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The Mansion's Missing Mass

1: Reassignment
2: The new partner
3: Heed the warnings
4: Regaining consciousness
5: Debugging the kitchen

"I presume you are aware that they broke into the mansion on Saturday," she said, flipping through a manila folder on her desk.

"No," I said. "We have a mansion?"

Christi looked up from her desk. "Yes, we... Jesus. Alright. You must not have been briefed, since you've been spending so much time on Project Everywhere. Sit down."

"How is it," I asked while pulling up an Aeron (which Todd must have "borrowed" from one of the conference rooms the last time he was in here), "that I've been assigned to JPG since January and am completely unaware of any mansion, while you, the newest on the team, are so in the know?" She glared at me, so I added, "I didn't mean to suggest you weren't fit-"

"It's alright," she interrupted, though her expression relaxed. "If you're asking about clearances, you'll have to take it up with the Pool Man."

That's the worst part, the code names. They're so ridiculous: "The Pool Man," "Bruno," "Mr. D." I tend to eschew such nonsense, but "Jaschu" tends to stick around the offices, regardless.

I asked, "So what happened, that you had to call me in here? I've got a bunch of usability issues to work out this week."

"No, you don't." She closed the file and stretched to hand it to me. "You're being reassigned. In fact, first thing you need to do when you leave here is report to Section L."

My head jerked up. "Section L?! You're sending me to the Dentist. You gotta be fuckin' me."

Christi shook her head. "It's no big deal. They're going to stick an RFID chip in one of your teeth. Strictly a security measure while we figure out what happened at the mansion. We're locking it down. The chip will identify you and grant you access."

I couldn't help but sigh. Augmentation was always a possibility when you take this job. My most recent partner, D-Haze (see what I mean about code names?), got a parallel processor installed all up in his brainpan, and now he can think out MySQL queries almost as fast as our servers. Me, I considered myself lucky to still be 100% flesh and bone. Up until now, at least.

"So fill me in already."

Christi nodded. "They threw a party. We didn't know about it until after the fact. They called it the JPGers Ball and it was all done behind our backs."

I arched an eyebrow at her. "I'm getting a chip in my head because of a shindig? Besides, don't we want them to do stuff like this? Sounds pretty flattering that they'd do such a thing, get all excited about what we're trying to do here. I don't see what the big deal is."

"No, you're absolutely right. In fact, if they had just asked, they could use the mansion any time they want. That's not the issue."

"Then what is?"

"We have reason to believe that there was a theft that night. You're to go and investigate. Shouldn't take more than a day out of your schedule."

So now I got a chip in a tooth. The things you do for art.

----------

On the cab ride over, I re-read the file on the JPGers Ball: a covert cell of photographers found out about the mansion somehow--nice trick, that--and then managed to take it over for a night of aggressive expression and enjoyment. They posted security to keep it tight, so not just anybody from the hoi polloi could bother the celebrities. Even then, numerous representatives of several underground niche art movements found their way in: the Recursive Paparazzists made sure people who saw were also seen, while the Silhouetticians did their best to blend in while sticking out. The Linguacamoflaugitors did the same while attempting to confuse the spoken word enough to push attendees to communicate in another manner... visually in this case.

And then the strange chemical enhancements being performed. People were actually getting small, in more ways than one, like that Steve Martin sketch was back in some serious style.

Between the art mobs from the fringe and the dubious biochemistry, I felt just overwhelmed enough to think about calling in outside help, someone like Detective Professor Nathan Adler. But I deleted that thought; if this theft turned out to be an art-crime, the last thing we all needed was to become derivative.

Christi never told me what had gone missing. Oh no, that was my job. This whole notion of something having gone on walkabout was based on the fact that Mr. D had rigged the whole place up to calculate itself, if you can dig that, and the mansion was reporting in as being less massive.

D-Haze was still assigned elsewhere (well, Everywhere), so I'd be getting a new partner for this job. I didn't know who until the cab pulled up at the address in the file. Sunlight glinted off what used to be her head as she reached down to open the door for me. Talk about augmentation, most of her body was metal plating of some sort. Your guess would be as good as mine as to how much was left of the original R.A.H.N.E.E.

"How is your mouth doing?" she asked me, her voice tinny like a Gramophone.

"S'wearung uhf," I attempted in reply.

She paid the driver while I rubbed my cheek. "Very good. I am told this is your first time here at the mansion?"

I nodded and gave the exterior a once-over. It was swanky, pre-Victorian. One of the keystones had A.D. 1896 carved into it. Ten years before the Big One? I wondered how we could afford such a place when we get a lot of our furniture from Ikea. Hell, maybe that's how.

"Let us go inside," said R.A.H.N.E.E., "I shall show you around so you can see what transpired." We walked up to the front door. I felt one of my teeth buzz a bit against my tongue just before something clicked and the door swung open.

----------

As R.A.H.N.E.E. gave me the tour of the ground floor, the sounds of cleaning up could be heard from rooms away, but stopped when we got too close. Indistinct men and women, dressed in light colors and on the edge of vision, moved throughout the house, always leaving through one doorway or another when you turned directly towards them. At first I thought I was imagining them. In the study, I asked, "We're not alone, are we?"

"No," said R.A.H.N.E.E., "They are the clean-up crew, it would seem."

"Hired help?"

"That is not entirely accurate, as Mr. D explained to me."

I heard the clinking of glasses being picked up behind me. When I turned, I caught only a flash of white pant leg and pennyloafer going back into the hallway. I squinted, listened for a moment, until I understood. "Cron jobs."

R.A.H.N.E.E. shrugged, walking past me towards the hallway. "That is outside my purview. For now, there is more you should see." She led me through the dining room and the lounge where a collection of pictures had been left hanging on the wall. I pocketed a stray sticker someone had left behind before we moved on to the kitchen so I could get some coffee. (The mug I pulled from the cupboard said World's Greatest Photographer... cute. I'm not sure whom that belongs to.)

We walked past a bathroom full of bottles to the galleria, where photos, framed and annotated with info such as how many times it had been favorited, covered the walls. A light table and another work table stood in the center, the latter with a sign reminding us that food or drink belonged elsewhere. I scanned the walls for empty spots; there were none. "I don't get it," I said, "It doesn't look like anything valuable's gone missing or anything's been ransacked. What about upstairs?"

"I have come to the same conclusion, and when I checked the upstairs, it seemed to be in order, except for an excess of dog hair on one of the beds," said R.A.H.N.E.E. "I have tried shuffling through every room's layers, adjusting curves to find evidence. I have found nothing yet."

I handed her my coffee and pushed the sleeve of my coat up enough to get at my forearm comp. (One of the benefits of living near Apple HQ: you sometimes get their finest before anyone else.) The left-hand keypad swung down underneath my fingers as I tapped on the topside with my right. The screen rolled up and out like paper. Once on the wifi, I poked around a bit, but didn't find what I was looking for. I took my coffee back, took a swig, put the mug down on the table. "Hmm. Maybe if we look--"

That thought was interrupted as electricity arced across the table's surface, coursing up my arm and connecting with R.A.H.N.E.E.'s plating. I only just saw her start to fall to the ground, much like I did, and I assume she, too, hit the ground before blacking out.

----------

I dreamt of cross-processing and very large lens arrays.

When I came to, I saw water coming down from a bowl in the ceiling. No. Wait. Yes. All the appropriate "where am I, what happened" thoughts ran through my head as I slowly sat up and looked around the large, sunlit room I was in. Plants of all sorts sat in the corners and around a center basin where the water falling collected.

R.A.H.N.E.E. was hovering over me as well. Her Victrola voice interrupted my train of thought: "I bet you do not ever read the instructions at home, either."

I groaned as I sat up. My head felt heavy. "Where are we?"

"In the conservatory, but it was Mr. Jaschu, in the gallery, with an electrified table," she said, hands on her hips.

"I--"

"You certainly did."

I started feeling dizzy as well as berated, so I put my head between my knees and let out an unintelligible, burbling moan. R.A.H.N.E.E. waited patiently for me to pull myself together. I'm thankful for the small things.

"Did you carry me in here?"

"I did not. I surmise the cron jobs did."

I nodded. Ouch. "Sounds right. Mr. D usually writes some clean-up scripts. I'm glad they didn't think we were temporary files."

She tapped the inside of her wrist. "RFID chips, yes?"

I wobbled to my feet. R.A.H.N.E.E. helped to steady me and led me back into the gallery on my insistence. When we got there, the table that had shocked us was clear, except for a bit of ash. Right about... "What happened to my coffee?"

"Oh, you noticed. Is this table freaking you out, Jaschu? Is it a freaky table?"

"It--My coffee got deleted."

R.A.H.N.E.E.'s head cocked to one side. I imagined somehow she was rolling her eyes. "You should have heeded the sign."

"It deleted my coffee!"

"Your coffee was not what the table was looking for."

I find that it's not worth arguing with cyborgs and active electricity.

I pushed my sleeve up, checked my forearm comp. Fortunately, my left arm hadn't acted as a ground and it wasn't fried. I popped the comp open again and opened up a chat window. As I typed, I turned to R.A.H.N.E.E. and said, "I'm really sorry, I didn't mean for us to get electrocuted... Who makes a table that electrocutes you, anyway?"

She shrugged. "That table is meant for photographs and projects."

Still typing, I frowned. "What if my project required coffee?"

"Next time, write something first."

I changed the subject: "I need to talk with Mr. D, see if I can get access to the error logs, go through the repository."

Yo, I sent to Mr. D's chatter.

Hey there, I heard you're at the mansion.

Yessir, got a sec?

Sure. How's the search going?

Shockingly.

Should've read the sign. ;)

I frowned. Everyone's a critic. :(

----------

R.A.H.N.E.E. looked over my shoulder as I hit Mr. D up for some data over a secure channel. Can you ping me the location for the mansion's error logs? We haven't peeped anything ransacked or whatnot.

A machine and directory path came up in response. Then: You should have access to it already.

Thanks! and any file repository?

Another databit appeared. There ya go. Holler if you need anything else. Sorry I can't be there to help out.

You got it, no worries. Thanks again! I popped a terminal window and tailed the error logs. A few random bits here and there, but a good chunk of what came up had the same origin. I made a consternated noise.

R.A.H.N.E.E. peered closer. "Find something?"

"Huh. Most of the errors being thrown are coming from the kitchen. You said you checked there?"

She nodded. "I did. It is possible that the automated clean-up crew got there before I did."

We walked back to the kitchen. It was a sprawling room, with a couple of islands for food preparation, racks of copper pots and cookware hanging above. Black and white tiling above the counters and floor gave it a slightly retro feel. You got to love a kitchen classier than you are. "You think someone snagged some silverware or something?" I asked.

R.A.H.N.E.E. cocked her head at me. "You would think someone would notice and say something. We are not trailing after dishonest people."

I nodded. "I know, that's been on my mind too." I started going through the cabinets, but nothing seemed out of place there, either. This whole situation was feeling more and more off. I checked the repository for the kitchen on my forearm comp, reading through files and... hello. I walked over to the fridge and looked inside.

My cell rang. The ID tagged it as just the man I wanted to talk to. "Hey there, Jah-shoo," came D-Haze's cantor. "How's the shack?"

"Funny you should ask," I said as I looked through the shelves. "You keep dessert here?"

"Yeah, you remember what Jen made for Thanksgiving?"

"The gingerbread trifle? Hell yeah, I remember."

"She made three of those for all of us, kind of an impetus for us to get together there soon."

I put the phone down and looked back over my shoulder at R.A.H.N.E.E. "He checked dessert into the repository."

She looked back at me from counting pots. "So... they would be made a permanent part of the mansion--"

"And calculated into the total mass of the place--"

"So if something happened to them--"

I put my phone back to my ear. "Your snacks are gone, man."

"What?!"

I looked again at a half-empty shelf in the fridge. "Yup. All Tomorrow's Surreptitious Parties had at 'em."

"Aw, you're kidding me."

There was a silence for a moment. Maybe he was mourning dessert. So I said, "That was some pretty sweet trifle."

"Yeah, really. Are you sure--"

"Sure I'm sure, I'm looking in the fridge right now. That's what's missing. You checked 'em into the repository?"

"Yeah, so they wouldn't go bad. I could just roll them back."

I rolled my eyes at R.A.H.N.E.E. "Your preservation technique is what's causing the house to throw missing-mass alerts."

"I guess I could roll them back now, even."

I shot R.A.H.N.E.E. a worried look. "Uh, don't roll the kitchen back now, dude, we're still in it." She started backing away, inching towards the door we came in. I stood up to follow her.

"Oh, no worries, Jaschu," D-Haze spoke in soothing tones, like I was some kind of startled kitting. Probably because I was just like a startled kitten. "I can just copy it back over, and..."

There was a kind of thwump, maybe a pop, that came from the fridge. R.A.H.N.E.E. and I both froze, then slowly moved back to peer in. Where there had been a half-empty shelf, there were now three bowls of trifle, covered with plastic-wrap. D-Haze said something, but I couldn't make it out, seeing as I had let my phone-hand drop from a bit of shock. I put him on speaker. "Say again?"

"I said, did that work?" D-Haze asked.

I looked at R.A.H.N.E.E., she looked at me. "Yeah," I said, "Looks like it."

"Alrighty," D-Haze said.

"Well that's handy," I said, "if you're a glutton."

"Or have a mouth," R.A.H.N.E.E. added. I nodded in agreement.

"Feel free to take one," D-Haze said, "I can always copy more back in."

"Can't," I said, "I saw the Dentist this morning for a chip."

"Good times."

"Says you. I'm not that unrepentant of a futurist."

R.A.H.N.E.E. nudged me with her elbow. "We are heading back now, D-Haze," she said. "Can you let Christi know we solved the problem?"

"Will do," he said. I hung up.

We didn't say much during the cab ride back to the office. Mostly we just watched the buildings go by out the window. R.A.H.N.E.E. would have to go through a round of diagnostics thanks to my Tesla moment, and they'd probably want to check my own augmentation out as well. Then it would be back to work as usual for the both of us. Maybe I could get a coffee with a fate less dire. Wouldn't that be nice.

----------

----------

So some of you who have been following along with the last five photos might be thinking, "What the hell is going on?" Here's the deal: about 20 photographers here on JPG got together and decided to post pictures suggesting there had been some gala JPG event called the JPGers Ball... which never actually happened, mind you, but they put together a great tale from their photos. I actually thought for a minute that they actually got together somewhere, but then I realized that these folks were all in different parts of the world, and also there is no JPG Mansion, which is reportedly where this shindig went down.

Which of course made me think "what if?" and suddenly I get this idea for a story as a way of saying thanks to these people who put such a big smile on the faces of all the 8020 staff. We were really flattered that this group found what we're making so engaging that they'd conspire to do something awesome like that.

Okay, potentially boring meta info follows because I'm a nerd, skip to the end if you want.

I started off thinking the tale would be a three-parter, with the missing dessert in mind the whole time (Charles' comment on the first photo was a strangely prescient guess!). I got the first two parts out... and then I got knocked out with a cold. I got back on my feet, got the third part out, realized it was going to take more than three parts, kind of despaired over what photos I could use to get it all back to the kitchen, and then I had actual work to finish up before the office shut down for the holidays, and then over the holiday my friends up the street got a copy of Rock Band and I spent a lot playing guitar and bass to fill out the band. (I know, poor me.) Next time I should plan the whole thing out ahead of time so I know what I'm getting into! (Plus, I still don't know what R.A.H.N.E.E. stands for.)

The idea for the story put the words "art crime" in my head, an element of the story in David Bowie's Outside concept album, which features the character Detective Professor Nathan Adler. The real Rannie is a fan of Bowie's, so we ended up talking about the album during the writing process. When I went back to it for inspiration, I remembered the tale told by the album is a lot more gruesome than what I had in mind. (Somebody wrote a paper on the album which makes for a really interesting read, if that's your bag.) Still, the album had a future-noir feel I wanted to invoke, seeing as we've got the Noir theme scheduled and all, though I think I went further into cyberpunk territory than the album does.

(There's a second Bowie reference, or rather a reference to a Flight of the Conchords reference to Bowie, which I stuck in there because Lauraand Rannie are big Flight of the Conchords fans.)

The string of visuals came from the same roll of film, which was nice for keeping a bit of visual continuity. (It was cross-processed Kodak Extra Color Elite Chrome, 100 ISO, shot with a LOMO LC-A+, for us film nerds.)

And finally, I actually had gone to Devin's place this past Thanksgiving, and his partner Jen really did make that gingerbread trifle and I can't even tell you how amazing it was. If the Ball really had happened, you guys wouldn't have been able to resist eating it, you have no idea, and I wouldn't fault you one bit for raiding the fridge. Oh my god. I had seconds. Damn right.

To those of you who made the JPGers' Ball, this story is dedicated to you. I've never had the pleasure of working on a site with such a creative community, and coming across the Ball photos really made my week, you have no idea. Thanks so much for that!

2 responses

  • Kristine Rudkin

    Kristine Rudkin said (24 Sep 2008):

    Incredible detail - a fun write-up.

  • Paul Lavallee

    Paul Lavallee gave props (30 Jul 2009):

    It was fun re-reading this. Great times!

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