Fragments of a Purple Dream
by Dal Merlin Jeanis

* * * Juggling A Friendly Grenade * * *

***T-12 hours ***

Allison Drake sighed as she sat in the cramped seat. This courtesy visit to ILM was going to be annoying.

It wasn't that the techs at Industrial Light and Magic would have nothing to say. It was the fact that they would say it, then repeat it, and then say it again as if she were a two year old with a particularly bad memory. For some reason, the cyber-geeks down here had an idea that other people in the entertainment industry, especially women, were brainless.

She watched the clouds drift by below the window, and idly played with her lucky scarf. True, a lot of people who supported the making of movies were flaky. But C3 was different. She prided herself on an intimate understanding of her computer network, as well as an excellent general understanding of the industry. Her company could not do its job well unless it understood its environment.

And the technology worked fine. The linkage from ILM's network to her own had gone perfectly when installed a year back, and had exhibited no particular security issues since then. In fact, she herself had detected the intrusion when a rabid fan had broken into ILM's network through a different entrance and mistakenly pinged Allison's system. He had apparently been looking for production graphics work on Spielberg's new Star Wars picture. The look on Charlie Nguyen's face had been priceless when she warned him. The little dweeb.

She flagged down a flight attendant and ordered a Diet Pepsi. Unfortunately, the airline only served Coca-Cola products, so she settled for a ginger ale. Sighing, she let her seat back a little and then began to reread the proposed changes to the network interface. It was going to be a major change.

The special-effects company had literally dozens of projects going at any time, with a few hundred trillion calculations per minute of screen time. They had decided that, rather than buying more instantly obsolescent equipment to fill their occasional spikes in usage, they could simply use the down-time on their partners' networks, during evenings and weekends, to crunch a few quadrillion numbers for them.

It was imminently sensible, and completely wrong-headed. There were bandwidth issues in transmission, synchronization issues, a whole host of security implications, and other things Allison couldn't even voice. Their network connection was designed for small amounts of accounting and marketing data that Cinematic Concierge Corporation, her company, needed to do its job supplying and auditing movie productions. C3 needed to know cost and completion statistics, and get occasional marketing stills, but otherwise didn't need the kind of transmission bandwidth that this partnership would entail.

Nonetheless, George had made a commitment, without asking her, to support this new process. It was annoying, in the way that only Lord George could be annoying. He would pop his big Haitian head into the door, grinningly lob her a friendly grenade, and then wander off, oblivious to the carnage.

It wasn't fair.

But it was her job.

* * * The Customer is Usually Right * * *

***T-8 hours ***

Allison Drake shook hands with Dana Quinn, who was the point person on the security company that was reviewing Nguyen's department. With any luck, Allison could form an alliance with her to head off this stupid exercise in technical nerdity.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Drake." The security woman was dark and attractive, dressed in a dark blue blazer and slacks that screamed "uniform" and "expensive" at the same time. Not quite military, she didn't posture correctly for that, and the short black hair was more New York than West Point.

Just practiced authority and competence.

"So where's Charlie?"

Dana pursed her lips slightly, wording herself carefully. "He couldn't make it today. He has meetings for several hours, then he wants to go home early to catch the pre-speech shows."

Allison grinned. "Where they tell you exactly what the President meant by what he hasn't said yet, eh?"

Dana picked up on the slight accent. "Canadians pick up that nonsense, too?"

Allison responded to the implied question. "Dual citizen. Not that our politics makes any more sense. Cretién is talking about opening our borders to Elite visitors - as long as they speak French."

Dana wasn't sure if that was a joke or not. "Well, there is that."

"Any idea what excuse he'll use to stay home?" The pre-speech leaks were saying this was a warning to the Elite not to take any more countries. Or the U.S. and the U.N. would pout some more.

"Well, the Elite have dug in for six months now. Maybe he'll say that there is too much danger to our troops. Peace in our time, the whole Neville Chamberlain thing."

"You'd hope for a little more backbone in The Leader of the Free world, eh?"

For a moment Dana felt like defending the guy. He hadn't had a break in five months in office, between being elected in a coin toss, losing the Senate, inheriting a severely degraded military and a world political conflagration that hadn't been seen in sixty years. The best she could muster in the way of defense was pretty anemic, though.

"Fighting a war didn't do his daddy much good politically."

Both women grimaced. This conversation was really too close to home. Speaking of which, Allison had to change her flight back - she'd planned to just make a day of it, but it looked like she'd be flying back on Monday instead. George would love that, when she told him.

Well, maybe she could get some business done today anyway. "Speaking of wars: What do you really think about this network linkage?"

Against her better judgment, Dana began to defend the concept. After all, the client is usually right.

* * * Tired Cartwheels of the Heart * * *

***T-1 hours ***

Dana breathed a sigh of relief as she tucked a loose man's white shirt into a pair of well-worn jeans. Since Charlie Nguyen had decided to postpone the meetings for Bush's speech, they would likely be stuck in town all weekend. Oh well. At least it was all billable. And with any luck, she could get up to San Francisco a couple of times, or perhaps the Plaza's concierge could snag her some tickets to the San Jose Symphony.

She wondered where John was at that moment. Since making her a partner, he had been less and less available to her, just when she thought...

Well, never mind what she thought. She had had a few too many chances to think, doing solo surveillance while he had been off on his more mysterious cases. Now that the Pierce-Quinn agency was starting to get some higher profile customers, like this piecework at ILM, perhaps he might decide to spend a little more time on the job again.

She stretched out on the bed, face down, and wondered what a massage would cost. The Plaza hotel in downtown San Jose was old school, marble and 400 thread-count sheets. Her room had a king bed and a whirlpool bath, along with a hallway you could do cartwheels down without bothering the neighbors. Not for the first time, she wondered what ILM was paying for it.

She momentarily considered calling Allison Drake and inviting her out to dinner or something. Then, she abandoned the thought as probably bad for the image of Pierce-Quinn, and with a tired loneliness, she went to bed.

* * * Rather than Anyplace Important * * *

***Zero hour ***

Alone in her hotel, Allison watched the President of the United States declare war on the Royal Elite. And anyone who sided with them.

Her scalp crawled with a feeling of dread. Full scale war was proceeding already. Most of the free world's superheroes were on the way to Ireland, leaving only a few back home to defend against the inevitable counterstrikes, and the inevitable loonies. For a moment she was thankful that the people she cared about lived in Canada, rather than anyplace important.

Then she kicked herself for putting it that way, and went out to get a drink.

* * * Tennis Matches and Purple Dreams * * *

The meeting was dragging on even longer than Allison thought. Outside, a few thousand miles away, people were dying for the future of humanity, and here they were, sitting here trying to talk about data security for a science fiction film. And it was tougher than it sounded.

Charlie Nguyen was an open systems buff, who probably would be a copyright pirate himself if he didn't work for the biggest content producer in the business. So every suggestion that led to better security went against the little twerp's grain. He also seemed to think that he knew more than either of the two women present, which meant that everything took twice as long as it should have, while he wasted their time with unnecessary expositions and explanations.

Allison glanced again at the security woman. Dana Quinn, of Quinn and something-or-other Security Agency. Attractive, in a conservative, don't-mess-with-me sort of way. Allison wondered what she was like when not on the job. Probably an earth mother type. Take care, take charge, take you off at the knees if you messed with someone she cared for. The kind of woman who could love a cop, and actually live with it.

Allison idly perused Quinn's accessories. Blood red ruby earrings, worn like a power tie. Then the earrings tickled her memory. Pierced... Pierce-Quinn, something like that.

Allison pulled back a lock of hair that was threatening to be unruly. She hated getting ready in a hotel - things never worked exactly the way they did at home. She let out a little sigh and then covered it with a comment to Nguyen.

Dana Quinn looked at the Drake woman again. A water-colored off-white silk blouse and mint slacks, with a pastel paisley jacket and a gorgeous mother-of-pearl colored scarf, all tied together with gold accents. Dana had had an odd feeling about her when they met the day before. She couldn't place it - a loose cannon, a hidden talent, a lucky SOB... there seemed to be more to her than what met the eye, pretty as that might be.

Jealousy? she considered as Nguyen droned on about something technical but unimportant. Well, I would love to know where she got that scarf. But I don't think that's it. Tasty appearance is par for the film industry. She's not dumb, either. So why do I get the feeling that she'd be better off doing something else?

Nguyen was waiting for an answer, so both she and the Drake woman nodded, exchanging a knowing smile. Drake hadn't been listening either. Nonetheless, Drake said something about the bandwidth charges and the leased line upgrade schedule that made Nguyen's eyebrows go up. The two had an interesting exchange on the subject, before she had to interrupt. The money aspect wasn't why Dana was here.

Allison wondered, not for the first time, how she was supposed to get anything done here with these two. Anytime she made any progress on the business side, the detective woman would end the conversation and start talking security. Which Charlie Nguyen had no interest in getting nailed down. It was like a tennis match, with her brain as the ball.

The major question was, how were they going to realize cost savings by sharing access to computer systems through a virtual private network, without eating the savings by the bandwidth charges, and without leaving all the systems vulnerable to invasion from outside?

Purple ants scratched against a metal wall, searching for entry...

For a moment she had pictured an invasion from outside, seeing it clearly and palpably. This was getting too close to home. It was time for a break.

"Charlie, why don't you show us girls the actual equipment? So we can see how it works onsite?"

Us girls? Dana was momentarily shocked. For God's sake, the last thing she wanted was a client thinking of her as a girl. This expensive suit was designed to keep clients' minds off her gender, especially since she was working as a stand-in for John Pierce, who had the real computer cojones. But Nguyen had gotten the idea into his head now, and was eager to show off his babies. To the girls. Aaaargh!

The workstations were upstairs in a highly secured area, far from the little visitor's conference room. Nguyen signed them in and got Drake a badge. Dana had a permanent contractor's badge which would allow her access to most of the building during working hours, and allow her to exit during second shift if necessary. She grinned at the guard at the security counter as she passed the turnstile. He gave her a professional look, with just enough twinkle to register.

Allison followed Nguyen and Drake up an elevator and into an air-conditioned room where stacks of servers reached toward a patchwork acoustical tile ceiling. This was techie heaven. Any number of nerds would be spewing bodily fluids... she shook the graphic image out of her head. These bruisers were chewing up numbers, simulating a universe, acting together to create an image of, well, whatever was in the new Star Wars movie.

"Can you give us a preview?" she asked.

Charlie Nguyen winked slyly. Both the babes were now in his territory, where he was acknowledged master. He called one of his juniors over, a tall, lanky blond guy dressed in jeans and Birkenstocks. "Goldy, how's the render going?"

Doug Epstein looked up from the workstation, his fingers still rattling on the keyboard. Charlie had brought a couple of women in, probably to impress with his access to the work. Well, fuck him.

Then he did a double-take on the wahines. Each was the epitome of babeness, one in a do-you-mind-if-my-tongue-hangs-someplace-private-on-you sort of way, the other in a spank-me-momma-I've-been-a-bad-boy sort of way. The black-haired one was looking at Charlie the way he really deserved to be looked at, and Doug liked her immediately. He brushed back his own ragged blond hair. He really got tired of Charlie assprick calling him Goldie. So he was tall and Jewish - any other resemblance to Jeff Goldblum was just in the guy's warped mind.

"Don't know. The wall time's up for about twelve stations, but they're still spitting and spinning. I'd guess there's a problem with the coprocessor accelerator software." Doug nodded at the two women. "There should be something to see on stations 7 and 10."

Allison followed Charlie Nguyen over to the indicated machine, and watched as he tried to get some response from it. She had seen her share of seized machines before, but this one didn't seem to be stopped, but didn't seem to be in any kind of cyclical effort either. The blinking of the lights and the whirring of the hard drives were asynchronous and fairly random, although if she looked past it at the other machines, it seemed like the network as a whole had a pattern. She leaned against a rack to contemplate it.

Purple bugs scrabbled against a gleaming silver war machine, leaving ichor dripping on its sides, eating into the metal...

"Allison. Ms Drake, what's wrong?"

"God, it was like I just..."

A monster steel tank approached the purple trees and fired, starting flames that leaped into a grayish sky...

Allison retched onto the floor. The lunch had been bad the first time, now it was positively nasty.

Bummer thought Doug. Babe can't hold her cookies.

"Goldy, call maintenance to clean that up. And see if we can get a tech in here... this station isn't responding.

"Yeah, yeah. Let me check it for you." Doug stepped around the puddle with a slight nod to the babe. One of the other techs had gone for some wet towels from the john a few rooms away, so he figured he'd check the station himself before embarrassing himself with tech support on Charlie's say-so.

Doug tried a soft boot to check what functions were running. No response at first. He tried again. The overseer program came up as expected. He surfed the results.

Everything looked copacetic. The programs were running normally. But it seemed like the control functions were slurping up twenty percent of the CPU time. Dude, that didn't make sense. And a subroutine that he knew deserved barely a blip of run time was happily scarfing down minute after minute.

"Something's definitely out of whack here, Charlie."

A fist-sized seed landed beside a metal wall, and began unfolding into a tangled mess of dark blue trees and monster purple claws, ripping into the barrier. Boiling silver oil poured down the wall and shriveled everything it touched.

"My best guess is that someone's dropped a worm on us. We'd better start shutting down." Nguyen watched as Goldy reached for the hard reboot button, and watched the resulting static discharge blow Goldy across the room. What in heaven...

Dana ran to check the tech. The shock had stopped his heart. First Drake goes epileptic, now this! "Anybody know CPR?"

Nguyen shook his head violently. "Don't let anyone near the equipment! I'll get the nearest block captain."

Allison sat up as she watched him go. Block captain? She started to move towards the power button on the stations.

"Get away from there, Drake! You heard the man." Dana said between breaths. Stupid woman was going to get herself killed.

"We've got to shut them down!"

"Just lie down and rest."

Rest was the last thing Allison wanted. She felt full of energy, and a driving purpose. That worm, or whatever, must be stopped. She reached toward the power button, but a sense of warning kept her from approaching too close. The electric potential made her hair stand up like a blonde fright wig.

Downstairs, in a telephone closet, was a power panel with the breakers for this building. There were stairs four doors left of the elevator that would get her down faster. "Main power." She said, almost to herself, as she stepped past Charlie entering with a fat woman.

"She going to clean up?" asked Charlie as the block captain took over the CPR. Dana considered only a moment.

"No, I think she's going to turn off the power."

Charlie blinked.

"Well, stop her! We'll lose several days' work on the movie."

Dana stood up, looking from Nguyen to the tech, who was beginning to stir. She heard the door to the stairs slam, and instantly sprinted into action. He was the client, and he was probably right.

Downstairs, Allison dived over the security turnstile, tossing her badge to the shocked guard at the counter. Allison was exiting the secured area, so it took the guard a few moments to realize that the beautiful blonde was being chased, and her follower was wearing a permanent high-clearance badge and yelling, "Stop her. For God's sake, stop that woman!"

The guard stood up, just in time to need to duck as the chaser also dove past the turnstile and ran off down the same low clearance corridor. Anyone could go that way, even people off the street. Nonetheless, he alerted security control and waited for instructions. It wasn't as if there were anything important down there.

Allison couldn't ever remember running at this speed before, even at the track meet where she... she dodged past a maintenance person exiting the telephone switching room, and ran to the back. The panel nearly flew open, and she could feel several fingernails ripped off by the motion. She reached up...

"Stop or I'll shoot."


"Stop or I'll shoot." Dana stood in shooting stance, holding her gun pointed at the woman's chest. She had to hold this crazy Drake woman's attention. Of course she wouldn't shoot her really. Among other things she'd lose her license to carry. But this woman was about to do a few hundred thousand dollars in damage to ILM's data, and another few hundred thousand to personnel productivity, and Dana had to stop that if she could.

"Dana, it's got to be shut down! Whatever it is, it's evil!" Allison could tell that Dana wasn't buying the argument, such as it was. She backed away from the gun, but there was no place to go. Allison didn't want to get herself shot, that's for sure.

"There's nothing evil about a Star Wars movie. And I'm paid to protect it." Dana gestured with the gun, away from the open breaker box. "Move over there."

A sense of despair coming over her, Allison began to comply. She almost choked herself when her lucky scarf caught on a protruding breaker switch. With a brief flash, the scarf caused a short that tripped the breakers.

Across the world, perhaps across the universe, in a false representation of space where two massive computers battled, three huge chinks shivered and disappeared from a section of the silver wall of a giant citadel. Evil-looking purple bugs poured into the breach of the Celestial Keep's avatar defenses. The tide had turned.

At ILM, the lights went out.

"On the ground and stay there." Dana ordered.

There was nothing else to do. Allison lay down, wondering why she would have gone and done a fool thing like trying to turn off the breakers. There was probably a UPS upstairs good for a few minutes of power, and the switches could just be flipped back on before then. And how the hell had she known where the breakers were, in the first place? Generally, they should have been outside, not in a network telephone closet.


"Pardon me?" Allison was getting sick again, worse now with the added smell of burned insulation.

"That panel shorted through the network interface. All the phones and computers in this building are out of business until an electrician reworks the whole damn panel." Man, am I going to lose this client.

Allison waited quietly for the police to arrive.

* * * Bonus Check * * *

Dana looked at the bonus check from ILM. It felt kind of hollow, taking it. She was just glad she had decided to send Allison Drake to the hospital rather than to the police. It sure made Pierce-Quinn look better, from ILM's point of view.

It wasn't that hard a decision to make, really. The woman had been delirious, and Dana had been leaning that way anyway. When the first reports of computers blowing up started hitting the news, that just cinched it. Some kind of major cyberworld battle had taken place, and half the large computer banks in the world were involved to one degree or other. Some were just plain toasted.

Allison taking down the power and telephone lines, lucky accident that it had been, had possibly saved several million dollars worth of equipment.

Dana didn't much believe in luck, though. Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. But what the heck kind of preparation is there for saving stuff by an accidental short?

* * * Maybe Something in Black and Red * * *

Allison Drake gently stroked her favorite scarf as she boarded the plane. Charlie Nguyen's replacement had been apologetic about wasting her time coming down here, but due to the need for advanced security, Mr. Nguyen's plan to be sending data all over the place just wasn't... politically feasible. And would she please come back in a few months when everything was back to normal, to discuss ways of making things even tighter?

She grinned. The thought of all those ILM executives with their exploding laptops jealously drooling at the one entire building that escaped nearly unscathed...

When she told him about it, George had laughed his big laugh, and said something musically cryptic about preparation for the inevitable. She had long since learned to let those remarks pass, since the magician in him never let George explain himself.

Nonetheless, she was starting to feel like there were some things that were inevitable, and that some of them were coming toward her, sooner rather than later.

She fastened her seat belt and looked at the other passengers around her. All going someplace, content to let the plane take them wherever it was going. Some day she would choose where she flew...

Her mind began to drift, until she startled herself with an incongruous image. Simon Chang skirts and flight really didn't mix. What she would need is something stylish, but more ... maybe something in black and red...

She settled back and dozed as they lifted into the perfect purple sky.

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