"To consult," I said. "Yes."
"Consulting's the way to go," he said, nodding as if I were an ally. "No responsibility. No liability. Just give your opinion, and watch them not take it." With a crackle, the pilot's voice broke in over the headsets. "Xymos Molecular Manufacturing is dead ahead," he said. "You can just see it now."
Twenty miles in front of us, I saw an isolated cluster of low buildings silhouetted on the horizon. The PR people in the back all leaned forward.
"Is that it?" said Growly. "That's all it is?"
"It's bigger than it looks from here," the pilot said.
As the helicopter came closer, I could see that the buildings were interlocked, featureless concrete blocks, all whitewashed. The PR people were so pleased they almost burst into applause. "Hey, it's beautiful!"
"Looks like a fucking hospital."
"It'll photograph great."
I said, "Why will it photograph great?"
"Because it has no projections," the man with the briefcase said. "No antennas, no spikes, no things poking up. People are afraid of spikes and antennas. There are studies. But a building that's plain and square like this, and white-perfect color choice, associations to virginal, hospital, cure, pure-a building like this, they don't care."
"Those environmentalists are fucked," said Growly, with satisfaction. "They do medical research here, right?"
"Not exactly ..."
"They will when I get through, trust me. Medical research is the way to go on this."
The pilot pointed out the different buildings as he circled them. "That first concrete block, that's power. Walkway to that low building, that's the residences. Next door, fab support, labs, whatever. And then the square windowless three-story one, that's the main fab building. They tell me it's a shell, it's got another building inside it. Then over to the right, that low flat shed, that's external storage and parking. Cars have to be under shade here, or the dashboards buckle. Get a first-degree burn if you touch your steering wheel." I said, "And they have residences?"
The pilot nodded. "Yeah. Have to. Nearest motel is a hundred and sixty-one miles. Over near Reno."
"So how many people live in this facility?" Growly said.
"They can take twelve," the pilot said. "But they've generally got about five to eight. Doesn't take a lot to run the place. It's all automated, from what I hear."
"What else do you hear?"
"Not very damn much," the pilot said. "They're closed-mouthed about this place. I've never even been inside."
"Good," said Growly. "Let's make sure they keep it that way."
The pilot turned the stick in his hand. The helicopter banked, and started down. I opened the plastic door in the bubble cockpit, and started to get out. It was like stepping into an oven. The blast of heat made me gasp.
"This is nothing!" the pilot shouted, over the whirr of the blades. "This is almost winter! Can't be more than a hundred and five!"
"Great," I said, inhaling hot air. I reached in the back for my overnight bag and my laptop. I'd stowed them under the seat of the timid man.
"I have to take a piss," said Growly, releasing his seat belt.
"Dave ..." said the man with the briefcase, in a warning tone.
"Fuck, it's just for a minute."
"Dave-" an embarrassed glance toward me, then lowering his voice: "They said, we don't get out of the helicopter, remember?"
"Aw hell. I can't wait another hour. Anyway, what's the difference?" He gestured toward the surrounding desert. "There's nothing the fuck out here for a million miles."
"You guys give me a pain. I'm going to pee, damn it." He hefted his bulk up, and moved toward the door.
I didn't hear the rest of their conversation because by then I had taken off my earphones. Growly was clambering out. I grabbed my bags, turned and moved away, crouched beneath the blades. They cast a flickering shadow on the pad. I came to the edge of the pad where the concrete ended abruptly in a dirt path that threaded among the clumps of cholla cactus toward the blocky white power building fifty yards away. There was no one to greet me-in fact, no one in sight at all.
Looking back, I saw Growly zip up his trousers and climb back into the helicopter. The pilot pulled the door shut and lifted off, waving to me as he rose into the air. I waved back, then ducked away from the swirl of spitting sand. The helicopter circled once and headed west. The sound faded.
The desert was silent except for the hum of the electrical power lines a few hundred yards away. The wind ruffled my shirt, flapped my trouser legs. I turned in a slow circle, wondering what to do now. And thinking about the words of the PR guy: They said, we don't get out of the helicopter, remember?
"Hey! Hey, you!"
I looked back. A door had cracked open in the white power block. A man's head stuck out. He shouted, "Are you Jack Forman?"
"Yes," I said.
"Well, what the hell you waiting for, an engraved invitation? Get inside, for Chrissake."
And he slammed the door shut again.
That was my welcome to the Xymos Fabrication Facility. Lugging my bags, I trudged down the dirt path toward the door.
Things never turn out the way you expect.
* * *
I stepped into a small room, with dark gray walls on three sides. The walls were some smooth material like Formica. It took my eyes a moment to adjust to the relative darkness. Then I saw that the fourth wall directly ahead of me was entirely glass, leading to a small compartment and a second glass wall. The glass walls were fitted with folding steel arms, ending in metal pressure pads. It looked a little bit like what you'd expect to see in a bank vault. Beyond the second glass wall I could see a burly man in blue trousers and a blue work shirt, with the Xymos logo on the pocket. He was clearly the plant maintenance engineer. He gestured to me.
"It's an airlock. Door's automatic. Walk forward."
I did, and the nearest glass door hissed open. A red light came on. In the compartment ahead, I saw grillwork on floor, ceiling, and both walls. I hesitated. "Looks like a fuckin' toaster, don't it?" the man said, grinning. He had some teeth missing. "But don't worry, it'll just blow you a little. Come ahead."
I stepped into the glass compartment, and set my bag on the ground.
"No, no. Pick the bag up."
I picked it up again. Immediately, the glass door behind me hissed shut, the steel arms unfolding smoothly. The pressure pads sealed with a thunk. I felt a slight discomfort in my ears as the airlock pressurized. The man in blue said, "You might want to close your eyes." I closed my eyes and immediately felt chilling spray strike my face and body from all sides. My clothes were soaked. I smelled a stinging odor like acetone, or nail polish remover. I began to shiver; the liquid was really cold.
The first blast of air came from above my head, a roar that quickly built to hurricane intensity. I stiffened my body to steady myself. My clothes flapped and pressed flat against my body. The wind increased, threatening to tear the bag from my hand. Then the air stopped for a moment, and a second blast came upward from the floor. It was disorienting, but it only lasted a few moments. Then with a whoosh the vacuum pumps kicked in and I felt a slight ache in my ears as the pressure dropped, like an airplane descending. Then silence. A voice said, "That's it. Come ahead."
I opened my eyes. The liquid they'd sprayed on me had evaporated; my clothes were dry. The doors hissed open before me. I stepped out and the man in blue looked at me quizzically. "Feel okay?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"Good. We had a few people who were allergic to the stuff. But we've got to do this routine, for the clean rooms."
I nodded. It was obviously a procedure to remove dust and other contaminants. The dousing fluid was highly volatile, evaporating at room temperature, drawing off microparticles on my body and clothes. The air jets and vacuum completed the scrub. The procedure would remove any loose particles on my body and suck them away.
"I'm Vince Reynolds," the man said, but he didn't hold out his hand. "You call me Vince. And you're Jack?"
I said I was.
"Okay, Jack," he said. "They're waiting for you, so let's get started. We got to take precautions, because this is an HMF, that's high magnetic field environment, greater than 33 Tesla, so ..." He picked up a cardboard box. "Better lose your watch." I put the watch in the box.
"And the belt."
I took my belt off, put it in the box.
"Any other jewelry? Bracelet? Necklace? Piercings? Decorative pins or medals? MedicAlert?"
"How about metal inside your body? Old injury, bullets, shrapnel? No? Any pins for broken arms or legs, hip or knee replacement? No? Artificial valves, artificial cartilage, vascular pumps or implants?"
I said I didn't have any of those things.
"Well, you're still young," he said. "Now how about in your bag?" He made me take everything out and spread it on a table, so he could rummage through it. I had plenty of metal in there: another belt with a metal buckle, nail clippers, a can of shaving cream, razor and blades, a pocket knife, blue jeans with metal rivets ...
He took the knife and the belt but left the rest. "You can put your stuff back in the bag," he said. "Now, here's the deal. Your bag goes to the residence building, but no farther. Okay? There's an alarm at the residence door if you try to take any metal past there. But do me a favor and don't set it off, okay? 'Cause it shuts down the magnets as a safety procedure and it takes about two minutes to start 'em up again. Pisses the techs off, especially if they're fabbing at the time. Ruins all their hard work."
I said I would try to remember.
"The rest of your stuff stays right here." He nodded to the wall behind me; I saw a dozen small safes, each with an electronic keypad. "You set the combination and lock it up yourself." He turned aside so I could do that.
"I won't need a watch?"
He shook his head. "We'll get you a watch."
"What about a belt?"
"We'll get you a belt."
"And my laptop?" I said.
"It goes in the safe," he said. "Unless you want to scrub your hard drive with the magnetic field." I put the laptop in with the rest of my stuff, and locked the door. I felt strangely stripped, like a man entering prison. "You don't want my shoelaces, too?" I said, making a joke. "Nah. You keep those. So you can strangle yourself, if it turns out you need to."
"Why would I need to?"
"I really couldn't say." Vince shrugged. "But these guys working here? Let me tell you, they're all fucking crazy. They're making these teeny-weeny little things you can't see, pushing around molecules and shit, sticking 'em together. It's real tense and detailed work, and it makes them crazy. Every fucking one of 'em. Nutty as loons. Come this way." We passed through another set of glass doors. But this time, there was no spray.
* * *
We entered the power plant. Beneath blue halogen lamps, I saw huge metal tubs ten feet high, and fat ceramic insulators thick as a man's leg. Everything hummed. I felt a distinct vibration in the floor. There were signs all around with jagged red lightning bolts saying warning: lethal electrical currents!
"You use a lot of power here," I said.
"Enough for a small town," Vince said. He pointed to one of the signs. "Take those warnings seriously. We had problems with fires, a while back."
"Yeah. Got a nest of rats in the building. Buggers kept getting fried. Literally. I hate the smell of burning rat fur, don't you?"
"Never had that experience," I said.
"Smells like what you'd think."
"Uh-huh," I said. "How did the rats get in?"
"Up through the toilet bowl." I must have looked surprised, because Vince said, "Oh, you don't know that? Rats do that all the time, it's just a short swim for them to get in. 'Course, if it happened while you were sitting, it'd be a nasty surprise." He gave a short laugh. "Problem was the contractor for the building didn't bury the leach field deep enough. Anyhow, rats got in. We've had a few accidents like that since I've been here."
"Is that right? What kind of accidents?"
He shrugged. "They tried to make these buildings perfect," he said. "Because they're working with such small-size things. But it's not a perfect world, Jack. Never has been. Never will be." I said again, "What kind of accidents?"
By then we had come to the far door, with a keypad, and Vince punched in numbers quickly. The door clicked open. "All the doors are keyed the same. Oh six, oh four, oh two." Vince pushed the door wide, and we stepped into a covered passageway connecting the power plant to the other buildings. It was stifling hot here, despite the roar of the air conditioner. "Contractor," Vince explained. "Never balanced the air handlers right. We had 'em back five times to fix it, but this passage is always hot."
At the end of the corridor was another door, and Vince had me punch in the code myself. The door clicked open.
I faced another airlock: a wall of thick glass, with another wall a few feet beyond. And behind that second wall, I saw Ricky Morse in jeans and a T-shirt, grinning and waving cheerfully to me.
His T-shirt said, "Obey Me, I Am Root."
It was an inside joke. In the UNIX operating system, it meant the boss.
Over an intercom speaker, Ricky said, "I'll take it from here, Vince."
Vince waved. "No problem."
"You fix that positive pressure setting?"
"Did it an hour ago. Why?"
"It may not be holding in the main lab."
"I'll check it again," Vince said. "Maybe we got another leak somewhere." He slapped me on the back, jerked his thumb toward the interior of the building. "Lots of luck in there." Then he turned and walked back the way he came.
"It's great to see you," Ricky said. "You know the code to get in?" I said I did. He pointed to a keypad. I punched the numbers in. The glass wall slid sideways. I stepped into another narrow space about four feet wide, with metal grills on all four sides. The wall closed behind me.
A fierce blast of air shot up from the floor, puffing up my trouser legs, ruffling my clothing. Almost immediately it was followed by blasts of air coming from both sides, then from top, blowing down hard on my hair and shoulders. Then a whoosh of vacuum. The glass in front of me slid laterally. I smoothed down my hair and stepped out.
"Sorry about that." Ricky shook my hand vigorously. "But at least we don't have to wear bunny suits," he said. I noticed that he looked strong, healthy. The muscles in his forearms were defined.
I said, "You look good, Ricky. Working out?"
"Oh, you know. Not really."
"You're pretty cut," I said. I punched him on the shoulder.
He grinned. "Just tension on the job. Did Vince frighten you?"
"Not exactly ..."
"He's a little strange," Ricky said. "Vince grew up alone out in the desert with his mother. She died when he was five. Body was pretty decomposed when they finally found her. Poor kid, he just didn't know what to do. I guess I'd be strange, too." Ricky gave a shrug. "But I'm glad you're here, Jack. I was afraid you wouldn't come." Despite Ricky's apparent good health, I was noticing now that he seemed nervous, edgy. He led me briskly down a short hallway. "So. How's Julia?"
"Broke her arm, and hit her head pretty badly. She's in the hospital for observation. But she's going to be all right."
"Good. That's good." He nodded quickly, continuing down a corridor. "Who's taking care of the kids?"
I told him that my sister was in town.
"Then you can stay awhile? A few days?"
I said, "I guess. If you need me that long." Ordinarily, software consultants don't spend a lot of time on-site. One day, maybe two. Not more than that.
Ricky glanced over his shoulder at me. "Did Julia, ah, explain to you about this place?"
"Not really, no."
"But you knew she was spending a lot of time here."
I said, "Oh sure. Yes."
"The last few weeks, she came out almost every day on the helicopter. Stayed over a couple of nights, too."
I said, "I didn't know she took such an interest in manufacturing."
Ricky seemed to hesitate a moment. Then he said, "Well, Jack, this is a whole new thing ..." He frowned. "She really didn't tell you anything?"
"No. Not really. Why?"
He didn't answer.
He opened the far door and waved me through. "This is our residential module, where everybody sleeps and eats."
The air was cool after the passageway. The walls were the same smooth Formica material. I heard a low, continuous whoosh of air handlers. A series of doors opened off the hallway. One of them had my name on it, written in marker on a piece of tape. Ricky opened the door. "Home sweet home, Jack."
The room was monastic-a small bed, a tiny desk just large enough to hold a workstation monitor and keyboard. Above the bed, a shelf for books and clothes. All the furniture had been coated with smooth-flowing white plastic laminate. There were no nooks or crannies to hold stray particles of dirt. There was no window in the room either, but a liquid-crystal screen showed a view of the desert outside.
There was a plastic watch and a belt with a plastic buckle on the bed. I put them on.
Ricky said, "Dump your gear, and I'll give you the tour."
Still keeping his brisk pace, he led me into a medium-size lounge with a couch and chairs around a coffee table, and a bulletin board on the wall. All the furniture here was the same flowing plastic laminate. "To the right is the kitchen and the rec room with TV, video games, so forth." We entered the small kitchen. There were two people there, a man and a woman, eating sandwiches standing up. "I think you know these guys," Ricky said, grinning. And I did. They had been on my team at MediaTronics.
Rosie Castro was dark, thin, exotic-looking, and sarcastic; she wore baggy cargo shorts and a T-shirt tight across her large breasts, which read YOU WISH. Independent and rebellious, Rosie had been a Shakespearean scholar at Harvard before she decided, in her words, that "Shakespeare is fucking dead. For fucking centuries. There is nothing new to say. What's the point?" She transferred to MIT, became a protegee of Robert Kim, working on natural language programming. It turned out she was brilliant at it. And these days natural language programs were starting to involve distributed processing. Because it turned out people evaluate a sentence in several ways simultaneously, while it is being spoken; they don't wait until it is finished but rather they form expectations of what is coming. That's a perfect situation for distributed processing, which can work on a problem at several points simultaneously. I said, "Still wearing those T-shirts, Rosie." At MediaTronics, we'd had some trouble about the way she dressed.
"Hey. Keeps the boys awake," she said, shrugging.
"Actually, we ignore them." I turned to David Brooks, stiff, formal, obsessively neat, and almost bald at twenty-eight. He blinked behind thick glasses. "They're not that good, anyway," he said. Rosie stuck her tongue out at him.
David was an engineer, and he had an engineer's bluntness and lack of social skills. He was also full of contradictions; although he fussed over every detail of his work and appearance, on weekends he raced a dirt bike, often coming back covered in mud. He shook my hand enthusiastically. "I'm very glad you're here, Jack."
I said, "Somebody's going to have to tell me why you're all so glad to see me." Rosie said, "Well, it's because you know more about the multi-agent algorithms that-"
"I'm going to show him around first," Ricky said, interrupting. "Then we'll talk."
"Why?" Rosie said. "You want it to be a surprise?"
"Hell of a surprise," David said.
"No, not at all," Ricky said, giving them a hard look. "I just want Jack to have some background first. I want to go over that with him."
David looked at his watch. "Well, how much time do you think that will take? Because I figure we've got-"
"I said, Let me show him around, for Christ's sake!" Ricky was almost snarling. I was surprised; I'd never seen him lose his temper before. But apparently they had:
"Okay, okay, Ricky."
"Hey, you're the boss, Ricky."
"That's right, I am," Ricky said, still visibly angry. "And by the way, your break ended ten minutes ago. So let's get back to work." He looked into the adjoining game room. "Where are the others?"
"Fixing the perimeter sensors."
"You mean they're outside?"
"No, no. They're in the utility room. Bobby thinks there's a calibration problem with the sensor units."
"Great. Did anybody tell Vince?"
"No. It's software: Bobby's taking care of it."
It was at that point that my cell phone beeped. I was surprised, pulled it out of my pocket. I turned to the others. "Cell phones work?"
"Yeah," Ricky said, "we're wired here." He went back to his argument with David and Rosie. I stepped into the corridor and got my messages. There was only one, from the hospital, about Julia. "We understand you are Ms. Forman's husband, and if you could call us please as soon as possible ..." Then an extension for a Dr. Rana. I dialed back at once. The switchboard put me through. "ICU."
I asked for Dr. Rana, and waited until he came on. I said, "This is Jack Forman. Julia Forman's husband."
"Oh yes, Mr. Forman." A pleasant, melodic voice. "Thank you for calling back. I understand you accompanied your wife to the hospital last night. Yes? Well then you know the seriousness of her injuries, or should I say her potential injuries. We really do feel that she needs to have a thorough workup for cervical fracture, and for subdural hematoma, and she needs a pelvic fracture workup as well."
"Yes," I said. "That's what I was told last night. Is there a problem?"
"Actually, there is. Your wife is refusing treatment."
"Last night, she allowed us to take X-rays and to set the fractures in her wrist. We've explained to her that X-rays are limited in what we can see, and that it is quite important for her to have an MRI, but she is refusing that."
I said, "Why?"
"She says she doesn't need it."
"Of course she needs it," I said.
"Yes, she does, Mr. Forman," Rana said. "I don't want to alarm you but the concern with pelvic fracture is massive hemorrhaging into the abdomen and, well, bleeding to death. It can happen very quickly, and-"
"What do you want me to do?"
"We'd like you to talk to her."
"Of course. Put her on."
"Unfortunately, she's gone for some additional X-rays just now. Is there a number where you can be reached? Your cell phone? All right. One other thing, Mr. Forman, we weren't able to take a psychiatric history from your wife ..."
"Why is that?"
"She refuses to talk about it. I'm referring to drugs, any history of behavioral disorders, that kind of thing. Can you shed any light in that area?"
"I'll try ..."
"I don't want to alarm you, but your wife has been, well, a bit on the irrational side. At times, almost delusional."
"She's been under a lot of stress lately," I said.
"Yes, I am sure that contributes," Dr. Rana said smoothly. "And she has suffered a severe head injury, which we need to investigate further. I don't want to alarm you, but frankly it was the opinion of the psychiatric consult that your wife was suffering from a bipolar disorder, or a drug disorder, or both."
"I see ..."
"And of course such questions naturally arise in the context of a single-car automobile accident ..."
He meant that the accident might be a suicide attempt. I didn't think that was likely. "I have no knowledge of my wife taking drugs," I said. "But I have been concerned about her behavior for, oh, a few weeks now."
Ricky came over, and stood by me impatiently. I put my hand over the phone. "It's about Julia." He nodded, and glanced at his watch. Raised his eyebrows. I thought it was pretty odd, that he would push me when I was talking to the hospital about my wife-and his immediate superior. The doctor rambled on for a while, and I did my best to answer his questions, but the fact was I didn't have any information that could help him. He said he would have Julia call when she got back, and I said I would wait for the call. I flipped the phone closed. Ricky said, "Okay, fine. Sorry to rush you, Jack, but ... you know, I've got a lot to show you."
"Is there a time problem?" I said.
"I don't know. Maybe."
I started to ask what he meant by that, but he was already leading me forward, walking quickly. We left the residential area, passing through another glass door, and down another passageway. This passage, I noticed, was tightly sealed. We walked along a glass walkway suspended above the floor. The glass had little perforations, and beneath was a series of vacuum ducts for suction. By now I was growing accustomed to the constant hiss of the air handlers. Midway down the corridor was another pair of glass doors. We had to go through them one at a time. They parted as we went through, and closed behind us. Continuing on, I again had the distinct feeling of being in a prison, of going through a succession of barred gates, going deeper and deeper into something.
It might be all high-tech and shiny glass walls-but it was still a prison.
We came into a large room marked UTILITY and beneath it, MOLSTOCK/FABSTOCK/FEEDSTOCK. The walls and ceiling were covered with the familiar smooth plastic laminate. Large laminated containers were stacked on the floor. Off to the right I saw a row of big stainless-steel kettles, sunk below ground with lots of piping and valves surrounding them, and coming up to the first-floor level. It looked exactly like a microbrewery, and I was about to ask Ricky about it when he said, "So there you are!" Working at a junction box beneath a monitor screen were three more members of my old team. They looked slightly guilty as we came up, like kids caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Of course Bobby Lembeck was their leader. At thirty-five, Bobby now supervised more code than he wrote, but he could still write when he wanted to. As always, he was wearing faded jeans and a Ghost in the Shell T-shirt, his ubiquitous Walkman clamped to his waist. Then there was Mae Chang, beautiful and delicate, about as different from Rosie Castro as any woman could be. Mae had worked as a field biologist in Sichuan studying the golden snub-nosed monkey before turning to programming in her mid-twenties. Her time in the field, as well as her natural inclination, led her to be almost silent. Mae said very little, moved almost soundlessly, and never raised her voice-but she never lost an argument, either. Like many field biologists, she had developed the uncanny ability to slip into the background, to become unnoticed, almost to vanish.
And finally Charley Davenport, grumpy, rumpled, and already overweight at thirty. Slow and lumbering, he looked as if he had slept in his clothes, and in fact he often did, after a marathon programming session. Charley had worked under John Holland in Chicago and Doyne Farmer at Los Alamos. He was an expert in genetic algorithms, the kind of programming that mimicked natural selection to hone answers. But he was an irritating personality-he hummed, he snorted, talked to himself, and farted with noisy abandon. The group only tolerated him because he was so talented.
"Does it really take three people to do this?" Ricky said, after I'd shaken hands all around.
"Yes," Bobby said, "it does take three people, El Rooto, because it's complicated."
"Why? And don't call me El Rooto."
"I obey, Mr. Root."
"Just get on with it ..."
"Well," Bobby said, "I started to check the sensors after this morning's episode, and it looks to me like they're miscalibrated. But since nobody is going outside, the question is whether we're reading them wrong, or whether the sensors themselves are faulty, or just scaled wrong on the equipment in here. Mae knows these sensors, she's used them in China. I'm making code revisions now. And Charley is here because he won't go away and leave us alone."
"Shit, I have better things to do," Charley said. "But I wrote the algorithm that controls the sensors, and we need to optimize the sensor code after they're done. I'm just waiting until they stop screwing around. Then I'll optimize." He looked pointedly at Bobby. "None of these guys can optimize worth a damn."
Mae said, "Bobby can."
"Yeah, if you give him six months, maybe."
"Children, children," Ricky said. "Let's not make a scene in front of our guest." I smiled blandly. The truth was, I hadn't been paying attention to what they were saying. I was just watching them. These were three of my best programmers-and when they had worked for me, they had been self-assured to the point of arrogance. But now I was struck by how nervous the group was. They were all on edge, bickering, jumpy. And thinking back, I realized that Rosie and David had been on edge, too.
Charley started humming in that irritating way of his.
"Oh, Christ," Bobby Lembeck said. "Would you tell him to shut up?"
Ricky said, "Charley, you know we've talked about the humming."
Charley continued to hum.
Charley gave a long, theatrical sigh. He stopped humming.
"Thank you," Bobby said.
Charley rolled his eyes, and looked at the ceiling.
"All right," Ricky said. "Finish up quickly, and get back to your stations."