CHUCK VERSUS THE CGI (Chuck 6-03)

The third episode of an imaginary sixth season of Chuck.

Disclaimer: I don't own a single molecule of Chuck and I intend no copyright infringement.


CHAPTER 3

Second day, morning

Sarah arrives at the main gate of the FlixPix studios in a rented lime-green VW Beetle, sporting big round sunglasses and a full-on smile for the gate guard—not the same one who encountered her in the Lotus yesterday—she'd checked the shift schedule to make sure of that. The guard finds it something of a challenge to take his eyes off Sarah long enough to scope her ID badge.

"Sarah Kent?" he asks. "You're new here, aren't you?"

"Right you are, honey! An' that's real nice of y'all to notice an' make me feel more welcome—"

"It's my job to notice, ma'am," the guard replies with a chuckle. "But yes, of course—welcome. Welcome. So you're in HR?"

"Right again! Jus' transferred down here from the San Bruno studios. Ah'm gonna be the one makes sure all y'all get paid on time, and such."

"You don't sound like you're from the Bay Area though," the guard notes as he passes the badge back down to Sarah.

"Well, aren't y'all jus' the observant one? Ye-es, ah'm originally from Georgia. An' so very, very glad to be in a sunny warm place again finally!"

"That's nice. Well, hope you keep liking it here, and you have a great day now, ma'am," offers the guard, as he waves her through the gate toward the employee parking lot.

Sarah's demeanor instantly changes from bubbly to focused as she leaves her car and walks briskly in her floral print A-line skirt and button-down silk blouse through the sliding blue-glass doors of the main administrative building, through the busy lobby, and up a flight of stairs to the Human Resources office. A cubicle waits for her: with a desktop computer, speakerphone, Get the Zoomies in 2013 coffee mug, and even a yellow rose in a bud vase. Sarah boots the computer, logs into the network, and immediately starts scanning personnel files.


Almost immediately afterward, Chuck gets off an L.A. Metro bus at a stop across the street from the main gate, and enters the studios on foot in an outfit reminiscent of his Nerd Herd days: white shirt, dark slacks, a few small tools and pens in a pocket protector, iPhone on his belt, and his FlixPix badge hanging on a purple lanyard embellished with the company's various cartoon characters. The same gate guard who chatted up Sarah a moment earlier offers him no conversation.

Chuck makes his way to the front of the employee commissary next door to the admin building, and a moment later an electric golf cart pulls up with Hamilton Su riding in the back. Su waves to Chuck, who climbs in alongside him—and barely has a chance to take his seat before the driver hits the accelerator. The cart carries them swiftly and silently into the maze of oddly-shaped buildings all in deep-blue glass and rainbow-hued steel framing.

"Good morning, Mr. Carmichael," says Su. "First day on the job going smoothly so far?"

"So far," Chuck replies. "Sarah's already in place, and I'm ready to learn everything I can about your operation."

"Normally I'd have sent someone from my staff to show you around, but I'm acting on your recommendation to keep your circle of friends here as small as possible."

"I appreciate that, Mr. Su," says Chuck. "I know your time's valuable."

Su waves the comment off. "You're right...but it's well worth it if you can fix our little problem."

Over the next hour, Su leads a wide-eyed but carefully observant Chuck on an in-depth tour of the production process at FlixPix. They walk through row after row of design stations where artists work at powerful graphics terminals drafting CGI characters, props, and scenery; peek into storyboarding labs where assistant directors and production designers lay out and argue over entire scenes on room-sized high-res touchscreens; and even make a visit to a recording session where Stephen Colbert is reading dialogue.

The final stop is a sprawling single-story building at the very center of the complex. Given a casual glance it appears to match the structures all around it in FlixPix's signature blue glass, but Chuck immediately notices that all of its windows are opaque and it is unmarked, except for a big sign curiously emblazoned with a cartoonish farm scene: a ramshackle red barn, three bulging silos, and a cud-chewing, bored-looking brown cow. A pair of security guards is stationed just inside the front entrance.

"Ever since we discovered we had a leak, we've had to post extra guards all over," Su says. "A shame." He enters the building in front of Chuck, so that the guards will recognize him and wave the two of them on.

Su and Chuck pass through a pair of heavy sliding glass doors into a well-lit, air-conditioned room, packed floor to ceiling on each side with high-performance computer systems, softly humming and blinking their LEDs behind glass partitions. A single aisle, extending down the center of the room between the opposing banks of computers, ends at a control console at the far side, where two young women are intently studying a digital flow chart displayed on a large overhead monitor, and occasionally tapping on touchscreens.

"Welcome to the Render Farm," Su says with a flourish of his hand. "Massively upgraded about eight months ago, specifically for the Zoomies project and our intelligent CGI."

"This is verrrry impressive," comments Chuck, looking the computers over with an expert eye as he follows Su down the central aisle.

"Thank you. I'm sure you're aware it takes major computing power to render all the CGI for a full-length animated feature—and our IT innovations have upped that requirement by at least an order of magnitude. This facility is the best in the business—not just in power and speed—but energy efficiency, fire suppression system…you name it, we built it in."

They reach the control console, and Su pats the shoulders of the two operators, who smile and nod but otherwise remain focused on their work.

"These 'render wranglers' assign each incoming image-processing job to one of the computers in this building. Could be anything from the curly hairs in a character's oversized nostril to an entire frame."

"Where does the output go?" asks Chuck.

"Good question," Su replies. "Come this way and I'll show you—oh, wait—hah!—have a look at that!"

Su points up at the overhead monitor, where Schnebly has suddenly appeared in the middle of the flow chart. The CGI canine bounds exuberantly all around the screen, jumping on and off of graphical windows and chewing playfully on lines and vectors as if they are bones. But the two render wranglers go right on with their tasks, unfazed.

"Is that supposed to be happening?" Chuck asks in amazement.

"Yes," says Su. "All part of the cognitive growth of an intelligent CGI character at FlixPix. Schnebly is going to live forever within the bounds of the virtual world of this feature film, including its creation—so we give him and the other characters the run of the production process intranet. May be unorthodox but it helps his personality and emotions develop."

Schnebly looks down at the two men and winks one green doggy eye at them.

"So he's not just a CGI character," Chuck realizes. "He's an assobot!"

"A what?"

"An autonomous sentient software bot. Assobot for short—it came from the name of a Japanese manga character, I think."

"Never heard that term before," notes Su, "but I guess it sounds about right."

"Believe me, I didn't make it up," Chuck says dryly. "You were going to show me where—"

"Oh, yeah." Su ushers him through a nearby door in the glass wall on one side of the room. They continue on a short distance to a cluster of three refrigerator-sized plexiglass cabinets: each one containing ten sizable hard drives, stacked vertically on shelves.

"We call these silos. Each silo is a one-exabyte storage system. The finished rendering jobs are downloaded to these, before they go back into the production stream. All three of these big babies are busy 24/7."

Chuck steps closer for a better look, then points to the middle silo. "Not this one. Looks like it's shut off or down." Its cooling fans are off and its LED lights are all glowing steady red.

"Really?" asks Su in surprise, looking over Chuck's shoulder. "I wasn't aware—"

"That one's been trouble from the day we installed it," says somebody behind them, in a mildly irritated voice. Chuck and Su turn and find a pudgy middle-aged man with glasses and a grey comb-over, standing with his hands on his hips.

"Just lucky we still have enough capacity with the other two," the man continues. "At least for now." Then he steps around Su and Chuck and gently—almost reassuringly—lays a hand on top of one of the two working silos.

"This is Holmberg," says Su. "Senior technician for the Render Farm. Holmberg, meet my new tech admin Charles Carmichael. It's his first day and I'm showing him around."

"You must be high-octane to rate Mister Su himself as your tour guide," Holmberg comments as he lowers his glasses and looks appraisingly at Chuck.

"Well…I don't know about that," Chuck answers after a moment. "I'm only here to help."

Su chuckles. "Maybe he can even help you figure out the problem with your silo, Holmberg."

"Maybe…" Holmberg says, but he looks quite unconvinced.


Meanwhile, in the Human Resources office

The arrival of a new and attractive blonde manager with a charming Southern accent doesn't go unnoticed. All morning, Sarah's targeted search through the company's personnel records is interrupted again and again, as curious male and female staffers wander into her cubicle. Each time it happens, Sarah shakes hands and offers a friendly smile, but appears anxious to get on with her work—and if necessary, makes a show of toying with her wedding ring—so most of her office mates exchange a few pleasantries with her and then go back to their own tasks.

But one—a slender, ponytailed, twenty-something man who comes in to file a new W-4 form and identifies himself as a character design artist—sticks around, pulling up a chair and sitting alongside Sarah's desk for interminable minutes. He makes flirtatious small talk while sketching intently with a digital pen on a tablet computer.

"With your looks and physique," he asks Sarah, "haven't you ever seen yourself as something more than a payroll manager? Like maybe a warrior princess, or a superheroine…maybe a spy?"

The young artist turns his tablet around to reveal his sketch: Sarah in a black bodysuit, her hair flaring out behind; a fierce expression on her face; and aiming a pistol in an action pose.

"Oh mah goodness, honey!" exclaims Sarah with a roll of her eyes. "That is definitely not me!"

"Sure it is. You just haven't been discovered yet."


Later, at Morgan and Alex's apartment

By late morning Morgan has already polished off four grape sodas. The empty cans clutter the coffee table in front of him, and he's already started on a fifth soda. Alone in the apartment, looking frustrated and miserable, he sits on the couch in a sweatsuit, trying to distract himself by playing video games.

Unexpectedly, the front door opens—and there stands John Casey—mighty in his black leather flight jacket, with his duffle bag slung over his shoulder.

"Mind if I come in?" he asks.

"It's your place," Morgan replies coolly. He doesn't even budge from the couch.

"Nice that you're excited to see me," Casey mutters. He drops the bag in the middle of the room and stands next to the couch, looking questioningly at Morgan.

"Didn't think I'd find you like this," he adds. "I thought you and Alex were working for Bartowski again."

Morgan snorts and puts down the game controller. "Yeah—but I'm not so sure now."

"Hunh," grunts Casey. He pulls up a chair and waits for the details. Morgan takes a big swig of grape soda, leans back on the couch, and continues his story.

"Chuck read me the riot act this morning about not sticking to the plan. Alex got pretty upset at me too."

"So you screwed up."

"Well…I guess…yeah, I did. I had this idea that I was sure was gonna work. But it didn't. Chuck's always had a much better sense than me of how far to push the envelope."

Casey nods, and Morgan shrugs.

"So…I'm thinking about going back to the Buy More. Big Mike offered me the assistant manager position—"

"That'd be stupid, Grimes," Casey growls, leaning forward in his chair. "Really stupid. Geez, it's lucky for you I came back when I did—before you managed to forget every damn thing I taught you! For example: there's a good reason for the chain of command."

"I know…I remember…" Morgan mumbles and looks down at the floor.

"Bartowski and Walker are the two most capable and best matched operatives I've ever worked with. Just follow their lead and you'll be fine. I'm sure you're not fired—not yet anyway."

Morgan chuckles at that, in spite of himself.

"And besides…my daughter deserves better than some ass-man from the Buy More—"

"Hey big guy—glad you're back!" Morgan jumps up from the couch and tries to hug Casey, who forcefully brushes him off—but he's smiling, too, nonetheless.

"By the way," Morgan continues, as Casey gets up and heads for the kitchen, "you and Gertrude…you aren't…you didn't…?"

"Nah," replies Casey. He finds a bottle of single-malt Scotch he had stashed away, and pours himself a few fingers' worth. "We completed our mission and now I'm giving her a head start on the next one." He takes a sip of Scotch, grunts appreciatively, and grins at Morgan.

"With her and me, the chase is always half the fun."


Evening, in the Human Resources office at FlixPix

After the rest of the HR staff has left for the day, Sarah continues to work in her cubicle in a mostly darkened office. Freed from distractions at last, she's now able to analyze personnel files much more efficiently, and she finishes her task a few minutes before Chuck joins her.

He greets his wife with a "Hey, beautiful," and puts a hand on her shoulder to swivel her around in her office chair for a sizzling hello kiss.

Sarah feels a little extra jolt of warmth as she abruptly remembers that—in his untucked white shirt with the pocket protector and the casually dangling FlixPix ID badge—Chuck looks a lot like he did when she first started working with him, minus the unruly hair. She shivers, and her eyes glaze over for a moment, and then she shakes off her reverie and pats the empty chair beside hers.

"Sit," she instructs her husband. "Let's get this done, because I am so ready for a glass of wine and a nice quiet dinner after the day I've had in this meat market."

"Sorry to hear that, baby," says Chuck sympathetically. "You can tell me all about it later. I assume you've already swept for surveillance devices in here?"

"I did. Nothing but a few video cams on the ceiling, and none of 'em are facing this screen. Clearly FlixPix is much less concerned about its payroll than about its product."

"That helps." Chuck directs his attention to Sarah's computer monitor as she opens a desktop folder of personnel files, each of which features a high-res photo of the employee.

"As far as I could determine," Sarah explains, "these are all of the people employed by FlixPix in any kind of IT or telecommunications capacity within the last eight months—just before the time when Mister Su figures their intellectual-property theft took place. So this should be everyone who would've had the expertise needed to pull it off. And be prepared…there are a lot of files."

"You included former employees, right?" asks Chuck, and Sarah nods.

"Good. Then let's see if any of these jokers were Fulcrum. I think I'll only need about a second on each face, but be ready to pause if you see me flash on any of them."

Chuck focuses on the screen as Sarah begins displaying the file photos in rapid succession: ten faces…twenty…fifty…one hundred…but no response. Five minutes pass, then ten, then fifteen—and Sarah gets to the last of the files without Chuck having flashed even once!

"Wow," says Chuck as he rubs his eyes. "I thought for sure there'd be somebody shady in there. Maybe we should run through them all again—but a bit slower this time?"

"Okay," Sarah replies, but before she can navigate back to the top of the stack, she hears footsteps softly approaching the cubicle. She glances in the direction of the sound and whispers, "Security!"

Sarah hurriedly blanks the monitor screen, and Chuck drops beneath her desk, as if he's working on the CPU down there on the floor—but not before Sarah is able to withdraw her legs, so the security guard comes upon the two of them in a visibly compromising position.

"Gooood evening," the guard harrumphs. "Working a little late, are we?"

"Computer emergency," says Chuck as he tries to extricate himself gracefully from under the desk. Sarah simply blushes.

"Uh—huh," replies the guard. "I don't recognize either of you, so I'm gonna have to see some IDs."

Sarah holds her badge out. Chuck gets free of the desk and his wife's long legs, looks up at the guard's face—and flashes on him: ex-Army—sharpshooter—sniper…Fulcrum!

After the guard thoroughly examines their badges, and leaves them with a tsk-tsk and a sarcastic grin, Chuck and Sarah turn to each other in surprise.

"Sarah, I just—"

"I saw you! The security force—dammit, we should've thought of that!" Re-energized, Sarah turns back to her computer and starts typing. In minutes, she extracts all of the personnel files on the security guards and their command staff for Chuck to scan.

Then the Human Intersect determines that the majority of the rank-and-file guards are clean, but all of the senior officers—except one—are ex-Fulcrum.

"Seems strange," Sarah observes as she studies the file of the one non-Fulcrum officer: a pale, bald, eggheaded type with a beaky nose, black mustache, and fragile features, identified in the file as Sergeant Russ Pfeffer. "If all the other commanders were Fulcrum, why would they allow someone who wasn't to work so close to them?"

"Dunno. But do you notice something else?" Chuck asks her. "All the ex-Fulcrum officers are big bruisers—John Casey types. But Sergeant Pfeffer here is downright scrawny by comparison."

"You're right," Sarah says—then snaps her fingers and returns to her keyboard. "You know, sweetie—I recognize this man—that nose, at least! I saw this photo earlier today…."

She reopens the folder with the IT personnel files, and after a minute or two of searching, locates a tech supervisor named Otto Liebert. Liebert's identification photo shows him to have a full head of curly, sandy hair; no mustache; thick glasses—and a prominent, pointy nose that looks identical to Sergeant Pfeffer's. Sarah posts the two photos side-by-side, and it's immediately apparent to her and to Chuck that Russ Pfeffer and Otto Liebert are one and the same.

"Whoa," says Chuck. "Shave Liebert's head, grow a mustache and dye it, trade the glasses for contacts…you get Pfeffer."

Sarah is reading Otto Liebert's file aloud: "Systems engineer. Worked here for five years and resigned from the company a little less than eight months ago. Says here he was put in charge of upgrading something called a Render Farm. Do you know what that is?"

"Yep. Walked all around it this morning. It's a very big and very secure computing facility. Everything that FlixPix creates passes through it at some point. Which could make it the ideal place for a CGI-jacking—"

Sarah chortles and nudges him with her elbow. "You've been saving that one up all day, haven't you?"

"Of course I have. But babe, the one problem with our theory is that Hamilton Su told me the Render Farm has an extra strong firewall within a firewall. I don't see how anything could be sneaked out of there, let alone a data package as big as an entire CGI film."

"Maybe that's what Su wants you to think," suggests Sarah. "Because guess who Otto Liebert's boss was….?" She points out Su's name on the displayed file. "And look—only two weeks after Liebert quits FlixPix's IT department, his alter-ego Russ Pfeffer joins the security force…as night shift guard supervisor!"

"Minimizing the possibility of chance encounters with any former IT co-workers who'd recognize that distinctive sniffer of his. Hmmm."

Chuck and Sarah sit quietly next to each other, processing all of their discoveries.

"What's the plan, Chuck?" Sarah asks after a few minutes.

"Well…first I think I need a much closer look at the Render Farm," he decides. "Now, if you and I were still working for the CIA—"

"—the two of us would be breaking in there tonight," Sarah concludes.

"Yeah. But I think that for Carmichael Industries, picking this up tomorrow morning will be fine. There's this one older guy working inside the Farm who might have some useful intel. I'll see him in the morning after you scope him out, and maybe you can dig up more on Sergeant Pfeffer too. Let's go home, baby."

Sarah stretches, yawns, and leans her head on Chuck's shoulder.

"I'm good with that," she murmurs. "I mean, we're talking industrial espionage here, right?—it's not like this is a matter of life and death."