Neal’s back ached. The console seating was meant for fully deployed troops loaded with gear, not a tired astronomer being carted around the back country like a confused tourist. The workstation window was cluttered with various terminal windows and utility screens.
He had been at this for what seemed like hours. The red tactical lighting was starting to get to him, every time Neal glanced down at his hands he had the distinct impression that they were a bloody mess. It was enough to halt his train of thought and impede his progress.
What Neal had discovered so far, was absolutely counter to everything Agent Reed had said.
The “R-Wave”, as Reed had put it, was a fiendishly recursive and complex encoding scheme. It reminded Neal of cellular automata, simple rules that create amazingly complex results. Neal had built a simple parser, but the details were still elusive. While Reed was busy talking to the driver up front, Neal had quietly inserted his keychain USB drive.
He wasn’t about to hand over his work to Reed, not without a fight. Neal was on the verge of understanding, that annoying itch in his mind he couldn’t help but rub and scratch. Encrypting his results and utilities, Neal closed the terminal windows and leaned back, taking off his glasses to rub his eyes.
Neal had the feeling he had seen this kind of thing before. He just couldn’t place it at the moment.
Reed made his way back to the seat opposite, hunched over in the cramped interior.
“You know, I’d probably be able to function more effectively if you could tell me more.”, Neal wanted to see how far Reed would go with the infection scare, now that he knew it was a complete lie.
“You’ve been briefed on what I can tell you.”
“Somehow, I doubt that’s the truth.”, Neal surprised himself, but kept going,”What I really want to know is why you’re not giving the the whole picture.”
Reed stared at Neal, like a predator realizing its prey now had claws.
“As I said, the infection is proceeding faster than anticipated. We’re headed to our field station near Red Hill. It was one of the few facilities isolated from the event.”
Neal stared back, frustration boiling in his veins. The absolute gall of this guy. This wasn’t a goddamned infection, and he knew it. Neal wanted to spill everything he had learned, just to put Reed in his place, but he restrained himself. He might learn more at the station.
Neal’s anger ebbed as he forced himself into clinical observer mode. Absorb everything, formulate a plan. That’s the only way you’re getting out of this alive, he reminded himself. Neal’s stomach rumbled. He hadn’t had anything to eat for hours. He thought of the vending machine at the office, what he wouldn’t give for a packet of crisps right now.
“We’re just a few clicks out. I suggest you continue working, this thing is taking over – and we need to stop it.”, Reed made his way back to the front, casting a backwards glare. Neal’s time was running out. He’d better get this solved or there may not be much of a future. Sighing, Neal invoked the analyzer and loaded his saved files.
The APC was a custom job, slanted windows with periscope-like attachments pushed out of the way, used when night-vision driving was required. Reed crouched near the driver’s seat, looking at the tactical display on the console. They were less than 2 kilometers away from their objective, and Neal was clearly dragging his feet.
“Give me comms.”, Reed grabbed the mic dangling from the center console. The driver twisted a switch and punched in the frequency for Red Hill Operations.
“Red Hen, Papa Bear, inbound with the package. Advise status.”
Squawk of static and the rumble of the diesel filled the cockpit, red-lit dials and knobs the only light source. Reed cradled the mic, staring out at the dusty road, scrub brush dotting the shoulders.
“Copy that, Papa Bear. Setup Green. Best speed, lights are on.”
“Wilco Red Hen. Out.”, Reed slotted the mic and reviewed the plan.
Red Hill base confirmed they had the apparatus set, now all he needed was a reluctant astronomer to produce the goods. Too bad he didn’t have any immediate family to lean on. This whole operation would have been that much easier.
Reed was getting sick of this transport.
“Best speed, lets put the coals in the fire.”, he clapped his hand on the driver’s shoulder, who grunted and pushed down on the accelerator. The din increased, vibrations rattling Reed to his bones. They didn’t have much time. It was going to be tight as it is.
The red digits on the tactical display whirled down with renewed vigor, as Reed hunch-walked back to his seat. Neal was typing away, brackets and semicolons expressing in logical ciphers a new program to be executed.
That’s the real problem, Reed thought. Abstractions become reality faster than we can realize the implications. He suspected it would only increase as time wore on. Back to the task at hand. Reed checked his sidearm, sliding it slowly out of its holster.
Red highlights glinted off the metal, as Reed checked the chamber and worked the slide. You never know. It might just come down to this, in the end.
Neal kept typing, blissfully unaware of the pistol in Reed’s grip.
Abstractions to reality. Like a bullet in a gun, hammer cocked and ready.
(To be continued.)