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Strictly Illegal - Chapter 16

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |

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Red line

XVI

A week later, Jimmy and his principal assistants met in Robin Wightman's flat, which had been chosen for the occasion on the grounds that Robin was the least likely to be suspected of plotting against the Colonel. It also allowed the final approach to be made by public transport in a busy area. There would be no cars parked nearby that might be identified and it would be easier to make sure that the visitors were not followed to the rendezvous.

Jimmy and Pat were first to arrive. They saw at once that the flat looked different. There was nothing drastic about the change, it just looked more welcoming and comfortable.

Robin drew attention to this. 'You didn't know what you were doing when you brought Jean here. She has civilised me. I was living in the jungle before. I find the process very pleasant.'

'It probably won't do you any harm.' Pat was brisk, which made Robin laugh.

'I don't suppose it will. Jean seems to thrive on it, too.'

'Very much so.' Jean looked very different from the frightened girl they had found in the Colonel's lair. 'I'm learning a lot. I never thought I'd enjoy housekeeping, but I was wrong.'

Putting her hand into the crook of Robin's arm, she tacitly drew attention to the engagement ring on her third finger. Looking down at it, Robin faced the others a little sheepishly. 'We can't very well get married right now, with all this going on, but as soon as it's cleared up...'

Jean said he shouldn't go into details, it might give other people ideas. They were all laughing over this when Simon and Susan turned up. Simon was a little annoyed. In making sure that they were not being followed, Susan had used a very devious route indeed and he had lost his bearings completely.

'I haven't the foggiest idea where we are, and that unsettles me. I'll swear she did it on purpose.'

Smiling gently, Susan borrowed a street map and showed him where they had been and where the flat was, after which he calmed down and behaved himself, though he seemed rather inclined to chatter inconsequentially. This was no help to Jimmy, who was feeling rather nervous at the prospect of handling his first big conference, not quite knowing how to get it under way. In the end, he managed to hide his qualms and sound reasonably efficient.

'I don't think we need sit round a table formally. We may as well be comfortable. What I want to do is to collect the latest information regarding the position and formulate some plans for the next week or so. Simon, can you tell us if the Colonel is building a computer? That seems a good place to start.'

Simon immediately pulled himself together and became serious. 'The answer is yes. He certainly is building a computer, and what a computer! Geoff passed me some papers about a fortnight ago. I don't know where he got them from, but they describe the whole thing. It's fabulous! It isn't very large, but each section is autonomous under the overall authority of a somewhat permissive main control unit. That makes it unusually fast and gives it capabilities far beyond the normal standard for machines of similar size. The read-only memory...'

'Hoy!' Pat held up a hand. 'I'm lost, and to judge by their expressions, everyone else is too. Can't you put it more simply?'

'I thought I was doing just that.' Simon looked puzzled. 'I was only saying that it was very fast and flexible.'

'How fast?' Pat was determined to hold him to a level that they could all understand.

'That isn't easy to answer. Memory access can be simultaneous with processing, so it...'

'Does this matter?' Jimmy felt the meeting was getting out of hand. 'The main point is that he's building a computer of fairly advanced design, from what I gather. Do we have to consider the details of the design at this stage?'

Simon looked disappointed. 'I suppose not. Though it did give me an idea who might have been responsible for the design. There's a chap called Austen Whitebrook. He's been advocating this sort of thing for years. It looked exactly the sort of thing he might dream up.'

'That's more like it.' Jimmy made a note of the name. 'What does this chap look like?'

'Tallish, brown wavy hair.' Simon shook his head. 'I'm no good at describing people.'

'Is he a rather languid type?' Pat's question was answered by the movement of Simon's eyebrows.

'Yes, he is. How did you know that?'

Before Pat could reply, Jimmy intervened with a description of the two men they had last seen bending over a microfilm viewer in the Colonel's mountain lair, though he omitted to mention where he had seen them.

Simon looked amazed. 'Whitebrook and Galway. So that's where Galway went. I thought it might be. Where...'

'Does the name Parson ring a bell?' Jimmy gave Simon no time to ask questions that might be difficult to answer.

'It does indeed.' Simon was too excited to take offence at the interruption. 'Those three are really good. They haven't been popular lately, because they don't like the artificial restrictions that are placed on commercial computers, like standard programming languages and things like that, which would prevent them using their better ideas. This job would suit them down to the ground.'

'Just a minute.' Pat was frowning. 'Wouldn't new programming languages mean an awful lot of software work?'

'Not necessarily.' This, Simon's favourite phrase, showed that he was getting into his stride. 'The instruction set they've used is ingenious. It's arranged on three hierarchical levels, using a fully interpretive read-only memory accessible at any level you want. This...'

'Here we go again!' Jimmy groaned. 'Can't we try some other approach? This one makes me dizzy. I suppose we've got to know something about this machine, but you'll have to take pity on us and describe it in simple terms. Come down to earth a bit.'

Ruffling his hair abstractedly, Simon did his best, though he explained that it was just as difficult for him to use simple terms as it was for the others to understand the terms he was used to using.

'It's a big machine in power level. They would need a hefty mains supply, which means a lot of surplus heat. That, in turn, means a bigger underground chamber than I was imagining. Even with that, they might have a job to get the heat away unobtrusively, unless... Ah, they might have some scheme for thermo-electric conversion, which would spread some of the heat generally through the surrounding soil...'

Simon's mind was evidently wandering off into a consideration of this possibility, but Jimmy brought him back to the point firmly, by asking how many people would be needed on the spot.

'Not as many as I thought. There's generous provision for remote terminals, using modem lines. Sorry! I mean that the computer, or more probably part of it, can be operated by someone sitting at the other end of a telephone line, using a teleprinter or video display.'

'Oh!' Jimmy was taken aback. 'How much of the work could be done in that way?'

'All of it, pretty well, from a software point of view. There would still have to be maintenance engineers on the spot, of course, but you could sit in this room and do the actual operating, providing you had the proper equipment.'

Robin looked bewildered. 'It sounds like magic to me. How much knowledge would be needed by the operator?'

'That would depend on what he wanted to do. To look up existing files would be quite simple. You would call up the computer, give the identity code and password, then key in your request in standard form. After that you could call up any file you wanted. If it was one of your own files, you could modify it, taking items out and putting new ones in, or you could select particular entries. This wouldn't need much specialised knowledge. If you wanted to develop a new program, you'd need to know a good deal more. And nobody else need know what you've been doing. If you don't print anything out, there needn't be a scrap of evidence at the terminal end.'

This time, they all understood what Simon was saying, but found it rather overwhelming. After a while, Robin asked whether the terminals would have to be in this country.

Simon shook his head. 'Providing the transmission standards were suitable, they could be almost anywhere.'

'Would the people using the terminals know where the computer was?'

'Not precisely. They might be able to work out the area from the telephone number, but even that could be avoided by using indirect lines. They wouldn't even know which country it was in unless they were very familiar with their dialling codes.'

The possibilities of the Colonel's scheme began to dawn on them as Simon stated his facts. Jimmy said that it would all have to be thought about very carefully. 'For the moment, I suggest we go on to other matters. I don't blame any of you for sounding relieved! Now, we've got to discuss our plans in general. Has anyone got any points they want to put immediately?'

Pat said she would like to put forward an idea. 'I don't think we're making the most of our motor racing connections. Suppose we got some of the people who came to the wedding to write to the circuit management asking to be shown round. It would give them a fine chance to have a close look without arousing suspicion.'

This idea was greeted with enthusiasm. Jimmy said it could be taken even further. 'Why not form an Uffington Supporter's Club? They have that sort of thing at the established circuits. It would be quite reasonable to form one for the new track. We could use that as a cover for keeping in touch with the more remote people. There could even be a newsletter, perhaps even meetings.'

Robin said this sounded an excellent scheme and they began to rough out details. Jimmy's contribution was rather half hearted, for he was wondering whether he was doing a good job. Organisation and routine was never much to his taste and he felt rather out of his depth.

During the next few weeks, however, as one problem after another was solved, he began to cheer up. By the time he and Pat went down to Bridgestow to attend the first meeting the Uffington Club, he was feeling quite content with his new role.

The meeting was being held in Bridgestow because many of the officials of the new club were also officials of the local car club, which Jimmy and Pat had encountered a year before. They were greeted by Mike, a keen rally driver, who was to be president of the new club, and his navigator Russ, who was to be chairman. Rather older than the rest of the members, Mike mournfully expressed fears regarding the future.

'This lot are bad enough on their own, when they're supposed to be law abiding. Heaven knows what they'll get up to now, especially with the young rips you've got to know since. From what I hear, you did us out of a real bit of excitement last May.'

From this rather inconsistent announcement, it was possible to deduce that even Mike was not too anxious to be law abiding. The attitude of the younger members could only be guessed from that.

The meeting itself was hilarious. Jimmy, being officially no more than a guest observer, was able to sit back and enjoy himself. He noticed, however, that Mike and Russ managed to put through a surprising amount of serious business in between the laughs.

They were even able to say that arrangements for the first visit to the circuit were well under way. Announcing this, Russ said that it might be useful if they had some advance knowledge of the layout. Perhaps Mr Ferguson would like to...

Jimmy mounted the rostrum and picked up a piece of chalk, amid a chorus of whistles, boos and cat calls, to which he responded with a cheerful wave. It was nice to be able to talk freely, knowing that he was among friends. He noted with amusement that two of the heaviest members had been stationed by the door, ready to repel any intruders. Even as he approached the blackboard, he was very conscious of the contrast between this gathering and the one where it had been suggested. The noise died away abruptly as he held up his hand and he wished it was as easy to keep Simon quiet.

He sketched the main circuit, adding an indication of the probable layout of the underground chambers, explaining each feature as he went along. The room was quiet now, the audience listening attentively to what he had to tell them. They had come from far and near to attend the meeting, some fifty-odd men with two common interests, motor racing and a rooted dislike of people like the Colonel.

When he had finished his task, Jimmy put down the chalk and invited questions. Dealing with the few that were asked, he said that he would like to add some comments.

'I won't be with you at Uffington, because I'm too well known around there already. My wife, Pat, will be going, and if you are in doubt over anything, you can ask her advice. Some advice, however, I'll give you here and now.

'Don't take risks or play the fool. It's too serious a matter for that. If you're in doubt, don't. We want information about the whole place, and you'll be asked to send in individual reports on what you see. Anything may be useful. I can't tell you what to look out for. You'll have to use your own judgement. Have a good time, and I'll hope to see you all again soon.'

After the meeting was officially over, he took a few special friends aside and asked them to watch for particular points. They then adjourned to a local pub to drink to the success of the enterprise. By the time he started for home, he was wishing he could go to the circuit with them, and amused Pat by discussing possible disguises. But he knew it would be silly to risk compromising the club by his presence.

Dice Divider

Leafing through the reports that were sent in after the visit, he was even more sorry he had been unable to join in. Pat had already told him a good deal about the occasion, but the reports, often couched in hilarious terms but all with useful content, filled in a number of gaps.

The work on the circuit itself was progressing well, with much of the main straight now complete. Sandy, who had joined the party simply disguised by a pair of horn rimmed spectacles with plain glass lenses, said that he was itching to have a go on the track, it looked so smooth and broad.

Sandy, however, had been too interested in the track to pay a lot of attention to anything else. When Geoff visited Jimmy to find out how things were going, most of what he heard was culled from other reports.

'In a way, the most interesting things were negatives. The landing strip has gone, for instance. Pat went up on Odstone Down with Susan and a few of the others. She said there was no trace of the lamps that were set in the turf. The original shaft has vanished, too. At least, the wooden box round it has gone. They thought it might have been replaced by a brick building, which they were told will become the central cashier's office. That could be better camouflage, but they couldn't get earth out that was very easily.'

Relaxed as ever in one of Jimmy's comfortable armchairs, Geoff smiled gently. 'I wonder if there are any lights along the main straight. They should be able to land on that, now. The old entrance may not be needed any longer.'

Sorting through the reports, Jimmy said nobody seemed to have noticed any lights. 'That doesn't mean they don't exist, of course. It's a pity we can't check whether that plane still lands there.'

'As a matter of fact, it does.' Geoff spoke lazily. 'That's one service I can provide. I asked for the details of flights in the area some time ago, and I haven't done anything about cancelling the request, so the information still comes in.'

'That's lucky.' Jimmy chuckled. 'You'll make a useful member of the team yet. Now, that ties in with the fact that the work on the grandstands seems a bit unbalanced. You may remember the drawings Simon produced. They showed huge cantilever beams supporting the grandstand roofs, running right back into the hillside sloping up to Odstone Down. They're set in pairs about twelve to fifteen feet apart, with about a hundred feet between pairs.

'Well, all the beams are in position, and quite a lot of the roof structure, but only one pair of beams has been roofed over. That's the pair in the centre, where Simon thought the tunnel would come out. It looks as if the lower entrance has been completed.'

'There was no sign of the entrance itself?'

'None. Colin and Ieuan, you remember that scatter brained pair? They said there were faint signs suggesting that traffic had been passing that way, but it must be very queer traffic, because it went straight through a concrete wall. Presumably the wall isn't quite as solid and immovable as it looks.'

'That seems a tenable theory. By the sound of it, the excavation is well under way now, and they have the front door open. When do they start moving the furniture in, I wonder?'

'They may have started.' Jimmy reached for a file. 'Jock managed to get some details of likely deliveries from sub contractors. They make interesting reading. According to Simon, these are things that could only be associated with the computer. There's no sign of anything of this sort above ground, so it must all be inside the excavation. Simon says that means they must have at least a storage room complete, as the stuff might be damaged if it was left in a simple hole in the earth.'

Scanning the list Jimmy handed him, Geoff said the entries meant nothing to him, but would presumably convey something to Simon. 'Does he suggest that they're starting to build the computer already?'

'Not the computer itself, I gather. Mainly the power feeds and that sort of thing. He thinks the computer may be built up somewhere else, in sections, and brought in one piece at a time. That wouldn't be for a while yet, according to his calculations.'

'I see. Well, you aren't doing at all badly. How do you like your new job?'

Jimmy laughed, but he was sensible enough not to try to fool Geoff. 'As a job, I suppose it could be worse. I don't feel I'm making a great success of it, though. We don't seem to be any nearer to finding that evidence you want and I can't see any way of getting it.'

'Never mind. It'll come. Are you getting good support from the others?'

'They're quite willing to accept me as the boss.' Jimmy seemed to find this fact surprising. 'Simon's a bit of a nuisance at times, but he's like that. He means well and he produces something brilliant every now and then, so it's worth putting up with him. Robin works hard, but all he's got to show for it so far is the loss of some surplus fat. What can we expect? The Colonel won't hand us what we want on a plate. Perhaps I should raid his lair again.'

'I'm quite sure that you know it would be an act of desperation.' Geoff spoke gravely. 'It wouldn't be as easy to pay a second visit. He can't be sure whether Jean Livingstone got away by sheer luck or whether she was helped, but he must assume she was helped and will have strengthened his defences. I'm almost surprised that he hasn't raided you in return, but he may feel that it would be more convenient if you walked into his parlour.'

'What you say is true enough.' Jimmy stood up and stretched. 'All the same, I may have to do something drastic before long. Here we are, almost into December, and we don't seem to be an inch nearer where we want to be. Meanwhile, the Colonel's going ahead happily without interference. I feel like tweaking his nose, in the hope that it might make him do something rash.'

'I don't think that's necessary.' Geoff glanced at his watch. 'I must be going, but I'll leave you with this thought. He may not be as happy as you think. He knows that he's reasonably safe from official action, but he has no idea what you may be doing. He may find that a little worrying. If you let the worry build up, it may be far more effective than any direct assault could be, and it would certainly be a safer approach to the problem.'

Dice Divider

Red line

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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |

Red line

Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002