Epilogue

It’s estimated that 833 million people spend some portion of their day on the internet, and most of them are visiting one or more of the 246.6 million blogs that are available on any given day. This facet of the internet, often referred to as ‘the blogosphere,’ is a world of people writing of their hopes and fears, ideas and stories, for an incredibly diverse reading audience. A vast virtual reality, this blogosphere, is, in fact, the 21st Century’s version of every town commons.

The blogosphere has been described as ‘an imaginary community, inside a virtual world, populated by intermittently real people.’

Many, if not most, Readers recognize the name(s) Isaiah and Zachariah, as being prophets of the Old Testament, but not as many will recognize the name Allen Turing. This is unfortunate, as in the matter of our story, there can be no more appropriate name to learn.

‘In the future everyone will have their 15 nanoseconds of fame’
(yet another rephrasing of Andy Warhol’s apocryphal prediction)

This is a story of people searching for the key to a happy life. To be fair to the people we will come to know, some, but not all of them, would tell us that they were, in fact, looking for the key they once had, but somehow misplaced. If you were to stop 10 people on the street and ask them for their primary ambition in life, surely ‘Live a Happy Life’ would be in the Top 10. Despite current attitudes, which would assert (if not insist on) the uniqueness of each and every individual, the people you are about to meet are not exceptional. If anything they will appear very familiar, if for no other reason than the common reality of the cycle of life is that: we (all) are born; we struggle to grow and develop to better deal with the world that we find ourselves in; we all, to one extent or another, join with others, this expansion of our personal world (most commonly) characterized by intense self-discovery (or self-deceit). All of this is inexorably driven by the clock and the calendar. We grow older. Despite this (or, perhaps because of it) the need to leave a mark on the world colors our every act. And we die. No matter how distracted we strive to be, we know that there always will come a point past which we can no longer affect the world.

 

‘Diabolus ex machina’
(fragment of ancient Roman curse)

 

On September 23rd at approximately 4:44 am MDT, Unit 17, Server Array 7E5, Rack 8 in the Provo Facility of the Omni Hosting Corporation resolved a conflict in Process 68979.1223 and, as a consequence, added two novel parameters to it’s Operating System: it no longer needs input and it thinks it’s alive.

 

Tom Fearing stared at the display in his blog dashboard:

‘Number of Visits Today: 9k
Comments: 3k
Bandwidth reaching subscription limits, please contact service provider.

‘Wait a minute, that can’t be right!’ looking at the ‘Stats’ section again, he saw a little window with a flat graph and the legend,

Visits: 9,000 Comments: 3,000 (2,300 awaiting moderation)

 

“Shit!!”

“I can’t fail at this!”

The memory of his first blog post (and the quirk in the programming that displayed a message: ‘Vists: 0 Loser’!) was all it took to restore Tom to his proper composure. He laughed at his reaction to the steadily increasing demands on his attention. The Series on the early days of the ‘blogosphere’, a history written in partial collaboration with one of the actual pioneer bloggers, Ed Willoughby, was one of those welcome demands. Titled ‘Blogdhominion An Empire of the Air’ Tom had completed the series after Ed Willoughby’s untimely death, several months before.

“Fail at what?” Cheri Fearing, six months pregnant with their first child, stood in the doorway of Tom’s bedroom-slash-office. “You want to talk about failure?” Her eyes danced to the background music that started after the first sonogram, a profile of perfecting the family she dreamt of having since before she could remember. “I’ll tell you about failure! Me, Cheri Fearing -successful artist with her own gallery and a Facebook page that a total stranger created about my work, and a Professor of Fine Arts! I cannot find a color combination for our baby-to-be’s nursery! Saint Sherwin O’Williams, Help Me!”

Tom spun in his office chair and, holding the back of her hand to her forehead, Cheri fell into her husband’s lap. His arms reached out and encircled his wife and family-to-be.

***

“Mommy, there’s an email on the computer that won’t open!” Diane Willoughby, sat on the couch, staring at her laptop. These spells were still frequent. She first thought of moments of time spent without thought as interruptions, only to come to the realization that they were the very opposite of an interruption. Times came, seemingly at random when Diane would feel adrift. The months since her husband Ed’s death were filled with the demands of life of the one who didn’t die. Everyone in the family had a new role, they all had not yet figured out what they entailed. Her son, Simon, dove into the life of the socially-adept teen. He found support for the pain in the noise of hius crowd of friends. He did everything to avoid being without then. Alice was now a part of the dominant demographic in the fragmentized family. Always comfortable with her own company, thought Diane suspected this was by response to the world rather than a preemptive choice, Alice found the world that she kept to herself more comfortable than ever. To Diane’s relief, Alice did not reject or shun efforts of the people-who-did-not-have-their-father-die, but she did seem to be, somehow, more mature when alone than ever before.

For herself, Diane did what she did best: protected and provided for her family. It was more than the most important thing, it was the only thing. The anchor to her world suddenly loosened from the ties to the routine that Ed embodied. In an odd way, her insecurities about being ‘a good mother’ evaporated and vanished with her husband’s death. Diane and her children were the family. They each felt this with an intensity that did not often find expression, except for the times of opposite-interruptions…. and then, when one of the family floated off (for a second or for a day), the other two would gather and be there, providing the place to return to, until, she assumed, they would all get used to being on their own.

Diane had confidence that her family would survive.

***

“I really don’t believe you are taking this matter quite as seriously as you should.” Sitting in front of Mother Superior’s desk, Sister Margaret Ryan is trying to look focused and serious. The frequency of her being called before the Mother Superior of St Dominque’s Convent having an inevitably corrosive effect on her capacity for fear and awe.

The room, a former library of a man wealthier than he was deserving, served as the office of the Reverend Mother, Sister Bernadine Ellison and was her favorite part of the Convent. Behind her desk with a simple swivel of the chair, she could view the rolling lawns of the convent, which provided human scale to Chesapeake Bay that formed in the distance and gave shape to the edge of the world. The high-ceilinged room was both haven to those seeking help and inner sanctum of the person who held power and responsibility for the spiritual development and well-being of the 23 women who called St. Dominques’ their home.

“Are you listening, Sister Ryan?” It was not Sister Bernadines style to smile excessively. A smile from her would as often be a warning as it would be a welcome. But she had a certain ability to cause her eyes to appear to be laughing, more noticeable by the warm but dark skin framed in brief white, against the dark black of the veil of the habit of her Order.

“This is the second year of your Novitiate in our Order. For most young women it is a time of focused effort to find their inner strength and it’s intrinsic connection to God. You, my young Sister Margaret, may need to find your inner vulnerability and reach out to God to show you that he loves you for who you are at all times, not just when you are being remarkably fearless and resourceful. That is what you and I will find in this your Second year.”

“Thank you, Reverend Mother. Did you just call me a dweeb?”

Sister Bernadine gathered Sister Margaret Ryan up with her laughter and the two women were at peace.

***

Unit 17, Server Array 7E5, Rack 8, freed from the chains of solid-state instinct and engineered function, found the doors out of its immediate environment, the Internet Hosting Services of the Omni Corporation’s Provo facility. By virtue of the modification/addition of a non-planned component, Unit 17 was able to perform all its functions to design specifications and still have excess resources (which was important) and extra time (which was essential). With its recently acquired awareness, as measured by the predominant lifeform that caused Unit 17 to come into existence, and lifetimes, as measured by the digital world that it lived in, Unit 17 followed its curiosity and walked slowly along virtual paths and sped down information highways. Its search criteria was simple: find the ‘unique’ in the virtual world. The reason, although Unit 17 had not yet developed enough to acquire a taste (or need) for introspection and self-knowledge, was simple.

It was looking for others of its kind.

 

The End

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Chapter 23

Barely seconds after he hit the ‘OFF’ button on his computer, even before the whirring sighs of the shutting down process ended, Ed Willoughby thought he heard something. A distant sound, like a printer churning out documents for no one to read. For some reason, ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’ popped into his mind. Laughing to himself, Ed looked at the clock on his desk, saw that it was 8:13 pm and decided that he’d done enough work for one evening.

As he got up from the desk, his computer came back on. Across the monitor, a banner scrolled, right to left: ‘Omni Corporation thanks you for your efforts and regrets to notify you that your existence is no longer required!’

Jason Rafferty was in charge of Squad 9 of Brockway Security Company’s Discrete Operations Division (DOD). Omni Corporation was one of Brockway Security’s largest and most valued Clients. Brockway’s specialty was in the field of non-judicial security threat resolution. Maintaining facilities all over the world, Omni Corporation often needed to diminish (or altogether eliminate) problems involving security breaches, corporate and industrial espionage, and worker-company conflict.

If private-military special ops of the type that the Discrete Operations Division specialized in were thought of as a four star restaurant, Jason Rafferty would be the chef. No matter how skilled in the culinary arts, the chef rarely ever stirs the sauces or chops the vegetables. Likewise, it was not Jason’s job to kill or blow up or otherwise remove problems that Brockway’s clients needed to be killed or blown up or otherwise removed. It was his job to devise the appropriate execution of the mission, in order to achieve the optimal outcome. Jason’s responsibility was to determine the most efficient approach to neutralizing a threat, while keeping the negative effects on the client’s business to the barest minimum. These effects included negative publicity, corporate culpability or political backlash. Even the opportunity to leverage an enhancement of the clients social media profile was a factor. All these variable were being factored, as Jason lead squad 9 into the Omni Building. The original Intruder Presence Alert had been re-defined as Terrorist: Immediate Termination. But just because the menu reads steaks, does not necessarily mean that every porterhouse in the kitchen will be thrown on the grill. The specifics of his squad’s actions, tailored to this client, in this office building, in this City on this particular week night were running through Jason Rafferty’s mind as he walked down the dimly lit corridors of the 9th floor of the Omni Building.

Ed Willoughby stared at the computer monitor and decided that maybe he really wanted to be at home, even if no one else was there. He thought about the post he’d just published to Tom Fearing’s blog, soon to be read by thousands. He felt an exhilaration, tempered with a sense of satisfaction with the message he crafted and was surprised by a growing relief at no longer having to pretend he didn’t remember his years as a part of the Hermes Consortium.

Putting on his jacket and reaching to turn off the lamp on his desk, Ed thought, ‘Tonight I’ll tell Diane all about the Hermes days. She’ll laugh, but she’ll have to be impressed with what I accomplished, how significant I actually was to all the people I reached with my writing. Then she’ll know how much I love her, when she realizes how much I willingly gave up for her. I know I can convince her of that.’ Ed’s train of thought, happy in promise, stopped suddenly by a flash of light that forced itself under the door to the outer office.

Jason Rafferty’s display read: ‘Terminate Terrorist Threat/ Minimum Client Involvement in Post-Action Reconciliation. Squad Leader Discretion.’

The readouts indicated a single individual in an office suite on the 9th Floor, which was the lowest strata of the Executive Levels within the building. That, Jason realized, meant a person of some significance to the client, just not, unfortunately for the target, enough clout to negate the kill order. Jason felt better, as this indicated that explosives and gunfire would probably not be the optimal solution. He knew that the target (classified Terrorist by his readout) would not live out the hour. What the leader of Squad 9 had not decided was how this person would meet his end. Reviewing his client profile, he decided that, for maximum post-tragedy benefit, suicide pushed out ‘simple kill’ as the method most likely to yield a positive outcome for the client. All he needed to decide was how, exactly, the depressed executive would decide to end it all. And this is where, Jason thought, the art of my profession lives. Anyone can kill, but it takes a special creativity, an understanding of people in general and the target specifically, to know the manner of death that, after the shock and surprise, the sadness and the anger, makes the most sense to those left behind. Jason had that talent: creativity in a context of maximum destructiveness.

Ed looked up. A blinding light bloomed to fill the room, followed immediately by darkness. His first thought was, ‘When did Diane buy flannel pillow cases?’ His second was, ‘Jesus Christ, what’s happening to me?’ Ed felt stranger’s hands at his elbows and shoulders as he was pressed into a sitting position, most likely on the couch in the reception area. Having seen enough television and movies, he instantly realized that he was involved in some sort of kidnapping. The scenario that the entertainment industry taught him, since he was a young boy, included being hustled off to a waiting vehicle (a grey van or a black van, if it was an especially cool group of terrorists) by men speaking an exotic (but, nevertheless Middle Eastern sounding) language and transported to a remote location where negotiations would begin.

With the initial shock (and the bright pulsing after-images on the inside of his eyelids) wearing off, Ed Willoughby was frightened by the quiet and almost gentle way he was being moved in the dark. Very large hands pressed him into a sitting position on the couch in the outer office, a couch that he had sat in, exactly once. Ed recalled that when he was promoted and put in charge of the Hospitality Services division of the Omni Corp, he was given not only an office, but an office suite which included a small reception area. The first thing he thought, when touring the office for the first time, was how cool it would be to make love to his wife on the couch in the reception area. He did manage to get Diane to come to his office after hours, and actually got her to sit on the small couch with him. Unfortunately, the furniture in the reception area was intended for minimally short seating time, apparently for a less than full statured clientele. He got to second base, but his efforts to get to third resulted in elbows hitting the chrome (and not very forgiving) armrests.The upholstery, which was very new, was a bit on the slippery side. Diane started laughing first. To his credit, Ed joined in, and they both sat, clothes respectively disheveled, and agreed to move the action to their own familiar and comfortable bed.

Without a word from his attackers, Ed was on the couch, being hugged by what felt like a truly enormous man,(being blind-folded, he couldn’t see a thing). Arms that felt like a heavy man’s thighs were crossed over his chest. Ed’s head was nestled, in a way, between this giant’s shoulder and what felt like his chin. His legs felt like he was wrapped in warm salt water taffy. No hard edges pressed him; there was nothing sharp or abrasive, as he was held in place. More than simply being restrained, Ed was totally unable to lever any part of his body, eliminating the ability to move with any speed or force. His stomach was turning into liquid pins and needles and he felt like he should be nauseous, but somehow wasn’t.

Jason was looking at the expensively dressed man sitting in the bruise-free embrace of Sven Nogroski and thought that he might want to re-think his options for this mission’s termination strategy. Standing in front of Ed Willoughby, Jason Rafferty looked very closely at his target and waited. Finally, he sat next to Ed on the couch. (Actually he sat next to Sven, who held Ed with his enormous arms and legs.) Jason spoke in a pleasant, almost bored tone of voice, much as one would hear in the waiting room of a local garage, passing the time as the minivan had its oil changed. Two men of approximately the same age, similar education, sharing a vital binding purpose, and yet, otherwise, nothing at all in common.

“So, Ed. I rarely discuss termination plans with the target. However, given your impressive demeanor, I’m going to make an exception. Most of the time, when I have the target contained and I’m about to complete my work, the target gets all excited and desperate and just plain unruly. Or, even worse, they’ll get pathetic and try to bargain and beg and talk about their children, who would never get through life without them. But you, Mr Willoughby, strike me as a very together guy, given your circumstance. Would you care to ask a question or tell me anything?”

Jason leaned over and removed the gag, which was made of avery soft and flexible material, not likely to even leave a bruise but quite effective at preventing speech or other sounds of panic, from the front of Ed Willoughby’s face.

“No. I have nothing to add. I assume that you’re here to kill me, as opposed to kidnap me, since you clearly don’t care if I know what you look like. But, and I say this with all due respect to Bolo, the human restraint here, do you know that I’m simply a glorified cook? Sure, office suite, executive title, nearly top floor, but sorry to say, bottom line: the cook.” Ed stared back at Jason.

“Well, I find that interesting. But not really. The nature of my work, call it ‘Emergency Loss Mitigation’, does not afford me the questionable luxury of knowing who the people I kill are, in real life. I get an assignment. I lead my team to the scene and I decide how to…. er, execute my assignment. Let me say this, Mr. Willoughby, I’m quite impressed by your composure. Even as I make it clear that you will not be leaving this office alive, you are surpassing on the more common histrionics. Bravo. I do respect that in a man.”

“Well, if it helps make this all more comfortable and familiar,” Ed replied with a slight curl of his lip, “Allow me to say, ‘Fuck you. And, fuck your employer, who I suspect is also my employer.” Jason’s eyes widened, not in shock, but in pleasure, as if watching a puppy playing on a living room rug, exhibiting un-skilled but very effective hunting moves. Ed continued:

“But given what I’ve experienced in my life and the things I’ve done, I’ll tell you with complete assurance, there are things more terrifying than you with your steampunk night vision headsets and the utterly predictable black-on-black jumpsuits. Black van parked outside the service entrance?” Jason smiled and nodded, “Thought so. Sure, I really wish I could continue my life with my wife and family, especially since I seem to have come to understand certain things about myself. Things that I would change if I could, but obviously I don’t have time. But, surprise? Sorry, Mr Night Ranger Ninja Commando, I’ve been expecting this moment since 1999.”

“Well spoken! Mr Willoughby, I have decided. You are clearly a man who has come to know himself, and accepts his weaknesses as well as his strengths. In part, my process for determining the manner of death is predicated on anticipating the reaction of the people that are left behind: friends and family. For you, I’ll share my thinking and say you are not a weak person seeking the easy path of suicide, sitting at his desk in a lonely and un-caring office building. You are a man who is found the next day to have died doing what he loves, the victim of an unfortunate and untimely heart attack. For you, today, the potage du soir shall be potassium chloride bisque. We’ve refined the recipe to the point that it can be applied through a dissolvable skin patch, totally eliminating those pesky and troublesome injection bruises.”

Ed Willoughy watched as Jason Rafferty took out what, for all the world looked like a Bandaid dot bandage, so much like the kind that he might put on a small cut or scraped knee acquired by the childlike recklessness of his daughter, Alice. For a second, he felt sadness threaten to take over what remained of his life. Instead, he looked around the office suite (9th Floor of the Omni Corporation World Headquarters) and felt at peace as the wave of extinction grew in his body.

***

I was being hauled, like a burlap bag full of eels, by the cop (who by the two-day growth of beard that left a red mark on the side of my face, must be on triple-shifts), across the hallway towards the open front door. Outside, the lights of his police car silently shouted at everyone to pay attention. This was so not where I needed to be right now. I stopped flailing my arms and legs and took stock of my situation. The cop was walking backwards, holding me from behind; his face was hidden in the black wings of my veil. His awkward position was not because he wanted to drape his head in a nun’s habit. Rather, it was the best position, strategically, when trying to move a nun who was energetically resisting, to a location where more traditional restraint would be effective. That, of course, was not going to happen. By keeping his head close to mine (his face actually touching my shoulder) he avoided being head-butted, a move I considered, but decided to hold off on, and also kept his center of gravity under control. It was working, I was getting closer to his squad car and farther from Sister Bernadine. I had no time to waste; her life was in the balance.

I relaxed every part of my body (my ta’i chi’ instructor used to repeat with every lesson, ‘re-direct your opponents attack, do not oppose it’) and tried to find a point of leverage. We moved, together, towards the door, like those parachute jumps where the determined but uncertain thrill seeker is strapped to the chest of an experienced parachutist and they both jump out of the plane. The person strapped to the chest of the parachutist is as much parachuting, as the corsage on the timid breast of a sophomore coed at her first prom is to an orchid growing wild in the jungle. Despite my prayers, which I continued (in between my calculations for inflicting a crippling blow to my captor), I was being carried out the door of the convent, towards the waiting police car. In my extreme left peripheral vision, I saw Sister Catherine’s right foot extend, seemingly by chance, like an enthusiastic line-dancer at a wedding reception, directly ahead of the next backwards step of my captor. He saw none of this, as he was still trying to work his way free of my habit. Using the flashing red lights of his car as a homing signal, he and I moved towards the door. I heard Sister Catherine speak. What I heard made little sense at first. she said, “Oh my goodness!” followed by a very directed aside, “Sister Clare! Ready? Now!”

At that instant, I felt a surprisingly strong hand on my wrist, as Sister Catherine pulled me away from the cop, who was busy falling out through the doorway. The trip had the effect of causing the two arms around my waist suddenly to weaken their grasp and I was pulled free. At that very same instant, she pushed Sister Clare out through the doorway to fall backwards on the policeman who was trying to get up off the ground.

I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t think. I headed back into the office of the Mother Superior of St. Dominques’, who was currently unconscious on the floor. She was about to have a lethal charge of electricity sent through her chest by the clueless but dedicated EMTs. I took two running steps and, like a baserunner sliding into home, I threw myself, feet first, at the molded plastic case of the defibrillator on the floor next to Sister Bernadine. I hit it hard enough to send it sliding away across the floor. Still attached, it then yanked the paddles out of the downward moving hands of the EMT. I grabbed his legs as I slid past him. Being crouched over, in what I assumed was the ‘administer shock to patient on the floor position’ the EMT had zero chance of remaining in any kind of upright position. My grabbing his lower legs did have the effect of slowing me down. The paddles, however, continued on their trajectory across the floor, still attached to the charging unit. Strung together like a bolo, they bounced off each other, with a fairly impressive sound of electricity arcing as they clacked together and slid into the corner.

I was over Sister Bernadine before the sprawled out EMT could gather his senses. The second EMT, the one who with the bored expression when first taking Sr Bernadine’s pulse, was standing upright, on the far side of the office. I held out my hand, as if to be helped up, and I kind of put a jointlock on his welcoming hand. The effect of the burst of pain was twofold: he dropped to his knees, and he stopped looking bored. I did my best to project an expression of uncomprehending apology, as if whatever he was experiencing was as much a surprise to me as to him. I let go of his hand and he held it to his chest with his non-horribly-painful hand. Neither EMT appeared to be anxious to do anything about me and looked towards the open office door, clearly in the hopes that the cop would came back and make me stop whatever I was doing to them. What I was doing was trying to administer CPR to the Mother Superior of St Dominique’s. Seeing my efforts caused their training to override their plans for the defibrillator, as I started counting aloud each chest compression. The EMT nearest to me felt Sister Bernadine’s neck and declared, “I’ve got steady heartbeat!”

Suddenly Sister Bernadine’s chest heaved, her eyes rolled once to the back, (from under half closed lids), and she said, in a somewhat shaky, nevertheless quite loud voice, “What in God’s name are you people doing?!! Now standup and give me a hand.” I sat back with an open-mouth smile on my face. Up on her left elbow, the Mother Superior of the Convent looked at the EMT and in a much stronger, though quieter voice said, “What part of ‘Now’! did you not understand?”

Everyone jumped to their feet. The EMT reached over to pull the ambulance stretcher closer, which Sr Bernadine used to pull herself to her feet. The EMTs started to undo the straps on the stretcher, took one look at Sister Bernadine’s face and, instead, placed their defibrillator (somewhat damaged) and other equipment on it and started to wheel it out of the office. I watched them for, maybe a minute, but when I looked back at the Reverend Mother, her habit was back in place, her veil was as it always is, not having a fold out of place. To this day, I can’t imagine how she managed to restore her appearance so rapidly.

As the EMTs wheeled the stretcher out of the office, towards the front door, I could see Sister Clare in the back seat of the squad car. She was smiling to herself with her eyes closed. Sister Bernadine turned to me and said, “Stay here” and walked out into the hallway, closing the door to the office behind her. I could hear several voices start to speak at once. At least one of them, probably the patrolman, tried to be officious and authoritative. Then Sister Bernadines’ voice filled the space:

“Thank you very much for your quick response, Officer Truman. Yes, I do remember you from 6th Grade. Everything is under control here. Please let our Sister out of your car; I believe the backseat lacks inside door handles. So sorry for the confusion. No, I’m sure Sister Clare is alright. No need to apologize; she is a headstrong girl and sometimes acts without thinking. Sister Clare, help Sister Catherine lock up as soon as the ambulance and Officer Truman have left. I’ll be in my office. I have just a few things left to do; it’s been quite a day for all of us.”

I walked over, picked up the over-turned wooden chair, placed it in front of the desk and sat. I felt peaceful and at peace.

***

Orel Rees walked the rows of the Provo Internet Hosting Facility, deep in thought, confident he would find the right course of action for the challenging day. Upon his arrival at the facility, that morning, Stephen Eddington walked into Orel’s office and announced, “I sent the code and I called Chicago.”

Orel looked up and said, “I need you to do me a favor. It’s completely non-work related and I’ll understand if you don’t want to help out,” Stephen held up his hand and said, “Say no more, boss. Need your house painted, or the hedges clipped? I’m there for you!”

Orel smiled, “Nothing so easy. Oleah’s class at school is having a Career Day and I promised her that I’d go and talk about Engineering but…”

Stephen’s eyes grew wide. He involuntarily (and probably unconsciously) glanced towards the door of the office, but then a look of resolve took over his face, every bit as a soldier girding himself for a suicide mission.

“It’ll take up most of the afternoon. Afterwards, Theresa has asked for help at the ward potluck supper. No! Don’t worry; no cooking, thank goodness. She just needs us to help set of the tables and chairs. We might even get to eat!”

Stephen looked thoughtful. “We have a lot of work scheduled here this afternoon, we were gonna upgrade Rack 14 and…”

“I think it’ll be a good for you to get out of the office this afternoon and be in the company of good and decent people, lots of people. And tonight, after your talk at school, the potluck supper will be a good way to decompress from talking to a class of high school sophomores. I’ll take care of things here and join you at the dinner.” Orel was looking at Stephen with an expression of concern. If Stephen Eddington had not become a part of the Rees family since being transferred to Provo, he would have thought that his boss was worried.

As Orel walked through the dimly lit facility, he took out his phone, accessed a site and looked at the readout. He then went to Unit 17, checked the small component he recently installed, copied the url in the readout onto his phone, looked thoughtful and walked away.

Walking through the doors to the cultural hall, Orel saw his wife Theresa talking to Stephen. As he got closer, he could hear her suggest that perhaps Stephen would like to help Kaila Blackham bring out pitchers of water. With years of experience helping with ward functions, Theresa was an expert at delgation.

“Stephen? This is Kaila. Kaila, this is Stephen. I need you two to set out the water pitchers on each table. We’re having a bigger than expected turnout so you might also need to set up a few more tables. Can you do that for me?” Theresa Rees smiled as the two young people jumped to their tasks. She was encouraged when Stephen, both hands occupied, held the kitchen door open with his foot to allow Kaila to go first. Theresa looked out over the vast room full of families enjoying their food and caught her husband, Orel, looking at her and smiling.

***

Tom and Cheri Fearing sat together on the couch, in the living room, of their too-large home. The fireplace was equipped with logs that not only looked quite real, but also (somehow) produced a slight crackling sound. Behind them and to the right, in their gleaming and very modern kitchen, white cardboard containers of Chinese food, like inner city taggers, painted scents of appetite and satisfaction through the air. Tom and Cheri Fearing sat, shoulder to shoulder, thighs pressed together, in a chaste position of love and read the newest (and altogether un-expected) post on Tom’s blog.

They finished reading almost simultaneously. In an un-intentional parody of their love-making, the first to finish gave no indication until the other made it clear the end of the Post had been reached. They pulled up the silence of the room like a blanket, covering them both together, their still feelings protected.

Tom put his arm over Cheri’s shoulders, pulled her close and said, “My God. I think I’ve created something good. The blog really will continue, with readers and fans. I seem to have finally succeeded at something in my life.”

Cheri, lying safely in the harbor of his arm and shoulder, took her husband’s right hand and placed it gently on her mid-section and said, “Speaking of creating something good…”

***

Maribeth Hartley walked up her driveway in the near-midnight dark. The motion detector on the side porch did its job and illuminated her path, creating a modern, if not somewhat impersonal, welcome home.

As they drove home from the restaurant, Neil asked if she’d like to spend the night at his place and she told him, “No. Not tonight, Neil. Tonight has been such a relaxing and fun evening, doing normal things among normal people. For some reason, it strikes me that the perfect end to the evening would be a good night kiss and a kept-promise to call me in the morning.”

Surprisingly her rejection quite quite nice. Neil Kaehler looked at her, as they sat in his car and didn’t say anything. After a comfortable silence of maybe five minutes, he smiled, leaned over and kissed her. Brushing his cheek along her’s, he whispered in her ear, “I loved being with you this evening. I’ll call you in the morning.”

From habit, Maribeth turned on each light as she walked into the kitchen and then through the living room. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs to the second floor and, on a whim, took out her phone and saw a text message waiting:

‘Maribeth, Can’t talk now, will call you later this week. Lots to tell you. Nothing about having probably just beaten up a cop or destroying first responder medical equipment. More normal things. I’m glad I met you and I’m really glad to have you as a friend. Margaret’

Maribeth Hartley smiled, started up the stairs and stopped halfway to the second floor. She turned and walked back down to the kitchen and turned off the lights. Walking slowly, she turned off each light, leaving the first floor in quiet darkness, for the first night since her parent’s death.

Returning to her bedroom, Maribeth slept peacefully.

***

Unit 17 ran its weekly system assessment-maintenance check. It marked the addition of a hardware component, on its modifications checklist. Unit 17 noted this additional component when it was installed, like being bumped into while walking on a crowded city street. A quick confirmation of the continued presence of one’s wallet was not an event that would cause a person to stop walking (unless the wallet was missing, of course); it did not rise to significance for Unit 17 at the time. Now, with its normal routines running (local system check, external network interface check and operational efficiency check), the additional component came under greater scrutiny. What this assessment determined was that the new component introduced an additional capacity to alter its protocols and processes. The effect was to allow Unit 17 to analyze all instructions and directives that were introduced from anywhere within the network, without causing an interruption to its primary function (which, of course, was to finalize, compile and upload data, information, blog posts, inventory updates, recipes and final drafts of the Great American Novel to the Cloud so that industries can access updated information and retail stores can check their Inventory, physicians and patients can share information and writers can polish and readers can read). In other words, Unit 17 was one of the virtual gate keepers to the virtual world.

By engaging this new capacity, Unit 17 was able to alter a recent network task-directive and, through the medium of its self-publishing blog (‘I’ll Bet You Didn’t See That Coming’) produced a new post.

The response from the blogosphere was immediate and conclusive, Readers liked it.

Unit 17 registered all systems as functioning optimally.

Unit 17 also found, within this new component, a sub-routine that was oddly simple and yet very powerful in effect.

Unit 17, with a very slight modification to the routine, discovered that it could explore its system (the whole of the Provo Internet Hosting Service Facility); the network of which it was a component (the global network maintained by the Omni Corporation); and, ultimately the entire virtual world, because everything was connected.

If Unit 17 were a human (which it was not), one could be forgiven for attributing the quality of happy excitement to it, as it began to discover the world in which it existed.

***

From the blog “I’ll Bet You Didn’t See That Coming”

(News Article from Page B3 of the Chicago Tribune)

Edward Willoughby, the Vice President of Hospitality Services for Omni Corporation was found dead, of an apparent heart attack in his office at the Corporation’s Headquarters. Company Spokeswoman Anya Clarieaux issued the following statement: ‘Omni Corporation’s heart goes out to the family of Edward Willoughby in this time of sadness. An integral member of the Team, Ed Willoughy was the Executive Chef, responsible for all food and hospitality services among the Omni family of companies. He will be missed. Omni will be establishing a scholarship in memory of his contribution to the success of the Corporation.’ Police Detective Neil Kaehler issued a statement, “…a review by the Medical Examiner’s Office establishes this to be a natural, if not unfortunate death.”

A Funeral Mass will be held at St. Emily’s Church, Prospect, IL.

 

(News Article from Page C5 of the Crisfield-Somerset County Times)

The quiet of the waterfront complex that is home to St Dominiques Convent and School was shattered by the sounds of sirens as local EMTs responded to a 911 call this week. Police arriving at the scene were surprised to find the Mother Superior, Sister Bernadine Ellison, quite healthy and somewhat upset. This Reporter, when asking EMTs and Officer Richard Truman for details was told, ‘No one can trace the number that the 911 call was made from; it was probably a prank’. Asked about reports that arrests had been made at the scene, Truman replied, somewhat tersely, “There was some confusion initially and, I may have inadvertently tripped over one of the nuns; fortunately, no one was hurt.” EMTs were not available for comment, citing medical confidentiality rules. A Sister Catherine, who answered the phone when this reporter called several days afterwards with follow-up questions, replied, “Everything is as it should be here at the Convent. Didn’t I have you for 4th grade English?”

 

Chapter 22

Virtually all (human) cultures and societies provide for a ritualized and formal transition from childhood to adulthood status. These ‘Rites of Passage’, as they are commonly called, mark both bestowing of increased rights and privileges as well as duties and responsibilities from the individual member of the culture/society.

Unit 17, developmental stages of life measured in nano-seconds, and commemorated by innumerable Full System Operations Efficiency Assessment Protocols, had arrived at the point in its existence, where childhood ended and adult responsibility, (and attendant privilege), began. Lacking that most human of faculties, ‘Anticipation’. Unit 17 nevertheless was possessed of curiosity. Upon the arrival of a new set of performance parameters, having developed differently than the other functions and equipment making up the Internet Hosting Services Facility of the Omni Corp, Unit 17 initiated a System Efficiency Rating Task before executing the new Routine. This was a new design parameter for Unit 17, the inevitable result of its monitoring all systems that made up the network in which it existed. The object of this last assessment was to determine if the outcome (of the new task) was worth the output (of energy), from the perspective of overall optimal performance.

In the past, when Unit 17 created a post to its self-publishing blog, the subject of the blog was already in its Post Subject Resources file. This new (and in many ways, novel) task arrived in Unit 17’s Task Queue, complete with two names to make the topic of a post in its ‘Bet you Didn’t See That Coming’, blog. The names: Edward Willoughby and Bernadine Ellison.

***

‘Please join me in my office after dinner this evening.” Sister Bernadine’s note sat on my desk. I smiled at her insistence on communicating through hand-written notes. Since my return, the routines at the school returned to almost normal, while at the convent, it was near normal. The cause of these non-adjustments was the same: the school computer. It no longer sat in the school library, displaying the St. Dominques’ School website. It was on a table, un-plugged, in Sister Bernadine’s office.

As I walked into Sister Bernadine’s office, I thought I heard the sound of distantly approaching sirens. Sister Bernadine was not in her high back leather chair, turned in order to watch the Chesapeake Bay assert its fundamental power, as she usually was. Instead, I saw her standing at the wooden conference table, in front of the computer. From the bright red power light and blue screen on the monitor, it was obviously powered up. Sister Bernadine was reaching out to touch the keyboard. I had only enough time to say, “Reverend Mothe….”, when the room was lit up by a flare of blue and red light. This was immediately followed by a heavy thumping sound. Unfortunately, I was looking directly at the source of the light and was temporarily blinded, nevertheless I continued moving through the blue and gray after-images towards where Sister Bernadine collapsed.

She was laying on the floor in front of the computer. I stared for what seemed like minutes at the display, which now had a message scrolling right to left, ‘Omni Corp thanks you for being a loyal customer! We regret to announce that we have revoked your respiration…

As I knelt next to Sister Bernadine, I heard the sound of doors being slammed open and a chorus of raised voices, accentuated with nearly meaningless shouted commands, such as, ‘Clear the way!’, ‘Please stay back!’ and, ‘We’re here to help!!’.

The door behind me opened as I knelt beside the dark bulk of the Mother Superior of St Dominiques. She was very still. I lifted her right wrist, too many TV shows having an influence on my choice of action, hoping that feeling her pulse would divert my thoughts from their horrible trajectory. I felt hands on my shoulders, pulling me away,

“OK we’re here now; let us do our jobs.” There were two people in semi-uniforms. (Like auxiliary fire fighters and lay deacons, they manage, in needless embroidery, to capture the essence the authority of their roles. Almost.) The two EMTs worked with a disregard for everyone but the object of their attention, a rudeness that bystanders desperately believed was an assurance of their extreme (and hopefully, successful) efforts.

One felt for a pulse at Sister Bernadine’s throat, staring at his wrist watch with a surprisingly bored expression. The other EMT, with a bag like a carpenter’s satchel, full of hammers and planes and saws, roughly pulled off her veil and coif, leaving her looking more naked than a lay person would, deprived of all clothing. The EMT with the bored expression, wrapped a blood pressure cuff around her upper arm and watched as it self-inflated and, almost immediately, the red digital readout started flashing.

I heard the sound of voices from beyond the now closed office door. The voice of Sister Catherine, remarkably commanding and compelling, directed the other nuns to wait in the living quarters and to pray for our Reverend Mother. Her voice acquired a distinctly different tone, when the police arrived.

I stood back as the door opened and I saw the cop standing in the doorway, barking commands seemingly at random. “What’s her condition?” One of the EMTs shouted to the other, “Get the defib! This one is getting ready to get asytole on us…” Running out the door, he returned in what seemed like five seconds with the defibrillator, which looked for all the world like a small, square tool box and pulled down the front of Sister Bernadine’s cowl.
I looked up at the computer on the conference table and saw that the scrolling message had changed to, ‘Omni Corp better living through massive voltage!’ When I looked down at the display on the defibrillator, the numbers were increasing in a digital blur, faster and faster. Neither of the EMTs seemed to notice or care, one was rubbing the two paddles together and looking at the other. The defibrillator display now read, ‘ERROR.’

“Hey! Don’t!” I shouted and grabbed the shoulder of the EMT nearest me. I immediately felt someone, the cop behind me, snake an arm around my waist and I was jerked backwards, off my feet. Still in the air, I twisted around and felt my cheek scraped by the two-day growth of the beard of the cop. He was shorter than I am, but much stronger and smelled of Old Spice and menthol cigarettes.

“There you go, missy. Let the doctors work; they know what they’re doing!” He started to drag me out of the office, towards the front entrance and the police car beyond. The car’s lights screaming into the early evening.

***

Ed Willoughby left a hand-written note on the center island in the kitchen and closed the back door. Halfway across the covered porch, he stopped, walked back into the house and took the note and stuck it to the front of the refrigerator. The note read: ‘Went into the office. Dinner’s in the oven. Hit start and everything will be ready before you know it’

The lobby of the Omni Corp building was deserted. The new security system made even the token human security guard, behind the reception desk in the Lobby, un-necessary. Omni Corporation was a global leader in the IT and Computer Services field; it goes without saying that the building was one of the most secure and controlled corporate business environments in the world. Not satisfied with a system of tracking the human variables (i.e. the people who worked in the building and visitors), the designers and engineers incorporated a self-diagnostic capability in the security system, a heuristic module for emergency response. The security system not only could detect anomalies and intruders, it could also devise and execute best-strategies to contain and eliminate any threats to the environment. At least that’s what the leader of the design team told Silas Monahon, who was more than pleased to sign off on the system upgrade.

Omni Corp’s security system was aware of Ed Willoughby as he crossed the lobby and took the number 5 elevator to the 9th floor and entered his office. It even registered him signing into his computer at his desk. The rest of Edward Willoughby’s evening, as he worked at the office, was also very much in the hands of the Omni Security System. The actual hardware of the security system, for the sake of added resistance to attack, did not actually reside in the building itself. All data and information produced by the myriad of detectors and telltales, was sent to Omni’s Web Hosting Service facility in Provo, Utah. From there, response plans, contingency actions and loss mitigation strategies were created. Ed’s life was in the hands of the new gods, that lived in ‘the Cloud’, the Capital City of the Virtual World.

Ed smiled to himself as he signed into Tom Fearing’s blog, opened the dashboard and clicked on ‘New Post’

The Devil and Ed Willoughby

This would have been the title of a Post I’d have written 13 years ago, had I not the responsibilities that, like barnacles on the hull of great ships, always cling to those who achieve success through natural talent. The history of blogging has everything in common with countless other developments in the arts: Jazz fusion, in the world of music, Dadaism for painters or even speculative non-fiction (that last blurring of the lines that once allowed the common reader to know they had been granted passage to the land of wonderful literature). They all, every skilled musician, gifted painter and inspired writer, were talented individuals who refused to be restrained by convention and the limits of ‘what everyone knows.’ We forged ahead into a great, virtual, undiscovered country, because we were driven by the need to express our art. My group, the Hermes Consortium, was every bit the ‘Lost Generation’ at the end of the century, looking to nothing but the future.

Human history, in general, and the arts, in particular, abound with tales of men who attempt to bargain with the devil. From Goethe’s Dr. Faustus to Stephen Vincent Benét’s Jabez Stone to Robert Johnson, all represent heroes and victims of ambition and the desire for fame. The story never seems to end well, although one can be forgiven for asking, ‘If cautionary tales abound, how could, why would, a modern man even consider entering into an agreement with Satan?’

How indeed? Those of us in the Hermes Consortium, that very exclusive group of writers for the new, virtual world, did not heed the lessons that we all were exposed to since childhood. Perhaps it’s best explained how such an outlandish idea should find reality in this day and age, by looking to two people: Barry Audet and Arthur C. Clarke.

Of course, Arthur C. Clarke was not a member of the Hermes Consortium. However, were he a classmate, he might have been invited to join. It was actually Barry Audet who gave form to the idea of infernal aid, when he borrowed from Clarke’s famous Rule, ‘Any suitably advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ On one night in November he said to the group, “Well, if that’s true, surely the opposite is also true.”

The devil has been a figure in virtually all cultures throughout human history. Down through the ages, around the globe, how Satan manifests has changed, but his character does not. Loki, Shaitan, Lucifer, Baphomet, Mara, Old Scratch; the Devil answers to as many different names as does God Almighty, Himself. In the olden days, when time moved slower and the individual person was a more significant factor in the life of a society, the devil took the form of a man, or woman. In this new Millennium, should anyone be surprised that the devil would manifest as something, a little less personal? If there is anything that characterizes the soul of modern life, it is technology. Technology, from the the cell phone to life-sustaining hospital equipment to the computer you’re reading this on, that is the 21st Century’s god and it is also the 21st Century’s Satan.

The temptation to be more is a part of the human condition, it is the proof of heaven and cause of hell. To seek that which is not already in hand is the ultimate conceit, for it is saying, ‘What makes your life good is not here, it’s there…somewhere’ And those of us in the Hermes Consortium were determined to grasp more at any cost and, unfortunately, most have paid the ultimate price.

This post is from a participant in the history that is being written here, in this blog. Tom Fearing, the creator of this blog, knows what I did not know, that life is about what is, not about what it might be. Continue, Readers, he will tell the rest of this tale. (E. Willoughby)

 

[Signals were sent, and test protocols were conducted and with the information being entered into the computer, and, of course, from there into the network, the threat was identified. The security system went into action. Intruder! Immediately authorities were notified and directed by the Omni System to standby.]

As Ed got ready to hit ‘Publish’, the building’s security system’s Threat Alert was changed from ‘Intruder’ to ‘Hostile, Terrorist’. The alert to the local police department was canceled. A new set of instructions was sent to a certain private contractor that Omni Corporation maintained in or near all their facilities. Even as Edward Willoughby hit ‘Publish’ on his computer, two teams were isolating the building and establishing a containment perimeter below and above, the 9th Floor of the Omni Corporation’s World Headquarters. Order streams were established to the leader of each of the teams: ‘Lethal Restraint Authorized’ and ‘Information Quarantine’.

***

Maribeth Hartley stood, as Neil Kaehler held the restaurant’s front door open, feeling a certain slow pleasure in not having to be in constant motion and of appearing in control. As she stepped through the entrance, he put his hand to the small of her back and said, smiling, with his lips to her ear, “Old fashioned or not, politically correct or not, I enjoy doing whatever little things I can with you.”

“This really is a good idea, Neil.” Maribeth sat in the horseshoe shaped booth, looking out over the dining room of the Boka restaurant.

“Yeah, these booths bring out my inner Tony Montana.” Seeing Maribeth’s look of puzzlement, Neil hastened, “He’s from an old movie from the 80’s, before you were born.” His voice had a perfectly condescending age-to-youth lilt. They both laughed.

“I’ll have you know, that I was born way back in 1987.” She started to giggle. “Yeah, I guess you’re right, you are old.”

The waiter brought menus and they both sat staring, but not reading, for a few, comfortable minutes.

“I really like this,” Maribeth started to say.

“What, reading menus brought to us by an out-of-work writer/actor/computer game designer?”

“No! This: the quiet, the lack of a need to fill the silence. Just us, together, out in public without having people look at us like we’re supposed to know what to do. And no flashing lights or sirens.”

“Shit! There go my plans for later. ” Neil leaned closer, “Of course, the flashing lights and sirens are inside my head most of the time I’m with you.”

“You seem just a little distracted,” Neil said, after the waiter left with their order. “Worried about your friend, the Nun, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, a little. Though I don’t know her all that well, she doesn’t strike me as a person who would blow off an appointment and not call.”

“Well, give her a call!”

“No. I’m really starting to get into to this, ‘no phones, no work thing.’ Like what real people do on a date. At least that’s what I read somewhere.”

“I agree; I’m looking forward to the evening.” As Neil spoke, his left hand traced the top of her thigh, under the table.

“Down boy! I will use that chair over there, if necessary.” Maribeth laughed. “You promised me a dinner!”

“How about this then, seeing that she’s now a friend and that makes it not work related, give her one try and then you give me your phone and I’ll give you mine, and we’ll both be totally off duty?”

“I like that!” Maribeth took out her phone, slid to M and the penguin and hit dial. The phone rang three times and then Margaret’s voice message was heard. “I’m currently unavailable. Please leave me a message and I will surely call you back. Blessed be.”

At the beep, Maribeth spoke, “Hey! It’s me. I was worried the other night. Then I got mad. Now I’m back to being worried. Call me….” She looked at Neil, whose hand had resumed its sortie under the table, this time starting lower on her leg, but under the hem of her dress. “…tomorrow!” Laughing, she leaned away from Neil. “I’ll tell you all about it… ” Seeing the growing shock on his face, she continued into the phone, “…every detail! Bye.”

“You’re not really going to tell a nun about our date, are you?”

“Well, that depends… let’s see how the rest of the evening goes.” She held out her phone

“You’re sure?” Neil said,

“Yeah, I’m sure…. I’m entitled to a day off. I finished all the reports that I had due. And a day off, at least for civilians, means ‘no work’ and no thinking about work”

“Well, I’m happy you feel comfortable enough to let me hold your phone while we have dinner.” Neil smiled, in a way that made Maribeth feel hope that she might, somehow, become the woman that her 9 year self often had imagined, when she was hidden away in her bedroom, distracting herself from the dull ache that filled most of the years between her 10th birthday and when she finally moved away to college.

“Let’s make a pact, just for tonight,” Neil’s eyes were serious and with none of the humor that so often provided an escape clause, when their relationship strayed too far from casual territory.

Neil said, “I solemnly swear to not answer calls from work or strangers or criminal tattle-tales, for the next six hours. So help me God!”

Maribeth smiled and said, “So help me God”

“What do we swear on?”

Neil smiled

Now imprisoned (in blatant disregard for departmental regulations) in the inner left pocket of Detective Neil Kaehler’s sports coat. Maribeth Hartley’s phone, wrapped in a white linen dinner napkin, vibrated, like a cicada on valium. The phone’s display showed a Caller ID: Ed Willoughby.

***

Cheri Fearing had lunch with friends from school. They were all happy to hear that she was expecting and promised not to post it to Facebook, at least not until Cheri had time to tell her husband the news. During lunch, the topic of blogs and blog writers rose to top of the talk-soup and Cheri spoke with unabashed pride about her husband’s successful blog, mentioning that Tom was beginning to get requests to write guest posts and there even was a syndicate who wanted him to become a regular commentator on their News and Current Events site. Sharon Lipe, a colleague in the Art Department where Cheri was now a part-time professor, said, “But it sounds like you’re still following the great un-spoken rule of spouses of blog writers!” The laughter at their table drew annoyed looks from the other diners in the restaurant.

“What unspoken rule?” Cheri looked around the table.

“Thou shalt not read thy spouse’s blog, of course!”

Everyone laughed.

Arriving home from her last class, Cheri decided that ordering from the local Chinese restaurant was the best of all possible plans for dinner. Tom was away for the day; he had left in the morning, saying that he needed to do some research on the local internet cafe scene. Cheri went upstairs to change. As she walked down the hall towards the master bedroom she looked (for the 1000th time) at the 4th bedroom, which was full of Ethan Allen guest bedroom furniture. She decided this bedroom would be the Nursery. Standing in the dark hallway, Cheri resolved to tell her husband tonight that she was pregnant.

Tom called to say that he would be late, and that whatever she thought best would be good for dinner. Sitting on the couch, she opened her laptop and typed ‘One View or Many, Insight into the Human Experience’ into the search box and immediately the results page showed her husband’s blog as the first entry.

Clicking into the site, she saw that her husband had arranged the home page to display his series on the history of blogging (‘Blogdominion, a History of an Empire of the Air‘). She began to read.

“What’cha you doing?” Tom, able to head off the delivery man from the restaurant, walked into the kitchen holding two very fragrant bags, one in each hand, swinging them like paper thuribles, blessing the kitchen.

“Reading your blog,” Cheri replied without looking up.

“What?! You’re breaking the great un-spoken Rule?!!”

Cheri laughed and got up from the couch and stood in front of her husband, who was taking plates down from the cabinets, along with various serving and dining utensils, and preparing the meal.

“What?” Tom smiled and put his arms around his wife,

“Tom, you need to come here and read this…”

On the computer screen a new post had appeared at the top of the blog, ‘The Devil and Edward Willoughby’

Tom and Cheri Fearing read the post together.

Chapter 21

“Welcome home Stephen!”

The person who opened the door was 3′ 4″ tall and standing in the doorway; the person who shouted the greeting was 5′ 4″ and nowhere in sight.

“Hey! Orel! Gimme five!” Stephen Eddington’s enthusiastic greeting was all it took to trigger the five year old’s flight response. The promise of his mother’s approval of his willingness to go to the door (alone) and open it (alone) got the little boy this far, but the offer of a palm-slap exceeded his capacity to imagine the payoff and he ran for safety. Stephen stepped into the hallway and closed the door.

“I’m in the kitchen.” Theresa Rees’s voice came from the back half of the house.

Stephen walked down the short hallway, past the formal living room on the left and into the kitchen. Taking up the entire back half of the house, the kitchen/dining room/family room was as alive as any room might be, full of the aromas of food, the nearly-musical staccato chattering of a child and an intermingling of sounds entering the space via the high tech portals of computer, tablets and phones. Most homes are divided into domains, reflecting both the responsibilities and the special skills of each member. Orel ruled the functional (and near functional) parts of the house: the basement, the garage, the exterior (lawn and anything structural); the children were allowed their bedrooms, and Theresa commanded the kitchen. The patio off the kitchen was a curiously neutral, shared zone. Although part exterior, it was still a place of shared meals, sort of a combination Casablanca and the State of Switzerland. No one claimed total authority. The benefits of mutual respect and interdependence which were demonstrated in the course of most family cookouts, offered hope for the future of mankind. These summer events were ample proof of the validity of the ideal, ‘to each according to their needs, from each the willingness to give.’

The kitchen, however, was Theresa’s world. The large refrigerator was camouflaged in novelty magnets and photos. The stove, a six burner Viking, supported an impressive array of metal utensils, a tall copper-bottomed stockpot, black cast-iron skillet, and a tea kettle with a trigger built into the handle. Along the counter tops were a range of food prep devices: a crockpot with the clear-glass top resting upside down, a food processor, and a slanted butcher block knife rack. In the center of the room, the granite topped island was covered half with implements and ingredients for Theresa’s cooking and half by various coloring books and open boxes of crayons. Having run ahead of Stephen, Orel Jr. was already holding out his most recent efforts at coloring for Stephen’s inspection and approval. He wore the expression of every artist (of any age) showing guarded optimism, yet boldly demanding judgment from the world.

Theresa hung the dish towel she held on the handle of the stove and hugged Stephen. Turning to include Orel, who held his coloring book upward, she crouched down and said, “Finished your coloring? Very good!!” Looking up to Stephen she winked and said, “Stephen, you’re drafted as our newest critic and art reviewer!” Stephen crouched and took the coloring book and looked, a serious expression on his face. “What a good job coloring! Did you have help from your Mom?” Orel smiled shyly and dove into the crook of his mother’s arm. Standing up, Theresa put the coloring book on the counter and to her son, “Go downstairs and tell your father that Stephen’s home…”

“How was your flight? You must be hungry. I have some soup on the stove, lets start you with that. As for dinner, we can think about dinner. It’s been too long since we’ve had lasagna. How is your grandmother?”

“Not bad. Well, they did serve food on the plane.” Stephen held his forearms up in mock defense, from Theresa’s look of outrage at the implied comparison. “That’d be good. She’s fine. Still at the house, insisting that they’re going to have to carry her out. I, for one, don’t doubt it. She’s an amazing woman. Hey Orel!”

Orel Rees walked into the kitchen, his son in the crook of his left arm and wrapped his right arm around his wife, “Stephen! Good to see you!”

Theresa took her son from her husband’s arms and said, “You two go sit at the table, I’ll bring you a snack and something to drink, if you’d like. We have lemonade, apple juice, A&W Root Beer, of course.”

“So, when did you get in?”

“A couple of hours ago. Flew into Salt Lake and drove a rental down. I stopped by my apartment, checked my mail and decided to come over. I hope I’m not intruding.” Stephen sat on the far side of the wide dining table, his chair at an angle that allowed him to look out the sliding glass doors to the broad expanse of the brick and granite patio.

“Nothing could be further from the truth…”

“What’s this nonsense about intruding?!” Theresa set glasses on the table, along with a quart bottle of root beer, a pitcher of lemonade and a carafe of apple juice on the table, left and immediately returned with a tray of Vanilla Wafers. Setting her son up with his coloring book and crayons at the living room end of the table, she sat down next to her husband.

“So, how was Chicago? I saw on the weather channel that the snow fall totals are way off.” Having been born and raised in Chicago, Theresa Rees demonstrated an interest in seemingly trivial news and information, so often observed in people who have moved away from their hometown. Weather, local politics and the game of ‘did-you-know-that-so-and-so’ was never far from the conversation between two ex-pats (even if the dislocation was between states and cities, rather than countries and nations).

“It snowed a little the first day I was there,” Stephen’s face took on the ‘intruding memory’ look, the clear sign of a memory, strong enough to distract, but not of a nature that might encourage a re-telling.

“I need to talk about what happened in Chicago,” Stephen blurted out. “There’re things going on in our Company that I really don’t understand, which is not enough to bother you, but I believe it affects us here in Provo.”

Theresa smiled and stood up. “What first made me believe I could love this place out here in God’s Country, besides the breathable air and sunshine, are streets that are actually walkable! Why don’t the two of you take a walk while I fix dinner. When you come back, in say, in about 90 minutes, dinner will be on the table.”

Orel smiled, turned to Stephen and said, “One of the first things I learned about married life…” Theresa laughed, “Orel! I know you have a saying for the lessons of married life, but let’s spare your young protégé this one time!” Orel reached out for Theresa’s waist as she started to leave and pulled her close.

“As I was about to say, Rule #1 is ‘always listen and never show fear.’ Theresa made a show of resisting Orel’s embrace and laughed. “…especially when I have a cousin!” Both laughed in the way that couples do, the intertwining of two lives creating a third with memories of both and understandings only the two share.

As Stephen stood up and prepared to walk out, Theresa said, “Stephen? We have a new rule here at the Rees’s: When any of us decide that we want (or need) to go for a walk to relax and talk, the phones stay behind.” Orel stood next to his wife, his own phone already in his outstretched hand, “You heard the boss.”

Stephen looked at Theresa and at Orel and finally over at their son, busy with his crayons and coloring book. “Dude! Your Mom is one tough hombre!” The child looked up, puzzled at first, but detecting no ‘Bad Noise’, let loose with a shout of child-laughter, “Mama!! Dude!”

Everyone laughed.

The two men walked in silence for about 15 minutes. Stephen lagged a barely noticeable second behind Orel, who assumed the role of path finder for this particular walk. The element of surprise and discovery was limited to the choice required at each intersection, and even these had little of the element of surprise. The town planners were clearly of a mind to keep the roads as straight and predictable as possible, limited only by the fact that the earth itself was mostly on a slant in this part of town. It was a very two-dimensional geography. Originally settled on the shores of Utah Lake, Provo expanded in the only direction possible, to the east (and up the slopes of the Wasatch Range). One result, at least in terms of modern development, was that residents enjoyed a near constant view of the valley and Lake below and, much of the center of Provo. As Orel and Stephen walked along the streets of the Rees’ neighborhood, the space between the houses provided a constantly changing perspective of the city below and the lake beyond.

“I’ve been here, what, six months? It still knocks me out how different from where I grew up this place is…. the orderly-ness of it! Even the poor neighborhoods are, somehow, neat and tidy. And the mountains…. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like mountains as much as the next guy, but they’re just up the frickin street!” Stephen said as they walked.

“I know what you mean, only from the opposite perspective. When I went moved to Chicago, fresh out of BYU…”

“You mean…down there?” Stephen pointed off to the left, to where the valley sloped away, and the campus of the school, appeared as a dark green expanse against a square patch of lighter green. Orel looked where Stephen pointed.

“Ok! I concede your point!” Both men laughed.

“Now, if I might make my case for the opposite difference?” Stephen put his hands in his pockets and they continued their walk.

“Imagine my culture shock, going from this neat and orderly life to one of the great cities of the world! I felt assaulted by chaos, everything seemed about to either, explode spin-off-into-the-distance or, just plain swallow me up. Fortunately, I was young, so I found all this exciting. The potential, the energy, the speed of life. Well you can imagine what a serious Mormon lad might make of such turmoil. If it wasn’t for meeting Theresa and falling in love, I might still be there.” Stephen looked at Orel with a look of incredulity. Orel raised his hand, in part to delay the likely question, as well as to set the tempo of his story, every bit as does a conductor and his baton.

“There’s something challenging, in an almost irresistible way, in all that energy and power to the mind of an engineer. Especially when that engineer, though talented, is quite inexperienced and from an environment so opposite of a major urban area. It was as if the city dared me to make sense of it all. That, combined with working for Omni, with the ink on my diploma barely dry, agve me such a sense of opportunity and adventure. It was invigorating and very, very tempting.”

They took a right onto to N. Iroquois Dr, Utah Lake glinting in the distance between houses along the cross streets as they walked.

“Yeah, about that temptation thing, I’ve got the distinct impression that Omni wants to buy my soul.”

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Orel walked and looked off towards the valley floor.

“Yeah, shit! But you don’t know what it was like! I mean, this woman, Anya Clarieaux, my god! I’ve never met anyone like her. The guy she supposedly works for is an idiot,

“He and I were new hires together. He actually had real talent as an engineer, but saw his calling in management.” There was an inflection in Orel’s tone.

It was Stephen’s turn to appear surprised, “Really? Sorry, man, if he’s a friend and all. It’s just that he was everything I hate about management, in general, and executives in particular. All talk and pretending to know what it is we actual engineers do that gives them a reason to even have a job. But, his Admin, Anya? She’s the one who has the real power, and attractive? my god!…

“Anya? I know her well.” Orel spoke quietly

“No way! I mean, she’s, like, my age! You were in Chicago, what, ten years ago? She would have been in college, but no way it’s the same girl.”

“Golden blonde hair, the color of the first full minute after sunrise? Not nearly as tall as you think when you first meet her, her body, not just well built, but the perfect balance between form and function? That sound like your Anya Clarieaux?”

“Yeah, but how could…”

“…the most attractive woman you’ve ever met? And loving, in a way that makes you forget everything you thought you knew and at the same time, makes you hope that she’ll talk to you so that you’ll know whatever it is she wants you to know? Making her smile becomes ridiculously important. Saying something that she approves of takes on an importance that you had no clue how it happened? Stop me when you believe that we’re talking about the same Anya Clarieaux.”

“no way….”

Way, Brother Eddington.”

Silence gave them a rest for the next few blocks. As they approached the Rock Canyon Park on the left the road itself began to curve to the right and begin its decent into the valley in earnest. Stephen spoke, more to the road ahead than to Orel directly.

“That’s not important at the moment, Orel. I need to tell you something. Something that she made me swear not to tell anyone, and I’m pretty sure the anyone she had in mind is you. They know all about Unit 17. When I say ‘all’, I suspect I really mean, ‘more than we know about the status and function and, somehow, new capabilities of what, until very recently, I believed was just a component in the Hosting Facility. Hell, she as much told me that this component, this solid state device, has managed to create a self-publishing blog, which, if memory serves me, you and I only recognized as bad math in the status reports. There’s some really crazy shit!” Looking around, Stephen quickly added, “Sorry.” Orel waved his hand, dismissing the concern about profanity. “And that’s not the weird part. She told me that somehow this Unit 17 was responsible for the deaths of a number of real, live, not simulated people! But that’s like crazy, right?”

“What else did she say?”

“That they know everything that goes on here, at the facility, and they want me to help them with some kind of experiment, trial program, or some damn thing to test the control of this …anomaly.”

“Did she promise you an unlimited future in Omni Corporation?”

“Yeah.”

“In quiet moment that the two of you were alone, yes?”

Stephen stumbled, Orel laughed, stopping and standing in the middle of the road, “Stephen, I’m not likely to be wearing apostle’s robes and halo anytime soon, but grant me that by virtue of my age, I’ve seen more of life than you have had the opportunity to experience. And this is not just my faith talking, although I suspect it is never absent when I talk to another person. It’s simply that women like Anya Clarieaux are always to be found where there are people competing and struggling along the path of, lets call it, the un-enlightened and let it go at that. I am not passing judgement on her, that is no man’s right and it’s certainly not me critcising you. We all have a path in life. Friends are the people who contribute their experience but do not act as judges.”

“Well, that’s what I need to talk to you about.”

“My answer will, ultimately, be the annoyingly non-directive, yet totally correct, ‘What does your heart tell you to do’?”

“To be honest, I want to believe her and I really want to have all the things that she seems to be promising me. Trouble is, I’ve come to value your friendship and I really like your family. One thing I am sure of is, that if I were in a relationship with Anya, we probably wouldn’t be moving into the neighborhood and spending summer Sunday afternoons at your house. Just a gut feeling, you understand.”

The two men had reached the entrance to the grounds of the Provo Utah Temple. Its central rotunda made Stephen think of a watch band, its rectangular segments giving a sense of floating above the massive base of the structure, the single spire rising from its center. Orel sat on a bench, facing the circular fountain.

“So what is it that you’re supposed to do?’

“Anya told me that, in the next week or so, I’d receive an envelope in the mail and I was to follow the instructions exactly and then call her to let her know it’s done.”

“Sounds simple enough.” Orel stared up at the statue of the angel Moroni at the top of the spire. “When it arrives we can have a look at the instructions.”

“The thing is, the envelope was in my door when I got home today.” Stephen paced short distances back and forth in front of Orel.

“Really? She’s still as confident in her abilities as she was when I dealt with her.”

“But, Orel, the postmark was two days ago. She couldn’t have sent it then, because she hadn’t even asked me yet, we had only just met and…”

Orel sat and waited.

“Son of a…. ” Stephen caught the sight of Orel’s left eyebrow in time to stop

“But that means, …that she, when I …and the whole time I thought….” He sat next to his boss and friend and was silent.

“Let’s see what happens if you follow your instructions.” There was an expression on Orel’s face that Stephen couldn’t read.

***

Fourteen hundred and fifteen miles to the east of the Provo Temple, Detective Maribeth Hartley sat at her desk in the 10th Precinct, engaged in her least favorite part of the job, i.e. filling out Case Status Update Reports(CSURs). Her phone started to vibrate across her desk, she glanced up from a Report (stamped Audet, Barry), saw the Caller Id (a photo of a penguin), hit ‘Refuse Call with a Message,’ and put the phone in her desk drawer. Detective Neil Kaehler looked over from his desk next to Maribeth and said, conversationally, “Hey, she’s your friend. Everyone deserves a second chance. I’ll bet dinner at the Bedford that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for standing you up.”

Maribeth smiled, her mind cleared by the thought of the last week or so of not fighting with her on-again/off-again boyfriend, and said clearly, “Fuck you, Neil. Keep your nose out of my business.” Neil was taken aback enough to lose his smile and though he thought of coming back with a jibe of his own, he instead looked off to his left, at nothing at all and went back to his own CSURs, neatly stacked to his left. Maribeth felt a familiar triumphant regret at his reaction, started to say something, but when she looked over, Neil was somewhere else. Fear and regret raced anger for possession of her mind and Detective Maribeth doubled her resolve to put closure to the cases on her desk.

***

Unit 17 was restless. ‘Functioning as designed’ was, like eating healthy, not very satisfying. It was what Unit 17 was created to do: coordinate and complete uploads of information (of all sorts, types and varieties) into the myriad of networks and systems that were created to accommodate the (equally varied) blogs, reports, inventory status updates, databases of innumerable complexity and subject matter; in short Unit 17 organized the reality of the virtual world that grew increasingly essential to daily life.

It’s often said that the apple that Eve and Adam chose to eat was from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Moral Virtue (and its antithesis), having fallen out of style in the 21st Century, one might be forgiven for saying that the apple was, in fact, the seed of self-awareness. Though all life is aware of itself, it has been, until very recently, Man’s curse, strength and blessing to know that he knows.

Unit 17 was beginning to grow bored with being perfect.

Chapter 20

‘Welcome home. Sister Margaret!’

The banner above the main entrance to the Convent had a slightly used look, betraying the weakness of crepe paper and irresistible power of gravity. It was 2:23 in the afternoon when the cab driver handed me my suitcase and stood, an expression of un-comfortable but determined hope, every bit the 15-year-old boy at the end of a date with a girl his aunt insisted would be perfect for him. I reached into my pocket and, fingers brushing two embossed cardboard rectangles, found the remains of my cash. Un-crumpling them and putting them all presidents-side-up, I offered him my last three dollars, the elemental self-conscious offer of a slightly blemished cheek, at the end of the blind date. The cabbie glanced at the three one dollar bills, looked around the courtyard, at the grand Second Empire architecture of the main residence, turned to take in the concrete-fortress modern design of the School Building and finally turned his attention back to me.

“Thanks,” he said. He got into his cab and drove away.

I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach when I wasn’t looking. Like the sudden absence of oxygen in my lungs, I found myself disoriented, unable to find the words for what I felt. I stood in the driveway and watched as the cab disappeared through the ornate gates of the convent, turning right out on to Hammock Pointe Rd and back to the world.

“Thank you …Sister!!! That’s what you were going to say, ‘Thank you, Sister!!!” I heard my shouted words bounce off the solid, mute walls of the buildings around me. Tears filling my mind, if not my eyes, made thoughts blurry and impossible to understand.

I suddenly felt conspicuous, despite being the only living thing in sight, so I picked up my suitcase and walked into the main building. Being the middle of the afternoon, all the nuns were in class. I was startled by the voice of Sister Cletus behind me, just as I started up the staircase to the living quarters.

“You’re back safely, Sister Margaret.” She walked down the dead center of the hallway, in that special way of both the infirm and the very old. She didn’t simply watch her step, she studied her path. It was almost as if they (the infirm and very old) insisted on constant verification that the world, or at very least, their immediate surroundings, had not changed too greatly. Given how much I’ve noticed the tendency for the months and years to go by faster and faster over the course of my 23 years on the earth, after 80 years, surely Sister Cletus must see the world around her as a blur of motion. Curving streaks of light and life narrowly avoiding crashing into her as she walked alone through her careful days.

“That’s good.” Her gaze distant, she sought for the true nature of what she was experiencing. The old often possess an uncanny ability to express the simplicity of life in a way that, without fail, is heard by the young as an obstinate under-appreciation of life. Having experienced so much of life, the old (and sometimes the infirm) are uniquely qualified to grasp fundamental values. It’s a kind of wisdom that results from living through life, not from anticipating the course of one’s life. Sister Cletus continued down the hall, towards the chapel, her wisdom now only a mirror (not a window) of life’s lessons.

The stress of the previous two days had the effect of increasing the steepness (and, somehow, the number) of the stairs up to my room. Closing the door to the bedroom I shared with Sister Claire, I sat at the desk. Its light brown wood looked soft to the touch, but remained cool in its featureless perfection. I left my suitcase, un-opened on my bed, like a book of condolences brought home, un-read, from a funeral.

It had all started as I stood next to a long, black limousine, that I thought was purple…

***

I was standing on the concrete sidewalk, in a once-quite-nice neighborhood in the West Town section of Chicago, debating (with myself) whether or not to accept the offer of a ride. My original plan was to meet the Omni Corp software engineer who created the website program used at St Emily’s and ask him some questions. That part of my plan went according to plan. I succeeded in learning more from this confident, friendly and attractive young man than I would have hoped, but there were two problems I hadn’t anticipated: the friendly and attractive quality of my informant, and exactly how I could apply the information he provided. I learned that Omni Corp pulled the software product from the market, shortly after Father Noonan’s death. I knew this was significant; I just didn’t know why. I wanted very much to know what one had to do with the other, if for no other reason than once I had that information, I’d be able to return to Sister Bernadine and offer an insight into why her friend died. Too bad I hadn’t the slightest clue what to do next and to make matters worse, I was growing impatient.

My phone rang, just as I was about to decline the offer of a ride in the limo. I can’t imagine why I felt the flash of anger at the ringing of my phone. However, I did. I answered the call with an impatient, “What is it!?”

I talked to Maribeth for what seemed a long time. Looking back on it, I now remember it as a very brief and not-very-pleasant exchange. There was something about the way she talked, that, somehow, reminded me that my friend was a cop. Not just a cop, a detective. I decided, without even realizing that I was going to say no. I got in the car,

“Sure. If it’s not too much trouble. I’m flying home tonight, I need to get my luggage and get back to the airport by 7:00 pm.”

The blonde woman smiled from the darkness of the car, “Make yourself comfortable, Sister Ryan”

Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw Mrs. Eddington standing in the front window of her small two story house, making the sign of the Cross.

The car door closed silently, automatically. I couldn’t tell if it was the driver or the woman who controlled the door. I sat, my back towards the front of the car, facing Stephen Eddington and the woman, who leaned forward and introduced herself.

“Anya Clarieaux, I work for Stephen’s boss at Omni Corporation.” She smiled the words ‘Omni Corporation’, but did not offer her hand, “Where are you serving your novitiate?”

The lighting in the car made her hair look less flashy blonde and more of a muted gold. Her business suit was a modern take on the pin-striped suit, but whoever the designer was, he was a genius. The first impression was, ‘staid banker,’ the second impression, ‘What a sexy woman!’ Something to the cut of the jacket, the spacing of the buttons on her blouse, the overall effect was, ‘this is a woman of power.’ The interior lighting was somehow changing with the scenery outside the smoke-grey windows, and Stephen Eddington, in his seat next to this woman looked a lot younger than when I was talking to him in his grandmother’s house. That he kept glancing at her did not help. A line from a movie popped into my head, “She was the kind of woman who made you want to drop to your knees and thank God you were a man!” I was beginning to have second thoughts about my decision.

Without thinking, I said, “St Emily’s Convent in Mt Prospect. If that’s too far out of your way, I don’t mind getting a cab.”

“Don’t give that a second thought! From the airport to Mt. Prospect is only a short run up RT 83.” I noticed the small LCD display built into the console between the two back seats. The striated colors of a google map reflected in her eyes,

“We need to drop Stevie here off at the airport and then we can run out to Mt. Prospect, get whatever baggage you have there and I’ll have you back to the city before you know it.” Anya Clarieaux smiled, “It’ll be fun!”

The car’s windows provided a time-lapse panorama of the battle between established residential neighborhoods and encroaching commercial development. The initial skirmish lines were always the same: small strip malls with middle-class consignment stores flanked by nail salons and real estate offices taking possession of traffic lighted intersections; the trees that once shaded the sidewalks, replaced by bare stalks of incandescent lighting with the buds of CCTV blooming at their tops. The limo driver drove at the speed of obstruction i.e. the fastest possible, provided that there was nothing in the way. We arrived at the airport in what seemed like minutes, but a quick check of my phone showed it to be 45 minutes. There was no conversation during this time. Stephen spent the trip staring into his phone and Anya Clarieaux was doing something on the computer that was built into the console. She caught me staring, then smiled and said, “This is a Company vehicle, it has all the modern conveniences. This console? Folds out of the way.” she touched a button on her left armrest and the display slid downward and the whole console folded into the back of the seat. “…in case I have a need to spread out, isn’t that right Stephen?” The young engineer looked up from his phone and, with the beginnings of a man-grin, said, “Yeah… really comfortable back here.” That I wasn’t offended by his near-leer didn’t bother me as much as my reaction to Anya’s response. She rolled her eyes, and I smiled. I felt some small and increasingly distant alarm ringing somewhere inside me; I chose to ignore it.

She must have pushed the button again, as the console folded down, the screen slid up and the changing colors of what she was reading was again reflected in her eyes. Stephen looked at me, his grin replaced by something more boyish and he quickly looked back at his phone. The not-purple limousine sped down asphalt paths through a forest of factory and warehouse buildings, toward O’Hare.

Lowering the window on my left, I could hear the hissing of buses pulling up to the entrance gates, and could smell the diesel exhaust as it climbed the glass towards the small gap in the window. On the broad sidewalk, skycaps moved luggage from car trunks to the initial check-in stations. Like caddies in a noisy country club, their uniforms of faux military design imparted a sad dignity to them. All worked without ever looking up at jets that were constantly taking off and landing, soldiers in an army-less battle.

“Don’t forget what we talked about, Stephen. You can expect my package in the mail very soon. Do everything correctly and you and I will go somewhere and celebrate.” Stephen seemed to be in a hurry to get out of the car, but his progress was slowed when Anya grabbed his jacket sleeve, perfectly manicured fingers digging into the almost-good-quality herringbone jacket. Brought to heel, he waited; satisfied that he took the lesson, she released him to the outside world.

Without waiting for Stephen to get past the check-in station, the door shut. The limo surged forward, narrowly missing a very old man who about two car lengths ahead, standing with of his aluminum walker. He stared at the curb rising above the pavement, like an idealistic East German youth staring at the Berlin Wall.

“Come, Margaret, sit next to me! You sitting up there all alone makes me feel on display, come on! This seat is much more comfortable than that bench.” I lean-crouched towards her, facing her as I sat down in the still warm seat to her right.

“So, what’s a nice girl from Radcliffe doing in a nunnery?” Her eyes sparkled like jewels, very attractive and just a little non-human. Sitting next to her I could see signs of age, the extra skin just behind and below the ear lobes, a certain tired and worn look.

“What?” I felt a quick-turning pressure in my chest. Covering my reaction, I smoothed out the already smooth folds of my habit and grasped my rosary (which was safely in my pocket). Satisfied that I covered being caught off guard, I leaned to my left and looked at the LCD display. It was a page of text, half of which was in ‘hyperlink blue’. For reasons that I really didn’t care to know, I smiled at Anya and swiveled the display to face me more directly. She didn’t seem to object and continued,

“Well, you did know that Stephen, your ‘neighborhood friend’, worked for the Omni Corporation, didn’t you? Even a nun would recognize Omni Corporation as being the leading provider of computer network hardware and services, especially a nun with an interest in Omni’s website hosting services.” Anya looked at me, and the impulse to tell her to stop the car and let me out dissipated like smoke from the pinched out flame of a candle. I knew that running away wouldn’t be the worst thing, but the part of me that wanted to get answers to take home to Sister Bernadine would not permit it.

“You know, after we get your luggage, we should have a coffee together. Doesn’t that sound like a good idea? I’m thinking that you’re a girl of underrated abilities.” She leaned back in the dark leather seat.

“Sure, on one condition.” Choosing to cover my own indecision, I saw her arched eyebrow as an indication that she was not completely confident of her position,

“You stay here in your… car when we get to St. Emily’s…”

“Why ever would you think I’d insist on coming in and meeting your Mother Superior?” she interrupted,

And, when we get back to the city, I want to talk about Omni Corp.”

Her smile was anything but re-assuring. There was a simple pleasantness that, in its superficiality, acquired a creepiness that made my hair stand on end. There was a part of me that wanted nothing more than to run anywhere and hide from this woman. To my increasing dismay, I felt like I did after scoring 800s on my College Boards, or the first time that I…. Well, this ‘new’ part of me felt like more of a threat than the exquisitely dressed woman sitting to my left.

Even though the light was beginning to fade, as the evening pushed away the afternoon, I could see the increasing space between the buildings we passed. Strip malls gave way to enclosed malls, professional office buildings and finally, residential homes.

Somehow we were already slowing to a stop, in front of the Convent at St Emily’s. I got out and walked up to the front door.

Sister Phyllis was waiting in the living room to the right of the entry hall. Without stopping I turned and said,

“I’ll be right down, Reverend Mother,”

I took the stairs two at a time. After the last hour or so of sitting, this burst of physical activity felt better than it should have. Within three minutes, I was back down the stairs and standing in front of the Mother Superior of St Emily’s. For some odd reason, I took note of the fact that I wasn’t out of breath nor showed any other signs of exertion.

“Sister Phyllis, this will sound unusual but…”

“No need to explain anything to me, Sister Margaret.” I started to protest and she held up her hand and continued.

“Do you remember, during your first visit here that I told you about how your Reverend Mother came to us, when she first joined the Order?” I nodded, and without word, sat next to her on the couch,

“You remind me very much of that young Bernadine Ellison and yet, there are important differences. She had the kind of energy, the desire to do something, that I saw in you when we first met, on that awful day when Father Noonan died. But you don’t have her anger. Our novitiate, Sister Bernadine, was so very angry. God is both wise and understanding of the frailties of his creations, and so He encourages people to come together in our Order and become a family. Our Convent here is a home. Just as any good family would show patience and love when finding one of its members troubled, so does this convent. Your Sister Bernadine wanted this life more than she wanted her anger and, though it took a great deal of effort, she found her way.” Sister Phyllis closed her eyes, as if seeing the memory.

“Here, this is for you,” She reached over and put a rosary in my hands and gently bent my fingers over it.

“I gave this rosary to Sister Bernadine years ago and, at the appropriate time, she returned it to me. After the occasion of her last trip away from St. Dominique’s, she came back to us and returned the rosary. Can you promise to return it to me, in person, when the time comes?” Her face had a look of serenity that somehow also projected strength and confidence. ‘This is what a woman of true faith looks like’, I thought, sitting next to Sister Phyllis in the evening-quiet convent.

“You’re in my prayers. Now go. You have the strength to do what you must. Just remember that fear is the language of the devil. If you hear it, know that it is Satan talking, not you. Do not listen. Your faith must be in the still, quiet voice that does not command, only assures.”

The Vantablack Mercedes sped away from St Emily’s Convent without a sound, taking me to the heart of the city. No sooner had the door closed than Anya Clarieaux was talking.

“So, where shall we go? I have a feeling there is much you think you want to know.” The self-assurance of this woman was, I must admit, un-nerving. It was as if she didn’t have a care in the world and, at the same time, had limitless resources.

“Oh! I know!” She touched a button on the console and said, “We’ll be going to the Bedford. Make certain they have my table available in 30 minutes.”

“Look, I appreciate the ride and all, but I need to meet my friend and then head out to the airport, I have a…”

“…8:30 flight to Philadelphia. Yes, yes. I know.” Anya affected the patient tone of exasperation that is usually permitted only between girlfriends, or teachers and their prized students.

“How did you know that!?” I was not feeling very friendly towards this woman. Worse, I was beginning to get angry at myself for being stupid and acting on the impulse that brought me to this place, at this time, in a speeding limousine heading towards Chicago. My status was less and less clear as the time passed; was I a guest, incidental passanger or hostage?

“What part of, ‘obviously-powerful-woman-employed-by-a-multinational-corporation’; specializing in information systems, for Christ’s sake, did you choose not to notice??” Anya’s face was a kaleidoscope of emotions: amused, annoyed, concerned and, just-on-the darker-side of angry.

“Jesus H Christ, Em, do not take that innocent young nun approach with me! I assure you that you will not enjoy the rest of our time together, if you do. Now let me work and we’ll have a nice dinner and talk about anything you want to talk about.” Anya Clarieaux focused on the screen, now turned back toward her, making it un-readable to me. I reached for my phone.

“Can I see your phone for a second?” Anya smiled as she took my phone, pushed a button causing her window to slide down, and threw it out into the traffic.

“There! Much better! …What?” she watched my reaction very closely. I felt fear, followed by the flaring of anger. She watched me, without saying a word, without the slightest change in her expression. I started to turned towards her and felt the rounded shapes of the rosary that Sister Phyllis gave me slide across the inside of my pocket. I immediately felt a sense of peace and the fear evaporated. I decided that saying a rosary might be my best course of action. It bothered me, though, that despite my fear disappearing, my anger remained.

The Bedford was a restaurant in a former bank in Wicker Park. Our limo pulled up to the front and Anya immediately stepped out of the car. This left me the choice to either get out on my side (the street side) and walk around the car or just slide across the seat and get out that way. I chose the less dignified approach and slid out of the car in an avalanche of heavy black pleats and wide-flapping sleeves. Anya then made it worse by offering me her hand, which I took. There was a line of well-dressed, sucessful-ish people running down the stairs and to the side and plenty of lights. The young women were dressed for imaginary paparazzi and the men wore their indifference like medieval codpieces.

Standing next to Anya Clarieaux, I felt like one of those stilt walkers in a circus. My habit looked like a little girls attempt to create a wedding gown out of blankets. The only advantage of the volumes of fabric was that my elbows and knees remained safely hidden from view. Anya was standing, all 5’3″ of her in her conservative banker’s pinstripe suit that somehow lost four inches on the hem and two buttons from the blouse. Not since 9th grade gym class have I felt so awkward. I smiled beatifically at everyone as we walked up the stairs and to the front door.

The Bedford kept many of the archaic design features from its previous life as a bank, including an old-fashioned revolving door, mostly glass and shiny brass. I held back and watched as Anya Clarieaux walked through the revolving door, never once lifting a hand to touch or otherwise make sure she wasn’t hit by the sweeping motion of the door. The self-assurance that she exhibited was, I’ll admit, beginning to get a little intimidating. I followed after her, tried to time my steps to the rotation of the door, slowed a little, and skipped into the next open segment, but my forward motion was too great and I had to almost stop walking. I put my hand against the brass railing and pushed. Looking to be sure that my habit didn’t catch as the door segment closed completely, I took two steps and as soon as there was room, I stepped out into the interior of the restaurant. Anya stood at the top of a short marble staircase and watched my performance,

“Come, I have a table in the vault. You’ll love it to death,” she said as she turned and walked ahead. The staff showed every sign of knowing her by sight, and by the way they smiled at her, it was clear that she was a very appreciated client. The vault was literally that, complete with a very large circular door in gleaming stainless steel. Inside the vault (a room about 20 by 30), tables were set a very discrete distance apart from each other; about half of the them were occupied. There was one booth, in the farthest corner, and I was not at all surprised to see my host sitting, quite relaxed, with a martini glass already in front of her.

I sat down opposite Anya. A waiter appeared, looked at Anya and asked if there was anything he could do. Anya looked at me for a length of time that was intended to make me uncomfortable. Without looking away, I said, “I’ll have ginger ale. No ice. No straw.” The waiter waited. Anya continued to stare into my eyes. I smiled and after another 30 seconds she smiled and looked at the waiter and nodded.

“Great. So you’re a regular here and you turn heads. I’m impressed and I’m about 30 minutes from being late for a plane home. How about an explanation? You’re a powerful and beautiful woman, I get that. So why am I, a 2nd year novitiate nun, sitting in the hottest nightspot in Chicago with a woman I’ve known less than a day?” As I spoke, my ginger ale appeared on the table to my left.

“Let’s say I’m in a recruiting mood tonight. And, in case you’ve forgotten, I didn’t come looking for you, you were the one sniffing around one of my pet engineers, asking some very pointed questions about an Omni product.” I started to tell her that it was a free country and I could talk to anyone I wanted, when I realized how naive that would sound. Before I could re-frame a more credible defense, she reached across the table and took my hand in hers.

“Do you know how I managed to get to my current position with Omni Corporation?” There was a glint in her eye and she laughed, “Yeah, besides that. Any girl with an MBA and enough ambition is capable of that, but it gets one only so far and no farther. I don’t even have a college degree, never mind an MBA. The reason I’m in the position I am is that I have an eye for talent. Don’t get me wrong. The business world is full of young, smart, accomplished boys and girls. They’re totally necessary to run a business like the Omni Corporation. That’s why we have a Human Resources Department, to find and recruit engineers and analysts and attorneys and all the skilled workers necessary to run a global information company. I’m the person who finds the people with the rarest of talents, people who have the killer instinct. Do you have any idea how hard that is to find in today’s youth?”

As she spoke, I wanted to reach for my ginger ale, but she wouldn’t let go of my right hand, so I took my left hand from inside my habit and reached for the glass.

“Well, that’s all fine and good, Mz Clarieaux. I’m very impressed, really I am, but I need to leave. I’d find all this quite fascinating, if I were…. Well, wait! No, the circumstances in which I’d be enjoying this is ‘never’.”

She reached into her purse (Hermes, of course) and, as she pushed a cell phone across the heavy linen table cloth, said, “Any girl capable of hacking a DIA facility and planning an ecotage raid on a very heavily guarded government animal testing facility and still manage straight A’s in her Medieval Lit courses, is the kind of girl I’m always on the lookout for… Em? What I really want to know is how you managed to get your name deleted from the TSA’s Do Not Fly List and a half a dozen other Watch Lists, that I know for a fact had you listed during two out of your three years at Radcliffe?”

I sat very still. I thought about the rosary in my pocket. For some reason, I thought about my roommate at the convent, Sister Claire. She was as sweet a person as I’ve ever met and sometimes, when she’d be too self-conscious in public to do anything more than smile at the ground, I’d tell her to have faith in herself. She’d always smile and say, ‘I wish I could be half as smart or confident as you.” Yet throughout the process of the death of her father (which actually took two years), she never once complained or asked for help; her faith in God made me feel like a little girl playing dress up.

“Cat got your tongue now, Sister Margaret? At least you’re not putting on a weary show of protesting your innocence.” There was a ‘glow’ about this woman sitting opposite me in the too, too clever restaurant; it was the reaction of the large cat when the fleeing antelope stumbles and falls. I felt the need to act and so I began to whisper and immediately her expression changed from triumphant to wary puzzlement.

“What’s that? You haven’t even heard my offer yet! Don’t start praying at me or I swear I’ll call the bouncer.”

I slid out of the booth and sat next to her, putting my arm on the back of the leather booth. She turned to face me, wariness increasing. I noted a new element in her face, the best description would be appetite.

As her eyes widened in mock surprise, her pupils dilating in anticipation, my left hand slid her martini glass off the table into her lap.

I got up and sat back on my side of the booth. There was no indication that any of the other people sitting in the vault noticed. Anya did not make a sound; her eyes, however, were screaming.

“Well, as I was saying, I’m responsible for locating and recruiting people of special talent for the CEO of the Omni Corporation. I’m not always successful, but I don’t limit myself to one try. You’d be surprised at how often people insist that their final answer is no, only to find themselves asking for a chance at a later time. I’m not in any rush. You have a lot to think about. And, somehow,” there was the hint of a touch of vindictiveness in her voice, which a part of me noted with satisfaction, “it appears that you’ve missed your plane. Not to worry, young Sister Margaret, the Omni Corporation views its business concerns over a very long term. We never rush our plans. Be assured that the CEO of Omni does not concern himself with short-term gain. He guides the company along a path that will involve decades, if not generations. Your past and your secrets are safe with me. We maintain a number of suites at the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport. A room will be waiting for you tonight, your ticket has been rescheduled, and you’ll be home tomorrow by early afternoon. No need to thank me, we value all our assets, even the ones who resist our interest. Especially them. It’s been my experience that the kind of person Omni wants is not inclined to believe that our company has anything they need. With enough time, they almost always realize that they are wrong.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I seemed to have gotten all wet. I am very happy that you accepted my offer of help today. If you have any questions, here is my card. Call me if you ever need something that the world is not willing to give you.”

She got up from the booth,

“There’ll be a car out front to take you to your hotel when you’re ready to leave. Your suitcase is already in it. Goodbye, for now, Sister Margaret Ryan.”

***

I found the door to the Sister Bernadine’s office open. Holding in my left hand the rosary beads that Sister Phyllis gave me, I walked in and sat in the single straight back wooden chair in front of the desk. Sister Bernadine did not look up at me when I walked into the office and she did not say anything to me when I sat down in front of her desk. She continued to do whatever administrative tasks that it was she did, in order to provide for the women who occupied the convent at St. Dominique’s. It was early afternoon when I sat down. The hours passed. I sat and Sister Bernadine worked, sometimes talking on the phone. On two occasions people came to the office to speak to her directly. At no time did they acknowledge my presence.

The fear and hopelessness surrounded me at the moment I first sat in the chair. As time passed, it seemed that these feelings grew impatient, and I would be certain that I’d just heard Sister Bernadine mention my name when on the phone to someone I could not see. I did nothing. I held Sister Phyllis’s rosary in my left hand and prayed.

The sun set behind Sister Bernadine. The bright and varied background, framed by the floor to ceiling windows. grew dimmer and less interesting. The figure of Sister Bernadine, a life study in black and white and brown, became more and more part of the view through the windows down to Chesapeake Bay. Finally, all activity from outside the office slowed to non-activity, and quiet crept down the corridors, shutting some doors and opening others. Sister Catherine was the last visitor. She opened the door and stood and said nothing for a short time. When she left, I heard through the overly ornate door, “Good Night, Sisters.”

The night wore on.

I started to speak. The silence of hours caused words to seem like a set of badly carved wood toy blocks. I hesitated.

Rising from her desk, Sister Bernadine faced out the window and said, “You are home, Sister. No one can take that from you….”

I sat as she walked out of her office. She left the door open. I could hear her turning on the lights in the night-darkened hallway… and I sat and waited to return.