Paradigms Lost — Chapter 40
Chapter 40: Solve One Problem, Get Two Free!
I frowned at the faces on my screen. One was definitely nonhuman; Tai as he’d be if he changed. Seb’s inhumanity was less obvious, though it was still there in subtle ways. The other two were how the children looked in their human guise. This was my first look at the pictures with a really clear head; after going over the details with Kafan several times, I’d wandered around my house sort of in a daze before finally going to bed. I hadn’t opened WIS today; it was evening now, and I was finally able to take a look at things and think about them.
This search wasn’t going to be routine. Assuming the truth of Kafan’s story, and seeing his furry child I really couldn’t doubt it, I wasn’t the only person looking for them. I also had to be very careful with the searches so I didn’t tip off anyone else. The last thing we wanted was to alert the government agencies that they had a genetic experiment living in Morgantown.
For that reason I’d decided not to involve Jeri Winthrope in this. She’d ended up taking a job as a police liaison here, though it was pretty certain that her real employers were still in Washington somewhere. I couldn’t ask her for phony ID without a lot of questions I didn’t want to answer. She’d be poking around asking things soon enough anyway, since she tried to keep an eye on Verne.
Well, might as well run it through the simple stuff. The influx of money from the Morgantown Incident had, at least, allowed me to get a lot of new toys I’d wanted, including SearchlightSoft’s photocomparator suite, and I’d customized the hell out of it already, both doing parts myself and contracting certain elements to three or four others, and by now I was pretty sure that the resulting suite was one of the most advanced photo-search programs in the world. I booted it up and then set a search running with various parameters to locate pictures of children from that general geographic area who were within the correct age range, and then to compare those with the two pictures on screen. As a programmer I’m only so-so, but I’m damned good at pattern logic problems, and that was the kind of thing information retrieval and photo comparison relied on. I didn’t expect much out of this first run; after all, it would be virtually impossible for them to be anywhere visible to the public without a good searcher finding them quick. But it would be stupid of me to pass up any chance. My search parameters might be different than the opposition’s, or I might have access to pictures they didn’t.
I leaned back and sorted through my mail. Billsâ€¦ damn NiMo bill got higher every month. This bulky oneâ€¦ oh, the pictures from the State Police they wanted me to look at. Thisâ€¦ the invoices from Ed Sommer on the work he was doing for Verne; Verne wanted me to look over them and make sure everything was okay. I wondered for a moment how he’d managed to hide Genshi and Kafan from them, even though a lot of the work had already been done by then. I glanced over the invoicesâ€¦ damn, even with all the money I was making these days I couldn’t pay this without selling everything I owned. Complete rewiring, lightsâ€¦ the works. I marked a couple of borderline entries — I didn’t know if all these things were needed, but if they were all installed we wouldn’t gripe, so I scribbled “tell Verne check if installed” on them and put it away.
The next letter brought a grin. Mom and Dad had written again. I opened the envelope and scanned the contents. Dad had gone to a jeweler’s convention — he made jewelry as a sort of hobby — and was working on some new stuff. He was about to retire from the college (Professor of Chemistry). Mom had retired from teaching a couple years ago and we had a continuing exchange of ideas going; I was going to have to read that section in more detail later, since there was no way to just dash off a reply to anything Mom wrote; she was too deep for that. They’d also included a Dilbert cartoon they thought I’d appreciate. I’d have to write back soon. It was sometimes a little difficult to write these days, though; I mean, they obviously knew about Virigar, but I was still trying to keep a lid on Verne. But Mom was an awfully sharp cookie and she’d know if I was hiding something.
The rest of the stuff was junk mail, which I consigned to the permanent circular file. I stretched, went to the kitchen and reheated some of the taco meat I’d made earlier that week. Fortified with a couple tacos sprinkled with onions, cheese, lettuce, and homemade salsa, I sat down at my second terminal and started downloading my e-mail. One got flagged immediately — it came from a remote drop which was a remote drop for a remote drop forâ€¦ well, you get the picture. Only one person used that route: the Jammer.
Probably the best hacker/cracker in the world, the Jammer had taken a sort of brotherly interest in protecting my butt when Virigar first showed up. Since then, we’d had occasional correspondence. Once I’d started thinking about false ID, he’d been at the top of my mind. However, the way he’d disappeared a while back had indicated to me that, like Slippery Jim DiGriz, he’d gotten “recruited” by some bigger agency a while back. So I’d had to tiptoe around the subject to see what his reaction was.
SUBJECT:RE: Old days
You’re not bad yourself, JW. I particularly liked the triple-loop trick you set up to make people trying to track this down follow the message in circles. But you really need to relax. Trust me, there isn’t anyone on the planet who can trace or decode a message I want kept secret except God himself, and even He’d have to do some serious work first.
It was hard to decide if I should laugh or growl at that. The problem with the Jammer was that he had an ego the size of the entire solar system. I was tempted to write back something like “If you’re that good, who was it that caught you?” but impulses like that are just stupid; if stroking his ego got good results, why should it bother me? I laughed. At least he had a sense of humor, which was more than a lot of geeks.
What you’re asking is if I still do some non-legit work? Normally no, but for youâ€¦ as long as it’s not aiding and abetting a real crime, no problem. I’ve been itching for an excuse to hack something on my own lately anyway. My, um, friends don’t like to let me out to play very often except “on duty.” Not that that isn’t challenging work in itself, butâ€¦ Doing an analysis of your prior inquiries, I’ll bet you need an ID.
I blinked. Thinking about it, and glancing through my messages againâ€¦ yeah, I suppose you might be able to get thatâ€¦ but it took a pattern sense as good or better than mine to do it dead cold. Maybe I shouldn’t call it “ego.”
If it’s one for yourself, I’ve got everything I need already; if it’s for someone else, I need all the info you can give me — blood type, fingerprints, photos, the works. The more I can work with, the more I can give you. Drop me a line and let me know.
Not bad. One major problem probably solved. I glanced over at the comparison program, sorting through picture after pictureâ€¦ no hits. I didn’t expect any. Picking up the phone, I called Verne. As usual, Morgan answered and called Verne to the phone. “Hello, Jason.”
“Got a couple marks on those invoices — you just have to make sure he installed all the stuff he says he installed. I’ll come over and do that now, if you like. I’ve got the machines running on something that doesn’t need my presence. I’m going to stop by the mini-mart for a couple things, then I’ll be right over.”
“By all means. Thank you, Jason.”
The mini-mart wasn’t too busy as I walked in the door. I noted the security camera with its odd bulbous attachment. Nothing brought home the profound changes that were happening more than this prosaic addition: that attachment was, with slight changes, basically the same as the headpiece I’d worn while searching out werewolves in the hospital hallways. Except that this one wasn’t made by me, or under my license. Which means I’d give a better than fifty percent chance it’s useless. I pulled out my pocket camera and snapped a pic of it; the gadget wasn’t a brand I recognized. One more to be hit up for infringement claims.
I grabbed the few items I was looking for and headed back out.
There were unaccustomed faint lines of concern on Morgan’s usually impassive, English-butler face. I saw the reason immediately. “Verne!”
Nothing essential had changed in him; he still had the dark, wide eyes that could hold you with a magnetic presence, the distant and aristocratic stance. But beneath the dusky olive color natural to his skin, his paleness had become something beyond mere vampiric pallor; he was washed out, diminished, as though being slowly leached of his color and his strength. The way he stood was unnaturally stiff. And in his dark hair I thought I saw a few strands of white and gray. “Jesus. Verne, you look like crap.”
A tired smile crossed his face. “As usual, your diplomacy is staggering, Jason. You are not the first to inform me of this. And your face said all that needed to be said.”
Verne shrugged. “I am not sure. There have been a few, a very few, cases in which I felt similarly, aside from the one time I was forced to cross desert plains with little to no shelter — that was infinitely worse. I suspect all the changes in my life, from finding Raiakafan to simply trying to become more human again have made me overwork. For if I lie down to rest, and my mind does not enter the proper state, I do not gain the proper amount of rest; those of my sort do not sleep in truth, any more than the Earth sleeps, but there is a difference between activity and rest even so.”
I couldn’t keep the concern from my voice. “I hope that’s all it is. Look, just take it easy. Anyone would be a little punchy after all this stuff’s happened, but you’re the only one who can take care of you. I mean, what would I do if you collapsed, call 911 and tell the paramedics I have a sick vampire here?”
“Indeed.” Verne straightened with a visible effort. “But let me see these invoicesâ€¦ Ah, I see. I believe those sockets were installed, but let us check.”
We went through the huge mansion, checking off the items. Personally, I’d rather have seen Verne go to bed, but his tone and manner indicated that, weak or not, he wasn’t about to listen to me or any other mortal doing a mother hen imitation.
From that, I figured he was a lot more worried than he let on. In his room, we stopped and he grabbed a bottle of AB+, draining the entire thing without even letting it warm. This made him visibly less pale, but something about it struck me as vaguely false, like the temporarily alert feeling you might get from amphetamines or a lot of coffee. Still, he moved more easily and the gray strands were no longer visible in his hair. Maybe he just hadn’t been eating right. Was there such a thing as vitamin deficiency for a vampireâ€¦ nature priest, whatever?
“Very good, Jason,” Verne said finally. “All seems to be in order. I will pay these invoices, then. Thank you for checking them.”
“No problem. Where’s Kafan?”
“Sleeping. He tends to keep to Gen’s schedule, and we don’t want Gen to become habitually nocturnal.”
As good a chance as any. “Verne, there’s one thing that’s been bothering me about him.” I grinned momentarily. “Well, one new thing. I know his story now, butâ€¦ there’s a few times he seems to just change his whole personality, going from someone who’s about as normal as you could expect anyone to be with his background, toâ€¦ well, I don’t know how to say it. Almost a machine, a killing machine.”
Verne’s expression was too carefully neutral, so I raised an eyebrow. “Well? What’s going on?”
He shook his head. “You are correct in your observation, Jason. There is some other trigger, some other mystery associated with him, and I have talked about it with him as much as I am able. It is not associated with the Project, that much I have learned; but it does have the sort of â€¦ programmed reactions one might have expected from such an organization if they were to have tried to make use of him. But Raiakafan is adamant about two things: first, it has nothing to do with the Project he escaped from, and second, that no one must pry too far into this mystery or he will be forced to kill them, or die trying.”
“He implied that he would try to resist any impulses associated with meâ€¦ and he was sworn to my service in ancient, ancient days, and that oath still has the force of the Lady behind it. But anyone else would have no protection at all.”
Great. A mystery within a mystery. “I’d bet, if we knew what it was, we’d know how he can be here, today, when he disappeared completely from your city half a million years back.”
Verne nodded. “I, too, believe that is the case. Wherever he went in that timeâ€¦ it made him into something else. Something he mostly has thrown off or represses, unless it threatens to probe into that particular secret, or threatens his life.”
I shrugged. This was a problem for later; I had more than enough on my plate for now. “Well, say hi to him and Genshi for me. I don’t know how long this search is going to take me, but I’ve already started on it. Might as well get home and try to get my schedule back on track.”
“An excellent idea. I will see you later, then.”
I stopped and turned in the doorway. “Verne, take care of yourself, okay?”
“Of course, Jason.”
I drove back to my house slowly. If Verne was really sick, I didn’t see how anyone could do anything. Presumably he and Morgan knew more about that than anyone else. Maybe Kafan, I suppose. Would there have been anything like first aid for Verne’s kind, or was that like thinking of stocking bandages for God?
I really should have started work on those State Police photos, but my heart just wasn’t in it tonight. I put in Casablanca and let it run while I ate a very late-night snack. Finally, as Rick and Louis walked off through the rain, I headed upstairs to get to bed; I wasn’t that tired, but if I didn’t get back on trackâ€¦ I glanced over at the search station. It had stopped comparisons finally. I reached out to shut it off, when the message on the screen hit me with delayed impact:
Ten matches? I hadn’t even expected one! Bedtime forgotten, I sat down at the keyboard and had it call up the ten matching pictures.
As they appeared onscreen, I heard myself say “Oh, crap.”
I’d had a vague feeling that the boys’ faces were familiar, but I’d put it down to having seen their father and talked over their appearance for hours. But as soon as the photos with their headlines appeared, I remembered all too well where I’d seen them:
Senator MacLain adopts two Viet children.