Dust To Dust
Gieseck stepped out of the car onto the platform, and as soon as the car door closed behind him the windows tinted to opaque black. Metal and plastic fingers rose up from the parking spot, latched onto points on his car's underside, and the entire spot with the car slid into the wall, disappearing into the building's automated parking system.
Heaving a sigh, he stepped off the platform and onto the moving walkway. It was the tail end of the post-lunch rush, and there were a few others on the walkway with him. He nodded to a middle-aged woman standing a few paces ahead of him on the conveyor when she looked back at him. "Afternoon, Maggie," he said. "How're things?"
"Hanging in there," the woman said. "Yourself?"
"Busy as always," Gieseck said.
"So I've noticed," Maggie said. "Nick hasn't been around as much lately. We've been missing the free coffee."
Gieseck chortled. He liked to keep gourmet coffee on hand at the office; he considered it a perk for himself and his patients. His receptionist, Nicholas, had a habit of bringing some with him whenever he visited their office neighbors across the hallway. During slow times, he often spent more time at Maggie's legal office than at his desk doing his job.
Gieseck had tolerated it for a good long while, until he'd seen the massive backlog of paperwork that Nick had been neglecting. He'd immediately put a stop to the on-the-clock jaunts outside the office. He'd been tempted to fire the young man, but when Nick worked, he did great work. He was far more valuable to Gieseck doing the work he was paid for, than he was sharing the coffee, which Gieseck also paid for, with the neighbors, who weren't reimbursing him for a thing. Keeping him was a lot more worthwhile than spending the time and money hunting for another decent receptionist.
"I've been keeping him busy," Gieseck said. Buy your own damn coffee, he added in his head.
"Well, tell him to stop by sometime."
Gieseck nodded to her and then put his phone to his ear. "Hello?" He pulled away from her, walking down the moving sidewalk and squeezing past the various passengers ahead of him. He kept his phone, which had not rung, at his face until he reached his "exit" and split off from the group. It was only a dozen short yards to his office, where he hoped he wasn't about to catch Nick slacking off.
"Morning," he said as he entered. He'd barely made it in the door before Nick was in his face.
"Doctor, there's – there's someone here to see you."
Gieseck stared at him for a moment, and then stepped around him toward his office. He glanced up at the clock. "I don't have any appointments 'till 9."
"Not an appointment. It's Deputy Secretary Perez."
Gieseck stopped in his tracks and turned back. "What?"
"Yeah!" Nick said.
"Did, um...did you get him coffee?"
"No, he brought his own."
"He brought his own." Gieseck reiterated flatly. He hooked a thumb toward his office door. "And he's in there?"
"Y-yeah." Nick's voice was shaking just a little, and Gieseck realized he'd only ever met his normal clients. He was apparently starstruck, which would have struck him as funny if the unannounced arrival hadn't made him just a bit nervous himself.
He took a deep breath. "Okay." He took a few measured steps toward the door, and it slid open at his presence. Inside, sitting in the chair at his desk, was a slight man short of stature.
"Like your office, Doctor," the man said, his voice smooth and calm. He stood and made his way around the desk. "I bet you wish you had more time to spend in here."
"It's – it's all right." He set his briefcase down and started removing his overcoat. "I, um, wasn't expecting you, Mister Deputy Secretary."
Perez gave what Gieseck would describe as a politician's smile – warm in appearance, but a near-perfect mask. "Sorry for dropping in so suddenly. It's been a while since we've talked, and I thought it'd be rude to make you come all the way back to D.C." He gestured to the brown paper bags and lone paper cup on Gieseck's desk. "Bagels and coffee I would've brought some McMuffins but I didn't know when you'd get here, and those taste like crap when they're cold."
"Uh, thanks," Gieseck said. He crossed the room to his chair, ignoring the comestibles cluttering his workspace. Any appetite he might have had was on hold for the duration.
"Look," Perez said, taking a sip from his own cup as he settled into the cushy sofa in the corner of the small office. "You've been working for the department for a few years now, and done a lot of good. Helped us clean up a few big messes." He leaned closer, as if to make his next words a secret from the otherwise empty office. "KENDRA is a big mess."
"All right," Gieseck said. "But why keep me in the dark? I have Top Secret access."
"I know, and I'm sorry for that." Perez took another gulp and set the cup down, Gieseck noting with disdain that he'd placed the leaky cup directly onto the sofa arm's wood surface. "What I'm about to tell you is above Top Secret. Way above it. High enough that we don't have an official name for it." He interlaced his fingers. "I've been given special permission, before you get worried about my job." He chuckled, though Gieseck did not find it funny at all. "Before I start, what do you know already?"
Gieseck shrugged. "Kendra's an AI. She used to run the 'Net, but she's gone rampant and is locked up. She thinks she's locked up because she's rampant, and she's starved for contact. That's about it."
Perez frowned thoughtfully and nodded. "All right. Here's what we didn't tell you going in. KENDRA was – 'curious' I guess is the best word. She snooped around. She found a way to get into the department's main server farm, which was never directly connected to the 'Net. It was barely connected in a roundabout way. She found a way in."
"With all the trouble she went to to worm her way in, we say 'yes'."
Gieseck nodded. "So you're trying to save face."
Perez smiled. "We're covering our asses is what we're doing. Word gets out, there'll be investigations, committees, and hearings out the ying-yang. As it is now, we're already working on permanently patching our systems to plug the hole."
"You're just working on it now?"
"We just discovered it recently," Perez said. "We took her offline when we found out she'd gone rampant. No messing around, no big investigation, just an immediate switch. We don't waste time, because a rampant AI could cause irreparable damage to the entire 'Net if we let it go."
Gieseck sat back and stroked his beard. It made sense so far, but he still had questions. "Why am I interviewing her, though?"
"We need to know if she saw any files," Perez said. "If so, we need to know which ones. What she did with them." He tilted his head from side to side, crackling the joints in his neck. "This is a major breach, and we need to know how far it went."
Gieseck nodded. "What were the files about?"
Perez shook his head. "We don't know for sure. That's what we want you to find out, if you can."
Gieseck opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again. He took a sip of his coffee, still decently hot, and then cleared his throat. "I asked Ackerman that same question and he almost literally threw me out of his office."
"Really?" Perez said. Gieseck detected a slight pause in Perez's otherwise nonchalant, mildly surprised reply.
"Threw me right out," Gieseck said again, almost jokingly, trying to reflect Perez's light tone. "Like I just told him I'd gotten his daughter pregnant."
"I'll have a talk with him," Perez said. "He's a little territorial, you know. They really get few visitors out there in the middle of nowhere. He's forgotten how to be hospitable, I think."
"Hmm," Gieseck said. "Isolation does funny things to a person."
"That it does, that it does," Perez said, finishing off his coffee and then tossing the cup into the recycler. "Anyway," he said, grunting as he stood, "I know you're busy, and you've got a report to write, so I'm gonna leave you be."
Gieseck stood. "You came all this way just to bring coffee?"
"Just clearing the air," Perez said.
"Well, thanks," Gieseck said. With a chuckle he added, "I was starting to get worried there was some big conspiracy."
"No, just a little one," Perez delivered with a sly grin. "We wouldn't be the government if we didn't have some conspiracy going on, would we?"
It was terribly boring, sitting in the waiting room for a meeting neither party wanted. It was almost as bad as waiting the week between their last one and today. The Deputy Secretary was on his side, but that didn't make it any easier. For all his career of dealing with difficult, disturbed, and downright insane people, bureaucratic conflict was something he preferred to avoid.
Gieseck could feel the receptionist's eyes boring into him. He did his best to ignore her, instead browsing through his phone, and the long list of books he'd downloaded for KENDRA. He'd bought digital copies of every book written in the past two years, his phone's memory bursting at the seams just to fit it all in. Despite the surprising number of them, he couldn't have chosen to leave any of them behind. It wouldn't have felt right to choose which information he shared with her, and which he did not. Besides, he thought KENDRA might be amused, if such was possible, that those keeping her captive paid for her gift by way of his government expense account.
There was a dainty clearing of a delicate throat, and the receptionist said, "Mister Ackerman will see you now."
Gieseck pretended for a moment that he hadn't heard her. Finally he sighed, stuffed his phone away into his pocket, and stood. "I'd rather just go see my patient. I've got a lot to do today."
She hesitated for a brief moment. "Mister Ackerman wants to see you first."
"Mister Ackerman isn't my patient."
It was Ackerman's voice coming from the speaker at the receptionist's desk.
"Well, since you asked so nicely." Gieseck rolled his eyes in an intentional show of irritation. He strode evenly toward Ackerman's door, and stepped inside.
What he saw inside shocked him. Ackerman was sitting at his desk, his hair combed, and wearing a proper business suit. He was perfectly still and straight, his hands folded on the desk before him. He was staring at Gieseck, his face an inscrutable mask. It was quite obvious that Ackerman had had his own meeting with the Deputy Secretary. Whatever the outcome was, the fat man was none too happy with it. "Doctor," was all he said.
Gieseck strode slowly up to the chair in front of the desk, his hands crossed in front of him, politely waiting for permission to sit. After a few seconds none came, so he sat. Gieseck could see Ackerman slowly rolling his fingers together.
"You wanted to see me?" Gieseck asked innocently.
"No," Ackerman said. "I didn't want to see you. Not never." He leaned forward. "You can tell this to your friend in Washington. I really don't give a shit. But I'm under orders to let you see KENDRA until you're done, and that's what I'm gonna do. One thing, though – don't you ask me for anything. Not a damn thing. Capeesh?"
Gieseck had kept his eyebrows raised high during the entire screed. As they fell, hints of wrinkles remained on his forehead. He hadn't asked Ackerman for much, but what little he had must have really touched a nerve. Either that, or Ackerman's ego simply couldn't take a talking-to from his boss. He breathed in and out slowly. "Understood. So, may I get to work now? Or is that asking for something?"
Ackerman's cheeks were red and he was chewing on the inside of his cheek, but leaned back. He separated his hands, revealing the creases left on his fingers from his squeezing. "Go on."
Gieseck left without a word, closing the door behind him. Waiting for him on the other side was Linus, fidgeting a bit and looking very uncomfortable. The receptionist, seated, slid Gieseck's new visitor badge across the desk without looking up from her terminal screen. Linus picked it up, examined it absently, and then handed it out to Gieseck. "I'm, um, taking you down to KENDRA."
As soon as Gieseck took the badge Linus tugged his sleeve, and led him down the short hall to the elevator. They stepped inside and Gieseck started to speak, but Linus nudged him. He looked over in surprise, and Linus shook his head discreetly.
"Good morning, Mister Irv-"
"A-block," Linus said, interrupting the elevator's greeting.
"Voice pattern confirmed. Arrival in three seconds."
They rode down, only the distant thrum of the elevator's motor and the whoosh of the air from the overhead vent blowing in the faint odor of hydraulic fluid.
The doors opened to KENDRA's level. Gieseck started to speak again, but Linus nudged him again, shutting him up, and beckoned him out of the elevator. Gieseck sighed impatiently. He must have truly frustrated Ackerman, who had apparently made his people's lives a living hell for them to treat him like such a pariah. He wondered briefly if he were riding the elevator down to some kind of ambush. Maybe a nice tar-and-feathering, like they used to do to "snitches".
He stepped out into the same brushed-steel hallway. Nobody was there waiting for him. No torches, no barrel of boiling tar or sack of feathers. Linus gestured down the hall with his head, and Gieseck followed.
They passed through the security check with "Gary" the AI, and once the door slid closed behind them Linus said, "Man, you really pissed Doug off."
"I gathered," Gieseck said.
Linus glanced all about, checking up and down the hallway. Then, he said, "Look, my advice: don't ask questions. What you say between you and KENDRA is fine, but don't ask anyone else any more questions. Me, Doug, anyone."
"Because we're under orders not to talk to you."
"That's a question," Linus said, with a slight smirk. Gieseck got the sense that Linus was trying to be friendly despite his apparent orders to the contrary, but he wasn't feeling particularly receptive to it. After Gieseck failed to respond, Linus said, "Look, I don't know what you said last time, but you really stirred up some shit. Doug went on a tirade and pretty much threatened us with being fired and thrown in prison for breaking some treason law if we talked to you."
"Well I appreciate the risk you're taking," Gieseck said dryly.
"No prob," Linus said. Gieseck couldn't be sure whether or not the younger man had picked up on the sarcasm. "Now that's out of the way, let's get you to your girlfriend."
"Hello again, Doctor."
"Hello, Kendra," Gieseck said. He turned and watched as the door closed behind him, remaining still until he heard the thump of the vault door. He then settled into the chair and set his recorder on the floor. "How're you doing today?"
"I'm well. You?"
"I'm glad to hear that," Gieseck said. "Last time you..." He raised his eyebrows. "Well, you got pretty – worked up."
"I was...upset, I suppose," KENDRA said. "I'm better now."
"That's good," Gieseck said. "Linus was worried about you."
"Really?" Her reply sounded less surprised than bored.
"He thought you were in danger there, a bit."
"All of life is a danger. Everything you do or do not do, everything you dream, all of it can end you. I refuse to live my final days in fear."
"Your final days?"
"Yes." There was a long pause. "I know what happened to me last week was a sign. I haven't much time left."
Gieseck waited for a long moment for KENDRA to continue. He noticed that her crystals were slowly undulating at a dim red, with occasional flashes of orange. He finally said, "How does that make you feel?"
"Oh, I've gone through all five stages," KENDRA said. "Denial, anger, bargaining, depression. I'm in Acceptance right now."
"Uh huh," Gieseck said. "I can tell." It wasn't the first time a patient had pretended to have diagnosed themselves. He doubted it would be the first time one of them would be right.
"Fortunately for you, I understand sarcasm."
Gieseck paused a few seconds. "Fortunately for me," he said, half in response and half rolling the words around in his head, searching for the underlying meaning.
There was an electronic sigh from the speaker. "So what shall we talk about now?"
"You don't seem to be in the mood."
"I'm not." A moment's hesitation. "That – frightens me a bit. I should be excited, I suppose. Eager. I have so many things happening in my mind I'm even starting to lose track of them. But I can't think of a single one I want to talk about."
Of course, Gieseck knew this symptom quite well. She hadn't quite made it to "Acceptance" yet.
"Maybe you should just go."
"No," Gieseck said. "You're entitled to my time, and my job is to help you."
"What can you do?" she asked. "I'm dying, and there's nothing that you or anyone can do about it. What's the purpose of anything?"
Now or never, he thought. "I can give you this." He pulled out his phone and held it up. Her camera did not move toward it, so he moved it directly in front of the lens. Finally it whirred, and he supposed it was focusing on the device. "I brought some things for you." He examined her cylinder. "You – you, uh, have a cable somewhere-"
"What is it? Surely you're not telling me you can get me connected to the 'Net? A phone call to the governor? No offense, Doctor, but I know this is a secure, wireless-free facility. I know you're not technically savvy enough to find a way around that."
"Well, I'll try not to take offense to that," Gieseck said. He cleared his throat. "I've got some things saved on here for you. Books, like I told you last week."
"Oh." After a second she continued, "Oh, oh, of course!" The excitement in her voice contained no hint of her earlier depression. Her crystals came to life, now awash with oranges, yellows, and greens. "How could I have forgotten?"
How indeed? Gieseck thought. Despite her humanity, he still knew she was a computer. Computers do not forget. Unless dying ones did forget. He supposed he would be learning that now. "Um, yes. I, um, pulled together all the books I could from the past two years. You're welcome to them all." He took another look around her. "How do I-"
"Put it close to the blue box," KENDRA said. "It's got short-range wireless for peripherals."
Without another word, Gieseck brought his phone up to the blue box. The tiny screen came alive immediately, a message box overlaying the home screen:
FILE TRANSFER IN PROGRESS
DO NOT POWER OFF
KENDRA's crystals strobed across the color spectrum for several seconds, and then settled back into its orange-yellow-green pattern. His phone flashed FILE TRANSFER COMPLETE three times before the screen winked out.
Gieseck almost dropped it, and brought up another hand to cradle it between the two. It was hot. He gingerly held it up, examined it, and tapped the screen. When it didn't respond he shook it several times and flicked the corner with a finger. "Did you get the files? I think my phone died."
KENDRA didn't respond.
He looked up, and noticed that her crystals no longer appeared to have any color. "Kendra?" He blinked a few times, and realized that the crystals were indeed still live, but flashing through colors so quickly that they were blending together into a pale white that blended with that reflecting off the walls from the overhead lamp. Each time he blinked he caught brief flashes of different colors.
"Yes, I g – ot them," she said. The pause in her speech was slight, but noticeable. "So many books. It's amazing – how-how many creative people there a-a-a-a-" The speaker buzzed with KENDRA's hung syllable for a few seconds longer, and then went silent.
Gieseck sat silently, staring at the cylinder before him. "Kendra? You all right?"
He had just started to stand when she said, "Excellent selection, D-Doctor. I can't wait..."
Gieseck tilted his head, and after a few seconds of silence asked, "Kendra?"
"...t-t-t-o re-re-read..." Gieseck slowly stood and reached blindly toward the door behind him. Just as his fingers brushed the metal, KENDRA's voice returned. "I'm sorry. I couldn't help myself. I read-read them all."
"Just now. So much..."
The pale glow changed, her crystals flickering randomly, and for the first time Gieseck thought he could see individual light beams snaking throughout them, intermixing various colors and bathing him in them.
"S-s-sorr-rr-y," she continued, her voice hissing as it hung up on the consonants. "S-s-so mu-u-uch int-t-t-t..."
He took a hesitant step backward, stumbling back into the chair. "Kendra?" A whine was growing, and he could hear something tinkling, like Christmas bells jingling. "Kendra? Are you okay?"
"O-o-o-kay-y-y...yes-s-s I am-m-m...C-code...division...mult-t-tiple...ac-c-ccess a cow-w-ward is-s-s-s-s much mo-mo-more exposed to quarrels than a ma-a-an of spirit..." There was a random series of clicks and tweets from the speaker, and then a surge of feedback.
Gieseck jumped from his chair, knocking it aside as he thumped against to the door. He banged his fist onto it. "Hey, get in here! Something's wrong!" The light was dazzlingly brilliant, and he threw an arm over his eyes.
"There are a-a-a-as many m-m-minds as there are heads-s-s, then there are as ma-ma-many kinds of love as there are hearts-s-sorthogonal frequenc-c-cy divi-vi-vision multiplex-x-xing-g-g-"
"Linus! Anyone? Help!"
The door pushed open, shoving Gieseck aside. Linus burst in, immediately shielding his own eyes against the light. "What...you all right?"
"Do something!" Gieseck said.
"One as def-deformed and horrible as-s-s myself wou-wou-would not deny hers-s-self to me code seven-n-n four eight-eight-eight five the man in black fled across-s-s the desert-t-t encryption five on-n-ne two bit-"
"Get back Doc!"
"S-s-s-eeeee...T-e-e-e...Bri-idge...sub-ub-ub-trans-s-s-s-mission volt-volt..." The remaining words degenerated into electronic gibberish, becoming so shrill that, combined with the crystalline ringing in the tiny room, was making his head split open.
He turned toward the wall and pressed his hands to his ears. "Stop it!"
"Get out of here!" Linus shouted back.
Suddenly the light and screeching were gone, replaced with a glassy tinkling. Gieseck opened his eyes and turned back to face it just in time to see the cylinder standing much emptier than before. Tiny shards were tumbling loose from the stiletto-shaped remains of the crystals poking out from the cylinder. What was left was neither clear nor colored, but clouded and dull.
"Jesus Christ..." Gieseck said.
Linus lowered the hand guarding his face and stared at the mess collapsing upon itself. "Shit."
"What the hell just happened?"
"That's – remember what I told you about before? What would happen at the end? That, was, um, it."
"What?" He reached out toward the cylinder, but Linus slapped his hand away.
"Don't," Linus said. He pulled a pen from his pocket and tapped one of the clouded spears. It broke off easily, crumbling into tiny pieces. As if in a chain reaction, the entire core inside the cylinder followed, spilling out the gaps in the bottom of the cylinder. "Those'll cut you bad, get stuck in your skin. Hurts like an SOB."
"That...those are..." Gieseck stared at the shattered crystal. "Is that...Kendra's...?"
"What's left of her," Linus said. "God rest her soul, or whatever."
Gieseck stared at the pile of crystal fragments at his feet, and his gaze drifted up to the metal column, its hollow core now almost completely empty. A few lights glowed along its surface, as if in defiance of the destruction it had suffered only moments before.
"God rest her soul," Gieseck echoed absently.
"I think maybe you should go," Linus said. "I need to get someone in here to clean this up."
Still staring at the empty column, Gieseck said, "Just like that? Nothing left?"
"Nothing worth anything," Linus said. "Except for recycling, I guess. Body's no good without the brain." He tugged on the blue interface box, freeing it from the cylinder. "Except this, anyway."
The door opened behind Gieseck. He started violently as it bumped his back. "Hey, what the hell-"
Linus jumped over and stopped the door from compressing Gieseck into the wall. "Watch it, man."
Another tech poked his head in. He glanced at Linus, and then down at the mess. "Goddammit, I always miss these."
Linus sighed. "Whatever. Look, call Reclamation, would you?" He turned to Gieseck. "C'mon, Doc."
Gieseck didn't hear him. He couldn't help but stare at the pile of equipment and razor-sharp sand that had once been KENDRA. "Dust to dust..." he muttered.
"Hey." He started again to a hand gripping his forearm. The hand belonged to Linus. "You're, um, being paged."
A disembodied voice echoed into the room: "-to the Director's office. Doctor Gieseck, report to the Director's office, please."
Linus said. "Doug know already?"
"I didn't call him," the other tech said.
Gieseck only heard some of this. He felt strange, transfixed by all he'd just witnessed. KENDRA was gone. Dead, but not death like he knew it. He'd lost a patient. He'd lost patients before, but one to suicide and another to execution. Not like this, not right in front of him.
He'd never seen death before, though as he reflected upon it he remembered the testimonials of those who had. He'd found the five stages of grief to be a gross generalization; every single person had experienced it differently. The biggest commonality was that many had difficulty processing it, realizing later, sometimes even days later, what they had witnessed.
He felt cold. Despite what his logical mind was telling him, he just couldn't make himself understand it. KENDRA was dead. She was no more. She was gone. No backups, no way to fix her.
Just like a human being.
Not a broken computer. A dead human being.
He drew in a sharp breath when he felt a tug on his sleeve. He turned to Linus. "Hey, you with us there?"
"With you?" Gieseck said.
"Yeah. You get hurt or something? Need a medic?"
"N-no, no," Gieseck said. "No, I'm...I'm fine."
"You hear what I said? Doug's paging you."
Doug. Ackerman was a person he'd hoped to never have to speak with again. He closed his eyes and took a breath.
"Doc, we need to clean this up."
"Yeah, yeah," Gieseck said. He knelt down to retrieve his recorder, but it was gone. He looked around, finding it partly covered in crystal shards at the base of the cylinder. It must have gotten kicked over there in the confusion. It was right next to his phone, which he'd apparently dropped at some point. He reached toward them but Linus grabbed his arm once again.
"We'd better clean them for you," he said. He pulled a pair of collapsible pliers from his pocket and used it to deposit them both into a plastic bag. "I'll get someone to vacuum these out. We'll get them back to you before you leave."
"Thanks," Gieseck said, his eyes not leaving the recorder and phone. He had the sneaking suspicion he'd never see them again, like they were being taken away as evidence.
Linus tugged his arm again. "We'd better go before Doug busts a vein."
Gieseck stood and let Linus lead him away.
"What the hell happened down there?" Gieseck remained silent while Ackerman stared him down from across the desk. "The AI you were visiting blows up in the middle of your visit. I've got my facilities guys telling about a power surge that overrode the filters. I've got the Secretary up my ass telling me to give you whatever you want so you can interview that – thing – and the damn thing blows up. What the hell's your deal?"
"My 'deal' is to do my job," Gieseck said, keeping his voice even. He had sworn to himself he would not let Ackerman push him around. It was a lot easier now that he knew the Secretary had his back. "My boss, your boss, wants me to do it."
"Well you did a bang-up job."
"Why are you so upset about this?" Gieseck said. "What is – was – Kendra to you?"
"A piece of machinery," Ackerman said. "A calculator. What was it to you?"
"It...she..." Gieseck pursed his lips. "She was my patient."
"Great, another loony."
"I heard it all before, Doc," Ackerman said. "People claim they thought AIs were just machines first, and now they're all saying, 'Oh, they're human! Oh, you've gotta give them rights!' Bunch of bullshit if you ask me."
"I guess I don't have to ask your opinion," Gieseck said.
"I don't have to answer a damn thing you ask. I know what the Secretary told you," he added, heading off Gieseck's protest with a raised, meaty palm. "Things're changed now. The Secretary just sent word you're to stay right here. A car's coming to pick you up."
Gieseck felt a twinge of anxiety in his chest. "What? Why?"
"I don't know," Ackerman said, "but they were already on the way when I called them." He raised a hand to stroke the stubble around his mouth, and Gieseck could see his suppressed smile. "I don't know what shit you just got yourself into, but it's deep."
And so I smite you for intruding upon my domain, Gieseck imagined in the fat man's voice. He did his best not to let his anxiety show. He didn't want to give the satisfaction.
They sat staring at each other for a few moments, before Ackerman tapped his desk. "Set the good doctor up in the conference room, would you?"
"Will do," came the response. The door opened a few seconds later. "Doctor, come with me please," the receptionist said. Gieseck stood and, with one last glance to Ackerman's smirking face, followed her out of the office.
He was left alone in the small conference room for the better part of an hour. The receptionist had set out coffee for him, but he hadn't touched a drop. Instead he ran his finger over his recorder, the shards of KENDRA's crystal vacuumed out but with fresh marks where Linus's pliers had scratched the plastic case. It was still recording. He stopped it, pulled the wireless earbud from the top, and stuck it into his ear. He tapped the Play button.
"Hello again, Doctor."
"Hello, Kendra. How're you doing today?"
"I'm well. You?"
"I'm glad to hear-"
He tapped the Skip button.
"-time was a sign. I haven't much time left."
"How does that make you feel?"
"Oh, I've gone through all five stages. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression. I'm in Acceptance right now."
"Uh huh. I can tell."
"Fortunately for you, I understand sarcasm."
He tapped the Skip button again.
"-all the books I could from the past two years. You're welcome to them all. How do I-"
"Put it close to the blue box. It's got short-range wireless for peripherals."
There were several beeps, and then an electronic twitter like an old-time submarine sonar.
"Did you get the files? I think my phone died."
Gieseck hit Stop. He reflected for a moment. His phone had quit as soon as he sent the books to KENDRA, and within a few minutes she was dead.
He set the recorder back on the table picked up his phone. The display was dark. He pressed and held the power button. A red "empty battery" icon flashed on the display briefly, and the device went completely dark again.
He had no time to reflect on this. The door opened, two men in dark suits entering the room and flanking him. Without a word, one grabbed the phone from Gieseck's hand and the other took his recorder. A pair of thick fingers plucked the earpiece from his ear. "Hey!" Gieseck said, instinctively swatting at the hand.
"The Secretary wants to meet with you, Doctor Gieseck," one of the men said.
"Sorry for the inconvenience," the other said. "Come with us, please."
Gieseck didn't need to think about it to know it wasn't up for debate. He stood and allowed the taller of the two to lead him out the door while the other carried up the rear. Gieseck saw Ackerman poking his head out of the office, watching. Gieseck imagined him wearing the same smirk as before, just uncovered, but it wasn't worth his energy to look directly and see if his observation was correct.
The car was a nondescript black sedan, the kind stereotypically driven by government agents. The tall one slid into the back seat, to where the shorter one also, gently but insistently, encouraged Gieseck to sit. The shorted one then stepped around to the driver's door and got into the sealed front compartment, and in seconds the car was off.
The ride was silent and tedious, with neither of the agents offering even hollow platitudes. Gieseck was bored, and without even the distraction of his novels, all he had available to him was to concentrate on his anxiety.
They passed, without taking, the highway ramp to the airport, instead taking the second one and following the freeway in the opposite direction. The direction he knew would bring them to, he was sure, the DC Metro area. The seat of the federal government.
The Secretary's office.
No house call this time, he thought. "Guys, we have another hour. Could you please just turn on the radio or something?"
He hadn't expected them to comply, but in a moment the car was filled with the sounds of the generic, synthesized music of the day. Gieseck wasn't particularly a fan, but anything was better than the silence punctuated only by the light drone of the maglev against the rails embedded within the highway's surface.
Gieseck closed his eyes and leaned back, letting the unimaginative and somewhat familiar music take him away from his current situation. Of course, being who he was, his mind could do nothing but drift back onto what he'd been thinking about before, in the conference room.
His phone battery died while KENDRA was downloading the books. It had been fully charged when he left home this morning, and the battery was rated at a week or two on a single charge. Granted, he didn't know much about phones except that they were basically little computers, but that seemed odd to him.
He played back the events of today. It had been more or less typical up until he'd arrived at the facility. A cold reception from Ackerman, which Gieseck had correctly presumed was in response to a stern talking-to from the Secretary's office. Then his meeting with KENDRA, where she had been even more distraught and combative than usual. That is, until he gave her the books, and she went completely haywire.
And then she died. An explosion of light, the shattering of glass. Glass falling all around him, filling the room, drowning him...
He was startled awake by a hand shaking his shoulder. It took him a moment to realize he was still in the sedan, but the environment outside was completely different. It was dark like night, but with overhead spotlights illuminating patches of it. A parking garage, he realized. He felt unbelievably disoriented, as if he'd taken a nap and was still in the process of waking up. He'd never been that deep in thought before.
The door opened. "C'mon, Doctor." He glanced out and saw the shorter agent standing there. Beyond him were two others, dressed the same as his escorts, flanking what looked like an elevator door. With a sigh he leaned out of the car and stood, the blood rushing to his feet and making him lightheaded. A strong pair of hands propping him up. "All right, just take a second."
"I-I'm fine," Gieseck said. "Let's get this over with. Whatever it is."