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The next morning was no quieter in the Connelly house, though the noise came from a different source. Sarah startled herself and everyone else awake at 4:55 AM with a wailing that pierced Stephen’s skull like an auger. Jennifer’s mother, Janice, zoomed into the room seconds later, so quickly that she couldn’t possibly have come all the way down the hall from the guest room. Stephen, his head throbbing with lack of sleep, blearily wondered when she had arrived.
"Oh listen, she’s getting her full voice!" Janice exclaimed, "The little dear is going to be a singer like her grandma, I can tell!" She rushed back out again with the baby, moving so swiftly that Stephen was sure he heard a Doppler effect on Sarah’s fading cries.
"Is she coming back?" he asked his wife dubiously.
Jennifer yawned mightily, "I assume she’s going to change her and bring her back to feed, but if Mom’s managed to start lactating I wouldn’t mind the extra rest. Should I go into the baby’s room so you can get some more sleep?"
He glanced at the clock. "No, don’t bother. It’ll just be more painful to wake up again in an hour or so. I’ll go ahead and get in the shower."
Sarah’s muffled cries had faded, and Stephen could faintly hear his mother-in-law singing nursery rhymes from the baby’s room. It’s good to have some help, he thought, though it will be good to be alone for a while, too.
He showered quickly and spent a few minutes watching his daughter eat before feeding himself and running out the door to catch an early train. He was in the city by 7:15, feeling strangely awake. His body seemed to be adjusting to the lack of sleep, rebalancing its resources to stay functional, albeit at reduced capacity. He was alert, but his reflexes seemed to be slower than normal, his responses not quite as sharp. It was as though he had traded 20 IQ points and a second or two of reaction time for the missing hours of sleep. He hoped that the transaction wasn’t irreversible.
It was warm this morning, almost balmy. Welcome to fall in New England, he thought, looking up at the cloudless blue sky and shucking his coat. It’ll probably snow tomorrow. He took the outdoor route to the office this time, savoring the sunlight while he had it. As he walked, he heard a strange chiming behind him, like a child’s bike bell. It grew louder and more insistent, until he finally turned around to find its source. Correction: an adult’s bike bell.
Stu was riding down the street toward him on a low-slung contraption that looked like the bastard spawn of a lawn chair, a rocket, and a touring bicycle. It was painted red and white, with a large wheel in the back and a smaller one in front. A plastic fairing covered the top of the rear wheel and was covered in turn by two large saddlebags, and an orange flag on a long stick flapped gaily from the back. Stu sat in a reclining position in the black webbed seat, his feet sticking straight out in front of him and pedaling furiously. Stephen couldn’t see how he steered, but assumed that the two levers that he was gripping down by the sides of his seat had something to do with it. The chiming sound came from somewhere else on the machine, though he couldn’t immediately see its source either.
"Good morning, Stephen!" Stu called as he approached. He signaled carefully with his left hand, then his right for good measure, before pulling alongside, unclipping one shoe from the pedals, and creaking to a halt. Stephen could only stare.
"Interesting… um, bike?" Stephen guessed, unwilling to offend Stu but unable to definitively classify the apparition before him.
"Thank you. I gather you’ve never seen a recumbent bicycle before. There are a lot of us around, but I have to admit that my bike is a little more unique than many you’ll see," Stu spoke with pride. "I built it myself."
"I can’t see any other way that it could have come into existence. Is this better than a normal bike in some way, or is building interesting bikes a hobby of yours?"
The light of the true believer sparked in Stu’s eyes. "Oh, ‘bents are so much better than normal bikes. The riding position is much healthier for your back, the aerodynamics are vastly improved, and you wouldn’t believe the handling. I can take a corner twice as fast as a wedgie. That’s what we call the upright bike riders because their seats feel like -- well, never mind why. Do you ride?"
"I own a mountain bike, but I’m more of a runner. The gear travels better."
"I hadn’t thought of that," Stu said, suddenly concerned. "Say, do you think that will be an issue if I have to travel for this project? This is my primary means of transportation. I don’t even have a driver’s license, so I couldn’t rent a car if I had to."
Stephen thought about it. "I’m sure we can work around it if we need to. You can always take a cab or carpool with one of us when we’re all out there. I wouldn’t worry about it. You’re not the first engineer I’ve worked with who didn’t have a license." Though you may be the oldest, he didn’t add.
"All right," Stu replied, "I don’t want to be a burden on the team, but it sounds like we’ll work it out. I’ll see you inside. I need to park my bike and shower."
Sipping his coffee pensively, Stephen watched Stu until he disappeared around the corner before he continued walking. I get all the weird ones, he thought. At least they’ve been harmless so far.
As soon as he got to his desk, Stephen began making travel arrangements. He, David, Ricky, and Kelvin would make the first trip, while Frank and Mark stayed in Boston to wrap up the final documentation from the DoD project. While Stu had no project work to speak of yet, they had decided that he would do better to stay behind and complete his training on the ADD product suite rather than traveling to LA. Stephen had just started to enter a travel request with the company’s agency when Frank walked up.
"Hey, have you seen Kelvin? I have a new joke for him." Frank had made it his personal mission to be the one to make Kelvin laugh, though after several months he was clearly becoming desperate. He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and showed it to Stephen, "See? It's in Mandarin. I've decided that Kelvin's humor deficiency is due to a fundamental neural blockage. His brain is hardwired to the tones of his native language, so English doesn't sound funny to him. I found a language tutorial online and learned enough Mandarin to tell the joke. This time I have him for sure!"
Stephen shook his head. "Kelvin's parents are third-generation Chinese-American, and he grew up in Cambridge. I know from personal experience that he doesn't even speak enough Chinese to order dim sum. Chicken foot soup tastes just like it sounds, by the way. You'd have a better chance if you told him a joke in Gaelic."
Frank was undeterred. "It doesn't matter. The genetic memory is what I'm trying to reach. Never underestimate the power of the genome." He glanced at Stephen's monitor and began hopping from one foot to the other. "Hey, wait! Let me do it for you."
Stephen looked up curiously. "Do what, submit the booking request? It’s almost done." He turned back to his computer to complete the transaction, but Frank grabbed his hands.
"I know, but I can do it faster. Watch this." Frank reached into his pocket, pulled out a device that looked like a cross between a Bluetooth headset and a miniature welder’s mask, and slid it over his head. He lowered the shortened mask over his eyes and adjusted the stubby microphone so that it was close to his jaw. For the first time, Stephen noticed that, instead of his usual jeans and cowboy boots, Frank was wearing a baggy pair of khaki pants covered with pockets of various sizes, with shiny black material running down the inside of each leg. Frank reached into one of the rear pockets and pulled out a small receiver that appeared to be wired directly into the pants. He switched it on, waited for a small green LED on the top to light, and placed it back in the pants pocket.
"Still working on the pants computer, huh?" asked Stephen. "I thought you were having trouble with the power source."
"It runs on kinetic energy now," Frank replied, indicating the material on the legs, "All I have to do is walk around to power it. I tried putting a battery in the front pocket, but I forgot how hot those things get. I nearly burned off my -- " he shuddered, "let’s just say it didn’t work." He flipped his belt buckle over and folded it out to reveal a small keyboard that looked like it had been cannibalized from a Blackberry. That explains why he never replied to my texts last month, thought Stephen.
"And it works now?" Stephen was always entertained by Frank’s ongoing obsession with gadgetry, especially the homemade kind. The pants computer was actually a step up from his last attempt at wearable computing, a wrap-around heads-up display that had made it impossible to see anything else. It had worked fine while he was seated at his desk, but had caused several major pile-ups in the halls when he tried to take it to meetings.
"There are still a few bugs to work out, of course," Frank replied, jumping up and down and rubbing his legs together like a deranged cricket. "For example, it doesn’t hold a charge for more than a few seconds. I have to keep moving in order to keep it powered. On the bright side, though, I’ve already lost three pounds since I started using it."
"At last, some commercial application for one of your inventions," Stephen commented dryly. "Hook it up to an Xbox and sell it to fat kids’ parents."
"Don’t think I haven’t considered that," Frank panted. Despite his weight loss claim, the pants had clearly not improved his stamina. "I’d need to improve the display resolution significantly first. The wireless connectivity is strong, though. There’s an antenna running up my back that increases the range to several hundred yards. I can walk around the mall while I check my email using the Starbucks hot spot."
"And who wouldn’t want to do that?"
"Mock if you will, but wearable computing is -- "
"I know, I know, ‘the wave of the future.’” Stephen fluttered his hands dramatically. “Have you submitted the travel request yet?"
"Just about. What days did you want to fly?" Frank had stopped jumping and was resorting to dancing in place, like a young child who needed to use the bathroom.
Stephen knew from experience that there was no point trying to get Frank to stop. He would keep trying until he had either completed the task or his thighs were too chafed to keep moving. "Fly out early Monday and back on Friday. We want to get in one or two conceptual design sessions while we’re out there."
"OK," Frank gasped. "Wait… oops! I almost requested Louisiana instead of Los Angeles. I’ll tell you what: I’ll go for a walk and copy you on the request when I’m done." Without waiting for a reply, Frank spun around and walked off through the desks, muttering to himself and making little dancing hops when he needed more power. Stephen watched him go, making a mental note to follow up with the travel agency in half an hour. Otherwise, we could end up in New Orleans wondering where our connection went. Wouldn’t that be a great way to start this project?
He sighed, longingly considering jazz along the Mississippi versus hours spent listening to Brad waxing his stunted version of eloquent, and decided not to double-check the reservation. On second thought, I’ll take my chances.
Continue to Chapter 4