Tinker woke to blackness and a vague recollection of dying. He couldn't move his hands or his feet, and it smelled like a doctor’s office. He tried to lift his head but it was immobilized too. That was when he panicked and his breathing became rough and ragged. He strained to see in the dark, but was rewarded with nothing. His terror rose like a wave, and through his near hyperventilation . . . he screamed. Time passed, and Tinker woke again to an arch of light down by his feet. It was nothing more than a sliver, but it illuminated the area he was in and told him he was in a box . . . No, it was the drawer the doctors put him in when he died. The sliver began to increase in size and even though he couldn't lift his head, there was definitely more light. A gust of fresh air wafted into the drawer and Tinker took a deep breath. He wondered if everyone saw the arch when they died, and was glad the arch of light was there. It kept him from being so afraid. The unfairness swept over him, and he remembered the doctors telling him that he couldn't celebrate his tenth birthday. They told him no, because he had to die. Maybe they had changed their minds.
The drawer kept sliding and the light became brighter until Tinker saw a transparent face leaning over the table drawer. The light was so bright that his vision was diffused and he didn't really know where he was. That transparent face seemed familiar, and as the fog in his mind dissipated, he recognized her as another of the children here at the hospital. No, it wasn't a hospital . . . the doctors called it an underground facility. The facility where they had killed him. No one ever finds you once they take you underground. "Glass Cat? Am I dead?" "Hey, Tink . . . welcome back. I know what they told you, but trust me, you're not dead. They just made you sleep, that's all." The light seemed very bright, and Tinker squinted and shaded his eyes with his hands once she had undone the hand and head restraints. Glass Cat was a genetically altered child like the rest of the other nine, but unlike the others she could become transparent and appeared to be made of glass. The experiments conducted on her were all about stealth and invisibility. Tinker had come to view her as a big sister and was relieved to see her. "Where are the others and how come you're here?" Glass Cat unbuckled Tinker's feet and stood back, giving him room to slide off the table.
"I haven't opened those drawers yet and I'll need your help with that. Is that okay? We need to hurry cause we don't have much time. The doctors will be back soon and you guys need to leave." Tinker sat with his legs hanging off the table looking confused. "Leave and go where? Are you coming with us?" There was a lot she didn't want to tell the little Munchkin, but she didn't want him to suspect the parts she was leaving out. She just needed them to leave before it was too late. "You guys will leave before me, but I'll be along and catch up with you later, okay?" Tinker nodded suspiciously and pushed himself off the table and onto the floor. Tinker was an inquisitive child with brown hair and a contagious smile. The experiments conducted on him were considered classified, and none of the kids knew what his abilities were. They would have been surprised to learn his talents were all designed around adaptability. Given a few minutes, the child could literally adapt to almost anything. Tinker massaged his wrists and furtively glanced at the entrance. The room had ten drawers like the one that tinker had occupied, and gave every impression of being a morgue. Stark white walls and a grey linoleum floor helped to complete the effect. Banks of fluorescent lighting hung from above, giving the room a bright but flat look that illuminated everything at the same degree of efficiency. The end result was stark and ugly. The doctors had placed all the kids into these drawers, except Glass Cat because she had proven helpful in the procedures used in this room. They believed her to be docile, and totally indoctrinated into their system. They could not have been more wrong. In between experiments, the children were drugged and forced into the drawers to keep them from getting underfoot. It was obvious the well-being of the children was not a high priority, and the results from the experimentation were the only thing that they prized. They weren't given hospital gowns or anything that might have made their sleep more comfortable. Instead, they were laid in their street clothes, right down to their shoes. It was even easier for Eureka since she never wore clothing, being mostly cat-like in her appearance. Over the next few minutes, Glass Cat and Tinker pulled open every other drawer, undoing the restraints and waiting for them to awaken. Tinker frowned when Glass Cat gave each of them an injection to speed up the process. "Did you give me a shot too?" Glass Cat grinned at him, shaking her head. "No, sweetie. You woke up all by yourself. Kinda surprised me a little to tell you the truth." He looked perplexed, but accepted her answer. Finally with several grunts and groans, the rest of the kids began to awaken. Button Bright was the first to regain his senses, and he plodded over to Glass Cat, with disheveled brown hair and a yawn. "Two of the drawers are still not occupied and it kinda makes you wonder, huh? Where's Tik-Tok and Frogman?" The lanky teenager still looked a bit out of it and was wandering around aimlessly in his attempt to wake up.
Glass Cat smiled at him and tried to make his hair lay down. Eureka hopped down off the table she had been lying on, and giggled as she reached for Button's hair. She was one of the most outlandish of the kids, and also one of the most lethal. Genetically altered to be half cat and half human, it made her doubly dangerous. "I think he's cute when he's sleepy . . . meow." Glass Cat gave her a hug and turned toward the center of the room. "We don't know where Tik-Tok is, and Frogman is in his tank fast asleep, just like you were. We'll get to him when we're done here." Tik-Tok had only been with the other children at the beginning of the experiments, and then one day had just vanished. The doctors hadn't said a word about him since. Frogman, on the other hand, was a teen amphibian and would have perished had he not been kept in a tank of water. His basic attributes were similar to the others. He had brown hair and an average height for a middle teenager, but beyond that he was totally unique; dealing better with a watery environment than land like the rest. Kaliko was the next to stand up, and stretched like he'd been asleep for a hundred years. "Man, I've got the munchies. So, where are the doctors? I would so like to get my hands around their throats." Kaliko was genetically enhanced to be perfect and he knew it. He had long, dark, straight hair on a five foot ten body and muscles; a lot of muscles, and power over heat and electricity. The doctors referred to him as the one man army. Lurline undulated in a serpentine fashion on her table and shook her head trying to clear the cobwebs. She had been designed for two things, the first was physical perfection, and at sixteen years old she was the model of anatomical beauty. She was just a shade over five feet tall, with blue eyes and sandy blonde hair. The second thing was mind control, and anyone within fifteen feet was susceptible to her power. She could make a person do or say anything she wanted, and like an energy vampire, another person's life source was hers for the taking. She sauntered over to Glass Cat and kissed her on the cheek.
"Thanks, I'm not sure how this is possible, but I like it a lot. It doesn't feel like we were out very long this time." Kaliko flexed his muscles at her. "Well, here I am. What were your other two wishes?" Lurline stuck her tongue out at him. "Don't make me use my super power on you." He stuck both hands in the air and tried to do the whole surrender thing. "Must be nice to be able to influence everyone else’s behavior and do the mind trick like you do." Lurline pointed at the others. "These are not the cyborgs you're looking for." Glass Cat did the time out gesture, and little by little, the laughter subsided. "Okay, guys listen up. You've only been out about four hours, so you'll shake off the effects pretty quick. We have to go wake up Frogman, and then all of you have got to get out of here. The doctors aren't going to stay gone forever, and you need to leave while you can." Everyone started talking at once and Glass Cat put one hand up to get their attention. "Don't worry, I'll be along shortly but I've got some things I've got to do before I can leave. I'll explain when I catch up to you later. You've got to trust me and anyway, Button can find me once I'm on the move. I mean he's the tracker, right?" To keep the conversation down, Glass Cat started in the direction of the shower area where Frogman was sleeping. Although there was a considerable amount of grumbling, they followed. She quickened her steps and they sped up to keep pace, not knowing the full ramifications of her actions. They left the morgue room and turned right, which acted as a main hall leading to the shower area. The shower stalls were lined up along the left wall, and they could see Frogman floating in the stall at the very back. Clear panels covering two adjacent sides, had been installed to the back shower to accommodate the teen amphibian. Glass Cat reached over the side panel and grabbed Frogman's arm, dragging him to the side so she could reach him better. Frogman was typically sized for fifteen, an obvious athlete without being overly muscled. His face was slightly elongated, with large dark eyes and green mottled skin. He seemed more human than frog until you saw the webbed hands and feet. There were also visible gills on each side of his neck. The parts of his body that were visible had the same mottled skin as his face.
She injected him with the fluid, like the rest of the kids, and within minutes Frogman was awake and climbing over the panel. He listened to what the others had been told, blinked, and nodded his head in agreement. Glass Cat led them to the left, out of the shower area and down the long main hall. From there it was a straight shot to the rear entrance of the underground facility, and she paused at the ladder leading up to the outside world. "Try to stay together and keep an eye on the Munchkin." She said her goodbyes to each one as they got to the ladder, and when Tinker was ready to climb, she stopped him with a hug. When she pulled back, he looked down at her hand. Lying there was a gleaming gold coin. "You keep this little guy, and whenever you look at it you think of me. Now off you go. Tinker climbed slowly and disappeared into the night. Glass Cat closed the rear entrance and made her way back through the facilities until she reached the medical area. Going inside, like she had so many times before, Glass Cat reached for the high blood pressure cuff and affixed it to her arm. Her blood pressure was inordinately high without medication, and she also suffered with diabetes; both were treatable as long as she took her pills and injected herself with insulin. She didn't consider either one to be a real problem. Her last check up with the doctors had changed her life, and she had been working on how she felt about the diagnosis. Brain tumors can be slow growing or fast; it depends on the type and how quickly it invades the blood stream. The diagnosis had been given to her by Dr. Oscar Zoroaster himself, so there were no ifs, maybes or buts about it. She had a little less than six months to live. She could maximize her time by being consistent with her blood pressure and insulin, but it would only retard the tumor by a small margin. It was best not to tell the other children. She didn't want them to worry or stay because of her condition. It was the condition that drove her to kill the doctors and give her friends the ability to just stroll right out the door. The doctors wouldn't be coming back because they had never left. She couldn't tell the kids about that either. She wanted to bear the shame alone, but wasn't sure she could do that. Only time would tell. There were only a few things left to do, and then just wait for the tumor to end her life.
The panorama seen from Oscar Zoroaster's Omaha mansion did nothing for his peace of mind today. He was sure everyone was out to get him and his stress levels were, at this point, monumental. The Zoroaster family had lived in the Omaha area for about a century, and over time had become one of the premier families. Originally from the United Kingdom, the first family immigrants had been trend setters, and the money had flowed until their influence was felt in almost every business. They owned cattle and sheep, but also extended their assets to metal working and the publishing of books. Generations later, Oscar's father had infiltrated local politics and influenced many of the laws that were pertinent to his business interests. After Oscar's parents’ untimely demise, he took over the family businesses and combined them with his interests in science. For the first time in a hundred years, more money was being spent than they had made. Oscar's passion was in the alteration of human genetics, and he had no intention of giving the world most of the ground- breaking, newsworthy discoveries. In the last few years, he had also dabbled in software, but found he didn't have the patience it took to develop good code.
Oscar was a stately man with refined and very expensive tastes. At somewhere near fifty years of age, his slightly balding, salt and pepper hair gave his British heritage an upper crust demeanor that seemed to look down on all the people around him.
It was hard being brilliant, especially when the people around you were so ill equipped to appreciate it. That was always the problem, even from the very beginning. The children were supposed to see it long before the adults because they were
smarter. Children should be easy to work with; you tell them what to do and they do it. That didn't work either, but if worse came to worse, he could always start over. The Summer Camp, Langwidere, was still in operation and he could always hire more scientists. Training them was tedious, but doable.
Most parents drop their children off at Langwidere and then never give them another thought until the end of the season. He could alter the children, train new scientists and be ready for next season without too many setbacks. One of the doctors had arrived late to his post, and realized men would have to be sent to hunt down the children that managed to escape. Most of them would stick out like sore thumbs, and should be easy to spot once they poked their heads out to do anything like find food and water. All ten of his kids were genetically enhanced, so they wouldn't be able to hide for long. Maybe he'd get lucky and they would show up at Langwidere looking for their parents.
One of the kids, Tinker by name, needed to be kept in Texas. He was younger than the rest, and way too young to go far without adult supervision. Oscar looked at his maps again, trying desperately to predict where Tinker or any of the other nine children would go. A soldier dressed all in black marched into the room, went immediately to attention and announced his presence. "John Dough reporting, Sir." Oscar turned slowly around, nodded his head, and looked at the soldier he had created. "At ease, Dough . . . report." The soldier relaxed, placed his hands behind his back, and put twenty four inches between his feet. "Malcolm Gridley has still not completed your Epitomy program sir, and the woman at the front desk of I.C.S. indicated that he had been laid off and no longer works there." Oscar Zoroaster's face turned red as he fought to contain himself. "Let's get this straight . . . if the Epitomy Program is not instituted, then the country's mainframes won't go down. If the mainframes don't go down, then I can't send a signal. Then I'll have to start over from the beginning. And if I have to start over, you will be the first person I shoot. Did you follow that all the way through? Oscar’s entire five foot nine inch frame struggled not to kill Dough where he stood, and he ran his hand through his thinning hair as if that would somehow make him feel better. His green eyes darted around the room like a hawk looking for its prey. The children had progressed too fast, that was the problem, but they could run around out in the real world for awhile. That wouldn't harm anything, and when they got hungry enough they'd be back. The Epitomy program was the priority; everything else could wait. "Step up surveillance and let me know the minute Malcolm Gridley finishes the program. I assume you haven't lost Gridley too." John Dough never even flinched and his eyes looked straight ahead, staring at everything and nothing.
"Malcolm is working out of his home sir, and according to our contacts at I.C.S., he never left copies there. We have run scans on his email repeatedly and there are no mentions of you. He doesn't remember you and probably never will." Oscar would never admit that he lacked the skills to create Epitomy. The program had been his brain child, but after years of work he simply couldn't get it to perform. Malcolm, on the other hand, was a technological genius on one side and an idiot on the other. It hadn't taken much to alter his memory, and he suffered from O.C.D. causing him to become obsessed with the new software. He would never know his Epitomy obsession was part of the alterations to his mind.
A haze had formed around the mountains and threatened to wash over Phoenix before the day was through. The mountains’ purple majesty was a thing of the past, and from the look of it, would not return anytime in the near future. The interstate ran past the row of mountains, and commuters paid them little or no attention as they made their way to jobs they cared nothing about.
Malcolm Gridley probably didn't remember they were there anyway, and was absorbed in his computer program computations as the mountains slid behind him. The taxi he rode
in was air conditioned, but sweat rolled slowly down his neck as he flipped pages trying to find the same problem that had eluded him for days. Malcolm only had to suffer a few more minutes before reaching the main headquarters of the International Computer Services building where he had worked for the last eighteen years. He had never learned to drive, and consequently rode in taxicabs to and from his job every day. He had even gotten to know most of the drivers and no longer needed to tell them where he wanted to go, which was advantageous to him since he rarely remembered where that was. Malcolm Gridley was a brilliant man in some areas, but lacked the common sense that most of the free world took for granted. He used every day to perform the bulk of the tasks needed to survive. This unassuming little man depended on the kindness of many people around him, and for the most part was thriving in his daily life. Today portended itself to be like all the others and he ignored the world from the back seat of the late model Chevrolet as he made his way to work. He again wiped sweat from his balding head and then rubbed his hand across his lapel before taking a pencil out of his mouth. The pencil scratched over the paper and Malcolm subconsciously made note of the perspiration reforming on his forehead. His computations didn't look right to him, and he looked up for the first time since entering the vehicle.
"Oh good, we're almost there," he mumbled and then immediately wondered if that statement was even true. The cabby half turned in his seat and took a cigar from his mouth. "What was that, Doc?" Malcolm looked up and frowned. "What was what?" "Oh nuttin, Doc. . . I was just wonderin if that stuff you're workin on has ya troubled, that's all." Before the little man could answer, the main building of I.C.S. loomed in the foreground and even Malcolm had taken notice. "Here we go Professor, work again, work again jigidee jig. I got your charge logged in and it'll go on your bill as usual. See ya tamarra!" Gridley exited the car and nodded to the cab driver as he zoomed off to another fare, before turning to face the main building of I.C.S. He made his way into the foyer, where he noticed the temperature seemed colder than it had the previous day. Several people spoke to him as he entered the elevator, but Malcolm was oblivious to them and stared into space as the doors closed. Gridley's office was located on the fourth floor, and even as the elevator was sliding open, his supervisor was calling him to the common area near where he worked. "Need to talk to you in my office Gridley," prefaced the executive, and then walked off. The absent minded computer wizard nodded and followed the supervisor until he had gone into a large, expansive office suite and closed the door. A closed circuit television screen was mounted over the double doors, and displayed the entire fourth floor work force as they went about their daily business. Malcolm had never known or noticed it before, and was shocked at the management's scrutiny of their supposed trusted workers. The extravagant furnishings seemed out of place to Gridley as he stood there waiting for the man to speak. An original Picasso hung directly behind the desk, and chrome and glass had inundated the plush room. Even the desk was carved from what appeared to be solid black marble. "Gridley, times are tough everywhere and it's no different here at I.C.S. I'm sure that's no secret to you, right?" Before he could answer, his boss went on; "It's time we streamlined . . . it's time we bit the bullet and made sacrifices that everyone knows the company needs and appreciates. We're being forced to cut at every level and minimize our losses. The cuts are effective immediately and are final Gridley, so with that having been said, you'll be escorted to your office where you will clean out your desk drawers and leave the premises. This shouldn't take any longer than say . . . twenty minutes?"
Malcolm Gridley stood in front of the expansive grounds of the I.C.S. complex waiting for a cab and was too confused to feel
much of anything.
A large box containing his belongings sat next to his diminutive five foot frame, a sign of his absolute defeat and resignation. For the first time in years he was thinking of something besides files and programs, but he wasn't sure of what it was. He knew it was time to reevaluate his life, but didn't know where to start or how to begin. As his eyes refocused, he saw the familiar face of Dan, the taxi driver that had driven him to work this very morning. Malcolm smiled, picked up his box and climbed into the car. The taxi pulled away and he watched as the lighted sign of I.C.S. blinked hesitantly at him. Perhaps it too would be replaced if the profits dropped again. The thought didn't help much, and he sat back and closed his eyes.
Malcolm reached for the telephone and glanced cautiously at the screen again. He wasn't sure about the full ramifications of the computer program he had designed, but he was running out of money and time. According to the calendar, it had been two months since his layoff at I.C.S. The bank account told him he was in need of employment, and it needed to be soon. The last sixty days had been the most different in his life, but he was actually thinking for himself. In that respect he was pleased with the way things had gone. The new program was done and he had tentatively planned to call Jack Stewart, an old friend that had promised him work if he ever needed it. If Jack liked the program, then he might accept Malcolm working in an independent capacity, and that was what the little specialist wanted. Working for a large corporation had its advantages, but it also meant regimentation and that was where he wanted to draw the line. It was easier just to design the systems and ship them where they needed to go. He concentrated on the cell phone screen and as he dialed, his hand fidgeted uncontrollably. The computer screen flickered, changed colors, and then as Malcolm looked over, it changed back. He leaned down and looked more closely but couldn't pick out the differences from before, although he was sure that something was not the same. Jack answered on the fourth ring and Malcolm started visibly, knocking his cup of coffee onto the floor. "Jack, this is Malcolm Gridley . . . yeah, fine thanks, well not fine actually. . . I could use work . . . huh? Got laid off . . . yeah, that's right . . . I've got a new program ready to go and this one's going to revolutionize the industry . . . No, it's not an operating system, but it will rewrite any system, taking it to its potential and making it compatible with just about anything. I've blown what? Yeah, I think I've blown the lid off the software business. Uh, Jack? What does blowing the lid off the business entail? Sure, you can look at the program, that's why I called; and if you like it then maybe we can think about me going to work for the company, ok? Do you think you could send someone over to pick it up, or I could drop it by this afternoon? . . . No, I still don't drive. That'd be great. Yeah, I'll be here all afternoon. No problem and thanks, I really appreciate this . . . Sure, yeah, you too . . . Bye." Malcolm placed the phone back on the desk, sat down in front of the computer and watched in amazement as the letters of the main directory in his operating system rearranged themselves into a series of new patterns. He had never seen anything like this before in the years spent in front of a computer, and he was totally entranced. A moment later, the computer informed him of the changes and the amount of memory that was now freed in the extended range. Malcolm leaned his chin on his hands and thought about the improvements as the colors altered, fluttered hesitantly, and then reversed.
After going back through the main system it occurred to him what was really happening, and his hands fairly flew over the keyboard. The program he had designed was not only rewriting the language, but the overall intent of the file it was adjusting. He had to delete the program from the computer before it went too far. There were no safeguards to the amount of change or direction the metamorphosis underwent once the new mathematical sequence was activated. Directory after directory was destroyed, and it wasn't until the bulk of the program was gone that Malcolm realized how badly he was sweating. He wiped his brow and felt a series of chills pass through him like a wave, and his hands began to shake. The room seemed to dance in front of him and the lights dimmed momentarily before snapping back to normal. The computer screen pulled away, turned slightly, and went out of focus to pop into place again as the world was yanked back to the here and now. Malcolm stared at his hands as they trembled uncontrollably, and for the first time he realized the severity of his physical dilemma. A sharp pain coursed through him and the chills were replaced with hot flashes; his breath quickened as if he had just run a mile uphill. As the last of the directories came up on the screen, Malcolm pressed the correct series and they disappeared, gone forever. He sat back and then decided to call Jack to let him know not to come, when the pains returned and the world went topsy-turvy again. His hands grabbed the chair arms and he thought about nothing and everything, but knew something was missing when the memory of the program flooded across his mind. The original disks were still lying on the table to the right of the computer. Jack would pick them up when he got here, but those would have to be redesigned too or the same problem would occur to the next operator who used them. Malcolm strained to reach the disks, only to realize he was unable to move his arms. Explosions of light detonated in his eyes and the computer screen wavered unsteadily as his life waned like pages of a book flipping in the wind. Malcolm's head fell to one side as the last page of the book came and went, his eyes staring off into the distance. The computer blinked in cadence with an unheard beat and the disks lay on the table undisturbed, a beacon that Jack would find on his arrival. The disks were carefully labeled and marked with the name that Malcolm had given them - Epitomy 1.5. The blinking on the screen ceased at the same time as Malcolm's heart, and from the blackness emerged a slowly spinning Mobius strip against a multicolored background. At the top of the screen, lines of type began to slide toward the bottom as Epitomy replaced the deleted files. It was a quiet irony; the symbol of infinity spinning in front of a man whose time had run out.