The Fiction of Don Thomasson
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
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After the hectic night expedition, Geoff decided it would be a good idea to let things simmer down a little. Luciano Mori stayed on at the flat. Susan looked in occasionally, but she came alone. Simon, it seemed, was working hard on some new idea and was almost incommunicado, emerging briefly and reluctantly for meals and sometimes snatching a brief nap. He was clearly in the middle of one of his brainstorms.
A few days before the Saturday chosen for the wedding, however, the flat was used as the venue for a full scale conference. Geoff arrived by tube, using a roundabout route, Simon and Susan came in the Marcos, while Sandy and Jock used Sandy's Lotus Elan.
When they were all settled round the table, Geoff explained what the meeting was about. 'Thanks to a good deal of luck and some consummate cheek, we seem to have gathered quite a large amount of information about what they're doing under Odstone Down, but there are still big gaps in our knowledge. What I want to do today is to make sure that we are making the best possible use of the information we have and to plan our future line of action.'
He paused to consult some notes, then went on. 'Our main problem is an interesting one. We have a fair idea of what is being done inside the excavation, at least in terms of scale, but we haven't the slightest idea why. In the end, I'm confident that we will find the answer, but for the moment we must be content to concentrate on what we know. I gather that Simon has been making an investigation into the matter and I propose to start by inviting him to tell us what he has deduced.'
Bringing a pile of drawings and sketches out of his briefcase, Simon laid them neatly on the table and said that his objective had been to link up all the known facts to see what they indicated in terms of the general layout of the excavation. He spoke formally, in marked contrast to his usual excitable manner. Jimmy wondered how much that unfortunate night on Odstone Down had changed his friend. There were certainly new lines on his face.
'Let me begin by considering the plan of the whole site, taken from the information deposited with the County Council planning department. You will see that the area involved is large. The main straight is about half a mile from the shaft entrance on the Down and at least a hundred feet lower in level. Yet we know that the excavation is intended to reach the grandstands beside the straight, which would involve a drop of a hundred feet and a tunnel at least nine hundred yards long.
'The only reason for such a tunnel seems to be easy access on the level, so it is likely to be fairly large, big enough for vehicles to use. The entrance to such a tunnel would be very obvious if it were not masked in some way, so it appears probable that the grandstands provide cover for the entrance. This is confirmed to some extent by the design of the structures themselves, giving a fairly precise location for the tunnel exit.'
He pulled out another sheet of paper.
'This outlines the minimum arrangement of shafts. The big tunnel slops down from the grandstand end slightly, to stay within the grandstand structure, levels out about twenty feet down and then probably climbs a bit to simplify drainage. It probably runs back to a point roughly below the original shaft. I would then expect some sort of circular layout. It would be inconvenient to have to back lorries out all the way. And to make this all worth while, there must be a fair amount of storage space.'
'Storage for what?' Pat was less taken by Simon's theories than the others and she put the question bluntly. 'This is all very interesting, but it doesn't seem to be getting us anywhere. What are you thinking of? Some sort of secret arsenal?'
Simon looked pained, but he stuck to his point firmly. 'I'm not visualising anything. I'm trying to reason from the known facts towards a picture of what they may be aiming for and how far they've got with the job.'
His formality was fading fast and Jimmy smiled. Pat seemed to have a knack for bringing matters down to a commonplace level and for striking directly at the heart of a problem.
She still seemed inclined to argue, but Geoff intervened. 'Let's accept what Simon has done as a useful contribution to our knowledge of the matter. He's been able to demonstrate the general scale of the thing. That alone may be valuable. I think we may find some of his other sketches even more interesting.'
After they had examined the other drawings in detail, however, Jimmy was inclined to agree with Pat. Simon had undoubtedly done a brilliant job, but it seemed to make little contribution to the solution of the main problem.
A little voice said, 'May I suggest...' and everyone looked at Luciano Mori, a little surprised because they had almost forgotten he was there.
He seemed slightly embarrassed, but spoke confidently. 'As most of you know, I have had direct experience of the way these people work. I think there may be similarities between what they did before and what they are planning to do now. I ask myself what could be the advantage of such a place as this, wholly underground, remote, with an entrance that can only be secret if there is a limited amount of traffic. I have been trying to think what use it could be.'
He paused and looked around, his bird like head cocked slightly to one side. 'Why does one go underground? The most usual reason is for protection against attack. I do not think that can apply here. It is possible, but there seems no point to it. The Colonel can go where he wishes and seek safety in that way more easily. Could it be a base from which to attack others? I think not. It is not the Colonel's way. He is of the 'blitzkrieg' school, thinking of quick movement, of striking and running for cover... Yes, Jimmy?'
Jimmy had made a sudden movement. 'Striking and running for cover. Could this be the cover?'
Mori smiled gently. 'It might be, but again, I think not. It is not well positioned for that purpose. The approach through the valley would be vulnerable to attack from the heights on either side. One thing I see clearly. The value of such a place to the Colonel is that no one can watch him at work. Simon cannot use his 'talking beam' to listen to what is being said, nor can he get in to leave a bug to pick up information. It would be a good place for secrets.'
This simple reasoning was far more impressive than Simon's complicated theories. Even Simon himself admitted that. Susan said it was a good starting point, but was doubtful about one aspect. 'They would keep their secrets while they were unsuspected, but if anyone made a really determined attack they would have to give in. Then their secrets would be open to the attackers to see freely.'
Simon, chastened by his earlier failure to impress the gathering, replied with his favourite phrase. 'Not necessarily. This is interesting. There's one way they could keep their secrets, even then. If the information was in a particular form, it could be erased in seconds, as if it had never existed. Yet they could keep copies elsewhere.'
'Now we're getting somewhere.' Geoff sat up and took notice. 'How would you store the information, Simon?'
'On magnetic discs or tape.' Simon's eyes were dreamy. He was evidently thinking hard. 'Consider a computer complex. It handles vast quantities of information, yet none of that information need be in visibly tangible form. It's held in the form of varying degrees of magnetisation on tape or disc storage, by the transient states of a thousand electrical circuits. Even if you knew these states, you might not be able to understand what the information meant, because it's all held in code and the code may be special to the computer.'
Geoff held up his hand to interrupt. 'That makes sense, as far as it goes, but how could the Colonel use a computer? I know that we say knowledge is power, but how can we interpret that in this instance?'
Shrugging his shoulders, Simon said that there were many possibilities. 'He could keep files on everyone in the country, everyone in Europe, for that matter. He could handle vast amounts of data with the help of a very small staff. There's practically no limit to what he could do, but the fascinating thing is that you might find it impossible to prove that he was doing anything illegal. There might even be a duplicate set of perfectly innocent data that they could produce to show they weren't breaking the law.'
Holding up his hand again, Geoff asked whether a computer could be run in the excavation Simon had been describing.
Simon nodded. 'Easily. It would be quite suitable. All computer rooms are air conditioned and some are deliberately built with no windows.'
'I see.' Geoff considered this information and decided to invite comments from the others.
Sandy, who had been sitting with a rather bemused expression on his face, stirred uneasily. 'It all sounds a bit space fiction to me, but I gather Simon thinks it's possible. Only, where would they get the computer?'
Simon looked at his brother-in-law with slightly surprised approval. 'Now, that's quite a point. You can't just go into a shop and say you want to buy a big computer over the counter. The makers expect to install it, maintain it, supply all the spare parts and the special software. You know, I think they'd have to make their own.'
'Would that be possible?' Jimmy looked doubtful. 'I thought computers needed highly specialised designers and could only be made by big firms with enormous factories and other facilities.'
'That's largely propaganda to justify the high cost.' Simon spoke rather acidly. 'If you'd met some of the people responsible for computer design you'd realise that they aren't all clever, by any means. There are a few really bright ones. The others just make the details work. Quite a few are probably more liabilities than assets. I would say that with a top team of about a dozen, maybe less, you could design and make a one-off computer with a first class performance.'
'Steady on.' Geoff was interested, but he was finding it difficult to keep up with Simon's eloquence. 'You said 'one-off'. What do you mean by that?'
'Just one computer, rather than a production run. A big company makes a lot of computers to each design, which is where the trouble starts. You get a rash of men who are supposed to keep production costs to a minimum. In practice, they often cost more than they could possibly save. Then you have to have tremendously detailed documentation, not to help make the thing, but for the benefit of the inspectors. They look at each item as it's manufactured and say whether it conforms to the drawings. If it doesn't, someone signs a bit of paper to say the error doesn't matter and it gets used just the same.
'None of this arises when you're only making one. Many of the parts are made from rough sketches. If anything goes wrong they usually manage to make it fit somehow, or just make the part again.'
Pat asked why anybody bothered to make a lot of computers the same, if it was such a wasteful process.
Geoff ruled this question out of order. 'You can discuss that later, after the meeting. I'd like to know the answer myself. Meanwhile, Simon, can you give us some details of the sort of top team you had in mind for the design work? I think you said about a dozen.'
'Three top men. A systems engineer, a hardware engineer and a software man. The systems engineer works out the overall principle of the thing, the hardware man designs the details of the equipment and the software man creates the programs. The systems engineer might work on his own, but the hardware man would need a small back up team, including some draughtsmen. The software man would probably work with the eventual programming and operating staff.'
'Where could they get such men?'
'They wouldn't want to advertise, so they'd probably use the grape-vine. A word or two in the right places and there'd be a queue. There have been upsets in the computer industry lately and quite a few good men are looking for jobs. The ones that aren't are on very low pay. If you enquired, you might well find that a few of the best known computer men can't be traced to new jobs. It's a tight knit world and that sort of thing tends to be noticeable. Come to think of it, someone asked me the other day if I knew where Peter Galway had got to. He might be the hardware man.'
'Well, that's one positive line we can follow up.' Geoff was evidently relieved to find something he could understand. 'Would these men make the equipment as well?'
This made Simon smile. 'I very much doubt it. Men like that are notoriously cack handed. They can't even solder a simple joint. The stuff would probably be made by sub-contractors. There are plenty of them.'
Jock, who had been looking even more bemused than Sandy, sat up hopefully. 'I might be able to do something useful there. I know quite a few firms who make printed circuits and others who do assembly work. Is that what you had in mind?'
Nodding, Simon said there would be metal work as well, but there would certainly be a lot of printed circuits. Then, just as Jock was smiling his delight at being able to help, Simon spoilt it by adding what sounded like, 'Lots of I sees, logic rather than analogue.' Jock winced and asked if Simon would like the write that down, which produced a round of sympathetic laughter. It was evident that they were all going to have to learn some new words before they could understand Simon's remarks on computers to the full.
For the moment, however, Geoff guided the discussion to more comprehensible subjects and they began to talk more freely. Various tasks were delegated to all but Jimmy and Pat, who, as Geoff remarked blandly, would have other matters to think of. By the time the meeting broke up, there was even an air of optimism, whereas Simon's computer talk had earlier brought an air of gloom.
Geoff contrived to remain behind when the others left and benignly suggested to Jimmy and Pat that they should have a few minutes of quiet talk before he went to catch his train home. Knowing him well, they eyed each other warily, wondering what surprise he was going to spring.
Lucian Mori tactfully retired to his bedroom, so there were just the three of them. Geoff relaxed in a deep armchair and Jimmy took another, Pat using his legs as a back rest. Geoff remarked that the team was growing, but there were some things he preferred to keep to a smaller group.
'That's why I asked you not to mention the Welsh end of the business. You can handle that well enough on your own. We don't want Simon dashing up there on one of his madder schemes. Mind you, I think the last one sobered him up a bit.'
'It sobered me up, too.' Jimmy spoke with feeling.
'It's a salutary experience to know that you have killed a man, particularly when you had no intention of doing it. However, the man was a killer himself. We identified him from prints he left in the car. It may not make much difference, but I think it makes some.'
There was no answer to this and they sat in companionable silence for a while.
Then Geoff sighed. 'By the time you get back, we should have some idea whether the computer theory is anywhere near the truth. You may be able to find out something about that yourselves. I'm not sure whether I hope the idea is right or wrong. If it's right, we're going to have problems understanding the subject. If it's wrong, we'll be back where we started this evening.'
Pat chuckled. 'What we want is a computer of our own to analyse the possibilities.'
'That might not be a bad idea, if we knew how to make use of the thing. I really have very little feel for what they can do. Do either of you know anything about the beasts?'
A little hesitantly, Pat said that she had once made a start on a programming course. 'It wasn't my scene, as they say. All rules and taboos, with no reasons why. I think the main thing to remember is that a computer can't think in the human sense. It can examine large masses of data and answer simple questions about what it finds, and can do this at fantastic speed, but it works quite mindlessly.'
Geoff asked if she could give an example. She considered the point for a few moments.
'Let's say you know a telephone number and want to know who it belongs to. The ordinary directory doesn't print the numbers in order and you'd have to search for ages to find the entry you wanted. Even if the numbers were in order, it might take you a minute or two to find the answer. The computer could store both lists in quite a small space and would find the answer much quicker than it could print it out. You'd probably take a second to key the question in and printout might take as long again. The computer might finish its search in a hundredth of a second.'
'That's interesting.' Geoff shook his head. 'The speed seems wasted in that example.'
'Ah, but it could probably find a hundred numbers for different people in the two seconds, with the questions being keyed in at different places and the answers being printed out separately at each place. That's called time sharing. It means that a central computer can work for a lot of different people at the same time.'
'I wonder.' Geoff broke off uncertainly. 'That might be a clue. There are computer bureaux, aren't there, places that provide a service like that? Suppose the Colonel is running a bureau that will take in work his clients wouldn't like to offer to one of the regular firms.'
Jimmy frowned. 'I gathered from Simon that they wouldn't need to worry, because the bureau might not be able to tell what sort of work they're handling.'
Laughing, Pat said they might be suspicious if the data made no sense. 'No, I see the thing as a sort of automated Robin Wightman. Perhaps the Colonel's planning a take over bid for Robin's information service.'
'It's a possibility.' Geoff was wary. 'Could a computer do that kind of thing? Robin Wightman collects a lot of facts and reaches a conclusion from them. That sounds to me like brain work and you said a computer couldn't think.'
'No, but it can do the donkey work of collecting the relevant facts. It wouldn't replace Robin, but it would cut down on staff, even write the letters to the customers and send them their bills.'
Geoff yawned and stretched out his legs. 'Oh well, we're probably miles off the mark, but it doesn't do any harm to speculate on the possibilities for a while. We've had an interesting evening. I don't know that it's been as useful as I would have liked, but at least we've got a theory to test. Now, Jimmy, if Pat has no objection, I'd like you to take a trip abroad during the next couple of days or so. There's a man called Keller who lives in Frankfurt. I think you know him, Pat.'
Chuckling, Jimmy recalled the time Pat had mentioned Keller's name and then decided not to say anything about him.
Geoff smiled. 'You have no reason for jealousy, if that's what you're thinking. He's a useful man and we've worked together more than once. Last week, he sent me a rather odd message, indicating that he was on to something, but wasn't sure if it was of interest to us. This morning, I got what amounted to an urgent call for assistance.'
Feeling in his pocket, Geoff brought out an airline ticket folder.
'I got this on the assumption that you'd be able to go. Late afternoon flight tomorrow, direct to Frankfurt. Here's Keller's telephone number. He speaks good English, but speak German in public if you can. It's polite, and it's also tactful, as he poses as an Anglophobe. Ring him when you arrive.'
Now it was Pat's turn to chuckle. 'He'll probably take you to a bierstübe called the Elk, on the Mainzer Landstrasse. Keep your eyes off the Finnish barmaid, if you have the strength of mind. And don't spend too much money in the Kaiserstrasse.'
Grinning, Jimmy said he'd been in Frankfurt before. He knew what to expect.
Chapters | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 |
| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
|© Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002|