Calvin nodded that he did.
"These are old machines that we're sending off for recycling," Mr. Pinker said, as Calvin nodded again. "Our IT specialist is currently on vacation in Tora Bora. At least, I think it's Tora Bora. It might be Rikki Tikki. Well, it's either Tora Bora or Rikki Tikki."
"Easily confused," Calvin said. "Although I think a fictional tropical island in the Pacific is less likely that a cave in Afghanistan. There is no accounting for personal taste, however."
"Right, good catch," Mr. Pinker said, with a smile. "Anyway, before sending a machine off for recycling, we need to know if we can repurpose it for another use. Is the hardware still good? Can we strip the power supply? Does it have a good RAM card that we can salvage? That kind of thing."
"Makes sense to me," Calvin said.
"Any chance you could take a look at all these machines for us?" Mr. Pinker asked. "Let us know which ones are still good enough to be used as is, which ones still have good, working parts that we can salvage, and which ones are a total loss. Once we have that information, we'll dispose of the ones we can't use anymore. Can I count on you?"
"Sure, can I use the tools in this room, or do I need to go home and get my own?" Calvin asked.
"Anything in this room is yours to use," Mr. Pinker said. "You can get your own tools from home if you want, but this room is specifically set up for this kind of thing, so you should find everything you need here. How long do you think this job will take you?"
"Most of the day," Calvin said. "There are a lot of machines here, but I will work as fast as I can. Fortunately, I always carry my Linux diagnostic tools on a USB drive on my key chain, so I don't need anything that's not in this room."
"Good, do you have a bank account?" Mr. Pinker asked.
"Sure, why do you ask?" Calvin asked.
"So that we can pay you for the work," Mr. Pinker said, laughing. "I don't expect you to work for free, you know. Just give the receptionist you met before a cancelled check at your earliest convenience, and let us know how many hours this took you, so that we can pay you. When you are done here, please come see me in my office, and give me a report on what you found."
"Sure thing," Calvin said, as Mr. Pinker left, and Calvin busied himself with his new task.
Meanwhile, in Frostbite Falls, Scott and Dr. Karlov were just finishing breakfast, and were talking over their morning tea.
"I like the way you think," Dr. Karlov said, as he listened to Scott's idea for setting up Ted and Frank with Elizabeth and Jessica at the naked mile on Saturday. "I also quite agree with Lory: we should be sure that the girls review all the relevant financial information ahead of time. Anything else interesting happen recently?"
Scott took a deep breath, and told Dr. Karlov what had happened on Monday afternoon as he walked to Maybe Dick Hall.
"You're sure about this?" Dr. Karlov asked, with concern in his voice.
"Yeah, the orgy with the cheerleaders took place right before the start of instruction, a little over four weeks ago," Scott said.
"No, not that thing, as important as that might be," Dr. Karlov said. "The other thing, the man in the green poncho."
"Yeah, I saw him, clear as day, in a vision, and a moment later, he wasn't there," Scott said. "I don't know what it means."
"I need to make a phone call," Dr. Karlov said. Scott was worried, he had never seen Dr. Karlov so visibly uncomfortable before. "Hello, Eric?" Dr. Karlov asked, after his friend answered the phone.
"What can I do for you?" Eric asked.
Dr. Karlov put the phone on speaker, and asked Scott to re-tell his experience with the man in the green poncho. Scott did as he was asked, and a pregnant silence followed.
"We need to meet, and to talk, immediately," Eric said. "Drop everything, and come to my place as soon as possible. I will clear my morning schedule for this, and the two of you should do the same. This is top priority."
"Okay, we'll be right over," Dr. Karlov said. "Are you sure it's safe?"
"Yes, the danger has passed," Eric said. "Scott, you did something very smart on Monday: you visibly inspected the location of your vision, then you ran away as fast as you could. He'll know you saw him, and that means he won't be following your movements anymore. It's time we told you the full truth. Come to my place, immediately, this is not the kind of thing we should speak of over the phone."
A moment later, Scott and Dr. Karlov were driving west out of town from Frostbite Falls.
"Did I do something wrong?" Scott asked.
"Absolutely not," Dr. Karlov said. "In fact, it was exactly as Eric just said: you did about as right a thing as it was possible for someone to have done. It's time we tell you the full truth, about the project, about the assistants, and about your role in all of this."
A half an hour drive west, with turns down several private roads, brought them to a large, walled complex out in the middle of the countryside, with no homes, or business of any kind, visible around it. Dr. Karlov drove inside the main gate of this complex, and parked his car, and he and Scott entered the large building through the main door. Scott had never been in a home or office like this one, it was palatial in scale. As they walked through what looked like a mansion, complete with living rooms, kitchens, exercise rooms, and bedrooms, Scott and Dr. Karlov approached a massive central office, and entered inside.
Scott's breath was taken away when he saw the inside of this office. It was enormous, with an exercise nook in one corner, and dozens of LCD TV monitors all over the room each showing a feed of a distinct location. Seated behind a desk in the middle of this room was the man whom Scott took to be Eric. Eric rose from his seat, and greeted Dr. Karlov and Scott. He motioned them both over to a couch, where all three men sat down.
"I am going to explain everything to you, but first, I need you to do something for me," Eric said, as an image of a man in a green poncho, a panama hat, blue jeans, and cowboy boots showed on one of the monitors in front of Scott. "Is this the man you saw in your vision on Monday?"
"Yeah, that's him," Scott said. "Who is he?"
"His name is Lynx," Eric replied. "He's one of the finest bounty hunters on earth, and is a member of the prestigious Rozarria Guild, where the very best of his kind ply their trade. He's at the bottom of at least 3 dozen international unsolved murders, involving some of the highest profile cases in recent years."
"What does he want with me?" Scott asked, trembling.
"I don't mean to frighten you," Eric said. "Like I said before, you acted extremely intelligently on Monday. He didn't get to be who he is by taking dumb risks, and he's a man who knows how to walk away from a sunk cost. All members of the Rozarria Guild exemplify the height of professionalism, and they don't let personal feelings get in the way of accomplishing the mission. If he thinks you spotted him, he won't come after you again."
"That's a relief," Scott said. "That still doesn't tell me what he wanted with me in the first place."
Over the next half an hour, Eric laid it all out for Scott: about the reality engine, about the reality altering field, about the core, about the 51 previous assistants, about bringing balance to the force, and about the source of Scott's visions.
"So, you think Lynx was following me on Monday because he wanted my abilities for himself?" Scott asked, as soon as the explanations were done.
"Yes, I do," Eric said. "Or, more likely, he was working on behalf of someone who wanted your abilities for themselves."
"Why was I only able to see him in my vision, and not in real life?" Scott asked.
"Probably because he was using invisibility technology," Eric said. "Which I designed."
"Our organizational leak?" Dr. Karlov asked.
"Unlikely," Eric said. "The forensic investigation of the data dump that I sent to 4M came back negative. I haven't been hacked, we have a mole. Any mole would have to be someone we took on as a financial backer in the last five years, and anyone like that would not have access to the invisibility technology."
"Get out," Scott said. "You really have the ability to make people invisible?"
"Yes, I do," Eric said, with a wide smile. "I'm the world's foremost expert on it."
"If you're sure no one stole the technology from you, then how did Lynx get his hands on it?" Dr. Karlov asked.
"I'm not the only scientist who is working on this technology," Eric said. "I know of one other team that's trying to develop it, but they are years behind, and what they have doesn't work very well. Still, it's more than good enough to keep tabs on Scott."
"So, where do I go from here?" Scott asked. "I want to keep my friends and I safe, and I don't really understand how all of this works, to be honest."
"Let's take it one thing at a time," Eric suggested. "Your visions are an emergent property of your connection to the core. The core provides power, and your mind provides guidance."
"I can see that," Scott said. "You need to know what reality is before you can change it, hence the visions. You mentioned the signs, with what you call the sight being the first sign, what is the next one?"
"The second sign is the conviction," Eric replied. "It's a weak form of the Jedi mind-trick. Your beliefs and world-view will become shared by those around you."
"So, what Sonya said?" Scott asked. "If I decide something, others will follow?"
"More or less," Eric replied. "The first sign is a passive ability, the sight provides knowledge and information, but can't, by itself, change things. The conviction is a weak active ability, and is the first skill that you can use to influence your environment."
"This is a lot to take in," Scott said.
"You will never be alone in what comes next," Eric assured Scott. "Not only will Dr. Karlov and I always be here to support you, but the core itself is a kind of training machine. The more you interact with it, the stronger your link to the core becomes, the more it will teach you, and the more easily you should be able to get answers to your questions. Feel free to come back, and see me anytime you need help. I'll give you my phone number, so that we can stay in touch."
"Thanks," Scott said, as he pulled out his phone, and exchanged numbers with Eric.
"I think that you've worked enough for today, and I think that I need a break as well," Dr. Karlov said. "Let's do something fun for the rest of our day. What do you want to do?"
"There's one thing I'd really like to get settled," Scott said, after a moment's thought. "I'd like to get Ted and Frank's financial info gathered together and organized. If we could do that, I could contact Elizabeth and Jessica, set up a meeting, and help get two great guys married. If I'm family to them now, then I want to help my brothers."
"I think your plan to use the naked mile to forge an arranged marriage is a great idea," Dr. Karlov added. "It can't help but work."
"Yeah, and I'm looking forward to it," Scott said, with a wide grin. "The thought of seeing Elizabeth and Jessica naked and fucking in public. . .,"
"It's okay," Dr. Karlov said, laughing. "They are beautiful, and one can't but help wonder. I agree with you, let's spend a few hours gathering together all the necessary items of interest to cement this union."
"You want my advice?" Eric asked. "I think you should gather together the documents, and then you should buy out the LLA of its world-class pizza. Throw a pizza party for everyone you know, invite Elizabeth and Jessica, and show them the documents. You can surely rent out the meeting room on the second floor of Maybe Dick Hall for this purpose, can't you?"
"That's a great idea!" Scott said. "Just how do you know so much about my life?"
"I only know what you discuss with Dr. Karlov, and what he is good enough to share with me. I'm not spying on you. If you are going to throw a pizza party, then I think you will need this," Eric said, as he opened a desk drawer, and pulled out a stack of twenty dollar bills which he handed to Scott.
"How much is this?" Scott asked, as he took the money from Eric.
"$500, just enough to cover all expenses for one hell of a pizza party tonight, enjoy it, you've earned it," Eric said.
Scott thanked Eric, and with well wishes exchanged, Scott and Dr. Karlov left Eric's estate, and returned to Frostbite Falls.
"Computer," Eric said, as soon as he was alone. "Call Luke."
A moment passed, and a connection was established, and the image of the silver haired man appeared on Eric's view screen.
"Eric?" the silver haired man asked. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"
"You can drop the dumb act, Luke," Eric said. "I know it was you. You're the source of the data leak I've been experiencing recently."
"How did you find out?" the silver haired man asked.
"Scott was just here with me, and he described the hunter who was following him," Eric said. "It was Lynx, to a tee. There is only one person on this planet I know who would hire an Ashrak rank hunter from the Rozarria Guild for a mission as simple as keeping tabs on Scott Cooper at the University of Frostbite Falls. It was a dead giveaway."
"Blast it all," the silver haired man said. "I didn't think Lynx following Scott at a distance would disturb reality enough for Scott's sight to pick him up. It appears I underestimated how powerful Scott's abilities are."
"That's not the point," Eric said, frustrated. "You hired an Ashrak, what were you thinking? There are only 7 Ashraks on planet earth at any given time, and it's the most elite rank for a bounty hunter to obtain. They cost a fortune, and for a job this simple?"
"You know what my father says," the silver haired man said. "If you want the job done right, always hire the best."
"This is why you won't get your share of the empire after your father's death," Eric said. "You were born with a silver spoon in your mouth. You've never wanted for anything, and you have all the bravado of a man who has always known there was nothing he could not buy. There's hiring the best to do a job, within context, and then there's deploying a tactical nuclear warhead to stop a bank robbery. You don't think smarter, only bigger."
"Well, once I get Scott's power for myself, it won't really matter anymore, will it?" the silver haired man asked.
"Do us all a favor and stay out of this," Eric said. "Now that I know you're behind this, it's obvious the source of my leak is Doja Heningway, and you can bet I'm going to cut him out of the loop. Your source of information has dried up, and all because you just couldn't help yourself, could you?"
"I don't answer to you," the silver haired man said. "Under the terms of my father's law, Scott Cooper, and his abilities, are a loose ball, and whoever falls on it first, keeps it. I am in this to win, and nothing you can say will stop me."
"You never did know when to give up, and you always had to go bigger, instead of going smarter," Eric said, as he facepalmed.
"The contest is on, old friend, good luck," the silver haired man said.
"Same to you," Eric replied, as the view screen went black, and the call ended.
Meanwhile, in Frostbite Falls, Scott and Dr. Karlov paid a visit to Ted and Frank Digit at The Farmers' and Swineherds' National Bank, where they took photos of the brother's cars, borrowed the spare key to the brother's home, and with Ted and Frank's assistance, managed to get all the financial information together and organized. Directly after this meeting, Dr. Karlov and Scott paid a visit to the Digit brother's home in Frostbite Falls, and took pictures and recorded videos of both the exterior of the home and the interior. Once everything was ready, Scott called Sonya and secured permission from her for the party, on the condition that she would be compensated with no fewer than three slices of her favorite pizza. Immediately after getting off the phone with Sonya, Scott called Elizabeth and Jessica, and invited them to a pizza party in the meeting room on the second floor of Maybe Dick Hall to show them what he had. The two girls quickly agreed to come.
At 5 PM, in Fuggville, Harold Pinker received a phone call at his office from his good friend Reggie Lomb.
"So, your flight to Texas land okay?" Mr. Pinker asked his friend.
"Terrific, as far as flights go," Mr. Lomb replied. "You know what I want to know, Harry."
"Calvin's score on the IT assessment is off-the-scale," Mr. Pinker said. "He diagnosed every single PC correctly, 10 were workable, 6 needed to be scrapped and recycled. Only he didn't get that, he also managed to fix up 2 of the 6 that we thought were gone for good and make them workable again. Our internal IT people missed that the problem with PC #12 was a heat sink issue, and he repaired that. We also missed that the issue with PC #8 was a CMOS battery, and he fixed that too. He didn't just pass our IT assessment, he improved it."
"So, we're hiring him?" Mr. Lomb asked, hopeful.
"No, we can't, because if we hire him, there's no way in heaven we could keep him for very long," Mr. Pinker said, laughing. "He's completely over-qualified."
"I see," Mr. Lomb said. "I have to say, I didn't see him being too good as a possible outcome."
"Don't worry about it," Mr. Pinker said. "We can't hire him, but we will retain him, if you catch my meaning."
"We're offering him a contract?" Mr. Lomb asked.
"Obviously," Mr. Pinker said. "We'll put him in touch with our lawyers and our accounting department, and help him to open his own business. Talent like he has is inadvisable to have on staff all the time. Our internal staff is good for most day-to-day problems, an expert like him only needs to be called in for a few highly specialized tasks when all else has failed. It's a better use of his time to provide his high-end services to our business partners when they need to escalate something. It keeps everyone happy."
"Thanks Harry, I can't tell you how much I appreciate this," Mr. Lomb said.
"I'm the one who should be thanking you," Mr. Pinker said. "Reggie, I'm telling you, I haven't seen talent like Calvin has in a long time. I was watching him work over the security camera feed today, and I just couldn't look away. Over and over again, with each machine, he would methodically go by the book, and his excellent instincts allowed him to diagnose the problem quickly and find the solution. I've seen people work in the industry for decades who can't do what he can do. He's only 25, that's frightening to me. There's no telling what his potential is."
At 5:30 PM, on campus at the University of Frostbite Falls, Scott walked into the front door of Maybe Dick Hall, carrying bags filled with LLA pizza in his arms. He was followed by Chad, Steve, Henry, and Sweet Pea, who had all been drafted to help set-up the forthcoming party. In the lobby, Scott was stopped by Cherry, who asked him where he was going with all that pizza.
"Hey pal, let us take the stuff you're carrying," Chad said, as Scott handed over his bags to his friends. "You stay here and let Cherry know what's up, while the rest of us get going to set things up."
As soon as Chad and the other guys had left, Cherry turned to Scott, "you are so full of surprises, you know that?" she asked.
"Anything to keep you entertained, my dear," Scott said, smiling, as he explained what was going on in a few words.