Chapter 6: Momma
Chapter 4: Purple Sequins

Chapter 5: XXX SM

At the beginning of October, ninth grade students were told they'd be participating in 'bring your son or daughter to work week'. Afterward, they'd have one week to turn in a six-hundred-word essay. Sam wrote six-hundred-word essays in her sleep; twenty-five hundred was her current limit. The problem with having only six hundred words was you had to pack it with relevant and coherent information. There was no room for fluff, or, as her mother called it, the BS Factor. She'd used the BS Factor on more than one occasion. She didn't like it; Sam liked to turn in good work, exceptional work, but sometimes her bandwidth was shot.

She was 98% certain neither parent would be willing (she was right), and dead sure she no longer had a clue what either of them did. Both were weird as hell, but her dad was mostly still adjusting to his butterfly eyes. Her mother was morphing into something Sam couldn't identify. Her mother's title was ridiculous, but Sam chose American Ophthalmologists over Henry, Stark, & Barton anyway.

Sam was interested in the science behind her father’s eyes. She thought the AO team was a little disorganized but had no interest in the Middle Management drama of Corporate America. Copying and pasting the word clusterfuck six hundred times would get a laugh followed by a meeting with both parents and the school shrink. She didn’t have the time.

Sam’s plan depended on her mother being home Sunday night and it meant sending Jeffry to Mr. Hunter at 4:45 AM. Reed was more than happy to take Jeffry but suggested he stay for the night to avoid getting all three of them up before dawn. Jeffry would not be missed.

Mr. Hunter wanted to know how Sam meant to get her mother to agree to this. Sam couldn't say why she couldn't say, only that she mustn't. That was unnecessary and dangerous information.

There was a very small chance that Mr. Hunter might find himself within Laura Franklin's range, and if he happened to be thinking about it, she would know. Sam had figured out how to block her mother at the end of September, which wasn't all that difficult because Laura wasn't paying attention to what she’d labeled ‘juvenile white noise’. Assuming Laura hadn't spent the night in the lab, she left the house promptly at 5:15.

On Monday morning, Laura left Matt standing in the shower wondering how long he could keep up with a wife who'd developed the appetite of a seventeen-year-old boy. He was afraid to say no in the morning. Afraid she'd stop coming home entirely. He firmly believed that her twice weekly returns to the family home had very little to do with the kids and everything to do with needing to blow off a little steam. He'd have gotten pissy about it but consoled himself with the belief that if she came home a couple nights a week, she wasn't blowing off steam elsewhere. 

At 4:45 they were both still in the shower and Sam was finishing the modifications on a skirt and blouse to create a passable private school uniform. She thought it conveyed maturity and hoped her mother's peers saw a junior scientist in the making, and not a grubby kid. 

Sam thought about climbing in the trunk but wasn't sure she'd be able to get out. She hunkered down in the back seat instead. She couldn't get all of herself on the floor, but enough that a solid slouch would render her mostly unnoticeable which wasn't really the issue. Laura might not bother to process the 'juvenile white noise', but that didn't mean she wouldn't hear it. Sam's solution was to put herself to sleep, at least mostly asleep. She researched alpha waves and thought she could quiet her brain with meditation and breath control. She also knew she had to put herself in this state before her mother got to the car. 

She needn't have worried. Laura slid into the driver's seat humming ‘Dear Prudence’. Most of Laura was thinking about Margaret, but one little bit was still in the shower with Matt. Sam crammed more of herself onto the floor and went back for her alpha waves.

She peeked out the side window when they stopped. Her mom had her own parking space right in front of the Welcome bench and Sam panicked. There wasn't enough distance to exit ten seconds after her mother closed the car door. It was going to take way less than that for her mother to reach the locked doors and Sam would end up with her nose pressed against the glass with no chance of catching up. Her mother's domain required a keycard and a thumb print. The front door would open by itself at 8, but that wasn't helpful.

It's a ‘Hail Mary Pass’, said the idiot in Sam's brain. God! Where the hell did that come from? The idiot in Sam’s brain had been discussing the merits of a ‘Hail Mary Pass’ for a week. Sam's Hail Mary Pass involved cracking her own door in tandem with her mother's, but the engine had to be off, or the doors might ding out of sequence. She meant to slip from the seat, crouch on the ground, and push the door closed while her mother was making sure she had all her shit.

Half the Hail Mary worked. She was on the ground, still invisible, but her mother was moving with a purpose. Sam got up and ran. Ten feet from the door, Laura came to an abrupt halt. Why was she hearing white noise? The white noise sounded suspiciously like juvenile white noise and Sam's mother wasn't quite as checked out as Sam hoped. 

Laura didn't bother turning around. "Samantha Blue Franklin, what the HELL are you doing in this parking lot?!”

"It's ‘bring your son or daughter to work week’, Mom! I picked you. It was a tough choice, but I'm more interested in women in the workplace. Specifically, really smart women with a lot of power."

"Samantha. I cannot bring you in this building. You do not have clearance. Not any sort of clearance."

"I have enough clearance to sit with Christie at Reception."

"So now you're going to work with Christie?"

"If I have to, yeah."

"What makes you think Christie has any substantial power?"

"Mom. Really? You think I still think Christie's a receptionist? I think Christie's a player. I think Christie's probably got the same clearance as you."

"Wow. And how did you come to this conclusion?"

"Because I pay attention. I know you noticed when I was two, but maybe you got used to it."

"Yeah, well, I decided you were a little weird and would probably outgrow it."

"Like you outgrew it?"

"Jesus. OK, come on. Let's see if I've really got enough clout to pull this off. You're going to have to sign a whole lot of waivers..."

"Yeah, about that. I already have them. They're in my pack, notarized, all ready to go. I signed the ones for you too. The notary didn't seem to notice. I guess she just looked at Franklin. Some people don't think at all."

"Probably best if I don't ask where you got the forms, right?"

"Yup. That would be for the best."

Sam couldn't decide if it would be better to make herself small and hover behind her mother, or stand up straight, as if she was meant to be there. She excelled at both but didn't have a read on anyone other than Dr. Evans and Christie, who always seemed glad to see her. She set her jaw and squared her shoulders.

"Laura, would it be better to look like a midget observer, or a quiet sociopath? I can still pull off the standard nine-year-old model as long as I keep my mouth shut."

"Laura? When did you stop calling me Mom?"

"About four years ago. So?"

"So, I guess the truth might be the best approach today. I'll get you a lab coat. We can roll the sleeves up; a couple of staples ought to keep them in place. Did you say nine? When did nine happen?"

"Think hard, Mom. In which month did you deliver your first child?"

"Shit, Sam, I'm sorry, honey. Add that to the Bad Mother list you've got taped to my back."

Apparently, Laura wasn't kidding about the white coat. Christie was startled by Sam's presence but pulled out an XXX SM from the closet in reception. No staples required. The spare XXX SM belonged to one of the lab techs who hadn't quite reached the hopeful 4'6" goal on his parent's wall chart.

The last thing Christie gave Sam, was a security badge. Sam was photographed and digitally thumb printed. The hard plastic badge was generated and spit out of the paper shredder under the reception desk. Christie slipped it into a clear plastic sleeve, attached it to a lanyard, and dropped it over Sam’s head. The shredder spit out TS credentials for one Samantha Blue, Chief Thought Planer, Delta R&D. Laura asked if Christie might possibly have just committed treason. Christie was not amused.

"Good lord, Laura, do you really think we'd have hired you without including your family on a modified TS rider?”

Laura smelled misinformation but let it go. She asked if Christie might hold onto Sam during the debrief meeting. Under normal circumstances, Christie would have jumped at the chance to interrogate the kid, but this was an all-hands meeting. Everyone short of the cleaning crew was required and they liked to stand in the back and watch the show.

Laura shrugged and handed Sam a clipboard and pen. "Be quiet. Take a lot of notes. Or doodle, I don't really care." Sam gave her mother a look and asked if anyone had witnessed her produce so much as an accidental doodle with either hand. Laura decided the question was rhetorical and recalled what happened the first time they put a crayon in her chubby little baby hand.

"Write neatly", she said. "Use lots of bullets and stick to big words; the more unpronounceable, the better. If Kevin from Legal is with us today, he'll be asking to see it, but unlikely to process more than 20%." Christie laughed, "You're giving him WAY too much credit. Let's go with 5%, and that's after we strike out any word with more than four syllables." 

Sam looked at the ubiquitous analog clock on the wall and said they were three minutes late. "Oh, that clock's fast... I think." Christie grabbed Sam by the collar and trotted her to the elevator bank, "Your mom will follow us. I don't want you walking through that door together".

Laura had a slight clicky feeling in her hands and cringed. A single ‘glick’ escaped and she slapped both hands over her mouth.

The conference room was on the ground floor; converted from part of the original lab, it still had outlets in odd locations. Latecomers were often forced into the southeast corner, where overhead surgical lighting was still in place. AO was told it would cost too much to remove them, and some jackass from Delta thought it might be kind of cool to have a couple of naturally occurring interrogation seats.

Christie took Sam to the other side of the room and sat her next to one of the an analyst. She whispered, "Do not open your mouth", before seating herself with Margaret, Laura, and Dr. Evans in the southeast corner. Sam immediately turned and introduced herself to the analyst. "How big is your data lake?", she asked.

The analyst blinked and looked at Sam's card. "This is a test, right? You're Delta R&D, you probably built the damn things."

Sam wrinkled her nose. "I'm sorry, that was rude. I was trying to make conversation and I'm a little awkward around people. It wasn't a trick question. I just don't have much opportunity to talk to people who actually use it." 

The analyst used up one of the four smiles he'd allocated for the month and proceeded to do what all analysts do: talk incessantly about their data. This one grabbed her clipboard and drew a quick schematic. "It's not a data lake. It's a freaking ocean. I know you know that, but diagrams are useful for when I forget what I’m talking about." 

Dr. Webb entered the room flanked by Kevin 'I'm from Legal' Simons and the dolt Margaret forced into a hazmat suit. She made a minor adjustment to her initial assessment despite the absurd first name.

Christie, Dr. Evans, Margaret, and Laura intentionally chose the interrogation seats. Sometimes you can hide more under bright light than the back of a dark closet.

The consensus was that Dr. Webb would begin the questioning and Dr. Webb liked to start at the punchline. ‘Leave 'em in cold flop sweat with a cortisol overdose!’ No matter how they responded, by the time Webb thought he was done, he'd either barely touched the surface or headed down a rabbit hole.  He found the flop sweat and white faces refreshing.

What Margaret found during surgery had already made Corporate headlines. They agreed the best way to walk out of the room in one piece was to laugh it off and exclaim, 'I wish!' Margaret agreed to be the first to burst into tears. It made sense; it was her baby gone belly up. Laura refused to cry under any circumstances; didn't think she could muster up tears even if she wanted to. "It's just not in my DNA, people, Margaret can attest to that." Margaret nodded vigorously. Evans thought he'd never stop if he started.

Christie giggled. "Shit! I can do that at the drop of a hat. I can turn it right back off too!" They all thought she might be a little too shiny today; Christie looked like she’d dusted herself with a handful of glitter.

The Dolt approached the podium and the room quieted. Nobody expected him to do anything other than introduce Dr. Webb which is why most of the room missed the first two sentences. Sam heard him, but wanted to hear it again. She was writing frantically but stopped to raise her hand.

The Dolt squinted in her general direction and wondered if this group had a thing for underdeveloped adults. The Dolt considered any adult under 5'2" untrustworthy and decided Sam was an idiot for raising her hand. Sam was an idiot for raising her hand until she said, "I'm sorry, could you repeat the last two sentences? I'm not sure the room caught everything." He backed up and started over.

"Right, OK, everybody focused?" Forty-eight heads nodded and the forty-ninth gave Mr. Anderson a toothy grin and a thumbs up on the way out the door. Dr. Webb was officially off the docket.

Mr. Anderson returned the gesture and started from the top. "I called this meeting a debrief. The purpose of a debrief is to bring people up to speed on an event or new development. You people probably know as much as I do at this point, so a debrief would be pointless. Is that what you're looking for, Ms. Blue?" Laura slumped in her seat and covered her face.

Sam sat up straighter and nodded her head. "Yes, thank you. I think we're all on the same page now. Please continue." 

"As I was saying, this isn't a debrief, it's a postmortem. Postmortems are for figuring out what the hell went wrong and how to NEVER DO IT AGAIN. I'm going to start by asking the team trying to hide over there under the surgical lights to tell us what they think went wrong.”

Four bodies slunk floorward. 

“Let's start with...Christie! Christie, what can you tell us about the unauthorized implants?" Christie promptly burst into tears. Somebody passed a box of tissues; the Dolt folded his hands on the podium and waited. She decided standing up might be more effective; even better if she was a little wobbly getting out of the chair. 

“I was aware that Dr. Evans was going to need to spend a great deal of time with Mrs. Franklin. I don't mean to suggest she was slow coming up to speed, but there was just so much critical information to disseminate.

The Dolt said, "Stop right there. This woman has TS clearance and wasn't properly read in?"

"No, I don't mean that at all. You can be properly read in, but the dissemination of that much information in the standard format would have stopped the project cold for at least three months." The Dolt decided to drill into that later and motioned for Christie to continue.

"As you know, Dr. Evans was pulled out of the lab to work directly with the subject, the subject's family, and the subject’s best friend." Laura blanched. Christie grinned and continued. "This left Margaret to manage the lab by herself. We lost two assistant researchers almost immediately and didn't get a tech in here until last month. We needed to facilitate real time communication. Either that or figure out how to put Dr. Evans in two places at once. Cough. We already got our hands slapped for that.”

Christie paused to let Mr. Anderson digest the last three sentences.

“Margaret's solution was to use a standard implant modified for synchronous communication in addition to capturing relevant asynchronous data. Dr. Evans banked the data for afterhours review."

"Christie. That's just fine, but what the hell was going on? An implant's an implant but Margaret has been using bots to collect information. What kind of bot did Margaret unleash in Mrs. Franklin? What did she do to Dr. Evans? I'd be willing to bet that even if the bots were related, they were second cousins once removed at best. And Christie, regardless of your receptionist job description, we know perfectly well you're writing 95% of the code these days. No offense to Margaret, but you run circles around her in that department. I'd go so far as to suggest the code you write is the driver behind Margaret's R&D, not the other way around."

Fucknuts.

"Would you like to continue? We can move on to Margaret, but she's not going to tell me how it works."

"Margaret wouldn't lie!"

"No, she wouldn't. Margaret would spill her guts if she had the right guts to spill. We already know what Margaret does, what she did, and more importantly, what she did not do."

The Dolt turned to face the room and paused. He scanned faces, considered body language, and appeared to be listening to something. He turned toward Sam's corner and said, "I believe we have a unicorn in the room."

The mostly unflappable Sam stood up and yelled, "THAT'S NOT MY DAMN NANO!"

*

“Fine, Unicorn, it’s not your damn nano. Unless I missed something, no one suggested it was your nano. Can we continue, please?” Sam closed her mouth and sat down. The Dolt was on a roll and the postmortem was beginning to smell like Instant Pot Interrogation. He grinned at the room.

"Who can define ‘Unicorn' within the context of microbiology and nanotechnology as applied to the field of nanomedicine? Not you, Sam, you sit down and stop bothering the analyst. Good lord, you must be a pain in the ass in the classroom."

"I am not a pain in the ass! Ask any of my teachers. I'm a model student; just your average nine-year-old high school freshman."

"The last thing you are is average, Sam. The current assessment suggests you'll be a ten-year-old senior and may graduate early. Sometime after winter break, Guidance will walk you through the college selection process, although Delta analysts suggest you take at least one gap year."

"Excuse me?"

"Sam, your current drivers indicate you may be heading in the direction of Human Services, which would be a tragic loss, not to mention a waste of your time and energy. You'll figure it out by the time you're fifteen; but that's a little late, don't you think?"

"What did you say your name was (scribbling furiously)?"

"Mr. Anderson."

"That's not even funny."

"And that's cultural bias, Sam. Now settle down."

Kevin 'I'm from legal', Simons stood up. "STOP writing! Right now! Pencil down, Ms. Blue. Stop writing and pass me the clipboard."

Sam passed the clipboard. "Let me know if you need help."

Simons flipped through the first three pages; he was genuinely distressed. Kevin ‘I’m from Legal’ Simons was looking at a series of bullets written in a language he couldn't identify. He set the clipboard down and glared across the room. 

"Do you know this is worse than what your mother did? A triple authentication process protecting encrypted files can be broken. We would have worked out the pin eventually, and if I'd had to remove her thumb and an eyeball, all the better. Also, we laugh at encryption."

"I don't think you'd be laughing at my mother's encryption any more than you're laughing about my notes now. I borrowed my mother's algorithm and applied it manually. Good luck getting the key; I don't really know what it is. If I think about it, it's not there. If I just write and read, well, no problem for me. Big problem for anyone other than my mother."

Laura stood up, seething, but Sam didn't flinch. She was starting to understand her mother, and with understanding comes compassion. Usually. Sam stood up and stared right back, except maybe not so snotty this time. "I'm sorry, Mom. I had no right to take your code. I could just as well have written my own, but I assumed yours would be much better"

"YOU HAD NO RIGHT TO TOUCH MY COMPUTER, YOU LITTLE SHIT!"

"Duly noted."

Kevin stood back up and requested a fifteen-minute recess, during which Sam could transcribe her notes to English. Sam declined. "I could write anything, what makes you think you'd get an accurate translation?"

Kevin sat down and jumped right back up again. "Wait. Just back the truck up. I can see how you might have the pin and, and you'd have no problem with the encryption, since it's clearly in use. I'm not sure I want to ask the next question..."

"I don't have her thumb or her eyeball. I didn't even borrow them. I already had what I needed."

Mr. Anderson put his hand up. Kevin closed his mouth. Looking around the room, Mr. Anderson asked if anyone could tell him how Sam got past the thumbprint and retinal scan. He looked like he was having a good time, but the room had nothing to say. He turned to the four defendants. "The class doesn't seem to have an answer. How about any of you but NOT Mrs. Franklin. You keep your trap shut, woman. You're on very thin ice. Margaret?"

"Nope."

"Dr. Evans?"

"No sir, but I sure would appreciate an answer."

"And you shall have one. Christie! Would you like to share with the class?"

Christie turned on the tears and weak knees. Mr. Anderson told her to cut that shit out, nobody except Mr. Simons was buying it. She looked at Laura and mouthed, “I'm so sorry”, and straightened her neck with an audible crack. Sam raised her hand and jumped up and down like a nine-year-old.

"I know! I know! Pick me! Please pick me!" Mr. Anderson was disgusted. He was trying to out Christie. He already knew the answer and would have been shocked if anyone in that family, even Mr. Franklin, didn't have the answer. "Fine, let's hear it from the unicorn."

"I would think it would be obvious, but maybe I've overestimated you people." Kevin felt one of those weird migraines starting up. It felt like it had teeth.

"OK, this is really simple, and as I stated quite clearly, obviously obvious. I have my mother's hands and eyes. I have a few other parts as well, but they aren't relevant to this conversation." She held up her hands and waved them around. "Who would like to match the prints? And this part's even more impressive; who wants to compare retinal scans?  I've got to tell you, though, I've got her voice print when I need it and most importantly, I've perfected her signature!"

Laura stood up and stayed up. Christie could pull at her lab coat all day long, she wasn't sitting down. Dr. Evans was dumbfounded, "Are you crying? Shit, Laura, are those actual tears?"

"Fuck. You. Evans. Samantha Blue Franklin, you listen to me. It's one thing to accidentally discover unexpected attributes, but forgery is just wrong! And hurtful, Sam, you hurt me. You stole from me, and you lied. Forgery is a LIE." 

"Mom! I'm sorry! I didn't have a choice. You weren't there! I had to pay for Jeffry's early care, which, by the way, is $200 a week and my net worth is currently nine dollars and eleven cents. That's Jeffry's emergency lunch money. Also, just to get it on the table, that last bit was outright theft. I take a little out of Daddy's pockets when it's there. But it's for a very good cause, don't you think? I would never send my baby brother to school without lunch, he can't even tie his shoes!"

"Stop! All of you, just stop! I'm not interested in being a circus master even if you ARE my monkeys and this IS, unfortunately, my circus. Except for the defensive witnesses and Sam, oh, also, you, analyst next to Sam, I want this room cleared in the next ninety seconds."

Mr. Anderson looked at the sweeping hand on the analog clock, "Now!"

A stampede of forty-one, plus the janitorial staff in the back, crashed through the door.

"Kevin. Why are you still here? Do you require assistance?"

"Uh, I'm with legal, I'm always here. It's a rule." 

"It's an AO rule. This is a Delta meeting and I supersede legal. Consider yourself redundant and kindly get the hell out."

Kevin slouched from the room with Sam's clipboard under one arm. The analyst handed her a spare.

The conference table was an arc with a podium at the opening. The panel of witnessing defendants sat at the back of the arc. Mr. Anderson dimmed all but one of the surgical lights, leaving the panel in shadow. Say what you will about lack of personality, the man had a fine grasp on theatrics. He placed a chair in front of the panel, directly below the last light, looked at Sam, and pointed to the seat.

Sam crawled across the table and took up what she hoped wasn't going to be permanent residency in the interrogation seat. Instead of returning to the podium, Mr. Anderson walked around the arc and took a seat to the left of the panel, just out of reach of Mrs. Franklin. Mrs. Franklin was about thirteen seconds from a psychotic break and he'd rather she took it out on Evans. He had it coming.

This entire project was a shit show, but he was the corporate sponsor. Going back to the board with his project in ashes wasn't an option. He didn't have more than a handful of options at this point, but the board wasn't on that list.

The last thing on that list, a thing that appeared to be coming at him like a freight train, was to ask Margaret for a makeover. He would ask for 'the works'; everything she had, including finger and voice prints, and most importantly, his eyes. He was pretty sure she'd do it just to get rid of him.  He added a Belize passport to the list and then blinked and pushed the Caribbean away. For now. He reminded himself to breathe and stood up.

"First, I want to congratulate you as a team for the progress you've made in the last six months. You have exceeded all expectations, and you should be proud. Hell, even I'm proud." He glanced in Laura's direction; T-3 he thought, and took another step to the left. T-2. Maybe I should just wait for it, clean up the mess, and start from the top. To speed things up, Mr. Anderson asked Laura how she was feeling.

He used his most compassionate voice, which wasn't compassionate at all. At best, it might be perceived as neutral. She wasn't looking at him. She didn't even look at Christie for support; just her white knuckled hands crushed into fists. "Laura, I asked how you were feeling; do you think you can continue? We could always pick this up in the morning."

Margaret shot up out of her seat, smacking her knees in the process. She'd raised the seat to highchair level and forgotten. He wished she'd smacked her chin on the table on the way to the floor, spiteful brat, but she landed on her feet.

"Cooper. This has gone far enough. None of us are going to learn anything if you continue to lead this zigzag backtracking path.”

Cooper?! What the fuck, that’s not even in my file!

“In the interest of conducting an actual postmortem, which doesn’t appear to be one of your strong suits, I'd like to step in. Consider me your relief pitcher; Rivera or Williams, your pick." "Williams isn't a pitcher, Margaret." "Good catch, Coop; but you gotta admit, he OWNED center field." 

Coop?!!! NOBODY calls me Coop!

"We can hear you, Coop. I'd be god smacked if you hadn't worked that out yet."

Dr. Evans whispered: "it's gob smacked, Margaret, gob smacked." 

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