"...All this 'existential fear' crap is just because our lives are so easy and we have no concept...Sara, you still with me?"
"Yeah, I'm listening."
Whatever doubts Will harbored about her sincerity were lost beneath the momentum of his words. They were on a post-lunch stroll down Icaria Street, enjoying the gracious weather as they rambled beneath Jameson's watchful eye. Sara had already absorbed an hour of Will's personal philosophy, but there was always more ground to cover. Everything Sara said led to another tangent; everything they saw recalled another point in Will's grand concept of being.
And thus Will barreled on. "So we have no concept of real fear, so we make things up to scare us. It's like we need to be scared, like we're still so bound to the jungle that we wouldn't know what to do if we were too safe."
"Yeah, I see that." Sara ran her pen listlessly across her memo pad - perhaps taking notes, perhaps doodling.
"And then we try to make ourselves safe, but that only scares us more. I mean, look at all these cameras!" Will swept his arms across the exposed camera pods, that recent feature of the streets that none had bothered to conceal. "They're supposed to make you feel safe, right? But when you see them everywhere it just reminds you of what a scary world it is."
"Yep. Big, scary world."
"That's right." Will drew in a deep breath, releasing it with a satisfied sigh. "Gotta love that fresh air, right? Those out-of-town drones just can't appreciate the little things. That's why they're always in their cushy hidey-holes in their own part of town. The rich part of town. The new, fancy..." He pointed at a young woman on the other side of the street, sporting the emerald jacket of Jameson Labs. "Hey, there's one. Think she's lost?"
Sara looked up from her scribblings. "Holy shit...Hey, Zoe!" She waved at the woman, who tamely raised a hand in response. "I've been wanting to talk to her, but she never has time. Well, no time like the present."
"You want me to come with?" said Will. "I got a little time."
"That's really not necessary."
"But I'm good at getting people to open up. I can help!"
"I'm sure you're too busy to..." Sara shook loose whatever ploy she had in mind. "Whatever you want, okay? I gotta hurry here."
Sara took a cursory glance up and down the street before sprinting across to the other side, skipping narrowly ahead of the passing cars. A moment later, Will jogged across himself with somewhat less caution, meeting the sound of brakes as a truck came to an abrupt halt just inches from him. There wasn't time to sample the driver's mastery of the profane, so Will shrugged off the insults and ran to follow Sara and her mysterious friend.
"Wow, that was close. I really need to pay better attention." He extended his hand to the woman. "Will Scarborough, pleased to meet you."
"Uh..." Zoe stared at his hand, baffled as to how she should react to this boisterous presence. Perhaps it was merely his size that intimidated her as she was a tiny creature, more than a foot beneath him and sporting dowdy spectacles that scarcely befit a woman of her youth. There was an odd, twitchy nature to her movements, the tension of a tightly stretched wire run through with stress lines. One more good shock and there would be nothing but a lingering vapor trail where she once stood.
Sara stepped between the two of them. "Never mind him, Zoe, he's just some guy I was talking to earlier. Now, can I get your remarks? It'll only take a few minutes and I won't ask about anything sensitive."
"Yes, nothing sensitive..." Zoe stood rigidly, moving little apart from her eyes which darted about the street. "...Um, I'm actually in a hurry. I have to buy..." She pointed blindly to the building behind her - The Weighty Shelf, a used book store. "...a book. Then I have to get back to the lab. I'm sorry." She turned and shuffled into the store, not even waiting for a response.
"Is she a friend of yours?" said Will. "And to think that people call me a weirdo."
"Would you shut up? She's skittish enough without you getting in her face." Sara spun to the Weighty Shelf. "We're done, okay Will? You can leave now."
"Wait! What about the fliers?"
"Send me an email. And don't make me regret giving you that address, by the way."
The door to the Weighty Shelf gently shut behind Sara, resonating with a rusty creak as it found its resting place. Will found himself drawn to that door, pushed on by idle curiosity, driven to learn more - anything more - about this entity that had affected his life. Instinct compelled him to crash through the front door of the Weighty Shelf the second Sara was out of sight, and he had to dip into his reserves of willpower to restrain himself. Those reserves lasted about twelve agonizing ticks of the second hand, enough to enter calmly and with some discretion.
Will was familiar with every little shop along Icaria Street, but the Weighty Shelf was one that he seldom visited except to obtain gifts for his more intellectually inclined brother. It was a tiny place, barely a hollow in the brick facade and with room for only a few people at most. Despite its size, it was a treasure trove for the bibliophile, with shelves packed with old books of every description - everything from well-worn science fiction and romance paperbacks to a tiny collection of antique classic editions. There were more books piled onto the checkout desk, recent arrivals and unplaced articles spilling out onto the thready green carpet. At that time of day, it was empty save the owner and the two women, hidden in one of the tiny alcoves formed by the shelves. Will took a seat in an old wingback chair on the other side of the shelf, slouching down to peer through a gap in the books. He could just make out the whispers from the other side.
"...You talk to me like that out on the street? On the street? Are you crazy?" Zoe pointed her eyes straight ahead, sifting through books in a strained effort to appear casual. "Tell me, were any of the cameras acting funny? Tracking your movements? There's a little blue light that comes on when they take manual control."
"No, the cameras were no more creepy than they normally are, I assure you."
"Okay," said Zoe. "What about that guy who followed you? Who was he?"
"Just some nut I was talking to for the piece," said Sara. "Believe me, there's no way he's working for Jameson. Not this guy, he's not that smart."
"You're sure now? You're an expert?" Zoe caught a few shallow breaths before continuing. "These Opp-Leak guys are great at playing pretend. That guy could be one of them. Anyone could be one of them. The woman at the counter could be one of them."
Sara chuckled dryly. "Geez, Zoe, since when have you been so paranoid?"
"They're the ones who are paranoid." Zoe's eyes darted around the shop. "Come on, look through the shelves with me. Make it look real."
"I will not," said Sara. "No one's watching us, I assure you."
Suddenly, Will felt very conspicuous. Reaching around blindly, he grabbed an ancient-looking manuscript from a nearby stack and sank deeper into the chair, hoping that the owner wouldn't give away his game.
"What are you even afraid of, exactly?" said Sara. "Jameson doesn't own this place. How exactly do they track us in here?"
"However they want. Directional mics, optical mics, wireless cameras, bugs...bugs that look like damn near anything. Work them into the wiring and they'll run for years on their own. Maybe they put a keylogger on your computer, hack in, and then watch you through your own webcam. Maybe they hijack your cell frequency." Zoe pitched her voice down. "They have other ways. Machines that can look into your brain, read your eyes, the way you walk..."
"Mind reading?" said Sara. "Jameson Enterprises can read your thoughts?"
"As good as," said Zoe. "They track us in town, Sara. They know everything. I leave my badge somewhere? They know it. They know I'm here."
"Know how I know all of this? Because Aaron Bellamy called me in to talk about it. You remember him."
Sara cocked her head. "You mean the kid from the trivia thing? The one Eddie Page wrote about?"
"Yeah. Same one."
"You're telling me that they put that little psychopath in charge of security?
That name had a certain resonance for Will. They'd met once, at a statewide academic event - or was he thinking of someone else? Not a chance, it was hard to forget someone like Aaron Bellamy, hard to mislay that arrogance and pettiness. And connected, by the sound of it - how else could someone so young win a position of such importance?
"Oh, that's not even the worst of it," said Zoe, turning back to the shelf. "I'm getting a crash course in what Jameson is willing to do to keep his lab secure."
"A nice, Christian businessman with a dark side? Who'd have figured." Smug affect dripped from each syllable as Sara spoke. "I could have told you that. No one gets that rich being nice."
"Don't joke." Zoe pulled a random paperback out of the shelf. "Have you read the special zoning provisions for the lab? The new additions to the town charter? Jameson all but runs this town. How else do you think they could they have done all of this so quickly? A quarter-billion dollar lab? A whole new section of town to accommodate people from around the country? Expedited visas for hundreds of people?"
"Money makes things happen, Zoe."
"Not just money, Sara. The Chinese guy who's always with him..." Zoe lowered her voice to a whisper, to the point that Will could snare no more than a few syllables. "...and his people. They're not all techs."
"Jesus, Zoe, you're buying into that garbage?" said Sara with decidedly less restraint. "He's not a Triad boss, that's a load of xenophobic crap."
"Maybe...maybe, but think of the facts here. You've got tens, maybe hundreds of billions in state and federal money pouring into this facility - you think they're gonna let the law get in the way? That's why I can't talk to you anymore. Now leave me alone."
"Sara, come on. I'm not asking for secret documents. All I want-"
"What you want will get me in trouble. I've probably screwed myself already." Zoe hustled to the counter and quietly purchased the book, not waiting to receive change. She came to an abrupt stop by Will, still hunched down and hiding. "You heard me, right? I didn't say a word, did I? Nothing about Jameson, nothing about the lab, nothing. I'm a good girl."
"Uh..." Will squirmed in his seat and shrugged. "...That's right. You didn't say a thing."
"Thank you." Zoe bolted through the doors, scampering down the street in a fearful haste.
Sara stepped around the shelf, staring intently at Will. "Get an earful, did you?"
"As a matter of fact, I did." Will sat up in his chair, resting the book in his lap and crossing his legs. "Maybe I don't seem so crazy anymore, huh?"
"Don't get so cocky," said Sara. "It's weird, but big money is always weird. They have plenty of reasons to keep a lid on this thing. Spies, for one."
"Afraid of spies, huh? So they invite a bunch of foreign researchers to the lab?"
"Look, what do you want from me?"
"I want you to admit that maybe, I'm right."
"No." Sara's spine stiffened. "But I don't like this, not one bit."
"That's okay," said Will. "Just five more days, and it'll all be over. Just you watch."
"Yeah, yeah." Sara placed a hand against the front door. "You know, I'm figuring out why no one likes it when you talk like that."
"Excuse me, sir?" The owner approached Will, watching him through a pair of tastefully out-of-date frames. "You seem to really enjoy that book. It's a very rare article, and very delicate. Would you like to purchase it?"
"Um..." The book was merely a part of Will's own ruse - he'd not even taken note of the cover. "...How much?"
"Really?" Will glanced down at the book. "This?"
"It's a very rare edition. It would be worth more, but the condition is rather poor. You are a fan of Ms. Shelley, I take it?"
"Not really..." Will's hand drifted away from the book - it seemed wrong to soil it with his filthy touch. "...but what the hell. You only go around once, right?"
"Hey, not to bash you guys or anything, but how did you get hold of something this rare?" Will leafed through his newest acquisition. "Never seen anything this special in here."
"It was part of a special donation," said the owner.
Will ran his fingers along an odd patch on the inside cover. "Special how?"
"It was part of an offering from Mr. Joshua Jameson."
Will's hand slipped at the sound of the name, partially tearing the patch away. Beneath it was a wafer of some odd material that had been crudely stitched into the cover. It vaguely resembled a computer chip, though Will had never seen one quite like it.
"How will you be paying?" said the owner.
"Better make it cash," said Will.