next chapter show table of contents previous chapter
go home
make text bigger make text smaller

The Cave of Knowledge

When Tan started studying medicine, he built a maze, caught some rats, and put them in it to see how they learn. After the rats had run the maze a few dozen times they had it memorized, and they could zip through with no hesitation. Then he changed the maze. The rats tried to run the maze they knew, but everything had changed, and they crashed into walls and then sat there twitching their whiskers and looking confused. Now I knew how the rats felt.

“Pippen, where did this ID card come from?” I asked.

“A drawer in Jon’s office back at the school. I kept it because it’s the perfect size to slip through cracks to unlock doors.”

I looked at the photo on the card. It was Jon, but not the Jon we knew. More hair, different glasses, and not so many creases on his forehead.

“I can’t believe it!” said Tan. “I thought Jon was the victim of an experiment by an evil doctor! But all this time he was the evil doctor!” He paused. “Well, maybe he wasn’t a doctor. Jon doesn’t know his cranium from his gluteus maximus. Maybe he was an evil inventor.” 

“Jon was no inventor either,” I said. “Everything I know about engineering I’ve had to learn on my own.”

“Jon was a boss,” said Pippen. “That’s really evil.”

“I can’t believe he never told us he destroyed the world!” I said.

“Yeah,” replied Pippen, “that would have been so much more spiff than the stories he tells us about how he used to spend two hours a day reading email.”

Conner looked thoughtful. “At least now we know why Jon was so crazy about trying to keep us safe. We’re his only hope of undoing his mistake.”

“I make mistakes all the time,” said Pippen, “but I’m pretty sure I’ve never killed seven billion people.”

It didn’t seem to bother Pippen, but it gave me a sick feeling knowing that Jon had been the president of the company that made Fixer. “I don’t care if Jon killed all the past people,” I said, struggling to put my feelings into words. “I didn’t know those people. But I thought I knew Jon, and suddenly I realize I didn’t know him at all! He didn’t even tell us his real name! It makes me wonder what else he lied to us about. It makes me wonder if he deserves to be saved. Maybe…maybe we ought to just go home.”

“Callie!” protested Tan. “This whole quest was your idea! We can’t give up now. For one thing, I have taken an oath to aid the sick. And Jon’s sick.”

“Well, I’m sure not going back home without the shut-off!” declared Pippen. “It would be embarrassing! Anyway, Jon didn’t exactly lie, he just didn’t tell us everything.”

“Letting someone believe something that isn’t true is lying!” I said hotly. “Jon taught us that. If we can trust anything he said.”

Conner stepped in. “Callie, you’re just mad at Jon because you looked up to him, and you’ve found out he wasn’t perfect. But he’s still our guardian, and eventually you’re going to have to forgive him.” Conner paused. “But this is your quest, so it’s up to you.”

Everyone looked at me. In my heart I already knew what the decision had to be. The future of humanity was at stake, and that mattered more than the hurt feelings of one little apprentice wizard. “The quest is still on,” I said. “Jon’s the only adult in the world, and we have to save him. But I’m never going to forgive him.”

Tan rubbed his hands together. “Good enough for me. Okay, first we need to know the truth about what happened, not just what Jon decided to tell us.”

I looked at Jon’s computer. Maybe there was a way. I crawled under Jon’s desk and hauled out a heavy metal box. “Recognize this?” I asked.

 “It’s an uninterruptible power supply,” said Tan. “Like Newt has on all the computers at the school. When the troll gets sick and the power goes out, it keeps the computer running while you save your work.”

“Right,” I said. “A UPS has a 12 volt battery inside and a transformer that can turn that into 120 volts of alternating current.” I sat cross-legged on the floor and got my tools out of my backpack. My fingers danced as I undid the cover screws on the UPS.

“Won’t that be dead?” asked Tan.

I nodded. “The battery inside this UPS will be discharged. But if I can hook up our deep-cycle battery in its place, I can probably keep Jon’s computer running for several hours. Conner, give me that battery. Wire! I need wire!” 

I tossed the dead battery over my shoulder. Somebody handed me a desk lamp and I cut off the power cord and used the wire to hook the deep-cycle battery to the UPS. I turned on the UPS, sat in the chair in front of the computer, and took a deep breath.

I’ve worked with Newt on reanimating a lot of computers. Fourteen years asleep is a long time to a computer. Sometimes the power supply has failed. Leaking capacitors, usually. If that’s the case, you can swap in a good power supply and the computer will still work. Sometimes the connectors on the motherboard get corroded. You can clean those with a cotton swab and some alcohol. But the most common problem is a frozen hard drive. If that’s happened, you can still use the computer to prop open a door, but that’s it. 

I pushed the power button on Jon’s computer. The computer chimed and the screen lit up. Yes! But then the screen showed an icon of a hard drive with a flashing question mark. No! I clutched the mouse tighter. Then the question mark went away, and the computer went into the startup sequence. I let go of the mouse, wondering if I’d left nail marks in it.

“Okay, little computer,” I murmured, “tell me your secrets.”

A login screen appeared with the user name “jmckinley” and a empty box labeled “Password.” A login screen. I had no idea how to bypass a login screen! Maybe I should have brought Newt after all.

“What would Jon have used as a password?” I asked.

“Look at this,” said Tan. He aimed his flashlight at a paper on Jon’s desk.

New password policy:

Passwords must be at least eight characters long.

Must not be a word in any language, slang, dialect, jargon, etc.

Must not contain any portion of your user ID or the company name.

Must not be based on personal information such as birthday, license plate, phone number, names of family, pets, etc.

Must contain at least one lower case letter, one upper case letter, one number, and one special character from the following set: !@#$%^&*()-+_=[]{}~?

Must be changed every two weeks.

Must not be the same as any of your previous three passwords.

“Zow,” I said. “That’s going to make the password impossible to guess!”

“Naw,” said Pippen. “Try capitol X, lower case lqz, 135, asterisk.”

That seemed like a long shot, but I typed the password in as Pippen repeated it. The login screen went away and the desktop appeared. “How did you know that was the password?” I asked, amazed.

“Could you remember a password like that?” Pippen asked.


She smirked. “Neither could Jon. It’s on that Post-it note stuck to the monitor.”

“Okay, smarty, now what?”

“Well,” said Pippen thoughtfully, “since Jon’s always going on about how he used to have email…”

There was an icon labeled “Mail,” so I clicked it. A window opened with a long list of messages, each with a subject and a date. I knew how to read the old-style dates. The messages at the top of the list were just a few days before Zero Day. I scrolled down through the messages. They went back for years! Tan leaned over my shoulder, reading the subjects.

New overtime policy

NTZ client list

Investor meeting rescheduled

Current burn rate and ROI


Bioneer reservation confirmation

What is Fixer?

“That one! Click that one!” yelled Tan, right next to my ear. 

I read out loud. “From: Jonathan McKinley. To: Howard Maxwell. Subject: What is Fixer? Date: June–”

“Just read us the message!” said Pippen impatiently, who was stuck behind Conner and having a hard time seeing the screen.

I read the message.

Welcome to Utopia Labs, Howard! I’m glad to hear the tech support guys got your new computer and email set up. It’s great to finally have a Vice President of Marketing! 

Normally I’d be there to give you a tour of the Utopia building, but I’m in bed right now, and my doctor insists if I’m going to work, I have to do it all through email.

You’ve joined our company at an exciting time! We’ve just done a human test with a version of Fixer that was limited to work on one specific person. That test went almost perfectly. Now we’re developing a version of Fixer that will work on any human, and we’re about to go public with it, which is why we need a VP of marketing.

“What’s ‘marketing’?” asked Pippen.

Tan answered her. “Marketing is jumping up and down and shouting ‘Look over here! Look over here!’”

I know we were a bit cryptic in the job interview about what exactly Fixer is, so let me just give you the ten-thousand-foot view.

To put it as simply as possible, Fixer is a microscopic robot that repairs your body from the inside. You inject millions of Fixer biobots into a patient, and they destroy harmful bacteria and viruses. They can even kill cancer and damaged cells. Our goal is to completely eliminate human disease from the world.

“They did eliminate all human disease,” said Tan. “By eliminating all the humans.”

From: Howard Maxwell

To: Jonathan McKinley

Sounds like you hired me just in time! You’ve got a pie-in-the-sky idea that will make the world a better place, but without the right marketing strategy, you’ll never even make back your original investment. And I can tell from the look of this place you’ve spent millions. I don’t know much about bioengineering, but I do know marketing. And the first thing we’ve got to do is come up with the perfect product name. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but “Fixer” is the worst product name I’ve seen in my whole career. You can’t Google it.

Pippen turned to Tan. “What’s ‘Google’?”

Tan looked at me. 

I shrugged. “I have no idea what ‘Google’ is.”

From: Jonathan McKinley

To: Howard Maxwell

Don’t worry, Howard. “Fixer” is not going to be the permanent name. We actually use code names for each batch of biobots we produce. The engineers started calling this last batch “Fixer” when they got tired of the code name.

You’re right, we’ve spent millions on development. Our biggest breakthrough is the protein printer. Nobody else on earth has anything like it. It’s a bit like an inkjet printer, but instead of creating a picture by laying down drops of ink, it can build a microscopic robot by laying down protein molecules, one atom at a time. 

It takes an entire day for the printer to create just one biobot. If this were the only way we had to make the biobots, only the richest of the rich could afford treatment. But our biobot can also do a very neat trick. When you put it in a bottle of a special protein soup, it can build an exact copy of itself in just a few minutes. Then each of those biobots makes a copy, and so on, until the bottle is full of millions of the little machines, each identical to the original. Then we suck them out of the bottle, seal them in little glass ampoules, and they’re ready to be shipped all over the world. 

Even third-world countries will want Fixer because governments will be able to buy a dose for everyone in their country for less than they are spending every year fighting diseases. How’s that for a marketing strategy?


From: Howard Maxwell

To: Jonathan McKinley

Fixer can make an unlimited number of copies of itself? We’ll go bankrupt! As soon as we’ve released a single dose, people will start making their own copies of Fixer!


From: Jonathan McKinley

To: Howard Maxwell

Don’t worry, Howard, we did think of that. The biobot has two phases, controlled by an internal timer.

When the biobot is first created, it’s in “Replicate” phase. The biobot can only make copies of itself during this phase.

After 24 hours, the internal timer switches all the biobots to the “Repair” phase at the same time, and we suck them out of the replication bottle. In Repair phase, if the biobots detect that they have been injected into a human patient, they start killing diseases and destroying damaged cells. This part would be painful, so they put the patient to sleep first. 

After a couple of hours of repair, we inject the patient with a compound we call “Shut-off factor,” which causes the biobots to switch off, and the patient wakes up, completely healthy.

You no longer have to go to the doctor, we can put the doctor inside of you!


From: Allen Tyson 

To: Jonathan McKinley, Mark Kelling

Gentlemen, as VP of Medical Affairs, I’d like to raise an issue that’s been bothering me for a while. In the days before bioengineering deregulation we would have published details of our biobot research and waited for peer review from the medical community. Instead we’ve scheduled a big public demo at the Bioneer conference. Are we moving too fast? What are your thoughts on this?


From: Jonathan McKinley

To: Allen Tyson, Mark Kelling

Allen, I understand your concern, but I don’t think we have a choice if we want to achieve our dream of curing all disease. We’ve kept the lid on Fixer for as long as we can. Eventually the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies and the medical equipment manufacturers are going to get wind of what we’re working on. They make billions of dollars treating disease and they’re not stupid. They’re going to realize that Fixer will put them out of business. They have a lot of tentacles in the government, and if we publish our findings in medical journals and then wait for peer review, their pet senators will slap so many regulations on us that Fixer will never make it out of the lab. Our only chance is to make our demonstration so flashy, so dramatic that it makes headline news all across the globe. Then people will be demanding Fixer from their governments, and nobody will be able to stop us!

That’s why, instead of just showing a video of our earlier in-vitro tests, or having me announce we’ve done a successful human test, I want to show Fixer, live on stage, replicating and then destroying bacteria. THAT ought to be dramatic enough!


From: Allen Tyson

To: Jonathan McKinley, Mark Kelling

Jonathan, I’ve still got some reservations, but I have to admit you’ve got a point.

I’ll get the Medical team working on creating an enclosure for Fixer with a high resolution microcamera in it so we can show a live video feed. 

But that still leaves us with a few technical problems. We were ready to print a second version of Fixer that’s not keyed to just one person’s DNA. The engineers are already calling this batch “Fixer B,” by the way. But our test on you showed that Fixer depresses the patient’s respiration more than we expected. Bioneer is only a few weeks away, which doesn’t give us enough time to fix that issue. And we won’t be able to show Fixer replicating live at the conference, because it won’t be in replicate phase. Perhaps Mark and the Engineering team have solutions to these issues?


From: Mark Kelling 

To: Jonathan McKinley, Allen Tyson

No prob, Allen! All we need to do is make a few timing tweaks to the Fixer B design. First, we lengthen out the replicate phase, so it’s still replicating during the demo. We’ll also set the timer so that right in the middle of our show and tell, it switches from replicate to repair phase and starts killing cancer cells. This will be the most awesome demo ever!

We don’t need to fix the respiration problem before the demo because we’ll just be showing Fixer in a container. If you’re worried about it, we can take a vial of the shut-off factor with us and inject it into the container to shut down Fixer after the demo.

If I have my engineering team start on this today, we can have the first batch of Fixer B ready in just a few days.

“Oh spack!” shouted Tan. “They just turned Fixer into a monster!”

“What?” asked Pippen.

Tan was dancing around the office now, smacking his forehead and talking to himself excitedly. “Zow! I can’t believe they didn’t see it! They just made it so Fixer B could reproduce without any limits!”

“What are you babbling about?” I asked. “Don’t you remember what Jon said? Fixer could only make copies when it was in replicate mode–”

Tan interrupted me. “But for the demo, they stretched out that phase so they could show it replicating at the conference!”

“True,” I admitted, “but it could only make copies of itself when it was in a bottle of protein soup.”

Tan spun and pointed at me. “Callie, you are a protein soup. That’s a perfect description of the human bloodstream!”

Not being entirely stupid, I was beginning to get the awful picture. “So if a human got even one of the Fixer B things inside their body–”

“Then it starts making copies of itself.” said Tan. 

“Doubling every couple of minutes,” I breathed. I knew binary, so I was on very familiar terms with this branch of math. “You start with one Fixer. Then you have two. Then you have four, then eight. It seems slow at first, but by the eighth cycle you have 256, by the sixteenth cycle you have 65,536, and if each cycle takes only a few minutes, within an hour you’d have over a billion!”

“But how’d it spread to everyone on the planet?” Pippen asked.

Tan took over. “Maybe an infected person just had to touch someone else to spread the infection. I’m not sure. I haven’t studied epidemiology much, but I know that with a disease that can infect a person in less than an hour, the real limit to how fast it can spread is how fast infected people can travel from one city to another.”

“It’s taken us a week to get from Clan Valley to Orlando,” Pippen said.

“You’re forgetting airplanes,” I said. “Past people could get to the other side of the world in a day. And they’d probably touch a lot of people on the way.”

“Oh, it gets worse!” said Tan, sounding delighted. “If Fixer was small enough, it could escape from the lungs. Every breath of an infected person would have thousands of microscopic biobots in it. By the time the airplane landed, everyone on board would be infected. And then they walk off the plane, and the wind catches their breath and spreads it around, and anyone who breathes in even a single Fixer gets infected. If Fixer went airborne, It could have spread to everyone in the globe in…well, a week.”

“Fixer B was made several weeks before the conference,” I said, horrified. “If it escaped before the conference, then everyone who came to the conference was already infected. And not just them, but everyone in the world. Everyone had little Fixers inside them, and the timer was ticking. And then, right in the middle of the demo, all the Fixers went into repair phase.”

“And just like turning off a switch, everyone in the world went to sleep,” said Pippen.

“So Jon wasn’t Typhoid Mary after all,” Tan said. He had the original Fixer, which the email says was keyed to just his DNA, so it wouldn’t have spread to other people. And when Fixer B got loose, Jon didn’t get it because he had the shut-off factor in his system.”

“But how did Fixer B get out in the first place?” I asked. “And why did Jon collapse again after all these years?”

Nobody answered, so I read the next message.

From: Jonathan McKinley

To: Howard Maxwell

Howard, I’ve got your first assignment for you. We’ve scheduled a demonstration of Fixer at the big Bioneer conference at Brigham Young University in Utah. There will be science reporters from every major news organization and representatives from government health organizations from all over the world. The problem is we scheduled our big presentation AFTER the agenda for the conference was sent out. I need you to write up an invitation we can send to the most important scientists and doctors at the conference. I’ll send you a list of names and email addresses. Don’t give them any details, but make it so intriguing that they HAVE to come to the demonstration. 


From: Howard Maxwell

To: Jonathan McKinley

I’ll get right on it! But we need to send them a physical invitation, not an email. Actually holding something in your hand is more impactful.

Speaking of impactful, Mark showed me a little glass tube with Fixer in it. Just watching that stuff is amazing! I need to get some pictures of Fixer to put on the invitation. 


From: Jonathan McKinley

To: Howard Maxwell

Howard, I love the idea of putting Fixer on the invitation! That won’t give away anything, but it should spark their interest.


Finished biobot batches are stored in boxes in the vault. Only me and the vice presidents have keys to the vault. Mark should have given you your own key already.

“Marketing Guy sounds like a dorp.” said Pippen. “I’ll bet he was Typhoid Mary. He probably opened the wrong box and broke a tube of Fixer B.” 

From: Jonathan McKinley

To: All Utopia Labs Employees

We’re all going to Utah!

I’m pleased to announce that Utopia labs will be paying for all employees to attend the Bioneer conference at Brigham Young University! I’d like everyone who has worked so hard these last five years to be there for our historic announcement. Barbara will be contacting you soon regarding plane tickets and hotel accommodations.

“Well, that explains why there aren’t many past people lying around the dungeon,” said Conner, “but we’re wasting time trying to answer all these questions. We don’t really need to know how Fixer works or who Typhoid Mary was. All we really need to know is where the shut-off is so we can get it and take it home to Jon. Can’t you do a search or something?”

All my engineering instincts screamed that I couldn’t leave a puzzle unsolved, but Conner was right; the important thing was finding the shut-off. I clicked in the email search box and typed “shut-off.” There were a lot of matches. I opened the last match, one that had a date only a few days before Zero Day.

From: Jonathan McKinley

To: Allen Tyson

Don’t worry, Allen, I didn’t forget! I got one bottle of the shut-off to take with me, and locked the rest in the vault. See you at the airport!

 “Bang!” said Pippen. “The shut-off is in the vault! We need to look for a vault!”

 “Hang on,” I said, still reluctant to let go. “This may be our only chance to get this information!”

Tan was just as eager to solve the puzzle. “Can we print out all of Jon’s email?” he asked.

I plugged the printer into the UPS while Tan loaded the paper tray. I selected all of the messages and picked “Print.” As soon as the first pages began sliding into the output tray, Conner said, “Good. We can come back for that later!” and dashed out of the office.

A few wrong corridors later, we found the vault. We knew it was the vault because it had a big steel door with a very fancy keyhole. Also there was an engraved sign next to it that said “Vault.”

Tan tugged on the lever. “It’s locked. Where’s the key?”

Suddenly I remembered. “Only the big-wigs had keys to the vault, and they all went to the conference!” I pounded my fist on the solid metal door. “All the shut-off in the world is in this vault, and the keys are two thousand miles away in Utah, where we just came from!”