Ten thousand miles away, in the cold windowlessmain data room of Earth Resources TechnologyServices, Inc., of Houston, Karen Ross sathunched over a mug of coffee in front of a computerterminal, reviewing the latest Landsat images fromAfrica. Ross was the ERTS Congo Project Supervisor,and as she manipulated the satellite images in artificialcontrast colors, blue and purple and green, she glancedat her watch impatiently. She was waiting for the nextfield transmission from Africa.
It was now 10:15 P.M. Houston time, but there was no indication of time or place in the room. Day ornight, the main data facility of ERTS remained thesame. Beneath banks of special kalon fluorescentlights, programming crews in sweaters worked at longrows of quietly clicking computer terminals, providingreal-time inputs to the field parties that ERTSmaintained around the world. This timeless qualitywas understood to be necessary for the computers,which required a constant temperature of 60 degrees, dedicated electrical lines, special color-correctedlights that did not interfere with circuitry. It was an environmentmade for machines; the needs of peoplewere secondary.
But there was another rationale for the main facilitydesign. ERTS wanted programmers in Houston toidentify with the field parties, and if possible to live ontheir schedules. Inputting baseball games and otherlocal events was discouraged; there was no clockwhich showed Houston time, although on the far walleight large digital clocks recorded local time for thevarious field parties.
The clock marked CONGO FIELD PARTY read 06:15A.M. when the overhead intercom said, "Dr. Ross, CCRbounce."
She left the console after punching in the digitalpassword blocking codes. Every ERTS terminal had apassword control, like a combination lock. It was partof an elaborate system to prevent outside sources tappinginto their enormous data bank. ERTS dealt in information,and as R. B. Travis, the head of ERTS, wasfond of saying, the easiest way to obtain informationwas to steal it.
She crossed the room with long strides. Karen Rosswas nearly six feet tall, an attractive though ungainlygirl. Only twenty-four years old, she was younger thanmost of the programmers, but despite her youth, shehad a self-possession that most people found striking -- even a little unsettling. Karen Ross was a genuinemathematical prodigy.
At the age of two, while accompanying her mother to the supermarket, she had worked out in her headwhether a ten-ounce can at 19¢ was cheaper than aone-pound-twelve-ounce can at 79¢. At three, she startledher father by observing that, unlike other numbers,zero meant different things in different positions. Byeight, she had mastered algebra and geometry; by ten,she had taught herself calculus; she entered M.I.T. atthirteen and proceeded to make a series of brilliant discoveriesin abstract mathematics, culminating in a treatise,"Topological Prediction in n-Space," which wasuseful for decision matrices, critical path analyses, andmultidimensional mapping. This interest had broughther to the attention of ERTS, where she was made theyoungest field supervisor in the company.
Not everyone liked her. The years of isolation, ofbeing the youngest person in any room, had left heraloof and rather distant. One co-worker described heras "logical to a fault." Her chilly demeanor had earnedher the title "Ross Glacier," after the Antarctic formation.
And her youth still held her back -- at least, age wasTravis's excuse when he refused to let her lead theCongo expedition into the field, even though she hadderived all the Congo database, and by rights shouldhave been the onsite team leader. "I'm sorry," Travishad said, "but this contract's too big, and I just can't letyou have it." She had pressed, reminding him of hersuccesses leading teams the year before to Pahang andZambia. Finally he had said, "Look, Karen, that site'sten thousand miles away, in four-plus terrain. We needmore than a console hotdogger out there."
She bridled under the implication that that was allshe was -- a console hotdogger, fast at the keyboard,good at playing with Travis's toys. She wanted toprove herself in a four-plus field situation. And thenext time she was determined to make Travis let hergo.
Ross pressed the button for the third-floor elevator,marked "CX Access Only." She caught an enviousglance from one of the programmers while shewaited for the elevator to arrive. Within ERTS, statuswas not measured by salary, title, the size of one'soffice, or the other usual corporate indicators ofpower. Status at ERTS was purely a matter of accessto information -- and Karen Ross was one of eightpeople in the company who had access to the thirdfloor at any time.
She stepped onto the third-floor elevator, glancingup at the scanner lens mounted over the door. At ERTSthe elevators traveled only one floor, and all wereequipped with passive scanners; it was one way thatERTS kept track of the movements of personnel whilethey were in the building. She said "Karen Ross" forthe voice monitors, and turned in a full circle for thescanners. There was a soft electronic bleep, and thedoor slid open at the third floor.
She emerged into a small square room with a ceilingvideo monitor, and faced the unmarked outer doorof the Communications Control Room. She repeated"Karen Ross," and inserted her electronic identicard inthe slot, resting her fingers on the metallic edge of thecard so the computer could record galvanic skin potentials. (This was a refinement instituted three monthsearlier, after Travis learned that Army experimentswith vocal cord surgery had altered voice characteristicsprecisely enough to false-positive Voiceident programs.)Congo. Copyright © by Michael Crichton. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Congo by Michael Crichton, Michael Crichton
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