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Kevin Heber had never really believed in love at first sight. It was something that he had always taken on faith about the world of adulthood, like the work ethic, the appeal of unsweetened black coffee, or the notion that Wagner’s music might really be better than it sounds. Not that he had devoted a great amount of contemplation to the subject. Being an active and healthily curious fifteen-year-old with rapidly expanding horizons on how much there was to do in life, he was more preoccupied with trying to fit a constellation of interests that was constantly growing, into a residue of twenty-four hours which, after deductions for even minimal eating, sleeping, and necessary chores, seemed to be all-the-time shrinking.

Well, it probably wasn’t really love, he told himself—not if the things that adults liked to tell smugly about life’s complications always getting worse, never better, were to be believed; or the words of the songs that they got sentimental over, that dated from somewhere in that vague span of time between the appearance of personal computers and the last ice age. But any reaction that could make him turn his head away from the screen not once but a second time, and fixedly, just when he and Taki had found the error that had been hanging up the tactile-array interrupt routine, had to be somewhere on the same emotional continent.

He watched as she stepped out of the white Buick that had just parked in one of the visitor slots downstairs, opposite the company’s main entrance. A stocky Oriental was straightening up from the passenger side. "Wow!" Kevin murmured. "Look who just showed up with your uncle."

Taki, hunched on the stool next to him, glanced away from the sheet of printout and down through the lab window. He was second generation Japanese-American, the same age as Kevin, almost as smart—when he wasn’t thinking up bad jokes—and the only other person able to see the world the way it really was, i.e. the way Kevin saw it. "Her name’s Michelle Lang," Taki said, looking back at the printout. "She’s his business lawyer."

Kevin blinked. "She . . . is a lawyer? . . ."

"Yes, I forgot—he said he was bringing her here today to meet your dad and see the mecs for herself. She’s from a law firm somewhere in the city." Taki indicated a block of code with his pen. "What if we moved those lines outside the loop?"

It was an instantly captivating, indefinable quality that combined looks, dress, and poise that did it, Kevin thought to himself, propping an elbow on the worktop and cupping his chin in a hand. "Style" would be the word, he supposed. She was tall and slim for her size, with long, off-blond hair tied back in a ponytail from a tapering, high-boned face that was eye-catching in an angular kind of way, though not really the Hollywood or fashion-model concept of beautiful. She was wearing a tan two-piece with a contoured skirt that enhanced her ample proportion of leg, and carried a brown leather purse on a shoulder strap. No briefcase. That appealed to Kevin straight away—a lawyer who didn’t have to be in uniform all the time. And there was something about the unhurried way she turned after closing the car door and stood for a moment surveying the Neurodyne building curiously that set her apart from the typical visitors who hurried inside as if intimidated by the thought of being watched from a score of anonymous office windows. With the touch of haughtiness in the way she tossed her head, she could have come to buy the place.

Ohira, by contrast, black hair cropped short, crumpled suit draped awkwardly on his broad figure, looked more as if he might have come to deliver something to it, were it not for the giveaway flashes glittering from his fingers. He took a last draw from his cigarette, crushed out the butt with his shoe, and joined the lawyer behind the car. They walked together toward the main entrance to the building and disappeared beneath the forecourt canopy.

"It would speed things up a lot," Taki said.

Kevin pulled himself back from thoughts of lithesome goddesses and fair-skinned mountain maids. "What?"

"If we moved those lines of code outside the inner loop. It would speed up the scan sequencing."

"Move which lines?"

"These. The ones I’m pointing at."

"Oh, sure. I was wondering how much longer it would take you to spot that."

"Yeah, right." Taki moved the keyboard closer and began entering the changes.

Kevin looked around at the laser heads, control consoles, and other equipment filling the partitioned space of the Micro-Machining Area. Patti Jukes, one of the technicians, was at the bench on the far side, manipulating something under a binocular microscope. Larry Stromer, the supervisor, stood nearby, cleaning a batch of substrates. It was quiet for early afternoon, which was why Kevin and Taki were able to use one of the computer stations. There was definitely something to be said for having an easygoing scientist for a father, who just happened to own the company, Kevin couldn’t deny.

Then he looked back out the window at the Buick—sleek lined, a creamy off-white with black side-stripe and trim, looking sexy, gleaming, and racy. And there were times when it seemed that the fascination with technology that he had grown up with could result in existence becoming too restricted and narrow.

Life continually pressed its confusion of opposites, such as the conflicting advice that young people were assailed with. On the one hand, they were urged to make the effort to broaden their outlook; and then, at other times, to concentrate on what they were good at and not waste the best years pursuing futility—and usually by the same people. The easiest thing was to agree with everything and not take too much notice of either line. After all, wasn’t it another of the standard dictums that nothing teaches like experience?

He sighed, turned to the other screen that they were using, and called down a simulation routine to test the patch.

Eric Heber’s office was on the top floor of the building, oriented to frame Mount Rainier’s snowy, thirty-mile-distant peak in the window to one side of the desk. According to Ohira, he had moved here out of Seattle when he set up his own company three years previously.

Michelle could see the attraction of being located a half mile off the Interstate, here at the south end of Tacoma: a guaranteed stress-reliever after the urban congestion, easy to get to from any direction, and handy for Seatac International Airport. Also, it was less than half an hour by car from Heber’s home, which Ohira said was somewhere just west of Olympia, the state capital. It seemed an ideal situation—close to town and his work, yet in easy reach of the Olympic Peninsula with its mountains and forest, and the Pacific Coast beyond; and the big city was always there in the other direction when he needed it. Michelle guessed him as somebody who knew himself and lived for his own values without too much concern for others’ expectations.

His office seemed to corroborate the image. It looked more the office of someone at heart the maverick scientist that Ohira had described, than the successful company president that Heber had ostensibly become. The modular walnut desk and credenza, glass-fronted bookcase, and coffee-style conference table, along with the tubular chairs and other accessories were all appropriately matched and imposing—but that was just background scenery that his secretary or a hired designer could have taken care of. The testimonials to the daily routine enacted center stage spoke differently: Files, papers, microelectronics parts, and gadgetry littered the desk; the rolled-gold twin pen set and digital clock-calendar had been moved to the top of the file cabinet to make room for a high-power magnifier; and charts tabling the physical and chemical properties of materials, an industry guide to chip manufacturers, and a whiteboard filled with scrawled math expressions, phone numbers, and reminders had found places between the marquetry designs and chrome-framed art prints adorning the walls.

Eric Heber himself was around forty, wiry, with crinkly yellow hair, fair skin, a thin nose, and gray eyes that peered keenly behind gold-rimmed spectacles. Ohira had mentioned that he was German born. He had taken off the lab coat that his two visitors had found him in, and sat looking relaxed and casual in a sky-blue shirt and tan slacks as he regarded them over his desk. Ohira sat with his hands planted on his knees, his rugged Oriental face expressionless. Michelle’s law firm had represented his family’s various business interests for six years. He still put her in mind of a godfather—or whatever the equivalent was—of the Japanese yakuza.

She leaned forward in her chair, using tweezers to hold a device no larger than a match head in the light from the desk lamp, and examined it through a magnifying glass in her other hand. It was vaguely humanoid in form, silver and black, with two legs and a pair of jointed arms—though there were additional attachments and interchangeable auxiliary parts on the outside. Its head, she observed, was more of a dome than head-shaped.

"That’s a general-purpose tool-operator that goes back about half a year," Heber said, watching her. "We’ve come down a bit further in size with some experimental models since then. The idea was to implement full tooling and fabrication capabilities on a series of intermediate levels down to true nanotech. It’s like the fleas with the littler fleas. Once you’re equipped at a certain scale, you can use that to construct a next-smaller scale, and so on." Although a soft accent was discernible, his English was flawless. Michelle guessed that he had migrated at a fairly early age. "In the early days, people thought it would be possible to do everything using the etching techniques developed in the chip industry. That worked well enough for making simple rotors and other things with only a few moving parts. But as things became more complicated we found that you have to have precision manipulation. God might be able to put things together with pure willpower, but we humans need a little help."

Michelle already had the feeling that she could enjoy working with Heber. He was not pompous like some scientists she had met, and he kept things simple without losing a touch of humor. She thought that was important. Humorlessness, she had found, was usually a sign of people who took themselves too seriously, which invariably meant they would never admit to being wrong—nor even, in extreme cases, to the possibility that they could be. An attitude like that made insufferable clients—as well as bad scientists.

"This is amazing," she said, turning the micromec over beneath the glass. "I’ve read about these and seen them in documentaries. But it really doesn’t come home to you until you hold one in your hand, does it?"

"It’s nothing compared to feeling it in your head," Ohira grunted. "You wait. You’ll see."

Michelle moved the tiny figure against a white-paper background to see the details more clearly. The dome of a head suggested a picture she had seen somewhere of a deep-sea diving suit—an impression reinforced by the stockiness of the proportions. "Walking tank" would be a better metaphor than "robot," she decided.

Heber seemed to read her thoughts. "The only reason they’re fat like that is the things we have to fit inside. For the strength they need at that scale, they could be quite slender."

"Surely there still can’t be the kind of complexity in this that we’re used to seeing every day," Michelle said. "If I opened this guy up, I can’t believe that I’d find all the cogs and springs and other kinds of gizmos that there are . . . well, in my car, for example."

Heber smiled and shook his head. "The physics changes, which means it’s often better to do things in different ways. Simply trying to reproduce what we do at the everyday level doesn’t always work too well—electromagnetics is a good case in point. For motors and actuators at the microscale, we make far more use of electrostatics. Another technique that works well at smaller scales is what’s called peristaltics, which means moving things by means of an induced wave motion. For example, some crystals expand and contract when you apply an electrical voltage across them. So, you can walk one piece past another." Heber made a bridge on the desk with the thumb and little finger of one hand, then advanced it by sliding the thumb closer, anchoring it, extending the little finger away, and repeating the motion. "Kind of a solid-state muscle. It harnesses molecular forces, which are very strong. So you can amplify the range through linkages in the limbs and get a finely controllable movement. Clean and simple, really. Not at all like your car."

All Michelle could bring to mind to ask just at that moment was, "Does it ever need an oil change?"

She meant it as a joke, but Heber nodded approvingly. Evidently not such a dumb question. "Friction works completely differently at this scale. Some surfaces just don’t seem to stick or wear at all. In other cases, a tiny electric current works better than any lubricant. It’s a whole new science that we’re learning about."

Michelle replaced the mec in its cell in the plastic box that Heber had taken it from, containing examples of several models. Heber closed the lid and returned the box to his desk drawer. "Anyway, those are just dummies to show what they look like." He rose, closing the drawer. "Let’s go downstairs now and see the real thing."

 
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