably they would be different from each other, as well as different from the good sensor. In this case, none of the readings would agree, and all three would be thrown out.

So, the failure must be such that the bad sensors would give the same readings, so as to out-vote the good sensors (if any). A software bug could conceivably cause this.

But how could a software bug cause all the sensors on one side of the building to give the same false readings at the same time, and all the sensors on the other side to give the opposite readings? And have them flip back and forth at exactly the right frequency?

Hmm ... maybe if the A/D converters somehow got inverted. A small disturbance in one direction would trigger the wrong compensation. But even that would simply push the building further toward the direction of the disturbance. The building would go to maximum static displacement and then stop. It might spill a few cups of coffee, but not much more than that.

Phil shifted his legs again, and the laptop fell off the back of the tray table. As he lunged for it, his headphone wires became tangled in the armrest and his shoulder, dragging the CD player off his lap. It hung for a moment by the headphone wire and then dropped off, falling into the aisle.

What a perfect time for the beverage cart to roll up! The cart stopped short with a sickening crunch.

As Phil tried to untangle himself and the laptop, the flight attendant gave him Forced Smile # 21. (Rough translation: "I have to be nice to you even though I've eaten yogurt smarter than you.")

"Excuse me sir, but could you please move your posessions out of the aisle and under the seat in front of you?"

Phil reached for the broken CD player, which was wedged under the cart wheel. As he yanked it free, the laptop slipped from his other hand and crashed to the floor. Phil lunged for it again, almost strangling himself with the headphone cord, and the beverage cart lurched forward again, whacking Phil on the back of the head. "OW!! GODDAMIT!"

"I'm terribly sorry, sir." said the attendant with Forced Smile #15. (Rough translation: "two points.")

When Phil finally got himself untangled and the laptop opened up, he was greeted by the system startup screen.

He stared at the screen in disbelief for a few moments, and then slowly closed it up (hands shaking with fury) and returned the tray table to it's upright position. The CD player got dumped uncerimoniously into the barf bag.

Poor Jim Morrison. Snuffed yet again.


heh. See, some guy wrote a panel replacement procedure 2 years ago so that any contractor idiot that was hired could replace the panels....


I love the software<->mechanical destructive resonance idea.


Jan wavered dimly at the edge of consciousness. A dull pain in her trunk kept her from surfacing all the way. It was just as well - the internal bleeding was slowed by shock. Her blood pressure and heart rate dropped, her metabolism slowed down to almost a hibernation level. Her breathing was shallow and quick. Oxygen made its way sluggishly into her brain and back to the lungs.

The 14th floor was lucky. 98 of the 253 survivors were on that floor. When the sides of the lower half of the building were splitting, most of the 14 floor simply fell straight down onto the 12th floor, which fell onto the 11th floor, and so on to floor 7.

After what seemed like a long time, Jan's head started swimming to the surface again. A sound caught the faintest thread of memory. What was it? A farm. Her grandfather's farm. In the barn. In the corner. In her lap. Squirming, yelping, warm, and delightful. Puppies! She always wanted a puppy! But her father was allergic. On Papa Jay's farm, most of the dogs were work dogs and didn't have much time to play. But the old hound, that everybody thought was barren, gave birth to 5 puppies. She loved to hear them yipping and barking. She even learned to bark back.

Jan's lips moved soundlessly as a great cloud of dust started filtering down through the rubble, settling on Jan's face. The barking got louder. So did a clanging and rumbling sound. Suddenly, a shaft of sunlight stabbed her belly. The shaft widened and a dog clambered down into the demolished conference room.

Jan's lips still moved soundlessly as the dog whined and licked her face. Jan smiled.


The cab turned a corner and Phil was thrown back in his seat. Not by the cabby's driving, but by the sight of the building. The safest building in the world lay in ruins. There was very little structure left - mostly just a mountain of rubble. As the cab crept forward toward the police line, an ambulance screamed out and tore down a street into the city.

Finally the cab could move no further. His mouth still hanging open, Phil paid the cabby and lugged the two huge cases out of the back. Stopping every few yards to rest his arms, he staggered to the security checkpoint that the ambulance had emerged from. Finally, he dropped the cases in front of a cop that seemed to be in charge. He fished out his ID and held it out in front of him.

"Hi. Phil Sanderson. I'm with Envirospace. They called ahead so you would be expecting me?"

The cop's eyes narrowed as he examined the ID. "Envirospace? You built that thing?"

Phil smiled nervously. "Well, uh, not me personally, but yeah, my company did. I came out as fast as I could to figure out what went wrong."

The cop appeared to grow a few inches taller. His face turned to cold stone as he looked down on Phil. "What went wrong." The cop didn't say it like a question.

Phil seemed to shrink an inch. "Uh ... yeah ... with the building ..."

"Oh, you mean that building over there." The cop gestured widely as a small crowd gathered around them. The cop turned to his car. "Hey, Randy, Mr. ... " He squinted at the ID card. "... Sanderson here is from Envirospace. He's here to see what went wrong with his building." The cop turned, his face red. "What went wrong, ASSHOLE, is that your fucking building fell on thirty fucking thousand people!" The cop towered over Phil.

Phil looked around. 14 hard stares and 28 balled fists surrounded them. "Uh ... yeah ... uh ... to find out why ... prevent it from happening ... again ... uh ..."

A head popped out of the cop car. "He's cleared, Sam!"

The tension grew for another beat ... two beats ... then the cop turned toward the growing crowd of murmuring people. "Step aside, folks. We gotta let Mr. Sanderson through. Step aside. Coming through." The cop plowed forward and Phil struggled to keep up, the cases banging his legs with every step. They stopped at the edge of the mountain of twisted metal and chunks of composite material. The cop gave Phil one last hard stare.

"Good luck."


The dog was gone. Jan tried to ask where it went, tried to call it back. Her lips barely moved as the ambulance rocked and bumped it's way to the hospital.

One shattered hand was bandaged, an i.v. trailed from the other. The paramedic was quickly wrapping the stump of what was left of her left leg. Then he turned his attention to the other leg, which was sort-of hanging on. He shook his head as he did his best to stop the bleeding. The leg was so badly crushed that they would certainly remove it in the O.R. But, it wasn't his place to decide that. Patch 'em up, control the bleeding, and let the MD gods make the real decisions.

He was checking her for more obvious wounds, shouting out his findings to his partner on the radio, and pumping for another blood pressure when he noticed Jan's lips moving. He paused and put his ear right up to her lips. Nothing. He sat back up and continued with the blood pressure as the ambulance swung into the E.R. driveway.


Phil was shaking as he opened up the two cases. They were blaming HIM! As if HE were personally responsible for this disaster! And the devil of it was that he very well might be. He did write a good chunk of the central control software. If that turned out to be the cause, he didn't know if he would ever get a good night's sleep again.

He removed the locator, almost dropped it, and put the strap over his head. Turning it on, he was greeted by semi-strong signal. Thank God! The black box couldn't be buried too deeply if he was getting that strong a signal. Actually, there were 7 black boxes placed strategically around the building. Each one recorded 4 hours worth of telemetry from all the building's sensors, plus a variety of status information from the consoles. In addition, each one sampled network traffic from the building's exterior - 5 minutes worth of traffic. Unfortunately, it took the building almost 10 minutes to shake apart, so he wouldn't be able to see what was going on at the moment that things started to go wrong.

He swung the locator back and forth and started to climb.


The telephoto lens focused in tight. Three exposures of the back of his head. Then his head ducked out of sight. The lens dipped and bobbed. Then luck! He faced directly toward the camera for a moment. Two good exposures. The lens dipped again. Four pretty bad exposures of the box in his hand. Then he started climbing. The lens widened and re-focused. The rest of the roll saw him wandering around on the pile.


Adrenaline flooded into his system. The surgeon managed to get the internal bleeding stopped. The crushed leg was hopeless; off it came. The right hand ended up minus the pinkie, but the rest of the fingers should work pretty well. More on the way in; resident gets to staple her shut and do the paperwork. This one was easy, the next two promised to be more challenging. That strange sense of euphoria kicked in. The surgeon granted life, and he knew it.


Phil couldn't believe his luck! A black box buried about two feet below some rubble, and a sensor was right below it! The sensor's NVM should have something in it. Into his backpack went the two priceless objects, and Phil started searching for the next strongest signal.

The camera in the building across the street was only able to get a glimpse of something bright orange before it slipped into the pack.


                                      *  *  *

Phil struggled to open his eyes. He had worked a good part of the night trying to get a good data connection with the home office from his hotel room. No dice. Hotel was probably a digital switch, on an analog trunk to a digital central office. Including the D-to-A in his laptop, there was apparently enough skew and jitter that the connection was basically useless.

Fortunately, the phone book had an ad for a copy center that had internet connections. It meant encrypting the files for security sake, but at least he could transfer them.

After showering, he shouldered his pack and left the room. Fresh bagels from down the street sounded good, along with some strong coffee. After the data was safely transferred, he would be able to do some preliminary diagnosis with his laptop. It took a supreme effort not to tear into the data right away. But given the flakiness of the Tron-like operating system in his laptop, he resisted the temptation and got a few hours sleep instead.

A smaller telephoto lens in a nearby car recorded Phil's exit.


Jan struggled to open her eyes. She had been pretty heavily drugged all night, and now she was slowly rising to the surface. She had to go to the bathroom, but she was just too weak to even think about getting out of bed. Funny, she didn't remember going home the night before...

She reached her hands up to rub her eyes, but her left hand was yanked back. A dull pain shot up her arm. Her eyes popped open at that.

She was in a white room with a T.V. mounted on the wall. She heard a snoring to the right and looked that way in surprise. There were metal bars on her bedsides. A curtain separated her from the source of the snoring. She looked the other way and saw an open door leading to a hallway. A bed on wheels rolled by.

Finally, Jan looked at her still-hurting hand. An i.v. was stuck in it.

What the hell had happened last night?

She reached with her other hand to try to find the nurse-call button. As her hand came up, she saw it was splinted and wrapped tightly. Pretty useless.

She untangled the i.v. line from the bed's bars and felt around till she found the button. After almost 10 minutes, a nurse came into the room. "Oh, you're up."

Jan looked bleary-eyed at the nurse. "Not for long, I don't think. What happened to me?"

The nurse's face turned somber. "You don't remember. Just as well. The building you were in collapsed. You're one of 220 survivors so far. They think the death toll will rise above thirty thousand. You're one of the lucky ones."

Jan tried to make sense of what the nurse said. Building? Collapsed? She would figure it out later. For now, she held up her bandaged hand. "How bad is it?"

Now the nurse's face turned downright sorrowful. "Your hand should be fine. You lost your pinkie, but the doctor said the rest was just bruised. But..." The nurse stopped, and Jan waited with droopy eyes. Finally the nurse came closer. "But that's not the worst part. Your legs. You lost your legs."

More nonsense to figure out. What the hell was this crazy woman talking about. A grey fog was slowly rolling over her mind. As her eyelids slid shut, she murmured to the nurse, "Feed the dog on your way out."


It was going to be one of those days. Phil managed to get the files transferred, although windows crashed twice in the middle. Good thing he brought the two black boxes and the sensor with him - he had to upload the sensor's memory image a second time. While the files were transferring, he chatted with the copy center clerk. When he mentioned that he was from Envirospace, the clerk's eyes grew wide and he backed away.

"Hey, it's OK. I'm one of the good guys. I'm here trying to figure out what happened."

The clerk's mouth opened and shut a few times, then he spun and walked quickly into the back room.

When the transfers were all done, Phil went to the counter. "Hello? I'm done." Nothing. "Hello?" He rang the bell on the counter.

After another minute, the clerk came back out, his mouth set in a thin line. Phil pushed a company credit card across the counter. "I'm done now." The clerk looked at the credit card like it was a squashed cockroach. Then he picked it up, ran it through the machine, and waited silently for the receipt to be printed. Phil could feel himself turning red.

When the clerk pushed the receipt toward him, Phil looked it over. "Hey, you charged me for a full hour. I was only on for about 20 minutes."

The clerk stared stony faced at him. "Store policy."

Phil looked at him incredulously. "Store policy? Are you kidding? Nobody rounds up to the nearest hour!"

The clerk held out a pen. "The manager will be in at 2:30 this afternoon. You can bring it up with him."

Phil hesitated, but then took the pen and signed. He also jotted in the margin that he only used 20 minutes of time. Envirospace could contest the charge if they wanted too.

As he walked out the door, Phil decided that things would go a lot smoother if he just didn't mention who he worked for. Right now, he decided to get back to the room, leave a voice mail for his boss giving a quick status update, and then tear into the data. So many speculations had turned into dead ends, he was wild to know what the hell happened. On the way back to the hotel, he bought a couple of hot dogs from a street vendor.


Jan pushed back the lunch tray. It was barely touched. The doctor looked uncomfortably at her chart, refusing to look her in the eye.

The doctor continued, "Eventually, we can outfit you with artificial limbs, and you'll be able to get around with just a cane or two. Lets see, your a computer programmer. I guess you'll have some trouble with the semi-colon key," the doctor smiled sheepishly, "but it shouldn't slow you down too much. Tomorrow morning we'll remove your catheter and get you into the bathroom. You'll be surprised at how much more normal you feel when you go to the bathroom naturally. Just be sure to have a nurse help you with the wheel chair for the first day or two. A fall in the next few days could really set back your recovery. Do you have any questions?"

Did she have any questions. The biggest question that came into her mind at that moment was, why me? But she knew better than to ask a doctor a question like that. So she just shook her head.

After the doctor left, the nurse fussed with the blanket a few moments before pausing. "Do you have a dog at home?"

Jan looked up. "A dog? No. Why?"

The nurse continued fussing with the blanket. "Earlier today you asked me to feed the dog. If you had one at home, we could arrange to have it fed while you're here."

Jan smiled. They really were trying. "No, no pets. Just me and ozzy, my computer."

"Ozzy? You gave a name to your computer?"

Jan managed a grin. "Next best thing to a dog."

The nurse looked confused for a moment, finished her fussing, and left. "If you need anything, just buzz."

Jan's smile turned sour. Need anything? Hey nurse, fetch me a couple of legs.


Phil stopped dead at the open door to his hotel room. Inside, it was a shambles. The two big cases were open and empty, their locks broken clean off. The bed mattress was off the boxspring. The dresser drawers were all on the floor, and his clothes were strewn all over the place.

Everything of value was gone. Well, almost everything. The hotel T.V. and phone were still there. The phone was even a real nice cordless model. But whoever did this obviously didn't want to leave anything else behind.

Thank God he had his laptop, the black boxes, and the sensor with him.


Phil was deep into the black box's internal structures when the cops arrived. "Are you Phil Sanderson?"

Phil didn't even look up. "Yeah. Come on in and have a look around. I didn't touch anything." Phil didn't notice the cop glare at him.

The sensor data was fascinating. According to the building's sensors, there was a level 7.4 earthquake going on. The building was doing a dandy job of dampening the movement - or it would have had there actually been an earthquake.

The data was far from random. There were actually three different frequencies resonating - the primary sway, the third harmonic, and the fifth harmonic. So, it was waving, grinding, and shimmying all at the same time. That's the real reason it buckled in the middle instead of just breaking at the base and tipping over.

But the REALLY interesting thing was that not all of the sensors were in agreement. The tilt sensors clearly showed the building swaying dangerously. And the skin sensors showed the slabs being stretched way past their safety range. But, what could the software do? It wasn't designed to handle contradictory data like that. The microprocessors in the slabs didn't have much eprom space to begin with. As far as they were concerned, the stresses were just part of the earthquake, which they were doing their best to dampen. There certainly wasn't enough code space to do Fourier analysis, which would have shown the impossible phase relationship. The system controller, on the other hand ...


Phil looked up. "Huh?"

The cop was frowning down at him. "We need a report! Do you think you could spare us a few minutes of your time?"

Phil looked longingly at the data dump. So many questions, and the answers were right there. He signed and closed the laptop.





Hey! PID controllers, my old friends.


You tune those suckers just right and they'll oscillate like crazy. Just take a process with some lag, turn down the D, and crank up the I. Boing, boing, boing...


That will give you a nice sine wave, but not necessarily at resonance for your system. Crank up just the P term to get that. If you want the highest frequency, crank the D term.


Shouldnt that be, if you tune them just WRONG? Generally you dont want your PID controllers producing sine waves on their own.


The telephoto lens swung uselessly back and forth, catching brief glimpses of the sky but mostly watching the sidewalk jerk by. It stopped suddenly in front of a shop window and stared sightlessly at a display of hand guns. It stared for a long time. Then it was off again, swinging.


Jan stared morosely at her dinner. Rubbery chicken, squishy green beans, apple sauce. One tiny packet of pepper did little to spice up the food, and her request for more was forgotten.

She took another nibble. The pepper wasn't the only thing that was forgotten. She only had one visitor - a priest. Nice enough guy, didn't even try to convert her. But it was clearly his job to visit people, so it wasn't the same as somebody who might come of his own choice.

But who might that somebody be? She came to Chicago two years ago to be a senior software developer at VROOM, a web-based gaming company. Really interesting stuff. Heavyweight back-end consisting of 4 Alphas (soon to be 6) created a variety of virtual solar systems. That was her area of expertise - she let the 25-year-old hot shots do all the Java front-end stuff.

During those two years, she had only made a hand-full of friends; casual friends at that. Since they were all work-related friends, they were all in the building when it collapsed. Only three VROOM employees survived: Fawn, a secretary whose huge butt had certainly saved her life when a support structure fell on her, Jack, the big mouth who had put her to sleep just as the building started to go, and herself. Nobody was left to visit.

Oh sure, Jan's sister had called and offered to come, but it was clear that she was fulfilling a duty just as the priest was. Jan gave a feeble excuse for her not to come, and she snapped it up in a second. Bitch.

Jan gave the chicken one more nibble, thought briefly about buzzing the nurse for more pepper, and then just pushed the tray away. Fuck it.

She sure missed ozzy.


Phil plodded tiredly toward the bagel shop. Yesterday had been Hell. The cops kept interrupting his work with stupid questions about the burglary. His boss had screamed at him for losing most of the test equipment he had brought (hey, at least he still had the black boxes and the sensor!). And he was SURE he heard somebody trying to get in his room during the night.

If so, then the chair he jammed under the knob did it's job. But he still didn't sleep well.

There was still a lot he didn't understand about the accident. One critical question that the black boxes didn't give an answer to was did anything unusual happen just before the accident? An explosion? A thump? Did the lights blink from a power glitch? Did office computers crash?

He needed to talk to somebody who was in there when it happened.

The morning newspaper gave the names of the survivors. Some of them were in the hospital that was within walking distance of the hotel. So he decided to drop by and ask a few questions.

The telephoto lens followed at a discreet distance.


The nurse poked her head in the room. "Jan? There a Phil Sanderson here. Says he knows you. Are you up to a visitor?"

Phil Sanderson? Didn't ring a bell. Oh well, she wasn't interested in lunch anyway.

A tall, thin man came in. He had a boyish face; Jan wondered if he had started shaving yet. He was also pink in the cheeks, like he was blushing. He was wearing a large back-pack that hung heavily on his shoulders. "Hi ... Jan ... am I bothering you?"

Jan struggled to scoot up in bed. "No, not at all. It gets pretty boring around here. But I'm embarrassed to say that I don't remember you."

Phil blushed deeper and looked down at his toes. "Uh, well actually, I lied about that. I've been trying to talk to some of the accident vict... surv... uh." Now his face turned purple. "People who were in the building when it ... uh ... collapsed. I'm an accident investigator for an insurance company."

"Which one?"

Phil looked up, surprised. "Which one?"

"Which insurance company?"

He looked around the room, as if the answer were printed somewhere. "Uh ... um ... I don't remember."

Jan gave a hoot of laughter. "You don't remember???" This was getting actually getting fun.

"Well, urg, it's a consortium of several companies. It's been a long morning." Phil rubbed his eyes, unzipped his backpack, and pulled out a Jolt.

Jan's eyes widened. "Where did you get that???"

Phil looked up as he cracked the can open. "Down the street at the Git-n-Spit. Want one?" He handed the can to a pair of greedy hands.

Jan took a long pull. "God sent you here, didn't He?"

Phil grinned. "My boss would have you believe it." He cracked another Jolt and the two of them sucked the cans dry.

Jan's eyes shown. "Phil, did anybody ever tell you you're the worlds worst liar?"

Phil looked at the floor again. Actually, yes. His last (and only) girlfriend had told him that. Their torrid love affair had lasted two months in college, during which time he had almost gotten to second base. Twice. Finally, the girl accused Phil of liking his computer more than he liked her. He had lied and denied it. Naturally she saw right through it.

He decided to go with the wounded puppy look instead. It worked with the ward nurse. "I know. At least my name really is Phil Sanderson. And I really do want to ask you some questions about the accident."

Jan wasn't impressed. "Not until you tell me who you're with."

"I don't want to."

Jan smirked. "Then I don't want to answer any questions."

Phil's eyes suddenly flared. "Everybody always gets mad at me! For no good reason! It's as if they think that *I* broke the building!" His eyes suddenly widened, then his shoulders slumped. "Uh ... oh hell. I'm with Envirospace. I'm here trying to figure out what went wrong in our building."

Jan went suddenly on her guard. "You a lawyer?"

Phil grinned feebly. "Wouldn't I be a better liar if I were? No, I'm one of the engineers who designed the building's components. I'm a programmer."

"Oh you are, are you? What's 'malloc'?"

Phil looked up, suddenly interested. "A memory allocation function in the C run-time library."

Jan nodded with new respect. "I'm impressed. You would be surprised how many idiots think it's an operating system call."

Phil smiled. "That's not fair! It's built on top of operating system calls. It's basically just a portable interface. Who's to say whether an API is part of the O.S. or part of the run-time system?"

Jan grinned evilly. "Ah, but it's more than just an API. It manages the space as well. When you free a block, it doesn't immediately go back to the O.S."

Phil pounced. "That's an implementation detail! It *could* do that! They just added a bit of smarts for efficiency purposes!"

Jan dismissed his argument with a wave of her bandaged hand. "Would there be a function called 'malloc' if there was no C? No. Would there be one if there was C but no operating system? Yes."

"How can you have C but no operating system?"

"Ever hear of MSDOS?"

Phil grinned sheepishly. "Ouch. You got me there. You win. Who do you work for?"

"VROOM. We do ... did VR stuff. I worked on the Unix back-end machines."

Phil nodded. "Also Unix. System controller stuff. Mostly network control and logging. Some user interface stuff."

Jan smiled. "We coulda used a networking guy. Most of the, quote, internet gurus, unquote, were just Java-webheads who wouldn't know an ICMP packet if it bit them on their baby little asses."

"Java is for wimps."

"Tell me about it."

Phil stared at Jan. She wasn't exactly pretty. Oval face, straight brown hair, broad shoulders. He looked at the bed covers to see how tall she might be, and noticed that the mound in the blanket stopped pretty abruptly, long before her legs had any business ending.

Jan noticed him notice. "Ahem. So, Phil, if that's you real name," she smiled evilly, "what have you found out so far?"

"I managed to recover two black boxes and an earthquake sensor." He explained briefly about the black boxes. "The data dump showed a 7.4 earthquake happening, and the building was trying to compensate."


He explained a bit about the building slabs, about how they could expand and contract slightly. "The entire outer shell of the building, plus the floors themselves, was made from these slabs. As the slabs expanded and contracted to counteract the motion of the non-existent earthquake, they hit a resonate frequency of the building, and it tore the building apart."

Jan's eyes sparkled. "Like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge!"

"You saw that movie too???"

"In high school physics! Coolest thing I ever saw."

Phil's smile dissolved. "Our building was designed to prevent exactly that sort of thing. Now it looks like it actually caused it."

Jan felt sympathetic, wanted to pat his shoulder. Even thought about patting more than his shoulder.

Phil gazed at her face. "Anyway, I've been digging through the black box's data dump, but I have a lot of questions that the black boxes couldn't answer. So that's why I'm here."

Jan smiled. "I'll answer them as best I can, on one condition."

Phil was incredulous. "One condition??? You said you would answer the questions if I told you who I worked for!"

Jan shrugged. "You lie, I lie. Anyway, it's not a big deal. I just want another Jolt, and I want to help you."

"That's TWO conditions!"

"So sue me."

Phil smiled as he unzipped his backpack again.


Unzipped his..? Heh!


Not till Randy posts something.


Phil stared morosely at his beer. He was madly, passionately, hopelessly in love.

What was this? The 10,000th time?

Phil was ALWAYS falling in love, usually with married women whose husbands were total jerks.

But, of course, he couldn't very well TELL any of his loves. What was he going to do? "Hi. Even though we only met about 30 seconds ago, I'm madly in love with you. Will you marry me?" So he tried to show his love in little ways - by sending funny e-mail, by listening more than talking (like THAT was real hard), by putting her favorite candy in his office candy dish to try to get her in there more often.

So what always happened? He became known as "nice". One time he accidentally saw an e-mail on the computer screen of one of his true loves. He noticed that his name was on the subject line. Naturally, he immediately looked away and finished getting the information he came for. Once back at his desk, he tried to push the e-mail out of his mind.

Yeah. Right.

They say that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Anybody who has the root password knows this.

    > > > > Boy, that Phil is sure a nice guy.
    > > >
    > > > He sure is.  I feel like I could tell him anything.
    > >
    > > I wonder if he's gay...
    > Who cares.  He's such a nice guy.

    I know. ... Say, who was that hot guy you were out with last night?

Alas, even the root password couldn't tell Phil how to be "hot".

Phil drained his beer and wondered when the waitress would come by so he could ask for another. He usually stopped at one, but this was an exception. He was in love with somebody who his company had almost killed. It was one thing to hear numbers of dead on the news ... it was quite another to see an actual person with actual injuries. Especially somebody he was in love with.

The waitress walked by, but he couldn't catch her eye.



Jan silently slid through the basement window and padded through the furnace room. It was pitch black, but her I.R. goggles showed the bright furnace pipes illuminating the whole room. But it was all in reds, oranges, and yellows - none of the blues and purples of visible light.

She paused at the furnace room door and listened. She could hear rhythmic breathing. She turned up the gain and heard a heartbeat. Just one. He was alone.

She crept into the laundry room and approached the glowing figure in the middle of the room. A man - naked and tied to a chair. Now came the more difficult question - how to wake him without him making noise?

Jan came close and blew gently into his face. He twitched. She did it again. His breathing became uneven and she saw his arm twitch. One more blow, and his eyelids fluttered. Then she took a step back.


He jerked fully awake and looked all around.

Jan whispered as quietly as she could. "Phil, don't make a sound. I'm here to get you out."

He faced her, or approximately so, and spoke low. "Don't worry, they've slept through my screams and ravings. We could go square dancing and they wouldn't hear. Who are you?"

"It doesn't matter. Hold still."

She flexed her fingers, and five razor-sharp blades emerged from under her artificial fingernails. One quick slash and the ropes dangled uselessly. But his hands and ankles were still handcuffed to the sides of the chair. This could be interesting.

"You're a razor girl. Who do you work for?"

"I'm a free lance. My client is none of your business ... at least not yet."

Phil tried to stand, but the cuffs kept him down. "You got a lock pick?"

"That can wait a moment." Jan appraised him. It was a little hard to tell with the IR goggles, but he looked like he had a nice build. Tall and thin. She retracted her blades and ran a finger down his chest. He shivered and drew a ragged breath. "Cut it out!" he hissed.

Jan smiled. "You don't really mean that, now do you?" Her finger continued past his belly button. She smiled bigger when he stood immediately at attention.

She grasped the waist band of her spandex tights and slowly eased them down ...

And froze. Her fingers felt the bandages around her stumps and brought her instantly back to the hospital room.

"Oh fuck" she moaned bitterly, trying to squeeze back the tears.


Heh. Interesting - took me a second to figure it out. I keep forgetting names.


That's one problem with writing it peice at a time like this. If you sat and read it straight for an hour, it would all stay in your mind better.

Damn, my formatting tool screwed up the quoted e-mail in 34.


Phil pushed the button above the mail box. A moment later, an ancient creaking voice answered. "Yesss?"

"Mrs. Haily? I'm Phil Sanderson. Jan said she would call you. I'm here to pick up some of her stuff?"

Phil was feeling good. Damn good. After a long night of tossing and turning, he practically ran to the Git-n-Spit to get another 6-pack of jolt. When he got to the hospital, it was still an hour till visiting time. This time, his wounded puppy look didn't get him past the ward.

When he finally got in, Jan had asked him if he had been waiting long. He said, no of course not. She had laughed and told him yet again that he was a lousy liar.

Then they had dug into the data dump together.

"All right, young man. I'll let you in."

The door buzzed and Phil jogged in. He took the stairs two at a time to the third floor and figited in front of Jan's apartment door, waiting for Mrs. Haily.

They had made some good progress, but with his stupid Windows 98.6 laptop, they quickly got to wishing they had better tools. Perl, or at least Awk, would make it a lot easier to sift through the packet traces and find the ones they were looking for. They even had some ideas for simulating certain failure conditions -- which would require a C compiler.

Jan suggested that he go to her apartment and get ozzy, her Linux system. Her keys were lost in the accident, so Jan called the landlord to let him in. And now Phil was bouncing from foot to food, looking like a young boy who forgot to "go" before he left.

Finally, only about 9 hours later, a stooped old woman creeped out of the elevator with a massive keyring in her hand. She shuffled slowly toward him. SWEET JESUS! Can't she pick up the tempo a bit??? Phil practically had to physically restrain himself to keep from picking her up and carrying her over.

Then came the laborious process of her trying to find the right key. She tried half of them upside-down. Phil tried to be helpful and tell her so, but that just seemed to confuse her even more, so he bit his tongue. Luckily, she found the right key a split-second before Phil was ready to strangle her.

He took two quick steps into the apartment, but then slowed down. It felt almost as if he had entered a temple or a shrine. Not by the looks - the room was messy with stacks of presumably unread newspapers and magazines piled everywhere, a plate of stale pizza on top of the tv, dirty dishes in the sink, and a faint musty smell, as if the room hadn't been aired out in a while. In other words, a lot like Phil's apartment at home.

No, what made it a religous experience was the simple fact that the love of his life lived here.

He went into bedroom, where she said ozzy was. He also broke his promise not to look at the mess. He didn't mind - it was HER mess. A mess that he would gladly cleanup with his teeth if she would let him. He lingered by the computer for a moment, his eyes drawn toward her chest of drawers.

Root password not needed.

He started towards it, stopped, started back to ozzy, stopped, cursed himself for being such an idiot, wavered a bit more, and then tip-toed to the chest. Top drawer: a bunch of shorts more-or-less wadded up. Second drawer: mostly misc computer equipment. A few network cards, some SIMs, a 2400 baud modem, a 1200 baud modem. Phil smiled. Didn't she ever throw ANYTHING away?

The third drawer was more interesting. A bunch of cotten underware near the front, but glimpses of red and black near the back. Bingo! Black lace with red ribbons. Jesus! It was crotchless!!! He hesitated, then picked it up and smelled it. Smelled like laundry detergent. (But it was HER laundry detergent!)

Bottom drawer: bras. Mostly, matter-of-fact white bras with just a bit of lacy design. But again, near the back, really nice ones. A black lace model that you could mostly see through, a shimmery green one, another shimmery red one, a shoulderless model, and WOW! Phil couldn't even bring himself to touch it. A shiny black vinyl or something.

His heart pumping hard, he gently closed the drawer and stood panting. A quick shake of the head, and he went back to ozzy. He hated to just kill the power, but she didn't appear to be logged in, at least not on the console. Jan had told him to just hit the switch, so he did.

He rummaged through a cardboard box full of cables so that he could use his laptop as a terminal (about all it was good for). Then he was off.


"Look, here's another packet from 253.49, this one to 151.63."

"Port 1602 again?"


"Lets look up 151.63."

"Already on it. It's another sensor."

Phil shook his head. "Damn! This makes absolutely no sense. Only a system controller should be connecting to sensors at port 1602. That's the maintenance port. But that address is NOT a system controller. It's not on the list, and it's not even on the right network! That net is ... lets see ... second floor. What's on the second floor?"

Jan looked up at the ceiling. "I think it's a brokerage firm. Lots of offices, cubicals, and such."

Phil's frown deepened. "No possible way. Unless one of our field techs was there with a portable console. But the home office swears that nobody was even IN Chicago except the sales staff. The techs are all at a training class in New Orleans."

"New Orleans? Cool!"

Phil grinned. "Yeah. One thing I'll say about Envirospace is that they hold classes in neat places."

"Lets try searching the whole dump on both black boxes for only packets coming from 253.49."

They were editing their perl script when a doctor walked in. "Miss Thompson?"

"Should we only do port 1602?"

"Naw, we can filter again if there's too many."

"Miss Thompson???"

"What do you mean, syntax error? Oh, I forgot to escape that slash."

"Heh. I NEVER forget to espace a slash."


Phil and Jan looked up. The doctor cleared his throat. "Thank you. Miss Thompson, you are coming along quite nicely. The HMO guidelines call for you to go home today, if there's somebody there to take care of you. If not, then we'll keep you for two more days."

Jan's face fell. "Two more days?"

"So, you don't have any family in the area?"

A beat. Two beats. Then Phil burst out, "I'm her cousin!"

Both the doctor and Jan looked at him. "I ... uh ... I could take care of her ... if that's ok with her ..."

The doctor's eyes squinted, then he turned back to Jan. "Your cousin?"

Jan grinned hugely. "Sure! Second cousin on my mother's side. You see, my Aunt Susie was divorced twice. The first husband lived with my cousin Annabelle for a while, but he split when Annabelle got pregnant. Then..."

The doctor looked down at the chart. "Yes, yes. Very interesting. Nurse, will you please prep her for release today? Miss Thompson, you need to come back once a week to have your dressings checked and changed. In two weeks the staples can come out. Until then, sponge baths only. If you get a fever, come back right away. Avoid all physical activity. You can lease a hospital wheelchair until such time as you can buy one. We have classes for double amputees that I highly recommend you attend. Do you have any questions?"

Jan was flustered and turned red for the first time since the accident. Double amputee. Phil found something on the floor that he pretended to be interested in. The question that hung unasked and unanswered for the past two days was abruptly put to rest. "Uh, no, no questions."

The doctor turned on his heel and strode out the door.


"You really don't have to do this. I can get my sister up here."

Jan struggled to get from the wheelchair into the back of the taxi. Phil fussed, trying to help but knowing that he was more in the way than anything else.

Phil huffed. "Will you please shut up? For the six hundredth time, it's too late for you to back out now. I've got you in my evil clutches and I won't let you escape till I've had my way with you. Heh heh heh."

Jan stuck her tongue at him and started looking for the seat belt.

Phil struggled with the wheelchair a moment before he got it folded and in the trunk. Ozzy and his backpack went in too. Then he hopped in the other door. Jan was still looking for her seatbelt, probing her hand between the seat and the back. "Need help?"

"I got it." She gave the belt a yank ... and fell sideways onto Phil. "SHIT!"

Phil steadied her. "Hey, take it easy. You're top-heavy now. Uh, urg, I mean ... uh ... shit."

In spite of her humilliation at not being able to use her legs, Jan couldn't help laughing. She called to the driver, "Don't worry, sir, I usually don't drink this much! If I have to hurl, I'll do it on this looser here."

The driver looked suspiciously in the rear view before pulling slowly out.

The four concrete steps at the front of the apartment building posed more of a challange. The cabby finally took pity on them and lifted the front of the chair.

Jan insisted on pushing the wheelchair forward herself toward the elevator while Phil carried ozzy. "I guess I'm going to become a lot more aware of handicapped accessable buildings now."

"The Envirospace building was VERY handicap friendly. We had a full-time consultant on staff. He was blind, and he always navigates a new building before we open it for occupancy."

Jan nodded, breathing heavily. She was still panting as the elevator rose to the third floor. "Whew. I've gotta get back in shape! I stopped swimming last year. I wonder if I can swim like this..."

Phil looked up at the ceiling. "I dunno. We could rig something up. Maybe some special swim fins. Or maybe some kind of mermaid thing."

Jan grinned and hit him on the leg. "Just call me chicken of the sea!"

As they left the elevator, they found Mrs. Haily waiting for them. She was wringing her hands and looking very worried. "Oh you poor dear! How awful! I hope you're suing those terrible people that made that building! It's an affront to God! Here, dear, I've made you a new key. No charge, of course. You poor dear!"

Jan smiled her nicest smile. But Phil could see amusement mixed with annoyance in her eyes. "Thank you so much Mrs. Haily. I appreciate your concern. I think you've met my cousin, Phil?"

Mrs. Haily looked up at him. "Oh, yes. How do you do?"

Phil bowed deeply. "The pleasure is all mine."

Mrs. Haily struggled with the key, trying it upside down, turning it 360 degrees and trying it again. Phil stood directly behind her and held his hands out as though to choke her.

Jan's eyes got big and she slapped her hand over her mouth and vibrated violently.

Finally, unable to take it any longer, Phil placed his hand gently on the old lady's shoulder. "Allow me, maam."

She hesitated, then handed the key over and wrung her hands again.

Phil flung the door open wide and gestured grandly to Jan. "After you!"

Head held high, Jan wheeled into the room. Phil gave a last low bow to Mrs. Haily. "Madam, you have been MOST helpful! I thank you more than I can say."

But Mrs. Haily was hardly listening. Instead, she was craining her neck see into the apartment. Phil picked up ozzy. "And now, if you excuse me, I have to power my nose." With that, he gently closed the door.


The telephoto lens stared blankly at the bottoms of a set of letter boxes. A finger ran down a list of names and stopped at one. It didn't press the call button though. Instead the camera turned toward the street.


DAmn camera. Wonder what size lens he is using?


The Git N' Spit is next to that korean pretzel place, Kwon's Tie Dough.




"Yeah, I know I haven't been answering my e-mail. The hotel phone line won't hold a connection. The copy shop down the street won't let me use their internet connection. ... No, I can't come back yet. There's still things to do here. ... Lots of things. I want to look for another black box to get some more data. ... No. ... Not yet."

Phil put one hand over the telephone mouthpeice, crossed his eyes, stuck out his tongue, and made choking noises at Jan. She quickly covered her mouth, but not before some Chinese noodles fell out of her mouth and into her lap.

Phil suddenly became serious. "What do you mean 'upload the files?' I did that the first day I was here! They're in my home directory under 'crunch'. ... OK, I'll do it again, but this really bugs me. Do me a favor and ask Brian to go through the backups and try to find them. It was right there, I swear. ... Yeah, I'll do it again. ... Look, I know this trip is costing a lot of money. I'm as upset about the stolen equipment as you are." Phil pantomined laughing and slapping his thigh.

"But I've got good news for you. I found out I have a cousin right here in town. I'm crashing at her place for the rest of my stay. I've already moved out of my hotel. ... Yeah, and get this. She has a friggin T1 line, right in her apartment! No shit! ... I dunno man, either she's loaded, or she's sleeping with the installer." Phil ducked just in time to avoid incoming chop sticks. Jan mouthed, "You'll get yours."

"Uh huh. ... You do that. ... OK, I'll get you a detailed report by morning. Honest injun. OK, you too. ... Yeah. ... Bye."

Phil hung up and retrieved his chop sticks. "He sure became more agreeable when he found out he wasn't footing a hotel bill any more. Cheap bastard."

Jan gave him a skeptical look. "Is he really clueless enough to believe that you're staying with a cousin while you look for another box?"

Phil spread his arms. "Hey, I didn't lie! I said that I WANTED to look for another box. And I DO. I'm just not going to. And besides, he doesn't care what I do so long as he can report progress in his weekly staff meeting and he doesn't go over budget. Idiot."

Jan shook her head. Her "boss", if you could call him that, was also an engineer with a full plate of development work. There wasn't time at VROOM for stupid political games. She grinned. "Hey, if you miss the cracking of the whip, I can always oblidge."

Phil instantly thought of the vinyl bra and turned scarlet. Jan mentally kicked herself. No wonder she didn't have any close friends - she always pushed too hard. Time to change the subject. "So, where were we? A bunch of TCP connections with a control console that doesn't exist. We were going to filter packets to see what was going on."

Phil's face brightened. "I'll hook up ozzy."


The telephoto lens sprang to life, taking 15 exposures in rapid succession. The blinds were half-closed, but by bobbing up and down and sideways, a digital composite should give a reasonable view.


4:00 am, and they're still at it. A software geek never sleeps. And time is running low - it may already be too late. If they don't want to sleep, so be it.

The wheelchair is in front of the window now. Next time it moves, there should be a few seconds.

The telescopic sight swung into place.


Jan put the can of Jolt on the desk. "Damn this stuff. I've got to pee again."

Phil looked up from a stack of printouts. "You want help?"

Jan winced. "You wish. No, there are some things a man just has to do by himself."

Phil got up to take her place in front of the computer. Suddenly, the window behind the computer shattered. There was a rapid succession of loud thumps and the computer was thrown off the table and crashed in the middle of the floor.

Phil stood there with his mouth open; Jan spun around. "What the ... what happened? Did a bird fly through the window?"

Phil took a tentative step toward the computer. "A bird?" He bent down and looked at the case. "OH SHIT! JAN, GET AWAY FROM THE WINDOW!!!"

Jan started backing away. "What? WHAT???"

"THEY SHOT OZZY!" Phil crawled on his hands and knees to Jan. "SHOT! WITH BULLETS!" He grabbed the foot rests and pushed Jan into the bathroom.

Crawling on his belly, Phil managed to get a chair jammed under the apartment's door knob, and he called the cops. When he got back to the bathroom, the door was closed and locked. "Jan! It's me! Let me in."

"In a minute..."

It was more like 5 minutes before the door clicked open. "Sorry, I really did have to pee."


When the cops finally arrived 20 minutes later, Phil and Jan were huddled in the bathroom, listening for any sign of an intruder. Phil had actually gotten up the courage to hold her hands. Actually, it was as much terror as desire that induced him to do it, but he couldn't help being pleased that she seemed agreeable. He was trying to figure out a graceful way to segue from a terrorist attack to kissing when a knock came on the door. "Police!"

This time, Phil gave the police his undivided attention.

After the initial walk through the bedroom, one cop stayed to examine the window and the computer. The other sat down with Phil and Jan at the kitchen table. Jan gestured to a white container half-full of spicy beef with green and red peppers. "Hungry?" she asked with a feeble grin.

The cop looked at the container like it contained live snakes. "Uh, no thanks. I just ate."

Phil started in. "We think we know why they did this."

The cop's eyebrows raised a notch. "'They'?"

Phil stammered. "He. Or She. I don't know who. But we think we know why." The cop nodded him on.

"I work for Envirospace, the company that built the building downtown that collapsed." Phil outlined his mission. "My partner here and me, we have strong reason to believe that the building collapsed because of sabotage."

The cop raised his eyebrows again and turned to Jan. "Partner? Do you work for environment space too?"

"Envirospace," corrected Jan. "No, I don't. I work for VROOM. Or I did until the building collapsed. That's how I lost my legs. Not from working for VROOM, I'm a programmer there. Was one, before the building..."

"Maam, please. The shooting."

"Sorry. I'm a programmer, and I've been helping Phil track down the cause of the building's collapse. It looks like it was intentional. We were analyzing the data on ozzy ... my computer - the one that got shot up. We think that whoever sabotaged the building knew we were getting close to figuring out how it happened, so he tried to destroy the evidence by shooting ozzy. My computer."

A cop called from the bed room. "Open window across the street. Could be the one. I'll get someone over there."

Phil spoke up. "I'm not sure he was trying to kill either one of us. Either that or we are the luckiest people alive. Jan had just left the computer and I was just about to sit down in front of it when the shots came in."

The cop held out his hand to silence Phil. "What about the evidence of sabotage. Is it lost now that your computer is destroyed?"

Jan smiled. "No way. At about midnight we started to suspect sabotage, so we copied all the data onto the internet. It's now sitting on seven different computers sprinkled around the world."

Phil joined in excitedly. "Yeah, and I think they hacked into the computers at the office and erased the files I had saved before. OH MY GOD! I almost forgot the burglery! Two days ago ... was it two days?" Phil looked to Jan, who only shrugged. "I don't remember! Not yesterday - I think two days ago. Somebody broke into my hotel room and ransacked it. I had the cops ... uh, police out then. You can check the report. They stole a bunch of equipment I had brought to analyze the data. I bet it was the same guy! Or girl. Or whatever."

The cop jotted down some notes. "You say you have evidence of sabotage. What kind of evidence is it."

The cop instantly regretted the question. Jan and Phil started describing all about TCP connections, maintenance ports, loopbacks, simulated earthquakes, and God knows what else. And this time he couldn't shut them up until another cop came into the apartment. "Looks like gang activity. Latins. Lots of graffitti, and these." He held up a plastic bag containing spent shells.

The first cop examined the shells. "They aren't messing around these days, are they. Well, folks, we'll be out of your hair pretty soon. We'll need to get a fuller statement tomorrow. I've got to file a preliminary report." He walked briskly out the door.

Phil turned to Jan. "You think he got any of it?" Jan snorted. "Yeah, right. And computers will never need more than 640K of memory."


Heh. Sabotage? Hmmm.


There was a crash and a scream.

Phil tumbled off of the sofa . "What??? What's wrong???" He groped his way with his eyes mostly closed.

Jan took the side of her hand out of her mouth long enough to say, "Oh, nothing! The world's biggest klutz just got klutzier."

Phil finally made it to his feet with his eyes mostly open. Jan was in the kitchen in her wheelchair. She was wearing a cotton nightgown - an unflattering one, thought Phil - and her hair was a tangled mess. Phil felt himself fall even deeper in love.

In front of her, a frying pan was laying on the floor surrounded by steaming scrambled eggs. "Oh, Jan..."

"Oh Jan nothing! I've got to learn to take care of myself, but I can't even see high enough to cook anymore!" Tears of frustration formed in her eyes.

Phil dumped a paper towel full of egg into the garbage. He saw that the can was packed with TV dinner trays. He also saw that the stovetop was the cleanest surface in the apartment. "When was the last time you cooked?"

Jan was indignant. "I cook!"

"Uh huh. Answer the question. When was the last time. And TV dinners don't count."

"That's not the point!"

Now it was Phil's turn to flair. "Yes it is! Sure there's lots of things you can't do now, although probably fewer than either of us suspect. But you should be more concerned about the ways that this will change the life you WERE living, not the life you MIGHT have lived! I've never been a big one on pity, goddamit, either my own or somebody else's. Go ahead and gripe about real problems - you have plenty of those now - there's no need to dream up new ones!"

Jan's eyes darkened dangerously. "Not a big one on pity? Then why the hell are you here?"

"BECAUSE I LOVE YOU, GODDAMIT!" Phil instantly covered his mouth with his hand and gave a muffled "shit." He wasn't ready to say that - might never have been ready, at least not until he was sure that she loved him too. What a doofus. He might as well start packing again; will start packing as soon as she starts laughing. Which should be any second now.

Jan turned her chair to face him as he stared at his shoes, his face red and burning. "You mean that?"

A pause, then a nod.

She looked down at her legs. "Then you're a fool."

No laughter. Just a bit more self-pity. Did that mean she was at least willing to consider it? "Most people in love are." Yeah, right, like he was the big expert in such matters.

He came to her and knelt down. She continued to look at her lap. What the hell. Go for broke. "So, what do I do now? Ask you to go steady?"

Jan couldn't help a snort of laughter.

"Hey! I haven't had much experience at this! How about, 'you wanna be my girl friend? Then I'll be your boy friend.' Doesn't that sound just as dorky?"

Jan gave a half-grin. "No worse than 'significant other.'"

"Isn't that what gays and lesbians use?"

"No, they say something like, 'life companion' or something."

"Life companion. I like that. I tell you what. We'll say that we're gay, but I'm a lesbian trapped in a man's body. Unless you want to be a gay man trapped in a woman's body."

"Lets go with the second one. I do feel rather trapped in it at the moment."

Phil got serious. "You mean it? Not about being trapped, but about liking me? A lot?"

Jan shook her head, but said, "I think so. You've got to understand that I'm sort of mixed up right now. I mean, shit, I almost die, I meet a computer geek who moves in with me, somebody shoots at us, and now you're telling me that you love me. What is that? Four big events in as many days?"

Phil reached out and grasped Jan's hand. Jan winced. "Ouch! I really did burn myself."

Phil stood up. "Let's get some cold water on it."


HAH! "Should I ask you to go steady now?" Heh!


I have no idea how I would go about hooking up with a woman if something were to happen to Karen. How do you go from that semi-flirty, good- humored office banter to, "Hey, I think I might be in love with you."? I imagine that geeks like me have an especially hard time. I could see doing it like Phil - blurting out something totally inappropriate waaaaay too early in a relationship. Fortunately, she's a geek too - too much of an engineer to put much stock in "appropriate behavior".

But, I digress.


Women rule. Flirting with them is so much fun.


Women are just so damn cool! I like the way they think (usually), they way they look (almost always), the way they move. I like their sense of humor, their mannars (usually).

Naturally, there's a continuum, with the low end being pretty damn awful. But compared to men, the women continuum is WAAAAAY shifted toward the cool.

The only thing men tend to have more of is self-confidence.


heh. Don't meet arrogant women too often.


There's a *HUGE* difference between being arrogant and being self confident. I've seen many arrogant women who still spend hours and hours (not to mention dollars and dollars) to make themselves look as much as possible like the American ideal of beauty. That doesn't strike me as being self-confident.

In fact, in my experience, the outward manifestations of arrogance are usually the ravings of a very insecure person trying to elevate himself by pushing others down. Truely self-confident people have no need for extreme arrogance.


"Ho, hwum weo go fo rufuh ovy?"

Phil laughed. "What?"

Jan finished chewing her burrito. "When are we going to replace ozzy?"

"Well, your insurance should take care of it, but that could take forever. Your workman's comp claim will take a while to clear, so I don't want you to dip into savings yet. Since Envirospace's computer was stolen from the hotel, I'm going to try to get my boss to authorize a replacement. Then I'll just charge it. I should call him now, actually. It's about 4:30 on the west coast; he'll be leaving the office soon. I'm surprised that I didn't get an e-mail from him already about the sabotage and the shooting."

Jan nodded. "What's next on the sabotage front?"

"I think we've wrung about all we can from the data. I really am tempted to look for another black box, but without the locator it would be almost impossible. I guess at this point I make a formal write-up of our findings. Format the packet traces, map out the sensor's memory, and tie it all together. ... I'm worried about one thing though."

Jan grinned. "Just ONE thing?"

"About the report. You did half the work; I would like you to get half the credit. But technically you're not supposed to have seen any of it. I'm sure it's all proprietary information."

Jan waved her hand. "Screw the credit. I don't care if some big cheese somewhere knows my name. They all consider us propeller heads to be interchangeable parts anyway. I know what I'm good at, and that's enough. You know it too; that's icing on the top. Leave me out of it."

"Hokay. It sure will make things less complicated.

The phone rang and Jan answered. "Hello?"

"Ms. Thompson?"


"Is there a Phil Sanderson there?"

Jan looked at Phil shoveling rice in his mouth. "Yes... Who may I say is calling?"

"Duffy Toler."

Jan covered the mouthpiece. "It's Duffy Toler?"

Phil got up, nodding. "Boss man dude."

"Duffy! I was just getting ready to call you!"

"You really fucked yourself this time, Sanderson."

Phil's eyebrows went up. "What?"

"You prima donnas make me sick! I gotta tell you, canning your ass is the best thing that's happened to me all month. There'll be a courier there within the hour to collect all Envirospace property. If you resist, we'll get a court order. Hell, since you're no longer an employee, we could charge you with grand larceny."

Phil's mouth opened and closed several times before he could manage, "What are you talking about???"

"Thought that you and your 'cousin' could cash in big, eh? 'The accident victim and the whistle blower.' How convenient. What kind of fools do you think we are? Didn't you think we would check with the cops about your 'assassination attempt'? I think you PAID the gang to shoot out the window! But the big brass here just wants the whole thing over and done with. They're even letting you keep your plane ticket back, which is a hell of a lot more than I would do!" The line went dead.

Phil continued to hold the phone, his face pale. Jan came over and whispered, "What's wrong?"

Slowly Phil put the phone down. "I'm fired. They fired me."


"They don't believe me. They think I ... we ... are trying to scam them somehow."

Jan was incredulous. "Scam them? How???"

"I don't know." He sat down shakily and rubbed his temples. "But it's clear that Toler is off his rocker. It's too late today, but I'm going to call the director tomorrow and see what this is all about."

Jan wheeled over and gently put her arms around him. Phil was astounded. How did women have this power over him? A second ago, the world seemed to be ending. Now, as he leaned his head against her shoulder, he felt great!


HAHA! It's you boss Duffy! "It's clear that Toler is off his rocker." Heh!


That'll teach him to point out my spelling errors.


For three depressing days, Phil and Jan moped around the apartment, competing for use of Jan's laptop to use the internet. The courior had come and taken the black boxes, the sensor, the company's laptop, and Phil's work ID. He had also asked for any backup tapes, but there weren't any. The following day Duffy called back and warned Phil that if he was hiding any backups that his ass would be in court.

There hadn't been any more moments of closeness between them during those three days, not even very much talk. Mostly just eating, sleeping, and surfing. Phil was even thinking of going home, convinced that Jan had gotten over being 'in like' with him. Then, one afternoon shortly after they got up, Jan was going through the mail when she shouted, "OH MY GOD!"

Phil came running. "What??? What's wrong???"

"I'm RICH!" Jan thrust a check under Phil's nose. It was for $200,000. As Phil counted the zeros a second time, Jan looked over the accompanying letter. She let out a loud laugh.

Phil was impatient. "Come on, tell me what it is!"

Jan wiped her face. "It's some kind of insurance policy that I didn't even know I had. Through work. Look at this - 'accidental death and dismembermemt'. It pays $100,000 per limb that you lose while at work. Isn't that a scream???"

Phil's eyes got big. "COOL! You want me to cut off an arm while we're at it?"

Jan hit him with the letter. "Not while I'm off duty, you dope!"

Phil felt good for the first time since he got fired. He decided to run with it. "Come on, babe, we're gonna go on a little spending spree. First, we're getting you new wheels. Then we're getting you a new computer. Then we're getting a maid in here." He looked around. The mess was even getting to his jaded eyes.

Jan had a stupid grin on her face. "What do you mean 'new wheels?'"

"That chair of yours! Actually, it's the hospital's. It's all wrong. You need one of those low-slung jobs that handles like a cat. I think you can get them turbo-charged."

Jan shook her head. "No motor. At least not yet. I'm going to get back in shape if it kills me." She suddenly turned serious. "And besides, it seems like a lot of money all at once, but it's gotta last for a while."

Phil headed for the shower. "I've been thinking about that. We've been a couple of speed bumps since this whole thing blew up. But we're both kick-ass engineers. It doesn't make sense. There's all kinds of ways we can make money."

Over the hiss of the shower, Jan called, "Like what?"

"To start with, you've got a friggin T1 line! That check is the seed money we need - we're going to set up a for-profit web site. I thought about starting with porno..."

Jan gave a hoot. Phil stuck his head around the shower curtain. "Don't laught! Those things pull in a boat-load of money. Plus, I figure that between the two of us, we could pull in both the geeky and the kinky sets."

Jan looked for something to throw as Phil ducked back behind the curtain. "But I decided that even *we* would get tired of wild sex after a while, so I've come up with some more ideas." Phil turned off the water and pulled a towel behind the curtain. "I'll tell you them on our way to the wheelchair dealer. Now get dressed."

Jan zoomed to her bedroom.


Zoom! Whammo. The storyline could go ANYWHERE from here.


It was black with just a bit of chrome trim, and very tubular looking. The tops of the drive wheels tilted inward. The seat was low, reclined, and in back of the drive wheels. There were two drive rims - one almost the diameter of the drive wheel for power, the other smaller for speed. Both were wrapped in black leather. Composite carbon fiber tubing resulted in a total weight of just over 9 lbs.

It also cost $8300.

The salesman was a double amputee also, and had been using one for 8 months. "It's fast, it handles tight, and it scares the hell out of the little old ladies. Especially when I wear my Harley jacket. Originally, it was just for racing, but I liked it so much I wanted it for everyday too. As it is, it's pretty impractical - too long to maneuver in tight spaces like cubicles, too low to reach a desk or a table. So me and a buddy worked with the manufacturer and had some major mods put on. Watch."

He pumped a long lever three times. The wheels un-tilted, the seat came more upright and over the drive wheels, and the back wheels pulled in. "Now it has almost the same footprint as a regular chair. But most of the time..." He twisted the lever and the chair slowly dropped back into position. "Microhydralics. The total package more than doubled the weight of the original racer, so you won't be winning any championships with it. True racers have one of each."

The salesman went to a display case. "You can also get some nice options. Here's a combination laptop holder and cellular phone/modem. Full Internet connectivity, anywhere in the world. Holds the laptop at an optimal typing and viewing angle."

Phil was almost jumping up and down. "Oh man, can I try it?"

The salesman smiled. "Sorry. You've got a slight disability when it comes to this machine. You've got legs." Phil looked and saw that there really wasn't anyplace for them. "I know one racing fanatic who was paralyzed from the waist down. When he saw this racer, he actually had his legs amputated just so he could use it. Last year he won his regionals and within three years he's expected to place well in the nationals."

Phil took one look at Jan and nodded. "Don't bother to wrap it."


It was almost dark when they left the store, but the evening was warm and they were only about 8 miles from the apartment. They decided to forgo the taxi. Phil's walk turned out to be brisker than he had anticipated; Jan kept inching up the pace. When Phil complained of getting out of breath, Jan beamed. "Hey, it's hard to go slow in this thing!"

Phil puffed. "You're not carrying ozzy2! I tell you what, I'll treat for ice cream."

They ate their cones in the gay district, trying to decide which of the women were men. "Definitely that one." said Jan.

"With a chest like that? You're crazy!"

Jan shook her head. "Ignore the boobs. Look at the wrists. Those are a man's wrists."

They started on their way back. Jan promised to go slower this time. "So, anyway, what's this great money making scam you've dreamed up."

"Virtual communities."

"Uh, Phil, I've got bad news. Those have been around for a while."

"Not like these. Look, how many net friends do you keep in touch with? Include the occasionals."

Jan shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe 50."

"Same here. And I'll bet that most of them are pretty smart."

"Yeah. So?"

"Let's take the computer experts. We entice them to join a computer support community that we create. They get in for free, and we also give them a few other perks. Then we charge a low quarterly fee for non-experts to join. They get to talk about their problems and the experts help them solve them."

Jan sighed. "Phil, what kind of newbie are you? Usenet has been around for decades, and there's no monthly fee for that."

"Usenet is the biggest reason for it! Tell me, how many newsgroups do you keep up on?"


"Of course none. And why is that?"

"Because 99% of the participants are college students or office workers, neither of which have enough of a clue to be worth my time."

"In other words, the signal to noise ratio is too low."

Jan nodded. "That's a good way to put it."

Phil grinned. "Our service, the thing we charge for, is keeping the signal to noise ratio HIGH! AOL has been doing this for a long time - when you get right down to it, that's really what they sell. Their chat areas and boards are hosted by AOL-paid experts who spend their time ministering to the unwashed masses. But our market ISN'T the unwashed masses! It's the sysops, the hardware techs, the network admins, and especially the customer support techs. Low-level computer professionals. AOL gets guys like that to host their help boards. But where do THEY turn for help?"

Jan raised her eyebrows. "Us?"

"And 20 or 30 of our expert friends."

Jan thought. "Problem. There are usenet groups that started out being just that. But as soon as the lusers found out about them, they piled in and drove the signal to noise ratio into the dirt. What's to prevent that from happening to us?"

Phil actually started skipping, and it was Jan's turn to speed up. "Two things! First, our fee will keep out most of the rif raf. Even a small fee will discourage the lusers. Second, we have a multi-level system. The lowest level is free for the lusers and is hosted by the low-level computer professionals. When the professionals prove their worth by helping their fellows, they're invited into level 2 - the level we charge for - which is hosted by our experts. If they prove themselves to be experts, they're invited to level 3 which is free again, so long as they agree to help out the level 2 people. We also give them virtual machine with full privilege. THAT'S how we attract and keep the experts. Wouldn't you join an expert's virtual community if you knew that it really was for experts, you got your own virtual machine with a T1, and all you had to do in return is help out people who DO actually have a clue?"

Jan smiled. "Yeah, I think I would. But would the level two people be willing to pay?"

Phil smacked his fist into his palm. "Damn straight they would. Look how much money they flush down the toilet attending worthless classes and hiring brain-dead consultants! And this thing wouldn't be limited just to computer experts! Imagine a three-level pet-oriented community. Owners at level 1, enthusiasts at level 2, vets at level 3. How about child rearing? How about law advice? I think we should stay away from medical - too risky. But how about skin and hair care?"

Jan laughed. "I would host that one, fer sher!"

Phil became serious. "What do people gripe about the most about computers-based support sites? They complain that they can't get to a human being. Our site is exactly the opposite. The general public gets to talk to level 2 people for free. They'll flock. The level 2 people talk to the level 3. And the level 3 talk to each other."

Jan thought. "One problem I can see - what if it becomes too successful? For example, what if there get to be too many level 2 people for our level 3s to handle?"

"We price according to supply and demand. When the demand starts to push on the supply, the price goes up and controls the demand. Plus we might consider a little profit-sharing among the level 3s to bring more in."

Jan smiled. "My little capitalist. What about the freeloaders? They will DEFINITELY overwhelm the level 2 hosts."

"Limited membership. You get a month free. At the end, you have to renew. If there's a waiting list, you get to the end of the line."

"Won't some of the smarter ones figure out that they can just obtain multiple memberships?"

"We'll force them to have a valid e-mail address. The ones who are smart enough to create multiple hotmail accounts are probably smart enough to be level 2 people anyway. We solve the hacker problem by promoting them."

Jan shook her head. "You've really thought this through, haven't you?"

"I've been toying with the idea for almost 5 years. But I've always had a job to suck up my time, and I've lacked the seed money to get a fast enough internet presence. And I've lacked a partner - I just don't have what it takes to launch a business all alone."

Jan sighed. "Well then, I guess I have a duty to perform ... partner."

Phil grinned. "It's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it."


Phil was a little disappointed that his net friends weren't as eager as he thought they would be to join the project. He had to tug a lot harder on their sympathy that he wanted to. Most of them already worked so hard at their jobs that they didn't have much time left to play. But, although it started somewhat slowly, it did start. Favors were called in, leaders were picked, and feelers sent out by word-of-electron to sysops, support techs, and the like. As Phil had predicted, they were eager to join. But at $25 a quarter, he realized that it would be a while before they even paid for the T1. So, reluctantly, Phil introduced advertising at the freebie level.

But, as surely as the site was slowly taking shape, Phil was at a loss on how to make progress on his love life.

He wanted Jan to love him so much, he could hardly think of anything else (except when he buried himself in a computer problem). He wanted her to ache when she looked at him. Wanted her to touch him. Touch his face, his neck, his arms, and chest. He wanted her to crave his touch, to feel electricity at his gentle caress.

Naturally, all his fantasies included love-making, but he knew that in reality, he would be in Heaven if she would only put her palm on his cheek.

The most frustrating thing of all - the thing that made him hate himself - was the knowledge that any normal man would progress to that point effortlessly. He could imagine what a normal guy would say. "Just take her hand, dammit! Tomorrow afternoon over breakfast, catch her eye and hold it for a second too long, then reach out and take her hand. Tell her you love how soft it is. Rub it on your own goddam cheek and kiss each fingertip. Don't agonize, just fucking DO IT!"

But agonize he did.


Phil was looking over the posts of a promising level 2, trying to decide if she would make a good level 3 yet, when Jan called from the other room. "Phil, could you come here?"

"Sure thing." He walked into the living room. Jan was on the sofa with the TV on. Some old black-and-white movie was on. "What's up?"

"I want somebody to watch TV with." She patted a spot on the sofa behind her. The TV was off to the side, so she faced away from the spot.

Phil sat down, leaned forward a bit, and started watching. It was some kind of WWII flick. He was trying to figure out what was going on, but it was damn distracting to be this close to Jan. The urge to touch her brought his hand up to her back twice, but he managed control himself. Damn! What would a normal guy do here? Casually put his arm on the back of the sofa? Wasn't that what teenagers did in movie theaters? He didn't want to be a dork, but he HAD to be closer. After two more false starts, he slid his arm along the top of the sofa beside her.

She didn't appear to notice.

Well, was that was either a success because she didn't tell him to stop, or a failure because she didn't turn and kiss him. He tried to remember how he had gotten to the kissing stage with his first girlfriend, but his mind drew a blank. He couldn't even picture her.

So, now what? If they were sitting side-by-side, he could let his hand drape casually onto her shoulder. But he was behind her. A casual drape would put his hand smack on her breast. He didn't think that would be a good idea. Actually, bulge in his pants told him that it would be a FANTASTIC idea.

He was considering telling her that she looked tense and would she like a shoulder rub, when she shifted her body back a little and put her head on his shoulder.

Oh, God. His stomach did a flip-flop and a wave of heat surged through his body. She was probably just trying to get comfortable; maybe she even fell. Without legs, it must be hard to keep one's balance. But that was stupid! If she had fallen, she would pull herself back up. Her hands were in her lap, he should cradle her arms in his. He told his arms to move, but this time they resisted. He wanted to shout at his arms to make up their goddamn minds.

He actually had to give his body a little jerk to get his arms to obey, and even then, the last millimeter as his arms hovered close to her arms posed a barrier that took supreme effort to cross. And then he was there. Holding her lightly, bracing himself for her to squirm out of his grasp.

Instead, she grasped his hands and pulled his arms tighter.

And he was in Heaven.


Phil's bliss didn't last long. The 11:00 news came on, and mention of Envirospace got their attention. The company was going on the auction block, and stockholders were howling. A company spokesman had said that the accident was caused by several design flaws, and that Envirospace would do the best it could to compensate the victims or their survivors. Orders for all new buildings were canceled, and owners of existing buildings had all filed lawsuits. Corporate assets were frozen pending resolution of all outstanding claims.

However, instead of filing for reorganization and protection from creditors, the Envirospace board had voted to liquidate the company and distribute the proceeds to all claimants according to priority. That meant the victims and their families would get first crack, which would leave basically nothing for creditors and stock holders. The stockholders wanted to nail the directors to the wall, but the directors claimed that it was their only choice. "Reorganization won't help if nobody wants to buy our products."

All employees were dismissed effective immediately. There would be allowed to enter the facilities only under escort to collect any personal belongings. Even their last paychecks were in doubt.

About 5 minutes later, the phone started to ring.


Phil sat morosely at the table. Jan rubbed his arm. "Phil, we're not even breaking even for the cost of the T1 yet. We can't pay anybody anything."

"They're my friends. I gotta do something to help them out."

"Even Toler? He had a lot of nerve calling."

Phil shook his head. "Oh, he's OK. He just can't control his rage sometimes. His boss was chewing on his ass and told him to fire me. Duffy was pissed and took it out on me. He's a character, OK? Once you get used to him, he's cool."

"If you say so..."

Jan considered. Then she got the beginnings of a smile. "How many of them are joining our site?"

"A little over 30, mostly level 2's. I'm giving them a couple of months free so they can network. Why?"

Jan started for the bedroom. Phil turned to her. "HEY, don't stop rubbing my arm! I liked that!"

Jan smiled. "You're not the only little capitalist around here."

Phil started to follow but Jan turned him back. "You get some food on the table." She shut the door.

Phil went to the fridge and tried to decide which leftover to warm up. Since the cleaning lady came, he wasn't afraid to look inside the containers any more. But nothing looked interesting, so he picked up the phone. Something Duffy had told him didn't make sense.

Duffy picked up on the 7th ring. "Don't you ever sleep, Sanderson? It's 1:00 AM."

Phil winced. He hated caller ID. "It's like running. When you hit the wall, it's all euphoria."

"Well, if you're calling to gloat, don't bother."

"Duffy, you can believe me or not. I don't care. But here's something that you might care about. You know Jack? The VP who told you to fire me?"

"Yeah. So?"

"He always used to brag about the great stock market moves that he always made. But he always drove a used car, never moved into a big house, never wore expensive clothes. Until yesterday. Then he shows up with a new BMW and a Rolex. Last night, the company folds."

"He probably had a big golden parachute."

"Not when the assets are tied up in litigation. Listen, I just want to know what broker he went through."

"Merrill Lynch. Why? You got a bunch of dough to invest?"

Phil laughed. "Not hardly. Look, no hard feelings. I'll call if something turns up."

Duffy harrumphed and hung up.

Phil went on-line and entered the level 2 board. Conversation was slow, but it was moving. He entered a flash message:

> I'm looking for somebody working at Merrill Lynch on the west coast.
> Know anybody?

Then he went back to the fridge, hoping that there would be something new there.


"Jan? It's 3am and I'm getting tired. I left some food on the table - I think it's Chinese."

"Wait." After a moment the door opened. "I'm not done yet, but check it out." They went over to ozzy2. She had created secondary boards for the level 1, 2, and 3 main boards. Secondary job boards.

Phil frowned. "Job boards are never any good. Head hunters just wallpaper them with job leads, 90% of which are no good."

Jan smiled. "Not this time. It's driven by the job seekers; head hunters can't post. Job ads will be shot on sight. Head hunters get in level 1 for free, but only see level 1 job seekers. Head hunters who prove their worth are invited to level 2. They pay. The really good head hunters are invited to level 3. But they pay even more. It's also double-blind so people can shop for jobs securely."

Phil nodded. "Driven by the job seekers. I like it."

Jan continued. "Everybody has a head hunter that they like. We'll ask the level 3 people for some names and invite them to join. Your friends benefit, we make more money ... hell, we might even hit break-even this month. It's not quite ready yet though. Needs another couple of hours."

Phil turned. "I'll leave you to it then."

"No you won't."

Phil looked back as Jan pumped her seat to upright. Phil could see that the top two buttons of her shirt were undone. A bit of black lace with red trim was peeking out. Phil almost fainted.

She smiled as she wheeled up to the bed. "It can wait till morning."


Jan's eyes grew wide. "I don't believe it..." she breathed.

Phil's face radiated heat as he looked around the room for a mouse hole to crawl into.

Jan put her hands on her hips. "Let me get this straight. You're madly in love with a girl, you actually move into her apartment, you've been stopping at the Git-n-Spit at least twice a week, and you don't have any condoms?"

Phil couldn't find any mouse holes, so he pulled the sheet up over his head. He would be safe in his fort.

Jan hit him with a pillow, but the fortress walls thwarted the barbarian. "What were you thinking???"

Phil tried to speak, couldn't, tried again. "Jan, until ten minutes ago, this was only an unattainable dream. Totally impossible. My buying a condom would be like buying one lottery ticket for a 200 million dollar pot. What's the point?""

Jan shook her head, smiling. "Maybe you should buy a lottery ticket every once in a while."

"You don't know how much I've longed for you to just hold my hand! How was I to know that I would draw an 'advance to go' card?"

"Phil, I'm 32 years old. You can't be much younger. I don't have the time or the patience for that teenage courting crap." She paused. "Wait a minute. You ... you're a virgin, aren't you?"

Phil retreated deeper into the dungeon of his fort.

"I've never had one of those before. This could be fun!" She burrowed into the sheets and broke through his primary line of defense. The walls have been breeched! Phil hoped that they took prisoners, but he doubted they did.

He started to reach for her. "But what about..."

Jan grabbed his wrists and pinned them down. "Oh, no you don't. I'm not risking getting pregnant over your blunder. First thing tomorrow, you're stocking up. But there's a few things we can do in the mean time..."


Subject: Re: Merrill Lynch

> Hey Phil, great site!!!  I work for Merrill.  Whatcha need?
> Carl

Thanks for answering.  I'm glad you like the site.  I need a favor.

A couple of weeks ago, June 3 to be exact, I would like to know if there
was any activity with Envirospace stock, especially before 10:00 AM.
Also, I've got a free login for your site: 'ozwiz'.  Any chance you
could let me into the 'members only' area?  Maybe trade for free level-2



Subject: Re: Merrill Lynch

> June 3 was when their building collapsed in Chicago, right?  June 2
> saw the price rise some.  June 3, from the opening bell till about 10:30
> AM there was some selling pressure which brought the price down a bit.
> When the news hit the floor at 10:43, the price went through the floor.
> I've got an hourly chart as attachment 1.  Is that what you need?

Carl, you're a gem!  Exactly what I need.

> Don't worry about the free membership on our site.  The brokers give
> them away all the time.  I'm hope it helps you as much as your site has
> helped me.

You're tops, man.  I pushed your billing date back a month, just coz.


Jan was doing some routine maintenance on ozzy2. Phil used her laptop to log into the Merrill Lynch site. The site asked for a cookie. Phil examined the cookie, and smiled. It was only his user name and a session ID. No password. He entered the members only area and entered the chat area. Good, it had a search function. He searched for Envirospace. There was a huge volume on June 3, but only one on Jan 2. He brought that one up.

  I saw a press release yesterday that Envirospace was in negotiation
  with China for some big buildings.  I'm buying.

Phil frowned. He didn't remember any press releases (they were usually broadcast to employees via e-mail). And Envirospace was *perpetually* negotiating with China. Hardly news.

He went back to and entered another flash.

> I'm looking for somebody working for a newspaper.  Especially a
> financial.  Thanks.

Then he edited his cookie file and changed his username to Bigspender, and he re-entered the Merrill site.

The site greeted him as "Jack".

Damn! Hacking was fun even when it was too easy!

Bring up Jack's balance. Zero. Bring up his transaction history for June 3.


Later that evening, three newspapers claimed they couldn't find any press releases from Envirospace for the month of May or June.

The laser printer got a workout that evening.


Phil examined the wine list and turned to the waiter. "Good sir, a bottle of your best root beer. IBC if you have it."

Jan rolled her eyes. "Diet whatever." She turned to Phil. "So, dinner at the Spuds-n-Suds. Are we celebrating, or are you just trying to get me drunk so you can take advantage of me?"

"I like the second one. But I also need to talk without distraction. I'm pretty sure I know what happened to the Envirospace building. But I'm not sure what to do about it." He took out a stack of printouts. "Jack's the VP at Envirospace who told Duffy to fire me. Look. On the morning of June 3, he sold 300,000 shares of Envirospace stock. 300,000 shares he didn't have. On the afternoon of June 3, he bought 300,000 shares and covered his position. It's a common move in the futures markets but has only recently been possible with equities. He sold short and made a killing when the stock fell. Combine that with the evidence we have of sabotage, and Jack ends up in prison for the rest of his life. Which may not be too long."

Jan whistled. "So go to the cops with it."

"I think the local cops were paid off to chalk ozzy's shooting up to gang activities."

"The FBI then."

Phil rubbed his chin. "Lets just say that I didn't use the most ethical means to get this information. And I'm not supposed to have the black-box data either. If I go forward, I might come out clean, or I might end up as Jack's cell mate. Which might not be so bad, actually."

The waiter came back with their drinks and they ordered steaks.

Jan stared at the printouts. "So this stuff wouldn't hold up in court."

"No, but it's enough for the authorities to get search warrants."

"What about the black boxes. I'm sure Jack had them destroyed, or at least erased."

"There are more in the building rubble, just waiting to be found."

Jan looked up at Phil. "So you think there's enough evidence to nail Jack, but you don't want to get in trouble for getting that evidence."

"That's about it."

Jan stared at the printouts a while longer. Then a hint of a smile started to form. "There's always Usenet."

Phil looked blank. "Huh?"

Jan's smile broadened. "Post it to Usenet as Hacker X. All of it. There are plenty of net.fanatics who would just love to run with something like this. Name names, including yours, saying that you first analyzed the data but Envirospace took it away. But Hacker X managed to snag a copy. You'll get sucked into it, but as a consultant to find and analyze another black box."

Phil thought about it. "I did leave a few footprints. There are a few people out there who know I was digging."

"You gotta take some risks in life."

"I hate taking risks."

Jan gave an evil grin. "You lied about being my cousin just to move in with me." She leaned over and stroked his cheek.


The Tomcat lurched sickeningly to the left as a missile shot by. Damn ECM cut it too damn close this time. The Tomcat faded back to the right, and dove straight down. Jan flipped ECM off and presented a perfect target. Enemy radar lock was almost instant, and her own tactical radar showed two incoming at mach 2 and climbing. Jan pushed the Tomcat to full thrust, peaking at mach 1.5. At 3 seconds to impact, she flipped ECM back on, sent three missiles charging, and told the Tomcat to level out at max G. She lost consciousness as the shrieking carbon fibers strained to obey.

"Slow down, Goddamit! I'm going to lose my dinner!"

Jan laughed and hit the breaks. She loved the long straight-aways.

Phil came huffing up to her and fell into the grass. "I should have known I was in for trouble when you named it Tomcat."

"It's the only time I feel free. I can understand why racing is so seductive. All the rest of the time you feel imprisoned by stairways and curbs. At night I dream of being on the salt flats and just zooming. No destination, no cares. Just the full moon, the wind in my hair, and pumping my arms till they ache."

Phil slowly got to his feet, holding his side. "Well, the moon isn't full, but I think I have the ache part down cold."

Jan reached for his leg. "My poor little biped. Should I get a side-car for you?" She rubbed her hand up the inside of his thigh.

Phil jumped back, his face even redder than before. "Yow! Watch it! That thing's loaded. Lets get home while I can still walk."

When they got home, they didn't start on the Usenet post right away.


It took less than 10 minutes after the post hit 7 select newsgroups that inquiries started coming into Phil brought up the post using a local university's NNTP server and looked it over. Then he tried to trace it, partly to make sure that it wouldn't lead back to him, and also partly because it would be the natural thing for him to do. The path went cold at a Nigerian computer that didn't log IP addresses.

Phil posted a single response on ozzy saying that he had better not talk about it for a few weeks.

That night, Phil slept fitfully. Finally at 7:00 AM, after 4 hours of sleep, he decided to just get up. Jan wouldn't be up till 11:00 or noon, so he went outside to take a long walk.

When Jan got up, she smelled something cooking. Phil was setting the table when she came out. "Hope you like 'em scrambled. They started out over easy. The bacon and orange juice should be better."

She rolled up to the table. "You've been a busy boy this morning. What's the occasion?"

"Just couldn't sleep."

They were half-way through breakfast when the phone rang. It was the New York Daily News. Phil told him that he had better not talk about it for a few weeks. The reporter kept trying to pump information and Phil finally just hung up on him. Less than a minute later, another reporter called. After the fourth call, Jan suggested they change the outgoing message on the machine and just stop answering.

Around 4:00 p.m., another call came in. "Hi. This is Jan. If you're calling for Phil, he says that he had better not talk about it for a few weeks. Go ahead and leave a message, but if we don't already know you, we probably won't return the call."

"This is agent Burkow with the FBI. I need to speak with Phil as soon as possible. My number..."

Phil picked up. "Hi, this is Phil. Sorry about the message, but reporters have been calling all day. I figured that the police would call eventually."

"Are you the Phil Sanderson who was employed by Envirospace?"

"Yes sir."

"Are you aware of an internet message that claims to explain the building disaster?"

"Yes sir, some users of our computer site alerted me to it last night. I've read it."

"I need for you to come down town for a short while to discuss it with us."

Phil was afraid of that. For half the night, he imagined himself locked in a room tied to a chair with some law enforcement thugs taking turns hitting him with a phone book. He knew he wouldn't last long under an intense grilling. He took a deep breath and tried plan A. "I'm sorry sir, but I'm needed here at home. Could you possibly come here to discuss it?"

"Impossible. Please be here at 5:00 this afternoon."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Burkow, I just can't. My fiancee is..." Phil choked. Oh shit shit shit shit shit shit shit, me and my big mouth. Maybe Jan didn't hear. He shot her a glance, and the fire in her eyes told him that she did indeed hear. "... uh ... she was a victim of the accident and I need to be here to take care of her." Phil started to sweat.

Burkow wasn't impressed. "I'm sure your fiancee can take care of herself for a few hours. If you don't cooperate, we'll issue a sopeona."

Phil looked down at the floor. Time to go for broke. He put on his wounded puppy look - a gesture wasted on the phone, but it put him in the right frame of mind. "Mr. Burkow, let me explain..." He then launched into an impassioned speech that he had been practicing most of the day. He explained about Jan's accident, his falling in love, bringing her home from the hospital with strict instructions to take good care of her. He brought up the ozzy shooting and how he was scared to death of gang activity in the area, and he clinched it saying that he might need to use the computers in the apartment to answer some of his questions.

About half-way through, Phil figured he had won. Burkow had tried to cut him short two or three times, but Phil was able to steam roll over him. The guy was too polite to make a good "bad cop". He ended his speech with a whining "please?"

There was a pause. Then, "I'll see what I can do. Don't stray far from the phone."

The instant Phil hung up, Jan pounced. "FIANCEE? First I'm your cousin, now this? What will I be next week, your dear old mom? Phil, you're the worst liar in the universe! Why make things harder than they need to be? What were you thinking???"

Phil hung his head. "Sorry, it sort of slipped out." He dug for something in his pocket and held it out to her.

"SLIPPED OUT??? My God, why did I let myself get mixed up with a pathological liar? What else don't I know about you? No, strike that, it's too easy. Here's a tip for the day, Phil, a pathological liar really shouldn't have a neon sign around his neck that lights up every time he lies. Maybe they have self-help seminars for people like you. 'How to tell lies for fun and profit.' You could be the 'before' case study. You could ... you could ..." She trailed off when she noticed a small brown felt-covered box in Phil's outstretched hand. She eyed it suspiciously. "What's that?"

Phil said nothing; just held it closer. Jan shrank back a little, but reached out and took it. Inside was a gold band with a gold cat on it. The cat's tail was wrapped once around the band, and it's front paws were holding a small diamond. Jan stared, motionless.

After a few seconds of agony, Phil cleared his throat. "It's a tom cat. I've been eyeing it for a week now. Then last night, you told me I should take more risks. I had planned on giving it to you over dinner, but I've been thinking about it so much that it sort of slipped out on the phone." Still no movement out of Jan. Was she trying to figure out a way to let him down gently? Phil turned the puppy gain up to 10 and slowly got down on his knees. He was trying to decide if he should take the ring and try to slip it on her finger.

Jan's arms shot out and wrapped around Phil's neck, pulling his head to her breast. Unfortunately, one of the support tubes on her chair jammed into his chest, a lever probed deeply into his stomach, and his neck was twisted up. He never thought having his head on a woman's breast could be so painful. "oomph ... urf ..." Then Jan was shaking slightly, laughing or crying he wasn't sure. "Uh, Jan..." his voice was choked and muffled. "Jan? Pain? Lots of pain? Pain pain pain?"

Jan let go and brought his face up in her hands. "I'm sorry, Phil. Are you OK?" Tears ran down her face.

Phil's lip trembled a bit. "Can I take this as a definite maybe?"

Jan pulled his face to hers. "Will you shut up?"

Phil figured she meant that figuratively, since their mouths stayed open for a long time.


The phone rang. Phil paused.

"Ignore it."

"Jan, it might be the FBI."

Jan sighed. "If it's a reporter, you're dead meat, bub."

Phil stumbled into the kitchen and waited for the machine to start recording.

"Agent Burkow here. Are you there Sanderson?"

Phil picked up. "Good morning ... uh ... afternoon Mr. Burkow."

"I spoke with my superior. He doesn't trust these kinds of computer posts and he wants to talk to you himself. I can't ask him to come to your place."

Phil sighed. "Any chance we could conference him in on a speaker phone?" He heard a loud breath on the phone.

"Mr. Sanderson, could you tell me what the problem really is?"

What was Phil supposed to say? He was afraid Jan would roll out of his life while he was gone? He was afraid of being strong-armed? He was afraid of telling the truth? He decided to go with partial truth.

"I'm afraid."

Phil heard a sigh. "How about if I promise to keep the gorillas in the hallway? Look Phil ... may I call you Phil?"

"Uh, sure."

"I'm John. I'm supposedly an expert on computer and internet crime. I don't claim to be a guru like you - by the way, I love your site - but I know enough to figure that you're hacker X. And don't bother denying or even accepting it. I'll be honest; I don't give a damn. Even if I could prove it, which I doubt, it won't do me any good to antagonize you right now. My job is to nail the top brass at Envirospace. And I'll need your full cooperation to do it. Not to put to fine a point on it, but anything you might have done is chicken shit."

Phil breathed a sigh of relief, but he forced himself to stay somewhat cautious. And anyway, he really did hate to leave Jan alone. "Can I bring Jan with me?"

John burst out laughing. Finally, "Sure! Why the hell not? Bring the cat and dog while you're at it. But they can't be present during the interview. Tell you what, I'll send a car around to pick you up. 7:00 OK?"

Phil blanched. "In the morning?"

"I was hoping for tonight."

Whew. "Thank you. Sorry for causing so much trouble."

"No trouble" was the mechanical reply. They hung up.

Phil trudged back into the bedroom. Jan was sitting up in bed, wearing only a shimmery green bra, reading an O'Reily book. She looked up and smiled. Phil's stomach flip-flopped. The car wouldn't be there for 45 minutes; plenty of time. Phil rushed the bed and burrowed under the covers.


An hour later, a telephoto lens caught several images of Jan and Phil getting into a car, a fed judging by the antennas. Then a cap covered the lens and it was blind.


"I'm scared," Phil whispered into Jan's ear.

Jan stroked his cheek. "I know. I'll be right here."

Phil went into an office with Burkow and two other suits. Jan rolled across the hall and parked, looking around. The office next door had it's door open, and a young suit was staring at her. She smiled back. "Hi. I'm Jan. Mind if I ask a question?"

He was up in an instant and hurried to her side. "I'm Rich. Those are some wheels."

She grinned. "You aint seen nothing yet." She released the hydraulic valve and the chair lowered into racing position.

The Rich's eyes bugged out. "AWSOME! Looks like a drag racer!"

She looked up at him. Even though her head was almost at knee level, she found that this position made her far more imposing than the upright. "Would it be OK if I used a cellular modem?"

Rich looked blank at her. "What's that?"

"It's a cellular phone for a computer."

He shrugged. "I guess so." He lingered while Jan connected to ozzy2. She checked some stats and some error logs. Then she connected to the webcam in the room. A man was in the room, looking at the equipment, a camera around his neck.

Jan's eyes went wide. She pumped to upright turned to the Rich. "Take a look at this."

He looked curiously at the image, which was updating jerkily. "Cool."

Jan shook her head. "Not cool. This is the inside of my apartment, in my bedroom. And I don't know that man!" She set her laptop to capture every 10th frame.

Rich hurried into his office. "Do you have an answering machine set to screen calls?"

Jan rolled after him. "Yes." She gave him the number. After he dialed it, he yelled for a co-worker to dispatch a car to her apartment.

When the phone rang, the man froze. Jan waited impatiently for the out-going message to play. At the beep, Rich shouted into the phone. "THIS IS THE FBI! YOU ARE UNDER ARREST! THE BUILDING IS SURROUNDED! PUT YOUR HANDS ON THE TABLE!"

The man looked wildly around, then looked out the window. Finally, he took a handgun from his waistband. The last frame that made it across the T1 showed him pointing it right at ozzy2. The image froze.

Jan pounded the side of her chair. "SHIT!!! That's the second time this month!"


Phil was out of the office a half-second after Jan yelled, his feet skidding across the slick linoleum. "WHAT? WHAT?"

Jan was shaking with rage. "Someone shot ozzy again!"

Now Burkow and the suits scrambled out of the office. "Who got shot???"

Jan and Rich competed for the privilege of explaining the whole thing. But of course, Jan won when she played back an even jerkier version of the original video.


The telephoto lens swung wildly. It knocked against the corner of a building, cracking the glass and denting the barrel. After a few minutes, it stopped swinging and just bobbed a bit. A few drops of blood fell on it's sleek black case. Then it was swinging again.


"I'll be safe inside my fort." HAHA!! This is some funny stuff.


Sofa cushions make better forts, but a sheet will do in a pinch.


The webcam was poorly placed to get a good image of the intruder. They got two good partials of the face, both somewhat shadowed, and numerous bits and pieces. Jan FTPed all the images to the FBI's photo lab.

They also had blood.

Ozzy took a single bullet, which had ruined the power switch. However, it was a .22, and the bullet had apparently ricocheted and wounded the intruder. There were were some smears of blood that he had obviously tried to wipe up, and there were two good drops on the floor near the door.

Phil was a lot more impressed with the FBI than he was of the local police. They really did dust for fingerprints. They vacuumed for hair and fibers, and they took scores of photographs. They even found the bullet in the corner.

But the best thing of all was that ozzy LIVED! Jan quickly hot wired the ruined power switch, and the system booted right up. Phil posted an apology for the interruption, and pushed everybody's billing date out a day.

Within 4 hours of the intrusion, the FBI had a digital image of the intruder, full frontal and clear. They had warped Jan's digital images, filtered them, and ran them through a neural network designed to make sense out of human faces. It was startling.

Agent Burkow mused that all they needed now was a photo of Jack.

Phil smiled. "Wait a sec." He tried Envirospace's firewall and was surprised that it was still running. He tried the front-door access password, and low and behold, he got in. The top brass was in so much of a hurry to get all employees out that they didn't give MIS a chance to shut down the network. He proxied to the internal web server and brought up the Christmas party pictures. "There he is. There's another."

Burkow shook his head. "Shit. Think you can find the data files?"

Phil shook his head. "Not a chance. But I can bring up the supplier for the locator. There's still a lot of building that needs to be cleaned up, and there's sure to be another black box in there."

There was a knock at the door. Jan answered, then turned toward the bedroom. "Who ordered pizza?"

Burkow came out, tugging at his wallet.

Jan grinned. "You might not be a network guru yet, but you're on the right track!"


The telephoto lens would see no more. It was a pile of crushed glass, shattered plastic, and beaten metal, resting peacefully in a paper bag. Intermixed with the lens were the equally pulverized fragments of camera. A pool of epoxy cement quietly oozed over the pile, seeping into the cracks and spaces.

A hammer lay forgotten on the floor.

A man was breathing heavily into a phone.

"Hi! I'm not here right now, but I check my messages frequently. Tell me what's on your mind."

"Jack, goddamit, where the hell are you? You said you would take care of everything. Where are my goddam tickets? And where is my goddam MONEY??? Don't cross me, Jackio, even if the cops don't believe me, I got connections everywhere. You better come through or you're dead meat no matter what."

The man slammed the phone down. One last look around the apartment showed it to be well ransacked. Gang symbols on the walls, furniture broken just for the hell of it.

He drained his beer, cracked a third can, and flung it's contents around the apartment.

Finally, he shouldered his pack, picked up the bag of epoxy, and slipped out.

The telephoto lens' final resting spot was the bottom of the Chicago river, wedged under an old tire.


"Bill, could you come out here and help with customers?"

"Just a second, Dad."

Bill Wainright turned back to his computer screen and shook his head, smiling. always had something interesting going on, but this one took the cake. A large graphic of a milk carton filled the home page. Two pictures were side-by-side at the top. Below them was:

                         HAVE YOU SEEN US?

  Hi.  I'm the guy on the left.  Me and my buddy, Jack here, are lost.
  Jan, Phil, and the FBI really miss us and would love it if you would
  help them look for us.  I'm the cat burglar who broke into
  and caused yesterday's brief outage.  Jack is just a friend of mine
  who suddenly got very rich the day the Chicago Envirospace building

  Here I am looking for the stacks of cash that users send in.

  Here I am thinking that this slice of cold pizza would make a good
  snack for later.

  Here I am saying "stick 'em up" to the computer.

  I hope you can help find me and Jack.

"Bill? Now?"

Bill signed and walked out to the counter of his father's small car rental shop. There were three customers - big deal. He wasn't ever going to get his dad's operations computerized if he had to keep waiting on customers.

He took a pile of paperwork from his father for the current customer. Then he looked at the customer and froze. Then he quickly looked away again. He turned toward the back again, saying, "I'll need to check the stock."

Bill looked at the screen, and looked at the customer again. Looks like Jack is planning a little trip.

Bill switched on the security camera and captured a few frames. Then he picked their most expensive car.


heh. Always something like this! Detective work always seemed fun. Wonder what it's really like.


Two days later, readers had a new treat.


    Thanks to Bill's quick thinking and broad experience in the car
    rental business, our little lost lamb, Jack, was apprehended in
    San Diego, CA on his way to Mexico.  Little did he know that the
    car he rented was outfitted with a Lo Jack auto locater device.


    Here's Jack putting down a large cash deposit on the car.  He
    "left his credit card at home".

    Here's Bill's father chewing him out for renting a car to a
    known criminal.  Go easy on him Dad.

    Here's Bill on his 5th birthday in a cowboy suit.  Thanks also
    go to Bill's mom.

    We're also a step closer to finding Jack's friend, the cat
    burglar.  Turns out that he's a field service technician for
    Envirospace!  Friends and neighbors, meet Dennis.

    Here's Dennis at last year's Christmas party.  He's the one with the
    camera around his neck.  Too bad he wasn't as good at breaking and
    entering as he was at taking pictures.

    Anyway, Dennis is still wandering around.  If anybody sees him,
    let us know.


Phil, Jan, and FBI agent John Burkow were sitting in Nancies Pizza.

Phil signed his name on a form. "So, now I'm an official employee of the FBI. Do I get a badge?"

John took the form back. "You're a *temporary* employee, for 2 months. Part-time at that. Get yourself a goddam corporation so I can hire you as a proper consultant. This temp business comes out of a different budget - a budget that's damn tight. And the closest thing you get to a badge is a visitor sticker that you get to wear when you're downtown."

Phil winced. "I hate wearing stickers."

"You'll live. And I really want you guys to take that stuff off! The last thing we need is a bunch of jurors who are prejudiced against the defendant because of your accusations."

Jan laughed. "Don't worry, we only have about 3000 regulars these days, and they're from all over the world. I think you'll be able to find 12 people in all of Cook County who have never even heard of a dweeb site like"

John shook his head. "Don't be too sure. Haven't you been keeping up on the news?" Jan and Phil shook their heads. John continued, "Those reporters eat this kind of stuff up. Your web page has been plastered on TV and newspapers all this week. It all just makes our job harder."

Jan held up her hands. "OK ok, you win. I'll take it down tonight. So, got any leads on Dennis?"

Burkow shrugged. "Too early to tell. Plenty of sightings, but nothing real hot. We're pretty sure he's still in town."

Phil leaned forward. "How about a black-box locator? When you getting one in?"

"Tomorrow or the next day."

Phil dropped his voice. "I've got an idea on how we might nab Dennis."

Jan looked at the ceiling. "Lord help us all."

Phil ignored her. "Look, leak to the press that we desperately need another black box and that we'll be looking for one, the day after tomorrow. I'll climb the heap alone, find something about the right size, and stick it in my backpack. When I finish, all hot and sweaty, I'll go across the street and sit at the outdoor cafe that's over there. I leave my backpack on the ground, ripe for somebody to make a grab for it. You have some agents hanging around to nab whoever makes the grab. Cool, huh?"

Burkow stared at him for a little too long. "Phil, you should go into programming. Your detective work stinks."

Jan snorted.

Phil just became more intense. "No, come on man, it will work! Look, the guy doesn't have many brains to begin with. He shot a computer with a gun, for God's sake. Twice! As if that would somehow slow us down. And even if it doesn't work, so what? We haven't lost anything! It's a no-lose operation!"

Jan shook her head. Whatever was she going to do with that boy. He nabs one bad guy on a million-to-one shot, and now he thinks he's Dick Tracy, with his two-way wrist web server. Jan could see him in a trench coat, his collar turned up against a cold rain that whipped between the Chicago sky scrapers. He's waiting for an informant who will give him critical evidence on Mouseman, the infamous computer criminal. Little does Dick know that the informant is one of Mouseman's henchmen. As he waits, a lone figure climbs a fire escape behind a building across the street.

If Dick had any sense, he would have realized that it was taking far too long for the henchman to show. But he was completely absorbed in downloading the latest Dilbert cartoon, and the net was slow as hell today. "Come on, come on..." he muttered as another few more K made it through MAE East.

The pointy-haired boss came into view at the same time that Dick's head came into the view of a telescopic sight. Thank God, the assassin felt the need to monkey with the sight. It was now or never.

Jan leaped off the next-door building and started her silent descent. A gust of wind knocked her like a brick, but the computer nav system instantly compensated, buckling the right side of the hang glider. Once properly oriented, the other side buckled, and Jan was suddenly weightless.

As she accelerated, the nav computer made micro-adjustments to the wing tips sticking out. The assassin had the rifle on his shoulder again. Damn! The nav computer was starting to extend the wings to slow down for landing. She tongued the override switch and went to manual. It wouldn't be the easiest landing, but she need the extra quarter second. The rooftop rushed toward her, the assassin quickly taking shape in the dim light.

Shit! Another gust of wind took hold of her and was shaking her like a newspaper caught in the wind. Somebody was laughing.

Phil gave her another shake. "EARTH TO JAN!!!"

Jan focused. "Wha..."

Phil let out a loud breath. "The pizza's here and I'm hungry. Could you please pass me a piece?" Burkow snickered.

Jan couldn't help feeling a little put out as she scooped out a slice. She was trying to save his goddam life, and he was thinking of of his stomach.


[Damn, if I wasn't already hitched, I would off Phil and marry Jan myself!]


Phil wasn't looking forward to the afternoon with Jan and Burkow. He gestured to the waiter and stared at his empty glass. He had finally talked Burkow into trying his idea, and now he was sitting at the cafe, backpack at his side, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. He even went to the bathroom, leaving the pack outside. It was still there when he got back.

The waiter came and Phil paid his tab. As he shouldered his pack and started back to the demolished building, he could just see their smug smiles; hear their snickers. Big shot detective falls flat on his face.

He would have to think of some kind of comeback. Hmm, how about, "at least I can wear a gum shoe?" Phil shivered. Way too harsh ... to say out loud.


The Tomcat circled high in a large cloud bank over Iraq, 50 miles from the enemy base. The plane's stealth technology rendered it invisible to both radar and ground-based IR detection.

Jan watched the tactical display, supported by nearby AWACS and sat links. Fuel was running low, but if her target appeared in the next few minutes, it would be enough to get her home.

As if on cue, a target appeared in the no-fly zone. It took a few seconds for an IR signature to ID the blip ... Damn! It was the secondary. A milk run. She reached for the throttle, but then paused. Something nagged at her. She didn't get her adrenaline all pumped up for a goddam milk run. The primary was near; she could feel it. Just a few minutes longer.

The secondary entered the landing corridor to the base. In another minute, the secondary would be out of range and she would go home empty-handed. Again her hand hesitated over the throttle.

Then, another blip appeared, and Jan's heart raced. She waited a nerve-frying two seconds for the IR signature.

Primary. Mr. Big. Saddam Hussein.

He was closing fast on the base. Jan's face was grim as she jammed the throttle to the stops. She was thrown back hard into her seat and the engines screamed in protest at the sudden demand for full power.

Both the primary and the secondary were closing in on the base. The nav computer told her that it was going to be damn close. She strained to push the throttle *past* the stops, grunting softly at the effort.

She considered arming the weapons, but she knew that if she illuminated the target with her tactical, Saddam would probably get away. Better to keep the element of surprise till the last possible moment.

She just urged her engines on. As the distance between all three and the base rapidly closed, more blips appeared on the screen. No time to ID them; they were too far away to be players anyhow. She could do mop-up duty later.

The primary came into visual.


Agent Burkow looked up from his sandwich, and his jaw dropped. His brain told his body to move, but everything happened in slow motion.

Phil was walking beside a parked car on his way back to the building wreckage. Dennis was walking behind Phil, pulling something out of his pocket. And Jan's wheelchair was bearing down on both of them like a black missle at almost 30 mph.

Burkow had almost made it to his feet at the moment of impact.


The barrel of the .22 pistol was warm and shrouded in darkness. It's body was wet and oily. Suddenly, sunlight appeared. The barrel looked into the clear blue sky for a moment, then swung quickly to level. The pressure on the trigger was weak and hesitant; the mechanism patiently waited.

Suddenly, the barrel lurched and saw blue sky again. The pressure on the trigger spiked and the mechanism responded. Rapidly expanding gasses propelled a bullet down the length of the barrel, blocking it's view. Then, a puff of smoke, and the bullet became a black dot that quickly disappeared into the blue.

The barrel continued to scan the sky, then the horizon lurched into view. All pressure on the trigger and body was released, and the barrel spun wildly, landing with a clatter in the street.


Phil was walking along, minding his own business, when OOF!


The stall alarm shrieked. Airflow over the one remaining wing bucked crazily as the Tomcat spun out of control. Jan saw the ground rush at her like a hammer.


Agent Burkow was shouting to the other two agents, pointing at the tangle of arms, legs, and carbon-fiber tubing that was Phil and Jan.

Dennis was his.

Miraculously, he was still conscious after his journey 15 feet through the air that ended with him landing flat on his back. He had managed to roll over onto all fours when Burkow reached him and forced him back down with a foot in the small of his back.



Well, I kinda wondered. 30 mph. HA! And Steve manages to tie it all up.


(How did he know I'm into bondage?)


Christ, we can all see the subliminal stuff on your home page.


Phil struggled to open his eyes. He had been pretty heavily drugged all night, and now he was slowly rising to the surface. Funny, he didn't remember going home the night before...

He was just looking around the room, trying to figure out all this nonsense, when a nurse walked in. "Oh, you're up. You have a cousin waiting outside to see you. Are you up to a visitor?"

Phil's brain was still sluggish; he nodded blankly.

Jan rolled in, a bandage on the side of her head, and a crooked smile on her face. "Hey cuz."

Phil's face brightened through the fog. "Jan! What day is it? What happened?"

"It's just the next day after your stint at being master detective. You really did flush out Dennis ... and almost got yourself killed in the process. Thank goodness you had a fighter pilot nearby who was suspicious about a beat-up car parked near the building site entrance. The Tomcat made a pretty good roll cage, although I did get a mild concussion. You, however, have a cracked vertebra."

More nonsense to figure out. He wanted to get out of bed and kiss her, but he couldn't move. So he just stuck his hand out. Jan took it and kissed his fingertips.

Phil smiled in pure bliss as the grey fog slowly rose again.