The staircase beckoned, its steel steps curving up into the ceiling, the sound of laughter drifting downward from above. Nancy put her hand on the cable which served as the handrail. She hadn’t even lifted a foot onto the first rung when a woman said, “Stop. Don’t go up there.”
Nancy turned to the voice, without moving her hand. “Why not? I want to watch the moonrise.” She’d been up top when she first arrived. The small upstairs room had views of the ocean to the west, the beach stretching north and south, and the hills to the east.
A skinny woman in a form-fitting dress with large pink and purple flowers and too much makeup shook her overly-coiffed head at her, then curled her fingers and beckoned.
Nancy followed her outside onto a deck which hung over the beach below. Packed with party goers an hour ago, it was empty, save for a couple in the corner, who seemed too absorbed in each other to notice the two women.
They heard a happy-sounding squeal from the loft, then a man’s voice saying something Nancy couldn’t catch. More giggles rang out. Nancy wanted to join them, but her companion laid a hand on her arm and indicated with her head that they should go to the opposite side of the balcony from the pair who now had their hands inside each others clothing.
“What,” Nancy said.
The woman put her finger to her lips.
For the first time, Nancy noticed that the woman had wrinkles fanning out from her mouth and eyes.
“You ever tried meth?” the woman asked.
“Is that what they’re doing —“ Shock radiated through Nancy’s body. Her friend Kristi had disappeared up the spiral half an hour ago, behind Julius. Kristi wouldn’t try meth, would she? And what about Julius? This was his house. She didn’t know him well, but he seemed too classy for meth.
“—Shhh. Keep it down. Yes, and more. Heroin, ecstasy maybe.”
“How do you know?” Nancy tried to whisper, but she heard her voice rise. She looked towards the couple, but they’d disappeared.
“Julius told me. He made me promise to ward off anyone not invited.”
“And I wasn’t?” Nancy felt offended. Just the idea of being left out made her want to climb that silver ladder to heaven, even though she’d never tried anything more serious than a single pinch of cocaine, years ago. It had made her nose turn numb and bleed all over her favorite white sweater, so she’d never again been tempted to try it or anything else other than pot.
The woman nodded vigorously. “That’s a good thing, sweety,” she said.
Nancy felt a pang, thinking about her best friend Kristi up there, taking who knew what, possibly ruining her life forever.
The woman must have seen the shadow pass over Nancy’s face, because she put a hand on her arm as if to reassure her. Nancy shook it off and turned towards the door. She had to get Kristi out of here.
“Where are you going?”
“To save my friend.”
“You can’t go up there. If you do, well, it’s too late for any friend of yours, but it isn’t too late for you.”
“What do you mean? What would happen to me?” Nancy felt a stab of alarm. Who was this Julius who occupied the corner office at work? She’d only talked to him a few times in passing. He seemed smart, one of the elite programmers working on a secret government project.
Despite the fact that he spent almost all day hunched over his computer, only emerging to play a round of ping pong or get a cup of coffee in the staff area, she’d developed a slight crush on him, probably because he’d taken the time to ask her about her work. Twice. Once, she happened to be pouring herself a cup of coffee when he appeared at the machine. Then last week he’d knocked on her office door and invited himself in. He’d seemed genuinely interested, pulling up a chair, turning his brilliant blue eyes on her, and pushing thick black hair out of his admittedly narrow, rather nerdy face. But she was a nerd herself, and intellectual men were her type, so the sexual attraction had been intense and immediate. When he left, he tossed out the invitation to tonight’s party: “Bring a friend or two.”
So of course, she’d come, hoping he’d lead her off into a dark corner, not that there were any in this open beach house. But as soon as she’d introduced him to Kristi, he’d turned up the charm, seemingly entranced by Kristi’s description of her job at the bank, but probably more taken with her large breasts and long blond hair. Men! Nancy had been stuck making small talk with one of the receptionists from work. They had about zero in common.
The woman in the flowered dress didn’t tell her what might happen up top. Instead, she said, “Leave. Now. Julius will arrange a ride for your friend.”
Something about her tone sent a chill up Nancy’s spine. “Fine,” she said, and obeyed. Later, she would wish she’d never been to that party, or, since she had, that she’d raced up the steps and grabbed Kristi. But she hadn’t known.
At nine AM, her phone rang. “Hey, it’s Kristi. Want to go for coffee?”
“I want to hear all about it! What happened? Were you guys having an orgy?”
“Nothing that interesting. It was pretty dull.”
Something about her voice sounded wrong, but Nancy couldn’t put her finger on it. When they met, though, Kristi seemed tired, but otherwise her usual, joking self. “We smoked something that made me fall asleep. Luke drove me home this morning. That’s all. Nothing more happened. I promise. I didn’t hook up with Julius.”
Nancy started to protest that she didn’t care, but Kristi held up her palm. “I know you like him. Don’t try to pretend with me.”
“Was I that obvious?”
Kristi nodded. “Don’t worry, I don’t think anyone else sees it. Besides, he thinks you’re cute.”
On Wednesday, the security clearance Nancy had applied for almost a year earlier finally came through. Half an hour after she found out, Julius walked into her office. “How would you feel about joining my team? We need your expertise in pattern recognition.”
He sat on the edge of her desk, swinging his long thin legs, his short dark hair hanging over his forehead, his blue eyes boring into her. How could she resist? Especially since her current research project on improving facial recognition software was at a dead-end. Still, she was cautious. “Maybe, but you’ll have to tell me more about it.”
His serious look was replaced by a wide smile. “You’re gonna be amazed,” he said. “Let’s go to the secure conference room. I’ll get Ulrick to join us.”
She’d never been in this small room before. Like all of their conference rooms, it had an oval table with chairs around it in the center, but there was far more equipment scattered around the edges. She took a seat and waited as Julius logged into the secure network and a screen descended from the ceiling. A diagram appeared on the screen.
“This,” Julius said, “is the basic idea. We need to put spies into areas controlled by ISIS, but it’s way too dangerous to send in a person, not after all of the recent executions. Drones are out, because they are too obvious, and they tend to eventually fail. We cannot risk having the enemy get his hands on one. So our task was to find another way.”
The door clicked open, and Ulrick entered, carefully closing it behind himself. He took a seat next to Nancy and nodded. She had met this tall, skinny man only once before, at last year’s Christmas party, so all she knew was that he was a neuroscientist of sorts.
Julius turned back to the screen. “I thought we should plant bugs on members of ISIS, but it had to be something they couldn’t find and remove. A robot would be nice, if it could somehow crawl onto them, because obviously it’s too dangerous to send in a person.”
Ulrick stood and walked over to the computer. “That’s where I came in. I’d been working with the robotics group at MIT to design tiny robots which can enter the brain and find cancer cells or other pathologies. It occurred to me that we could do something similar, except with the optic and auditory nerves. We know enough now to interpret signals from those nerves and turn them back into pictures and sounds.”
A new photo flashed up on the screen. It was a robot next to a ruler. Nancy gasped. The robot was only a few microns in diameter. It was replaced on the screen by a mouse. Ulrick walked over to the screen and pointed at the mouse. “Figuring out how to target the appropriate nerves was easy. Getting it into a living being was harder. We couldn’t plan on doing brain surgery. Instead, the robot had to somehow crawl in on its own. So I went back to MIT, where the robotics experts had been working on this very issue. Brain surgery is dangerous and expensive, so they have invented robots which can enter through the eyes and nose.”
Nancy thoughts were flying a mile a minute by now. Of course! That’s what they’d done to her friend. She started to speak, but Julius spoke first and she held her tongue.
“What you’ll see next is a video from the devices which implanted themselves in this mouse.”
Silver bars came into view, then jittery movement, a piece of food, and, with it all, the sound of scraping and unintelligible voices. The video ended.
You’re going to use mice to invade ISIS?” Nancy asked, surprising even herself with the question.
Julius laughed. “No, of course not.” He flashed up a flow chart and replaced Ulrick by the screen. “We haven’t figured this part out, but we’ll somehow drop small carrier robots, filled with these tiny guys, near where we suspect our enemies are. The robots will have enough power to crawl up to five miles, seeking human DNA.”
“In theory,” Ulrick said. “That part isn’t worked out yet.”
Julius smiled. “True. But we think we can solve that issue.”
“What’s your part in this?” Nancy asked.
“He programs the robots,” Ulrick said. “There are, what, Julius? About a hundred people in on this project?”
“I think so. Everything from biologists to the strategists at the Pentagon. I’m working with a team out of Stanford.” Julius frowned at her. “It’s a hard problem, creating robots too small to be seen, able to crawl over obstacles, and yet having enough power to go that far, while targeting humans.”
He cracked a tiny smile. Once again, she felt the power of his eyes on her and swallowed hard. Then he turned back to the screen. “Yeah, it’s all a bit far-fetched, but it’s also a big deal. So, anyway, once they get to a person, the carrier opens a compartment, a handful of smaller bots come out, crawl up the body, and release the micro invaders.”
“Are you guys nuts? This’ll never happen. Even if it does, why do you need me?” Nancy stared at the diagram, incredulous.
Ulrick laughed. “Yes, it will. These bots are all going to be fantastically cheap to produce. The technical problems are all solvable. Believe me.”
Julius gave her a wider smile. Seeing it, she settled back in her chair, letting the energy flow between them. Even if she chose not to go with this project, just being here a while longer could lead to something good.
He winked, and her heart almost stopped. Then he went to the computer. “What we’re going to show you next is absolutely top-secret. Also, I suspect you won’t be happy with some of it. Please understand that you cannot share this with anyone, not even the people you’re about to see.”
He was looking at the screen, the frown back between his brows. Nancy shivered. Despite her attraction to him, she wished she could leave, yet her curiosity held her fast. She had to know, didn’t she?