The afternoon sun cast long diagonal shadows across the office, right onto Mitch's computer screen. He got up to fiddle with the blinds again.
On the one hand, it was nice to have an office he only shared with one other grad student - it meant he had a window, for one thing. The first-year master's degree candidates all shared the cubicle farm on the second floor. While technically he was in the first year of the program, too, he was working towards an eventual doctorate, and that (combined with how impressed Dr. Sidorov was with his senior project) meant that he got half an office to himself.
On the other hand, it meant that for half an hour there was too much glare on his screen to get any useful work done. His office-mate, a second-year doctoral student whose first name was Kevin but whom everyone else called "Knobs," had the other side of the office, where the sun was in his eyes rather than on his screen, and he dealt with this by taking a 30-minute break while they waited for the sun to sink behind the building next door.
Knobs stuck his head in the office door. "Hey, solar-related volleyball recess. You wanna come?"
Mitch waved him off with a grin that was only half-faked. "Nah, I think I'm going to go get a soda and then do some actual paperwork." He was telling the truth about the soda. He'd finished his last stack of TA grading, and he hadn't been given any research-related material that wasn't on the computer yet.
"Suit yourself. I'll be back in thirty, maybe forty-five minutes." The sound of the volleyball bouncing on the tile floor echoed off down the hallway.
Mitch opened the top left desk drawer and scrounged for the loose change he'd dropped in there earlier. He had enough for a soda, but probably not for anything else. Well, it wasn't as if he needed a candy bar. While still thin by most standards, he'd gained twenty pounds since starting college, and not all of it was muscle; the hint of a belly-roll was starting to bug him. He headed for the vending machines in the student lounge.
Halfway down the hall, change in hand, he heard the office phone ringing. Damn, that was probably Dr. Sidorov. He stuffed the coins in his pocket and ran back to grab the phone before it sent the call to voice mail. "Taylor speaking."
"Hey, Mitch." The voice was definitely not Dr. Sidorov's accented bass. "How's tricks up in Palo Alto?"
"Hi, Chris. Everything's fine up here." Mitch grinned broadly. He and Chris Knight had only been roommates for one year, but between Lazlo's BBS and Chris's weekend rambles that often seemed to end up at or near Pacific Tech, they'd stayed in touch. Mitch was farther away this year, but the BBS was still up. Chris calling was a rarity, though. "What's up?"
"Guess who showed up in my e-mail queue this morning?" Chris asked, the cocked eyebrow somehow audible over the phone.
Mitch blanched. "Not Professor Hathaway?" Their former professor had gotten ten years for defrauding the Department of Defense, but Mitch figured Hathaway was smart enough to break out of a minimum-security federal prison if he needed to.
"No, not the Royal Bastard himself. Just his old viceroy."
"Kent?" Mitch pulled up his chair. While he'd been utterly insufferable as Hathaway's grad student toady, once the professor had been fired and indicted, Kent had had a change of heart and become, while not someone anyone really wanted to spend time with, at least not a complete ass. That he thought he'd had a religious experience may have helped.
"That's the one." Knight's voice was light, which meant he was actually concerned about something; if he was just playing around, he tried to sound deadly serious. "He wanted to know if I knew how to get in touch with Hollyfeld."
"I didn't know he knew that Hollyfeld even existed," Mitch commented.
"Yeah, apparently Kent knew someone who knew someone who knew him back in the day." There was a plastic creak as Chris switched the phone from one hand to the other. "Not sure if he knew about Lazlo's part in our little hack."
Mitch nodded, forgetting that Chris couldn't see him. "So did you tell him?"
"I didn't give him the bulletin board dial-up, but I told him that if he mentioned Lazlo's name in alt.fan.infocom, he was pretty much guaranteed a response."
"Right." There were a number of places on Usenet that Lazlo haunted, but that newsgroup was almost his private digital fiefdom, despite Hollyfeld not being the moderator. "Any idea what he needs him for?" Mitch asked.
"Uh-uh," Chris replied. "I mean, I'm guessing it's a computer issue of some sort, but I couldn't tell you what." A chair creaked in the background. "Anyway, let's suppose I needed to visit an ex-girlfriend in Palo Alto on Saturday, and let's suppose that there's only a 30% chance I'll be able to charm her into letting me stay there overnight. Any chance I could crash on your couch?"
"Let me check with my roommate, but sure," Mitch smiled. In point of fact, his roommate, a Taiwanese fellow named Chu, was almost never there, preferring to stay with his girlfriend; he maintained a separate apartment only to avoid family drama, and had been quite relieved to find a reasonably neat grad student to live there and split the costs with.
"You're a lifesaver, little buddy," Chris said. "I'll call you at your place on Friday to let you know what the schedule is. See ya."
"See you then," Mitch answered, and set the phone back in its cradle. He'd need to fold the clean laundry and get it off the couch.
The angled slats of sunlight slipped off the computer and up the wall as Mitch left to go get that soda.
Knobs leaned back in his rickety desk chair; Mitch worried that he was going to topple over at any moment. "I can't think, man," he moaned, hands splayed out on his desk. "Maybe the pressure's getting to me."
"What's the issue?" Mitch turned around and glanced at his officemate's computer. The lab write-up didn't seem that complex.
"I don't know. If I knew, I could fix it." Knobs stretched his legs under the desk. "Hey, kiddo, I'm going to walk across to the Vietnamese deli and bring some lunch back. You want anything?"
Mitch dug his wallet from his pocket and handed him a neatly folded five. "Pork with bean sprouts."
"You got it." Knobs stuck the bill into his shirt pocket and headed out. Mitch returned to his own computer.
Suddenly, an extra X-window popped up. Mitch glanced at it. A talk mode window. He grinned.
SYN SYN ENQ? appeared in the top half of the window. A blinking cursor hovered in the bottom half. Mitch typed ACK and waited.
Hi, Mitch. Lazlo here.
Mitch typed back Hey, Lazlo. Good to hear from you.
Have you heard from Knight lately?
Yeah, he was up here this last weekend.
And did he tell you what blast from our past blew in on the wind this past week?
He said Kent emailed him to find out how to find you. Mitch hesitated. Said he gave him the Usenet cue.
Indeed he did. And indeed Kent used it. The cursor hovered. Would you like to know what he wanted?
Why don't you go ahead and tell me.
Very well; once upon a time, in a land called Pacific Tech, there was an evil mastermind named Zucker, a professor so devious that even Hathaway couldn't measure up. In a time when the Knight in shining armor was still pulling girls' pigtails, and his squire was suffering the indignity of being taught to read when he already knew how, a young wizard-to-be named Lazlo fell under the mastermind's spell and began writing what he thought were computer games, simulations of wargames with pewter figures and paper cards. When the wizard-to-be found that his magic was being perverted, that his games were being used as real war simulations to train real soldiers how to kill most efficiently and unmanned drones how to recognize a target, he went mad and became a hermit in a cave. He stayed there until the Knight and the squire drew him out, and the princess came and kissed him, but that's another story.
Mitch grinned. I think I might know that one.
I think you might. Anyway, once the wizard went mad, the evil lord Zucker went looking for another wizard-in-training to maintain the code, even if he wasn't brilliant enough to write it. And after a few years, he found a freshman wizardling apprentice to do his dirty work.
You are wise, young squire. The apprentice did not have the true wizardry, but he could cast spells by cookbook and read a wizard's scrolls, and so he maintained the code, and the evil lord Zucker was pleased. Then a computer error revealed to the Board of Regents that the evil lord Zucker was failing to report income from the military-industrial complex to the university, and the Board suggested to him that perhaps he should resign instead of being publicly embarrassed.
Giggling, Mitch typed And the wizard had nothing to do with it, right?
Again, the young squire shows his wisdom. And so Zucker quietly resigned, and joined a company that made weapons of war. The wizard was pleased that he was gone, and traced him no further. The apprentice was annoyed that he was out of a part-time job, until the wizard appeared to him in a dream and showed him what the code he kept did, and then he was horrified and swore to do evil no more.
Geez, we're gonna give Kent a complex.
We merely exchange ones he has already with ones more advantageous to us. Anyway, the apprentice grew up to be a journeyman, and in a fit of curiosity, he decided to find out what happened to the code he used to keep - the spells originally written by the wizard. And lo and behold, he found that they had been sold to yet another military-industrial company. The cursor blinked for a long moment. O squire, would you care to guess what else that company has bought?
A tremor ran through Mitch. The Knight's lance? That the apprentice helped forge and the squire helped sharpen?
Once more you demonstrate your wisdom.
Mitch sat back in his chair. Great. So now what?
Again, the cursor blinked for nearly a minute before continuing. So now, the wizard must call on his old friends to go on a quest for him. I'm kind of stuck here at the moment.
Mitch made a wry face; Sherri and Lazlo had already had a pair of twins, and she'd mentioned on the BBS that she was pregnant again. Yeah, Lazlo couldn't get away. What do you want us to do?
Simple: I want you to look into this place and find out what they're doing with what is technically still Pacific Tech's intellectual property, since we were all students at the time. In fact, I think the laser is partly Hathaway's, too.
Unless he sold off the rights, Mitch pointed out.
PT doesn't usually work like that, although it's possible. Anyway, the company is called NOVA Robotics, and it's in Oregon, east of Portland.
Mitch nodded. Only about a day from here. And Spring Break's coming up. I could go check it out, except I don't have a car.
Chris does. I've already guilted him into accepting my quest. He has some vacation saved up.
Well, I guess we've got ourselves a road trip. Mitch felt his face getting a bit red. These sorts of shenanigans were really Chris's deal; Mitch was pretty risk-averse, even after almost five years of exposure to Knight's adrenaline-junkie nature. But at the same time that they terrified him, they thrilled him, too. It had been over a year since they'd done anything illegal together, except speeding and one incident of phone phreaking.
I have one more suggestion. I realize it might be a little awkward, but I think you need it. Lazlo's typing had been shaky on that last line, or perhaps they were getting line noise.
Mitch raised an eyebrow at the screen. And that is?
I think the Knight and the squire need the fair maiden on this voyage.
Mitch shook off the sudden feeling of having taken wall current. I don't mind, and I don't think Chris does, but I doubt she'll want to see me, much less work with me.
On the contrary, I've already spoken with her and she's in. Except that she said she thought you never wanted to see her again.
I never said that. Mitch's fingers hesitated on the keys. He and Jordan had broken up shortly after she graduated. It had been a rational, mutual decision. She'd had a job offer in Atlanta, designing underwater vehicles. He'd still had two years left at Tech. She was impulsive, he was immature, there were already a few problems between them, neither of them could possibly have handled a long-distance relationship. They were still good friends, if distant ones; they sent cards, they replied to each other's messages on the BBS, they even phoned each other once in a blue moon.
He missed her more than he could say. She'd gone on with her life, although she never mentioned dating the same guy twice.
I don't have any problem working with her. I'd love to see Jordan again. If she's in, I'm in. And if she broke his heart all over again, well, he'd already survived it once - it couldn't be as bad the second time, right?
Great. Your spring break starts a week from this coming Friday, right?
Chris will be arriving that afternoon. You can pick Jordan up from the bus station that evening; I'm rescheduling a bus for her right now. Thanks.
No problem, o Questmaster.
The talk window disappeared. Mitch rubbed his temples.
He'd just agreed to a road trip with Chris and Jordan. At least a day, probably more than one, in a car - no, in Chris's car, specifically - with the two of them.
On the one hand, this might be a lot of fun. On the other hand, he was going to need to stock up on caffeine and aspirin.
Chris beat out a quick cadence on the side of the vending machine next to the bus station lockers; a packet of peanut butter crackers obediently dropped into the slot. He frowned at them. "I was hoping for a candy bar." Shrugging, he scooped them out and opened the wrapper anyway. "So, not to pry or anything, but - you over her yet?"
"I don't know." Mitch scanned the arrivals board for the fifth time. "I mean, I've never really had a relationship with anyone else. I've dated a couple of girls since Jordan and I split up, but - " He spread his hands and looked up into the florescent lights.
"But you've never been in love with anyone else," finished Chris. "I'd say I knew where you are, but honestly, the first time I fell in love, I was eight."
"And you've never had a problem attracting girls since I've known you," Mitch pointed out. He was almost exaggerating when he said he'd dated a couple of girls in the meantime - he'd been on a total of four dates with a sophomore at Tech his senior year, which had been nice but hadn't inspired either of them to keep up with the other after he'd graduated, and taken one of the older grad students to the last Winter Formal, which had fallen short of a disaster but hadn't encouraged him to try again.
""It was tougher when I was still a grind." Chris grinned at him sideways and rumpled Mitch's hair. Mitch tried to dodge and failed; he tugged a comb out of his back pocket and started to undo the damage. Chris's eyes raked down him, the grin still in place; it faded only slightly as he looked away across the station.
"Hey, is that - " Knight started, as a bus pulled into a berth directly across from where they were standing.
"Only if this board is wrong," Mitch answered, pointing at the departures and arrival times. "When they first said her bus was delayed, they changed it from half an hour ago to an hour from now."
"Guys!" shrieked a familiar voice across the warehouse-like expanse.
"Guess it's wrong," smirked Chris, as he turned towards the new arrival. Jordan collided with him at just short of top speed, and he nearly went over backwards before she caught him again.
"Chris, Mitch, wow, it's so good to see you, wow, Mitch, I think you've gotten a little bit of a tan since I saw you last, did you take up volleyball like your friend? Chris, are you okay, I didn't mean to knock you over, I just got a little excited, wow, it's so great to see you!" Mitch was suddenly half-crushed in the crook of her arm, Chris similarly caught in the other, in a surprise group hug. He resisted the instinctive urge to flail, and hugged her back; Chris relaxed a fraction of a second after he did, and the hug became a closed equilateral triangle.
"Good to see you too, Jor." Allowing himself a smile, Mitch noticed that she was still using the same shampoo. Her hair was longer now, just long enough for her to put it in a ponytail. It looked cute on her, and showed off how long her neck was.
He sighed. Not over her yet. And the group hug wasn't making it easier.
"Let's go get your luggage," Chris suggested. "We've got a long drive ahead of us. Good thing your delay wasn't as long as they thought it was."
"Oh, yeah, no, it was just a filter problem." Jordan let go of both of them and brushed her hands on her overalls; Chris's eyes lit on her fingernails and the grease underneath them.
"Which you fixed with baling wire and gum?" Mitch was only half-joking. He'd seen what she could do with baling wire.
"No, I used the toolbox under the driver's seat, but I could have used gum to peel some of the gunk out of the filter. It wasn't hard, though." She looked around. "I think they'll unload the bags over there. I only brought two, I figured I could wash most of my clothes in the sink if I ran out, so one of the bags has my project stuff in it."
"Excellent." Chris rubbed his hands together. "Pacific Tech Tiger Team #1 is back in business."
"We don't even know what the plan is yet," Mitch warned him.
Knight let a manic glint sneak into his eyes. "Right now, my young friends, the plan is - Spring Break road trip!" He skipped sideways, hopped up onto one of the benches, and spread his arms to the ceiling. "Three wild and crazy kids, the open road, a destination - what else could we need?" He jumped back down, facing them. "Well, except a few more beautiful women. But hey, one's a great start." He spun around again and marched off. "So how about we pick it up a little?"
Jordan caught Mitch's eye as they headed for baggage claim. "Do we have a car?"
"Yeah, we've got the Trusty Steed." Mitch chuckled lightly; Lazlo had him doing it now, too. "Chris calls it the Knightmobile. You'll probably like it."
"It's purple," Jordan marveled.
"Why is that the first thing everyone says when they see my car?" Chris huffed.
Mitch just grinned. The Knightmobile was a 1969 Camaro that had been refurbished sometime in the late '70s, its paint job redone in royal purple metallic flake. It was in remarkably good condition, all things considered, and it was certainly hard to lose.
Which brought up another point. "We can't exactly drive up to NOVA in this thing. Well, I mean, we can, but we can only do it once."
"We'll want to do some distance reconnaissance first," Jordan agreed. "Chris, can I look under the hood? I promise I won't touch anything, well, if I need to I'll ask first."
Knight popped the hood latch for her and leaned against the fender. "What did Lazlo give you on the place?"
"Not much," Mitch shrugged, wedging her two bags into the trunk. "It's worked for the Department of Defense before, but it's a privately owned company - it was traded on the market for a while, but the stock took a dive after some sort of security breach a couple of years ago, and an investment group snapped it up. They've got their own private security force. The rumor mill says they're working on mine-detector robots, but Lazlo can't think of a way the Lance - sorry, our laser would be useful for that."
"Yeah, if they're using our baby it's got to be for something else." Chris leaned forward just as Jordan dropped the hood.
"And unless they've solved the single-shot problem, it's probably not a general military application, either." Jordan tugged a paper towel from her front pocket and wiped her hands. "Chris, you need to change your oil, or I can change it for you but we'll need to find a drain pan."
Chris opened the passenger side door. "Can it wait until we get to Portland? It's a long drive."
"Oh, okay." Jordan grinned and crawled into the back seat; she was lithe enough to fit without any troubles. "Are we driving straight through, or stopping somewhere?"
"Stopping," Chris answered, as he came around and climbed into the driver's seat. "I'm not up for driving all night, or for napping back there while you drive the last four hours." He stretched before closing the door. "I'm just not as young as I used to be. Mitch, you getting in?"
"Yeah." Mitch stopped staring and climbed in, wondering which of them he'd been staring at.
It was a good thing, Mitch reflected, that Northern California was as pretty as it was. The scenery was reasonably distracting. He tried and failed to re-fold the map in his lap.
"So I told him that storing the pressurized oxygen tanks in the shed immediately behind where the storage drum for the used oil from the concession stand was, was a really, really bad idea," Jordan was saying. "And he told me that yeah, he knew, but they were six feet apart and there was a wall between them, and seriously, not to worry. But I don't think he knew that the night custodian smoked."
"Oh, great," laughed Chris, one hand loosely on the wheel and the other tight on the shifter. "So let me guess: one night, he drops his cigarette butt -"
"Right next to the oil barrel." Jordan giggled. Mitch just barely caught the way her shoulders shook as she laughed. She kept going: "So the whole thing goes up, whoosh, right? And the snack bar catches on fire, and somehow the drum splits open, so the whole alleyway is full of burning grease, and of course the shed catches on fire, too, and then the oxygen tanks fail because the pressure's too high."
Mitch joined in. "So now there's a 100% oxygen mixture being dumped on a grease fire."
"Worse," Jordan laughed, her ponytail swinging, "it's being released at very high pressure and at really high speed."
"So your compressed air tanks are basically becoming unguided missiles," finished Chris. His eyes flashed in the low afternoon light, and his smile dimpled his face. Mitch glanced from him to Jordan and then back out the window. His reflection stared back at him from the glass, amused and a little frantic.
"And they took the roof right off!" she agreed, "By the time the alarm went off, the high oxygen atmosphere meant that both the concession stand and the tank shed were pretty much smoked. They found one of the tanks in the parking lot, and one out on the pier, and most of the rest of them in the test pool at the other end of the complex. They must have all been leaning the same way; anyway, they never did find three of them, and I think they may have made it out to sea."
"Splashdown!" Chris cheered. "Well, it sounds like your job's more exciting than mine."
"You guys ever see each other?" Jordan asked, her voice suddenly sober.
"Once a month, maybe once every other month if we're busy," Mitch offered. It had been more the latter than the former since this school year had started, but then, they both had been busy.
"Okay." She curled up into a ball in the back seat. "I haven't made too many friends in Atlanta, I mean, real ones, like you guys. Kim's friendly, I mean, I think she's cool and I think she thinks I'm okay, but we don't, you know, hang out and stuff." Her mouth twitched. "And the guys are great during the workday, but we don't hang out after hours, and I think they see me as a guy, too, I mean as one of the guys."
"Well, rest assured that I would never, ever see you as a guy," Chris said in his mock-serious voice, raising an eyebrow at her in the rear-view mirror and leering. She giggled. He pointedly turned towards Mitch. "How about you, little buddy?"
"I have pretty good proof she's a girl," Mitch blurted, and then shrank into his seat as his face flushed. That was not the best way to put it.
She didn't seem to mind. "Oh, no, I'm not worried about not being feminine or being, I don't know, too girly or not girly enough. It's a great job, and I enjoy it. I just don't have anyone to hang out with."
"I don't, really, either, except for Knobs," Mitch admitted. "Well, and my roommate, but he's never there. We get along, though."
"I have surfing buddies and drinking buddies," Chris observed, "but things are never really the same out in the real world." He shook his head. "You guys are getting too serious. How about some music?" The hand from the shifter flicked on the radio and began searching for a station.
"How about we eat soon? I'm starving," Jordan complained.
"Doesn't look like there's a good place to stop before Medford," Mitch said, looking at the map again.
"And by then we'll probably want to get a place for the night," Chris added. "Think you can wait until then?"
"Okay." Jordan seemed slightly subdued; Mitch glanced back as she opened up the tote bag she used as a purse and pulled out a sock on a tangle of knitting needles. Chris found a classic rock station and began singing along to "Barracuda."
"Oh, crud," Mitch said out loud as they piled into the motel room.
"What now?" Chris stepped past him into the tiny, musty space. "They give us a smoking room?"
Jordan sniffed. "No, but they haven't shampooed the carpet in years." She wrinkled her nose disapprovingly.
"There's, um, only one bed," Mitch pointed out.
"Yeah, they didn't have one with two doubles so I got us one king." Chris did that thing with his eyebrows that made Mitch want to crawl under something heavy and not come out again. "I figured we're all good friends here." He set down the backpack he was using for luggage and launched himself into the air, landing flat on his back on the bed with a bounce. "Hey, and the mattress isn't dead, either."
Jordan blinked suddenly. "Oh, wait, don't worry, Mitch, I still don't actually sleep, I mean, I might nap a little bit but I can do that in the chair. You don't have to worry."
"No, it's okay," Mitch mumbled, and stumbled off into the bathroom.
He leaned against the sink and turned the water on. Obviously, he hadn't thought this through. Even if there had been two beds, the combinatorics were clear enough: Option One was him sharing a bed with Chris Knight, and Jordan in the other bed by herself. That was fraught with all sorts of peril, if he rolled over and forgot himself in his sleep. The best he could say about it was that Chris probably wouldn't kill him if he woke up with Mitch clinging to him. Option Two was him and Jordan sharing a bed again, and Chris in the other one. That would be less of a social problem, but not conducive to his getting any sleep. And Option Three was Chris and Jordan in bed together, which . . . he wasn't sure how he felt about that, but it made his stomach do loops and he was pretty sure no one would get any sleep.
He flushed the toilet and splashed his face. Had Lazlo figured out exactly how weird this was for him? The Wizard had an odd sense of humor at the best of times.
When he emerged, Chris breezed past him, one hand brushing his shoulder. "Took you long enough; you using up all the hot water preemptively?" The door closed before Mitch had time to respond.
"I'm sorry," Jordan murmured from the chair. She had her knitting out again; she was just about finished with the heel flap on this sock, it looked like.
"Don't be." Mitch tossed himself onto the bed and grimaced. "It's okay. I mean, I'm not mad at you; I never was."
"Oh. Good." Her hands flashed, needles and yarn sliding together into something more complex. "I'm not mad at you, either, I think you know that but I just wanted to say it anyway."
"I'm glad." He kicked his shoes off as the shower came on just on the other side of the wall; the plumbing creaked out a warning. Mitch slid under the covers and tried to ignore the quiet click of the needles and the off-key warbling of Chris's singing.
"Okay, everyone know what the plan is?" Chris dropped a pair of sunglasses over his eyes as he slid back behind the wheel of the Knightmobile.
"You're driving around town to pick up supplies, Jordan's sneaking around the golf course behind NOVA's facility to see what's back there, and I'm taking the public guided tour like some random sightseer because you want to be all mysterious and sneaky." Mitch tried not to whine and failed. While his night hadn't been exactly sleepless, he was bleary-eyed and frustrated.
"And because, of the three of us, you'll stand out the least. Jordan gets noticed, and I'm too good-looking." Chris grinned and revved the engine. "I'll pick you up in three hours, okay?"
"Just keep this thing out of the line of their security cameras," Mitch grumbled. He was wearing his old school uniform of dark slacks, blue button-down shirt, and red tie. He hoped that he didn't need a jacket for this; it was too warm to wear one already.
The visitor's center for the NOVA Robotics complex was small and full of badly lit display cases. Mitch wandered around the room waiting for the 10 a.m. tour to start; the only other tourists were a pair of West Germans arguing about where they were going for lunch. A couple of service robots came through, offering him free ice water or hot coffee. They weren't bad, although their castors clearly required a smooth floor; they managed to avoid bumping into him or the Germans as they moved around the room.
The tour guide arrived, a perky young woman - probably an undergrad college intern - in a business skirt, pinstripe vest, and ruffled white blouse. "Good morning, and welcome to NOVA Robotics, where we design the future of tomorrow! Please follow me and your other guide, Zippy." She gestured, and what Mitch had assumed was a broom closet popped open. A third robot - this one a cross between a metallic Groucho Marx and a praying mantis, on flexible treads - rolled out, unfolded itself, and waved at the tour group. Its camera-eyes focused on the two Germans, then on Mitch.
"As you accompany us on our tour, please remember - no flash photography, and stay with the tour group at all times," chided Zippy in a recorded voice that sounded like a children's comedian.
"Wouldn't dream of it," Mitch murmured as he fell in step behind the human guide.
Like most corporate tours, they didn't show off the interesting stuff; the tour guide barely mentioned their work with the military, despite most of the exhibits in the visitor's center being Army commissions. Still, what they did see was interesting; there were automated robotic systems for sweeping, for taking out trash, for recharging other robots, and for fetching stuff from the vending machines in the employee lobby. They had to have some fairly sophisticated video processing systems in these things; Zippy seemed to be able to see and react to things in its path, not just follow the guide at a set distance.
"So, do you enjoy your job?" Mitch asked the robotic tour guide as they came around a corner to an outside door.
"Working for NOVA isn't just a job; it's an adventure!" Zippy replied as they eased out into the overcast daylight. Mitch's eyes widened. It was a pre-recorded response, but this thing had some sort of language recognition routine, too.
"This," announced the human guide, "is our testing range, where we run our creations through obstacle courses to test their ability to handle numerous conditions, from asphalt to mud to ice and snow. Out there," she continued, pointing with one hand at something about a football field away, "is today's victim - oops, I'm sorry, Zippy, I mean athlete!"
"No offense taken," replied Zippy, nodding at her.
"Are they getting ready to start now?" Mitch asked, trying to look casual.
"The next test run is scheduled for two o'clock," answered Zippy, as if it were reading off of an internal calendar.
"I don't suppose we could watch," asked one of the other tourists.
"No, I'm afraid for safety reasons test runs are off-limits to the public." The intern turned her game-show-host smile back on and started herding them in the direction of the visitor's center.
"Nice meeting you," Mitch said to the robot as they arrived back at their starting point.
"A pleasure to meet a fresh new face. Please, come back any time," said Zippy as it rolled back into its closet. Mitch blinked; if he hadn't known better, he'd have sworn the robot meant it as a come-on.
"I've been spending too much time with Chris," he groaned as he headed for the exit.
"That's the big plan?" Mitch boggled at the contraption in front of him.
"It's the best we could do on such short notice," Chris answered, sounding just slightly hurt.
"It'll work just fine once we get it off the ground," Jordan assured him.
It was a lawn chair with hundreds of balloons attached to it, in various shades of green and brown. Chris was wearing a sweatshirt and pants in army-fatigue camouflage that almost but not quite matched the balloons. A set of fans and baffles was attached to the underside of the chair, to give the makeshift blimp some steering.
"Come on, if they really do start at two, we need to hurry." Jordan finished filling one more balloon and tied it off.
"Ready for liftoff, chief engineer!" Chris settled into the chair and hooked himself in with a bungee cord for a lap belt. Jordan handed him a small duffel bag. Mitch groaned. There were five or six different ways this could be disastrous, even if the chair didn't get caught in a crosswind and drift into the bay.
Like this, for instance. Jordan untied the chair, and it barely moved.
"Uh-oh," Jordan muttered, and began filling another balloon. Chris kicked at the ground and drifted off of it, but stopped a few feet up.
"You're at neutral buoyancy," she noted. "You stay where you're put."
"Which would be fine if I were already over the treeline," Chris griped. "Now what?"
"We're almost out of gas," she said, finishing off the balloon she was holding. "Maybe we should switch? I'm lighter than you."
Mitch rubbed his forehead. "And I'm lighter than either of you. Chris, get out of the chair." He knew he was going to regret this, already.
"Seriously?" Chris waited for Jordan to tether the chair again. "You?" He climbed out and set one hand protectively on Mitch's shoulder.
"Yeah, me." Suddenly Mitch was angry. "Or do you not trust me, the same way you didn't trust me enough to tell me this stupid plan to begin with?"
Chris stepped back like he'd been slapped. "Mitch, there aren't many people in this world I do trust. You're one of them." His expression shifted several times; Mitch thought he saw hurt and pride in there, along with a few things he couldn't identify. Then Chris nodded once, and started stripping. "You'll need to wear these, though. That shirt will stand out too much against the trees." Thank God, he was wearing shorts underneath, although now he was shirtless. Mitch turned his back to him and pulled the too-big sweats on over his clothes. He wasn't about to strip in front of either of those two.
Jordan unhooked a leaf-green bike helmet from the back of the chair and handed it to him along with the bag of gear; very gently, she strapped him into the chair with the bungee cord. "There's a radio in the helmet. It's always on; you don't have to press anything to transmit. The controller for the fan jets is the joystick on the left armrest; push the stick in the direction you want to go."
Mitch snapped the chin-strap closed and tightened it. "How will I get back down?"
"I'll reel you back in." Jordan carefully undid the tether once more, and the chair sailed gently upward, trailing something behind it. A kite string. Mitch just shook his head.
The strip of trees between the golf course and the back of NOVA's test grounds went up a gentle slope; it took longer than Mitch had expected before he could see anything. He bumped the joystick to move left, around a particularly gnarly oak. There, now he could see most of the test ground.
"Can you hold me at this altitude?" he whispered into the helmet's microphone. The kite string pulled taut.
"See anything yet?" Jordan's voice seemed loud in his ears; he wondered if there was a volume control on his radio.
"There's what looks like a metal crate on treads in the middle of the field," Mitch reported. "It's not moving yet." He rummaged in the bag for the camera with the zoom lens.
A long moment passed as he drifted with the breeze. A robin landed on the branch next to him and stared.
The box on the field suddenly started forward. "It's moving," Mitch reported. "North-northwest. Turning north now. Wow, I can't hear it at all; those treads are really quiet." He raised their camera and snapped a photo.
Something crackled on the other end. "Chris is picking up some of their radio chatter," Jordan reported. "Something about putting it through the obstacle course."
"Yeah, they mentioned that on the tour." Mitch watched as the box crawled over a pile of shredded tires and plowed through a mud-pit. "It's doing pretty good for an unmanned drone." He snapped two or three more photos as it rolled up a forty-degree incline, dodging posts that sprang out of the ramp. "Make that darn good."
"You're sure it's unmanned?" asked Chris, his voice staticky from being too far from the mike.
"Yup. There's not enough room in that thing for a human and the motors it needs for this." The drone rolled to the top of a mound, edged between a fake bush and a wooden crate, and went still. If Mitch had been on the other side, it would have been hard to see once it stopped.
"What's it doing now?" Jordan demanded.
"Nothing. It's taken cover." A door on its top split open and slid into the body of the drone. "Wait, it's opening up, it's raising - oh, crap."
"What is it raising, Mitch? I really, really hope you're about to say 'a flag' or even 'a penis,' because - "
Mitch broke Chris off. "It's our laser."
"I agree with your previous evaluation of 'oh, crap'."
"I don't see Kent's targeting system, though." Mitch took one more shot, let the camera dangle on its strap, and fished a pair of binoculars out of the bag. No sign of the targeting array anywhere.
Without warning, a familiar bright blue beam blazed from the laser turret on the drone and vaporized a mock-up of a limousine at the other end of the proving grounds. "That's a shorter range than the version Hathaway sold," Mitch noted. "More like our original model."
"It's a sniper," Jordan realized aloud. "A robot sniper."
"So they're assassinating people by remote control instead of from orbit now," Chris growled. "Nice."
"I don't think it's controlled by remote," Mitch said.
The drone backed out of its hidey-hole and turned around. It paused, the turret tracking back and forth, and then stopped cold as the laser pointed directly at Mitch.
"Uh, guys?" he whispered. "I think it can see me."
"Don't be paranoid, Mitch," Jordan hissed back. "No video sensory system developed could pick out a human-sized target from that distance, even without the camouflage."
"And the one good thing about our laser is that it's only good for one shot," added Chris.
A dot of ruby light appeared above the barrel of the laser cannon.
"It might have old-fashioned lasers, too!" yelped Mitch, pumping his feet and swinging the chair wildly beneath the balloon canopy. A beam of bright red went through the space where his ear had been; one of the balloons behind him went out in a burst of fire.
He heard Chris's shout from where he was. "Jordan, what's in the balloons? I thought we said helium!"
"We weren't going to get enough lift to get you off the ground with helium!" explained Jordan as she tried to reel in the kite string. Mitch hit the joystick to back the chair up as a second beam missed him by an equally small distance in the other direction. Another balloon went up in flames.
"Hydrogen?" Chris frightened was an awful thing to hear.
"So I'm sitting under the Hindenberg?" Mitch jinked right and lost two more balloons to the next blast. An empty bird's nest in the tree behind him caught fire. "Holy shit!"
"No, don't worry, I tied the balloons in a staggered array configuration; one balloon going off shouldn't set off the other ones, so you couldn't get a continuous flame going; at worst you'd lose one column." There was a pause as the other radio went off. "The good news is, they don't know what it's shooting at, and they're trying to get it to stop," Jordan reported. There was a sudden jerk, and then the chair wasn't moving downwards any more. "Oops," she murmured.
"Don't tell me the string just broke!" Mitch yelled.
"Okay, we won't tell you." Chris broke away from Jordan's side as the chair began to drift upwards again. Another laser burst missed completely; at least the thing's targeting system wasn't perfect at this range.
"What are you doing?" Jordan shrieked; Mitch nearly jerked the helmet off. His ears were ringing.
"Pull in your hands and feet, Taylor," Chris ordered. Mitch winced and did as he was told. An air rifle sounded, two shots, three.
The chair stopped rising. The next laser blast took out most of the top of the balloon cluster; Mitch ducked to get away from the heat, and suddenly the chair was drifting downwards.
"Left, steer left!" shouted Jordan. Mitch pushed on the joystick and tried to make himself as small a target as possible. The next laser missed again, just barely; Chris took out two more balloons, and suddenly someone's hand was on the tether and Mitch was below the protective ceiling of leaves again.
He undid the bungee cord and threw himself out of the chair before it touched down. "Jesus, how do I let you guys talk me into these things?"
"You volunteered this time. Jor, let it go," Chris barked, his eyes hard. Jordan blinked at him. "Seriously, let it go - we don't want to get caught with the evidence." She shrugged and dropped the tether, and once more the balloon chair soared upwards.
It broke the leaf canopy and kept going. "If we're lucky, it'll land in the river," Chris muttered as he picked Mitch up off the ground. His hands were clammy; was he trembling, or was that Mitch?
A beam of searing blue crossed the sky above them. The makeshift blimp exploded beautifully, fragments of metal tubing instantly melted by the laser's heat showering back into the trees. The three of them took off running as the debris rained down.
"Looks like they fixed the single-shot problem," Jordan observed as she shoved the now-empty compressed gas tank into Chris's trunk and slithered into the back.
"You think?" Chris vaulted into the driver's seat and cranked the engine. "How did they do that?"
"Multiple frozen cores, I'd guess. The center of that thing must be a hell of a freezer." Mitch collapsed into the passenger seat, shivering and trying not to throw up.
"I am so, so sorry," Jordan gasped. "If I had known it was going to be you and not Chris, I would never have used hydrogen."
Chris opened the hotel door. "I'd rather have not been under that much explosive gas, myself." He held the door wide as Jordan guided Mitch into the room.
Mitch stumbled in and collapsed on the bed, still shaking. "Yeah, well." At least they'd gotten their photos. Once they got them developed, they'd fax them to Lazlo and he'd figure out what their next move was. Why couldn't he stop shivering?
"He's totally going into shock; what do we do?" squeaked Jordan.
"We keep him warm." Chris was still shirtless; he rolled onto the bed behind Mitch and curled up next to him. "We also probably ought to get some water into him, but warm him up first."
"Okay." Jordan slid onto the bed and spooned up in front of Mitch. "Just hold onto me, okay, hon?"
" 'Kay." He clung to her sides. Behind him, he felt Chris's hands sliding around his waist. Mitch closed his eyes and held on.
It was several minutes later when one of Chris's hands moved downwards slightly, and Mitch realized exactly where he was. "Um, wait, okay, sorry, I'm okay now!" he burst out, trying to roll away from them and failing.
"Mitch, you just had a serious near-death experience. You are not okay; you're still shaking," Chris pointed out. Oh, God, he still wasn't wearing a shirt.
"It's okay. We're here," Jordan said in what was probably intended to be a soothing voice, lower and smoother than her usual tone.
"Um. Uh." Mitch's mouth suddenly didn't work. Other parts of him did, which was equally embarrassing. His face flushed crimson.
"Hey, are you - oh!" Jordan finally noticed.
Chris chuckled gently. "Do I need to leave you two alone for some therapy time?"
"If I didn't know better, I'd say he's reacting to you as much as me," Jordan pointed out. Mitch blushed deeper- he hadn't realized that was possible - and tried to burrow into the mattress.
"Oh, really?" Chris sounded intrigued. His hands traveled up Mitch's ribcage. "That true?"
"A little bit, yeah," Mitch admitted.
"About time." He felt Chris's grin against his shoulder. "I've been checking your scrawny ass out for years."
"What?" Mitch suddenly felt like he was floating again, with no floor beneath him to balance on.
Chris's eyes met Jordan's. "You didn't answer my question, though." Some nonverbal communication passed between them that Mitch couldn't see.
"Oh." she blinked. "Oh! Wait, are you coming on to me, or am I just confused?"
"Definitely the first, probably the second, too." One of Chris's hands slid across Mitch's chest to her shoulder. "I mean, if you're interested."
"Sure, why not?" She jumped up. "But in that case I should get prepared." She grabbed a small plastic box out of her tote bag and darted into the bathroom.
Mitch turned half around and met Chris's gaze. He'd never been the recipient of one of the patented Chris Knight Lust Stares before, at least not that he'd seen; suddenly he realized why so many girls fell for his old roommate. "I should warn you," he started, "that when she says she doesn't sleep, she's really not kidding."
"Good thing there are two of us, then," Chris said, raising an eyebrow.
"Together, we might have a small chance of tiring her out," Mitch agreed, and watched Chris's expression take on the slightest tinge of fear. The younger man smiled slightly; maybe there only being one bed in this hotel room might not be so bad.
Sneaking into the computer lab at Portland State had been distressingly easy. Mitch was the fastest with a keyboard, so Chris and Jordan hovered over his shoulders as he pinged Lazlo's home server. A talk mode window popped up almost instantly.
Welcome back, squire. I have received your most interesting faxen.
So what next?
Can you come out here before the end of the week and still make it back in time for work on Monday?
Mitch glanced up at the other two. I think Dr. Sidorov can spare me for a day, anyway. You want us at your place in Wyoming?
Yes. I have met, through some judicious inquiries on Usenet, a former employee of NOVA and his very curious friend. They have a similar spread just over the state line in Montana, and some fascinating stories to tell. And I think the Knight, the squire, and the fair lady could profit from these other tales of wizardry.
Mitch blinked. Images of Zippy and the sniper drone rolled through his head. The friend wouldn't happen to be a golem, would he?
Once again, the squire demonstrates his wisdom.
"What's a golem?" Jordan blurted.
"I'll explain on the way. Uh, we are going, aren't we?" Mitch glanced at Chris, worried.
"Hey, Spring Break road trip, remember?" Chris grinned like a Cheshire cat. "Tell him we'll be there as fast as I can drive us."
The Trusty Steed is on its way. We'll let you know when we hit the state line.
I look forward to seeing you again. The window closed and vanished.
"You heard the man," Chris said, as Mitch logged out. "Let's hit the road!"
"Especially since we're still not sure whether NOVA got a good enough look at me to charge us with trespassing," Mitch added under his breath as they filed out of the computer lab.
"It won't matter if we're out of the state," Jordan pointed out. The Knightmobile gleamed in the afternoon sun, ready for the next leg of their quest.