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"That was Georgia's own B-52s, with `Rock Lobster,' " said the radio announcer, his cheerful voice murmuring from the sixteen speakers of Doctor Sam Kelly's home-built quadraphonic system. "Next up, Shriekback, the Residents, the new British release from George Louvis, and an oldie from Thomas Dolby, but first . . ."
Sam hit the "mute" button, and the commercial laded to a whisper. The timer would bring the volume back up in another sixty seconds, and by then the station should be back to music. Doctor Samuel Sean Kelly might have majored in metallurgy, but he had minored in electrical engineering; sensing, even back in the '40s, that the time would come when everyone had to have some understanding of electronics. After all, hadn't he grown up on H. G. Wells, and the science-fiction tradition that the engineer was the man who could and would save the universe? "Not bad, for an old retired fart," he chuckled to his Springer Spaniel, Thoreau, who raised his head and ears as if he understood what his master was saying. "I liked Elvis in the '50s, I liked the Stones and the Fuggs in the '60s, and now, sure, I'm on the cutting edgeright, boyo?"
Thoreau wagged his stub of a tall and put his head back down on his paws. He didn't care how eclectic his master's taste in music was, so long as he didn't crank up those imposing speakers to more than a quarter of their capacity. When Sam retired from Gulfstream, he'd held a party for his younger colleagues that was still the talk of the neighborhood. There had been complaints to the police about the music from as far away as five blocks, and poor Thoreau had gone into hiding in the back closet of the bedroom, not to emerge for three days.
The desk-top before him was preternaturally clean, with only a single envelope cluttering the surface. Sam fingered the letter from "Fairgrove Industries," as the radio volume returned to normal, and Thomas Dolby complained of hyperactivity. He sat back in his aging overstuffed recliner, surrounded by his books, frowning at the empty room and wishing wistfully that he hadn't given up smoking. Or that he hadn't agreed to talk to this "Tannim" person.
It had seemed very harmless when he first got the letter; this "Tannim"what sex the person was he hadn't known until the phone call came confirming the evening appointmentwanted to talk to him about a job as a consultant. He had offered Sam an amazing amount of money just to talk to him: fifteen hundred dollars for an evening of his otherwise idle time. Sam had said yes before he thought the consequences throughafter all, how many retired metallurgists could boost their income by that much just by talking to someone? But later, after he'd had lunch with some of the youngsters at Gulfstream and heard some of the latest news, he began to wonder. There was a lot going on over there right now; the joint project with the Russians, a lot of composite development and things being done with explosive welding and foamed aluminum. None of it was exactly secret, but there was a lot of proprietary information Sam was still privy toand more he could get clandestine access to, if he chose. What if this "Fairgrove Industries"which was not listed with the Better Business Bureau, and not in any industrial database that Sam had access towas just a front for something else? What if this Tannim was trying to set him up as a corporate informant, or looking for some "insider trading" type information? Sam had loved his job at Gulfstream; they were, as he joked, a "growing, excited company." He liked the people he worked with enough to socialize with them, even now, when he had been retired for the past several months. He wasn't interested in doing anything that would hurt the company.
Sam tapped the edge of the envelope on his desk and made up his mind about what he was going to do, now that he had realized the implications. "Well, Thoreau, if this young fella thinks I'm some kind of senile old curmudgeon he can fool with a silver tongue and a touch of blarney, he's going to be surprised," Sam said aloud. "If it's looking to make a fool of me he is, I just may be making a fool of him."
If this Tannim was trying to set him up as a corporate informant, Sam decided, this old man would turn the tables on him. There was a break-in camera under the eaves; it took snaps when the burglar alarm went off, but it could be operated manually. Very well, then, he'd snap pictures of the man's car and license tag when he arrived. First thing in the morning, he'd call his old bosses, give them the number and the young man's description, and let them know exactly what had gone on. Looking for a corporate informant wasn't illegal, exactlybut the fellows at Gulfstream could certainly put a stop to anything shady.
And Sam would still have the fifteen hundred dollars.
Not bad, when you stopped to think out all the implications first, rather than backtracking in a panic. Assuming of course, the check didn't bounce.
But planning ahead in case things did go wrong was what had made Sam one of the best in his field.
"Or so I like to tell myself," he said aloud, smiling at his own conceit.
The doorbell rang, and Sam reached automatically for the modified TV remote-control that, through the intervention of an old Commodore microcomputer, handled gadgets throughout the house. The poor old thing was useless even as a game machine these days, but it was perfectly adequate to mute the radioor take pictures of the young man and his car before Sam even reached the door. He made his way to the door with a shade of the limberness of his youth, and opened it, catching the stranger in a "listening" pose that told Sam the man had been trying to catch the sound of his own approaching footsteps.
"Doctor Kelly?" The man at the door was illuminated by the powerful floodlight Sam had used to replace the ridiculous little phony carriage-lamp that had been installed there. And he was a very young man, much younger than his deep voice had suggested. He nodded in a noncommittal fashion and the man continued. "I'm Tannimwe had an appointment"
He was carrying a dark leather folder. Sam first took in that, then the wild mop of curly hair, cut short in front and long in the back, the way a lot of kids on MTV cut theirsa dark nylon jacket, with a good shirt underneath, and a soft scarf instead of a tiedark slacks, not jeansbootsthe first impression was reasonable. But not exactly fitting the image of a corporate recruiter. The face was good; high cheekbones, determined chin, firm mouth, fine bone-structure and curiously vulnerable-looking eyes. The kid looked like a lot of the hotshot young engineers Sam worked with. But not like what Sam had been expecting.
"I remember," Sam replied cautiously. There was something about the young man that suggested trustworthiness, perhaps his eyes, or the curious sense of stillness about him; but Sam knew better than to trust his first impression. Some of the biggest crooks he had ever known had inspired that same feeling of trust. And some of them had been just as young as this man.
"Can I come in?" A quirky grin spread across the man's bony face, transforming the stillness without entirely removing it. "Or would you rather earn your retainer standing here in the doorway? Or would you like to go somewhere else entirely?"
Well, it wouldn't hurt to let the youngster in. Sam moved aside, and Tannim stepped across the threshold. Sam noticed that he walked with a limp, one he was at pains to minimize; that he moved otherwise with a cat-like grace at odds with the limp. Sam was no stranger to industrial accidents and their aftermath. This was someone who had suffered a serious injury and learned to cope with it. That moved him a little more into the "favorable" column, in Sam's mind. Con artists tended to emphasize injuries to gain sympathycon artists tended not to get injured in the first place. "Follow me, if you would," Sam said, leading the way to his office. This was going to be more interesting than he had thought.
Tannim cocked his head to one side as he entered the office, and caught what was playing softly over the speakers. The playlist had migrated to the outré. His eyes and his smile increased a trifle. "Doctor KellyI'm pleasantly surprised by your taste in music."
Sam shrugged, as the Residents gave forth their own terrifyingly skewed version of "Teddybear." He took his seat in the recliner behind his desk and waved at the two identical recliners in front of the desk.
But Tannim didn't take a seat; instead, he put the folder he had been carrying on the desk, and beside it, a set of I.D. cards he fanned like a set of playing cards.
"Before we talk, Doctor Kelly, I'd like to assure you of something. Fairgrove Industries is a brand new entity insofar as the rest of the world is concernedbut we've been around a long, long time in the private sector." Sam looked up to see that Tannim's smile had turned into a wide grin. "We've been around a lot longer than anyone knows. I know what you've probably been thinking; that I'm a corporate raider, that I'm a front-man for industrial espionage, or that I'm looking for information on your former employer. Actually, I don't usually do this for Fairgrove, but the folks back at the plant thought I'd be the best person to approach you."
"Oh?" Sam Kelly replied. "Sojust what is it that this Fairgrove does that they want from me?"
Tannim tapped the folder with one long finger. "We build racecars, Doctor Kelly. We have nothing to do with aerospace, and I doubt very much we'll ever be involved in that business. But you have skills we very much need."
Sam looked back down at the top photo I.D., which was, unmistakably, Tannim. And listed only the single name, oddly enoughno initials, no first or last name. It was an SCCA card, autoclub racing, sure enough; beneath it was a SERRA card (whatever that was), an IMSA card, an I.D. card for Roebling Road racetrack, and beneath that was his Fairgrove card. That particular piece of I.D. listed him as "test-driver/ mechanic," which Sam hadn't known was still possible. Not these days, when either profession required skill and training enough to overwhelm most ordinary people.
But Tannim didn't give him any chance to ask about thathe opened the folder, and began describing just what it was that Fairgrove wanted from him, if he would take the job.
"We need you as a consultant, Doctor Kelly," he said, earnestly. "We're working on some pretty esoteric technologies here, and we need someone with a solid background who is still flexible and open to new ideas. You were one of the best metallurgists in the country before you retiredand no one has ever accused you of being stuck in a rut, or being too old-fashioned to change."
That surprised him further, and embarrassed him a little. He was at a loss for a response, but Tannim was clearly waiting for one. "Oh, I would'na know about that," he said, lapsing briefly into the Irish brogue of his childhood.
"We would," Tannim said firmly, nodding so that his unruly mop of dark, curly hair flopped over into one eye, making him look, thin as he was, like a Japanese anime character. "We've looked very carefully at everyone who might suit us, and who could legitimately work with us without compromising themselves or their current or past employers. You are the best."
Sam felt himself blushing, something he hadn't done in years. "Well, if you think so . . . what's the job, anyway?"
"Metallurgy," Tannim told him. "Specifically, fabricating engine blocks and other high-stress parts of non-ferrous materials." He flashed that grin again, from under the errant lock of hair, calling up an answering smile from Sam. "Like your music, we're on the cutting edge."
"I don't know," Sam replied, slowly, as Tannim finally took his seat, leaving his host free to leaf through the Fairgrove materials. Most of them had the look of something that had been produced on a personal computer, the great-great grandchild of the one that helped Sam run his house, and the cousin of the one on the workstation behind him. The specs Fairgrove had on their "wish list" were impressiveand as unlikely as any of H. G. Wells' dreams of Time Machines. "I don't know. Engine blocksyou're talking about a high-stress application there. You want a foamed aluminum matrix for internal combustion, with water-cooling channels, air-cooling vanes, and alloy piston sleeves? In five castings for the main block? I don't know that it's possible."
"Ah, but you don't know it's not possible, do you?" Tannim retorted. "We aren't going to pay you on the basis of whether or not common wisdom says it's possiblewe're doing research. Applied research, yes, but when you do research, you accept the fact that some of your highways may turn out to be dead ends. That's life. And speaking of payment" He reached into his jacket, and pulled out an oak-tree-embossed envelope, which he laid on top of the Fairgrove folder.
Sam thumbed it open. There was a cashier's check inside, made out on his own bank, for fifteen hundred dollars. Until this moment, Sam had not entirely believed in the reality of this retainer. Now, holding it in his hands, he could find no flaw in itand no real flaw with what Fairgrove, in the person of this young man, proposed.
Except, of course, whether or not what they wanted was a pipe-dream, a Grail; desirable, yes, but impossible to achieve. . . .
Or was it? These people certainly had a lot of money to wave around. And there were some problems you could solve by throwing money at them.
"I suppose I could take a look at this place," he ventured. "I could at least see what you people have to work with."
If anything, Tannim's grin got wider. He spread his hands wide. "Sure! How aboutright now? We're all night owls over there, and it isn't that far away."
Now? In the middle of the night? That wasn't an offer Sam expected. Did they expect him to come? Or did they expect him to say no?
If he showed up now, surely they wouldn't have time to put on a big display for him . . . and that might be all for the best, really. He'd see things as they were, not a dog-and-pony show. As for the lateness of the hour, well, one of the advantages of being retired was that he no longer had to clock inand he didn't have to follow the company's time schedule. He'd always been a night owl by nature, and although this was the "middle of the night" to some people, for him the day was barely halfway throughone reason why he'd set this appointment long after a "normal" working day had ended.
And besides all that, if he was going to take a look at this place, he wanted to see all of it. That meant the metal shops, too. This early in the fall, daytime temperatures were still in the nineties, and no matter how good their air-conditioning was, the shops would be as hot as Vulcan's forge during the daylight hours. Metal shops always were, especially if these people were doing casting work.
"All right," he said, shoving himself resolutely out of his chair. "Let's go. No better time to see this miracle place of yours than right now."
"Great!" the young man answered, sliding out of his chair and getting to his feet with no more than a slight hesitation for the bad leg. "Want to take my car? We've used it to test out some SERRA-racer modifications; y'know, suspension mods, rigidity, a little composite fiddling. It's street-legalbarely."
There was something challenging about his grin, and Sam decided to take the dare. "Sure," he replied, taking just enough time with his remote to tell the house to run the "guardian" program. He slipped the remote into his pocket as an added precaution; without that, no one would be able to disarm the system. Not even cutting the power would make a difference; the house had its own uninterruptable power supply, and a generator that kicked on if the power stayed off for more than half an hour. He'd installed all that during the Gulf War terrorist scare, when high-level people at a lot of industries, including Gulfstream, had been warned they might be targets for kidnapping or terrorism. He'd gotten into the habit of arming it whenever he left or went to sleep, and it didn't seem an unreasonable precaution still. Maybe he was paranoid, but being paranoid had saved lives before this.
Thoreau sighed as he saw Sam reach for his jacket. Sam reached down and ruffled the dog's ears, promising that even though "daddy" wasn't going to be around to beg a late-night snack from, there would be a treat when he got back. Thoreau accepted this philosophically enough, and padded alongside, providing an escort service to the front door.
There, Sam was briefly involved in locking the door, and wasn't paying a great deal of attention to the car behind him. Then he turned around.
Sam had been around hot-rodders all his life; seemed to him that for every four techies at Gulfstream who were indifferent to automobiles, there would be one who cherished the things. Now he was looking at a machine that would impress any of them. It was parked with the front wheels turned rakishly, and he made note of its distinguishing features. Dark metallic red; three antennas. Scuffed sidewalls. Dark windows. It was hardly the "company car" he was expecting.
Tannim was wearing that sideways smile of his, and thumbed his keyring. The Mustang rumbled to life, and its doors unlocked and opened a crack. Despite himself; Sam's face showed his interest in the electronic gimcrackery. Tannim gestured to the open passenger's side door with a flourish, and went around to the driver's side as Sam pulled the door open and got in.
Sam pulled the seatbelt snug as Tannim slid into the driver's side, noting as he did so, that these were not standard American windowshade seatbelts, which tendedin his opinionto allow far too much freedom of movement for safety. And as Tannim closed the driver's side door, he noted something else. . . .
Something besides the door had closed, sealing them inside the protective shell of the Mustang. It had sprung into being the moment Tannim's door closed, and covered car and occupants. It wasn't tangible, like the seatbelts or the roll-cageit wasn't even visible to ordinary sight. But it was there, nevertheless. Tannim pushed a worn tape into the dash deck, and turned down or switched off most of the suite of other instruments therethe CB, high-end channel-scanner, an in-dash radar detector, andwhat was this, a police-repeater sensor? Sam looked over the interior a little more, noting the various boxes in the back seat. Some more electronics gear. Hmm. There was also a trash-box stuffed with candy wrappers, a tissue box, allergy tablets, fire extinguishers mounted next to crowbars, two first-aid kits . . . and an embroidered tape-case. As he peered at it, Sam thought he could almost see words in the threads, and familiar symbols. This vehicle was not just a very unusual car; there was more to it than that. There was a great deal of power under the hoodand there was far more Power of a different sort infused into it.
The differences might not be visible to normal eyes, but Sam had a little more to use than what his granny had called "outer eyes." Sam had not been gifted with the ability the Irish referred to as "the Sight" to neglect using it, after all. Nor had becoming a man of science interfered with that. If anything, he was too much of a scientist to discount a gift that had granted him knowledge he might not otherwise have, with fair reliability, over so many years.
Interesting. Very interesting.
"So," he said, as Tannim pulled out smoothly onto the darkened highway, the headlights cutting the darkness ahead of them into areas of seen and half-seen. "Tell me about Fairgrove. Why did they decide to get into manufacturing? And why nonferrous materials?"
Tannim fiddled with the tape deck for a moment before replying. He had put in a Clannad tape, and made a show of ensuring that the volume exactly matched that of the radio in Sam's office, stalling a little. Sam knew a stall when he saw one.
"Before I tell you about Fairgrove, I have to explain SERRA," he temporized, paying closer attention to the road ahead than it really warranted. "In some ways, they're almost the same entity. Virtually everyone working for Fairgrove came out of SERRA, and the president and board of Fairgrove actually helped found SERRA. Uh, their families did."
Sam was pretending to watch the road, but he was really watching Tannim out of the corner of his eye. And that last, about the board founding SERRA, had been a real slip. Tannim hadn't meant to say that. But what made it a slip?
"So? What's this SERRA?" he asked.
"South Eastern Road Racing Association," Tannim replied promptly, and with enthusiasm he didn't try to conceal. "It's an offshoot of the SCCASports Car Club of America. Part of the problem for us was that SCCA doesn't allow the sort of modifications we wanted, and the folks in SERRA wanted to push the envelope of sportscar racing a bit more, more `experimental' stuff. Fairgrove also supports an IMSA team, running GTP, but that's for pro drivers, guys who don't do anything but drive, and we've only just started that circuit. Some of uslike mestill race SCCA, in fact, I drive for the Fairgrove team. There's things to like about both clubs, which is why Fairgrove still maintains a team in both."
"You don't drive in the Fairgrove SERRA team?" Sam said. Tannim shrugged.
"We've got some drivers as good as I am on the SERRA team, drivers who can't race SCCA cars. Since I could do both, I opted for the SCCA team, and left rides for the other guys." He grinned. "Don't worry, I get plenty of track time in! If I had the time, I could spend every weekend and most weekdays racing."
Sam had no doubt that Tannim was a professional driver in every sense of the word, despite the disclaimer; the way he handled this car put Sam in mind of an expert fighter pilot, of the way the plane becomes an extension of the pilot himself, and the pilot can do things he shouldn't be able to. There was an air of cocky competence about the kid, now that he was behind the wheel, that was very like a good pilot's too.
"That's not cheap, fielding several teams" Sam ventured.
"Three teams, each with several cars, and no, it isn't cheap," Tannim admitted cheerfully. "The founding families started out independently wealthyinherited money that survived the '20s crashbut they've been making racing pay for itself for a while now. Not just purses and advertsthey've been farming out their experts" he grinned again "like yours truly, and opening up their shops for modifications to whoever was willing to pay the price. But that could only go so far. Now we'd like to hit the bigtime. Indy-style, Formula One, that kind of thing. Getting right up there with the big boysmaybe even have the big boys come to us. But to do that, we have to have something better than just mods. We have to have original advances. That's where you come in."
He braked, briefly, and Sam caught the flash of a bird's wings in the headlights. An owl; a big one. Most drivers wouldn't have known it was going to cut across the car's vector. Most drivers wouldn't have bothered to avoid it.
"Maybe," Sam replied, feeling his way. "I don't know; this sounds like it could be very risky business. . . ."
"Your part won't be," Tannim promised. "Fairgrove will pay half your consultation fee up front, before you even pin on a badge, and put the other half in escrow in your bank." Then he named a figure that would have given Sam cardiac trouble, if not for watching his diet and cholesterol. It was considerably more than his salary at Gulfstream had been. Of course, one of the disadvantages of staying with a firm for years was that your salary didn't keep pace with the going rate for new-hires with similar experience, butthis was ridiculous; they couldn't want him that badly! Could they?
"What about disclosure?" he asked, when he could speak again.
"We've got a tentative non-disclosure clause in your contract, but we can modify it if you feel really strongly about it," Tannim said. "We based it on the non-disclosure clause at Gulfstream, but we made one modification, and that's in the area of Research and Development in safety. Anything that's a significant advance in safety is immediately released, and patents won't be enforced. Think you can live with that? Even if it means a loss of income?"
Since that was the one area where Sam had himself had several heated arguments with his own bosses over the years, he nodded. "Some things should be common knowledge," he said grimy. "That's in a Mercedes ad, but it's true for all of that."
He asked many more questions over the course of the next fifteen minutes, and although Tannim never refused to answer any of them, he kept getting the feeling that the young man was doing a kind of verbal dance the whole timecarefully steering him away from something. It wasn't where the money was coming from; at least, this wasn't the kind of youngster or the kind of operation Sam would have associated with money laundering and organized crime. And car-racing wasn't the kind of operation that would lend itself to that sort of thing anyway. It wasn't what he would be expected to accomplish. It was nothing that he was able to put a finger on. But there was some skillful verbal maneuvering going on here, and Sam wished strongly that he could see at least the shape of this blind spot, so he could guess at what it was hiding.
Tannim pulled off the highway onto a beautifully paved side road, and stopped at a formidable gate, punching in a code on the keypad-box just in front of it. The gate-doors retracted
And just on the other side of the gate, a miniature traffic signal lit upthe yellow light first, then the green, and the radar detector under the dash lit up. Tannim turned toward his passenger with a sparkle in his eye, and a grin that bordered on maniacal. "Did you know that there's no speed limit on private driveways?" he said, conversationally. Then he floored the accelerator.
Once again, it was a good thing that Sam had been watching his diet for yearsand that he was well acquainted with "test pilot humor." As it was, by the end of that brief but hair-raising half-mile ride, he wasn't certain if Tannim had added years to his age, or subtracted them by peeling them off; with sheer speed as the knife-blade. One thing was sure; if Sam's hair hadn't already been white, the ride would have bleached it to silver.
Tannim pulled up to a tire-screeching halt beside another miniature traffic light. As they passed it, Sam notedfaintly surprised that he still had the ability to notice anythingthat going in the opposite direction, the light was red as they passed it. It turned yellow well after they passed, then green a moment later. A wise precaution, if people used the driveway as a dragstrip on a regular basis. A board lit up with numbers, and Tannim laughed out loud. "Elapsed time and speed, Sam." He cocked his head sideways like an exotic bird. "Not my best run, but not bad for nighttime, and with a passenger weighing me down."
They rolled up to a driveway loop at a sedate pace. In the center of the circular cut-out was a discrete redwood sign reading "Fairgrove Industries." The building itself looked like Cape Canaveral before a shuttle launch, with hundreds of lights burning. Evidently these people were night owls.
Tannim pulled the Mustang into a parking slot, between a Lamborghini Diablo and a Ferrarri Dino. "Expensive neighbors," Sam commented. Tannim just chuckled, and popped his seatbelt.
He led the way through a series of darkened offices; the clerical staff was evidently not expected to keep the same hours as the techies. The offices themselves gave an overall impression of brisk efficiency with a touch of comedy; although the desks were clean and orderly, there were toys on all the computer terminals and desks, artwork and posters on the walls, and so many plants Sam wondered if someone had raided a greenhouse. Most of the artwork and toys had something to do with cars. These people evidently enjoyed their work. And these were working offices; had been for some time; there was no way you could counterfeit that "lived in, worked in" look. Whatever else Fairgrove was, it had been in existence for some time. This was no façade thrown up to delude him.
Tannim brought him to a soundproof wallSam recognized it as the twin to one at Gulfstream, that stood between the offices and the shopsand opened a door into bright light and seeming chaos.
There were cars in various states of disassembly everywhere, each one surrounded, like a patient in intensive care, by its own little flotilla of instrumentation and machinery. There was a lot of expensive equipment here: computer-controlled diagnostic devices, computer-controlled manufacturing machinery behind the cars on their little islands of activity
There must have been several million dollars in cars alone, and about that in equipment. Oddly enough, though, no one seemed to be using any of the latter; they all seemed to be working directly on the cars. The machinery itself was standing idle. In fact, given the sheen of "newness" on all that expensive gimmickry, most of it hadn't ever been fired up.
Why buy all that stuff if you weren't going to use it?
Tannim was looking for something, or someone, craning his head in every direction. Sam was unable to get his attention, and really, didn't try very hard. There was definitely something odd about this place. There was a facadeand it was in here, not out in the offices.
Finally, as a little group of people emerged from behind one of the cars and its attendant machines, Tannim spotted whoever it was he was looking for among them. He waved his hand in the air, and called out to them.
"Yo!" he shouted, his voice somehow carrying over the din. "Kevin! Over here!"
A tall, very blond man turned around in response to that shout, green eyes searching over the mass of machines and people.
And Sam felt such a shock he feared for a moment that he'd had a stroke. Those eyesthat facethey were familiar.
Hauntingly, frighteningly familiar, though he hadn't seen them in nearly fifty years.
He knew this man
who wasn't a man.
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