Nevertheless, Jilly discovered that this two-star motel provided an in-room modem link separate from the phone line. In this regard, at least, they might as well have been holed up in the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills.
Ensconced at the small desk, she opened her laptop, jacked in, and cruised onto the Internet. She had begun to search for sites concerned with scientific research into enhanced brain function by the time that Shepherd, in the bathroom, cried out 'Ding!' and the Minute Minder rang off the final second of his nine-minute shower.
She ruled out sites related to improving mental acuity through vitamin therapy and diet. Frankenstein had not seemed to be the kind of guy who'd been devoted to natural foods and homeopathic medicine.
In addition, she had no interest in sites related to yoga and to other forms of meditation. Even the most brilliant scientist couldn't take the principles of a meditative discipline, liquify them, and inject them as though they were flu vaccine.
Showered, hair still damp, wearing a fresh pair of jeans and a clean Wile E. Coyote T-shirt, Shepherd returned from the bathroom.
Dylan followed him for a couple steps and said, 'Jilly, can you keep an eye on Shep? Be sure he doesn't... go anywhere.'
Two additional straight-backed chairs faced each other across a small table near the window. She brought one of them to the desk, intending for Shep to sit beside her.
Instead, he ignored her invitation and went to a corner of the bedroom near the desk, where he stood with his back to the room.
'Shep, are you all right?'
He didn't reply. The wallpaper – beige, yellow, and pale-green stripes – had been sloppily joined where the walls met. Shepherd moved his head slowly up, slowly down, as though studying the error in the pattern match.
'Sweetie, is something wrong?'
Having twice surveyed the paperhanger's shoddy work from floor to ceiling, Shep stared straight ahead at the juncture of walls. His arms had hung slack at his sides. Now he raised his right arm as if he were swearing an oath: bent at the elbow, hand beside his face, palm flat and facing forward. After a moment, he began to wave as though he were not staring into a corner but through a window at someone he knew.
Dylan came out of the bathroom again, this time to get a change of clothes from his suitcase, and Jilly said, 'Who's he waving at?'
'He's not really waving,' Dylan explained. 'It's spasmodic, the equivalent of a facial tic. He can sometimes do it for hours.'
On further consideration, Jilly realized that Shepherd's wrist had gone limp and that his hand actually flopped loosely, not in the calculated wave of a good-bye or a greeting.
'Does he think he's done something wrong?' she asked.
'Wrong? Oh, because he's standing in the corner? No. He's just feeling overwhelmed at the moment. Too much input recently. He can't cope with all of it.'
'By facing into a corner,' Dylan said, 'he's limiting sensory input. Reducing his world to that narrow space. It helps to calm him. He feels safer.'
'Maybe I need a corner of my own,' Jilly said.
'Just keep an eye on him. He knows I don't want him to... go anywhere. He's a good kid. Most of the time he does what he should. But I'm just afraid that this folding thing... maybe he won't be able to control it any more than he can control that hand right now.'
Shep waved at the wall, waved, waved.
Adjusting the position of her laptop, turning her chair at an angle to the desk in order to keep Shep in view while she worked, Jilly said to Dylan, 'You can count on me.'
'Yeah. I know I can.'
A tenderness in his voice compelled her attention.
His forthright stare had the same quality of assessment and speculation that had characterized the surreptitious glances with which he had studied her after they had refueled at that service station in Globe, the previous night.
When Dylan smiled, Jilly realized that she had been smiling first, that his smile was in answer to hers.
'You can count on me,' Shep said.
They looked at the kid. He still faced the corner, still waved.
'We know we can count on you, buddy,' Dylan told his brother. 'You never let me down. So you stay here, okay? Only here, no there. No folding.'
For the time being, Shep had said all that he had to say.
'I better get showered,' Dylan said.
'Nine minutes,' Jilly reminded him.
Smiling again, he returned to the bathroom with a change of clothes.
With Shepherd always in her peripheral vision, glancing up at him more directly from time to time, Jilly traveled the Net in search of sites related to the enhancement of brain function, mental acuity, memory ... anything that might lead her to Frankenstein.
By the time that Dylan returned, shaved and showered, in a fresh pair of khaki pants, in a red-and-brown checkered shirt cut Hawaiian style and worn over his belt, Jilly had found some direction in their quest. She was primarily interested in several articles regarding the possibility of microchip augmentation of human memory.
As Dylan settled onto the chair beside her, Jilly said, 'They claim that eventually we'll be able to surgically install data ports in our brains and then, anytime we want, plug in memory cards to augment our knowledge.'
'Like if you want to design your own house, you can plug in a memory card – which is really a chip densely packed with data – and instantly you'll know all the architecture and engineering required to produce a set of buildable plans. I'm talking everything from the aesthetic considerations to how you calculate the load-bearing requirements of foundation footings, even how you route plumbing and lay out an adequate heating-and-cooling system.'
Dylan looked dubious. 'That's what they say, huh?'
'Yeah. If you want to know everything there possibly is to know about French history and art when you take your first trip to Paris, you'll just plug in a memory card. They say it's inevitable.'
'A lot of big-brain techies, Silicon Valley research types out there on the cutting edge.'
'The same folks who brought us ten thousand bankrupt dot-com companies?'
'Those were mostly con men, power-mad nerds, and sixteen-year-old entrepreneurs, not research types.'
'I'm still not impressed. What do the brain surgeons say about all this?'
'Surprisingly, a lot of them also think eventually it'll be possible.'
'Supposing they haven't been smoking too much weed, what do they mean by "eventually"?'
'Some say thirty years, some say fifty.'
'But how does any of this relate to us?' he wondered. 'Nobody installed a data port in my skull yet. I just washed my hair, I would have noticed.'
'I don't know,' she admitted. 'But this feels like even if it isn't the right track, if I just follow it a little farther, it'll cross over the right one, and bring me to whatever area of research Frankenstein was actually involved in.'
He nodded. 'I don't know why, but I have the same feeling.'
'We're back to that.'
Getting up from the desk, she said, 'You want to take over the chase while I clean up my act?'
'Nine minutes,' he said.
'Not possible. My hair has some style to it.'
* * *
Risking scalp burn from a too-relentless application of her hair dryer, Jilly returned to the motel bedroom, cleaned and fluffed, in forty-five minutes. She had dressed in a banana-yellow, short-sleeve, lightweight, stretchy-clingy knit sweater, white jeans tailored to prove that the big-ass curse plaguing her family had not yet resized her buttocks from cantaloupes to prize-winning pumpkins, and white athletic shoes with yellow laces to match the sweater.
She felt pretty. She hadn't cared about being pretty in weeks, even months, and she was surprised to care now, in the middle of an ongoing catastrophe, with her life in ruins and perhaps worse trials to come; yet she'd spent several minutes examining herself in the bathroom mirror, making carefully calculated adjustments to further prettify herself. She felt shameless, she felt shallow, she felt silly, but she also felt fine.
In his calming corner, Shepherd remained unaware that Jilly had returned prettier than she'd left. He no longer waved. His arms hung at his sides. He leaned forward, head bowed, the top of his skull actually pressed into the corner, in full contact with the striped wallpaper, as though to stand at any distance whatsoever from this sheltering juncture would make him vulnerable to an intolerably rich influx of sensory stimulation.
She hoped for considerably more reaction from Dylan than from Shepherd, but when he looked up from the laptop, he didn't compliment her on her appearance, didn't even smile. 'I found the bastard.'
Jilly was so invested in the expectation of a compliment that for a moment she couldn't compute the meaning of his words. 'What bastard?'
'The smiley, peanut-eating, needle-poking, car-stealing bastard, that's what bastard.'
Dylan pointed, and Jilly looked at the laptop screen, where a photograph showed their Dr. Frankenstein looking respectable and far less like a lunatic than he had appeared the previous night.
Lincoln Merriweather Proctor was, in this case, a name deceptive in every regard. Lincoln made you think of Abe, therefore suggesting the wisdom and the integrity of men who rose to greatness from humble origins. Merriweather added a light note, implying a calm, untroubled soul, perhaps even one capable of entertaining moments of frivolity. A proctor was a person who supervised students, mentored them, who maintained order, stability.
This Lincoln Merriweather Proctor had been a child of privilege, educated first at Yale, then at Harvard. Judging by a quick sampling of his writings, to which Dylan guided her on the laptop, Jilly decided that Proctor's soul, far from being calm, was troubled by megalomaniacal visions of the total mastery of nature followed by the complete perversion of it. His life's work – the mysterious stuff in the syringe – didn't contribute to order and stability; it fostered uncertainty, terror, even chaos.
A certifiable prodigy, Proctor had earned two Ph.D.'s – the first in molecular biology, the second in physics – by the age of twenty-six.
Assiduously courted by academia and industry, he enjoyed prestigious positions with both, although before his thirtieth birthday, he had formed his own company and had proved that his greatest genius lay in his ability to attract enormous sums of investment capital to finance his research with the hope of discovering commercial applications of tremendous economic significance.
In his writing and his public speaking, however, Proctor had not merely pursued the creation of a business empire, but had dreamed of reforming society and in fact had hoped to change the very nature of humankind. In the scientific breakthroughs of the late twentieth century and in those certain to follow in the early twenty-first, he foresaw the opportunity to perfect humanity and to create utopia.
His expressed motives – compassion for those who suffered from poverty and disease, concern for the planet's ecosystem, a desire to promote universal equality and justice – sounded admirable. Yet when she read his words, Jilly heard in her mind vast ranks of marching boots and the rattle of chains in gulags.
'From Lenin to Hitler, utopians are all the same,' Dylan agreed. 'Determined to perfect society at any cost, they destroy it instead.'
'People can't be perfected. Not any I've ever known.'
'I love the natural world, it's what I paint. You see perfection everywhere in nature. The perfect efficiency of bees in the hive. The perfect organization of an anthill, a termite colony. But what makes humanity beautiful is our free will, our individuality, our endless striving in spite of our imperfection.'
'Beautiful... and terrifying,' she suggested.
'Oh, it's a tragic beauty, all right, but that's what makes it so different from the beauty of nature, and in its own way precious. There's no tragedy in nature, only process – and therefore no triumph, either.'
He kept surprising her, this bearish man with the rubbery face, dressed like a boy in khakis and an untucked shirt.
'Anyway,' he said, 'that stuff about plugging memory cards into data ports in the brain wasn't the track Proctor's research took, but you were right when you thought it might cross his track if we kept following it.'
He reached past her to use the laptop keyboard. New material flashed on the screen.
Pointing to a key word in a headline, he said, 'This is the train Proctor's been riding for a long time.'
Reading the word above his finger, Jilly said, 'Nanotechnology.' She glanced at Shep in the corner, half expecting him to provide the definition, but he remained engaged in an apparent attempt to press his head into the corner until his skull re-formed itself to fit the wedge where wall met wall.
'Nano as a unit of measure means "one billionth,"' Dylan revealed. 'A nanosecond is one billionth of a second. In this case, however, it means "very small, minute." Nanotechnology – very tiny machines, so tiny as to be invisible to the na*ed eye.'
Jilly mulled that over, but the concept wasn't easy to digest. 'Too tiny to be seen? Machines made of what?'
He looked expectantly at her. 'Are you sure none of this rings a bell?'
'Maybe,' he said mysteriously. 'Anyway, these nanomachines are constructed of just a handful of atoms.'
'Constructed by who – elves, fairies?'
'Most people remember seeing this on the news maybe a decade ago – the corporate logo that some IBM researchers built out of maybe just fifty or sixty atoms. Lined up a handful of atoms and locked them in place to spell out those three letters.'
'Hey, yeah. I was in maybe tenth grade. Our science teacher showed us a picture of it.'
'They photographed it with a camera hooked up to a powerful electron microscope.'
'But that was pretty much just a tiny sign, not a machine,' she objected. 'It didn't do anything.'
'Yeah, but platoons of researchers have been burning up a lot of development funds designing nanomachines that will work. Machines that already do.'
'Teeny-tiny fairy machines.'
'If you want to think of it that way, yes.'
'Eventually, when the technology's perfected, the applications are going to be incredible, virtually infinite, especially in the medical field.'
Jilly tried to imagine at least one of the infinite applications of teeny-tiny machines performing teeny-tiny tasks. She sighed. 'I've spent too much of my life writing jokes, telling jokes, and stealing jokes. Now I feel like a joke. What applications?'