Alone Together

Part II of the Dawnwalker Cycle

"A Spearfish Lake Story"

a novel by
Wes Boyd
©2004, ©2009

Chapter 10

May, 1998

It felt good, if strange, to be in the Monte Carlo and out on the open road again. It felt as if a great weight had been lifted from their shoulders. While theyíd worked hard and learned a lot, Tech now seemed to be a place to survive; Lambdatron, as much as anything, now seemed like home.

It was a long drive, just over eighteen hundred miles, but they pushed it hard. They left right after their last final exam, with the Monte Carlo already packed, and headed west.

As a measure of how frugal they had been for the last eight months, Jonís meticulous record of gas fills and vehicle maintenance showed the last time theyíd filled the tank had been back in August at Bremen, Georgia, not far west of Atlanta. They were still driving on the same tank of gas and had some to spare when they came to Bremen on their way west.

They got into Memphis late, got a motel room for the night, and were on their way early. Late that afternoon, they pulled into Amarillo again; it was a year to the day since theyíd stopped there, and theyíd reserved the same motel room again. In a way, it was sort of an anniversary of that memorable night that had been such a watershed in their lives.

They were on the road again in the early morning, still pushing hard, and before the sun set theyíd driven into Phoenix. Before theyíd left the previous fall, theyíd made tentative arrangements for a different apartment than the year before, and had firmed it up the month before. This one, in a huge complex on Price Road, seemed like pure luxury after their studio apartment the summer before, and the cramped single theyíd shared all winter. It even had a bedroom that was separate from the living room! It seemed like the height of decadent pleasures.

Best of all was walking into the front office of the Lambdatron administration building on Monday morning. That really seemed like coming home. "Itís good to see you back!" Angela, the motherly woman at the front desk said as soon as they walked in. She was dressed in jeans and a blouse, like normal since it wasnít a "Tasteless T-shirt Day." "Did the two of you have a good winter?"

"Not bad, in most respects," Jon told her. "But itís wonderful to be back. How are things around here?"

"Pretty much the same," Angela said. "I donít know the details, but from what I hear up here, the schedule is pretty full. Stan and Jim wanted to see you first thing, but theyíre tied up in a meeting on the back lot. Itíll probably be a while. Why donít you head back to personnel and have Molly update your paperwork? Iíll let Stan and Jim know youíre there."

"Sure thing, Angela," Tanisha smiled. "We know the way, now."

In a couple minutes, they were back in Personnel, talking to Molly, who still reminded Jon a little of Nanci Ė except Molly was a heck of a lot more competent at what she was doing. "Oh, boy," she smiled, "Itís good to see you back again, but it looks like youíll be my project for the day."

"Donít see why," Jon replied. "Weíre at a different address, but not much else has changed."

"No, weíve got to do a whole new file on you," she said. "The first thing is an application for a Top Secret clearance. Itís always a bear, and we have to start from scratch."

"Top Secret?" Tanisha asked. "Does that mean weíre going to be working out back?"

"I donít know," Molly said. "Probably not this summer. It usually takes a year or so to get processed, so Stan said we might as well get it under way."

A couple hours later they were just finishing on the forms when Stan and Jim showed up. "Ah, I see Molly let the cat out of the bag," Stan told them. "No real matter. My office is the usual mess, letís go back to yours. Molly, see if you can track down Jennlynn, have her join us."

Jon and Tanisha followed the two back to Building Seven, but this time they didnít go to the Intern office, but up the hall to an office about the same size. It was pretty barren; desks, chairs, computer workstations, a calendar on the wall, a poster of the Grand Canyon. As they walked into the room, they couldnít help but notice the sign next to the door: Project HMI-01, Tanisha Blythe, Jon Chladek. Clearly, their status was going to be a little higher this year.

They found seats at the desks as Stan asked, "I take it everything went all right with the two of you over the winter? We didnít hear much."

"Pretty good," Tanisha replied. "It was a very productive year learning, at least twice as much as last year."

"We worked pretty hard, but I think we did well," Jon added. "We got solid 4.0 grades in everything we know about, and the classes that had finals, we should be hearing about fairly soon. We think we did all right with those, too."

"About what I expected," Stan nodded. "But I was talking about your problems with your families."

"All quiet, a little to our surprise," Tanisha replied. "It looks like the deception worked, although we were nervous about it all the time. We pretty much stayed off campus, except for classes."

"It was a little dull, in a way," Jon said. "But we were so damn busy studying, both the regular classes and the independent studies, that we didnít really notice."

"Well, thatís good news," Stan nodded. "Whatís the status on your scholarships and grants?"

"Tacked down for next year," Jon said. "You know that I got shorted a little bit last year, but we were able to stretch the blanket some and make ends meet. Not all the ducks are in a row yet, but we should be able to get through next year all right."

"Good," Stan said. "I think I told you that I always like to spend other peopleís money when I can. Youíre in the home stretch. Anyway, thatís next fall, and thereís a lot of ground to cover. There is one question I wanted to ask you before Molly got started on the clearances, but I guess it doesnít matter that much. You two are planning on coming back here after you graduate, arenít you?"

"If youíll have us," Tanisha smiled. "I canít think of any other place Iíd rather be."

"Oh, we want you," Stan smiled. "I mean, unless you totally ball up this summer, and youíre not the kind of kids that are going to do that, which you proved with the kind of class you showed over the winter in spite of a tough row to hoe. I think I told you a year ago, welcome to Lambdatron, but now I mean it. If your clearances come through, next year weíll probably have you working out back, but since youíre planning on coming back next year, this summer youíre going to be full associates, and thereíll be a corresponding salary increase. If youíre interested, and youíre back next summer, weíll have to sit down and have a talk about being shareholders. You might as well know there are a couple of downsides as well as upsides to that status. You have extra responsibilities you donít have as associates, and your pay is a little more tied to the success of the company. If we have a good year, you have a good year. If we have a bad one, then yours isnít going to be as good. But letís not get into all the ins and outs of that today, since thatís a year off, and weíve got more pressing business to talk about."

"This project you have planned for us?" Jon surmised.

"Right," Stan said. "You two are a particularly good fit for it, Jon, especially so. This is a new customer for us, one we havenít dealt with before. Theyíve got this neat gadget, does the job well, but the technology is twenty-five years old, itís expensive to build these days, you canít get the IC chips anymore this side of buying them custom made out of some damn place in Lower Slobovia. If something goes zap, it takes a factory tech rep to fix the problem. Worst of all, the people who designed the original system are still there, and their knowledge of the technology is twenty-five years out of date, too. We think all of the deviceís functions can be handled by a single ROM chip, and thereís obvious places for improvement. So, what youíll be doing is coming up with a replacement that mimics the original system, but is simpler and easier to program and maintain. More flexibility and power, along with more bells and whistles would be nice, but not absolutely necessary. The important thing is to break the old paradigm."

"It sounds like a perfect job for Lambdatron," Tanisha smiled.

"It is," Stan said. "Itís exactly the sort of thing I intended Lambdatron to do in the first place, but weíve headed down some other roads, especially out back, and you know I canít talk much about that. Now, weíve been trolling this company for this job for almost a year, and we finally got the contract signed back in March. The problem is weíre just a touch short on staff right now. I canít say much about it, but weíve got a project in the back lot that isnít going as well as we hoped. Itís sucking up a lot of resources of people with clearances, so weíve been holding this one off until the two of you got here. Thereís no reason you canít handle it. Technically, Jennlynn will be the project manager, since sheís dealt with the company while negotiating the contract and developing the specs, but sheís going to have to be putting in most of her time out back. Sheíll get you going, try to look over your shoulder once in a while, maybe give you some help if you get stuck, which I donít think will happen. It looks like weíre going to have four intern associates down in the intern office this summer, so they may be available sometime if you need help carrying heavy objects, but youíll have to work through Jim for that, since heíll be overseeing the interns. You know how that works, right?"

"Uh, yeah," Tanisha smiled. "The same sort of thing we did last year."

"Right," Stan smiled. "I will say if we get a couple kids out of it half as good as the two of you, things stand a chance of going a whole lot better. Anyway, Iíll be sticking my nose in from time to time, just to monitor progress on the project, but also to see how well the two of you are doing with it, too."

"Itís always good to talk to you," Jon smiled. "Youíre always an inspiration, and always give us lots to think about. Drop by any time you feel like it."

"I always like talking to you," Stan said. "You know this place is a bunch of individuals, sometimes pretty damn serious individuals who donít always work well together. I love watching the teamwork you kids display, and wish there was some way we could develop more of it. But the two of you have a special dynamic energy working together that I think is going to be important to the company in the future. Jim, you got anything to add to that?"

"Not really," the big black ex-football player snorted. "As always, you do a pretty good job of taking the words right out of my mouth. Itís good to have you kids back, and I think itís going to be a productive summer all around."

Just at that moment, Jennlynn walked into the room, carrying a thick file folder. As always, she was a beautiful woman, although dressed casually for her day job. Jon had occasionally had fantasies of how she must dress for her moonlighting job. "I see the two of you are back from the decadent east," she smiled. "Itís good to have you back."

"Itís good to be back," Tanisha smiled.

"Hey, look," she said, "Theyíre still having hassles out back, so I snuck off for a few minutes. I assume that Stan has gone over the background of the project a little, right?"

"Just generalities," Jon said, "Nothing about the specifics."

She shook her head, and her long, black hair waved. "I just donít have the time to go over things with you in detail right now, but thatís no reason you canít get started going over the specs and docs. This is really a pretty straightforward project, a good one to get your feet wet on." She set the folder on the desk in front of Jon, and added, "Iíll find some time to go over it with you maybe this afternoon, maybe tomorrow, and maybe we can shoot the shit a little and get caught up. Some interesting unclassified things have been going on around here, too."

Stan shook his head. "They making any progress?"

"Not really," Jennlynn shook her head.

Curious about the project and the fat folder in front of him, Jon flipped it open. His eyes popped out at what he saw, and his jaw dropped. "You people . . . " he stammered, "You people have got to be shitting me!"

Tanisha reached over and pulled the folder in front of her, and her eyes popped out too, as her jaw dropped. On the title page were the words:

Hadley-Monroe Inc.

Glen Ellyn, Ill.

Project HMI-01

Laser Die Cutter

Controller Unit Redesign

There were three broad grins among the supervisors. "No, weíre not," Jennlynn smiled.

"But . . . but . . . " Jon stammered.

"Actually, youíre sort of responsible for this piece of business," Stan smiled. "You pointed out the potential, then it became a job for the sales staff. It was not an easy sell; they really needed some paradigm breaking. It was only when we pointed out that theyíre starting to lose market share to an outfit from Japan that has a less accurate but more reliable unit that they saw the light."

"Dad was mostly the one who designed that unit," Jon told them. "It was always the high point of his career."

"He was the tough sell," Jennlynn said. "He kept saying they could continue to tweak things to keep up, and Stan and I had a hell of a time convincing them that they could tweak themselves right out of business."

"Youíve seen my dad?" Jon said quizzically.

"We have," Stan said. "A couple times, in fact. Youíre right, heís a grumpy old fart from the word go, but he is all business and he does know the existing controller like no one else. We never even dared think your names while we were around him for your sake, and he never mentioned anything to do with his family. Thatís why Jennlynn is the Project Manager on this, and sheíll front for you at Hadley-Monroe. You two can have your names on it, or not, it doesnít matter, your choice. But itís why we think youíre more than normally capable of handling this project, since youíre already familiar with it."

"I never got to work on the controller," Jon said. "About all I ever did was work on some of the machine interfaces based on the controller output."

"Yeah," Jennlynn said, "But you have an idea of whatís really involved in those interfaces, and what the machine it controls is supposed to do."

"Iíll . . . Iíll be damned," Jon shook his head. "This is absolutely the last project in the world that Iíd have expected you to dump in our laps. God, if Dad knew who was really doing it, heíd shit bricks."

"Is that going to cause you problems?" Stan asked.

Jon glanced over at Tanisha. "I donít think so," he with an evil grin. "Heís patronized me enough over that old controller all my life. I donít want to think of it as justice or revenge or anything, but maybe sometime the day will come when I can patronize him right back."

Jim shook his head. "Look out, Hadley-Monroe," he smiled, "Youíre about to get Lambdatroned."

* * *

It took several days to really dig into the specs for the old controller. Jon had little detailed knowledge of it; his experience was more with what it did. The design was archaic, to say the least; it may have been cutting edge technology a quarter of a century before, but was way outdated now. Worse, there were several places in it that required some really complicated systems to make the unit do some simple functions.

But, the time spent in the survey was valuable; Jon and Tanisha had a much better understanding of the unit, and were already exploring ideas of how it could be replaced. There was no point in using technology that was too new or unproved; there were many known, reliable things that could be plugged into it that could be used. Within two weeks, they were deep in the design phase.

It was the first time theyíd really worked together on a whole package, but theyíd worked together enough on pieces of packages that their work talents were well ironed out. Over the course of the last year and more theyíd slowly come to realize they thought amazingly alike, their reasoning tended to follow the same channels. That allowed them to use a shorthand in their discussions, since they were frequently aware that they were thinking the same thing, and their discussions were just cross checking or verifying. While it speeded things up considerably, it was more than a little maddening to Jennlynn, who could walk into the middle of a heavy technical discussion and not have any idea of what the two were talking about, since they talked in shorthand so much. Sometimes just a word or two would replace ten minutes of very technical discussion required between any other two engineers in the building.

With that in their favor, work on the unit went ahead rapidly, and soon they were well ahead of the most optimistic schedule. Early on, they abandoned the idea of a special ROM chip, since it would be very expensive to build in the short run. They settled on driving it with a microprocessor Ė a standard chip used in the industry, readily available, that loaded the operating system in a couple of seconds. That made the unit much cheaper, and readily upgradable. It made the initial design a little more complex, but only a little more so, and there were standard algorithms Ė standard for Lambdatron, anyway Ė that could be used. By the time they were six weeks into the project, a prototype was being put together back in the shop.

The two of them quickly fell into the routine of the job and to life in Phoenix. Unlike at Tech, they had little worry about being surprised by someone from their families, especially Tanishaís, so they could be a little more open about their lives. But, by now habit had fallen in place, and they mostly lived quiet, low key lives. The second summer in Phoenix went much like the first: they got up early in the morning, ran Ė farther and faster now, since they hadnít quit in the winter Ė went to work and worked hard, came home, went to bed early, although sleep might have to wait.

Early in the summer they had an interview with a Defense Investigative Service (DIS) agent, and they were pretty clear about the fact that they didnít want anything to do with their families, and didnít want their families to know where they were. The agent said that while there were background investigations involved, they were all confidential, and heíd make a special note in the file that their locations and employment were classified. They hoped that would be enough to keep their families from picking up any trail to them. Jon knew he could cross-check with his mother to find out if the DIS had revealed anything from the background investigations, but it was not as easy to figure out the same thing for Tanisha, short of a call home, probably from Los Angeles like theyíd done the year before. Neither of them was very sure they wanted to stir up that hornetís nest again, so decided to put a decision off until later in the summer.

Shortly after they settled in for the summer, they got a post office box Ė but, still trying to lay low, got it partway across the metro area, in Scottsdale. Once that was ironed out, Jon called his mother at work and gave her the post office box address. He hadnít called for three months by that time, only the second call since Christmas. They didnít talk much; really, there wasnít much to say. Things were no better and no worse with his father; he was still grumpy over the fact that Jon had ignored the idea of working for Hadley-Monroe, which made Jon snicker internally, wanting to tell the truth about what he was doing, just out of pride. He knew that he didnít dare to, since it would leave a broad path to Lambdatron, Phoenix, and Tanisha. Under other circumstances, Jon would have been willing to let the first two go, but he didnít dare let his father know about her.

In other news from home, Nanci was apparently living with her new boy friend, and Jonís mother hadnít heard from her in weeks. Crystal hadnít talked to her mother directly, but sheíd talked to Randy, who told her Crystal had spent the winter working at the ski resort in Colorado.

She had moved on toward the end of March and hadnít been heard from since, although Randy thought she might have been heading toward Alaska.

Even that proved to be incorrect; several weeks later, they got a rare letter from his mother, who said Crystal hadnít gone to Alaska at all, but had sent Randy a card saying she was surfing in Hawaii. That was all, there was no idea of how long sheíd been there, or where she might surface next. "Thatís Crystal all over for you," Jon told Tanisha after he read the letter. "Always the big outdoors nut. I donít know that she wasnít right after all."

"What do you mean?" Tanisha smiled.

"Hawaii, for Godís sake," Jon shook his head. "I mean, I always thought she was crazy, what with her surfing and everything, but sheís the one whoís out having fun in Hawaii while weíre busting our asses here in Phoenix."

"Oh, we have our own recreation," Tanisha smiled. "Itís a nice image, but Jon, I canít quite imagine either one of us out on a surf board."

By mid-July, the first prototype of the redesigned unit was ready, at least a month ahead of schedule. The really weird thing was Jon had exchanged several e-mails with his father about the system Ė not using his regular Lambdatron account, the rather dull, but the rather more poignant and pointed, if anonymous,, and even using the handle in his signature. Even Tanisha had exchanged e-mails with him, using the handle They were strictly business, and highly technical, but it was more than a little amusing, if eerie, to the both of them.

According to his father, testing on the unit went very well, and he was enthusiastic about the device, despite a few minor bugs discovered, most easily dealt with by work on the computer code. This is really a revolution in the die cutter, his father wrote at one point. The work exceeds expectations in every way. You are to be commended on the fast, accurate work that could not have been accomplished here. Many thanks. Someday, Jon thought, someday . . .

With that, the work on the unit was pretty well completed, although there would be minor technical issues for the next month. "Neat job," Stan told them. "Now the fun begins, although you wonít have much to do with it. They want us to do production on the units. They donít really have the capability to do that level of microtech there, so weíll write a contract and then sub the work out, probably to a place I know in Taiwan. Itís not going to be big money for us, but should be steady money. Whatís more, theyíre talking about coming up with a screw machine controller. I think we can basically build on this unit, and just tweak the software, but weíll have to write a new contract for that, too. By the time this shakes out, it should open up several new accounts for us. Why donít you kids just take a week off to celebrate, go someplace, have some fun?"

"Itíd be nice," Jon sighed, "But the budget is still tight for next winter. Speaking for myself, if it wouldnít break the bank, a small bonus and staying on the job would be preferable."

"I think so, too," Tanisha said. "We hit spring break last winter, and we wanted to just get out and go someplace so bad it wasnít funny. Maybe a few days at Disney World or something, but we just didnít have the money."

"All right," Stan smiled, shaking his head. "I guess you two are gluttons for punishment. Itís just as well, the schedule is still pretty well packed, and I could use you here. Iíll see you get cut a nice bonus."

"Thanks," Jon said. "I think we can promise to have some fun with it next winter when we really need to get out of Atlanta." He shook his head, "I really hate to have to head back there. It gets damn dull and lonely there, and we sort of have friends here, and useful stuff to do."

"Itís not like youíre not doing something useful for the company at Tech," Stan told them. "A lot of what you accomplished to get that unit out ahead of schedule came from the work you did at Tech last winter. But, Iíll give you another offer Ė when you get back out here, if you want to work on your masterís degrees at State, on a part-time basis, Iíll go halfsies with you."

"Sounds like a deal," Tanisha agreed. "How about a few years up the road, working on our doctorates? Maybe at Caltech?"

"Itís not impossible," Stan shrugged. "A lotís going to depend on how hard itíd be to break you out of here for that long. But, weíll see when we get there."

* * *

The summer went quickly, and soon drew to a close. They got up early one morning, packed the car, and hit the road before dawn, planning on stopping somewhere and getting breakfast. It was Flagstaff, up where I-17 met I-40, before they stopped at a restaurant. The place mats in the restaurant had ads for various local businesses, and while they were waiting for their breakfast, Jon looked it over and smiled, "Now, thereís one that brings some memories."

"Whatís that?" Tanisha smiled.

"Thereís an ad here for Canyon Tours," Jon said. "Back before Mom got married, she made a raft trip down through the Grand Canyon with them. Sheís got a scrapbook from that trip, and I grew up looking at pictures of the Grand Canyon."

"I remember you telling me about that," Tanisha said. "You know, weíve been here two summers now, and weíve never once even thought about driving up to see it."

"I did when we were little," Jon said. "Mom twisted Dadís arm, and got us to take a driving trip out here. Itís kinda neat. Itíd only take us a few hours to run up from here and see it."

"Letís do it," Tanisha said. "We sure havenít done much about being tourists."

They still wanted to get some miles on, so they ate hurriedly and hit the road heading north, driving past the Canyon Tours office on the way. "Maybe itíd be fun to do that trip some time," Tanisha mused.

"I donít know," Jon shook his head. "Crystal was a raft guide on the Ocoee River, up by Chattanooga, for four summers. We took a raft trip with her one day. She scared the shit out of me any number of times, and dumped me in the river besides. And, if that wasnít bad enough, you remember me telling you about those two guys who attacked her with knives?"

"Yeah, that must have been something," Tanisha said.

"It happened so damn quick that I didnít know what was happening until it was over with," Jon said. "Anyway, that on top of the trip itself pretty well convinced me that Iíd done all the rafting Iíd ever need."

"You know," Tanisha said thoughtfully, "Maybe thatís something we ought to look into. What happens if my father, or worse, my brother, should show up, or your dad, and things got physical?"

"Good thought," Jon agreed. "That time with your brother was sheer damn luck. I donít know if Iíd be any good at it, but like Crystal said, you pretty well have to use whatever edge you have."

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