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"CDPF68A78 coded access."
"Access code approved. Good morning, Mr. Wyeth. Please continue with voice print verification." The computer voice reminded me of one of those holochannel hucksters, the ones who talked to you and millions of others as though you were a long lost brother. It had a rich sincerity that only the seedier salesmen could fake.
"Voice print verify. Wyeth, John. Alpha Three Three Two Voice Set."
"Voice print verification ... please stand by, Mr. Wyeth," it said pleasantly, yet somehow implying in its tone that I'd find myself living at the bottom of a deep, dark hole if I wasn't who I said I was. I waited as the recording of my voice was matched against a previous one. Five seconds later the heavy bolts magnetically released with a hollow thud, and I was in.
Larry Alexander, the security guard, sat at his desk, his gun aimed at me in a very offhanded way. Procedure dictated that only one person was allowed in at a time, and standing orders were to shoot anyone who hadn't used voice verification. Incredibly, it had happened once. A couple of workers, who for some unknown reason had disregarded the constant warnings, lectures and protocol meetings, decided to see whether Larry really would shoot the unverified one, even though he knew both. They didn't think he would. We almost never hired idiots, wisdom being prized even higher than intelligence, but occasionally one got through.
They were right, though; Larry didn't shoot. It turned out that Larry's just a target for hostile intruders. The actual guard was located in one of three hidden vantage points. He was the one who shot, killing the second idiot. Noweverybody entered one at a time.
I approached Larry and waved. "Morning, Larry! How's NATech's number one sitting duck?"
For someone who was paid essentially to greet people and stop bullets, Larry seemed very firmly grounded. He laughed, his ruddy, slightly wrinkled face breaking into a big grin. "Fine, John! Nancy's back from Florida, and we're hoping to get up to the cabin next week."
"I envy you. My last vacation was about ... oh ... around ... I'm sorry. What's a vacation again?"
He grinned again and let me pass. There was no need to check in or out at the security desk once access had been gained at NATech's government research facility; every second was recorded on three separate holomeras, and if I wasn't who I said I was, I'd be on the floor, flopping, jerking, twitching or some such useless action, depending on where the sniper chose to shoot me.
First stop was my office. It would be nice to say it had a huge picture window that overlooked a stunning view, but my office didn't have a view. It didn't even have a window. NATech was buried inside a mountain in the western United States--never mind where--and was built to withstand several hundred megatons of blasts. What we did was pretty important, not just for military reasons, but for civilian and peacetime reasons as well, which is why we were still here and other companies, who had smugly thought of themselves as our competitors, were not. We did not have a single product, weapon, program, or piece of equipment on the market. What we did have was ideas. Not cutting edge stuff; everyone worth their salt had cutting edge ideas. We dealt only with unrealistic ideas. Unrealistic today, but not so within twenty years. That was our main focus: to envision technology and society and the impact of one on the other in twenty years. We then developed that technology and prepared the government, the public, and industry for the future. Nearly eighty years' existence gave proof to the need of our unique type of service.
Janet was waiting for me with my morning coffee. She always had my morning coffee ready. It really bugged me, too. Yes, she was my administrative assistant. But I had selected the brilliant Miss Yashida for her insight and brains, not to run errands and fetch my coffee. She held it out for me, and with a sigh, I accepted. I should try to beat her in some morning just to avoid this.
"Ohaio, boss! Strong and black, just like you drink it."
"Ohaio, Janet. You do enjoy doing this to me, don't you?"
She laughed and followed me into my office. That her Japanese greeting was informal was proof that she loved to yank my chain. I pressed my hand against the identity scanner and activated the system interface at my drafting table. I fished Mike, my holographic interface palmtop, out of my pocket and plugged him into the frame relay. He got busy downloading the night's reports from my team leaders into his ten terabyte hard RAM. He also took the time to access the massive parallel processors to run some calculations I'd given him last night. To protect against internal corruption at NATech, Senior Project Leaders such as myself worked completely independently of the main systems, keeping all our findings and ideas in our heads and on our powerful palmtops until final download and project implementation. Though we ran a risk of losing critical data if I was killed and Mike was damaged, it was even more important that NATech remain a nonpolitical, secret entity. Keeping our own projects separate was just one of our many safeguards.
I sat on my stool and took an appreciative sip of my coffee.
"Good batch this time, Janet. Grind the beans yourself?"
"Yep. Picked 'em, too. In fact, I just flew in from Columbia..."
"...and boy, are my arms tired," I finished for her, and she laughed. Janet had a love of the old jokes. The older, the better. "Uh-huh. So, what's on the list today?"
"Chris called about an hour ago. He's all hot about his team's mental input project. Guess he's moving ahead of schedule. He's certainly acting like it." She made a face. I put the mug down and looked at her carefully.
"Is he bothering you again, Janet?" I asked quietly.
"Nothing I can kill him for, no. He just has extra things for me to do. All standard stuff, but it feels like busy work." Janet only did things that had a purpose--even fetching me coffee served the purpose of tweaking me--and she hated with a passion doing anything that had no value. She looked at me quickly. "Don't worry about it, boss. You trained me well, and I'll handle it the right way.
"Moving on," she continued, trying to get back the tempo, "when Chris isn't calling, it's been Al. He's desperate to get his hands on you. The Pisces team can't wait to start the show. I gave them some background stuff and a few of the tidbits we've talked about. That should hold them for a couple of hours.
"The boss wants to see you at nine. Debbie called to tell you about an idea she had with the atmosphere shield problem on the Mars project."
"Any good?" I knew it would be; Debbie was quick on her feet and my brightest whiz kid, but I wanted to hear Janet's opinion.
"She's always got the good ideas. My guess is she's figured a way to modulate a number of minor geothermal generators to replace a single big one. We talked, but she didn't want to go into detail until she flew it by you and the boss."
"Understandable," I smiled, "I do sign her paycheck. Okay. What else?"
We discussed the rest of the day's agenda. I told her a few directions I wanted my various project teams to take, mentioned a few people to contact for updates on outside projects, and asked to see the final computations for undersea pressure variances on about three dozen polymers the lab crowd was whipping up. All told, I was project leader for a dozen major undertakings and about forty minor ones. With nearly two hundred brainiacs reporting to me, and each one needing or wanting a word of direction, encouragement or caution, it took us awhile to cover everything. Janet gave it to me, then listened to what I had to say, giving solid feedback often. She had nothing written down, nor wrote anything. She had a flawless memory to accompany her keenly focused mind and would take care of everything--and no doubt improve on it.
I was halfway through my second cup of coffee before we finished the daily details and she left to start the day's work. She closed the door behind her, knowing I always took ten minutes each morning to read my Bible. My attachment to NATech didn't allow me the pleasures of a public life, but I refused to surrender my faith. Janet understood and kept people away during my devotion.
I finished reading and put the Book away. I still had about twenty minutes before Chris would be out of his facilities staff meeting, so I fired up Mike, who had finished his download. Getting into my thinking mode, I folded my hands in front of my mouth and steepled my forefingers and pinkies, a habit from high school. Mike pinged.
"Greetings, Mr. Wyeth. Today is Thursday, March 26, 2026. The time is 7:17 AM." I'd tried various ways to have him address me, but they always reminded me of those holochannel shills, so I had settled on a formal greeting.
"Good morning, Mike. I've got a few scenarios to run through with you. Ready?"
"Of course I am," he said with just a trace of impatience in his tone. It had taken me weeks to program the perfect blend of irreverence, camaraderie and superiority into his voice, but the final effect was worth it. He reminded me of an impertinent, headstrong teenager who acted like he was always right, and thought you were a bit slow in the head, but liked you anyway. He usually was right, too. I was thankful that he wasn't real. A real teenager would rub my nose in it. I hadn't programmed that kind of response into him. I liked a challenge, but I wasn't a masochist.
"Okay, let's play underwater for awhile." I reviewed my ideas about genetic enhancement and imprint substitution, comparing them to his conclusions. I then rattled off some transportation, economic and political assumptions, mixed in several disaster scenarios, then asked for results based on various external stimuli such as global war, space colonization and a planet-wide political unification. He took in all my requests, then ignored me, which wasn't a programmed response; he was just too busy running the computations to listen to my prattle. I closed him up and stuck him in my suit pocket.