Freddie opened a Mars bar with his teeth and hungrily feasted on the chocolate and caramel. He hadn't left his computer for days, and the assortment of candy wrappers and pizza boxes that splayed his desk and floor was Guinness. Enjoying a brief interlude between his long research hours, he leaned back into his chair and let the Mars savour in his mouth. His lab was a mess, but he revelled in it – papers spilled out of cardboard boxes, experiments bubbled around him (the failed ones fermented in the sink), the two cabinet files were lost in disorganization, and indeed his ten-or-so coffee cups made a wonderful pyramid stack, a testament to his solid bladder.
Chewing the last bit of Mars into his mouth, he swayed around in his chair so that he was facing the little bin in the far left corner of his lab. Crumbling the Mars wrapper in his fist, he assessed his anticipated projectory – the angle should be high, and the force at which he should throw would need to overcome both air resistance and gravity. As a physics major, he knew that the contour of the crumpled wrapper lended to undesirable flight prospects, but no feat must go unattempted. He held the wrapper above his head, leaned back further, and with a flick of his wrist the thing went flying.
It came up short, and landed in among the other failed wrappers.
"Bin six. Freddie one," he muttered quietly.
He stretched his arms out in front of him before wheeling back to his monitor. The System was failing miserably – this happened every so often when one of the newer, untrained researchers were allowed on, played around willy-nilly, and stuff it all up. Someone had accidently disconnected the main server to one of the smaller intralinks, but any disarray would eventually lead to full-system shut-down. Knowing full-well of the capabilities of the tech-guys up on fifth, they would overlook the links, especially the ones connecting to the Astro department, and worry over infestations and the like. Freddie knew it wasn't a virus, it was rare for such a beast to infiltrate the System, considering that he had installed his newest anti-viral program only two months ago. He could fix it up now, indeed he had accessibility. But where was the fun in that? Let them panic for while.
He took off his frames and placed them over the keyboard. His eyes were tired, but they were used to the strain. Over the past three years, his body had learnt to tolerate the restless, and sometimes eight-hours in front of the computer, and had accustomed to the days where he was constantly on his feet. Those were the days when he would have to substitute for one of the teaching-staff, although the Head knew that he didn't fancy lecturing the 'unimaginably stupid', as he referred the new take-ons, and so they tried to keep him happy by restricting his teaching shifts and allow him to focus on his work.
He got up then, his legs surging with pleasure and relief. Shaking off the stiffness, he walked swiftly to one of the experiments he had set up that day, and observed the pink, viscous liquid bubbling over a Bunsen with teasing failure.
"Damn it," Freddie sighed, grabbing tongs from the wall and clasping the flask by the neck. He snatched it off the flame and went to the sink on the other side of the room. The sink was full of other failures, some were moulding, and two were turning brown, no doubt from his spontaneous addition of nitric oxide as an off-chance of success. He felt idiotic for having considered that venue, but rest assured he was running on one cup of coffee and two, bland crackers at that time.
He worked in the UI – Ubiquitous Immunobiology - branch of the general Immunobiology department. He had dappled in the innate response of the human body, but his passion lied in the adaptive. His hypotheses were numerous, but his work tended towards the development of a different kind of immunity, strong enough to quash the need for the innate. It was complicated most of the time, and none of the other researchers who worked in the same department really knew what he was up to.
He placed the flask into the sink, careful to balance it on top of the others so that it didn't roll out and spill its contents on the bench or on the floor. He allowed for food contaminants, but he was adamant that his cells remained contained within the basin.
"Professor Thorne?" a small voice called, their knocking persistent at his door.
He smiled to himself before answering, "Come in."
The door opened and a woman appeared at the threshold. He was surprised, he half-expected a tech-guy. The woman wore a substandard lab coat, buttoned all the way up, and frighteningly pointy heals. Her blonde hair was pulled into a tight bun, and her student badge hung lopsided from her breast pocket. Freddie suspected that if she knew of her student badge's rebel behaviour, she would immediately discipline in it and adjust its position with a huff and a puff.
She smiled devilishly as she watched Freddie assess her. He didn't mean to give her consequence, so he turned away from her and walked across the room to monitor another of his experimental setups. Not another one, Jarred.
"What do you want?" he asked bluntly, not caring if his manner was rude.
"Professor Bolger wonders if you would like to have lunch with him," she purred.
He watched a green, translucent drop slowly run down the cooling tube, and sighed with hope as it landed in the beaker below, signifying the end of the apparatus. The drop coalesced with the other droplets that had already travelled the tube; it would be a while yet before he had enough to test with radiation.
He pulled his eyes away from his experiment and focused his gaze on the woman at the door, furrowing his brow in irritation. She was obviously a student, first year it seemed, who was already in servitude. This woman had no principles. As it is, she was already under the influence of his fellow professor and occasionally-annoying friend, Jarred Bolger. In a way, Jarred had made for himself quite a reputation among the research and teaching staff, and students alike. He had all the pretty, young female students, and people sometimes wondered why this was the case. Freddie hypothesized that it was his charm, but Bolger claimed it was for a reason entirely different.
The woman bit her bottom lip purposefully, the flesh reddening beneath.
"You know, you could have lunch with me instead," she tried to sound coy, but her strong-will was evident regardless.
"No, thank you. Tell Professor Bolger I will meet him in five," he said simply, turning away from her for a second time as he shrugged out of his lab coat.
He didn't look at her again as she closed the door and leave, her silence was enough to express how deflated she was. Freddie was not disheartened however, he was used to such whimsical attempts at seduction, and quite tired of the idea of having a female companionship if all they did was flirt.
He rubbed a hand along his jaw and under his chin – he hadn't shaved for two days and perhaps he appeared a tad unseemly for this well-groomed, clean-shaven institute. Freddie hadn't really made face with the outside in a while, not that he was decidedly anti-social, but his research preoccupied most of his existence. He considered it for a moment longer before he went to his desk, opened the bottom draw, and pulled out a rogue tie.
"Well this is luck," he said to himself, hooking the tie over his neck, "oh, that's right."
It was a despondent thing to find that his tie was stained with coffee, but he adjusted it anyway so that it was loose around his open collar. Whatever. Freddie leaned over the keys and saved his work to a USB, and then activated the Sleep Mode on his computer. He scrounged the room for some cash, and found his wallet under a pizza box. He took out a twenty, and tucked both the note and his USB in his breast-pocket.
"Hey, what are you doing?" Bolger said, almost angry, brisking abruptly into the lab.
"Fuck, Bolger. You could knock."
"Sorry I scared you, but seriously, I send you some sweet ass and what do you do, you make her cry," Bolger crossed his arms, disbelief across his face.
Freddie eyed his friend with scrutiny. The man was impossible. He waited until his pulse was normal again before he said anything else.
"You know, she wasn't really my type."
Bolger rolled his eyes, "You don't have a type, Fredster. The only type you like are ones that make good coffee. And the lady they have on now, well she's... well, whatever rocks your boat."
"Let's just have lunch. I need to get out," he sighed, moving around Bolger towards the door.
"I suppose I should thank you for my prolonged recess. The whole System's down. Shit, can't they do anything up there? Anyway, during that time I had quite a fun chat with the girl you just said to piss off. Her name's Penny. Stunner legs. Freddie, your fan base is on the increase – I've recruited five first-years just today.
"You scrub up well," Bolger added as an afterthought, "considering you haven't left this room for three days. But you ain't fooling anyone with that 5 o'clock."
Freddie nodded unenthusiastically, not really caring for anything but the food he was anticipating. He had lived off Mars for long enough. He swung the door open but stopped short of stepping into the hall. The blonde woman, or Penny apparently, was in tears, blotchy and red from crying. There was another woman with her, who looked to him then, and instead sniggering as he would expect a friend, she tactfully grinned at him. Freddie gave Bolger a dark look over his shoulder. Bolger held up his hands in surrender.
"Hey, I'm just the messenger."
"Come on, then," Freddie sighed in irritation, letting his friend pass into the hall before locking the door to his lab behind him. He shoved the key in his breast-pocket.
Freddie didn't look back at the two women, but Bolger said something inaudible to them as they ventured past. Freddie wasn't interested in what he to them, even if it was concerning his irreproachable bastardness or his uncalled for rudeness. He couldn't care less, plus he did say No, thank you. As it was, politeness was never really his forte.
The two friends walked down the hall towards the elevator, which would take them to level two. Unlike the Genetics or the AI department, the Immunology building was relatively small, with only six levels that somehow represented anarchical authority. The Head office was found on level six, with Mr. Peeks representing. He was a good enough guy, a little too pedantic and flimsy for someone of his status, but otherwise dependable and appeasing. Freddie liked him. The fifth level was supposed to house the smarter of the researchers, or the ones with the most influence, which meant money. When they had offered him an office upstairs after only three months of starting here, he refused. He knew he didn't have the money, so it was obviously the smart card that they were playing. Despite the appeal of the high-tech equipment, the labs upstairs were too big and the security was hindering. So Freddie opted to stay on level four, with all the other less fortunate professors and teaching staff who hadn't been considered for the move up. Level three found the teaching rooms and lecture halls and level two was the food. Level one was for the public, and included a facade of governmental approved research. Although Peeks was flimsy, he was quite tactful in covering up anything incriminating. To the government the building was merely a college, a teaching facility as it were, but for those who knew the truth, the building held much more than that.
The elevator opened and they stepped inside and hit the button for level two. Freddie crossed his arms and leant against the far back wall, whilst Bolger stayed nearer doors. They had to go up to fifth before they would be able to go down, as Professor Alan Lambert, who stunk of money but had nothing in the way of a functional brain, was also in the elevator, and probably wanted to get back to supervising his personal staff in his own ill-appointed start-of-the-art lab. Lambert regarded Freddie with an obvious disdain.
"Hello, Thorne. How are things on level four? I heard about the roach problem," Lambert said condescendingly to Freddie, slicking a palm over his oiled-back hair, checking for any fly-aways.
He was full of himself, like all the other fifth-level professors. Except for Bolger, of course, but that was disputable at times. Lambert's Armani suit was tailored to perfection, his shoes were buffed and polished, and his manicure was almost enough to make Freddie feel slightly nauseated. Bolger at least didn't care if his shoes were slightly dusty and cuffed. Indeed, Lambert was an extremist in comparison.
"Hello Lambert. How are things upstairs - found anything yet?" Freddie asked, unperturbed.
Lambert grunted in anger.
"No? Well, I'm sure they'll find a brain somewhere, sooner or later."
The elevator pinged to a stop at level five, and the doors slid open. Lambert brushed past Bolger, sneering at them both through clenched teeth. Freddie saluted him a farewell.
"Professor Thorne! Pardon me, Professor Thorne!" a voice trailed down to the hall, and Freddie languidly focused his gaze beyond Lambert's retreating form.
Bolger put his hand on the elevator door to prevent it from closing. Three tech-guys, distinguishable for their pallid, grey uniform and thick, black glasses, were jogging down towards them. It was easy to pin their urgency and anxiety. When they reached the elevator, they had to take a moment's breath. Exercise presented a challenge for them.
"What has happened Steve?" Lambert said with alarm, ignorant as always.
"We can't find...," one of the techs breathed in heavily, trying to catch his breath, "the problem."
"The problem?" Lambert persisted, seemingly annoyed when Steve gasped for a few more breaths.
"One of the students has...has contaminated the servers," the tech continued, fishing in his pockets for something.
He pulled out a puffer. The others too weren't faring too well either.
"For God's sake, Lambert, let the poor man breathe," Freddie said, stepping out the elevator, "Are you coming or not?"
"What use will I be? They have their man," Bolger shrugged and grinned, "See you."
Freddie watched as the elevator doors close on his chance of getting some decent food. How inconvenient. He turned and addressed the technicians.
"You guys owe me lunch."
"We don't need you," Lambert seethed beside him, and started to walk towards the Repair and Management room situated at the end of the wide hall.
The technicians were hesitant – they knew of Lambert's mighty green influence, and offending him does pose some risks. But if they didn't fix the System, their butts will assuredly be up for a sacking if Mr. Peeks had anything to do with it.
"I'll follow," Freddie said graciously, "let's humour him for a change."
"Oh my god, Ev. What have I done?" Valerie whimpered beside her.
Eva put an arm around her friend as a token of comfort. Although they had been in this room for over an hour now, there had been no progress. The men in grey had said it was an invisible virus, and Eva watched as they struggled to find its penetration. She suggested that they check the connections and the functionality of Y, but they hadn't listened to her. All they were doing was randomly sifting through the Download, which was pathetic considering that they hadn't achieved anything so far.
Valerie was impossibly emotional. Instead of trying to help, she just stood there, crying her eyes out. Professor Lindeman did not check for her capabilities, and had allowed Valerie, his first-year pet, onto the System. Of course Eva was there, opposing the idea adamantly, but Lindeman insisted. Valerie had called her a bitch for thinking she couldn't handle it, and Eva had stormed out, not having part of the trouble the two idiots would cause. Lindeman should have known better than to indulge her, and his motives screamed sex. He now stood over in the other corner of the Repair and Management room, his eyes down casted, his pot-belly emphasized under his lab coat by his dejected posture. He was no help.
Eva let out an aggravated sigh. It was slightly groggy in the room, for the windows remained closed and the air-conditioner was not adjusting for the fifteen people that had now accumulated in the smallish room. Considering that ten of the fifteen were sweaty computer geeks, the humidity was far from comfortable. Mr. Peeks, the Head representative, was buzzing around the room in all anxiety, his balding scalp lined with a thin layer of perspiration and his shirt stained with moisture.
Eva felt very hot in her lab coat, so she took it off and slung it over a chair, in front of which a computer was not being used. Not a while ago, Mr. Peeks had ordered three of the geeks out of the room after some professor named Thorne, claiming he will know what to do. Eva was speculative, the incompetence of this bunch had come as a surprise to her, especially over the last hour, and so she didn't have much hope in what the next professor could do. She considered her options – the three men would be back soon with another incompetent, they would waste more time looking through the Download and eventually admit to defeat, whereby they would get someone else in, and then the vicious cycle would start all over again. On the other hand, Eva could sneak on the computer, search for the problem herself, and fix it without their knowing. But of course she would risk expulsion from the institute, no doubt the subject of Valerie's mind right now.
Eva looked up to the clock on the far back wall where Lindeman was standing. Time was moving slowly, and she was restless. The computer was calling to her, and she felt her fingers etching towards the keyboard.
"Thank God!" Mr. Peeks galloped wildly to the door, where he met with the group of people who had just walked through the door.
Both Eva and the ten other tech-guys jumped in surprise at Mr. Peek's evident glee. Valerie remained consumed in her bubble of misery, and did not flinch.
The three geeks that came back looked paler than what they had been when they first left, and seemed frightened as they cowered away from the taller of the new men that they had brought with them. Eva assumed he was Professor Thorne. This man held himself well, and had an air of arrogance about him. His black hair was smoothed down over his rectangular-shaped head, his lab coat was neatly pressed, and he spoke with an obvious superiority.
"What's the progress so far?" the tall man said, addressing Mr. Peeks immediately.
"Um...well..." Mr. Peeks said incoherently, trying to formulate a sentence.
Confusion had surmounted Mr. Peek's glee, as it read in his expression, and he kept looking back and forth between Thorne and the other man that had tagged along. The other man was a puzzle – he looked too young to be a professor, perhaps a little older than herself, and appeared to have a coffee stain on his tie and a two-day regrowth. Considering he also had a full head of hair and a discerningly healthy form, Eva was quite sure that he was a student, probably a fourth-year and under the special tutelage of Thorne.
"Have you checked the Downloads?" Thorne asked seriously, walking up to a computer and budging one of the other tech-guys off his seat.
Mr. Peeks gazed at Thorne's student for a long moment before duly following the professor.
"Great," Eva muttered under breath, agonizing at the idea of having to wait another hour.
The ten other tech guys, including the three that had just come back, abandoned what they were doing and went to observe Thorne at the computer. They had started filling him in on what has been explored, and what has yet to be dissected. Lindeman even inched closer to the group, perhaps as an attempt to look like he was actually contributing. Indeed, everyone was so focused on what Thorne was doing, which was resuming Download-checking but with an apparently more rational way-to-go-about-it, that the opportunity to sneak onto the computer still presented itself.
They were testing her patience. Valerie would not let Eva go, and if Eva made a move towards the door, Valerie would cling to her arm and plead with her to stay. It wasn't like she was supposed to be here, but Eva felt it was friendship that held her back. So she had remained by her friend's side, feeling like a comfort toy, not doing anything particularly productive in the way of escaping the room. Until now, of course, where the nearest computer flashed a login bar with Eva having tactfully memorized Lindeman's username and password.
"Val, I'm just going to sit over there," Eva whispered to Valerie, gesturing not three steps away.
Valerie nodded absently, subconsciously noting that Eva wasn't leaving. Eva moved slowly towards the computer, and sat down swiftly in front of it. She paused for a moment, staring at the group of geeks and Thorne and Mr. Peeks over on the other side of the room, sussing out if they had noticed her or not. No one looked up, or glanced her way, so that was a good thing. She ducked her head behind the monitor just to be on the safe side, and proceeded to log in via Lindeman's details. Her fingers were a bit shaky, but they were obedient nonetheless. Soon she was on the main System, and smiled at the thought.
"First things first," Eva said to herself, clicking on the icon which would take her to the Server Report.
At first glance, she could see why the geeks had decided that the virus was involved in the Download – the file numbers were askew and the servers were down. However, as she scrolled down, the Y-readings were all normal, indicating that there hasn't been an infection. If only they had done what she suggested and check Y function, then they wouldn't have wasted time sifting through the Download unnecessarily, or do what they were doing now and try to catch something that simply wasn't there.
Eva peaked above her monitor.
"You see, viruses follow a certain pattern of destruction. First they attack the fringe, as indicated by these numbers. But if you look more closely, the blood thing has already infiltrated the bulk and has made severe dents in the Intelligence," Thorne said, hidden by a wall of gray.
The geeks all murmured in understanding. Eva rolled her eyes, and went back to her computer. She decided to check the links, for she suspected that Valarie may have accidently cut one or two. As it is, she remembered Lindeman saying that if one thing goes wrong, the whole System is fucked. He wasn't much help to her after that, but she was determined to study for her Computer and Technology class, even though the content was only practical and most of the first-years thought it was a complete bludge. She had hired out recent texts concerning the System's work-up, and discovered that the links connecting to their respective departments were relatively unprotected and thus highly susceptible to disconnection. Although she did take this up with Lindeman, he did nothing to appease her, his attention focused only on Valarie and Valarie alone.
Eva accessed the sub-System via the stroke of a couple of keys. Here she brought up the Links status and commenced a maintenance scan, which she hoped will bring up those links that were currently weak or absent. The progress bar flashed across the screen. Eva anticipated that the scan rate would be quite sluggish, but 2% per minute wasn't going to cut it. Indeed, the system was verging on a near blow out. As it is, time was of an essence and Eva doubted that the one named Thorne could entertain the geeks for too long. She would have to do some of the checks manually. Eva minimized the progress bar and started with the A-links.
She brought up Anatomy, and skimmed down through the interlinks. Everything seemed correct – the high and the low wires were firmly connected, and the current flow was adequate – it was easy to spot any problems here because of the simplicity of the interlink organization. Eva accessed the intralinks profile. It was slightly more complex in this case as there were many more synapses to consider, but Eva had studied enough to know that she was quite capable of determining and pinpointing fault without too much difficulty. The Anatomy links were cleared.
Next, she brought up the Astro-links.
"I knew it," Eva breathed, discovering that one of the intralinks was disconnected.
Although she wasn't sure if this was the only disconnection, Eva felt a sudden relief – if she fixed this right now, there was a good possibility that she could get out of here, post-haste. Her heart quickened with all the excitement, but despite her adrenalin rush, she remained cool and collected. Drawing attention to herself right now could jeopardize everything.
There was one problem, Eva couldn't start-up the Repair program in order to reconnect the link. She tried to access the Repair program from all angles, but it required a clearance key, for which she had none memorized. Damn, she thought, her hopes quashed. She considered asking Mr. Peeks, but he would surely expel her for using the System without permission before she could even get a word in. Lindeman was unlikely to have clearance – Mr. Peeks was smart enough not to give it to some loon – so she couldn't ask him. Eva closed her eyes and rubbed each side of her temple with her hands, contemplating what she should do.
"Ah, so you've found the disconnection," a voice sounded from close behind her, "finally, someone with a brain."
She had no excuse on her, and begrudged herself for not thinking of one sooner. Eva spun around, holding her breath.
She found Thorne's student standing behind her, his expression placid as he regarded her. He didn't seem angry that she, a first-year and under no supervision, was on the System, nor was he surprised that it was the disconnection of one of the Astro-intralinks that was the cause.
"You...knew it was a disconnection?" she whispered, quickly glancing over her shoulder to Thorne's group, silently relieved that they weren't paying them any attention.
He too looked to the group, but his eyes returned to her momentarily. One of the corners of his mouth upturned into a half-smile. He walked closer to her and leaned into the computer, resting one hand on the back of her seat whilst the other entered the clearance key. His movements were lithe and measured, and she caught her breath at his sudden proximity. The Repair program loaded relatively quickly, and all it needed now were instructions.
"Now, do what were you going to do," he said simply, taking his eyes off the screen to look at her.
She appraised him as he stared at her, wondering how a fourth-year could possibly know the clearance key. Eva knew that one had to be an artefact-researcher or a technician to have such access. But as she thought about, she reasoned that he probably knew the key the same way she knew Lindeman's details – good timing and a good memory.
Eva let out a sigh and turned back to the computer. Her fingers hovered above the keys – she knew what to do with them, what to do with the intralink, but she wasn't sure of her execution. Now that this man was watching her, she felt a pressure to prove her capabilities, and she didn't know why she felt like this.
"Well, I was going to see if the junction was still open," Eva said, finding herself talking to him.
She brought up the Imprint, and studied it for a moment, and found that although the synapse between Wire-C and 13A4-intralink was gone, the junction had also disappeared. This lended to a more complex repair, one that she hadn't read about or attempted before.
"Shit, well the junction has gone. That means I have to create a new link, but there seems to be no room."
She paused, trying to find a way out of what she had to do next. When one intralink is cut, the others rearrange themselves to compensate for its loss. Now everything was a muddle.
"I don't think I can do it," she croaked out, her mouth dry and her hands trembled.
Eva glanced up at the fourth-year, and he looked to her too. He furrowed his brow, confusion in his eyes.
"Just cut them," he said with a firm voice, after a moment, and he looked back to the screen.
She was going to get expelled. If she cut one or maybe two of the intact intralinks, Mr. Peeks would no doubt sign her off. She wasn't sure if she should risk her enrolment, now that the stakes were higher. She had only innocently accessed the System and check out a few reports, and for that perhaps Mr. Peeks would be lenient and just suspend her. But this, cutting links, would definitely qualify for immediate expulsion.
She didn't know what to do, her rational mind said to stop what she was doing and go back and stand next to Valaire, but something else compelled her, drove her to select the two intralinks out of place and command for a disconnection.
"Oh fuck, the virus has just eaten the through half the bulk!" Eva heard Thorne yell, and watched as the group of geeks crowd closer to the computer, profanity in the air.
She had to do this quick. The two intralinks that she had just cut were going to disappear very soon if she didn't connect them to a junction. Her heart thumping in her ears and her mind going at a thousand miles per minute, she directed the Repair to fix transmission at Wire-C with 12A4 and 16B2.
"I need glue," she said, realizing that in order for her to fix the original defunct, she needed to create a junction.
"Here," the fourth-year said, pressing several keys quickly.
The junction magically appeared, in the right spot and of the right signal receiver.
Eva could hear the uproar on the other side of the room, and she wasn't sure if any of them had looked over yet. She quickly directed Repair to also fix transmission at 13A4, hoping that if this worked, she may not get expelled after all. Her legs felt like jelly, her breathing was rapid, and her palms were sweaty. She watched the screen as the new links were made.
"Wait, what's happening?" she heard Mr. Peeks say, and then the room was suddenly silent.
They all watched their computers – even Valerie abandoned her bubble and watched over Eva's shoulder as the System regained functionality.
"Everything's coming back," Thorne added after a while, surprise and confusion in his voice.
Eva could not comprehend what she had just done, she couldn't think anymore. The adrenalin still surged through her body, and an emotional numbness overwhelmed her.
"God, I'm hungry," the fourth-year said, straightening up.
Eva focused her eyes on him, in a trance. He looked down at her and smiled, then turned on his heel and started towards the door.
"Hey Lindeman," he called out, pausing at the door, "give that girl an A."
He gestured towards Eva with a nod, and everyone waited until he had left the room before their eyes focused on her.