The Dragonwing Effect

Chapter 11

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Sam stared at Jarod for nearly a minute, open-mouthed, then snorted derisively. "Tampered with my memory? As in brainwashing?! Jarod, you can't be serious! The only time memory erasure is even considered is with mental patients – extreme cases of paranoia, agoraphobia and the like. Even then, you need a medical order, issued by a Crown Court judge and signed by no fewer than three GenMed councillors!"

Jarod shrugged. "Do you have a better explanation? You said it yourself, Sam. You know something's wrong with your memory and you're trying to find out what."

Sam digested this for a moment. "Simple test" Jarod continued, consulting his computer. "What was the disposal tag serial number on your old ship?"

"DD-470928-Q2" Sam replied without hesitation.

"Good. What color was the smuggler ship you and Hoshino chased down before your 'crash?'"

"Ugly bright mustard yellow" Sam said, wincing at the memory.

"Right again. Who won the World Cup Soccer game in 2038, and where was it?"

"Sweden, against Brazil, playing in Stockholm." Sam grinned. "Caused quite a stir. It was the first match they'd won in at least a dozen years, and Leif Gundersson sprained his ankle making the winning kick!"

"Good. Now, what happened the morning after your crash?"

Sam scowled. "You know I don't remember."

"Exactly!" Jarod exclaimed, holding up both hands. "So how is it you remember the details about a soccer match which happened twenty-two years before you were born, plus trivia like your old ship's disposal number, but you've got a three-week gap with no previous history of memory problems?"

Sam squirmed in his seat. "Short-term traumatic amnesia–"

"–isn't so selective" Jarod finished. "Especially in people with eidetic memory. A sense of Deja Vu, which you said you've been getting hit with quite a bit lately, is far less normal for you than memory blackouts."

Sam didn't have a ready answer. He eyed his companion speculatively. "Are you sure you're just an aircar tech?"

Jarod smiled, a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. "I read a lot" he said, with a shrug.

When Sam's gaze stayed on him, he sighed. "OK, I read a lot and I've got a lot of hobbies" he said. "My father was, among other things, a shrink. I'm a ham radio operator, with a BSEE, and I dabble quite a bit in cryptography. When I'm not soldering something together, or puzzling over the Nazca geoglyphs, I do wildlife photography and star-gaze."

Sam blinked. "When do you sleep?"

"Whenever my cats demand it" Jarod shot back. "Look... In all fairness, I could be wrong. I could be jumping at shadows where there aren't any. But what if I'm right? Even halfway? Can you afford not to consider it?"

Sam was indeed considering it, in spite of his earlier protests. The implications of what Jarod had said were... disturbing, to say the least. If someone's been screwing with my head, who? And more importantly, why?! We all have security clearances. What's sensitive enough to make them – and who the hell are 'them,' anyway? – want to erase my memory?

For the first time he could remember, Sam felt an odd sense of betrayal. Why would anyone in UNEC even think of pulling a stunt like this?

"If I'm right" Jarod continued, as if reading Sam's next thought. "You have to be damn careful who you trust. Even your boss–"

"Not Dash!" Sam snapped. "Never. He's probably the one person I can trust, unconditionally, on the whole bloody base!"

Jarod simply gave him a pitying look. "Don't be so naive. You said it yourself; the decision to do memory erasure can only be issued – officially, anyway – by a Crown Court order."

The vet snorted. "You're paranoid, Jarod. Anyone ever tell you that?"

The tech rolled his eyes skyward. "More times than I can count. Doesn't necessarily mean I'm wrong."

"Just for the sake of argument" Sam said, "let's say you're right. For whatever reason, part of my memory's been wiped. Hard as I've tried, I can't seem to remember more than fragments, which probably means it was a first-class job.

"What am I supposed to do? Barge into Dash's office, tell him I know I got my brains scrambled, and demand to know what really happened? The orders would have had to come through him, and the real details are probably locked in a high-security file neither of us has access to!"

"Yes and no" Jarod replied, with a half-grin. "There are ways around any security lock. It all depends on how daring you feel."

"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that" Sam said, wincing. "I want to know what happened, but not at the risk of a court-martial, dishonorable discharge and an involuntary vacation at Club Fed. There's got to be another way!"

Jarod steepled his fingers. "Seems to me" he replied, "someone else much higher up than either of us has already committed a court-martial offense by screwing with your head. Or are you forgetting the recipient of a memory wipe must, by law, be informed of the fact it was done?"

Sam stared at him, uncomprehending for a minute. Then his eyes widened. "Bloody hell" he gasped. "This means I really can demand an explanation! I'll go see Dash first thing Monday–"

"Whoa! Not so fast" Jarod said, holding up both hands. "What makes you think you'll get anything other than a firm brush-off? The law says you only get to be informed a wipe took place. It also says, specifically, the information targeted for wipe will not be revealed to the recipient."

"Then we're right back where we started" Sam said, disgustedly, as he slumped back into his seat. "Neither of us have the clearance to find out what really happened, and we'd attract the wrong kind of attention if we tried."

"I don't know whether to be flattered or annoyed you said 'we'" Jarod replied, as he dug into his backpack. A moment later he came up with an old clamshell-style cellphone, which had clearly seen better days, and held it out to Sam.

He took it cautiously, as if afraid it would fall apart at the slightest touch. Fortunately, it turned out to be more rugged than it looked. Sam flipped it open. "I didn't know you collected antiques" he said, eyeing the device. "No camera, no touchscreen, no voice-recognition... it's audio-only, isn't it?"

"It serves its purpose" Jarod said. "In this case, its purpose is to give you a choice." He took a deep breath, and continued. "Sam, you've probably guessed it'd be dangerous to show your notebook to anyone else. It would be just as dangerous if we were to continue talking about this during duty hours. In fact, if you try, I'll deny everything!"

Sam nodded. "Agreed!"

"Okay" Jarod replied. "Choice One: Recognize you've been memory-scrubbed and duly informed of it, according to the letter of the law. It's clear to anyone with eyes the wipe hasn't had the slightest negative effect on your work. If anything, so the rumor mill says, you're better at it now than you were before the... incident. That's all the higher-ups are worried about.

"You can accept the wipe was for good reason, bury your notebook somewhere and get on with your life. You can walk away, have another decade or so of great service, and retire in comfort on your pension. End of story."

Sam's response was a single word: "Or?"

Jarod smiled slightly, then tapped the phone. "Dial 4242 any time during the next 24 hours. Tell whoever answers I sent you, who you are, and let them show you just how deep the rabbit hole likely goes."

"But cellphones can be traced, just like–"

"Not this one" Jarod replied, firmly, tapping the phone again for emphasis. "There's more under that beat-up cover than meets the eye."

Sam eyed the device as though it had turned into an annoyed tarantula. "You said '24 hours.' What happens if I don't do anything with it in that time?"

"It becomes a paperweight. Blank memory, non-functional CPU. Same thing happens after you hang up from making the call, so make sure you've got a solid signal before you try. I've only got the one unit, so you only get one chance!"

Sam rolled his eyes skyward. "Oh, great" he muttered. "Still more cloak-and-dagger. Can't I just get a straight answer for once?!"

Jarod shrugged, climbed out of the booth, and slung his pack over one shoulder. "Straight answers are tricky things" he said. "Before you can find them, you need to know what – and more importantly, who and how – to ask. The people on the other end of that speed dial are the 'who,' and they can figure out the 'how' more often than not."

He looked pensive for a moment, then continued. "I'll tell you this much: They won't expect you to do anything illegal, but don't be surprised if you find yourself treading in some gray areas. If the thought makes you uncomfortable, just toss the thing down the recycle chute. It's your life."

With a final nod, Jarod thanked him for dinner and the ride down and started to walk out. "Wait!" Sam called. "Don't you still need a lift?"

The only response was a wave as the tall tech pushed through the door leading to the street. Puzzled, Sam followed. He was just in time to see the tail and strobe lights of an aircab as it lifted into the night sky.

It hit him then: Jarod had never needed him for a lift; the entire evening had been neatly arranged, and he had walked right into it!

His temper flared for a moment at such blatant manipulation, then cooled just as quickly as the phone in his pocket brushed his side. Manipulation or not, Jarod had left the next step up to him.

Ten minutes later, having finished his drink and bid his brother a good evening, Sam was in the air for the short hop home, his thoughts whirling like dust in a tornado.

He didn't remember falling asleep. His mind was a complete blank until he suddenly sat bolt upright, going from 'comfortably unconscious' to 'adrenaline overload' in just over five seconds. Talk about a three-AM thought. All I have to do is get hold of Gerry! He was with me, he'll know what happened!

A glance at the bedside clock showed 05:55. Sam snapped on the light, wincing at the strong glow, and fumbled for the phone. He hit the 'Speaker' button and punched in Gerry's code.

There was an unusually long delay, then the device emitted three ascending tones in quick sequence. At the same moment, the screen flashed NUMBER INVALID. PLEASE TRY AGAIN.

"Some things never change" Sam muttered, disgustedly, as he reset and tried again. He frowned as he got the same result. Resetting once again, he dialed UNEC Operations and requested Gerry Hoshino's status.

Again, there was an unusually long delay. When the officer came back on the line, a puzzled frown creased her attractive red-headed features. "Can you confirm his badge number for me, sir?" She said, in a lilting alto. "And spell the last name?"

Now it was Sam's turn to be puzzled. "The badge code is AL-14, Ranger Gerald Hoshino. H-o-s-h-i-n-o. I need his current status and location, please."

Another pause, then: "I'm sorry, sir. Badge AL-14 is listed as 'Inactive,' and there is no one named 'Hoshino,' H-o-s-h-i-n-o, at any of UNEC's European field stations or regional headquarters."

Sam blinked. "That can't be. We've served together out of the same location for the past ten years! Are you sure you're looking in the right place?"

The officer's features became a mask. "There is no one with the name or badge number you gave me, sir, currently active in the UNEC Ranger Division. That is all the information I have."

Dazed, Sam muttered his thanks and disconnected. A chill went down his spine. If Gerry was the only other witness to what happened, and UNEC does want to keep it under wraps...

A sense of urgency gripped him. He dressed quickly, and was still running a comb through his hair as he dashed out of his apartment and up the two flights of stairs to the parking pad on the roof.

He was in his car and airborne just as the eastern sky was starting to brighten, though he chafed at the speed, altitude and course limits imposed on civilian craft by the local ATCC. If not for them, he could have made it to Gerry's apartment in under five minutes.

With the limits, it took nearly twenty. Sam was out the driver's door and sprinting for the stairs before the car's turbine had spun down. He took them two at a time, and skidded to a halt in front of Gerry's door. He pounded on it, and called "Gerry! It's Sam! Are you OK?"

The silence was broken only by birds. Sam pounded again. "Ranger Hoshino!" He yelled, in his best imitation of Dash's parade-ground tone. "Report!"

Still nothing. Sam tried the knob, and was surprised when the door opened without any undue resistance.

His jaw dropped at the sight: The apartment was completely empty. Not a stick of furniture, phone sitting on the thin carpet at one end of the room, not a single book or knick-knack on the shelves. All the curtains were open, and a sharp scent of cleaning fluid brushed his nose.

"'Ere, now!" said an annoyed female tenor, in a rich Cockney accent. "Who are you, and wot's all the yellin'? You'll 'ave 'alf the neighbors up with that racket!"

His inquisitor was young, blonde and round-faced. Her blue eyes blazed with indignation and challenge as she confronted him, hands clenched into fists and pressed firmly against her hips. Her entire manner and posture presented a startling contrast to the pink bathrobe and duck-slippers she was wearing, especially since her head barely came up to Sam's collarbone.

Still, the Ranger knew an elemental force when he saw it. "Ah, I... sorry about the... uhh, I meant to say..."

She advanced on him a step. Sam's eyes widened at the compact black shape of a stun-wand which the woman seemed to conjure out of thin air. "Wait, please!" Sam pleaded, as he raised both hands in the air.

Unimpressed, the woman backed him up against a corner of the walkway rail and snorted. "Oh, we'll wait all right. I've already rung the constables. We'll just wait right 'ere. Now, don't you move a muscle!" She waved the stunner for emphasis, its tip starting to glow blue.

Sam finally found his voice. "You don't understand! I'm a UNEC Ranger. Here's my ID." He slowly extracted his badge case and flipped it open. The woman eyed it suspiciously. "Where are you based, then?" She snapped.

"Alladale Heights, northern Scotland" he replied, flipping the case shut and pocketing it. "I'm sorry about the noise, but I thought another Ranger might be in trouble – Gerry Hoshino? Also based at Alladale? He used to have that apartment. I'm a friend of his."

The woman's frown deepened. "Don't know any Hoshino... then again, I'm just fillin' in for Gladys, since she's off on 'oliday. 'Ow do I know you're not puttin' me on, then?" She brandished the wand near Sam's neck, its tip glowing a bit brighter.

"I'm not putting you or anyone else on!" Sam protested, his back pressing painfully against the rail. "My name's Sam Shay. I live on the other side of town, near the airport. My brother runs a pub in the Cathedral district, maybe you've heard of it? Paddy's Den?"

The wand stopped its progress towards his neck, its tip going dark, as the woman's eyes widened. A moment later, it dropped completely.

"You're Paddy's brother? Well, why didn't you say so?! 'Ere I was, thinkin' you were a cutpurse an' all! You should 'ave said something earlier!"

The woman backed up a pace, made the stunner disappear into her voluminous robe, then folded her arms over her chest and eyed him crossly. "Paddy's brother or not, that still don't give you no call to go poundin' on doors, wakin' everybody out of their nightcaps at all hours!"

Sam diplomatically neglected to point out he hadn't been given much of a chance to say anything. He also felt it unwise to point out the woman's tenor, echoing clearly across the courtyard, could have woken the dead.

"Ah... yes, I'm sorry about that" he said, lowering his voice in the hope he'd serve as an example. "I really thought my friend might be in trouble. His phone wasn't working, our dispatch center... hadn't heard from him, and I... well, I panicked." He shrugged, helplessly.

The woman smiled brightly, revealing a set of incisors liberally decorated with multicolored food scraps, and continued at a volume most opera singers would envy. "Well, no 'arm done. Tell me what your friend looked like, then. Might be I'll 'ave seen 'im 'round, even if I don't know the name."

Sam nodded. "Well, he's about your height, maybe just a hair shorter, slender build, dark skin, black hair and clean-shaven..."

"Oi! I think I 'ave seen 'im!" The woman interrupted, brightening. "Always movin' quick-like, can't seem to slow down, runnin' every which way like a cat wot's got a bee on its bum?"

"That's him!" Sam said, trying to put on a smile of his own.

"Right, now I remember. Left in a big 'urry e' did, along with a couple o' blokes I never seen before. That was... let's see... why, nearly a month ago! Gladys told me all about it, she did. Paid up the rest of his rent in cash, an' off 'e went! No forwardin' address, no phone, no nothing! An' 'e never said anything to you?"

Sam cleared his throat. "I was, ah... away. Out of communications range."

She clucked at him disapprovingly. "Should always carry your phone. Ranger like you ought to know better!"

He couldn't manage anything other than a sheepish grin.

"Well" the woman said, walking back over to the empty apartment. She closed the door and locked it, securely, with a passkey. "I should thank you, really... I 'ad no idea this door was unlocked! Must 'ave been the cleaning people." She suddenly grinned brightly at him. "You're a 'andsome one. Care for a spot o' brekky?"

"Ah, No, no thanks" Sam stammered, backing away as hastily as decorum allowed. "I really do have to find my friend, thanks for your help, sorry if I caused any problems!"

He reached the stairs and pounded up them towards the roof, relief lending him some extra speed.

Within a minute, he was in the air. Within five, the adrenaline rush had faded, leaving him puzzled, nervous and even a bit queasy. Gerry, leaving suddenly, with two guys, probably the day after this whole mess started, no one knows where he is...

The car's navigation computer beeped at him. "Request destination" it said. Sam twitched, suddenly aware he was hovering in place fifteen meters above the apartment's roof pad. "Home, direct, engage autopilot" he said.

"Home, acknowledged" the computer replied. A moment later, the craft spun slowly in place and accelerated back the way he'd come, climbing to one of the low-altitude traffic lanes.

The bright, clear day and smoothness of the flight quickly eased Sam's innards, though he was no less worried about where Gerry had gotten to and under what conditions. It would have been worse if he hadn't known Gerry was more than capable of taking care of himself, thanks to having black belts in Aikido and Tae Kwon Do. If he went, he went voluntarily he mused.

Sam's attention turned to the cellphone Jarod had left with him. He pulled it out of his pocket and flipped it open. The signal indicator showed a solid five bars; no surprise considering his altitude and proximity to the city.

He moved his thumb over the dial pad, stopping over the '4' key as Jarod's words came back to him: "You can walk away, have another decade or so of great service, and retire in comfort on your pension. End of story."

Whatever was going on, Sam was smart enough to know he could be going up against UNEC High Command if he did anything other than 'walk away.'

There'll be hell to pay if they find out he thought, uneasily. And, based on what he'd experienced the past week or so, he had no doubt they would find out. Dishonorable discharge would probably be the least of my worries he mused. The penalties for unauthorized access to classified data...

Something else Jarod had said echoed in his mind: "Seems to me someone else, much higher up than either of us, has already committed a court-martial offense by screwing with your head."

How could he, in good conscience, continue to serve an organization which was clearly willing to go to such lengths as an illegal memory wipe?

The thought lit a core of sullen anger in Sam's guts. Something he valued, something deeply personal, belonging to him alone, had been ripped away without his knowledge or consent! Every day, more fragments were coming back to him, but they remained just that; fragments.

His jaw tightened decisively. His thumb descended to the dial pad, quickly entering 4242 and pressing 'Send.'

There was a long pause, long enough to make him wonder if he'd lost the signal, but a quick glance at the meter still showed five bars. Suddenly, the earpiece emitted a fast series of melodic tones. There came another couple of clunks, followed by the harshest ringing tone Sam had ever heard. It was more like an atonal buzz than the smooth trill he'd expected. The cadence was also markedly different from what he was used to. Rather than the pair of half-second bursts, with two seconds between them, this one was two seconds on and four off.

I think I know where this call ended up...

His theory was confirmed after the third ring. A male voice, alto, with a clear American accent, asked "Who referred you?"

"Jarod Lee" Sam replied, automatically.

"And you are?"

"Doctor Sam Shay, UNEC Ranger Service."

Another pause, during which Sam heard fragments of a low-voiced conversation in the background. He couldn't make out more than a word or two, but the other voice was male and mid-tenor. After a moment, the original voice spoke up again.

"OK. We may be able to help. Do you have any vacation leave available?"

Sam blinked. "Yes, quite a bit."

"Good. Put in for two weeks right away. Next, call your AMC liaison and get a seat on cargo flight... yeah, here it is. REACH 788, departing RAF Mildenhall this Monday at 1430 your time. It'll take you straight to Moffett Field, touching down around 1230 PDT Monday.

"Take a cab to Clarke's Charcoal Broiler – It's a burger place on West El Camino, town called Mountain View, less than two miles from the airbase. Anyone in the area should know it. Be there by 1300 local. Got all that?"

"Yes" Sam said, scribbling furiously on his notepad. "What then?"

"'What then?'" the voice echoed, sounding surprised. "Order lunch, of course! Personally, I recommend the ground turkey burger with black pepper and fresh mushrooms–"

Exaggerated gagging noises suddenly rose in the background, followed by the tenor voice complaining "He'll ruin it!"

Alto came back on with a sigh. "Sorry about that. Just 'cause my partner can't stand nice, healthy MUSHrooms!"

More gagging ensued. Alto said "Relax, eat, don't worry. We'll find you. Oh! One other thing. Bring the items your friend recovered for you. We can't help you without 'em!"

Before Sam could say another word, the call disconnected.

After another few seconds, the phone's screen blanked and lit back up with HARDWARE ERROR OFOO EEEE. Not all the button-pushing Sam tried brought any further response out of it.

He tossed the useless device onto the passenger seat and stared out the windshield. As little as a month ago, he would have considered such vague instructions, from an as-yet-unidentified source, to be the ravings of a full-moon special at best or a first-class prank at worst.

Now... He reached for the communication controls built into his car's center console and entered a code he knew like the back of his hand.

Moments later, the image of a slender youth in the dark blue uniform of a USAF Airman flickered into being. "Air Mobility Command Operations, Mildenhall, Airman Doherty, this is not a secure line."

"No security needed on this one" Sam replied, firmly. "Doctor Sam Shay, UNEC Ranger Service, Badge AL-19. I'm going on a couple of weeks leave, and I'm hoping you can help me with a seat on one of your cargo flights to the States..."

One nine-hour flight and ten-minute ground car ride later, Sam found himself deposited on the corner of West El Camino and Lane Avenue, Mountain View, California.

In sharp contrast to the cool dryness of northern Ireland, the day was warm and definitely on the humid side. He'd already shed his jacket, and was beginning to regret not having worn shorts. He had a sudden urge to look up at the hazy blue sky, but all he saw was thin high cirrus.

Long hours in the air had left him more than a little fuzzy in the head, despite the nap he'd gotten in one of the cargo hauler's crew bunks. Oh, the bunk itself had been comfortable enough; long-haul military aircraft had evolved, significantly, in terms of crew accommodations.

No, the problem was his dreams. They were getting more vivid and repetitive. He was also finding them easier to remember, especially the one he'd had shortly before landing at Moffett.

At first, it felt like he'd been fully awake. He'd been seated comfortably in his assigned spot, gazing out the window, thinking she's running late. The fact he couldn't put a name to who 'she' was hadn't bothered him at all.

As if on cue, an elegant leathery-winged shape was suddenly alongside the cargo ship, opaline eyes meeting Sam's with a look combining welcome and gentle humor. A maddeningly familiar female voice had spoken in his head: You will find me again it said. You are well on your way already.

Somehow, Sam started to drift right through the hull to join her. Before he got more than his upper body through, though, a firm hand gripped his shoulder and pulled him back in.

He'd snapped violently awake to find the cargo ship's captain, hand on his shoulder, shaking him and asking if he were all right. "It looked like you were trying to climb through the window, sir" he'd said. "Good thing these don't open."

Sam had made some excuse about bad dreams, then gotten a cup of coffee. Twenty minutes later, the craft had landed near the enormous 'Hangar One' at Moffett, now refurbished into an operations center and flight museum. The original structure, built over 150 years ago in 1933 and covering eighty acres by itself, had originally housed dirigibles, including the famous (if short-lived) USS Macon.

Despite the flight-lag, he found he was positively ravenous. The scents of cooking meat and spices, now emanating from the low building in front of him, caused a minor earthquake in his stomach.

As he stepped inside, he was struck by how much the place reminded him of his brother's pub, in spirit if not size. The interior was warmly lit, despite the vaulted roof, thanks to a well-placed combination of skylights and LED floodlights. The furnishings were all well-polished wood, the only exceptions being the waterproof plasfoam chairs in the outdoor eating area. An enormous condiment bar decorated the back wall, its assorted vegetables and spreads making it look like a Farmer's Market condensed into a single table.

The clientele were as varied and complex as the massive hand-painted menus, suspended from the ceiling beams behind the rough-hewn wood counter. Sam spotted patrons from nine to ninety, both solo and in groups, their clothes ranging from shorts and T-shirts to expensive business suits.

A female tenor voice startled him out of his reverie. "Excuse me, are you in line?" He turned to see an auburn-haired lady, dressed in black sequined shorts and a matching halter top, with a silver-and-amethyst sunburst pendant around her neck. "Ah... yes, I was, thanks for asking" he replied, trying not to stare at the lady's blood-red lipstick and shiny black leather half-calf boots.

He hastily got into position in the ordering line, somewhat embarrassed about being caught gawking like a tourist.

This is California he reminded himself. Let nothing surprise you!

The service was as fast as the prices were high, but he quickly discovered the quality and size of the meal more than made up for it. He settled down at a rear table, facing the entrance, poking through a discarded hardcopy of the San Jose Mercury News.

He sipped appreciatively at his drink, a local micro-brew called 'OTIS.' His turkey burger was, literally, too big to comfortably hold, so he settled for taking slices out of it with knife and fork. The mushrooms were, indeed, fresh, almost enough to crunch.

The paper didn't hold his interest for long, mainly due to the snatches of conversation going on around him. It seemed as though no topic was off-limits.

"...drove by the first time, it said something about construction. When I went back the other way, later on, it was warning about Nazi Zombies..."

"...chased that dumb cat straight under a car, landed on a light pole, and I swear he started cackling..."

"...snuck up behind them, then yelled QUACK! At the top of your lungs? I had no idea ducks could get off the ground that fast...!"

"...trans-dimensional. Frell, it makes more sense than FTL travel! Why bother trying to get around relativity when you can just slip through the gaps..."

"...haven't lived until you've had an out-of-control school bus rolling down the hill towards you from the rear, and a pole transformer shooting sparks in front of you..."

"...just the way they are. To a male dolphin, hooking your knee with their schlong is their equivalent of a hearty handshake. You either get used to it or find a different career..."

This last comment hit just as Sam was taking a swallow. He choked, sending droplets spraying over the table, caught between disbelief and laughing out loud.

Though not an aquatic specialist, he'd served two years as assistant to the chief vet at one of the human-dolphin joint research stations in the Sea of Japan early in his career. He'd learned (and seen) enough about cetacean sexual antics to make Hugh Hefner III blush..

Suddenly anxious for a distraction, he looked at his watch: 1310. He looked around, his gaze lingering on the entrance, but no one was coming in and there was no movement in the parking lot. He frowned, wondering if the embroidered UNEC insignia on his polo shirt was enough of a hint to whoever was looking for him, then wondering if he'd been 'pranked' after all.

The thought was put abruptly to rest as a half-familiar male alto spoke up from next to his table. "Sam? Sam Shay? Holy crap, is it really you?!"

He turned to see a stocky figure, slightly under two meters tall, with curly black hair just starting to go silver at the temples. The round face, though, looked anything but old enough to be growing silver.

Eyes as golden-brown and piercing as a red-tail hawk twinkled mischievously behind aviator-style prescription lenses, laughter lines showing at the corners. He was clad in dark blue cargo shorts, all-terrain sandals, and a black T-shirt bearing the legend 'It Is Now Safe To Turn Off Your Computer.'

Belatedly, Sam recognized his voice as the one who'd been describing yelling at ducks. "Yes, it's me" he replied, puzzled. "Do we know each other?"

The man rolled his eyes, and traded a look with his companion. "'Do we know each other,' he says. So much for eidetic memory!"

The other man was just as tall, but skinny as a wire with sandy brown hair and a prominent moustache. He also wore glasses and, despite the warm day, was dressed in faded blue jeans and sneakers, topped with an electric-blue polo shirt embroidered with TESLA'S BASEMENT - STAFF in sun-yellow letters near the breast pocket. He grinned, and said "Maybe his internal coin cell is dead?"

The two chuckled. Sam, having no idea what a 'coin cell' was, didn't know whether to join them or be offended.

He settled for a puzzled smile as the stocky man extended a hand. "Bryan Lind, Stanford double-E class of 2072! You sat right next to Jarod, if I recall correctly." As he said this, with just the slightest emphasis on the name 'Jarod,' one eye closed in a fast wink. "This is my partner in business and mischief alike, John Landon."

As little as three days ago, Sam wouldn't have had a clue what to say. Now, between the wink and mention of a familiar name, he slid smoothly into the expected role even though this was the first time he'd been to California.

"Of course! Now I remember. Good to see you, Bryan, and nice to meet you, John. Saint Blaise Above, how long has it been?"

The pair sat down, and all three of them were soon trading catch-up stories like any trio of college survivors separated by time and circumstance. Only someone who knew all three men well would have known much of it was made up on the fly.

After a few minutes of small talk, Bryan spoke up. "So, do you have a place to stay? And please don't say the base hostel. It may be no credit out of your account, but the old saying 'You Gets What You Pays For' is just as true today as it was at the Dawn of Time."

Sam blinked. "Actually, yes, I was thinking about it. Do you have a better offer, then?"

Bryan manufactured a very good 'hurt' look. "Sam! What kind of friend would I be if I didn't offer you a crash spot? One condition: Trust us! You'll like it when you see it. OK?"

Despite the determination which had brought him here and the role he'd started to play, Sam was a bit startled. They'd barely gotten to know each other and he was already being offered a place to stay?

He eyed the pair closely, trying to use the same sense he used with animals.

Both returned his gaze unflinchingly. Bryan, under the devil-may-care fun-loving exterior, was a keen observer. Sam got the impression he could tuck himself into a corner of any gathering and virtually 'disappear' to the rest of the room, all the while keeping careful track of what was going on. The half-smirk he seemed to favor as his normal expression cast an air of mischief and mystery, while inviting the watcher to investigate further – if they dared!

A warning Sam decided. Don't approach unless you're ready to have your most basic beliefs questioned before you realize it!

John Landon, though clearly the quieter of the pair, gave an impression of a sly sense of humor, along with the same ability to notice everything if he so chose. There was also a sense of nervous energy, tightly leashed but ready to spring loose at a moment's notice.

Workaholic. Someone who could pull an all-nighter on a project at the drop of a hat Sam mused. I'll bet he hasn't taken a real vacation in over a year!

They made a comfortable match. He could easily see how one would complement the other. One thing both men shared, all but hardwired into the way they carried themselves, was that indefinable and subtle sense of being 'animal people.' Sam would have wagered any amount they'd both done quite a bit of hands-on work with exotics and domestics alike.

Perhaps it was that sense which decided him. He wasn't entirely sure. What he was sure of was he wanted answers! Jarod had referred him to this pair, with confidence they could provide them.

How they could possibly do so, half a world away from Scotland, Sam had no idea. But even if the trip turned out to be a wild goose chase, there was something utterly carefree about the pair which was irresistible to his curiosity.

He nodded, and stood up. "When do we leave?"

The trip was short, taking place in an older-style ground car which Bryan identified as a 'minivan.' It was clearly an aftermarket conversion from internal combustion, having been retrofitted with a solar-electric drive system, but it was quick and comfortable nonetheless.

"Did the conversion myself" Bryan explained, an unmistakable hint of pride in his tone. "Wasn't hard at all, really. The tough part was getting our local Motor Vehicle department to sign off on it as roadworthy.

"No matter, though. The few mistakes I made turned into free education."

Sam raised his eyebrows in surprise. Few people these days bothered to learn more about their vehicles than was necessary to drive or pilot them. Intrigued, he took a more detailed look at the van's interior.

Though he was certainly no electronics whiz, he soon saw there was something decidedly odd about the array of extra equipment, most of which took up an enclosed metal frame dividing the front seats. None of it looked like it had ever been a factory option.

Belatedly, he realized the numerous antennas on the van's roof, coupled with the safety light bar across the rear of its roof rack, should have been more than a clue. The installation had looked so well done he'd simply guessed it was a professional job.

Now he wasn't so sure. Here were a pair of control modules for types of communication radios Motorola hadn't made for at least fifteen years, their displays showing a different but cryptic series of characters. Below them, facing straight up from inside the metal frame... Saint Blaise Above, was that an audio control panel from an old Boeing jet?!

Poking up above the top center of the dashboard was a 32-centimeter computer touch-screen, blank and idle at the moment. It was only then Sam noticed Bryan was wearing an early 21st-century telephone operator's headset, connected to a coil-cord which disappeared into the shadows by his right leg.

A rounded boxy shape, clearly part of the headset cable, was attached to his seat belt at chest level, sporting a large white button which could only be push-to-talk. No voice-activated transmit?

But the van's main instrument panel and driver controls were clearly of contemporary design, barely three years old if Sam was any judge, right down to the small status and traffic-alert display required on any powered vehicle operated on public roads or in civilian airspace.

He tried to imagine what kind of personality could possibly be happy with such a strange combination of up-to-date and antique, let alone convince them to work together, and failed utterly.

He glanced outside. The van was moving swiftly along a tree-lined street with industrial parks on one side and a fenced-off line of evergreen trees on the other. It slowed, suddenly, turned right into a wide driveway and rolled slowly into a parking space bearing a battered yellow sign at its front. Bold black lettering read DON'T EVEN THINK IT!

"All out!"John said, airily, as he hopped out and opened the side door for Sam. "Welcome to the asylum."

Sam chuckled politely as he stepped out – then froze in amazement, mouth half-open. They were in front of a huge white-painted warehouse, sporting multiple loading ramps and roll-up doors. A second story was visible, though smaller than the main building, communications antennae of nearly every imaginable size and type decorating its roof like a metallic jungle.

One of the roll-up doors at ground level was open, with classic rock music pouring out. Visible through the opening was the most amazing assortment of electronic and techno-junk Sam had ever seen in one place.

Most of it was as alien to him as the backside of Mars, but he recognized ancient computers (were those really electromechanical disk drives?!), test and measurement equipment, piles of assorted circuit boards and modules and a thousand other things he didn't think he could identify if his life depended on it.

A small horde of people, ranging from teens to seniors, were swarming over and around the piles; disassembling, assembling, testing, loading and unloading roller-carts, haggling over this or that detail, laughing, cursing and generally creating their own version of Chaos Incarnate.

A hive of honeybees in full production would be placid next to this Sam thought, bemused.

Reflected sunlight caught his eye. He looked up and saw a huge sign secured to the side of the building, reading TESLA'S BASEMENT in sun-yellow letters against a glossy blue background. At either end of the sign, neon tubes in the shape of stylized lightning bolts flickered bright blue at odd intervals, supposedly radiating from the output spheres of Tesla coils painted at the sign's edges.

"Criminys, John, you'd think the man had never seen a surplus store" Bryan's voice said from behind him.

John sighed. "Poor, deprav– uhh, 'deprived' person. Shall we correct that unfortunate condition?"

Sam turned at this and eyed them both suspiciously. "Why am I deprived simply because I've never seen a place like this? I'm a doctor, not an engineer!"

"Why not be both?" Bryan said, airily, waving towards the building. "You'd be surprised how much you can learn with very little effort. C'mon... We'll show you. John, grab his bag, will you?"

Landon snorted and looked indignant. "What, now I'm a butler?"

"A most technically-astute butler" Bryan shot back, without missing a beat.

"Oh! Well, in that case..."

He scooped up Sam's travel bag and followed them inside. Bryan led the way, threading easily through the crowd and exchanging greetings with several of them on the way.

Sam followed, acutely conscious of numerous pairs of eyes on him, wearing expressions varying from mild curiosity to suspicion. He kept walking, eyes front, trying to ignore the stares.

It got easier as they approached a swinging double-door marked LABS, mainly because the vet found himself distracted by the most lifelike statue of a caracal he'd ever seen. Easily a meter and a half long, from nose to the end of its well-furred tail, it crouched sphinx-like atop a somewhat tacky-looking faux Greek column to the right of the doors, contemplating the activity through slitted eyelids.

Just before Bryan reached the doors, he stopped, looked up at the statue, and produced an amazingly bird-like whistle. Sam's eyes widened as the lithe feline form twitched black-tufted ears, opened yellow-green eyes full of life and alert energy, and leaped down from the column in one graceful bound.

"Don't move" Bryan said, calmly. "He won't hurt you. Let him check you out."

The vet was too startled to do otherwise. The caracal padded silently over to him and locked gazes. Sam felt those eyes almost like a physical blow, their calm regard containing far more intelligence than was typical for any member of the feline species.

"Hold out your hand" Bryan said, softly. Only then did Sam realize the entire room had gone silent. Even the background music had been muted.

Slowly, he extended his right hand, halting when it was within a few centimeters of the caracal's nose. The cat stretched forward, nostrils flaring slightly. Sam could actually feel the air move.

After a moment's consideration the cat locked gazes with him again, bobbed its head once with a soft but resonant 'maaow,' then turned neatly in place and bounded back to the column to resume its statuesque pose.

Sam jumped nearly a foot in the air as the entire room broke into applause and shouts of approval. "Congratulations" John said, raising his voice slightly to cut through the noise. "You've passed the Kenya test."

Before the vet could so much as form his next question, they were through the double doors and into a long corridor. Well-lit work rooms, both with and without windows, lined one side. Each one had at least one large workbench and anywhere from one to three equipment racks, sporting a variety of electronics Sam didn't usually see outside of Alladale's Avionics Maintenance lab.

One room featured a huge Plexalloy box on its bench, a squarish-looking electronic component with multiple colored wires suspended neatly in the middle between two heavy electrodes. A buzzing sound grew as they passed, changed to an electric snarl, and ended with a sharp BANG!

Once Sam got his heartbeat under control and blinked the spots from his eyes, he could see there was nothing left of the component but a few shreds of charred wire. Tiny silvery bits of metal decorated the interior of the clear cube in a flower-like pattern.

A brown-haired figure, dressed much like Bryan except for closed-toe sandals and a different T-shirt, leaped up from his seat and started dancing around the room, whooping with triumph.

"Gee, I think he's happy" John said, with a grin.

"Great!" Replied Bryan, eyeing the cavorting experimenter. "I was worried we might have to scare up another HiPot test stand if he was going to monopolize that one much longer."

Sam glanced between the two, his expression one huge question mark. Bryan grinned. "All will be made clear in due course" he said, mysteriously, waving them onward.

They went up a set of stairs, and pushed through another double-door marked OFFICE. A smaller, hand-printed sign had been taped below it, declaring ABANDON SANITY, ALL YE WHO ENTER. Sam gulped.

He got another surprise as he passed through the doorway. Bright yellow light suddenly glowed all around him, and the sound of a cuckoo clock striking the hour filled the hallway. He froze. "What the–?!"

"Oho!" John said, as he set Sam's bag down and eyed the Ranger speculatively. "He's wired."

"So I see" said Bryan, retrieving something from a shelf just inside the door. "Hold still a moment, Doctor... this won't hurt a bit."

The vet was too surprised to do anything other than comply, his mind in a whirl. Wired? UNEC is resorting to bugs?!

The portable scanner Bryan passed over him, in stark contrast to the antiquated tech he'd already seen, was very much up to date. It resembled one of the hand-held 'black' lights rock-hounds used when checking for ultraviolet-sensitive minerals, but the resemblance was purely physical. Sam knew it could detect and identify, precisely, a huge variety of transmitting devices whether active or passive.

It didn't take long to find the source of the alarm. Bryan frowned slightly as he held the scanner over Sam's left shoulder blade. "You're carrying a TLC chip. I thought UNEC only tagged animals with those?"

"Non-humans" John corrected, coming over to eye the readout for himself. "Remember, we're animals as well. A species of great ape, according to Desmond Morris. Give me a moment."

He ducked inside and out of sight. Sam heard harsh clicking noises, like a cacophony of relays gone mad. "No problem" came John's voice a moment later. "The chip's not active. Can't find its serial number in any of the databases."

Bryan nodded and shut down the scanner. He eyed Sam with a mix of speculation and suspicion for a moment, then called out "Computer, bug-alert reset."

The yellow light went out, and the cuckoo cut itself off in mid-cu. He gestured inside with his free hand. "No worries. Even if your chip were active, there aren't any relay points in range thanks to this being a developed area."

Sam returned the look, unflinchingly. "I would love to know how you got access to the TLC database" he said, then moved into the room. From all he'd seen below, he'd expected a dimly-lit cave-like environment, liberally decorated with bizarre artwork and more examples of techno-flotsam.

What he got was a neat warmly-lit space, occupied by two low-height cubicle workstations against the far wall. A wide picture window supplied a clear view of the parking lot below, along with a good chunk of the surrounding city and golden-green rolling hills to the east and south.

Unlike most of the offices he'd visited, this one had a hard floor in the form of white tile with green accents. There were a few throw-rugs, mostly in front of the various bean-bag chairs scattered around the middle of the room and in front of two small sofas facing each other across a glass-topped coffee table. Adding to the air of 'Huh?' each sofa featured a throw blanket with different motifs from First Nation tribes.

Shelves lined half the wall space, crammed with all manner of equipment manuals, textbooks, and device databooks from various component manufacturers. Above one of the shelves, hung in an electric-blue frame, was a full-size portrait in black-and-white of a narrow-faced man with a prominent mustache and piercing black eyes. The figure wore just the slightest hint of a knowing smirk, as if daring the viewer to inquire further.

Sam didn't need to. Despite his limited technical background, he knew Nikola Tesla's visage as well as anyone. Who wouldn't know of the eccentric genius responsible for developing the principles of the Tesla-Queller field generator, not to mention forming the basis for power distribution systems all over the world?

In another corner, a glass display case held a wide assortment of antique electronic knick-knacks; weirdly-shaped vacuum tubes, a ferrite-core memory plane, prototype disk drives, discrete transistors and an assortment of other components unknown to him. "Pull up your choice of seat" John said, as he plopped Sam's bag down near the end of one of the shelves. "I imagine you're just bursting with questions."

"That'd get messy" Bryan commented, as he sat down at one of the workstations and accessed his computer. "All those question marks and exclamation points rolling around the floor... who's going to sweep them all up?"

"That's what the Roomba's for" John replied, as he settled into the other workstation and started his own message check. "Gotta give that noisy little sucker something to do..."

Bryan winced, and launched a Nerf ball at his friend across the cubie's low divider. "I'll get you for that later" he muttered, darkly, then turned to Sam with a grin. The vet had parked himself on one of the sofas. "So, Doctor Shay... Care for a drink or snack, or would you like to tell us what's brought you here?"

Sam blinked. "I'm fine, thanks. Still burning off that burger" he said, still half-convinced he'd dropped into an asylum for rehabilitating mad scientists.

The sound of something soft brushing against something hard was all the warning he had before a tawny-gold shape sailed over the top of the couch and landed right next to him. He turned, startled, and found himself gazing straight into the yellow-green eyes of the caracal.

A stray memory bubbled up in Sam's consciousness; I've seen eyes that color before!

Before he could remember where, the cat leaped off the couch and padded across the room to sit down next to Bryan's chair, tail curled neatly around his front paws. Bryan grinned as he reached down to stroke the slender head. A deeply resonant purr sounded a few moments later. "No worries" Bryan told the still-startled vet. "You just happened to be sitting in one of his favorite spots.

"What I do find amazing is he didn't make any kind of objection. In fact, I'm really surprised he came upstairs. He doesn't usually leave his column for more than a few minutes. You must have quite the way with animals."

"I could say the same for you!" The vet said, confusion evident on his face. "I've not seen anything bigger than desert lynxes kept as pets, certainly not wild cats like caracals!"

"Not as wild as you may think" John said, leaning around his screen to watch what was happening. "Caracals are actually one of the easiest cats to tame. They've been used for centuries as hunting companions in the Middle East and Africa. They're often mistaken for lynxes, but they're more closely related to servals."

The caracal, apparently satisfied with having been duly recognized and fussed over, padded over to a platform by the window, leaped up on it without any apparent effort, and settled down full-length to watch the world. Bryan gestured at him.

"Kenya, there, came from the Middle East. We did some contract work a few years ago for, of all people, a rather highly-placed Saudi prince. A couple of months after the job, we received this terminally-cute kitten who clearly had to grow into his ears and paws. I can assure you, he wasn't always this graceful!"

Sam had to smile at that. Young cats, as a species, all seemed to go through a phase where they were as likely to trip over their own feet as they were to chase their tail. "But the permits–" he started to say.

"–were made a lot easier by the fact Kenya was a gift from royalty, royalty who our government is very interested in maintaining good relations with. Refusing to take Kenya would have been... mmm... uncomfortable? In the diplomatic sense, of course."

"Considering their status in the Middle East, and the fact the species is hardly endangered, our Fish & Wildlife service felt it was best to just stay out of the way" John said, reaching over to stroke the cat himself. Kenya acknowledged the gesture with a brief increase in his purring, but didn't take his eyes off the activity below. "Bryan's got a couple of acres worth of property, so it wasn't hard to put up a good run-wild enclosure."

"Sure keeps the local rodent population under control" Bryan added, appreciatively.

Sam suddenly understood the source of the faint animal scent he'd detected in the van, as well as the reason for the half-size beanbag chair behind the last of the rear seats. "Any other questions?" Bryan said, one eyebrow raised.

"Well... yes" Sam replied. "No offense, but how in blazes did you get access to a federal database?!"

Bryan looked puzzled for a moment. "TLC chip lookup, Information Access Act" John prompted. "Different laws in the EU?"

"Ah, right!" Bryan said. "Well, Doctor Shay, I don't know how your division of UNEC handles such things, but here in the States TLC entries are a matter of public record. You didn't know this? It's a huge help for farmers. They can tell at a glance if any predators make it onto their lands, and where."

"Public record? No, I had no idea" Sam replied, a little disturbed at the concept.

Bryan nodded. "The bigger question is why you'd be carrying one of the things. They're utterly useless for spying, because they have no audio or visual pickup. All they do is relay vital signs and location. Even that requires they be calibrated for the normal life signs of whatever critter you're giving one to, so the processor knows when everything's OK and when to scream for help."

"If your bosses wanted to track you" John continued, over steepled fingers. "They wouldn't waste a TLC implant. Especially one which has its configuration memory as blank as a new sheet of paper."

Sam looked, if possible, even more puzzled. Then he looked relieved. "That means the chip wouldn't even transmit its location" he said. "So why is it in my shoulder?" He rubbed at the spot self-consciously.

Bryan shrugged. "A mystery for later. For now, would you like to tell us what convinced Jarod to send you our way? Or would you like me to start?"

"You first, please" Sam replied, greatly relieved.

The relief was not lost on his hosts. They exchanged knowing grins, then Bryan began.

"Tesla's Basement started about eighty years ago as a simple electronic surplus store and recycling depot. Incoming equipment which was thought to be still usable was checked for basic operation, then sent out in the store or online for sale to whoever might want it.

"Equipment which was dangerous in some way, or which was required under contract to be demilitarized or disassembled, went through a process to separate the dangerous materials and get them into a licensed HazMat recycle-and-dispose site. Whatever was left was sold as parts, assuming our contract with the original owner allowed it, or sent out for scrap if not.

"John and I were regular customers of the place for the last couple of decades. We got to know the owners, and we often traded our expertise in checking things out for discounts on equipment we wanted. After a couple of years of this, the original owners set us up with workspace in a couple of unused rooms. I think we've both lost count of how many weekends we spent here, helping the regular staff go through the stuff."

John spoke up "Five years ago, the original owners decided to retire. They offered us a terrific deal on the place, on the condition we do everything we could to keep it going. The timing was right, so we said 'Yes.'

"What we've set up downstairs is a bunch of working electronic shops, or labs. They're all set up in a similar way, in terms of basic measuring equipment – hand tools, multimeter, oscilloscope, power supply, signal generator, computer and network link, etcetera – but each lab also has a specialty."

He grinned again, widely. "The one which startled you is dedicated to HiPot, or High Potential breakdown testing. It's a destructive test which can help you determine the limits of different electrical insulations."

"The happy type you saw" Bryan continued, "is one of our many customers, name of Leo if I recall correctly. He's working on some kind of new super-lightweight coating which, supposedly, can stop power lines from attracting lightning. I'm not sure what we walked in on today, but it certainly looked successful.

"Anyway, shortly after we took over the place, we set up a ham radio club along with the labs. All the facilities are available on a paid membership basis to anyone who wants to play with electricity but either can't afford, or doesn't have space for, equipment of their own.

"Between that and the sales from the store, we do pretty well. The inventors are free to develop their discoveries any way they please, in exchange for a small percentage of any actual profits they make."

John gestured expansively. "Latest is not always greatest. We've always believed the best possible progress comes from learning and remembering the lessons of the past and mixing them with the techniques and technology the future can bring.

"We help to keep otherwise-usable stuff out of the landfills, and we also work with the local school districts to give basic courses in electronics to anyone who wants to learn."

"There is only one firm rule" Bryan added, nodding towards the caracal. "Anyone who wants to gain membership to use the labs, or the radio club, has to pass the 'Kenya Test.' That's what you went through just a few minutes ago."

"I thought it was some kind of test" Sam said. "You said I passed?"

"You wouldn't be sitting here right now if you hadn't" John said. He jerked a thumb in Kenya's direction. "Our resident furball is very perceptive when it comes to people. The majority come through without a problem. Every so often, though..."

He shrugged. "If Kenya had hissed at you instead of meowing like he did, you'd already be back at Moffett Field."

"Then again" Bryan added, as he reclined in his chair, "You're not the first person Jarod has sent our way. Kenya has yet to reject anyone he's referred."

Despite the explanation, Sam was still puzzled. "OK" he said, slowly. "You've obviously got quite a setup here, but none of what you've told me explains why Jarod thought you could help me. Are either one of you a psychologist, or neurologist?"

John squinted, and traded looks with Bryan. "I could probably spell either one, if I had to" he said.

"And we've got a pair of couches" Bryan agreed, waving at the sofas.

The exasperated look on Sam's face started them both chuckling. "Neither one of us are medics" Bryan said, getting his mirth under control.

Abruptly, his face turned utterly serious. "What we are, Doctor Shay, at least according to everything we've been told, are problem-solvers and critical thinkers. Sleuths. First-class snoops. Amateur detectives. Champion-class boat-rockers, if you will. Couple those basic skills with a deep knowledge of technology and it's a combination damn few mysteries can hold out against."

"Don't get us wrong" John put in, seeing a flash of annoyance cross Sam's face. "You're also a problem-solver and critical thinker. A good one, too, or you wouldn't be a UNEC Ranger. What you lack, according to what Jarod told us, is the third part of the triangle: Skill with technology."

"But I use technology every day!" Sam protested. "And pretty bloody well, too!"

"We're not arguing that much" Bryan said, holding up one hand. "We're talking about understanding the guts of what you're using, enough to spot pitfalls, booby traps, or see when you're being deliberately misdirected.

"For example, did you know it's possible to turn any common smart-phone into a very effective audio and video surveillance device?"

"Did you also know" John put in, "that a shotgun microphone and most other types of covert audio surveillance can be defeated by a simple white-noise generator? Frell, a boom-box tuned to the local rock station does just as well."

Sam started to reply, then faltered. He blushed slightly. "Not the slightest idea" he muttered.

"Ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of" Bryan said, softly. "It's what you choose to do in the face of it that makes the difference."

"'Knowledge is Power. With Power comes Responsibility. Responsibility is worthless without Humility'" quoted John. "Queller's Law, bless her flinty heart."

"We owe Jarod, big-time" Bryan said. "Helping you will happen, no matter what. You can, if you wish, simply take off and enjoy a couple week's vacation in the Bay Area. We can suggest some great spots to go hiking, birdwatching, hang-gliding, whatever you might want to do. We will still do our best to solve whatever mystery you've brought us, at no cost to you."

"Alternatively" added John, "you can stop letting people push you around, telling you what to remember and what to forget, and learn to take control of your own life. Which will it be?"

There wasn't the slightest hint of hesitation in Sam's movements as, for answer, he drew his bag to him and pulled out a small bright-yellow Pelican case.

He handed it to Bryan, who snapped it open and examined the contents with considerable interest. He handed the half-melted memory card to John, then examined the tube of multicolored flecks. Finally, he flipped through the notebook with obvious interest, his eyebrows going up ever higher as he got to the descriptions of the dragons.

"That's everything I have so far" Sam said, firmly. "And I can say, with confidence, someone has taken a pickaxe to my memory. If you two can help me find out what really happened, I will cheerfully sit through whatever you want to teach me!"

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