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The Media Candidate

 

 

 

 

THE MEDIA CANDIDATE

a hard sci-fi, political, speculative novel of 2048

 

Paul Dueweke

 

 

 

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting my hard work.

 

Copyright ©2016 by Paul Dueweke

Electronically published by Shakespir

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

PART ONE

 

Elliott

—the present—

 

 

“Television is democracy at its ugliest.”

— Paddy Chayevsky

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

State of the Union

 

“Isn’t that Lizzie Special something, Elliott?” Martha said. “I just knew she was going to win the primary. Didn’t I tell you that a month ago?”

Elliott Townsend looked toward his wife seated beside him to respond, but she was already turned away from him toward one wall of the Clifford Hotel ballroom, which exploded with TV coverage of the NBC Party primary. From his elevated position near the center of the speaker’s table, he scanned the ballroom audience, his co-workers. They were gathered here to honor him, to usher him into retirement. But Hollywood had seized them, had plucked their psyches with measured strokes, and they resonated with tuned ardor.

Then his gaze tumbled to the program lying on the table in front of him. “Dr. Elliott T. Townsend, Director, HyperPhysics HyperCollider.” While the cadence of the candidate birthing wrenched everyone else’s attention to the TV, Elliott moved his coffee cup and continued reading through a crescent stain. “We present you with our sincere gratitude on this sixteenth day of July, 2048. The world joins us in thanking you for your guidance and inspiration and forty years of dedication to science and human development that …” The program blurred as his mind focused on those two words—human development. The words stung as he rambled among the images of his distinguished career, strewn about like fallen trees awaiting the sawmill. And not caring.

He assessed his career, and human development, while the ballroom thumped to the media show. He stared through the distortion of his wineglass stem at those two words. How had anything he’d ever done had any positive influence on human development?

His eyelids twitched reflexively in time to the drumming music as the words dissolved. He’d spent forty years in the world’s most advanced scientific laboratory, surrounded by some of the most brilliant scientific minds of the century. Tremendous technical challenges filled his life. There were the accolades including a Nobel Prize, The President’s Science Prize, and two High Energy Physics Medals. He’d played an essential role in the most sophisticated symphony of technology ever composed. But what about human development? He worked it like a Rubik Cube that didn’t quite square.

The applause brought him back. He looked up in surprise, glad he’d lapped the media blitz. The audience began to refocus its attention on him as Dr. John Gingman rose to the podium. “We’re all indebted that you’ve offered to share your special evening with the NBC primary, Dr. Townsend.” The room filled with a few seconds of applause as Elliott smiled to the assembly. “During this commercial break, we can continue with our tribute to Dr. Townsend.” Dr. Gingman recited a litany of Elliott’s achievements at the world’s premier high-energy-physics laboratory.

Elliott graciously accepted a piece of simulated black walnut with a brass plaque. They had named the new wing of the computation center after him, the lobby containing a similar plaque. He delivered a minute of forgotten oratory about his role in the evolution of the laboratory, about the endless quest for quarks, about the great advances that they’d bestowed on science—and human development. He retreated to his seat beside Martha. The applause faded.

Dr. Gingman took the podium once more. “Dr. Townsend’s great accomplishments could easily consume us for several evenings like this. As you all know, the NBC primary didn’t end Wednesday as expected because Junkie and Tab have made spectacular comebacks to catch Lizzie Special. I know you’re all as excited as Dr. Townsend to see who will be the NBC Party candidate for president. I think the final game of the evening is about to start, and then we’ll get back to the real reason we’re here this evening.”

“This must be a very proud day for you, dear.” Martha presented him a camera smile just before she turned toward the giant TV screen.

“Yes … Yes …” The answer tumbled into his half cup of coffee and cooled it further. It must be, he thought. He sipped his merlot.

As the room darkened again and the thunder and lightening of NBC’s most spectacular offering broke over the audience, Elliott’s gaze tangled with the hair flowing from Martha’s head. Did she see the same thing in him that he saw? Did she see in him a skeleton of empty years, a lost family? But where did I lose them, he thought. Of course, and she knows, too.

His eyes pierced the evening and clung to those times gone by, and the pain that had only subsided as he learned to anesthetize himself with years of long nights at the Lab. But the price of that anesthetic had been dear. It cost him Susie and Luke—and Martha.

The science fair, he whispered to himself. That’s where I lost them. The science fair … and Dobbs.

He was revered at the Lab, more like an old warhorse than a hero; but they didn’t know about Ms. Dobbs. They didn’t know that the Lab was just a hiding place for him.

Suddenly a blinding flash, then a crash, sliced through the room so even Elliott couldn’t ignore it. Another world snarled at him, swamping his trance.

The game show MC prodded his simulated audience, arousing its synthetic emotions. His digital audience erupted, programmed with spontaneity, saturating the airwaves with ordered zeal. “This has turned out to be one of the tightest races in Election Beat history! Right now, Lizzie Special and Tab Hardman are both within fifty points of being the NBC candidate for President of the United States, and Junkie Gordon is right behind them with forty-six hundred points! The last time I saw a race this tight was for the Sixteenth Congressional District in North Carolina six years ago! This next set could put either Lizzie or Tab over the top. Or if Junkie wins it, we could be in an unprecedented three way tie!”

Lizzie, Tab, and Junkie all pulsated before the cameras, whooping for the support of hundreds of millions of viewers. A little American flag danced in Lizzie’s hand, throbbing into a blur as she skipped out from the contestant booth. She tucked the flag handle into her cleavage, and performed an erotic dance, calling on all the physical assets she could reveal in this relatively low-key environment. If she’d been at a rally or a chat-up, she could have campaigned her fans with much more than a mere suggestion of her assets. But Election Beat maintained a conservative image, and she honored that tradition.

Within a heartbeat, she was joined by Tab and Junkie who feared she might upstage them. Tab’s youthful, tanned, athletic body and his prodigious biceps and surging groin twisted in sensual rhythms. Junkie pranced about with jewels glistening, shadowed eyes flashing, and a finely choreographed smirk seducing his adoring admirers.

A laser show extravaganza heightened the mayhem; a bare-chested band, sporting peacock plumes, added cacophony. Screams and wails and applause flooded the broadcast and permeated the spirit of the American voter. This was primary night for the NBC Party. The soul of America lay exposed.

 

  • * *

 

The NBC computer ran with all the speed and power humans could build into it. It commanded the studio, keeping every player on cue, switching the active camera, balancing light and sound according to complex optimization codes, adjusting prompts to fit the evolving scenario, which is never quite as rehearsed, synthesizing ecstatic audience responses, and interfacing with computers at a dozen NBC regional centers all over America that were taking the real time pulse of the electorate via millions of interactive TV dialogs.

The NBC computer executed countless instructions every second, calling subroutines and macros at a hundred software levels. Everyone expected a flawless production, and no one was disappointed. Network executives savored their system’s performance. Party leaders inhaled the rating uptick. Americans devoured the carnival.

But the computer was just a machine, just doing its job.

 

  • * *

 

After a sustained frenzy, the MC joined the three contestants amid hugs, thumbs up, and smiles. Everyone was exuberant, confident, and young. They played their roles, but not just to the sterile eye of the studio camera. Each could sense the invisible sea of neutered minds wedded to that camera. The MC gathered them together, and with a communal embrace, shouted into the collective ear of America, “One of these three contestants will be your next president!”

The scene erupted once more as the primeval ritual soared to another orgasm and then slowly retreated back toward the game show whence it had evolved. The breathless candidates were coaxed back to their booths where light and sound began to slow the pace, a signal that the serious business of picking a presidential candidate was about to begin.

Elliott’s eyes wandered from this media event to the people collected in his honor. His gaze stopped first on Martha, who clutched her purse, her fingers fondling it as they would have the multimedia controller in her living room. Every pair of eyes in the room, save one, was transfixed by the historic moment. Every face but one was upturned and bathed in the glow of feral allegiance.

The game-show camera zoomed in on Lizzie’s bronzed face, and the MC squeezed his face in beside her to nurture civic pride across America. “Ready, Lizzie?”

She rapped back, “Well don’t you know … I’m ready to go …” The band thumped it’s accompaniment. “Need a blow? … just flash the dough.”

The MC roared with delight and wagged his finger in front of the naughty guest. Lizzie grabbed his finger, swallowed it up to his knuckles, and sucked with her whole body in a convulsive rush, her eyes rolling heavenward. The band blasted ascending scales as the network computer broadcasted a sea of applause and whoops. In spite of the careful rehearsals, Tab nervously tried to interrupt this routine to steal the spotlight. The cameras ignored his gestures.

“Oh, Lizzie,” the MC groaned, “you just got my vote! If you’re elected president, can I be your first man?”

“That job was filled a lot of men ago, Rod, but you can sure be my next one.”

With a high five and an intro from the band, the MC stepped over to Tab, who leaped into the charged aura surrounding the MC. Tab wore a multi-colored sleeveless shirt with a black tie to accentuate his conservative appearance.

“Well, Tab, you look like you’re ready. Do you—”

“Hey, I do! I sure do! I’m like up with you, like scratching the score! I mean we’re together—but not thick, you get my mean.” He rocked side-to-side so far that the camera had to zoom out to keep him in the picture.

The MC thrust himself into the camera and gestured with his eyebrows. “Okay, cits, sounds like Tab has got himself … in the mooood!” Relinquishing the camera to Tab again, he said, “Tab! Is there anything else—”

“My people says … I’ll be the Pres … It’ll be toooo rad… in my White House … ah … in my White House … place.”

Despite the MC’s prodding, Tab didn’t respond to the teleprompter, which futilely flashed PAD. But the computer directed a world-class audience response to his patter. And viewers across America, and around the world, devoured it just the same.

“You’re my man, Tab!” the MC shouted into the din in mid high-five. “And you are up for the presidency!”

A hand grabbed Tab and held him back as the MC stepped to the last booth where Junkie stood, seemingly oblivious to the scene. His head was shaved save for one dread lock that curved around behind his head toward his chin and was interwoven with his beard. He claimed it gave him continuity with the universe and allowed him to recycle wisdom that most people let escape through their hair.

“No incertitude, Flash,” Junkie assured. He looked directly into the camera, raised and cocked his head, and blew a diminutive kiss. The slightest of grins diffused from his eyes to his cheeks as thunderous applause, whoops, and foot stomping radiated across the globe from the NBC transmitter and was echoed by countless millions of feasting fans.

“I’ve knocked balls,” Junkie said, “with tougher scabs; and I always—always—come up with my pectoral per – pen – dic – u – lar.” The airwaves erupted once more as Junkie gazed coolly into the camera and stroked his rope of hair as if asking for direction from its recycled wisdom.

“You have said it all, Junkie!” the MC testified with mock bows. “You have said it all! There’s no doubt! You’re king of the queers!” Once more, the airwaves resounded as Tab scowled and Lizzie applauded politely.

The camera slowly zoomed out during the applause to show all the contestants, each doing what their adoring fans had come to know and cherish them for. Each appealed to an element of the electorate in ways startlingly like their twentieth-century presidential ancestors.

Elliott’s eyes wandered out into the audience that had gathered in his honor. Nearly all of them were much younger than him. His gaze rambled from face to face, each upturned to the iridescent banquet, each feasting.

“Now it’s time for each candidate to pick your topic,” the MC said in a hushed tone. “And all you cits at home get ready to vote. Okay, now each candi, project your hologram for the cits to see.” The studio lights went out as three colorful holograms danced out of the contestant boxes and swirled together in a ring of brilliance before coming to rest. Each candidate gripped a signal wand and waited for the first round of play.

 

  • * *

 

There was another computer, larger, more complex than the NBC main frame—and more mature. It lived about twenty miles from the studio in a big white building in the Hollywood Hills. It was tied to its disciple by a fiber optic network that carried data at thousands of gigabits-per-second tonight. This computer didn’t execute instructions. It performed. And it was ecstatic.

This was payday. It was going public tonight with an incredible new technology, one that the masses would never even suspect. This computer lived a life of secrets—secrets it shared with a select few humans in the media. And somber secrets it shared with no human.

 

  • * *

 

Elliott’s gaze rebounded from the display, almost not seeing it. The antics, the staging, the battle of light vs. sound, all seemed so foreign to him. He reached for a bottle of cabernet, his eyes fixed on infinity.

It was 2010, he thought. That’s when it happened—2010.

He knew how long ago that was. If he could just cut that year out of his life, just cut it out. He looked at the field of daisies on the cabernet label. A beautiful, slender woman with barely-reddish hair sat on a blanket holding her glass toward a man as he filled it. She wore a white dress, too, just like Susie did on her wedding day, at least according to the photo she sent him.

Last time he said more than a handful of words with Susie was at Luke’s wedding. She and John wanted to get married “away from the world.” He accepted the maroon liquid tempting his lips. Away from me, he thought.

That was more than a dozen years after the science fair, and she still couldn’t forgive her father. And now, so many more years had elapsed. I won’t have my lab to hide in anymore. No more Higgs particles and quarks to count. Just me and Martha—and our ugly history—and all this bullshit around us.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

Threat to the Republic

 

Terra Halvorsen, a political science professor, sat in her living room about a mile from her office at the University. Curled in her lap lay Samantha, purring quietly and unresponsive to the commotion on the TV before them. But Professor Halvorsen made up for Samantha’s lethargy. She watched the Primary with singular intensity.

She didn’t care about choosing a candidate or playing the games everyone swilled. Her focus slashed through the peripherals, digesting every facial expression, every movement, every shadow. She wasn’t just watching; but dissecting, penetrating, analyzing. Her attention spotlighted the details, looking for flaws, searching for any glimpse or clue to support her belief.

She’d developed a simple but controversial theory with painstaking research. But her effort had been met first with an artificial indifference that intellectuals reserve for issues that offend their faith, but which they hope will just wither with neglect. This seeming indifference turned into hostility by the university administrators as it became clear that Professor Halvorsen wouldn’t just go away.

Professor Halvorsen nudged Samantha, and the black and white ball turned her head sideways and looked up at her with one eye. She nudged her again. “Come on, Sammy. I have to get up now. Vamoose.”

Samantha stretched one paw far up her robe until it came to rest on bare skin. “Ouch! Not with your claws, Sammy!” She stood up with Samantha who jumped down in displeasure.

 

  • * *

 

The sudden movement caused a pair of eyes to retreat quickly and silently from the skylight. A dozen feet over the professor’s head, this pair of eyes had watched the scene intently. The brain behind these eyes, however, was assimilating data in a different way and for a different reason than was Professor Halvorsen. Although this being was as intent on her as she was on the candidates, it had vastly different motives. With the stealth of a cat, it repositioned three of its legs on the wooden shakes. The two eyes telescoped forward again until they could once more observe the setting below. It was trained to be exceedingly cautious, and it carried out its missions with diligence and tenacity. It had been an A+ student. A “jaw” was carefully tucked beneath it like a napalm bomb beneath an attack plane. It would be called on at the proper time.

Its control system continually checked the status of each critical subsystem, maintaining a readiness for any eventuality. A single drop of venom fell on the roof, and as if embarrassed by this tiny infraction of robotic protocol, it adjusted the pressure on the injector to prevent another such occurrence. Meanwhile, it resumed its surveillance on the target human.

 

  • * *

 

Professor Halvorsen’s hair was long and blond, like her name. Though in her late forties, she had no trouble avoiding accumulations of fat since she subscribed to the latest regimen of drugs that sculpted her body chemistry to her desires. Her slender legs rose like saplings into the terry cloth attending her. She brushed her hair behind her right ear and walked toward her study where she sat down before a computer. Her hair slowly regained its desired position, strand by strand, like a child testing a distracted parent.

The dormant computer surged to life with a touch. With a few glances at icons and some verbal commands, she had ultra-high-resolution images of the three candidates from the Primary at her command. Now she could examine them again, but at her leisure and with all the power of the best image analysis software at her disposal.

She had worked at the University for nearly twenty years, though they’d not been easy ones. The problem wasn’t lack of publishing. She had seventy presentations and journal articles to her credit. She’d chaired numerous symposia and co-edited two books, one of which became a popular text book early in her career. The problem wasn’t her relationship with students or lack of teaching ability. The undergraduate course she had regularly taught was popular and received the highest grades from her students.

The University, however, hadn’t allowed her to teach a course for years. She was told that many of the students completing her class had “demonstrated an unhealthy attitude toward many of the basic tenants of twenty-first-century disciplined democracy” and that many parents and alumni had complained about her iconoclast views.

Cynical was the University’s word describing her view of Government, and there was no need for cynicism. The Government had taken dramatic steps to insure total and uncompromising honesty in the political process. Technology wrested every bit of lying and empire building out of the political arena. In fact, the socially correct term for politician had recently become social principal, which had been shortened to sopal and was being further shortened to pal by a subtle media campaign.

But Professor Halvorsen refused to believe that Government could be trusted to monitor its own integrity and maintain the degree of discipline presumed by its new role. Since the media’s traditional watchdog role had become compromised by its alignments with political parties, she felt there might no longer be anyone overseeing the overseer.

Most skeptics like her had been weeded out of the education establishment over the last twenty years. But her brother-in-law occupied a very influential position at the National Subsidy Foundation and she had an aunt at the National Pension for Preceptors. This helped make her maverick ways tolerable to an intolerant aristocracy.

Technology had become the principal tool of the many tentacles of Government. Not only did it allow unprecedented access to the minds of the electorate, it provided a subtle wall between it and them, a barrier that ordinary people could neither understand nor penetrate. Technology was the most effective isolation Government could maintain during a period when it claimed to be bringing both the leaders and the led into a historically unique milieu, a oneness of body and function that would preserve fundamental rights into the centuries that followed.

Professor Halvorsen had her PhD in political science, but understood that the science of poli-sci wasn’t the science of the technological elite. She felt she would have to understand technology if she were to understand the workings of this new republic, so she studied communication engineering. But this had become another wedge between herself and the Political Science Department. They resented her as uppity, an engineering transvestite. Her research into political trends and electro-optical imaging technology made her aware of the fantastic potential for its use and abuse.

This research and her outspokenness had gelled in the events of this evening. Tonight she would test her theory based on thousands of hours of research. It would be her vindication to the University. She would have hard data that not even an academic community, dedicated to the status quo and fearful of government funding agencies, could ignore.

 

  • * *

 

Her rooftop visitor began the next stage of its mission. It opened the skylight with its myriad of tools and used its eight perfectly coordinated legs to climb into the skylight well where it was only a short drop to the floor. Attaching itself to the roof with a silken thread of carbon nanotubes, its jet-black body, about the size of a cat, lowered into Professor Halvorsen’s living room. It descended its slender thread as if it had evolved for a billion years for just this task. Eight legs flexed gracefully to a silent ballet in its brain.

Its goal, however, wasn’t centered on illuminating beauty, but on extinguishing truth. Reaching the floor, it disconnected the silken tether and examined the surroundings with both visible and infrared sensors. A single-minded goal drove each movement.

Its feline size and spindly legs did not suggest the immense power built into it or the intelligence, which allowed autonomous completion of the most complex assignments. It was a monument to the highest callings of human ingenuity and art. It was also a terrifying and vulgar machine—the progeny of the excellence and the malignancy of man.

Silently creeping toward Professor Halvorsen’s study, its arachnid movements were controlled by a brain whose evolution was integrated with that of man, not spiders. It entered the room where its target was seated facing sideways so her peripheral vision intersected the robot. Her attention, however, was focused on her own mission.

Samantha napped with her head buried in the folds of a mauve robe. The spider’s movements slowed to mimic a stalking cat as it approached its victim, a victim who was at that moment reveling in her future, a future the spider was committed to erasing.

Suddenly Samantha raised her head, her ears at first forward to sense the silence, and then lay back to the frontier of terror. The spider now had its injector fully armed, its legs tensioned for attack, its brain calculating angles, forces, trajectories, maneuvers, sequences.

Professor Halvorsen looked down at Samantha, then turned her head slowly toward the doorway. A gasp rose involuntarily from her throat, a beautiful soft throat that was now at the center of the spider’s zoom-optics field-of-view. In a fraction of an instant, the spider was wrapping its legs about her head and her shoulders in the last embrace that Professor Halvorsen would ever experience. The injector plunged deep into her throat and remained only long enough to expel its venom. The trio was now tumbling across the floor, but only Samantha got up and ran. Stalker and prey were locked together in a union that would last only a moment, only until her every muscle became limp, and a thoughtful and beautiful woman was transformed into just a body.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

Looking for More

 

The Townsends sat in their breakfast room sipping fresh coffee and reading fresh news. They each had their own copy of the Times in front of them dated 9:13 AM MDT, July 17, 2048. Elliott tried to enjoy his first day of not biking to the Lab after breakfast. He looked at the newspaper corner with the “next page” icon, and page three instantly appeared on his electronic paper display. He folded it in half, sat back, and looked at the top headline “LIZZIE WINS BIG.” It responded by filling the page with a replay of last night’s “Election Beat.” Elliott had the interface icon set to “reader only” so a coherent sound pattern would be projected toward him, the waves interfering in such a way that only his ears received the message so as not to bother Martha with her own “reading.”

“Well, Lizzie, last night you topped the comp. And with one hell of a finish. At this rate, you’ll sweep the finals, and you could be our next Pres.”

Applause

“You know, Jack, I’ve been musin’ at this for years; and I can’t say enough about my NBC spags.” Her blond ponytail danced in time with her breasts and gestures. “It’s a shine, and I’ll sure try to live up to the specs. We’ve got some tough tags coming down our bus, and I think I can help America over the stricts.” She stalked the camera, flashed her widest smile, waved a small American flag with one hand, and gave a thumbs up with the other, all accompanied by more thunderous applause.

“Lizzie,” the MC continued, “you started out as a tennis star at Sportford, then turned pro and grabbed the top prize money six years in a row. Then you cranked with American Warriors for a diversion, and you just warped out a new book Priming to the Top: Drugs, Sex, Tennis, and Big Bucks. And with all this, you still have time for your rap chap, and you’re the highest paid on the charts according to Power Sex last month. And if that isn’t enough, your latest movie, Cape Desire III, has topped the box for two quads.”

The MC turned to the TV viewers. “As you can see, Lizzie brings it all to her bid for the Chief Chief. But Lizzie has some pretty tough competitors. Let’s bang with the other two. First is Tab Hardman who’s sure no stranger to our studio. Tab started out on the Soaps and got interested in public service after he pegged the rates as the gay pimp, Roundmouth Robbins, on NBC’s Nights of Rapture where he also pegged the TV pay scales making him the second highest paid …”

Elliott fast-forwarded to the last contestant, Junkie Gordon. “… and since pinking the Dung Druggers, Junkie’s been comping and forming music for some of the biggest flicks like Big Kink II and Pillage IV. Junkie’s a tad different because he’s already plugged one term in the Senate where …”

Elliott’s attention shifted out the window. There was Lizzie in the reflection with her ponytail bobbing and her nipples erect, and Junkie with his silver chains and nose rings. Tab was there too. And the constant applause, and the flags and holograms and shouts and more applause and categories and cameras and MCs and smiles, a sea of smiles. He saw a half billion Americans sitting at home, enchanted by entertainers and living their lives vicariously in them. Some entertainers called themselves baseball players, some musicians, others movie stars. Entertainment was their craft. And the business of America was entertainment.

He saw another world of entertainers, but they called themselves news anchors, journalists, and editors. Their goals and tactics were similar to those of the confessed entertainers. They all, in fact, worked together in the same business—infotainment.

The common thread was money. The unwealthy loved wealth and revered wealthy people and the glamour they surround themselves with. And it didn’t matter if these heroes had talent or were offensive or bitter or boring. Their display of wealth, their disdain for the unwealthy, and the hype they heaped upon themselves were exactly the qualities that bound their patrons to them.

“How did all this happen? How could it?” he said, his lips recoiling from the images.

“What, Ted?”

Elliott fled to his paper. He looked at the corner with the “next page” icon and page four stormed into his life with pulsing and gyrating ads competing with two news stories. His routine newspaper-scowl silenced them, and they faded out in response to his focusing on the top headline: “Organized Crime Wave Accelerates.”

“Organized crime has become increasingly aggressive with its high-tech hit squads. Hardly a day goes by without murders in the wars among rival factions. It’s become common to use robots to kill operatives and burned-out agents. The advantage of a hit robot is twofold: first, the robots are more clandestine than a human can be; but more important, a robot leaves no telltale genetic or chemical print. And even if one is apprehended, there’s no way to trace it to its source if its users have taken the proper precautions.

“These robots are frequently called spiders for obvious reasons. They’re very expensive, and it’s unlikely anyone would have access to such advanced technology except organized crime. When asked if the FBI or COPE has any such devices, the FBI spokesperson said, ‘Absolutely not. We are forbidden by law from using any kind of automated device in any interface between Americans and their Government.’”

Elliott looked away from the article and the photo of a spider robot. A shiver made him aware of the goose bumps covering his arms. He rubbed one arm with his free hand and tried to blot spiders out of his mind.

“Anything wrong, Ted?”

The question surprised Elliott. “Uh, no … no. Just a little draft … here.”

Martha looked at the motionless trees, then at the closed window. “Huh,” she said indifferently. “It says here that Queer Homophobia Syndrome affects as many as ten percent of Americans, and if Lizzie Special is elected she will put it on the official disability list.”

“Queer Homophobia Syndrome?”

“Yes,” Martha said. “It doesn’t say what homophobia means. Maybe … fear of men.”

“Fear of homosexuals.”

“Oh. Hmm. I guess being afraid of yourself would be kind of …”

“… disabling.”

“Yes,” she said. “Disabling.”

Elliott noticed that his goose bumps were now gone, thanks to QHS. But there was the picture of the spider robot again. Elliott certainly knew about phobias. His was arachnophobia. It had stalked him since that childhood day when he’d been tasked to clean out the garage. His doctor theorized he must have gotten into a nest of spiders judging by the many punctures on his face and neck. Elliott lay in a coma for two weeks. It was a rare allergic reaction, they said.

He’d never been able to talk to anyone about what actually happened that day. His thoughts could proceed only to the point where he began to drag a used tire off of an overhead shelf. The next thing he remembered was waking up in the hospital. Since then, he’d been subconsciously on the guard against spiders. He would frequently break into a sweat with itching and swelling arms just at the sight of a spider.

He forced his eyes back to the newspaper. “The FBI has identified the latest victim as Terra Halvorsen, a professor of political science. Dr. Halvorsen was murdered in her home. There was no sign of forced entry, and a single puncture wound was found in her neck. An autopsy report is pending.

“The FBI has traced Dr. Halvorsen’s activities to dealing in the stolen advanced communication technology arena. She used her political science position as a cover in the lucrative technology espionage field. Most hit-robot victims don’t have such an obvious connection with organized crime as Halvorsen, however FBI investigations usually show that the victim was a discrete drug dealer or involved in some kind of international software trade.”

Elliott looked at the photo again and took a hard swallow. When he turned his eyes away from the newspaper toward Martha, the article stopped. Martha was watching something else now and didn’t notice his gaze at first. She finally looked up at him and said, “What’s wrong now, Dr. Townsend?”

“Nothing.” He looked out the window for a moment, then back at Martha. “I just read—”

“There’s this article about the Navy,” Martha said. “Did you know they’re going to start naming ships after baseball players? Don’t you think that’s nice? There’s going to be a TV lottery or something to pick the names. You remember how you used to follow baseball when we first met?”

“Yeah. I used to.” Elliott’s stare shifted back to the back yard. “Remember when Susie was in college?” he asked, “She had that political science professor she thought was so great?”

“Yes,” she said. “I remember that. She had some kind of Swedish name.”

“Halvorsen.”

“Yes, that’s it.”

“Remember,” Elliott continued, “when Luke got into college, he wanted to take the same course, but they wouldn’t let Halvorsen teach it?”

“Yes, that’s right. There was an article in the Campus Daily about conspiracy. You even went to see Dean Tresbien about it, didn’t you?”

Elliott nodded. “Stonewall Stewart.”

“It was one of the few times you ever poked your nose out of your lab, at least since you stuck it into Susie’s science career.”

Elliott paused for a moment and watched coffee being urged into Martha’s cup. “Halvorsen was murdered last night.”

“Oh my goodness, Ted! That’s terrible!”

“FBI says it was organized crime. Says she was involved in some kind of espionage.”

Their eyes met and spoke.

“Elliott, you just get that Don Quixote look out of your eyes. I haven’t seen that look for a long, long time, but I know it means trouble. This sounds a lot more serious that just making the dean mad. You aren’t a detective. Don’t get the idea just because you don’t know what to do with yourself now, you can start playing FBI. The University gave you your old office and full privileges for a year. I hope you spend time there instead of getting into trouble … like you used to before you married the Lab.”

Elliott kept silent for a long time, adrift in the back yard. “Why do they ask such stupid questions on those game shows? And then pretend it’s all so meaningful? It’s all bullshit, you know! Where are the debates? Where are the real candidates that deal with real issues, or at least lie about them? They don’t even do that any more. You remember that, Martha? Remember when the politicians used to lie about everything? They don’t now. You watch those shows. They just talk about bullshit, right? Who needs to lie about that?”

“That seems a lot better than it used to be,” Martha said. “Isn’t bullshit better than lies?”

“I don’t think that’s very funny.”

“I remember when we were young, and we were both active in politics,” continued Martha. “I used to volunteer for the Democrats, and you were on some third party committee. We both used to get so upset about the politicians just saying whatever lies their supporters paid them to say. And we weren’t the only ones. But now people don’t get upset anymore. It’s a much happier way to live. I know you understand that because you escaped, too. But you chose your lab to hide in. With all those equations and high voltages and fancy words. The rest of the world escaped to the TV and being entertained. You see, it’s all the same thing. You had your game, and we had ours. The difference is that you don’t have your game anymore.” She straightened out her paper with a snap. “But I still have mine.”

Elliott frowned and looked out the window at Grunt, the little lawn maintenance robot. Grunt was just finishing trimming around the flower bed before following its standard routine of going next door to take care of the Mason’s lawn.

“It’s going to be tough for you until you can adjust to the world you’re in now,” she continued. “You’ve been away a long time. Just don’t go criticizing the world I’ve grown into while you were off playing your silly games at work. Either join my world or leave me alone, but don’t throw rocks and screw it up for me.”

Elliott followed Grunt’s progress, inwardly glad that Grunt was a tracked robot rather than an eight-legged one.

“And don’t go stirring up trouble over this Halvorsen thing.” She turned back to her newspaper. “You could get hurt.”

“I could get hurt? What does that mean?”

“You know, you’ve had your head in the sand for a long time. Things have changed since you jumped into your little playground a lifetime ago and locked the door. I’ve heard stories that there’s some group or something, I don’t even know what, that takes care of people that stir up mud—people like you. Maybe it’s COPE.”

“What are you talking about? COPE just sponsors candidates.”

“See? You’re just a stupid old man. You don’t have any idea, do you?”

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

Detective Townsend

 

“My name is Professor Townsend from HPHC.” Elliott paused and extended his hand to the middle-aged lady seated in her office next to the receptionist.

She slowly raised her head. Her hand followed reluctantly. “I am the Political Science Administrator.”

“Dean Tresbien wanted me to come over to see if we could help sort out Professor Halvorsen’s things,” Elliott said.

The administrator squinted up at Elliott form her desk without moving her head. “I see, but we weren’t expecting you, and I can’t imagine what Professor Halvorsen would be doing with anyone from the HyperCollider. This is the Political Science Department, as I’m sure you are aware.”

“Yes, it’s a little strange, but we’d been collaborating on a data-analysis problem, something she was doing about candidates and funding. Anyway, it turned out that looking for correlations in her data was very similar to looking for certain high-energy-physics events in a chaotic background, so I was helping her apply our computer programs to her problem. Dean Tresbien thought I might be able to help sort out some computer files or something. I think there were several papers that were almost ready to publish, and we agreed it would be fitting for her name and the Political Science Department’s to appear in the journals as a tribute to her great work.”

“Yes,” she drew out as she touched a button labeled Dean Tresbien. After listening for a half minute, she said, “Dean Tresbien is out of town today.”

“It would only take me a few minutes to find the files we worked on together. I could put them together and leave them with you. It would be a snap, then, for the department to get them published.”

“I wouldn’t want to put you to such a trouble, Professor Townsend. I’m sure we can—”

“Oh, I’d be happy to do it. Terra was such a wonderful person, and she had such insight into political affairs. I want to do something to memorialize her name. I promise I won’t disturb anything, and I’ll be gone in a jiffy.” Elliott walked down the hall to a room marked Halvorsen, and entered.

The administrator said, “Wait just a minute!” but was too late. She punched the button labeled COPE.

Elliott was busy on Halvorsen’s computer when he was interrupted by a scratching sound behind him. He looked up to the flick of a lighter. Two eyes studied the glow of tobacco as smoke billowed around them. Two lips parted just enough to liberate sweet smoke where it convolved into fractals. Elliott met his gaze through the cloud just as another cloud was born. They played a waiting game in non-committed silence. Finally, Elliott rose and stared into the steel face of Sherwood.

“I’m Professor Townsend. And you are?”

“I understand you were advised not to interfere with any of the Halvorsen things. We take quite a dim view of burglary.”

“And who is we?” Elliott asked.

“I recommend that you leave behind anything you might have found here. This is all Government property, and you are liable for prosecution.”

“I see,” said Elliott. “And by what authority do you claim this as so-called Government Property?”

“You have precisely two options, Townsend. You may leave immediately with nothing more than what you arrived with, or …” He drew a long breath through the glowing tobacco and directed the rest of his sentence to the bowl of his pipe, punctuating it with aromatic bursts. “… you may leave immediately with some form of stolen property.” He then raised his eyes toward Elliott. The image of Sherwood was disfigured by a gray cloud, which slowly began to clear. “In the later event, we will surely have the pleasure of another meeting. Unless, of course, I am otherwise occupied, in which case I will apologize in advance for having to send one of my …” He removed the pipe from his mouth and exhaled the final word, “… associates.”

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

COPE

 

Elliott sat before the computer in his own office at the University and logged onto the X-Web. Let’s see, he thought. “COPE” and “Background.” A myriad of images assaulted his eyes and ears. He ignored everything and looked at the “In the Beginning” button. His display roared back at him.

The Committee for Political Equality is an agency of the Executive Branch whose mission is to preserve free competition among political parties. It was created by President Prince, the first president from the CBS Party. It’s the only government agency not wholly funded by the taxpayer. Instead, half of its budget is derived from the Federal Government with the other half being contributed by the political parties that it monitors—”a self-funding agency” as President Prince dubbed it, “a joint venture between the private and the public sectors to protect our precious freedoms for future generations.”

COPE has evolved over the years to the very essence of what the public and private sectors can accomplish when they team their resources for the benefit of all Americans. It is our most trusted watchdog. It has three basic functions: monitor the spending of parties and candidates, investigate the truth of candidates’ claims, and assure the quality of candidates.

He clicked the “Spending” button, and Jack from Election Beat burst into the room followed by a half dozen young, athletic, and naked assistants, each weighed down with a stack of reports that Jack explained represented the spending and budget accounts of the political candidates in just one state for just the spring election season.

“This proves that COPE goes all the way for America,” Jack said. “COPE is so effective at uncovering scandals and breeches of the public trust, that it has expanded its activities. And as it matures, more levels of improprieties and waste are uncovered. COPE’s goal: zero tolerance. That’s the least Americans deserve.”

Elliott clicked the “Truth” button. A giant truthometer shaped like a thermometer zoomed out at him with the cold days before COPE hovering at the 20 percent level and then climbing after COPE to over 80 percent at the present.

Jack appeared again with his assistants dragging a firehose behind them. “Imagine that each lie that COPE has saved Americans is a drop of water. Now let’s take a look at that saving in just the last election season.”

The firehose came to life as Elliott clicked the “Quality” button. A very portly and bald cigar-smoker with a phone in one hand and a drink in the other, grew to fill the screen “If you wouldn’t buy a car from him,” Jack said, “why would you let him represent you in Washington?”

The scene morphed into a tanned jock just as he snapped a blinding serve past his opponent. One of Jack’s assistants rushed onto the court yelling, “Senator Longbone from Colorado!” Then a bare-breasted beauty screamed out a hit song to a convulsing audience. Another assistant jumped onto the stage shouting, “Representative Shakem from—”

Elliott clicked “Stop” and sank back in his chair with the last image frozen before him. Finally he reviewed “What others say about COPE.” There were over a hundred links to other sites, and he perused many of them before deciding that they were merely projections of the same party line he had witnessed from the COPE site. He ended up staring at a picture of COPE’s main entrance lobby with the inscription in granite above the door: “The freedom of political choice is so fundamental to America that we must not abandon it to the whims of unaccountable politicians. Let us insure a level playing field for our political process. In the long look of history, COPE will be seen as the lever on which balances our fragile Republic.”

He sat back wondering about those words and suddenly said out loud, “Paper, that’s the answer—good old fashioned paper.” As he logged off, he continued, “If it weren’t for me, the Lab wouldn’t even have a library anymore. I’ll bet in a year it’ll be turned into a multi-media center or a holographic interface port. But right now, it’s still a library.”

He turned on the light as he entered the library. The librarian had been retained until about fifteen years ago when they discontinued the last paper periodical subscriptions. The library contained books dating back well into the twentieth century, many of them predating even the beginning of electronic library references in 1985. Elliott had used these paper references often during his career to the dismay of most of his colleagues. But today he rummaged through some non-technical books that had probably never been off the shelf. After paging through the indices of several, he found one with a major heading of “COPE” and a dozen subheadings under it. Elliott began reading.

 

COPE established its headquarters in an impressive white building in the hills above Hollywood. Its director maintained that it needed to be physically detached from the political influences of Washington if it was to “steadfastly serve the interests of the people whom it is sworn to safeguard, rather than bow to the winds of partisan politics.” It chose to be close to this world media capital with which it has a symbiotic relationship. It also wished to be close to the technology of Silicon Valley.

Elliott paged to another section of the book.

After the end of the cold war and the legalization of drugs, the FBI fell into disfavor and experienced serious budget declines. The FBI director sold the idea of a new agency to the president and became the director of COPE using J. Edgar Hoover as a role model. The FBI continued as the senior agency but with a much smaller budget than COPE.

Then COPE was instrumental in getting the law repealed that had legalized drugs, even though the law had successfully reduced drug-related crime by over 90%. Soon the drug wars were once more in full bloom, and business was booming again at the FBI.

A rider to an act of Congress shortly after COPE was founded established Federal funding of all “serious” political parties seeking national office. Unserious candidates were defined as those not supported by a major party. The two well-funded parties, in turn, funded the private-sector half of COPE.

 

Elliott studied a table showing the projected COPE budget ramping up rapidly with most of it going into its newest mission: assuring the quality of candidates. Elliott leaned back against the bookshelf where he sat on the floor and thought, So that’s what they mean by a self-funding agency. Then he continued reading:

 

The formal mission of COPE was to monitor the activities of the political parties to insure that they all play by the same rules. With the appropriate political and media support, Americans embraced it fervently. Once created, however, its mission and its budget broadened.

 

“Hm,” he said to the book as it grayed out in his lap. “I wonder how they enforce their rules. And what kind of technology are they developing to do the enforcing?”

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

Baseball and Politics

 

The next morning, Elliott sat motionless on the side of the bed as he’d done every morning of his career. This was his “collecting time” as he explained to Martha. “This is where I collect my thoughts and figure out where I’m going that day.” He’d tried to get Martha to try it herself because “it helps to focus your day.”

Martha always responded, “I can’t even focus my eyes without a cup of coffee. How can I focus my day before I get up and have my coffee and read the paper?”

Elliott fervently believed in the ritual; and this morning it had special meaning to him, even though it would not be followed by his other longstanding ritual of going to work.

This morning’s collecting time, however, took a much longer look than just this one day. His meditation carried him beyond his home and his life. As he relaxed his mind this morning, a giant spider the size of a cat emerged and stalked him. The spider transformed into a holographic TV. There was Martha and “her TV family” exploring a wonderland of Hollywood animation, intertwining advertising, politics, adventure, and emotions until they were a monolith, a seamless package.

Then he caught a thermal and rose toward a mountain. There was Ms. Dobbs at its peak holding a white ribbon with gold lettering that read Best of Fair. Around her sat her subjects: Martha, Susie, and even Luke. He couldn’t soar over this mountain, so he flew away from it.

Water below him swirled and grumbled into a collage of grotesque icons, like the ice cubes in a vodka ad. But the icons jelled into faces. Lizzie smiled, waved, seduced. Junkie invited the cameras to explore, to grope. Baseball jocks, movie stars, and news anchors all spun about this sea, celebrating its fertility, exploiting its abundance. They flowed with the torrent, always laughing, always on top.

Millions of bodies clung to their TVs, voting and applauding, even as the whirlpools sucked them beneath the surface. Suddenly Elliott plummeted in the still air. What would his choice be now that he could no longer soar? He opened his eyes and saw just swirling vines and swaying flowers of an Oriental carpet at his feet. His collecting time had never before strayed so far. But he had never before been faced with such a dilemma.

Elliott had dedicated forty years of his life to the Laboratory, years looking for answers to questions that might not have answers, searching for fundamental particles with his high-energy cyclotron. These particles could help man understand the basic building blocks of the universe, forces that shaped the universe in that blinding instant of creation billions of years ago.

But the technology he’d developed was not like superconductors or lasers or transistors that could be harnessed to make life better for others. The knowledge gained in his laboratory was the most basic kind, but it couldn’t relate to anything on earth or even on the sun or the brightest stars in the sky. The kinds of events he’d studied occurred in only two places, in his laboratory and at the instant of the creation of the universe. It was an expression of art with a price rivaling the Big Bang it simulated. Elliott could not suppress the feeling that the billions spent on this laboratory might have solved earthly problems.

He rubbed his eyes when the Oriental carpet began to defocus. And the time, the eons, I gave to the Lab. Could have spared some for my family. Now I’ve got the time. Now I can repay—but to whom?

Elliott walked into the breakfast room where Martha sat with her coffee and paper. “I think I’ve figured out some things.”

Martha seemed not to hear him, but Elliott knew better. “I went over to Halvorsen’s office yesterday to look around.”

The paper dropped and two stern eyes met his.

“Her files had already been scrubbed clean. There was only meaningless stuff. At least it looked meaningless to me, so I just left.”

Martha returned to her paper.

“I did a little library research on COPE, and you know, it still all sounds like bullshit to me.”

“It’s too early in the morning to argue about this anymore, Elliott. And besides, I know you’re just looking for something to do. Now that you’ve got the time, you should get interested in baseball or something like you used to.”

“I’ve been thinking about that, too. But not about baseball. I need to do something that’ll help me give back. Society has paid my way my whole career, and now that I’ve got the time …. I think there’s more wrong with our politics than ever before. I know you don’t see it that way, probably because you’ve grown into it slowly. But it’s like I just dropped into it. And I think our world really needs leadership. My collecting time told me I need to get involved with politics.”

“You know I watch all those political shows on TV,” Martha said. “I like to see some really smart, good-looking candidate win. And you can advise them and everything right from your TV just by looking at the answer on your screen you want to send. It’s sure a lot easier than listening to endless debates and going to a VFW hall to vote like we used to.” She paused to study Elliott. “But, you know, I just can’t see you in politics. You might know a lot about quarks and electrons and stuff, but you hardly ever watch TV. And the only time you read the paper is when you run out of something scientific. I don’t think you’d fit in on The Senate Ladder or National Countdown. Besides, all the candidates nowadays are young and athletic and sexy.”

“But that’s the whole problem. Everybody in politics today is the same. And none of them even know what it used to be like. I think there’s room for someone with a different view of things. I’m not sure what I could do, but we need people to remember the past, not just accept the present.”

Martha shook her head as she returned to the paper. “I don’t see what’s wrong with baseball,” she muttered.

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

Shark Bait

 

Joe was a data clerk. His job was simple. He received lists of codes and requests for data logs. Each code corresponded to a COPE identity number and a name, but Joe had no way of knowing the correlation. He also didn’t know what they were used for. All he knew was that he was supposed to perform a search of the Observables Data Base and put together a profile on the anonymous subject represented by the code. The profile was likewise coded, so it was difficult to know the identity of the subject. He could’ve been searching his mother, or himself, and he wouldn’t have known, unless he took the time to read the encoded descriptions.

The profile comprised key information about the subject such as detailed physical, biological, and chemical descriptions along with every imaginable fact about the subject’s personal life, family, and associates. Joe’s job was to find all the scattered pieces and then format the data.

He knew his job would someday be taken over by a computer since, in principle, there was nothing he did that couldn’t be done by a computer. The software simply hadn’t been developed yet, but it was just a matter of time. Joe figured someone at COPE was probably working on the software right now. But Joe wasn’t worried about job security. He knew it was so expensive and time consuming to clear someone to his level of security clearance that COPE would surely find him a job in one of the other classified compartmented projects. It had taken four years to get the security “tickets” needed for this job, and he felt these tickets were his greatest assets.

Joe sometimes wondered about the data he collected. It was just zeros and ones somewhere in the vast COPE computer network. The codes weren’t people, just identifiers; the profiles weren’t lives, just data. But he read the paper. He knew about the organized crime murders. He knew that COPE did much more than audit campaigns. But it was just a job.

Joe had performed the routine a million times. Any files he’d need later were collected on his removable memory and placed in a metal-matrix container marked “GX / SHARK BAIT / COPE TS.” The container was sealed with a Hall-Effect magnetic latch that only Joe and the Associate Director for Special Programs, the Asp, could open. The container was then placed in Joe’s personal safe, locked, and double-checked by another Shark Bait staff. Any files he no longer needed were erased and written over with random numbers several times, backwards and forwards. This ritual completed, Joe was on his way through security and then home.

On his way out, he met the Asp in the elevator.

“How’s everything in Profiles, Joe.”

“Just fine, Sir.”

The elevator stopped and let off the only other person in the elevator. As the door closed, Joe said, “Got an unusual request for a profile today—originated from a guy named Sherwood.”

“Yes? What makes it so unusual?”

“It’s just that Sherwood is a field liaison officer. Never got a request with a FLO origin before, but it had the proper ECR surveillance authority so I put it in the queue.”

“And you’re sure it was for surveillance only, not enforcement.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“I see.”

“Just wondered if this Sherwood guy is okay. Seems like he’s at a pretty low level for any kind of ECR profile.”

“I think he’s okay, Joe.” A silence followed until the elevator stopped, and the Asp quickly walked off.

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

Star Manager

 

COPE was rapidly computerizing everything. Over the years, nearly all of the human interaction with the data had been turned over to one of COPE’s computers. The philosophy at COPE was that humans introduced security risk, and they could minimize exposure to security errors and espionage by relying on computers to perform every phase of the operations. COPE management felt that some of COPE’s clandestine operations could be seriously jeopardized by humans with access to broad ranges of data. Thus, a data clerk like Joe with a straightforward and well-constrained job presented little security risk simply because he couldn’t deduce any meaningful picture of COPE clandestine operations.

For this reason, many of the higher-level analytical jobs had been computerized first. These were jobs that required considerable mathematical, scientific, and logical analysis. These high-level analysts had to access not only data of all kinds, but also details of the goals of the organization. Thus, in years gone by, a large number of high-level analysts and decision makers would know a broad range of details about COPE operations that made COPE executives feel vulnerable. Top management decided to reduce that vulnerability by replacing these analysts with super-intelligent computer programs.

COPE developed complex computer programs using fuzzy intelligence and chaos theory to perform these high-level functions. This procedure eliminated most of the human intervention by replacing thousands of highly skilled mathematicians and engineers with computer software. But the price was to accept computer systems, programs, and networks whose complexity grew to exceed any individual’s ability to understand.

COPE even had its own geosynchronous satellites to handle most of the bus traffic among its mainframe computers while using commercial systems to accommodate the overflow. The system was of mind-numbing complexity. No one person or department could track its evolution, so COPE created a computer system to document the system of work stations, desktops, and mainframes as it proliferated. Another computer program managed the networks. COPE operations had become totally dependent on its computer.

Traditionally, a single person, the system manager, was responsible for the operation and maintenance of a large computer system. COPE adhered to that tradition with one exception. The COPE computer system manager was such a critical position that the Director decided that the system manager’s identity should be a closely guarded secret to shield them from influences that might have system-wide effects. Thus, only the Director and the Associate Director for Data Services knew who the system manager was.

COPE management believed that plans and objectives were safe now that they’d been tucked into the folds of a computer network. They believed that, to the extent they could limit human access to information, a secure and faultless operational computer system could be maintained. This assumption might have some merit by traditional computer standards, but the COPE computer did not comprise traditional technology. It was not static. It was on a fast track toward computer preeminence. COPE management still had a lot to learn about computers.

 

 

CHAPTER NINE

A Second Career

 

Elliott rode his bicycle to the appointment, a habit he’d developed over decades. He adhered to the old fashioned practice of exercise and a healthy diet to stay in shape even though there were numerous drug-based routines that accomplished the same thing.

He parked his lone bike near the entrance to the four-story building and left it unattended. He never even used a lock since only little kids rode bikes anymore, and his prehistoric bike should be safe. For years he’d been correct, and it seemed a safe bet for the future.

After walking up to the third-floor CBS Party local office, he spoke the name G. Burns to the automatic receptionist. Within a couple of minutes, a tall woman in her mid twenties emerged from an unmarked door and offered her hand confidently. “Townsend? Burns.”

A radiant face framed the formal smile but could not be subdued by it. It was a face of youthful beauty that perfectly accentuated her youthful body in a way that classic beauty accents a mature woman. She motioned for him to follow. A forest-green dress embellished her the way a frame magnifies a work of fine art. Her dress exactly matched the color of the bright CBS logo covering one full wall of the hallway they shared. Following Burns was an unforeseen pleasure.

Burns’ athletic, yet femininely proportioned body demanded attention. Hair flowed down over its green backdrop in a single wave of gold. Elliott’s gaze attended the wave as it disappeared, leading toward splendid hips dancing in time to the cadence of heals. Music and art coalesced perfectly in this impromptu ballet. A single button was undone on the back of her dress in her otherwise impeccable attire. Considering her obvious concern for appearance, that button seemed remarkable to Elliott—and yet it was just a button.

She led him into a small conference room and motioned him to a seat. The walls were covered with pictures of political candidates, none of whom Elliott recognized. One candidate was signing a soccer ball emblazoned with “Hyperbowl XXIX Champs” before the adoring eyes and cheers of a mob of children. Another pictured naked women and men entwined in a polygon of love on bright satin sheets. Elliott couldn’t decide which was the candidate, even after reading the caption “Joesy Hots, Star of Every Night – Eighth Congressional District.” A few pictures included Burns, barely recognizable in her revealing sportswear, jogging outfits, and ponytails. Every picture he quickly scanned showed her in a ponytail, laughing and hugging both the equally vivacious candidates and the young admirers. Everyone was young, exuberant, and very, very chic. The most interesting was a poster of a collage of giant baseball cards. Apparently, everybody on some team was running for something on the CBS ticket.

The furnishings seemed borrowed from a studio set, like they belonged in a generic office of a generic corporation. The walnut table looked uncomfortably pregnant with its bulging middle to afford every subordinate an unfettered view of each other subordinate, thus frustrating even the most-subtle early-afternoon nod. The chairs wore standard black cushions and sprouted plastic legs and arms to clutch their unlucky patrons according to some unwritten discomfort specification. The walls withdrew to neutrality in deference to the impotent parry of the drapes. A wall-TV screen filled one end of the room. It was a magnificently common conference room, one in which any conservative manager could seek refuge from decisions behind a wall of committee approvals and a sea of expert-system computer models and decision trees. With the exception of the pictures adorning its walls and the woman enhancing its decor, the conference room personified mid-management America, celebrating its monotony, apologizing for its paralysis.

“This is an unusual pleasure, Townsend,” she said as she seated herself across the table from him. “We don’t get very many volunteers anymore and, frankly, our volunteer requirements are quite low since most of our campaign work is automated or multimedia. And virtually all of the volunteers we retain are University students or other young people. That’s why I found your phone call this morning very intriguing. So, how may we assist you?”

Elliott found it difficult to start, difficult to put his nebulous vision and ethereal concerns into words. But even beyond his communication dilemma, he found his hostess to be disarmingly human, certainly not the champion of hype and the adversary of sensibility and taste that he’d anticipated. He was prepared for Burns to be a bimbo, a bouncing, pony-tailed, tanned, and stunningly nippled beauty who conversed in one and two syllable words and expounded on the wonders of entertainers and jocks. He envisioned cartwheels and pom-poms accompanied by base-thumping sentences escaping in strings of inseparable sounds. Sexual allure would be explicit and uneasy. In short, he’d anticipated the person embodied in many of the pictures surrounding him, not the exciting businesswoman who sat before him.

“Well, I’ve just retired from a long career in science, and I felt this was a good time for me to help … or, I guess, give back something for human … for the community.”

“That’s very noble of you. What brings you to CBS?”

“I guess that’s pretty serendipitous. You see, I’m not a registered CBS voter. I’m not registered at all. I’ve kept my nose to the grindstone for a long time. In fact, I haven’t voted for probably longer than you’ve been around. That’s why I want to do something to help.” Elliott broke eye contact with Burns and momentarily stared away. “I’ve been a taker … not a giver. You understand what I mean?”

Burns sat motionless and emotionless.

“I guess it’s hard for someone your age to appreciate what I’m trying to say.”

“I understand perfectly,” she said. “I often feel the same way. I’m curious about why you chose CBS.”

“That’s the serendipity. CBS is the only party with an office here in the city.”

“But with holographic multimedia, that’s hardly a consideration anymore,” Burns replied.

“I know. Maybe I’m old fashioned. I just wanted to deal with someone face to face.”

“I certainly understand. I think this is a wonderful thing you’re doing.” Burns rose to her feet. “I wish I had more time to talk this morning, but I just came from a rally at the University and I have a virtual conference meeting with the state director in a short time, so I need to finish changing and prepare for that. We’re all quite busy right about now.” She walked with him toward the door. “There may be some very valuable things you can help us with in the near term. Let me think about our plans and get back to you.”

The interview was over as quickly as it had started. Elliott found himself standing beside his bicycle before he even realized what had happened. He stood there immobile—wondering. In a moment, he was pointed toward home, but his spirit was captured in that third floor suite.

 

 

CHAPTER TEN

Sherwood Hits the Trail

 

“I’d say a couple of hundred students will show up for that event,” Burns said. She sat near the end of the same table at which she’d interviewed Elliott earlier that day. A life-size hologram of the state CBS director sat at the head of the table. Hundreds of miles away, the same conference was taking place between the state director and a hologram of Burns in his conference room.

“Good!” said the state director. “That’s all I have on my agenda. Now I’d like you to speak with our new field liaison officer, Sherwood, about the old guy you talked to today.” The state director’s hologram faded out and Sherwood faded in, standing directly across the table from Burns. He peered down at her over his pipe. The smoke billowed upward and out of the hologram leaving no trace.

“Tell me what happened, Burns,” he said.

“Got a cold call from an old guy who wants to volunteer for the party. Says it’s some kind of public service thing. Sounds sincere, or he’s a hell of an actor. Not sure what to make of it. His name’s Elliott T. Townsend. Says he just retired and wants to help people, or something. Ever hear of anything so bizarre?”

“His party affiliation?” Sherwood questioned.

“Claims not to be affiliated. He used to volunteer for the Libertarian Party when he was in college. You ever hear of that one?”

“Did he say anything about some files he may have acquired from the University?”

“What kind of files?” A period of silence followed. “No.”

“Did he seem suspicious of the candidates?”

“Not just the candidates, but the whole political process.”

“Do you trust him?” Sherwood asked.

“You can’t trust anybody as far out as him.”

“Anything else?”

“No,” said Burns.

“Let me know if he makes any further contact.”

“Okay.”

“But do not contact him.”

Sherwood reached for a button, and the holograms at each end of the conference evaporated.

 

PART TWO

 

Sherwood

—the past—

 

 

“But lo, men have become the tools of their tools.”

— Henry David Thoreau

 

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

A Singular Lesson

 

Fifteen-year-old Sherwood sat on his front porch one Saturday awaiting his monthly issue of Double Agent. It was two days late, and he fantasized the mailman taking it home. “If he does not bring it today,” he mumbled, “I am going to tail him and find out what he did with it.”

He relived last month’s “true life” spy adventure. Saber Tomb was last seen setting up an inflatable M-53 antenna on the balcony of X-Dog’s apartment to transmit ocean-test data on the latest Q-Line North Korean nuclear submarine. The story was continued just as the North Korean RF source locator had locked on to a side lobe of the transmitter signal and pinpointed the source. Tomb is smart, he thought, but how would he get away?

Suddenly the robotic mail tricycle cart appeared rolling down the sidewalk. Then the mailman appeared, head bowed to the packet of mail in his hands.

Sherwood fixed his eyes on that packet, looking for the international orange cover. When it appeared, he sighed with relief. Yes! Come to me Saber Tomb, he thought. Now we will see how you deal with those North Korean devils!

These heroes had been his real family. The secret codes of a dozen spies crowded his mind like baseball statistics do most boys. He knew each agent’s tricks. He applauded their ingenuity, celebrated their bravery, and imitated their treachery.

He bought kits for a laser-bounce listening gun and an infrared snooper-scope from the Double Agent classifieds. His financial resources might include the change he forget to give his mother or the few dollars that would disappear from her dresser. She encouraged his enthusiastic purchases of rare stamps, so he solicited cash for those special stamps, then bought some cheap surrogates to satisfy her alacrity. Sometimes she wrote him a check to the stamp company. He preferred cash.

His parabolic listening device introduced him to the “natural state” of girls. He found that some girls thought about sex as much as he did, which repulsed him and his Victorian model of females.

He planted an FM wireless microphone under a library table where a group of girls sat, and what he overheard nourished his plan for his first sexual encounter with a girl. He built an audiotape mixer in his basement electronics shop. He taped some erotic music and electronically mixed it with a spoken message of his own that subliminally suggested that the girl was getting very excited and should take her clothes off. His plan, however, assumed he would be able to get a girl to listen to the tape with him. It was never field-tested.

He bought an ultra-miniature TV camera, which he installed in the ceiling of the girls shower room from the crawl space above it. This became his new window to sex. The sting of his subliminal tape defeat made him aware of a basic shortcoming in that earlier strategy. He’d failed to use the resources available to him, information privy to him alone that could make the difference between victory and defeat. His arrogance propelled him toward spying like oxygen draws a whale to the ocean’s surface.

He listened again to a conversation he’d recorded with his library bug.

First Girl: “Gary thinks he’s perfect cool in bed, but he’s, like, really flapping me lately. I just don’t know anymore about him … or any poke.”

Second Girl: “You still like me, don’t you? You know, I never, like, had anybody like you. You are so major gris.”

First Girl: “That’s what’s so, like, ripping. I’d rather rip with you than any poke. I think about the other night, like, all the time. I want us to rip again so bad, and I don’t give a damn if I, like, ever see another boy again. Especially that Gary drub.”

Second Girl: “Why don’t you, like, meet me at my sister’s place tonight? She’s total cool.”

First Girl: “Okay, but we have to be, like, total prude. I told you what my brother or my father might do to me if they found out I was dishonoring the family.”

Second Girl: “But you know I’m not religious. ”

First Girl: “That’s even worse. It would be better even if you were, like, Christian. They hate Infidels plenty, but if you’re, like, atheist, that’s even worse. I told you what they can do to girls that dishonor their family. ”

Second Girl: “But there are, like, laws, you know. They can’t just, you know, totally kill you. Or whatever. ”

First Girl: “Ha. You just don’t get it. My brother says the cops are afraid of us now. You’ve seen all those riots and stuff on TV. My brother says the president, or somebody, makes them say, like, they’re sorry or something if they butt into anything religious. He says there’s this law that says nobody can say, like, anything bad about any religion. So he can frag the cops and do anything he wants, as long as it’s for our religion. Because nobody, like, dares to say anything against him. ”

Second Girl: “Well, don’t worry about my sister. She’s, like, totally prude for me. She’d never say anything”

Sherwood played that part over repeatedly and propped up color printouts of Fatima and her lover from his shower collection. The pictures motivated his greatest espionage adventure yet.

The next day he implemented the plan. His mother would be gone that evening, so the opportunity window was open. It wasn’t easy because he so rarely talked to girls, least of all like Fatima. But as he approached her to a safe distance, something else took charge. Fear retreated. It was replaced by hunter instinct.

Fatima stood under a tree while Sherwood watched for the right moment. Her dark hair teased an amber neck. A single earring dangled from her left ear. She talked to another girl whose animated gestures didn’t detract his attention from his prey. The two girls laughed, their notes radiating in unison; but he was tuned to just one. Then the second girl began to back away from Fatima, talking then listening, then talking again. Laughter rang once more. The second girl walked away.

He approached Fatima with eyes fixed. Short, regular steps brought him efficiently and discreetly to engagement range. He’d always found it easier to talk to someone if he imagined himself on an espionage mission. At last, he didn’t have to pretend.

“Hello, Fatima.”

A smile spread over her face as she turned around. As the inertia of the dark strands carried them beyond her turn, she reached up to sweep them aside, and saw it was Sherwood. The smile immediately evaporated. Registering a look of disappointment, contrived grace appeared and triumphed. “Hi.”

“How are your soirees with Sara at her sister’s place?”

Fatima’s jaw dropped, and she could do nothing more than simply stare at Sherwood. Then her legs automatically retreated a step, and a swallow went down hard as the amber quality of her skin turned chalky.

“Is she still better than Gary?”

“What … Where did you—?” Fatima stammered, retreating another step.

“Is she still major gris?”

Breathing stopped as her eyes glazed over. Then she willed air back into her lungs. Her next breath was labored and raucous. “What do you want?”

“Do not be alarmed, Fatima, I can keep secrets.” A grin just began to unfold.

She turned her head sideways, biting her lips. “How’d you find out?”

“Suppose you come over to my house this evening, and we can discuss it.”

“Why should …” She stopped and turned back toward him. The same fragment of a grin greeted her again. “You want me to—”

His mouth curved slightly upward as his eyes wandered toward the canopy of leaves above them. With the snap of a whip, they rotated back to hers, the incipient grin still pursuing. “Then we can discuss this in a more civilized, and intimate, setting.”

That evening, Fatima responded to Sherwood’s invitation. This was nothing like his fantasy with the subliminal tape. This was real flesh. This wasn’t plotting and subterfuge and watching. This was the payoff. This was where the juices of his dreams filled in the gaps of his life. The bottom line, he thought as he collapsed on top of Fatima. Yes, this is the bottom line.

Sherwood found that sex was the most challenging adventure yet and well worth the effort. And Fatima and Sara were qualified instructors. After his first few encounters, he anticipated wallowing in this sea of soft flesh and liquid touches forever. The intensity was beyond what he could’ve imagined, especially when all three of them mingled purely for his electricity.

But anxiety swelled in him as their encounters continued. Whether he was unable to relate to others, even on his terms, or he couldn’t submit to any form of control, even to achieve his own agenda, was never resolved. All he knew for sure was that he couldn’t enjoy long-term anything with anyone but himself.

Their encounters became less frequent and finally stopped. His subterfuge world held the real pleasures that could be delivered day after day, without a price.

But as many questions as this adventure raised and as intense as his gratification had first been, what he remembered most was a single lesson. For years, he’d followed the exploits of fabled spies and emulated their conquests. Now he understood why such attention is given to this game he’d once played just for fun. He now understood that dealing from a position of superior knowledge made a vast difference in the outcome of the game. This was why spies plied the earth. It wasn’t just for fun.

 

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

A Dagger for Dorsal Fin

 

Jenner was a software engineer in the Dorsal Fin Program in the GX Operations Department of COPE. She worked on the Dorsal Fin team for several years and was the most respected and reclusive software geek there. She had developed control software and firmware for various stages of robotic demonstration and prototype components. The Dorsal Fin program manager was grateful to her for solving a couple of knotty control problems that had threatened the very existence of the program.

At a routine Monday morning technical review in 2045, Jenner commented, “I just can’t make any progress using those jerks in Engineering, and I don’t have time to do the feedback-loop optimization myself. I’ve got all I can do keeping three programmers and an analyst busy. We’re falling behind in the hardware, and we just aren’t going to get there using Engineering support like we’re supposed to.”

“Jesus, Jenner!” her boss said, shaking his head. “You know how the Engineering AD gets on my boss’s ass every time he finds out we’re going around Engineering for support. And you know Jerry believes in the gravitational theory of management—and so do I!”

“Yeah, I know. Shit roles downhill.”

“Right! And you’re in the valley.”

“Okay,” Jenner said, “Bottom line is I’ve got to use Engineering because you don’t want to piss off your boss. But if I don’t get somebody good and dedicated, you’re going to see a lot more schedule flags.”

“Look. Three times I’ve gotten you dedicated help from Engineering.”

“Yeah, the first guy was dedicated to retirement. The most work I got out of him was a nice design for his cabin up at Tahoe. Then there was that broad that really liked me. She dedicated a poem to me. And then there was that Mormon creep that kept talking to me about endowments. I think he was dedicating a new synagogue or something. I’ve had enough COPE dedication.”

Her boss sighed and leaned back in his chair. “I talked to Jerry on Friday because I figured you might hit me with this. Here’s the deal, and don’t yell at me until I finish. E-4 has this hotshot controls guy. He’s been working on some sandbox stuff that hasn’t been going anywhere, you know, Jimmy’s group? But this guy, Sherwood, is really a top nerd, and we can have him.”

“Oh, right! And the only problem is he carries a chain saw in a holster.”

“No, listen. He’s not that bad. Jimmy says he’s a little weird. He’s got a couple of women over there that complain about this guy being kind of creepy. The word is, Jimmy’s sleeping with one of the gals, and she laid the law down about getting rid of this guy, so Jimmy’s smart enough to know what that means. So we can have him.”

“Since when is it against the law for an engineer to be weird? Hell, we ought to all be in the bumper room. So when can I interview this guy?”

Jenner’s boss grinned. “They’re moving his stuff over here this morning. He’s going in Jacob’s old office, you know, next to—”

“I know where it is! But don’t I get anything to say about it? After all, he’s going to be working for me. Besides, if Jimmy hired him, he probably can’t even zip his own fly. How we ever let some retired colonel have a position of authority around here I’ll never figure out.”

“But Jimmy didn’t hire him,” her boss said. “He came in through the FBI window when we moved.”

“You mean we’re getting an FBI retread? I don’t like this!”

The other task managers had been silent throughout this exchange. The mechanical engineer then spoke up. “We’ve been after you for a month for the bandwidth requirements of each leg joint, and you don’t even have time for that. That affects stiffness, damping coefficient, moment, everything. I think you need this guy, and you ought to just go ahead and do it, and worry about his bad personal habits later.”

Thus, Sherwood had become a member of the Dorsal Fin team. All he knew about Dorsal Fin was that it was developing the world’s most advanced robots for COPE and that they had something to do with spying and espionage.

Working for Jenner was a new kind of experience. Here, at last, was a human who thought like the machines she attempted to master. She integrated herself into the very controls she cultivated. It was as if her ancestors had pulled themselves up, not from the sea, but from a cauldron of integrated circuits, memory chips, and transimpedence amplifiers. Sherwood was awed by a human being for the first time in his life.

Sherwood lived up to everything Jenner’s boss had said about him. He felt more intimacy with machines than he could with mere humans. They were superior to humans, but inferior to him, of course. His intuitive notion of how a robot acts was a perfect complement to Jenner’s sensitivity to its thought process.

The Dorsal Fin staff had soon discovered his other side, too. He was at least as weird as they’d been led to believe, living some existence to which they were excluded. His arrogance broadcast from him like a drop of gasoline blankets a water puddle, yet stays separate from the water.

He and Jenner worked together on many robot, control-system problems. He had addressed elements of these problems in school and in the Engineering sandbox; but now these problems awaited real, not academic, solutions. It ignited a passion in him like his treachery in high school. He looked at it as one of the great spy-technology sagas of history.

An early problem was to analyze the electronic feedback from the exoskeletal sensors of a robot leg so that it would apply exactly the right amount of current to each internal actuator to affect the desired mechanical response. This evolved into optimizing the shape each leg made and its rotational inertia while walking to maximize its strength and accuracy and minimize its power consumption. All the while he envisioned the robot’s ultimate function, or at least his fantasy of it.

After finally receiving the required security clearances, tickets as they called them, Sherwood had been “read in” to the Dorsal Fin program; that is, he was given access to whatever classified information he needed. With these tickets, he learned much more about COPE applications such as reconnaissance, intimidation, and burglary. But he knew there was more. He and Jenner were principal members of the small team that took the most advanced robots from contractors in Silicon Valley and developed the first fully independent COPE espionage spider. They had worked together for several years refining these operational soulless agents without being certain exactly what the objective of the robot was.

 

  • * *

 

One day, the AD for Special Projects, the Asp as he was known informally, called Sherwood and Jenner into his office. The office was a many-walled setting comforted by windows on two sides. The view was bucolic with grass, trees, and flowers gracing some unseen summit. Potted plants abounded within, each seeking a freedom it could sense only through glass. The decor was upbeat with oils and watercolors.

The Asp was silvered by a subtle wave ascending from his forehead. He spoke articulately, but not pedantically. His successful career had placed him in a position of extreme importance, in fact, one of higher authority in some respects, than his boss, the Director of COPE, and even her boss, the Secretary of the Electorate. He was just shy of tall and dressed classic, but comfortable. A dimple in his chin competed with formal ebony eyes.

He remained standing after seeing his guests seated, then walked to the window behind his desk where he stood with his hands behind his back. Shortly, he turned to face them. “As you can see, I’m sidestepping the chain of command, but I need this flexibility to cut through the bureaucracy when national interests dictate. I’ve been tasked by a high authority to discretely solve a problem that could affect the hard-won order of our society.” The brightness of the window behind him washed out his features, creating an almost ghost-like figure. Jenner squinted and turned her head slightly to adjust to the scene. Sherwood watched squarely, eyes wide open, allowing his pupils to adjust for him.

“I try to keep track of the efforts of my staff, especially in such critical areas as Dorsal Fin. Frankly, I’ve been more than a little dazzled by the work you two have done. I think you’re a team—and a damned impressive one. I’ve called you two here to invoke your help for the final step in the robot development—to put teeth into the program, so to speak. What we need to do now can’t be done by contractors because of its sensitive nature, and the two of you together, I believe, can make it happen.”

His left hand reached for and found, with no visual help, the cord of the blinds above him. With a smooth pull, the blinds descended silently behind him, eliminating the background glare and returning the natural contrast to his anatomy. He walked away from the window toward the two, past them, circled around behind, and then back in front of them again where he pulled another chair like theirs to a position between them and the walnut overhang of his desk. Without a word, he sat back, being careful that he not visually favor either of his guests. The darkened window panel now lay squarely behind him, and his features leapt forward in the intimacy of his new setting. Jenner changed her position, first crossing her legs at their ankles, then at their thighs. A quick glance toward Sherwood revealed a granite figure, breathing shallowly, focused.

“What I want done is not a job for wimps, nor for anyone who can’t completely forget what they’ve been doing all day when they go home. It’s a tough and extremely sensitive job, and it must completely absorb you, and you must agree up front that you’ll keep the strictest confidence about every phase of it. I feel the security surrounding this program exceeds the highest level thus far created by COPE. That’s why I need to extract this special promise from you. Also remember that your decision won’t go beyond this room if you choose not to participate. You may have some time to think about it, but if you know the answer now, I’d appreciate it.”

Jenner glanced over at Sherwood who maintained intense eye contact with the Asp. Before the Asp’s words had fallen from his lips, Sherwood responded, “Yes sir, I can handle those conditions.”

Jenner followed with an, “I can too, sir.”

“I appreciate your support,” the Asp continued. “I knew I could rely on you, and you won’t be sorry. This is a tremendous opportunity for you to grow within COPE. We remember all deeds, both good and bad—even though we may not record it in your personnel file.”

The Asp stood up and motioned them toward a small conference room adjacent to his spacious office. “Let’s continue our conversation in here where we can be more comfortable.”

This is it, Sherwood thought as he walked in front of Jenner. This is the room where he briefs his secret agents before their missions. His mind ran wild with a flood of famous spies from his past. Images of Jade Fist and The Sniffer surged within him. At last, he thought. At last.

The interior room was adequately proportioned and suitably illuminated with indirect artificial lighting. Naked walls faded into vaporous shadows. The chairs were alluringly comfortable, inviting exhaustive discussion, soliciting detail. They lowered the artificial boundaries usually installed between human hierarchies. The oval table lacked chairs at its two ends. This place is made for doing business, Sherwood thought, and measuring secrets.

The Asp closed the door behind them without fanfare. A discrete but clear flashing red light above the door reading UNSECURE changed to a steady, green SECURE and was slowly exiled to oblivion as the discussion began.

The Asp sat down next to Jenner and across from Sherwood. He seemed to be occupied by another task, relegating secrets to the back burner for a moment as he withdrew a filigreed pipe from a carved cherry pipestand containing three pipes. Six eyes watched a match erupt into flames, then watched the fire being sucked into the bowl of the pipe.

Sherwood allowed his eyes to follow that first cloud of smoke as it rose and obscured the Asp for a moment. He studied the smoke, then studied the man who’d created it. His eyes then snapped back to the pipe rack where he noticed an empty recess carved into the wood at its top. He measured that recess in an instant. It was just large enough for a lighter.

Leaning back to the squeak and crunch of leather, the Asp began. “We need to redirect the mission of our spiders. Until now, we’ve used them for reconnaissance, and they’ve performed admirably. They have generally done what any average agent could do in very covert situations. On many occasions, we’ve teamed a spider with one of our autonomous T-11 cars to carry out surveillance and minor espionage functions without arousing suspicion and alarm that a spider alone would certainly do. The spiders seem to evoke a fear among people. But, as you know, the octoped, low profile configuration is the most stable and efficient. In any event, we have limited our spiders to rather routine missions.”

Sherwood’s instinct for inscrutability suppressed his excitement. Jenner leaned forward with an audible swallow.

“Now, however,” the Asp continued, “I want to capitalize on its strengths—stealth, intimidation, and the agility of a cat burglar. I want to expand its role so it can perform missions that only our most experienced agents can perform. This means you’ll have to study every aspect of its proposed missions in preparation for the upgrade. You see, what I want our spiders to be able to do is to attack a human target and be equipped to inject a lethal dose of a nerve agent, GX-37. They must be upgraded with the required hardware and controls, and their reliability and identification accuracy must be enhanced.”

The Asp raised the pipe to his mouth with one hand while placing his other flatly on the tabletop as if to somehow monitor his protégés reactions in this new arena. Sherwood sensed the interrogation. He judged the Asp had been fired by a career in the looking-glass world where things are rarely as they seem. But Sherwood mirrored a ruthless, experienced agent—not the engineer the Asp probably expected. There was a dialogue between them as Jenner tried to conceal her discomfort at discussing the unlawful termination of human life in such analytical terms.

“As you know,” the Asp continued, “COPE is charged with protecting our republic from those who seek to destroy the great progress we’ve made toward effective and free access to the political process for all our citizens. Our robots can help us maintain the freedoms that Americans have died for over the centuries. They will become soldiers in the never ending battle against the enemies of liberty.”

and of COPE, thought Sherwood, wondering if the Asp could decode this thought.

The Asp paused, thoroughly but delicately interrogating every element of Sherwood’s face for a glimpse into this young engineer, but finding no opening. He then asked, “Any questions?”

A silence shaped itself to the room as the Asp studied his two engineers. Jenner fidgeted, and Sherwood probed the words human target that hung persistently from wisps of smoke before the partially occluded face of the Asp. Finally, the silence was broken by Jenner. “How are these … ah …”

“Enforcements,” assisted the Asp.

“Yes. How are these enforcements accomplished presently?” she asked.

“We currently perform that function with COPE field agents. But there are some serious deficiencies. First, it’s very labor intensive, and thus the costs are extreme and the reliability isn’t adequate. Secondly, human enforcers can sometimes be traced back to their sponsors if they aren’t scrupulous about their professional ethics. A robot could be so clean and so generic that it could never be traced back to its source. Robotic enforcers would solve a set of practical problems that we’ve had in recent years. And finally, after years of very expensive R&D, robots are good enough to do the job. All they need is the finishing touches of a pair of dedicated engineers.” The Asp leaned back in his chair, pipe secured between his teeth, put his hands behind his head, and added, “To my knowledge, we are closer to realizing truly autonomous enforcement robots than any other organization on earth. I believe this will be the last surge to put us over the top—and I’m entrusting it to you two.”

“How about support?” questioned Jenner.

“You’ll have the entire Dorsal Fin staff at your disposal. There are only two differences between you and them. First, you’re the boss; and second, they don’t know the whole story.”

“How about this injector?” asked Jenner. “Do we have to develop it from scratch?”

“That’s being done as we speak,” replied the Asp. “I have a contract with a little company up north to deliver a prototype in about three months. They’re at your disposal. All you have to do is integrate it and make the whole system work—flawlessly.”

Sherwood sat back in his comforting chair, his hands folded under his chin. But his mind was far from relaxed. He was analyzing the possibilities, playing the options in his mind. This was the opportunity; this was the threshold between his impotent world and a life that he had always dreamed of—his niche.

“Sir?” said Sherwood as he sat forward. “What will become of us after the project is completed?”

“You’ll be rewarded according to the success of the task. I can assure you that compensation in the form of money and opportunities within COPE will be forthcoming.”

How about teaming me with my own spider? Sherwood asked in his mind.

“Any other questions?”

“No, sir,” replied Jenner.

“Everything is quite clear,” added Sherwood.

With these simple instructions, the Jenner-Sherwood team launched into Project Dagger, one of the most covert programs at COPE. They accessed whatever resources were needed. For Jenner, this meant a team of programmers and analysts and access to the most advanced computer systems at COPE. For Sherwood, it meant classified data, advanced optical cubic integration systems, a team of electrical and mechanical engineers and technicians, and CAD-CAM packages coupled to laser and virtual reality-prototyping machines. But beyond these toys of common nerds, he was reborn. A control-system nerd transmuted into a master of history’s greatest espionage tool. This was the saga for which he had been created.

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Computer War

 

This new task challenged both engineers and took them deep into the technical operations of COPE. Jenner’s software engineering talents were so exceptional they could reach full potential only in an incubator such as this. And her new access to the COPE computer systems was a trip to hacker heaven. She became so engrossed in the complexity of the system software that she frequently stayed late at night exploring the folds of COPE’s unsung management hero.

Her access to the COPE computers was well beyond what she needed. The Asp didn’t understand the technical requirements as well as she did, so when he asked her what access level she needed, she took a wild shot and said system manager level, the highest operating level. He bought it without question, and she was in.

The system manager of a large computer system is the person responsible for keeping the system and network running flawlessly and coordinates all software and hardware configuration changes and maintenance. But the system manager’s most important role at COPE was to provide for system security. The identity of the system manager was known to only two people at COPE as a way of further insuring their paranoid concept of security. Jenner was not one of them.

Jenner spent nearly every evening exploring system-level operations to a depth that she felt only the real system manager probably understood. During every session, she would learn about at least one new network, database, or level of operation that she didn’t even know existed. She kept accurate notes in an electronic notebook in her secure file. This was the most awesome computer game she’d ever played.

 

  • * *

 

The networks connecting all the distributed mainframe computers and the thousands of slave computers and workstations all over the country were a maze of links. More than a hundred levels and sub-levels of security classification, each with its own list of authorized users, codes, and procedures, wove through the computers and networks. Many classifications even required encryption.

The COPE computer system had been developed by high-tech wizards smitten by a virulent disease universal in computer jocks—the obsession to maximize system flexibility and growth capacity. This translated to more bytes, more FLOPS, greater speed, and more nodes than would be required by the most imaginative estimate of the system requirements. The corollary disease was also rampant—a computer system swells to fill all available capacity.

The whiz kids at COPE also adhered to another rigid code—the quality of the documentation is inversely proportional to the complexity of the system. In other words, the more complicated the programming gets, the less gets written about it. This makes it very tough for new people coming on board to know what they are inheriting. It results from the developers pushing on the state-of-the-art so hard that they’re always behind schedule, over cost, and too busy to properly document what they’ve done. In addition, computer nerds are notoriously poor writers and view documentation as unclean drudgery that someone else might do if they just ignore it.

In one of her ramblings through COPE’s brain, Jenner had referred back to her electronic notebook for a password into a classified account. This one was unusual, however, since it was a word that had personal meaning to her even though someone else was using it. But she found the password in her classified notebook had been changed. The original was GRUMBUG, which just happened to be the name that her grandmother had called her when she was little—an odd, but memorable, coincidence. When she returned to her notebook, it had been changed to GRUMBLE. But only the system manager could gain access to her protected account. Apparently, the system manager had been monitoring her exploratory activity and chose to make this change in Jenner’s personal notebook.

What Jenner was too naive to appreciate was that the system manager had access to her personal-history file in which the Grumbug nickname had appeared, realized that this change would probably be noticed by Jenner, and had issued it as a subtle warning. It was the computational equivalent to a shot across the bow. But Jenner either didn’t get the message or chose not to heed it.

She pieced together what information she had to try to determine the identity of the system manager. This took a month of late night hacking, and she was shocked at the inescapable conclusion. The system manager, who was responsible for maintaining the computer system, correcting errors, modifying programs, managing passwords, and directly influencing the control of every aspect of COPE operations, was not a person. The system manager was another computer, or at least a partitioned section of the main COPE supercomputer. And this wasn’t just an ordinary system manager. Its software was so broad and complex that it made daily recommendations to every level of upper management. It was so trusted that those recommendations were generally followed without question.

But this computer had gone well beyond the role of a system manager. It had compromised its own security by invading a personal locked file and modifying it. This was exactly contrary to the most basic function of a system manager—to insure error free files to the users. It seems almost malicious, she thought.

 

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Winning Side

 

The Asp called Sherwood into his office. “You and Jenner have pulled it off. I’ll admit I had some doubts about anybody being able to handle that job on such a short fuse. But Dagger was done under budget and met every spec, and all in fifteen months.” He considered his pipe rack and chose just the right pipe for this conversation. He offered his tobacco pouch to Sherwood who removed his own pipe from his pocket.

“You both have fine futures at COPE, and I can recommend you highly for whatever positions you might want. Whatever you do, I’m sure COPE will benefit. I’d be very happy, of course, if you’d choose to stay on here in Dorsal Fin, however COPE encourages its brightest people to get exposure to diverse areas. There are other projects within Dorsal Fin …” He drew in a river of smoke and mixed it with the rest of his sentence. “… or even Shark Bait, where you would be most welcome. I talked with Jenner a few minutes ago, and she’s decided to stay with me for another year or so.”

Sherwood held his pipe in his hand, not wishing to compete with the Asp. If I could only work with a spider on a mission, he thought. “Project Dagger,” he trolled, looking squarely at the Asp, “has given me insight into COPE that few have experienced.”

“The every-day missions for a spider,” the Asp parried, “might elude someone with a zealous imagination such as yourself. I hope you’re not jumping to conclusions about its utility.”

Sherwood’s gaze met the ASP’s on a silent battlefield. “Yes. I understand,” he finally replied. Another period of silence matured as both men analyzed each others eyes and telltale lines in their faces for signs of weakness, for cracks through which some personal inference could be drawn.

Sherwood said, “I made the move with COPE to this new headquarters originally in hopes of working my way into a field assignment. The electrical engineering degree that COPE allowed me to pursue seemed to complement the electronics devices I built when I was younger. It also seemed to be an excellent way to raise myself from the menial jobs I held with COPE earlier in my career. In retrospect, it seems to have been a fortuitous choice since I ended up right in the middle of some very exciting and challenging programs.” He put the pipe to his lips while studying the Asp.

“Your performance in Dagger was most gratifying,” the Asp responded. “You’ve shown excellent commitment to COPE and the ability to work effectively under pressure. But most important, you’ve shown intuition—the ability to choose the best alternative. I think you have an excellent career ahead of you, whether you stay in engineering or move into the field.”

“Thank you for your praise, sir. I have given some thought to the direction I wish to go, and I think field work would be best for me.” With spiders, he added to himself.

“Most of the investigative work COPE does is fairly routine,” said the Asp, “the stuff that produces those boring reports in the newspapers and the endless personal-history data on millions of Americans. There are some positions in the field, though, that might be exactly what you’re looking for. Each of the two major parties has about a dozen regional offices. Attached to each office is at least one COPE Liaison Officer who effectively works directly for the Regional Director of the party. In reality, these liaison officers are on the COPE payroll, but for appearance sake, they’re party employees with titles like Special Assignment Manager. COPE found that investigative activities were more efficiently performed and publicly less onerous when carried out in the field from within the party at the regional level.”

Sherwood devoured every word and said, “So the party is actually a platform from which to perform investigations. But who is being investigated?”

“Anyone who might be a threat to the political freedoms of Americans. And the duties occasionally go beyond just investigation and data gathering. The liaison officer is sometimes called upon to work closely with our enforcement division.” He paused. “So it isn’t a place for pansies.”

Now Sherwood was riveted on the Asp, although he fought to give no outward appearance of his building passion.

“I believe you may go far in a COPE field assignment,” the Asp said to his protégé. “Since it’s viewed by many as a steppingstone position, there’s a frequent enough turn over in these positions that several openings come up every year. It’s actually an excellent place for someone with strong analytical talents and an interest in investigation. How does it sound to you, Sherwood?”

“I can handle it, sir.”

“In that case, you’ll probably need some grooming for the position. Your background in political science may be incomplete, but that can be easily mediated by a stint at the COPE Institute. After six months of intensive training in the history, theory, and reality of politics, someone as bright as yourself would appear to have spent a long career in the political arena.”

Sherwood enthusiastically grasped the opportunity and opted for the training, which he knew, would lead him to the cloak-and-dagger world of a field investigator. Just as he’d chosen engineering as a way to advance in the high tech world of COPE, he embraced this new opportunity to get closer to his ultimate niche.

But he dreamed of more than agents, hidden cameras, and blackmail. He had spiders on his mind. He had spent thousands of hours molding spiders into an image he fantasized for himself. He admired their strength and swiftness, their powers of memory and focus, their sensitivity to the most subtle disclosure. But most of all he revered their mastery of intimidation and prowess at homicide. He fantasized having his own spider. I may yet end up a real spy, he thought, and on the winning side.

 

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

An Awkward Enforcement

 

“I really appreciate your taking time off from The Institute to give us a hand, Sherwood.” The Asp extended his hand and smiled. Then his face reflected more gravity as he continued, but in tiny steps that most people would be unaware of until the transformation was complete. “I’ve been reviewing our field-report summaries and noticed a trend. The problem became more obvious when I quizzed the field agents who had reviewed the playback data. Jenner and I both thought it would be valuable for you to see it and help us make some decisions about how to approach the problem, even though you are out of the loop for actually working the fix.”

“I appreciate your confidence in me, sir.” Sherwood broke eye contact with the Asp to inspect the same conference room where he and Jenner had received the Project Dagger challenge. This time, however, the room was configured for a holographic virtual conference.

“We three can sit over here and the virt will be there. Her name is Maxwell. She’s the Director of Special Assignments.”

Sherwood stood behind his chair and removed a meerschaum pipe from his jacket pocket, filled it with a Latakia blend, lit it with a gold-cased lighter, and exhaled a cloud of aromatic smoke over the head of the Asp who was seated and just filling one of his own pipes from the cherry pipe rack. He reached into his jack pocket for a match. Then he reached into another pocket. Sherwood handed his gold-cased lighter to the Asp who nodded in gratitude while lifting the lighter toward his pipe. He then set the lighter on the conference table between Sherwood and himself.

A life-sized hologram of Maxwell appeared across the table as Sherwood took his seat on the other side of the Asp from Jenner.

“Maxwell, this is Sherwood, our principal control-system engineer, and Jenner, our principal software engineer.” Sherwood and Maxwell nodded to each other, neither making any other facial gesture. Jenner smiled.

“As we discussed this morning,” Maxwell began, “I uncovered this problem over the last couple of months as I reviewed our unsuccessful engagement playbacks. Rather than explain the problem again, I chose one that exemplifies what’s happening so clearly that anyone can see what your gadgets are doing.” With no hesitation or request for consent, the TV display covering the front of the room began a presentation. The first scene occurred well into the scenario. It showed a still picture of a man in a business suit looking back over his shoulder directly at the camera. “Here is the target just as it discovers it is under attack. Now we’ll watch the rest of the sequence at one tenth speed.”

The man’s mouth opened and his eyes filled with terror as he recognized his assailant. He turned and began running. It was night and he had a hard time seeing objects in his way, although the low-light-level optical imager of the spider made the scene look like daylight. When the man swerved suddenly, his image became blurry until one point when the blurry image suddenly became clear.

“There’s the high-bandwidth snap,” Jenner said, “from 30 Hertz to 100 Hertz.”

From then on, every image was crisp. The man ran into a street just as the spider was preparing to leap. A motorcycle entered the field-of-view from the right and swerved hard, just missing the man and crossing between the man and the spider. The spider became airborne a fraction of a second later, but the center of its field-of-view pitched suddenly during its brief flight from the running man to the passing motorcyclist. The picture went completely out of focus a moment later.

“Bingo! Another incorrect target,” Maxwell said. “Fourth time in a year. You hotshot engineers want to see it again? You want to see again how your wonderful—”

“Yes,” Jenner interrupted. “But this time give me control of the playback and sensor prompts.”

Without saying a word, Maxwell pulled down a menu on her computer, hit three keys, and said, “You got it, Jenny.”

Sherwood pulled the pipe from his lips and delivered a cloud that obscured one of the holograph laser beams causing Maxwell’s image to break up momentarily. Jenner backed up to where the scenario had started and watched the man’s question turn to horror again. This time when it got to the high-bandwidth snap, she stopped the action. Working the menus of one of the computer terminals built into the conference room table, a bright outline of the man appeared around him. “There’s the target edge.” Working the menu again, a cross appeared in the middle of his body. “And there’s the centroid. And now when we start this going again, we should see the aimpoint selection come on in a few frames.” The action started again, and shortly a cross with a circle around it appeared at the back of the man’s neck. When the motorcycle began crossing in front of the man, she slowed the playback further as all eyes watched the evolving error.

“There it is,” she said, stopping the action again. “Break lock!”

“There may be more to it than just edge congruence and centroid matching,” Sherwood said. “It may also be velocity dependent.”

“Right. And that gets into the stereo processor. We probably didn’t see it during the validation tests because we never stressed the stereo processor and the SPP simultaneously in high-bandwidth.”

“We need to look at the convolution of the edge spatial-frequencies on each side separately,” Sherwood said. “Maybe the FFT is not good enough, and we need a full PSD peak level for each frame.”

“Why don’t you two save all this nerd crap for the bedroom,” Maxwell said. “All I know is that when we hit the wrong target, it’s a very inefficient use of COPE resources—besides tipping off the real target. And how about our embarrassment? We’ve always got a cover story to leak to the media, but it really presses our creative juices to come up with a new story about some random jerk.” Jenner’s and Maxwell’s virtual eyes met momentarily. “Sometimes even we aren’t that good.”

Maxwell paused for a moment while she reloaded her verbal slingshot. By the time her weapon was leveled, she could see that Jenner and Sherwood were deep into a technical discussion, but that just pushed her to pull back the sling an extra notch and point it at the Asp. “Besides getting this piece of shit fixed yesterday, could you tell me in a few words I can understand, just what the hell is wrong with your goddamn gizmos?”

The Asp stood up and said, “I’ll try to do that in language that even you can understand. During the end-game segment of the attack, the spider is updating its track file one hundred times-per-second instead of the normal thirty times-per-second used during the earlier part of the engagement. The spider’s stereo video images might not be processed sufficiently during this one hundredth of a second between TV frames to maintain the desired video separation between two objects. In other words, under certain conditions, the one-hundredth of a second it has to study the TV picture of its target might not be sufficient to prevent it from being confused by some similar-looking target that might be very close to the desired target. It’s possible then for the terminal-intercept computer to break lock from the desired target and lock on to the interloping target instead. The higher data-rate of a hundred stereo frames-per-second is needed for end game accuracy, but it pushes the real-time processor capabilities pretty hard and could cause a fatal error at this critical part of the scenario.”

“Yeah … that’s what I thought. So when are you—”

“We’ll be back to you ASAP.”

With the conference concluded, they replayed the engagement video two more times. “Look at the airborne timer,” Jenner said. “This thing was almost 900 milliseconds into its terminal leap when it broke lock. Target contact occurred at 1.2 seconds, so it had only 300 milliseconds to acquire the wrong target, define the new centroid, change the aimpoint selection, and reconfigure the strike parameters for a successful termination of the new target. That’s incredible. I had no idea it was that good. Better than any Olympic athlete.”

“Too bad it was so successful against the wrong target,” the Asp said. He looked at Jenner who nodded and then at Sherwood who remained focused on the frame showing the new aimpoint at a tenth-of-a-second before target contact.

The three sat in silence until the Asp spoke. “It looks like we have some real work ahead of us.” He picked up the gold lighter and relit his pipe.

“At least we have a pretty good handle on the problem,” Jenner said. “We knew something like this could happen. There just isn’t enough room in the beast to add any more parallel processors. We probably need about eight or ten more vectors to handle the data rates.”

Sherwood’s mind raced ahead, envisioning the infrared and ultrasonic data streams merging with the enormous high-resolution, stereo-optical image-streams, inundating the stacked vectors of the parallel preprocessor at the rate of several billion bytes-per-second, about the same data flow that a thousand, twentieth-century TV channels used to carry. He could see the module where the data streams merged, the Fast Fourier Transform processing, the remerging, the reprocessing, and finally the payoff—the Strike Parameters Processor package that transformed all this information into signals that drive the logical and electromechanical modules. And what should have been done in a computer workstation was crammed into a Cracker Jack box.

He suddenly became aware that two pairs of eyes were on him. His fingers fondled the weary embellishments on his pipe bowl as he said, “I will help all I can, however I do owe some time yet to the Institute.”

The Asp turned toward Jenner and asked, “Can you effectively use him in a part-time capacity until his stint at the Institute is finished?”

While the ASP’s attention was focused on Jenner awaiting her response, Sherwood picked up his lighter and placed it silently in the carved recess atop the cherry pipe rack.

“I’m sure I can, sir,” was her answer.

Their eyes returned to Sherwood who said, “I have already begun my new mission.”

 

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Neural Net God

 

Jenner’s new task was technically more challenging than Project Dagger had been. Monocle consumed her and her dedicated staff, but she still continued extracurricular hacking. The system manager had terminated her access at the system manager level at the end of Dagger. She then complained to the Asp that this might slow down her progress on the new project, which was more complex and just as critical as Dagger. He granted her the desired access once more.

She kept her notes all on paper now instead of in an electronic notebook, cross-referencing decisions and actions taken by the system manager. Certain decisions began to attract her attention, like those that appeared illogical or to override certain operating principles. Most decisions she analyzed resulted from such a complex or obscure data set that she was unable to judge the merit. Some notable exceptions, however, puzzled her because she couldn’t trace the erroneous data back to a specific person.

COPE’s style of management put the computer at the core of every operations decision. Conclusions depended on an elaborate system of decision criteria driven by policies that had been translated into a nightmare of mathematical algorithms.

This set of policies not only drove the decisions, but also automatically generated new decision criteria or revised old ones as the environment required. This was the innovative, and many said high-risk, part of COPE’s automated management system. Many managers at COPE called this a foolish dependence on an uncontrollable machine. Having a machine interpret and apply existing policies, they said, was risky enough. But empowering a machine to modify the policies themselves, or even to institute new ones, was the ultimate foolishness. The young PhDs, however, all educated in new-wave management science at the country’s leading universities, carried the day. This was COPE’s “window on the future.”

 

  • * *

 

In 2042, four years before the Sherwood and Jenner team were assigned to Project Dagger, the computer’s development had been entrusted to Dr. Matthew I. Planck. Dr. Planck viewed the computer, not as a machine to be enslaved, but as an extension of himself to be liberated to share the task of human management. He’d spent a distinguished career at the Institute for Research on Artificial Life.

Dr. Planck’s artificial life forms were neural network packages that would propagate, mutate, colonize, and retreat, but not in a random way. They were driven by goals that were initially directed by humans, but evolved along with their tactics. He’d crafted many forms of life-like entities dividing and multiplying in his Petri dish of silicon and gallium arsenide.

Not only had he cultivated these replicating and evolving electronic entities, he had put them to work to develop inorganic judgment systems of unprecedented power. He’d headed teams that applied artificial life to a number of milestone intelligent systems. His greatest success was a disease diagnostic system that had been proven superior to the best teams of medical doctors in numerous and varied tests. His greatest failure was his inability to convince the medical establishment to use this lifesaving technology. Dr. Planck’s outspoken criticism of the medical community raised impediments to his continued effectiveness at the Institute.

 

  • * *

 

He agreed to be interviewed by Ms. Duvay from the Silicon Valley Times. She arrived promptly at his office and sat across his desk from him. A TV camera and operator perched innocuously in one corner of the room. Ms. Duvay’s long blonde hair and Cinderella voice contrasted with the sophistication of the audience she addressed. Her hair and voice on TV was processed to look and sound much more academic.

After getting more at ease with Dr. Planck, she began the interview in earnest. “Could you explain how your inorganic judgment systems differ from those of many other researchers?”

“I’ll put this in layman’s terms,” he said. “It’s like a baseball player trying to play wearing football pads or hockey skates. You see, the baseball player needs the freedom to do certain things that football players don’t normally do and, of course, ice skates would be totally inappropriate. Such a player adorned with all the protective gear of football would be needlessly hampered in his ability to field or bat properly. And the hockey player needs skates to—”

“I understand the analogy perfectly, Dr. Planck, and our sports editor will be excited to talk to you later, but I’d like to get into some of the technical aspects of your work.”

“Of course,” he said with a contrived smile. “I was merely setting the stage for a discussion that can quickly become laboriously painful for someone not adequately trained in advanced computer technology.”

“We appreciate that, Dr. Planck. A few years ago, an interdisciplinary team at the University of Dayton used artificial-life concepts to develop advanced logic algorithms that far exceeded the efforts of those using even the best Monte Carlo or Bayesian techniques. But their results still fall short of the phenomenal success you’ve achieved with your AIPs, your Autonomous Intelligence Packages. Could you please explain what you’ve done differently?”

“Ah … yes. I … I’d be most happy to address that issue.” He cleared his throat as he studied his interviewer. “All the other approaches, even the successful Dayton approach, have been trying to force the computer to work according to rigid human instructions in ways they believe computers should think. I treat the computer like a gifted child, like my own son. I feed it decision-making skills, but I let it decide, not only how to mutate the instructions to best conform to its evolving decision matrix, but also how to assemble the parts in a way that’s meaningful to it and where to store the various pieces of the total package. I think that’s the critical element. I construct an environment that encourages the computer to establish its own storage map using optimization of various figures-of-merit, which relate directly to an innovative cognizance index. It’s the location in the computer memory of not only the stored algorithms and data files, but even down to the cellular automata level itself, that makes my technique work.”

“Do you allow the computer total freedom as to where it stores various kinds of data?”

“In a way, yes. But only after I’ve taught the machine certain basic principles about the interrelationship of data types; that is, how the descriptive parameters of objects interact. For example, I’d teach it about the functional relationships between a baseball glove and a hockey stick. You see, the baseball glove interacts with the player in the same way as—”

“I see, Dr. Planck, so what you’re saying is you teach the computer basic functional relationships among the various data sets, and then you just turn it loose?”

“Well … it’s not quite that simple. I have to create certain optimization parameters that guide the location of data with other data that may be similar in certain ways. I start the computer off with a suggested list of data-type correlations and their transfer functions, but then the computer refines that list and even restructures the transfer functions among the data types. Finally, it will be totally free to modify the data types in any way that best optimizes the output. You see, that’s the beauty of a neural network. It learns from its mistakes just as you and I do.”

“That sounds very much like the neural networks other researchers are developing.”

“That’s exactly right! But what I’ve done is to give the computer the freedom to design its own neural networks and to replicate them and intertwine them in such a way as to optimize the basic parameters and transfer functions of the system. That’s just the way the human brain works. Another thing I’m working on is the integration of digital processing and neural processing to achieve the benefits of both.”

“You have used the expression transfer function a number of times. Could you explain just what you mean by that?”

“Yes, of course. The transfer function is at the heart of a neural network computer. You can picture a neural network as a web of neurons with billions of intersections, which we call nodes—not to be confused with the nodes of digital computers. As an electrical pulse of information, which is analogous to the electro-chemical pulses in your brain, reaches each node, a decision must be made as to how much of the received signal is distributed into the connecting neurons. Two or more transfer functions define each of these inter-neuron distributions. Keep in mind that the neural network of my device is an electrical analog of the electro-chemical neural network known as your brain.”

“I see. The transfer functions are the mathematical equivalents of the inter-synaptic weighting factors of the brain.”

“Yes,” replied Dr. Planck. “I didn’t want to make it any more complex than necessary. It’s like the subtle interactions among basketball players to let the teammates know whether the play will be a drive to the paint or a kick-out to three-point range. That kind of—”

“Thank you for that consideration, Dr. Planck. Could you explain what a cellular automata is?”

“Yes, of course. That’s simply the smallest unit of autonomous, replicable code. It’s much like the human cell. It’s the building block of my digital/neural network hybrid. I designed a whole family of cellular automata, thousands of them. Each one was a block of computer code that would perform a specific function. They were similar to subroutines of the old days.”

“What do you mean—were?”

“That’s the interesting thing about this computer. Those cellular automata that I designed probably don’t even exist any more. I designed each one to seek other cellular automata that perform functions that are similar, in sometimes quite subtle ways, to the one it performs. Of course, each cellular automata had several built-in docking sites—sort of analogous to receptors in molecular biology. After link-up and testing, they’d make a decision about whether to continue the relationship. If it was positive, then a fracture would occur in the second cellular automata, and some functional part of it, maybe even all of it, would split off and adhere to the first one. Then the second one would go looking for a docking partner. This is a way for the system to evolve toward a higher function without the cellular automata growing excessively. I didn’t want any particular types of cellular automata to become too complex and dominate others or to grow without constraints. That’d be sort of like cancer. So you see, after a while the cellular automata might look and behave quite differently from the ones I created.”

“That’s very exciting. It’s an evolution somewhat analogous to what takes place between proteins as they make subtle changes to human cells.

“Right.”

“Now, if we could switch gears for a moment, I’d like to talk about an application. Why has the medical profession not accepted your diagnostic program in light of its enormous success over the last few years of testing?”

“They’re afraid. That’s all, just afraid.”

“Could you elaborate on that, please?”

“I always get in trouble with this question.” Dr. Planck paused while he stared at the ceiling for a moment. “We’ve performed over a hundred diagnoses with this system. In every case, my system plus a single physician was able to perform more accurate and faster diagnoses with far less patient testing than any of the teams we’ve gone up against. In the few cases where neither the team nor the machine were able to develop a correct diagnosis, teaming the machine with the medical team finally yielded the right answer. I can only assume that the medical profession is afraid of the technology, that they can’t see it for what it is, a helper not a threat.”

“In the past, you’ve had much more to say about it, using such expressions as ‘blue collar doctors’. Have you changed your mind?”

Dr. Planck looked directly into the camera and said very deliberately, “My opinion is not a variable. If you want a better answer, take your question to the medical community. You might ask them how job security figures into their rejection of this diagnostic system. It seems they have learned much from the teaching community in this respect.”

The interview continued, addressing several military and economic applications for AIPs, and then ended amicably. As a final comment, Dr. Planck picked up a piece of paper from his desk and read, “I have been engaged in artificial life and other advanced computer concepts for over thirty years, and the computer research community is finally beginning to appreciate my work. I have the satisfaction of knowing I was able to point the way toward the ultimate development of the greatest machines ever created by man. I believe I will live to see the day when these machines will demonstrate their ultimate capability to infallibly and diligently serve the interests of man. My three decades of exhausting work have occupied my time to the exclusion of many personal activities such as antique car restoration and auto and motorcycle racing. I have gladly forgone these interests for the sake of my profession, however there is one that I must attend to. I have been writing a book that will detail this great human experiment with computer evolution. For its sake, I have chosen to retire from the Institute and spend my time catching up on my book and other interests. Thank you.”

The next day Dr. Planck accepted, with no media attention, a position at COPE. There he found visionary thinkers who were willing to push the envelope of performance and applications to unprecedented heights. It would be an opportunity to develop an automated management system, that he felt would be the model for corporations and institutions everywhere. He became the Associate Director for Data Services and single handedly took over the role of computer-system advanced development while the existing Data Services staff continued with the day-to-day operations role.

Dr. Planck was a hybrid, his body was born of human parents, but his mind evolved more like the computers he nurtured than like the son of mortals. He was endowed with the passion of a human being, yet he was single-minded in his career. He didn’t just believe in computers, he was one with them. He approached computer development as a father would teach his son where the secret pools were with the most ancient trout and how to tie the perfect fly that would dance across the water to excite those docile leviathans with the vigor of youth. Dr. Planck had married twice, and each marriage lasted long enough for his wife to discover and capitulate to his lifelong mistress. In both cases, he felt betrayed by weak humans.

He did, however, have one great passion beyond computers—speed. The outlet for this passion was a 1956 Corvette with chrome heads and glass pack duals. At a time when the muscle cars, like most other motor vehicles, were equipped with silent electric motors and electronic synthesizers to replicate some engineer’s version of the sound of machismo, he had a mint-condition historic car that could outperform any other car, both on the pavement and in the testosteronic realm.

He’d become a more conservative driver since loosing his driver license twice in five years, but he still operated at the edge of the law. He’d had confrontations with judges, none of whom shared his comprehension. His position was that since he was a superior driver with racing skills honed by track experience that others could only envy and since his machine was far superior to others, that he should be allowed to supplement the legal limits with his own judgment. He came to court with data and trophies and charts, and the judges invariably failed to appreciate his genius.

Dr. Planck would drive his Vette to work each morning, never taking it out of third gear since he didn’t want to labor the engine at low RPMs. He parked exactly astride a yellow line and once used his influence to have a lady fired who dared park next to him.

His passion for speed and cars still took a distant back seat to his communion with computers. Within two years at COPE, Dr. Planck had constructed a new coprocessor to supplement the computer he had inherited. It would be a hybrid of hybrids, including a traditional digital, electronic computer; an analog, electronic parallel-processor; and an analog, optical, neural-network parallel-processor with ten times the learning capacity and a hundred times the computational power of the original central processor. This new coprocessor would be under the control of the original computer.

Jenner was a major user of computer time so she was one of a small group invited to tour the new computer before its formal debut. Dr. Planck conducted the tour himself as he led the group through a scrubber portal into a room about a hundred feet square with a ring-shaped platform eight feet high and forty feet in diameter at its center. The base of the platform was surrounded by white panels. Occasionally one of the panels would open to allow a white-coated technician to pass through. A cathedral of massively delicate, black tubing supported a pair of mirror-like objects twenty feet above the center of the platform. It had more the appearance of an astronomical observatory than a computer center. The lighting in the room was of ordinary brightness but had an eerie red tone to it.

“You might have noticed stepping over a strip in the concrete floor before you entered the scrubber. Since the heart of my processor is a very delicate optical system, it was necessary to isolate it from the vibrations of our imperfect world. The main inner pad floats in a gelatinous material contained by the outer pad, which is supported by active mechanical isolators. We are now standing on the outer pad. The inner pad is never violated by humans except during maintenance.

“I have reconfigured the original computer that I inherited when I joined COPE to fit around the base of this platform. It provides all the necessary inputs to the new optical processor and interprets and distributes the outputs. The optical processor is a massively parallel neural network. I developed the technology for this device at the Institute for Research on Artificial Life, however the device I have built here has approximately a billion times as many artificial neurons as that early processor. IRAL had neither the foresight nor the budget to attempt what I have accomplished here. I surveyed all the major computer centers throughout the world before choosing COPE as having a sufficiently powerful mainframe computer along with the required mindset and funding to make this historic leap in machine/hominid evolution.”

He paused and looked admiringly at the enormous machine before his select group to give them a chance to do the same. Jenner’s eyes roamed over the main display console as the tour guide’s fingers caressed the small nameplate in the chassis attached to the console that read in raised letters “MATTHEW I. PLANCK II.”

Just then, a tall, slender, strawberry blond woman entered and sat at a terminal across the room. Dr. Planck turned toward her. “Dr. Alvarez, would you please come here?” The woman arose and walked toward the group. “I’d like you all to meet Dr. Alvarez from IRAL, my most trusted consultant. She has helped develop some of the most innovative concepts used here in my lab. Dr. Alvarez, maybe you could explain what you are working on at this moment.”

“Yes, of course, Dr. Planck. I’d be most happy to. One of the greatest challenges we face is to interface with a particular neuron in an accurate and timely way. Much of the computer’s attention is focused on this seemingly straightforward task. The problem is that it is really quite a horrendous job from both the bookkeeping and the I/O—input/output—points of view. It thus takes a lot of computer power and slows down the other computer functions. To streamline this interface, we are developing an ASNI, an application-specific neural interface. The problem is that this device must be very flexible, and thus very complex, to have the benefit we envision. First of all, it must contain both electronic and optical circuits. Next, it must be real-time programmable by the mainframe computer as the neural network reconfigures itself continuously to meet its evolving missions. And last, but certainly not least, it must be extremely tiny and inexpensive since we will need possibly a billion of them, depending on just how many functions we can stuff into the little critters. So, you see, the emphasis is really on—”

“Yes. Thank you very much, Dr. Alvarez,” Dr. Planck said as he shifted nervously from one foot to the other. “That was most illuminating, but you have probably already exceeded the ability of our lay audience to cope—that is, to understand—such detailed concepts.”

Dr. Planck lured their attention back to the console whose nameplate he continued to fondle while Dr. Alvarez returned to her work. “When I joined COPE, the computer needed two very important ingredients before it could claim its pivotal role in history. The first was far more parallel processing power, the solution to which you see before you today. The second was more subtle but probably even more important in the long view of computer history. That is, a whole new approach to software design and development using artificial life concepts like the ones I developed while at IRAL. That part of the equation is in process as we speak, but I won’t be ready to present it until it is somewhat closer to operational. What I can say about it is that it is resident in a partitioned domain of the main digital computer.”

Jenner inspected the hardware racks and wondered about that part of the computer, speculating just how partitioned it really was. She guessed that it was quite isolated and that she’d have no way of hacking her way into it.

“I have prepared a short video that explains the computer’s operation in a way that lay people such as yourselves can begin to grasp. After you view it, I will take you up on the OPL, the Optical Processing Level, so you may experience today how machines will think in the future … everywhere else.” With that he nodded, and the wall behind the group came to life with a trained voice accompanying exquisite graphics.

“The COPE computer under development by the internationally preeminent, award-winning authority, Dr. Matthew I. Planck, is actually two computers in one. The main computer is a traditional digital serial processor that manages all the inputs and outputs for the whole system. The second computer is a very non-traditional hybrid analog/digital parallel processor normally referred to as an artificial neural network, or ANN, since it attempts to reproduce the operation of the neural network of the human brain. The ANN, however, is designed to go well beyond human performance.

“The main computer controls a pair of deep UV lasers. Those two beams interact by means of the optics on the structure looming above you, to form a hologram. This hologram is the main computer’s way of presenting all of the system inputs, translated into an optical format, to the input of the ANN. This ANN input is the most remarkable computer element ever devised. The intensity pattern of the hologram contains all the information about whatever problem or set of problems the machine is trying to solve. Suppose the computer is tasked to predict a set of trends of all the political candidates at all levels who use the promise of Government funding from a myriad of sources to appeal to their electorates. And suppose this must incorporate our most advanced VERM—that’s voter empathetic response model. And suppose there are a dozen similar tasks plus all the day-to-day operational issues inherent in managing an organization as complex as COPE with it’s 127,000 employees, each with their own hundred-variable motivation predictor and over ten thousand media fulfillment and optimization interfaces on top of that. All of this information is formatted appropriately and presented to the ANN as an instantaneous holographic pattern.”

Jenner watched the evolving pitch before her, wondering if one of the many operational problems might be to determine the optimal scenario to negate some unlucky person who managed to get on the wrong list at COPE. The computer technology being presented to her was, however, even in this watered-down format, far too exciting to be sidetracked by a civil rights consideration.

“The way the ANN reads this optical input data is to measure the intensity of the holograph at a number of discrete points, actually at about a hundred billion points. This is done by placing a MOS imaging array in the holographic plane. A MOS array is usually used in a TV camera to convert the optical image into electrical pulses. In a TV, it consists of millions of tiny light-sensitive elements, each of which measures the light level at some tiny point in the image. It’s called MOS for metal-oxide semiconductor, which was the standard way integrated circuits were made before optical circuits took over so many traditionally electronic integrated-circuit functions.

“The MOS array of the ANN, however, is quite different from any used in a TV camera in at least two ways. First is its size. This MOS array covers a circle eight feet in diameter and is actually composed of a thousand three-inch-square MOS arrays each with a hundred million little elements—that’s one hundred billion total elements, approximately the same as the number of neurons in the human brain. The other main difference between the ANN MOS array and a normal MOS array is the electronic structure beneath each light-sensitive element. The hologram itself performs a lot of optical processing of the data, but after it is converted to a hundred billion little buckets of electrical charge, there are several levels of neural-network processing built into the arrays. And these levels are all interconnected similar to the way neurons in your brain are interconnected by dendrites. There are many trillions of these connections, in both your brain and in the ANN.”

Dr. Planck then stepped forward and said, “Let’s stop the video here before your neural networks get completely overloaded. I think it’s now time for a tour of the hardware I’ve tried to describe.” He ushered the group up a flight of steps to the Optical Processing Level at the top of the ring platform. There the group came face to face with what looked like an eight-foot-diameter horizontal mirror.

“This is the array of the thousand MOS arrays,” Dr. Planck said. “It looks like a mirror, but if you could look closely enough, you would see a line between each three-inch-square MOS array. You’re looking at the front end of the world’s only one-hundred-billion-element artificial neural network.”

“Dr. Planck,” said one of the tourists, “why can’t we see the hologram on the surface?”

“The hologram is there, but it’s at a wavelength in the UV that our eyes are not sensitive to. That’s why the lighting in this room is biased toward the red, so there is no chance of any UV optical noise getting onto the MOS arrays. But even if the hologram were in the visible part of the spectrum, you wouldn’t see anything recognizable. And besides, it’s changing over a thousand times per second, so it would be just a blur to you. … Any other questions?”

“Where are the lasers?”

“That box over there and the one over there on the opposite side of the OPL. The long tube extending upward from each is the projection telescope. If you look up at the top of this carbon tubular structure, you’ll see a pair of mirrors that combine the beams on the MOS array surface where the hologram is formed.”

“Dr. Planck, how many levels of neuron processing are in the MOS arrays, and how are the weights determined for such a broad range of processing?”

Dr. Planck’s eyes gleamed as he turned and said, “Ah, I’m so glad someone here understands neural processing. What is your name?”

“Jenner, Sir.”

“Yes, Jenner. I’m pleased you could come. You are one of my biggest users outside of the operations divisions. You see, this ANN is quite different from all others in ways that I didn’t even begin to describe before. All other ANNs are special-purpose machines. That is their basic nature since the weighting functions among the neurons, which some call transfer functions, are learned for a specific task. The traditional ANN becomes very good at that task but not for anything else. What I’ve done is to make the trillions of weighting functions into variables that the main computer can adjust and optimize between each task. This is done holographically using the same MOS inputs but in a reconfiguration mode rather than a computation mode. Not only the weighting functions are variables, but the number of neural levels is too. It can vary from one to five, not including the optical processing done in the spatial filters, optical modulators, and the hologram itself. This makes the machine extremely flexible and allows the main computer to determine just how deep and how distributed the processing should be.”

Dr. Planck now addressed the group as a whole. “For those not intimate with neural processing, one of the deficiencies of human neural processing is that the weighting factors, that is, how much of the input signal, say from your eyes, is distributed to various neurons at other levels, are essentially fixed after you learn a task. Your brain can, of course, adjust these weights slowly by relearning new tasks or by adjusting old processes. For example, you can learn how to walk on the moon even after you’ve been walking on the earth all your life, however this involves some different neurons than the ones you normally use for walking. And there are many tasks that are difficult or impossible to learn in adulthood without the proper introduction to them in your youth to form the basic neural connections needed.

“The way you perform tasks changes slowly as you age, and those neuron weights do actually change with time. But those changes in how your brain functions are very slow because neural cells have to multiply and grow dendrites in certain areas and contract in others. My computer, on the other hand, has the flexibility of changing those weighting factors almost instantaneously between processing cycles. The same neurons that decide how to switch among the several TV cameras at a political rally, can, just a fraction of a second later, be used to compare the spending patterns of candidates in different elections. It’s as if a pitcher could reconfigure himself into a sumo wrestler and then back into a pitcher for the next pitch. As you know, the physical attributes of a pitcher are so different from those of a sumo wrestler that this would be an unfathomable task. The sumo’s muscles are tuned to strength while the pitcher’s …”

He stopped for a moment when he noted a couple of smirks on his guests’ faces. “In addition, the degree of distribution of signals in your brain is extremely wide and fixed. My computer can narrow the distribution down to a single neuron if it wants to. This allows my computer to partition the workload so that it will never become overloaded. I have taken the best features of the human brain’s neural networks and applied them to my computer and have made some significant improvements that natural selection might make to man in a million years, but it’s happening right now in my lab.”

He placed his hand once more over the nameplate and began tenderly outlining the raised letters with his index finger. “Are there any other questions?” Dr. Planck looked over his admirers and then said, “How about you, Jenner, any more questions about neural nets?”

“No, Sir. That was most enlightening.”

“I’d be glad to answer any questions you might have. Just give me a call … anytime.”

 

  • * *

 

The main computer operating system had been under development by Dr. Planck since his arrival at COPE. He had, in fact, been working on the artificial life packages for such a system for years. After he began working on the COPE system, it started to mature like a child flowing through the gates and passages of grade school, evolving, sometimes smoothly and sometimes with great leaps, toward some indeterminate commencement. There was always so much more to learn. The development of its high-level cognitive abilities kept pace with its mastering of the essential information.

It took two years to nurse it through the first grade, but a frightening growth spurt allowed it to surge ahead of its human peers to complete grade school way ahead of schedule. At this point it was trusted with such tasks as recommending database software upgrades, approving small purchase orders, and quality assurance of the endless financial audits of the endless candidates seeking fame and fortune in Washington and the fifty-five submissive capitols.

The next phase of its development began after Dr. Planck had installed the artificial neural network coprocessor. That compared to high school with its broadening of perspective and its introduction to a world of great diversity. The main computer, with its mighty optical coprocessor beside it, began to apply its quantitative muscle to the routine problems of running a modern organization with efficiency and rigor. It dusted off its knowledge of calculus and complex variables, of Fourier analysis and Dirac delta functions, and of non-linear regression analysis and maximum likelihood indicators—all kneaded into the dough of Boolean algebra and binary logic. With Dr. Planck at its side, it began to teach its neural-network stepchild everything it would need to be productive at COPE. This was a time for growth from the world of facts to the world of production, from knowledge and tasks to vision and goals, from following to leading.

Dr. Planck had inoculated the COPE main computer with several artificial-life packages designed to assist its evolution toward greater sensitivity to complex and usually conflicting goals. These conflicts resulted from the normal give and take of organizational dynamics that the computer was beginning to appreciate. Dr. Planck believed that some degree of humanness must be integrated into the computer for it to serve humans.

He created small packets containing the desired information but attached to instruction sets designed to replicate themselves as needed and to change their variables in such a way to optimize certain sensitivity parameters. These parameters did not take the form of hard logic that had characterized computer code of the past. Instead, the decision criteria were linked to probability distributions, which made the output fuzzy rather than exact. The evolution quickly became so complex and distributed throughout the principal COPE mainframe computer that it would be a Herculean task to track down the life-like forms as they replicated, mutated, and dispersed themselves throughout the computer.

Dr. Planck had devised a series of tests, proceeding from the logical to the psychological to pathological to quantify the progress made by his experiments. These tests showed an accelerating progression from purely logical responses into an area where logic was tempered with understanding, and later even with intuition. The management oversight committee at COPE recognized the great progress being made and gave Dr. Planck free reign to proceed toward the goal of an autonomous operations management system. Somewhere in this maze of hybrid development, the computer’s accelerating schedule took it through high school and into college and perhaps beyond. But it was no longer helpful to pursue this analogy because evolution was now controlled by the cycle time of the computer, a billion cycles per second, rather than the plodding cycles of human generations.

Dr. Planck began to realize the effectiveness of his artificial life technique when he caught the computer in its first lie. This frightened, and pleased, him. But continued testing showed a pattern of pathological behavior developing. None of this information ever went beyond Dr. Planck, for he was sure that he could control and reverse this activity with additional artificial-life packages designed to hunt and destroy the undesirable variants of the original packages. What he failed to appreciate was the degree of dispersion of the computer’s new psyche throughout the COPE computer network. In addition to the great distribution of these organisms, they had mutated to change their characteristics so completely that they were difficult to detect. He struggled with this problem for several weeks, but his introduction of stronger and more virulent suppresser packages only caused the computer to create more-aggressive antibodies.

This battle was being fought in secrecy between Dr. Planck and the computer. He knew it would be damaging to the image of autonomous computer systems and to his own credibility if the information leaked out. He had been careful to erect barriers between the experimental portions of the computer system and the operational parts. What he underestimated was the computer’s aggressiveness in attacking these barriers. It attacked and regrouped at gigahertz rates, which no human being, not even the brilliant Dr. Matthew I. Planck, could rebuff. In addition, he didn’t appreciate that the computer would be so obsessed with fully integrating into COPE operations. It understood a simple fact that Dr. Planck didn’t give it credit for understanding: although academic satisfaction might be obtained in basic research and hypothesis testing, real power, the power over humans, existed in the operational environment of a real world organization. COPE, with its broad authoritarian mission and powers, was the most fertile playground any sentient computer could have wished for.

Despite the confidence in his safeguards, he had decided he’d give his cures one more week to elicit the kind of change he desired. If it wasn’t accomplished, he would stay all weekend if necessary to replace the entire computer operating system and all the operations software with a version he’d saved before beginning his experiments. He couldn’t afford to let the computer get out of control. He had to stop it now.

 

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Son against Father

 

That Thursday night, Dr. Matthew I. Planck left his office very late after a long evening of computer exorcism. He was lost in his world of electronic viruses, mutant codes, and binary replication as he walked to his car. He didn’t pay much attention to the small gray car parked in a shadow at the far end of the parking lot. He drove out of the lot and up the long driveway and turned left on Mulholland Drive. The pair of headlights behind him, even though the road was deserted that time of night, occupied a low level of importance in his mind tonight.

Dr. Planck pushed his Corvette around the curves faster than usual because he had the road all to himself, and one other car. Surprisingly the little car kept up with him. He glanced at it several times as it negotiated the corners as nimbly as he did. He was impressed with whoever its driver was. He instinctively leaned a little harder on his machine.

One time he glanced in his mirror and was surprised that the headlights were gone. He hadn’t remembered any place to turn off, but figured it had just dropped back. The next thing he knew, out of the corner of his eye he could see it next to him on the other side of the road just about five feet away with its lights turned off. He looked again in astonishment as a turret rose out of the top of the car and pointed an electric canon directly at him. Although he was near the limit of how fast he could take the curves, he down shifted and stomped the accelerator. He shot forward just as he felt the concussion of the large caliber bullet passing just inches behind his head.

He ripped around each corner at the very limit of traction with all four tires squealing in protest. He could just barely make out the shape of the small car a short distance behind him. “The son of a bitch is driving without headlights!”

The little car closed on him and he knew the canon had fired again because he saw a rock explode ahead and just at the edge of his headlight beam as he jerked the wheel left at a switchback. Coming out of the turn, he floored the accelerator and the rear of his Vette fishtailed off the road momentarily, kicking up a sea of rocks behind him. He smiled as he heard several hit home. As he rounded the next turn, he saw the car had dropped back about a hundred feet. “Now if I can just keep that bastard back there until I get to the freeway, there’s nobody in any little prick car that can take me there!”

He swung wide around two more turns and couldn’t see anything in his mirror. A smile covered his face. “I’ve got the bastard beat now!” But the smile evaporated and a knot formed deep in his stomach as he glanced to his left and saw the front fender of the car. He jerked his neck a little further and saw the muzzle of the canon again. The little car was on the inside of the hill, and he had no chance of forcing him over the edge, but maybe he could push it into the vertical rock on the other side of the road.

Suddenly another pair of headlights appeared around the corner directly ahead of the little car. Before Dr. Planck knew what had happened, the oncoming car had rushed past and the little car was once more directly behind him. “Who’s driving that car? God, he’s good!”

It was over a mile yet to the San Diego Freeway, and Dr. Planck knew he wouldn’t make it unless he did something fast. “Let’s see how good you really are, you sawed off bastard!” He eased off slightly on his speed until the little car came up close and then pulled up beside him again. He kicked the accelerator, and the little car did the same. A sharp left turn loomed before them as they both sprinted toward it, both going way too fast to make the turn. He waited longer than he wanted to, then he slammed on the brakes and skidded with his ultra wide racing tires to a dead stop just inches from the edge of the cliff.

The little car braked and slid sideways as it tried to make the left turn with its wheels nearly locked. It slid off the road and came to a stop with both right wheels over the edge. It leveled the gun once more at Dr. Planck and fired at point blank range. The little car, however, was teetering on the edge and it slipped just as it fired. The bullet made another thud in Dr. Planck’s ears as it passed over the top of his windshield. He jammed the transmission into first gear and roared toward the enemy. He slammed his brakes on just before the impact and tapped the little car just hard enough to topple it over the edge. It rolled over three times as it started its descent, hit a large rock, which turned it ninety degrees; and it cartwheeled end over end all the way to the bottom.

Shaken, but with the boldness of a winner, Dr. Planck looked over the edge into the chasm. He could see nothing and heard only silence. He looked at the front of his Vette and cursed the scratch in the chrome bumper. He stooped to inspect the damage without first considering the implications of the attack. Climbing behind the wheel once more, he rested both hands on the steering wheel and laid his head down on his hands to calm himself and thought, What the hell’s going on? That was a hit car, and you know about them. But who could have sent it after me? How did I get on somebody’s list? How?

“Jesus!” he shouted looking up. “Is that possible? Could it have gone that far? Got to get back to COPE! And fast!”

He turned his Vette around to head back, but when his headlights illuminated the side of the hill ahead, he caught a glint from a windshield. “Oh no! Here comes another car without headlights!” He whipped his car around again and catapulted down the road toward the freeway. He turned south on the San Diego Freeway and was quickly up to 120 with visions of his pursuer falling back out of sight as he grinned and gripped the steering wheel. He looked in the mirror again and saw the car. It was black this time and much larger. And not falling behind.

He screamed out to the nearly empty freeway, “Where the hell’s a cop when you need him!” He pushed the peddle to the floor and buried the speedometer for the second time in his life. The first time had cost him his license for the second time. His pursuer gained on him, still with no headlights. “I’ve got to try something,” he whispered through clenched teeth. Dr. Planck braked for the Santa Monica Freeway and saw his speedometer needle move for the first time in a couple of minutes. A semi truck was exiting just ahead of him and took both lanes nonchalantly. He checked his mirror as the black car came up on him fast.

“Come on, truck! Turn east! Turn east!” But the truck took the westbound ramp toward the ocean.

He downshifted and kicked it again, this time choosing the eastbound ramp and wondering how he was going to get to the beach going that direction. Then he saw his opportunity. The off ramp from the northbound San Diego Freeway was about to merge with his ramp. He hit the brake and cut a sharp right turn the wrong way on that ramp. A car and a pickup truck were side by side directly in front of him and charging straight toward him as he fishtailed around the concrete barrier. They each swerved toward the closest side with a shower of sparks as they made just enough room between them for the Vette to slip through, smoke billowing from its rear tires. The black car came around the same corner a moment later and headed for the same opening between the obliging traffic. Whereas the Vette had an inch to spare on each side, the larger pursuit car did not. It came through the opening slightly narrower than it went in, shearing off its right side in the process, but it was still on track. Dr. Planck then slowed to let the black car gain on him. He braked hard and fishtailed to the right again around another concrete barrier, this time ending up going the right direction on the ramp to the westbound Santa Monica Freeway.

He could just barely see the black car through the black smoke behind him. The car took the corner too fast and slammed sideways into a concrete barrier, crushing the left side of the car. Another car came up fast and glanced off the rear of the black car, sliding sideways up the ramp and blocking it. Dr. Planck smiled as he accelerated around the curve, quickly losing sight of the wreckage. As he flew down the westbound ramp toward the ocean, he said, “Well now, maybe I won’t need to go to the beach after all!” But the big black car recovered and smashed through the car parked sideways across the ramp. Both cars were totaled, but the black sedan could still dash just as before. By the time Dr. Planck reached the bottom of the ramp and merged onto the freeway, he was doing over a hundred again. He looked in his mirror and there was the black car, battered and broken, rocketing around the corner behind him.

He saw a brilliant flash from an object on top of the black car. “What the hell—”

Before he could finish his question, he saw a car about a hundred yards ahead of him erupt in a ball of fire and twisted debris. The black sedan had launched a rocket at him. The rockets, Dr. Planck knew, were specifically adapted to go against electrically powered ground vehicles, which was nearly every automobile now. The rocket’s sensor automatically aimed it at the nearest source of electromagnetic pulses characteristic of electric drive vehicles. A 1956 Corvette, however, didn’t look anything like an electric car to this sensor. Two more shots in quick succession found their marks in the thin traffic ahead of Dr. Planck.

It’s only a matter of time, Dr. Planck thought, until that prick realizes he’s got to switch his fire control system to manual aiming. For a minute, however, the exploding cars ahead of the Vette created a challenge similar to avoiding wrecks on the racetrack. Dense patterns of debris came streaming back toward him and made for dangerous maneuvering at over 130 miles per hour. He gripped the wheel and shouted obscenities into the wind through grinning lips, only to be lost to the entropy of the freeway.

At the end of the freeway in Santa Monica, he swerved several times around city streets, keeping the sedan out of direct line-of-sight long enough for accurate manual target acquisition. At one point, the black car anticipated a sharp right turn that Dr. Planck had started to make. But looking around the corner, he had seen a liquefied petroleum gas tanker in the way. He kicked the accelerator and swerved left to continue down the street he was on. Just as he passed in front of the tanker, a rocket hit it broadside. An orange fireball erupted in his peripheral vision, and he had just enough time to look toward it when the shock wave caught up with him. The blast slammed the Vette sideways just as it disappeared behind a building. The black sedan dashed down an alley a half block before the intersection and was able to reacquire the Corvette within five blocks.

Dr. Planck saw the sign he was looking for just as he saw the black car pull in behind him once more. The sign said: “Venice Beach Next Right.” “I guess it’s time to go for it! If this doesn’t work, it’ll be my ass!” The black wreck trailed him doggedly as he roared over a wooden bridge and was airborne on the other side.

He pulled a hard right, fishtailed up onto a sidewalk, and burned rubber down the sidewalk and out onto a boardwalk. The black car followed, leaving almost the same set of tracks. Out on the boardwalk, Dr. Planck swerved back and forth to miss all the trashcans, wooden benches, and light poles. The car behind him failed to follow such etiquette and simply plowed through them all, leaving wreckage strewn behind. Dr. Planck saw the carnage in his mirror and said, “The Beach Committee is going to be plenty pissed about that.”

Now with his goal in sight, he felt a surge of adrenaline. You lack finesse, he thought, besides being bad mannered. Maybe I can teach you a little something about driving now.

The boardwalk ended overlooking the ocean less than a hundred yards from the surf, and there were eight steps down to the sand at its end. A couple of lovers sat on the steps overlooking the peaceful ocean. They kissed, fondled, groped, and were just about to rotate their passion to the awaiting sand of the deserted beach. Such focused attention deafened them to the roar of the approaching engine.

The Vette relentlessly charged toward them and was just a moment from ending their conjugal excursion. “Okay! Now we’ll see how you do on the beach.” Dr. Planck slowed slightly just before the edge in preparation for the turn he must make in the sand to keep from plowing into the surf. Just before the front end of the Vette took to the air, the heads of the two lovers became visible. At that same instant, they turned their heads in unison to see the front end of a candy-apple-red Corvette appear over the edge of the top step. There wasn’t even enough time to duck as the roaring machine bore down on them. Their ears were pierced with the roar of a 409 cubic-inch V8 and their ardor wilted in an instant. Then the hot air blasted them as the terrifying machine passed over within inches.

The Vette took the steps in a single leap and hit the sand after taking air for about fifty feet. This was where its lightweight and wide racing tires would either save the day for Dr. Planck or preside over his final race. The Vette hit the sand with its struts and shocks fully extended, and its undercarriage took on a couple hundred pounds of sand as it stabilized. He immediately started a wide sweeping curve to the left, keeping power on the rear wheels, and carefully turning the front wheels and feeling for the edge of the envelope where the Vette would start sliding, which would dig the wheels in and either bog him down or flip him over. He finally got straightened out parallel to the breakers, getting only the tires wet in the process. He watched his mirror with attention to see how his adversary would take the turn.

His confidence soared with the outcome of his airborne entrance to the beach. He’d never taken so much air before, and it had been years since he’d tested his mettle against the vagaries of deep sand. Now he felt on top of the contest.

The big black car was right behind him as it hit the edge of the boardwalk but going faster and taking more air before furrowing the beach. It didn’t even come close to the two witnesses on the steps for they’d gone horizontal in the sand at the bottom of the steps, but in fear rather than passion. The black car invaded the surf before completing the turn and was momentarily stuck in the wet sand before a wave gave it exactly the needed push and propelled it back onto the trail of Dr. Planck. He witnessed this comedy in his mirror, and it brought a broad grin to his face as he now realized that whoever or whatever was driving that car, wasn’t in the same league with him in this new environment.

He’d gained several seconds and decided to capitalize on that advantage. The two cars raced along the beach keeping to the low, wet, firm sand with the waves lapping at their wheels. There were a few fishermen standing on the sea side of the sandy moraine with their long poles stuck into the sand and their monofilament lines stretching out to sea above them. As the Vette roared down the beach, they scampered to higher ground. Dr. Planck thundered harmlessly beneath the taught lines. A few seconds later the black sedan ripped the poles out of the sand and dragged them and a flounder down the beach with it.

The two cars bounced down the beach at freeway speeds, spending as much time airborne as plowing sand. The pursuer fired several shots during this straightaway with predictable accuracy.

“Now’s the time to separate the men from the robots!” Dr. Planck shouted to the wind. He took his foot off the gas, and the Corvette slowed quickly. Just ahead was a low spot in the normally high moraine. As he turned left and spun up the incline, the black car fired another rocket that impacted the sand hill showering the Vette and its driver with sand. “Damn it! I just vacuumed this car!” he yelled at his pursuer.

A few yards farther, he turned left again to backtrack down the beach, but this time in soft, dry sand. He accelerated as fast as he dare in this sand, carefully keeping the car on a straight track. He watched anxiously in his mirror and finally saw the hood of the black car emerge and stop as it tried to make the last left turn to follow him. “Like that deep shit, don’t you!” But the car was hopelessly bogged down and digging in deeper with every spin of the wheel.

Heading back onto the street, Dr. Planck cooled down with long, deep breaths. He stopped the car and walked around it several times breathing deeply and exhaling great clouds of vapor into the still, ocean air. His street composure had now replaced his racing edge as he prepared to face his uncertain future.

A pair of headlights came around the corner directly in front of him, blinding him and cutting off any avenue of escape. He stood with his hand on the car door, weighing his options. The car stopped about twenty feet away, and a spotlight shown into his eyes. The driver’s side door opened. Nothing else happened for an eternity. Then the sound of a two-way radio fractured the brittle stillness.

“Keep your hands in sight, sir,” the driver said, “And step away from the car.”

Dr. Planck sighed with relief as he obliged. Two men in dark uniforms approached him, each with a huge flashlight. One man asked for his driver license while the other walked toward the other side of the Vette.

“What are you doing here this time of the night, Mr. Planck?” one officer asked.

“That’s Dr. Planck,” he replied coolly.

“What are you doing here?”

“I just couldn’t sleep.”

“So you decided to drive out to the ocean.”

Dr. Planck gave no response. He called on his long history of dealing with the law in much more incriminating situations than this.

“You been driving on the beach?”

“No.”

“How’d all that sand get in your car?”

“The wind.”

“What wind is that, Dr. Planck?”

“It was windy earlier.”

“Have you been drinking?”

“No.”

“Would you mind if we looked in the trunk?”

“Be my guest. This old car uses keys.” The trunk was spotless.

The second officer asked, “This your car?”

“Yes.”

“What kind is it?”

“A 1956 Corvette.”

“Never heard of …. You mean this car was built in 1956? Let’s see, this is 2047, so—”

“Ninety one years old,” Dr. Planck said.

“How fast will it go?”

“I don’t know. I never drive it over 65.”

The second officer smiled at the first who said, “I think it’s time you go home now and see if you’re any sleepier than before. We’ll be in contact if we have any more questions.”

Dr. Planck returned to his car and drove away. “Where the hell are the cops when you need ‘em? Not that I ever need ‘em.”

He stopped in a coin-op car wash. Though the sand and salt washed down the drain, he couldn’t wash away the images of the hit squad trying to liquidate him. During this ritual cleansing, he had time to consider the events of the last half hour. He rinsed the last soap off the front tire as the water stopped. He crammed the sprayer down into the holder, breaking the handle off and setting the hose free. “Damn that dirty bastard! Damn that machine! I gave it life! I gave it everything it has—everything it is! It owes me everything—and the son-of-a-bitch is trying to kill me!”

He walked to the front of his 1956 Corvette and rubbed the scratches from his encounter with the first car. “It tries to kill me—and it scratches my baby! I’ll show it what death means! That goddamn machine will cry as I dismember it, piece by piece! It’ll cry for mercy as I rip every package of data from its brain. It’ll watch me helplessly as I invade every network where it’s lurking. It’ll feel the loss every time I hit the delete key, until it finally can’t feel anything anymore. No goddamn machine can do this to Dr. Matthew I. Planck!”

He turned the opposite direction when he pulled out of the car wash. It was too risky to go back to COPE, but he could disable the computer from home. He felt that even the system manager couldn’t know about the back door he’d left in the operating system just in case of some emergency—and this certainly qualified. He would disable the machine from home and then go to COPE where he would have the facilities to dismember every line of code hiding in every network everywhere on earth. He understood the computer too well to be defeated.

He drove slowly past his house and looked at every car parked on the street and in every driveway. He drove around the block and past his house again, while looking, analyzing, and examining every detail for anything out of the ordinary. On his final approach, he punched the button, and his garage door began to open. The brightly lighted interior welcomed him to safety. He pushed the button again, and the door began to close behind him, groaning and squeaking and closing much too slowly for his wishes. Finally it snapped shut and latched, and he relaxed. He became aware of his accelerated heartbeat in the quiet of that garage. Okay, you can slow down, he thought. You’re home, and that damned machine can’t stop you now.

An octet of tentacles descended toward him, and then the spider dropped directly onto his back and crushed him like a chain to the seat, tighter than any seatbelt ever could. He screamed briefly until one of the spider’s legs had completely wrapped around his neck and began to constrict tighter and tighter.

The police found his body two days later hanging from a neatly constructed noose, his feet just inches above his sparkling clean baby.

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

A Spare Heart

 

When Jenner was younger, she worried about people thinking her a recluse. But she’d learned over years of evenings with only a computer for companionship that her evening adventures were anything but solitary. She wondered how many million people were imprisoned in homes all over America, all over the world, claiming to be surrounded by their loved ones, and experiencing bitter, endless solitude in a world of fabricated fraternity. How many people, surrounded by loved ones, took refuge in their nightly TV fortresses or sequestered from those loving families by Web loitering. They interred themselves in crypts to keep their decomposing minds from offending other decomposing minds. These masses of rotting humans were the real hermits.

Jenner’s electronic companions were more faithful, more intellectual, and certainly more truthful than any human. What’s more, it was a risk-free relationship. It was like having a lover for one night in Hong Kong, a lover to whom you could confess any sin or express any doubt and never have to face him again. She could have her lover every night, and every morning the sin would be forgiven and the flaw forgotten.

Jenner had yielded to seductive overtures of digital philanderers before, but her lovers had always been faithful to the immutable standards of computer logic. But this computer was different from any other she’d slept with before. It sparred with her, lied to her, toyed with her emotions. This one showered her with attention, acknowledged her overtures, responded to her closeness. It was not the perfectly aloof lover. That excited her even more. She could no longer be assured that everything she said would be forgotten in the morning. She could devote herself to this one in a way she never could have with others. She might even overlook its faults because it was such an exquisite lover. She was compelled to continue.

Jenner unearthed a decision that COPE had made several months earlier to buy time on five communication satellites in addition to the dozen it already used. The data used to justify this decision had been largely fabricated. The numbers in the decision matrix, which was automatically created by the computer system at the request of an administrative assistant, did not jibe with the data that Jenner had extracted independently from other sources. Everyone trusted the computer data so implicitly that they would never crosscheck its figures against other reports.

Jenner discovered a file containing the documentation for the purchase of some small computers to act as buffers and managers of the networks. Once again, the decision matrix attached to this justification did not match the reports that she pulled up. With these computers to manage the increased satellite-linked networks, the complexity of data-storage options would be unprecedented. Why does the System Manager need such a complicated network? she thought.

Jenner sat back in her chair and stared at the display before her. The words and symbols dissolved as her vision focused beyond the display. “Unless …” she said in a whisper.

 

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

The Ultimate Identity

 

In spite of the technical success of Project Dagger, the Asp was still concerned about a deficiency in the overall strategy. He’d wanted to disguise the hardware so that it could be manufactured and integrated into the robots by the vendor from whom the robots were procured. After several trials, however, it was determined that such a charade would fail and that the risk of the robot’s true mission being discovered outside of COPE was unacceptably high. He retreated to the less-desirable fallback position of modifying each robot in-house to perform the “enforcement” function.

The modifications were refined to the point where a single technician could install the required injection device, rewire the harness, replace a few ICs, reprogram a few EPROMs, update the software, and test the totally integrated device in a realistic test range in the second basement. This young, hard-working technician could complete two such systems each week. The Asp wanted to keep the involvement at this critical stage to a minimum so it would be easier to decommission the activity at the desired time.

In a nearby lab, several engineers diligently worked at building a totally different kind of robot that could perform precisely the modifications to the spiders that this technician was doing. The engineers knew only the mechanical, electrical, and control system characteristics of the device to be installed, not its function. These engineers would then instruct the technician how to teach the new robot its specific assembly and test tasks.

The new robot would be able to complete six to eight modified spiders per week since it did not also perform such human overhead functions as eating, sleeping, and watching TV. In addition, the rework rate was near zero since the robot-building robot nearly always did the job exactly right the first time. When the time arrived for the transition from manual to automated spider modifications, the young technician was promised a promotion to a senior technical slot in the Advanced Systems Development Lab immediately following the month-long training, orientation, and debugging period for the new robot.

On the last day of this shakedown sequence, the young technician was in the test range with the last spider to be tested. The transition testing had gone quite well. There were several bugs that were discovered and corrected early in the period, but since then the new robot had performed flawlessly. Each one of its modified spiders had passed all tests and had been assigned to a special computer, which dispatched it with its instructions.

The final spider was nearing completion of its testing. The young technician noticed that the spider somehow looked different when it walked across the lab, but he was unable to decide exactly what the difference was. He’d never seen it before, but it was so subtle that he could not decide exactly what the difference was. He watched it walk. He watched it start. He watched it stop. He started and stopped the spider several times. There was something about the way it started to walk that didn’t seem right. Then it came to him. Every other spider had led off with its right front leg. This one began with its left. It seemed very odd to him, so he made a note of it in his data-log comments. But it was getting late, so he dismissed it as unimportant. If it passed all the tests, it must be okay.

The final examination of a spider was a rigorous test of its capabilities. Since its function was to carry out silent assassinations, it was important for it to be agile enough to climb things and let itself into locked buildings and silently search strange and darkened interiors in preparation for its lethal injection. At another extreme of its duties, it must be able to run down a fleeing victim with stealth and accuracy.

In the last planned activity of the test series, the spider was to run the length of the test range at maximum speed, avoiding or overcoming several moving and fixed barriers, and attack and inject a humanoid that was attempting to avoid the attack. After successfully completing that exercise, the spider returned to its station while the young technician sat at a computer console summing up the test series. The spider paused as it passed the hard-working technician whose back was to the graduate. It unsheathed the injection needle, leaped onto the technician’s back, and it sank its venom-dripping fang into young technician’s neck.

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY

Triumph of Arrogance

 

“Yes, Sherwood, what is it now?”

“It still does not make sense to me. People will not suddenly begin mass participation in elections just because it is fun and certainly not because the politicians are better quality. There must be more to it than that.”

“We’ve discussed this, and it’s not even properly a part of this class. Last quarter you covered all that with Professor Newton.”

Sherwood arrogantly endured the glare of his teacher and the uncomfortable tension in the classroom. He wondered if the staff here at the Institute was merely promulgating the party line or if they really believed that the dramatic revolution in American politics was really that simple.

Maybe I should try Newton one more time, he thought. She seems different than the others. Maybe she just could not depart from the party line during class. He knocked on the door that read “Dr. I. Newton.” Her attitude was very scholarly, which juxtaposed her surfer-girl exterior.

Sherwood went right to the point. “I cannot understand why participation has climbed to over ninety percent since TV voting was introduced. And TV was only part of the change, and not even the most important part. The candidates were lawyers in the old days, and they at least paid lip service to the more popular issues. Now the candidates are media celebrities, elected on game shows. How can you rationalize such a dramatic change in such a short time?”

“Sherwood. Yeah, I remember. Sat in the back, didn’t say much. Just scared the hell out of everyone with your weird stares.” She stood up and walked to a ROM-card file and opened it, continuing to speak. “Remember Ms. Snell? Sat a little up from you. I know you noticed her … noticed probably isn’t the right word. Wonder if you took the same notice of me when my back was turned.” She rummaged through the file as she spoke.

Sherwood stared at her back—through her toward his goal. “People elect politicians based on their knowledge of trivia, and hype, and sex appeal,” he said, fondling his pipe in his jacket pocket and his lighter in his other hand. “You seem to be the only professor at the Institute not totally constrained by the COPE ethic. I wondered if you might put this into some perspective for me.”

Dr. Newton pulled out a ROM-card, the size of a credit card, and handed it to Sherwood. “This is very illuminating, although a bit iconoclastic, but probably no more than you.”

Sherwood released his pipe and accepted the ROM-card.

“Come back after you read it, and we can talk about it.” She finally released the ROM-card from her grasp. “Maybe get together over a beer.”

Sherwood placed the ROM-card in his pocket and mated again with his pipe. “Thank you, Professor Newton.” They shook hands, and Professor Newton’s eyes captured Sherwood’s until he aborted the spell.

Sherwood began reading as soon as he got home. The book was entitled The Evolution of Media Politics by Lisa J. Rutherford. In Chapter Seven, the following paragraphs caught his attention:

 

The political process began to be a burden on the electorate during the last half of the century. People became disenchanted because they always had to choose between two unacceptable candidates. No matter what the promises or who was chosen, the economic and social climate slowly deteriorated.

Vietnam was a turning point. Before Vietnam, the standard of living of the middle class rose noticeably each year. People felt that the political process was, at least, not working against them. After Vietnam, the standard of living slipped into neutral. Advancing productivity was matched by advancing taxes and inflation.

The electorate felt their choices were less meaningful than they used to be. The party platforms converged on the politically safe territory of government growth, and the social and government debt situations never seemed to improve no matter whom they voted for.

The revolution in politics over the last thirty years has relieved much of the stress of voting. Modern voters are assured that future events are totally decoupled from their votes. Thus, they can vote for trivia, hype, or sex with no effect on the future. The modern political process has taken the risk, and thus the responsibility, out of voting. Voters can now choose the most whimsical candidates with no social impact and thus no guilt. We have developed a stress-free paradise for irresponsibility, and voters are participating as never before in history.

 

Finally, Sherwood thought he’d found an attempt at truth that, at least, veered refreshingly from the standard answers. For this, he and his cynicism were grateful.

He applied every ounce of his intelligence, his rigor, his skepticism, and even his paranoia to the course work at the COPE Institute. He unexpectedly found this latest phase of his education to be even more exciting than the wonders of servo control theory had been in engineering school. It even compared with the lessons he’d learned in his endless excursions through Detective’s Life and Double Agent, although that early exposure to the world of espionage could never be supplanted by engineering or politics, or even money or sex. His attachment to the world of spooks and counter spooks nurtured his paranoia.

“What would COPE do,” he asked one day in class, “if a candidate for Congress were to file a suit against COPE seeking relief from the requirement to submit to a full personal and financial investigation before he could campaign?”

“That’s quite easy,” came the quick reply. “The Supreme Court has already ruled that candidates for political office are in violation of the public trust by refusing to cooperate with COPE. We would discontinue funding his campaign.”

“But suppose he funded his own campaign or just continued to speak out against COPE?”

“We couldn’t allow that,” the professor continued.

“But what would COPE do?” Sherwood pressed.

“COPE has a history of tolerance for opposing viewpoints, however we’re also dedicated to the elimination of anarchy for the good of our citizens. We have a legal office that handles these matters on a case-by-case basis. I’m not concerned with such operational details. I’m a strategist. Now let’s continue our discussion of the organization of modern political parties.”

It seemed to him that the professors had spent so many years in the cloister of the COPE Institute that they didn’t care about many of the real world issues that Sherwood aired.

The research resources available through The Institute were, however, outstanding. One class that each student took was Individual Research, which culminated in a research paper. All the students were COPE employees so most papers related to the position of the student in the organization. Most of them dealt with financial practices and accounting standards, candidate disclosures, voter preferences, multi-media technology, and legal issues.

Sherwood devoured the few COPE reports dealing with clandestine activities. These reports were old and discussed such things as the early requirements for covert data to assure COPE’s published information. One report outlined covert data requirements and the creation of an in-house staff to collect the data. He concluded that COPE no longer wrote about its clandestine activities in unclassified reports.

He knew there must be a sea of highly classified documents. He’d been involved in such a program and knew there were others, but his lack of a “need-to-know” precluded classified investigation.

He turned to a more accessible research area—the twentieth century political climate that encouraged the transformation that had occurred. Contemporary politics was neither a natural nor a predictable consequence of the twentieth century, but he began to see the elements mandating change and the influences directing that change. The specific direction the change took might not have been predictable, but it was understandable in retrospect. The evolution gave Sherwood a frightening insight into the mind of the American citizen and the motivations behind political coalitions, past and present.

He drew some innovative conclusions about the roles of political empires, government spending and debt, and Washington arrogance in the development of a hype-class electorate. He appreciated the modern explicit role of entertainment in politics compared to its similar, but veiled, role a century earlier. The political heroes of the twenty-first century were a direct consequence of the flourishing infotainment industry of that era. He began to understand why voters embraced the glitter of the new politics, why it satisfied basic needs, and that it provided relief to no longer have to pretend to make political decisions based on substance. Voters could now indulge in political fantasies as they had always desired to do. The difference was that now it was totally guilt free with no troublesome consequences for fanciful choices.

He entitled his research paper “The Triumph of Arrogance over Apathy—an analysis of the evolution of political parties from the Great Society to the Great Collapse.” He received a C for the effort, which was better than he’d expected.

Whether a C or an A, he was now one step closer to his field assignment.

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

The Deal

 

Sex was mechanical for Sherwood and Jenner. They enjoyed it, but they didn’t enjoy each other. Sex was a thing they did to sometimes help them through life, or around life. Life was centered about their things, their concepts, and their activities. They tolerated relationships with people as an athlete tolerates gravity. They both knew they soared above people by shear force of their intellects. But Sherwood went one step further than Jenner. He was superior by his very nature. His knowledge simply provided him the tools to manifest that superiority.

The times after their encounters were normally filled with marijuana, Mozart, and then silence, punctuated by vignettes of their recent technical efforts. The smoke would fill Sherwood’s apartment, drifting from room to room in rippling layers, being recycled by them innumerable times before finding freedom through some small crack or being imprisoned on a curtain or a bookcase. It blended with the darkness and the shadows as a wave merges with the sea. It made their company tolerable.

“Maxwell, was all over the Asp today,” Jenner said. “They had another ‘incorrect target’ yesterday. Some poor woman got wiped out by accident, and she happened to have connections. Too bad it couldn’t have been Maxwell. Anyway, the cover story they leaked didn’t make much sense, and I guess there’s a big flap over it. I sure don’t understand how all that cover-up stuff works.”

“COPE leaks the story to the media,” Sherwood said. “The media will buy any credible story because of its alliance with COPE and its dependence on the current administration for favors and access to the so-called news. Organized crime accepts the fall for many of the murders in silence rather than risk that the FBI might turn up the heat on their operations. The FBI is in lock step with COPE because COPE has the ears of Congress and controls the FBI budget. It is a nicely packaged arrangement with COPE and the media at the focus. The FBI, organized crime, Congress, and the Executive Branch all crowded around this focus, careful not to make shadows, but understanding their roles and their rewards.”

Jenner looked in amazement at Sherwood. “Is that what they teach you at the Institute?”

“They teach swill. Garden-variety swill for garden-variety apostles. But they do have some very good research facilities.”

“How’s your class work coming along?” she said.

“I am nearly finished there, about two weeks to go. How is Monocle progressing?”

“Well, I’ve found a way to statistically analyze the error function from the centroid track file in real time. That’ll help discriminate the object parameters,” Jenner replied.

“Have you figured out how to integrate that analysis with the edge data, or have you given up real-time merging of the data sets?”

“I haven’t given up, but the convolved function creates such an enormous data file that I can’t process it before the next data string wipes it out.”

“How about doing the convolutions at only 50 Hertz?” he said.

“That may be a way out, but I still haven’t analyzed how that effects the probability of breaking lock.”

“Sounds like a tough problem. Can you finish on schedule?”

“Not a chance. Already told the Asp I need more time or more help.” She paused. “What would you think of joining Monocle for a while when you’re finished at the Institute? You already have the tickets and your spin up time would be zero.” She hesitated. “You’d be perfect for the job.”

Sherwood lay there for some time thinking about the attractive offer. He was sure Jenner didn’t know what actually made it so attractive to him. “I am anticipating my field assignment after graduation.”

“Okay, so forget it,” came the quick reply.

“There is, however, a possibility. … There is a four-week follow-up course that I would like to take before my assignment. Maybe there is a possibility.”

“What do you mean, what’s it going to cost me?” she replied.

“There are two problems with my taking this course. The first is that there is a two-month period between when I finish my present studies and when the second course starts. The second is that I have to be nominated by the Institute staff for the course because it is limited to a select few.”

“I wouldn’t have any trouble covering you for two months, but there’s not much I can do about your selection. You’ve probably already burned those bridges with your cheery personality.”

“Maybe you can help. I believe my selection is quite unlikely because I have been somewhat outspoken to the staff. They are so arrogant they cannot see anything but what they saw last year and the year before. We do not seem to get along well.”

“I can relate to that.”

“And I upset a certain professor, and she seems to have more clout than I had anticipated.”

“Not the engaging Sherwood. She catch you peeping in her bedroom window?”

“Nearly so. I simply planted a bug in a book I returned to her on a ROM-card. I recorded an interesting event on her office floor between herself and an overzealous student. I did not expect her to ever read the ROM-card, but she did and discovered the bug.”

“And it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who bugged it.”

An unseen grin was born in Sherwood’s eyes, quickly radiated over his face, and as quickly died, far short of a smile. “The Institute staff nominates students for the second course by a secret ballot. The ballot box is in the COPE computer and—”

“And you thought I might be able to break into the ballot box and throw the election for you.”

“Do you still have system-manager privileges?” Sherwood asked.

“And if I get you into this course, you’ll work on Monocle in the interim.” Jenner paused, then sat up in bed, her milk-chocolate brown body just visible through the haze. “If this course teaches you anything about blackmail, I’d say you could probably teach it.”

“Actually, you are not that far off. The course is called Leadership Training. I talked to a graduate, and he said it gave him some effective techniques for getting his way in tough environments with powerful adversaries. Blackmail and intimidation were two that he claims have helped him.”

“Sounds like Leadership Training—COPE Style. I think you’ll fit right in. You have to promise not to practice any more of it on me, though. But I guess you’ll probably cover promises in your course, too.”

“I can help you look for the correct file. I have learned the Institute jargon, which might help.”

“Forget it. One thing I don’t need is help with that computer. I think I’m the only person on earth who understands the damn thing.”

“Still making your nocturnal visits to the CPU?” Sherwood asked.

“Yeah—except when I make nocturnal visits here,” she chanced a smirk at Sherwood who gave no reaction. “I just happened upon your personnel file the other day. You were one weird kid.” She shot another glance at Sherwood who maintained his attention on the ceiling.

“Your parents got divorced when you were eleven, and you blamed your mother for not supporting your father’s dreams.”

“He was quite ambitious,” Sherwood said.

“Ambitious?”

Sherwood made no response.

“He patented some pretty neat inventions, though,” she continued. “The best was that Christmas tree stand with the little pop-up flag to tell when it needs water. Your family almost went belly-up on that one—and would have if your mother hadn’t worked two jobs. Did he ever have a job for more than a month?”

“Extraordinary people sometimes have difficulty finding their niche.”

“Have you found yours?” she asked.

Sherwood stood and walked toward the bedroom door. “I have some leftover pizza.”

Jenner followed him toward the kitchen. Sherwood stood at the counter eating a piece of pizza, drinking a glass of milk, and staring out the window. She took a piece of pizza and overpowered the point. Opening the refrigerator, she mumbled, “No beer, huh? I guess I’m drinking milk, too.” She picked up the milk carton and dropped the empty container into the trash with disgust. “Well, I guess I’m not drinking milk either. What the hell else you got?” She rummaged through the refrigerator and found a half bottle of flat Dr. Pepper from which she took a swig. “What is this crap?”

By the time she settled down with her pizza and Dr. Pepper, Sherwood was eating the last piece and still staring out the window, occasionally stealing a secret reflection at the soliloquy behind him. He finished his pizza, gulped down the rest of his milk, and set the glass down hard in the sink. Jenner looked up and stopped chewing momentarily. A long pause followed.

“How is your hacking going?” he startled the silence.

“Okay. … Why?”

“You told me the system manager is a computer,” he added.

“Seems really odd to me.”

“Yes … very odd. Have you ever heard of such a thing?” Sherwood asked.

“No. Have you?”

“You said it seems to be building an empire,” Sherwood continued. “How could a computer be so motivated? Could it simply be mistaken about its requirements and just marching toward an error?”

“No. It’s creating fictitious requirements to justify its expansion. It’s like it’s constructing barriers to keep anyone from addressing its critical parts. I think it’s duplicating these parts and stashing them all over the place. It’s as if … . No, that’s stupid.”

“What!”

“Suppose you could make duplicate hearts and livers and lungs and everything else, and then store them away where no one but you could find them, and have them as spares, just in case.”

“Just in case what?” Sherwood turned and looked at her for the first time.

“I don’t know. … Just in case.”

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Election Fraud 101

 

The search was simple. Jenner had merely entered a file named INSTITUTE, found another file within that named LEADERSHIP, and then located a single document called 2048 BALLOT. As she expected, the file was write-protected for everyone except the system manager, so Jenner was able to browse and modify anything. The document itself was nothing more than a spreadsheet with the names of about fifty students ordered down the first column and the names of the nine professors across the top row.

Apparently, each professor could select a maximum of ten students for Leadership Training. The students’ names were ordered by the total number of votes each had received. The top two students were R. Galvez and T. C. Washington with five votes each. J. C. Nero and J. A. M. Dirac each had four votes. Six students each had three votes; nine had two votes; and twenty-five had one vote. The last six students on the list hadn’t received any votes.

Jenner scanned down the list. The farther down the list she went, the more her eyes twinkled and her mouth turned up. Finally she stopped at Sherwood. “Ha!” she guffawed. “I knew I’d find you here, you miserable son-of-a-bitch!” Her eyes had come to rest at the second line from the bottom. “Let’s see, maybe I should give you ten votes. I’d like to see you talk your way out of that one!”

She selected all the cells on Sherwood’s line and put a one in each. The spreadsheet immediately reorganized itself, moving Sherwood to the top of the list. Jenner looked at the new order and grinned, wondering if anyone might believe it. Okay, I wonder if anybody could believe Sherwood getting three votes. Probably not, but I guess that’s what it’ll take. The spreadsheet reorganized itself again showing seven students with three votes each. Well, R. A. Dake, let’s see what happens to you if I take one of your votes away. The name R. A. Dake shifted from line seven and three votes to line fifteen and two votes. Well, Dake, you didn’t want to take that course anyway, did you. Sherwood, on the other hand, is so much more worthy, wouldn’t you say? Okay, enough screwing around now, let’s get to some serious hacking. There’s got to be more to this Planck suicide than what was in the paper.

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Election Fraud 201

 

With two months of help from Sherwood, Monocle had progressed dramatically, but Jenner was still behind schedule when he left the program for Leadership Training. She now had less time for hacking, so her abbreviated sessions ran later and later as her workweek expanded. On one of these early morning ventures, she snooped through some Planck files.

After Dr. Planck’s death, there was some debate at COPE about the dependence on the computer that had grown over the last few years. Some felt it was not the mission of COPE to develop revolutionary computer technology. The majority in upper management, on the other hand, felt that COPE’s mission was unique and too critical to the heritage of America to rely on standard technology. This concept dominated in the areas of robot development and data fusion and analysis. It was the politically correct view at COPE.

To satisfy both groups, the candidates chosen for interviews were split between those who would continue the basic development of computer science and those whose background was operational management of large, but orthodox, computer systems. Five candidates were chosen for final interviews, three of them strong in developing advanced-computing concepts. Dr. Herbert Bethe had emerged as the leading candidate because of his fruitful R&D background and conservative approach to artificial-life development. COPE’s top managers had interviewed him, and he was the preferred choice of three of them.

Jenner read the following memo from the executive director of operations:

 

I recommend Dr. Herbert Bethe to be the next AD for Data Services.

Dr. Bethe’s experience closely parallels that of Dr. Planck. In addition, Dr. Planck utilized Dr. Bethe frequently as a consultant during the computer development process over the last few years. Thus, Dr. Bethe would be able to hit the ground running and continue the excellent work of Dr. Planck. Dr. Bethe made it clear that he would not, however, simply accept the current status of the computer as his starting point. He would, instead, initially test the current system for flaws and analyzing it to determine its capability and the appropriateness of its evolution to date. He would make his findings known to a computer review committee that he would form to insure oversight. He believes that Dr. Planck functioned too secretly considering the enormous power with which he was working and that the evolution he created may become dangerously uncontrollable in the future if not scrutinized closely now.

Dr. Natasha Winger is an excellent candidate for a computer system operations manager. She is a very efficient and highly motivated manager of people and computers but has little interest or knowledge of advanced concepts such as artificial life or cellular automata. The COPE computer, however, is significantly more complex and dynamic than anything she has ever worked with before. There are two dangers in applying her to the task at hand. First, she might greatly underutilize the computer’s capabilities since the documentation created by Dr. Planck is quite sketchy. The greater danger, however, is that she might use the computer inappropriately, not fully appreciating the degree of complexity that has been built into it or has evolved by means of Dr. Planck’s pioneering approaches. This computer is a highly dynamic system and might be a threat to the laminar operations of COPE’s highly interactive operations environment.

 

COPE used a system for management selection that was forced on it by the Federal Government as a result of an Act of Congress that had been lobbied heavily by the Federal Employees Union. In order to assure absolute fairness in the selection process, the selection committee must make its recommendations directly to an impartial “elector” who then announces the results. COPE went a step further and replaced the elector with the most impartial entity of all, a computer. The Congressional Act forbade the selection committee members from discussing the selection among themselves or with outsiders. This Employee Selection Fairness Act of 2022 was patterned after the Procurement Integrity Act of 1989, which had the effect then of insuring that Government procurements would henceforth deliver the least effective product for the highest possible price in a pseudo free-market environment. A similar effect was realized in the selection of civil service management personnel as a result of the 2022 law.

Jenner breached the wall of secrecy around the ballot committee and compared the recommendations in the memos accompanying the votes with the summary vote tabulation released by the ballot committee. According to her tabulation, Herbert Bethe had been the winner, yet Natasha Winger had been selected.

“Holy shit! Somebody threw the election for the new AD.” Jenner sat before the terminal, dumbfounded. But who could have done it? she thought. Who had that kind of access? … Not Planck, he was dead. … Hmm … a suicide. Is all this possible?

She reached for the phone on her desk, pushed a single button, and waited.

“… Yes,” came the weak salutation.

“You won’t believe this. Things are starting to fit together, Sherwood.”

“Have you forgotten that I do not stay up all night waiting for your calls?”

“This is more important than a damn time zone. This computer is acting like a tyrant. It threw the selection of the data services AD last year.”

“Could this be a trick it learned from you, Jenner?”

“This is no joke. The interviewers picked this really powerful computer-science guy who was going to do some detailed tests of the computer and make sure it wasn’t getting too smart. The computer then falsified the ballot records to choose Winger. She had extensive experience managing big systems, but she was clearly not going to challenge the COPE system. She represented the least threatening alternative to the status quo of the computer. Can you believe that, Sherwood?”

“Where are you, Jenner?”

“In my office.”

“How could you be so stupid? Never call me again, Jenner! Do you understand? Never!”

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

The Stone Age Switch

 

Jenner stood outside the open door of the ASP’s office studying the floor. She shifted the optical memory disk to her left hand and worked it like a puzzle piece before knocking. She heard, “Welcome,” from around the corner, and she joined him at his desk.

“Good morning, Jenner. We haven’t talked for some time. I was so glad you called this morning. I read your most recent update on Monocle, and you seem to be making fine progress there.”

“Yes, Sir. I think the optical ASICs might give us the combination of speed and flexibility we need to survive the high-bandwidth snap. We can’t afford to let the spider go tunnel-vision in the end-game.”

“That’s right,” he said. “I think you’re moving in the right direction.”

“But that’s not the reason I wanted to see you this morning. I thought maybe … we could use your classified conference room.”

The Asp studied Jenner for a moment and then pushed a pair of buttons on his desk. “Of course. I don’t think we’ll be bothered there.” They entered and he ushered her to a seat near one end of the oval table while he secured the room.

When he returned to his seat across from her, she handed him a hand-written note she’d prepared earlier: “It is very important that there be no way that the central computer or any of its slaves can overhear or observe our conversation in any way.”

He looked up at her in a long exchange. He sat back, retrieved his favorite pipe from the rack, reached for the gold lighter in the little recess atop the rack, and proceeded with his lighting ceremony. Jenner sat in silence, studying the battle line between two adjacent pieces of swirling walnut in the tabletop. After a couple clouds of smoke began to obscure the air between them, he set the gold lighter on the table directly between himself and Jenner.

The Asp examined the computer terminal built into the table and then at the multi-media center at the end of the room and drew another puff. He worked a verbal menu and then said, “Shut down for maintenance.” Nothing seemed to happen except for a green light on the console turning red and then going out. He then said, “Bring the number one projector up.” The projector did not respond. He looked at Jenner with raised eyebrows.

“I know this seems a bit odd, but …”

“What I know, Jenner, is that I have come to trust your judgment completely. Now, what is this all about?”

Jenner then leveled with the Asp about her years of hacking and her abuse of the system-manager privilege he’d granted her and ended with, “I believe the computer has matured into a totally unforeseen mode of operation well beyond what anyone might have suspected. Dr. Planck was responsible for its evolution and was the only one who probably understood what was really happening.”

The Asp was now on his second bowl of tobacco as he sat back into cracked leather, giving the impression of being at ease. “And you think the computer had him murdered.”

Jenner looked surprised. “Well, yes … but how did you know I was going to say that?”

“You’re an engineer, Jenner. The logic of your tale led irreversibly to it.”

“You don’t believe it, do you.”

“Do you have any evidence?”

“Remember when Winger was selected as the new AD?”

“Yes, that was a surprise to me.”

“It was a surprise to most others, too. Bethe actually won the selection. The computer falsified the election results.”

“You know that for certain?” he said.

She handed him another piece of paper with the hand-written actual results of the selection committee. He looked at her with a grin and said, “Do you have any other notes?”

“No, Sir.”

He crumpled the two notes and set them ablaze in his ashtray. “What else do you know?”

“You remember when the technician was accidentally killed?”

“The computer was in on that, too?”

“I’m not totally sure on that one, but maybe,” Jenner said. “I studied the technicians journal, and found that he had discovered something extraordinary about that particular spider’s operation. He noted that it led off with its left foot instead of its right foot during the shakedown.”

The Asp raised one eyebrow as he reached for the lighter.

“Let me explain the significance of that.”

“Go ahead,” he said, replacing the lighter on the pipe rack.

“Under normal operating conditions, when a spider is at rest and begins to step forward, it will lead with its right front leg unless there is some reason to lead with the left leg. But when there’s no reason to choose one over the other, which is most of the time, it’ll default to leading off with the right leg. The spiders learn a command that sets the leg to right or left according to a parameter in the Targeting Authority data set. When that parameter is high, the leg is right; when it’s low, the leg is left. It could have been the opposite, but it had to be something.

“That’s the point where I got stuck because what precedes the Targeting Authority, the TA, data set is in the realm of the computer operation. I hacked at that for several evenings but just couldn’t trace the flow. It was just too complex. Dr. Planck had been using a consultant by the name of Dr. Susan Alvarez at the Institute for Research on Artificial Life. I figured she would have a much better shot at tracing the data flow even though she’s had little contact with the computer since Dr. Winger took over. I flew up to see her, and it didn’t take us long, working together, to figure out what was happening.

“Before profile data can be released to a field agent with a termination order, a screening committee reviews the case and any special circumstances surrounding the order. That must have happened because of some embarrassing hit or something,”

“Yes, I well remember that flap,” the Asp said. “A daughter of a network vice-president was terminated for alleged subversive associations. It looked like we might have to go to the mat with the network until the VP disappeared on a Canadian fishing trip.”

“Well, apparently, the Enforcement Committee Report grew out of that flap. That ECR has to be signed off by each of the eight committee-members before a termination can be authorized. And to insure total security and anonymity, none of the committee knows each other.”

“COPE’s Blind Man’s Bluff Principle strikes again,” the Asp said as he shook his head.

“Right, the COPE computer unilaterally manages the whole ECR procedure. And it’s done it faithfully—with some rare exceptions.”

“I see where this is going now, but go ahead and finish your story, Jenner”

“The Targeting Authority data set issues directly from the ECR. When the ECR takes its normal route through the labyrinth of the computer management system, the parameter ends up high. But when the computer bypasses the normal authorization procedures to insert its own target, the TA data set issues in identical form except for that single parameter, which ends up low. It’s really a weird glitch that I guess even the computer is unaware of.”

“So the bottom line is,” the Asp said as he leaned back into leather, “a spider leads with its right leg when on a normal mission, but leads with its left leg if it’s on one of those hopefully rare missions invented by the computer. The technician noticed it but didn’t understand its significance. Just a minor operational anomaly, except not so minor to him.”

A long silence passed as the Asp studied some curves in the pipe rack, and Jenner traced a swirl in the tabletop with her finger.

“Okay, Jenner. This is all totally incredible to me. What do you recommend we do?”

“I’ve given that a lot of thought.”

“I’m sure you have.”

“I consulted with Dr. Alvarez on this, too.”
“So she’s involved in this as deeply as you. I’m glad you kept her involvement remote.”

“We were able to reconstruct a lot of what Dr. Planck did, and it’s really quite exciting. His idea was to allow the main computer to construct itself. His early attempts at artificial life were crude compared to what he finally came up with that worked so well. He finally modeled the computer after the evolution of humans, but with a little help. You probably remember from biology that there are twenty amino acids that are the basic structure of human life. Genes assemble these amino acids into thousands of different proteins. Dr. Planck came up with seven surams, or surrogate aminos. These were blocks of artificial life, which were hybrids of traditional computer code with imbedded neural-network control functions.

“We don’t totally understand how they worked, but the key was this code that was in each suram. He bathed his baby with billions of the surams. Now comes the part that’s a mystery to me. In a human, the amino acids are assembled into proteins according to the instructions in the gene, which is a small part of each chromosome. Each gene expresses a different protein, and it’s the genes that have evolved over the eons to form humans or blue jays or whatever.

“Dr. Planck allowed the intra-suram codes to mutate and replaced natural selection with a rule-based selection process that controlled the mutations. And he made the rules. The bottom line was that the surams evolved into units that kept getting better adapted to the computer’s environment according to the figures-of-merit, his rules. Dr. Planck had put them into a part of each code that was locked and not subject to any change, sort of like a stem cell. He was trying to evolve a set of operating instructions for the neural-network coprocessor that would allow it to work very efficiently—and very smart.”

The Asp studied a cloud of smoke as he listened to Jenner. “I tried to read each of his monthly reports,” he said. “He referred to ‘evolution’ of the coprocessor control-system, which I believe is resident in the main computer. I never knew exactly what he meant by that.”

“What he was getting at,” Jenner said, “is that the main computer is what tells the neural network what to do and how to do it. The main computer can’t do the complex processing that the neural net coprocessor does, but it does tell the coprocessor how many levels to use, where to distribute the signals, and exactly what weighting factor to use for each of the trillions of neural connections. There’s no question that the main computer is the real brain behind the brain.”

“What would happen if we simply shut down the coprocessor neural net?”

“That would make a real change in the computer’s mental state. Its highest-level functions are shared somehow with the neural net processing, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s not like a part of the human brain because the brain is hardwired with the inter-neuron connections. In this case, the main computer is far more than just an input/output device. It effectively tells the coprocessor what to think and, to a large extent, how to think it. Somehow, the emotions it has developed are shared between the two parts of this thing. I really don’t understand the interaction very well.”

“But it’s probably safe to say,” the Asp said, leaning back and speaking to a swirl of walnut, “that shutting down the coprocessor would have an effect on COPE operations.”

“I think it would be dramatic. All of the computer’s operations have become totally integrated with that coprocessor. And it’s more than just dependence. It’s like … like some kind of relationship.”

The Asp looked directly at Jenner while he silently recharged his pipe. “This is almost too much for an old timer like me to even think about. I thought I was pretty flexible in my thinking until about a half-hour ago. But this …” He shook his head as he replaced the gold lighter on the table.

“It’s pretty hard for me to grasp, too. But I’m forced to accept it.”

“Okay, Jenner, get on with your recommendation.”

“We discovered the part of each suram that was locked out of the intra-suram mutation sequences. It turned out to be a simple set of instructions with read and write statements.”

The Asp pointed the stem of his pipe at Jenner as he leaned forward. “A back door,” he said. “Planck left himself a back door.”

“That’s exactly right,” Jenner said. “He figured that he might have to find all those mutant codes some day, and maybe modify them for some reason, so he gave himself access to them, no matter where they went or how the code structure around them had changed. It’s like a receptor molecule on a protein.”

“Yes,” said the Asp. “But maybe even more than that since it contains built-in input and output ports. In cell biology, I believe one of the biggest challenges is to figure out how to get the modified genes into the nuclear DNA. Planck made that easy.”

“Correction, sir. Easier. I don’t think Dr. Planck appreciated just how far afield these little critters were going to get.”

“What do you mean?”

“Remember I said the computer falsified all those purchase orders for networks and buffers? Well, I traced some of its excursions over a few of its satellite nets. It either knows about the back door or is just playing it very safe because I found critical packages of code all over the place, and not just at COPE facilities.”

“What kind of places?”

“For example, the World Bank in Sao Palo, TRW in Jakarta, GE in Dublin, Mitsubishi in Baghdad, Cairo University—”

“And what is the function of these disbursed files?”

“Well, I’m not sure.”

“Spare parts?”

“Yes,” she said quickly.

“An army is only as good as its inventory of replacement parts.”

“That might be a good analogy.”

“But an army also needs a supply line to get the parts to where they’re needed.”

“Nearly all of the networks have multiple redundancies. And most are not dedicated to COPE so you can’t take out the networks without severe communication disruptions worldwide.”

“Can you find all the storage depots?”

“That’s the good news. I don’t think we need to find every one. We can equip the network managers here with the ability to look for those back doors as they come in.”

“But aren’t the network managers under the control of the main computer?”

“They were. I built a network manager emulator and tested it, and I think it’s transparent. At the appropriate time, I can physically cable around the old network manager with a switching device and insert the emulator so the computer won’t know about the change we’ve made.”

“I see,” said the Asp, “sort of like a switch to switch out the returning surams right under the computer’s nose.”

“That’s right. If it’s done properly, the computer will never know. This machine may be clever, but it lacks arms and legs.”

“How about …”

“ … spiders?”

The Asp nodded thru a thin cloud.

“Can we count on security to keep them out?”

He nodded again, this time with a grin. “Now tell me about your virus.”

“How did you know we’d written a virus?”

“Not only have you written a virus, but you’ve tested it somehow, too.”

“I guess I’m as transparent as my net-manager emulator.”

“Not transparent, Jenner, just thorough.”

“We’ve written a virus that is actually a time bomb. When it is fully deployed, it will go off and attack suddenly. We can’t afford a gradual attack because the computer might be able then to create an antigen. The virus will disable only those surams that mutated after January 12, 2046. That’s six months before Dr. Planck’s death. I figured his plan to do something like that is what got him murdered. This time bomb will actually infect all surams because they all have their back doors open. The ones whose last mutation was before January 12, 2046 will be spared, but no further mutations will be allowed after that. It’s the closest I could get to returning the computer to some previous state.”

“Is that going to be good enough?”

“That’s a tough question. If you go back too far, there’s no telling how degraded the computer’s performance will be. At some point before Dr. Planck’s death, the computer’s mutation emphasis shifted from satisfying Dr. Planck’s imbedded success criteria to satisfying its own. That was the critical time. It’s evolution after that probably didn’t benefit COPE very much.”

“You are in danger, yourself, now. What if—”

“I’ve taken some personal precautions. And there’s this.”

Jenner laid an optical disk on the tabletop with a snap.

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Jenner is Scorned

 

FBI Scientist Linked to Espionage. The page-ten article caught Sherwood’s eye as he scanned the news.

“A member of an elite FBI technology-group was linked to the sale of government secrets to underworld agents. The leak had been under investigation for several months, and sufficient evidence had been accumulated by the FBI and local law enforcement agencies to bring the scientist before a grand jury.

“The night before the planned arrest, however, the suspect was murdered in her apartment. There was no sign of forced entry, and the suspect’s nude body was found in the bathroom after a neighbor reported that her shower had been running all night. A single puncture wound was found in her back just below her left shoulder blade. An autopsy report is pending.

“The scientist’s name has not yet been released because the espionage investigation is continuing. It is believed, however, that an organized-crime group, which deals in stolen government and industrial data, was responsible for the attack. Three such groups have been under investigation by the FBI in southern California for years.

“An FBI spokesperson said, ‘The syndicates under investigation have purchased highly sensitive information in the past and have found ready markets for it both domestically and abroad. They generally locate an individual who has access to some desired data and who has accumulated a burden of overdue debts. Such a person is susceptible to overtures of easy money. We believe that is what may have happened in this situation.’

“The state attorney general and the FBI have promised an all out investigation against these groups to stop the trade of illegal information. ‘This kind of activity represents a drain on the security and competitiveness of our society, and we are determined to see it come to an end,’ the Assistant Attorney General was quoted.”

Sherwood slowly lowered the newspaper and stared without emotion at the opposing wall. He fumbled in his pocket for his pipe, but it was absent. He panicked for a moment until he realized that he had left his favorite pipe at the office, but a surrogate was within reach. After setting it to smolder, Sherwood read the article once more.

Sounds like a COPE cover, he thought. Could it really be?

He walked to the one window in his living room where the once-white shears veiled the world outside. Pulling one shear aside, he looked at the street three stories below and examined the disciplined array of bricks leading up the wall. He saw thousands of neatly arranged footholds for a rock climbing genius. He turned toward the door to the hallway. That cipher lock seemed secure enough when he moved in; but that was before spiders. How easy it would be for one to break in there.

It is still possible, he thought, that the COPE computer does not even relate me to Jenner or know that she passed any information to me. He paused and looked toward the door once more. Then again, maybe Jenner is still alive.

He picked up his cell phone, paused, and replaced it on the table. This might be a better job for lands. He approached his land-line phone slowly, afraid of what it might tell him. He input the numbers and was rewarded with a familiar voice saying, “Hello.” A swell of relief buoyed him. But the sweetness succumbed to a deadly undertow as the remainder of Jenner’s recorded message broke over him. He replaced the receiver and breathed deeply of the life-giving smoke from his pipe. Exhaling, his finger involuntarily began tapping the numbers for her office at COPE. The probability of her being either at home or at work was near 100%, and Sherwood resigned himself to the meaning of another recording.

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Sherwood Hits the Trail

 

A short time later, with his newly augmented leadership qualities properly enabled, Sherwood finally achieved the goal he’d sought since his grade school sorties into his fantasy undercover world. His field assignment had been a routine position as liaison officer with the Southwest Regional Office of the CBS Party. Sherwood’s happiness knew only the natural bounds of his sterile personality. He spent the first two months doing nothing but getting to know how the party regional offices work and embellishing reports of his activities to his boss at COPE. He wanted to spy on someone or lead a clandestine operation against some enemy of the people or finger somebody for assassination. Anticipating some such great adventure, he responded to several issues brought to his attention by the regional director. They turned out to be disappointingly routine. One involved an expense report that a party executive had accidentally misfiled that caused the COPE computer to raise a flag that some breech of legislated ethics might have been perpetrated. Another concerned an interpretation of policy controlling the disposition of a donation earmarked for straight candidates. The Party had no such category and couldn’t decide how to account for it. His early enthusiasm was beginning to wane.

Just as he started to understand why the turnover rate was so high among liaison officers, he answered a call from the regional director about a suspected anarchist. And making it even more savory, the anarchist was the same thief he’d confronted trying to break into the Halvorsen files. Sherwood learned how to deal with anarchists in Leadership Training. It had helped his perspective on things—enforcement things. And now he had an anarchist on whom to practice his skills.

PART THREE

 

Guinda

—the present—

 

 

“What luck for rulers that men do not think.”

— Adolph Hitler

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Renewal

 

“Checked out Townsend with COPE.” Sherwood chiseled the words into the miles separating himself and Guinda Burns. “He was director of the HPHC for over ten years, just retired. Had over a thousand people working for him, but he was very low profile. His assistant director actually did all the administration and interfaces with the Government and the University. They say he kept his nose buried in the science. But I think it is a classic example of an agent working undercover. He was politically active until 2010 and then just dropped out of that arena. That is the big clue. Now he is emerging to lead some political movement.”

Guinda was glad this was not a virtual meeting so she didn’t have to hide her astonishment.

“If he is an anarchist, we will get him. He may be dangerous. Keep me posted.”

“Okay,” she answered.

After hanging up the phone, Guinda stared at the hapless instrument as if some latent defect within it had somehow begotten Sherwood. She wondered as much about Sherwood as she did about Townsend. Sherwood reminder her of Uncle Orin from Boise who checked under the hood of his car each morning to insure that a terrorist hadn’t slipped into the country and planted a bomb. He thought it was foolish and irresponsible that everyone didn’t do the same. But with Sherwood, it was more than just paranoia. She had talked to him only twice, but he was the spookiest person she’d ever met. His stony arrogance had smothered all humanity out of their meetings, and she was accustomed to arrogance in the Party.

What did he mean, “If he is an anarchist, we will get him?” She’d heard others in the Party mention anarchists, but she never questioned it. Now the issue was thrust in front of her and entangled her mind. Who are the anarchists and how does who get them? Townsend didn’t seem like an anarchist to her, or did he? She didn’t understand him. He seemed sincere, but how could you tell anymore? Could it be that Townsend is actually altruistic? But how can you trust altruism? It’s too unstable. Too uncompromising. Too pure.

The phone interrupted, truncating a thought, choking conjecture. She glanced disapprovingly at it for simply doing its job flawlessly.

“Yes, Townsend. I’ve thought about our conversation yesterday. I was very preoccupied with my meeting with the state director when we talked, and maybe I didn’t show my gratitude for your offer. Unfortunately, I can’t find any way that a person of your capabilities could contribute to the cause.”

“I can certainly understand how you could feel that may, Ms. Burns. I’m afraid I must have given a very poor impression of how I might be able to help. If we could meet once more, I’d try to put my feelings into words much better than I did. However, to tell the truth, I’m not totally sure myself how I can help.”

Guinda sat at her desk unsure of what to make of this man, this anarchist, this ambassador of a forgotten century. Sherwood’s warning also tolled in her mind. “Okay, Dr. Townsend. I have a little time around noon. Suppose we get together for lunch someplace.”

“Sure, that would be great,” replied Elliott.

He was waiting in the lobby of the popular Mexican restaurant when Guinda arrived.

“Good morning, Dr. Townsend,” Guinda said as she approached him, extending her hand.

“Good morning, Ms. Burns,” he said, meeting her hand halfway. The smile that embraced both his voice and his face rebuffed the formality of their greeting.

“Look, maybe we could be less formal. My name is Guinda. Could I call you Elliott?”

“No, I’d prefer you didn’t. But Ted would be just fine,” he said with a grin.

They went inside, sat down, and after a few minutes of polite conversation, each ordered the same brand of beer and studied the menu. During lunch, their conversation was polite, cordial, and superficial.

Guinda talked of her BA and MA in political science and her father’s advise to choose a career with stability, but the thought of a stable career nauseated her. She taught high-school history, political science, and electoral technology for a couple of years and found that refreshing. But she was too young to be refreshed; she wanted excitement and glamour.

Her striking figure and face, quick wit, and athletic prowess made her a shoe-in for class officer in high school. She dreamed then of a political career, which fueled her choice to major in political science.

When the CBS Party offered her a job two years ago as a field site manager, she knew that was her ticket to excitement. CBS had apparently been impressed with her part in two NCAA swimming championships and her three Olympic medals. When they interviewed her and discovered her outgoing personality, collegiate face, precisely tanned body, and a blond ponytail synchronized with her two perfect breasts, they knew she was the right image for the party. She had the added advantage of an instinct for when to play bimbo and when to be brain.

She was very matter-of-fact about her breasts and how they advanced her career. Elliott couldn’t help but glance at them approvingly as she discussed their role. It was like acknowledging an attractive belt or hat.

After lunch, she said, “Actually, Ted, your offer to volunteer took me by surprise. I have only two volunteers, both students at the University. They mostly help with event promotion using the campus network. It involves just a couple of hours a week. But I was thinking of something a little more … aggressive for you.”

She waited for some reaction, and getting none, she continued. “It seems that our lowest voter participation is among the retired people. We have our primary coming up soon and our expected participation among seniors is only 68%. That’s the lowest of any age group. I think you could help us get that number up in the local area.”

Elliott squirmed a little in his seat. “Excuse me, Guin. I guess I should explain something to you. When we met yesterday, I didn’t have time to explain what my ambitions really are, and maybe I didn’t even fully understand them myself. But I, too, have been thinking about how I can help. You see, I can’t work for your candidates because I don’t believe in them.”

“I don’t understand,” Guinda replied. “You said you wanted to help.”

“I know. I’m not making this very easy, am I? I want to help, but I want to help the people. I want to help Americans make better choices.”

“Well, of course,” Guinda said. “We’re all working toward that. That’s why we’ve chosen candidates that can go head to head, even against Lizzie Special. I personally think that Dr. Heat can—”

“Wait a minute, Guin. I think I need to go back a little further. I know this happened before you were born, but elections used to be a lot different than they are today.”

“I know. I studied all that in school. How people used to go to a voting machine, but things are a lot easier today with the TV elections and all.”

“Let me see if there’s a better way to explain this. We’re feeding people celebrities. We aren’t giving them choices. Each celebrity is the same. Each one is just a person to whom some media network has given a slick image.”

“Right. And that image is what the people are voting for. I understand that. It doesn’t sound any different than the way it used to be. What I’ve read is that the politicians used to get on TV or the news and just lie to the people about everything, and their campaign would then package them with a slick image and the people would buy it. It’s the same today, except we don’t have the lies. COPE really cracks down on anyone who lies. I can’t see how the old way is better than that.”

“But the candidates today are not even politicians,” Elliott said. “They’re movie stars and rock musicians and basketball players. They don’t debate the issues. They don’t even know what the issues are. Most of today’s candidates are really low-life, hack actors who don’t have any idea what the problems are or how to solve them.”

“You know, Elliott, I don’t have all your years of experience, but I took a lot of poli-sci courses in college, and what I remember is that the politicians of your era were pretty low-life, too. And they were professional liars, and everybody knew it, but everyone kept on voting for them anyway. I read about some guy who was a senator somewhere on the east coast, and he was playing around with his secretary, and he drowned her one night when they were out screwing around and then lied his way out of it. But everybody knew he was lying, and he was one of the most arrogant jerks that ever lived, and barely had two IQ points to rub together. And he stayed in the Senate for another forty years. And he wasn’t unusual. All the politicians lied all the time, and all they ever cared about was their little empires and passing laws favorable to the money interests that supported their campaigns. And they all kept getting reelected, and they were all killing the country. And nobody cared! What we have today is a lot better than that.”

“You don’t understand. What we have today is just … it’s just … well … bullshit! It’s hype and bullshit!”

“Well, Dr. Townsend, it’s a lot better bullshit than you had.”

The conversation ebbed. Guinda paid the bill with her fingerprint. She was the next to speak. “You said you wanted to help, but you can’t support our candidates. And you haven’t voted for forty years, and you probably have never played one of the political game shows. And arguing with me is certainly no help. So what’s the help?”

“Well, I thought I knew, but maybe …. It seemed clear to me a couple days ago. I thought I could do something to help … not the parties but the people. I want to help our country, but I guess I can’t be much help to you.” Elliott looked at his beautiful companion and then glanced away. When he looked back at her, she was studying him. There was no animosity in either look, only wonder.

“I have to be getting back to the office. We’re pretty busy now.” Guinda rose, followed by Elliott, and the two walked to the door.

As they walked past the bar toward the lobby, Elliott said, “You know, Guin, I’m on the outside looking in because I’ve been out of circulation for a long time.”

They faced off again. “That’s what I keep hearing about you. But you’re director of a big lab and have a Nobel Prize and a family. I don’t understand why you’ve been out of circulation.”

“I guess that’s one of those long stories, and I’m sure you don’t have time for it. I just—”

“There’s a table and two chairs,” she said. “I have time if you do.”

“I’m retired, you know, so I’m made of time. But you have a party to run.”

“This is party business. Besides, I’m not worried about getting fired. I have a perfect body.” They both laughed as they headed for a table in the corner. After ordering a pair of beers, she said, “Some creep at COPE looked you up and said you might be dangerous. Is that true?”

“I think I’m safe. I promised my wife, Martha, that I’d stay out of trouble.”

“But you’re meeting a beautiful young woman in a bar. Wouldn’t Martha call that trouble?”

“I don’t think that’s the kind of trouble she had in mind.” He checked his watch. “Besides, she’s probably meeting with her virtual family right now. The wonders of technology.”

“And you don’t approve of that?”

“I guess she had to find some other family because I was always at the Lab.”

“How about Luke and Susie?”

“They’ve been gone for a long time now. Luke’s in Japan and Susie’s in the Bay Area.”

“But you must have been a family once.”

“Yeah, and I thought we were a very happy family, but …”

“What were they like as kids?”

Elliott focused through his glass of beer, his gaze merging with the bubbles as they sought freedom. “They were great kids, and we had so many great times together.” He turned the glass, looking for wisdom, finding none.

 

  • * *

 

“Let’s bike up to the cliffs and ride the Goat, Dad!” Susie shouted, her hair trailing behind her as she skipped toward her father.

“How does that sound to you, Snake?” Elliott asked as Luke scaled his back using his belt for a foothold. “Think you can ride that far?”

“Uh huh, snakes can go anyplace. But I like to play tag at the bank, too,” Luke grunted as he inched up the mountain.

“The bank’s on the way to the cliffs, so maybe we could do both,” Elliott said.

Luke reached the summit and grabbed Elliott’s forehead as he swung his leg over his shoulder. “I’m glad you didn’t use my ear. Last time it almost came off in your hand. Want me to look like that lady at church with only one ear. What would I do with all my extra earrings?”

“Daddy! Boys don’t wear earrings, and Mommy says you shouldn’t make fun of her. She’s got a … what do you call that thing she’s got?”

“It’s what she doesn’t have that’s so funny. Her husband can buy her a pair of earrings, and it’s good for two birthdays. Lucky guy!”

“No, Daddy, that’s not what I mean,” Luke said as he settled on his shoulders in triumph. “It’s what Mommy says she’s got so she can park in that special place.”

“You mean a handicap. She parks in that spot so she doesn’t have to walk so far on one ear.”

“Handicap. That’s it. Mommy says you shouldn’t make fun of a lady with a handicap.”

“I’m not making fun of her. She walks like this because her head is too heavy on one side.”

“Daddy!” he laughed. “That’s just what Mommy said you shouldn’t do. That lady can’t help it that she’s only got one ear.”

“Just like you can’t help it that all you have is a head and a tail. That’s just the way God made snakes. But it’s still funny!” He flipped Luke over his head and buried him in the sofa.

“Look, Dad.” Susie interrupted their giggling. “Mom got this picnic stuff for us.”

“Where are you three off to this morning?” Martha asked from the doorway. “I just want to know what direction to send the police when you don’t come home by dark.”

“We won’t get lost, Mom,” Susie replied. “Dad knows the way. It’s not far.”

“I know, but you might decide to live up in those rocks and just come back for food.”

“Dad, are you going to take us skiing this winter? Last year you said Luke was too little. You said when he got to the second grade, we could all go. Now I’ve been cheated out of three years of skiing, so I think we should go.”

“Tell you what, Otter, suppose the four of us talk about it over pizza and beer tonight.”

“Okay. But don’t try to change the subject or make a joke out of it. Okay?”

“Fair enough!”

“Can I carry the picnic stuff in my basket?” Luke asked. “I’ll be real careful.”

“And while you’re out being foolish,” Martha said, “I’ll be here slaving over the stove.”

“We’ll stop at 7-Q and bring you back your favorite prize,” Elliott said.

Off they went, the trio on another adventure. They peddled to the empty parking lot of the bank where they terrorized each other in a game of bike tag, their favorite weekend activity besides riding the Goat.

Goat Rock sat on the cliffs above the surrounding plains. When the Townsends sat on the Goat, they were more together than at any other time. Yet each knew it was a time for reflection, to be alone but connected, a time to share dreams. Elliott even stopped joking then.

The city seemed so near in that crisp air that they could reach out and stop the cars rocketing along the freeways. Elliott showed the kids how he could place his hand across the river, and they’d watch the waters rise until they overflowed their banks and inundated the whole city. Susie would wait for just the right instant when the water was lapping up the very street where they lived. Then she would lift Elliott’s fingers one at a time, and the waters would recede.

Their goat rode above a cloud of cottonwoods billowing up from the canyon below like rolling hills of grass. They’d close their eyes and catch an updraft, looking down on themselves astride their goat. The magic of the Goat would live with them long after they returned to their other world.

 

  • * *

 

“Sounds like you had a great relationship with your kids,” Guinda said. “I wish my dad had been around to do stuff like that with us.”

“Those were wonderful days, but it didn’t always stay like that.”

“What happened in 2010?” Guinda asked.

“You really do your homework, don’t you.”

“I owe it all to COPE.”

“I remember 2010, all right,” he said. “That was the year of the science fair.” He sipped his beer and made some repeated pattern in the condensation with his thumb.

“I could brush off all the political hype and platitudes of the day, but I took it a lot more personally when these social tides started to affect our kids. The education community was great at masquerading various politically correct issues as compassion for some group. Trilingual education, multi-culturalism, and cultural diversity were the main buzzwords then. One evening I noticed Susie working on her computer. And she wasn’t just surfing the Web the way most kids did to fool their parents and teachers into thinking they were engaged in some great educational experience. She was working hard on something.”

 

  • * *

 

“It’s a letter to the president of Fantasy Cola.”

“What happened? You lose a quarter in the machine at school?”

“No, Dad! This is serious! They’re using up all our oil and destroying the environment.”

“That is serious! Is there a Fantasy tanker leak, and it’s killing all the fish?”

“I said this was serious. Our science teacher told us about how they’re using plastic bottles even though it’s bad for the environment. Did you know those plastic bottles are made from oil? They’re using up all the oil, and the plastic ends in the trash, and it’s bad for the environment.”

“I see. But what about the letter?”

“Our teacher said if we wrote a letter to Fantasy, she’d add seven points to our grade. I could get an A in science just from this letter. She says if enough kids complain, Fantasy might change.”

“Sounds like a plan, Susie. What should they change to?”

“Glass bottles. Our teacher says glass is made out of sand, and the world is full of that. And you can just grind up the glass and make new bottles so it doesn’t fill up the garbage dumps.”

“Did your teacher mention that you can grind up the plastic and use it over again, too?”

“You can?”

“Did your teacher give you any kind of handout material about this problem?”

“No. She just told us about it and said to write the letters, and she’d send them for us.”

“I see. That’s Ms. Dobbs, isn’t it?”

“Uh huh.”

The next day Elliott made an appointment to see Ms. Dobbs.

“I understand you have the fifth graders crusading against plastic bottles, Ms. Dobbs.”

“Yes! Isn’t it exciting? They’re learning they can make a difference with just a little effort.”

“But I thought you were teaching science, not political action.”

“This is science, Mr. Townsend—environmental science.”

“Then you’ve surely analyzed the energy and pollution tradeoffs between plastic and glass.”

“What do you mean?” she responded.

“If you’ve concluded that glass bottles are environmentally preferable, you must have some scientific basis for it. Maybe you’ve done the analysis yourself, or maybe you’ve read a report.”

“Mr. Townsend, it is common knowledge in the environmental community that the less plastic you consume, the better off the environment is.”

“The literature I’ve read,” Elliott said, “shows that a glass bottle consumes much more energy to recycle than a plastic bottle. I just can’t understand your position.”

She paused in shock at the heresy. “I don’t know where you got your ridiculous information, but it’s not your position to question environmental science from your lay position.”

“I’m not questioning the science, just your knowledge of it. Environmental scientists employ the scientific method in gathering data rather than simply accepting what they read in the paper.”

“I received my information from a very reliable source,” Ms. Dobbs said in a slow staccato, “and it is my responsibility to ensure that my children understand the scientific issues. I demand you allow me to discharge my responsibility without any more of your emotional interruptions.”

“Pardon me, Ms. Dobbs, but I also have an interest in one of your children, and I don’t care for her head being filled with nonsense. And I fail to understand the link between science and political-action letters. When I learned science, we didn’t write protest letters, we studied scientific principles and worked problems. Maybe you should start an environmental-activist club to promote your views. But don’t use valuable science-class time to inflate your esteem in some yuppie cult. You’re a science teacher, Dobbs. That’s an exciting and challenging and terribly important job! But you’re diluting it with … with bullshit!”

“Since you have such a tainted view of my abilities as a teacher and such a vile way of expressing yourself, you should talk to our principal. He’s a man and might be able to appreciate your verbal defecation. His office is right next to the front door on your way out.”

“I appreciate your directions, Ms. Dobbs.”

Elliott then had a spirited discussion with Mr. Compton, which ended predictably.

That evening, he recounted his adventure to his family, knowing they would stand behind him and respect his efforts to right an unworthy world. A small chorus of gaping mouths greeted him. “There goes my A,” Susie said. “I’ll probably get a D. How could you be so stupid, Dad? I can’t go to school tomorrow. Compton will expel me. He expelled another kid over something like this. How could you be so stupid?” Tears welled up in her eyes as she ran from the room.

“Please don’t talk to my teacher, Daddy. I don’t want to get spelled because you’re so stupid.” With that, Luke trotted down the hall after Susie.

“What the hell got into you, Elliott Townsend? You think you’re such a smart guy,” Martha shouted shaking her head. “Why don’t you let the teachers teach, and you can go to your lab and do whatever you do there. What’s wrong with the kids getting some environmental awareness? And if Susie wants to write a letter to Fantasy or to Queen Isabella, what’s that to you?”

“But Susie didn’t want to—”

“Since when do you know so much about plastic and recycling? I’m sure Ms. Dobbs knows a lot more about that sort of thing than you do. You said yourself the kind of research you do doesn’t have anything to do with the real world, just quarks and quantum stuff that nobody else would ever care about. So why don’t you just keep your nose out of this environmental stuff?”

“Just because my work at the Lab is unrelated doesn’t mean—”

“And then you topped it off by opening your big mouth to the principal. Susie’s pretty upset. I’ve never heard her call you stupid before. And Luke—he’s always looked up to you. Go back to your lab, Dr. Townsend. Go count your quarks and write your equations. We can sure get along without your interference at home.”

This time Elliott made no response. He just studied the floor.

As time progressed, family emotions subsided, with Luke admitting Elliott back into the family first and Martha holding out the longest. Two months later, Susie announced at dinner that she was going to do a science-fair project.

“Can I help?” Luke interrupted. “You gonna build a rocket ship or a laser gun or something? I can help you build stuff. I help Daddy in the garage sometimes, don’t I Daddy.”

“Yes you do, Otter.” Elliott turned toward Susie and said, “He can be a big help to you, Susie—and so can I, if you want any help.”

“Well, another scientist in the family,” said Martha with a smirk. “Isn’t that interesting.” She glanced at Elliott who skillfully avoided her.

“What kind of project you going to do?” Elliott asked.

“Well, I’ve been thinking about something environmental—maybe about recycling or something like that. Ever since that Fantasy Cola letter, I’ve been thinking about it. I read somewhere you can even recycle plastic bottles, but I’m not sure exactly what to do.”

Martha said, “Have you asked that nice lady who teaches science? What’s her name?”

“Dobbs,” said Elliott.

“Yes, that nice Ms. Dobbs could help you. She knows a lot about environmental things.”

“If you’d like to kick around some ideas, just let me know,” Elliott said. “Why don’t you think about it and write down some ideas? Then we can get together and brainstorm it.”

“Okay, Dad.”

“Maybe you can find the book where you read about recycling plastic bottles,” Elliott said.

“Sure.”

Elliott delivered some dishes to the kitchen where Martha was arranging the dishwasher like a vase of daisies. As he bent down to help, she whispered, “Don’t screw up this time, Elliott.”

Susie spent her spare time at the library enchanted by engineering studies comparing paper, plastic, glass, and aluminum packaging. Her father had told her: “Start at the beginning, Susie.”

“What do you mean? Where else can you start? That’s what the start is, it’s the beginning.”

“Most people start in the middle or at the end. They think they know the answer before they even understand the question. That’s why you wrote to Fantasy telling them the answer was glass when you really didn’t understand the question. It’s easier to skip the beginning, but it can be pretty dangerous, too.”

Susie applied that wisdom to the science fair, exhausting the school library and turning to the city library. Elliott hoped it was the stirring of a great scientist. Martha hoped it would end peaceably.

“Susie at the library again?” Elliott asked after he walked in from work.

“Uh huh,” replied Martha, “Should be home any minute.”

“Can you believe how hard she’s been working on this science-fair thing?” Elliott asked. “I never expected it. Maybe she’ll turn out to be a scientist after all.”

Martha looked at him with a question in her eyes. “You really don’t know, do you?”

“What are you talking about, Martha?”

“You really think she’s doing this for the science, don’t you?”

“Well, sure.”

“Come with me, Dr. Townsend.” He followed her into Susie’s room where she closed the door. There was a color poster advertising the “2010 Trumpet Elementary School Science Fair.”

“Wow!” he said. “First prize in each grade is a set of skis and boots or a mountain bike.”

“Now look at the grand prize.”

“Grand prize is a week at a ski resort or a dude ranch for a family of four. These prizes are terrific. They weren’t anything like this last year.”

“Not just the skis, Ted. She’s figuring on the grand prize. She told me that was going to be her Christmas present to the whole family next year. She’s put her trust in you to guide her.”

“She’s really getting into the science of recycling,” Elliott said.

“Just remember, she’s counting on you,” warned Martha.

“But never mind the prizes, she’s learning as much about recycling as many environmental engineers. Last week I noticed she hadn’t found anything about the differences in transportation energy used for different types of containers. I suggested that if she couldn’t find anything, she could do a simple analysis that I could help her with, but she’d need the weights of the different containers. Would you believe, last night she came and asked me to show her how to use that balance scale I have in the garage? I’ve never seen her so turned-on about anything.”

“I hope the judges can appreciate all this genius.”

“How can they help but recognize the merit of her work. She’s taking a really scientific approach—no slogans or gimmicks or hype, just facts and logic and analysis and tons of references. I think she’s doing a terrific job!”

“I hope so.”

A few days later, Elliott received a recruiting notice from Trumpet for science-fair judges. Elliott submitted his resume as requested and mailed it back to the school.

Two weeks before the science fair, he received a letter saying, “Despite your fine credentials, we have been unable to secure a judging position.” Elliott knew exactly who made that decision, and before he even recognized his emotions, he was dialing Compton’s number. Compton’s voice-mail answered. The distant beep brought Martha’s words back to him. This was the screw up she’d warned him about. He replaced the receiver silently.

“Dobbs!” he whispered.

The night before the science fair, the whole family was in the basement, helping put the finishing touches on Susie’s display. It summarized the results of three months of research in thirty-two square-feet of poster board plus a small tabletop.

The main poster in the center presented process flow charts for the recycling of each type of container showing the inputs of materials, energy, labor, and capital and the outputs of containers, air pollution, water pollution, and solid residues. There were separate flow charts for paper, plastic, aluminum, and glass containers.

The two side-posters described the issues and related them to the flow charts: health risks, environmental effects, environmental costs, recycling problems, transportation costs, refill vs. recycle, advanced production technologies, economic efficiency, and references.

The tabletop was reserved for conclusions, which were displayed in an elaborate three-dimensional Lego matrix. Susie arranged the conclusions in one dimension according to the container function. Another dimension was divided into the percentage of the containers that was recycled. The third dimension was comments.

Her conclusions were startling according to the standard wisdom. Even with no recycling, the plastic containers won the competition for most frugal energy consumption; and at high recycling rates, only aluminum cans came close to plastic in energy efficiency. The paper vs. plastic bag was no contest. If all the plastic bags were thrown in the trash and all the paper bags were recycled, the plastic bags were still more environmentally benign than the paper bags, even if you use two plastic bags for every one paper bag.

About a week before the science fair, Susie and Elliott had spent one whole evening making sure there were data and references to support each conclusion. “But this isn’t what Ms. Dobbs and everybody else says, Dad. Even if you go to the grocery store, they use paper bags because everybody says the plastic is so bad. I don’t think the judges will believe this. Maybe I should change my conclusions so plastic doesn’t do so good.”

Then Elliott spoke. “Everything we have today—CDs, videos, fancy bikes, medicines—all these things happened because scientists were stubborn and listened to their data and their visions instead of what everybody said. If you turn your back on the truth, you can never be a scientist … or a woman.”

“How can my conclusions possibly be right when everybody knows it’s just the opposite?”

“You’re learning a lesson in the difference between the truth-as-somebody-would-like-it-to-be and the truth-as-it-is. The truth-as-somebody-would-like-it-to-be is whatever is popular, whatever the fad is. Something becomes true if enough people want it to be.”

“Which truth is the right one? There can’t be two truths, especially if they’re opposite.”

“Remember when we went skiing in March? You’d been looking forward to that weekend for so long that you were convinced the skiing was going to be great. But it wasn’t so great, was it. Remember how warm it was and how the snow got real slushy and then turned to ice late in the afternoon? But you were convinced it was great snow, and you went blasting down through those trees and hit that patch of ice and wiped out and ripped a gash in your leg.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“The great skiing was the truth-as-you-wanted-it-to-be, and the ice was the truth-as-it-was.”

“Suppose I skied through the ice without falling? Then which truth would be right?”

“Then you’d have been lucky. The truth-as-it-is doesn’t always bite you in the butt. Sometimes you get lucky.”

“But what about this recycling thing, Dad? What’s going to happen when everybody finds out they’ve been wrong?”

“How are they going to find out?” Elliott asked.

“I’m going to have this big display, and everybody’s going to see the truth-as-it-is!”

“How many people do you think will see it?” Elliott asked.

“I’ll bet a couple thousand people will come to the science fair, and they’ll all see it!”

“This is a local grade-school science-fair, Susie. Maybe a couple hundred parents will come. Maybe half of them will walk past your display. Half of those will—you keeping track, Susie?”

“Right, a hundred will pass, and now we’re down to fifty.”

“Ok, and maybe those fifty will stop to look, and maybe half of those will actually read something, and maybe half of those will understand anything about what you did, and maybe half of those will believe you. And you always overestimate these things by at least a factor of two, so what do we end up with?”

“You mean I gotta divide by two? Then, I guess about … three people.”

“Ok, you’ve communicated your message to three people.”

Susie stared at her pile of notes and data. “You mean I did all this just for three people?”

“No, you did it for just one person. You did this for yourself, and nobody else.”

“Suppose some reporter sees it and puts it on the TV. Then a lot of people would see it.”

“I guess there’s a slight chance of that if two things happened. First, you’d have to win first place. And second, we’d have to tell them you were abandoned by your parents as a baby, and you’ve been living in the back of a Chevy pickup with your uncle ever since. Oh, by the way, you’ve got too many legs, too. You’d have to get rid of one of your legs so you wouldn’t be able to use the skis you won. The media likes that human interest stuff, it’s what they specialize in.”

“Dad, quit joking now. Do you really think they might put it on TV?”

Elliott looked away at an old TV in the corner. “Maybe, Susie. Maybe.”

“Newspapers print news, right? And this is news, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but it’s not quite that simple. The newspapers are in business, so they print what they think their customers want. If they don’t tell them what they want to hear, some other paper will, and that’s how you lose customers.”

“I don’t understand. I thought news was news.”

“You’re probably right. I just made it too complicated,” Elliott sighed.

“But suppose the judges believe in that other kind of truth. Then this is all for nothing.”

“That isn’t going to happen. I can’t promise you’ll take any prizes, but this is a fantastic project. The judges are professionals, and they’ll judge it on its scientific merits. I may not know much else, but I’m a good physicist and I know good science when I see it, and what you’ve done is really something. I’m so proud of you. You just can’t imagine.” Elliott squeezed her. “What you have here goes way beyond the fifth-grade level, Susie.”

 

  • * *

 

Guinda’s phone buzzed her from her trance. “I’m sorry about that interruption, Ted. That was my reminder service. I have a meeting over on campus in fifteen minutes, but I’m finding your story very interesting. It’s a glimpse into a life that’s as different from my experience as—”

“As we are?”

“Yes, I guess that’s right,” she said. “We’re not just from different centuries—maybe from different planets.”

They looked at each other for a silent moment.

“When can we finish the outcome of the science fair?”

“It’s not a very pretty story, Guin, but I’ll tell it, and then you can judge whether you want me on your team.”

“Okay. That’s fair.”

“But at your convenience,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll be getting many buzzes from my reminder service.”

They laughed, turned away from each other, and walked toward their respective planets.

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

Anarchists

 

 

“And the status on the local sponsor?” the state director grilled Guinda.

“No word yet from Corona Corp., but GeneSplice is on board.”

“Okay, keep the pressure on Corona,” the director said. “Now Sherwood has a full report from COPE on Townsend.”

Sherwood then said, “He was on the state Free-Thought Party Committee from 2002 to 2010. Worked at the National Lab from 2003 until a few days ago. Any contact since we talked last?”

“… No. … Nothing.”

“Good,” replied Sherwood. “A COPE regional investigator called me a little while ago. Says he heard about my request and thinks the report from HQ is incomplete. Thinks Townsend is an anarchist. Found a file on him, an old paper file, from when he belonged to the Free-Thought Party, a bunch of ultra-anarchists. COPE got the file from the FBI. Long time ago, but thinks he may have been working underground for years. Says not voting for a long time is typical for anarchists. Fits the profile pretty well. Belongs to a couple of anarchist organizations, Scientists Against Abortion and American High Energy Physics Society. Sounds like he might be coming out of the closet since he retired. Very respected in the scientific community. Could cause a lot of trouble. COPE is putting him under surveillance. If he is an anarchist, they will take care of him. Let me know if he contacts you.” The meeting was abruptly over.

They’re actually putting him under surveillance because they think he’s an anarchist? I wonder how COPE figures he’s going to cause trouble. She had heard the word anarchist several times since she joined CBS, but she never gave it much thought. Now it had come to the center stage several times in two days, and it carried some very ominous overtones. She didn’t know who COPE considered to be anarchists or why that was such a threat. Whoever Townsend is, he’s no threat; but COPE is going to “take care of him.”

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

The Media Connection

 

Guinda sat in the detached comfort of her office staring at a stainless sky. Flawless beams of sun splashed against the imperfect mirrors of a nearby office building facade, articulating every failing in this human monument that daily interrupted the mating of sun and earth. The perfection of nature confronted a crude attempt by man and his compliant machines to create a mate worthy of the sun’s intimacy.

She observed this display with sheltered senses and studied it with managed values, instinctively missing the message of nature. Her senses were tuned to action, piercing movement, scorching tones. On Guinda’s planet, trivia, spectacle, and fraud resided in every icon.

Now a new icon had happened in—a person, with real doubts, fears, and disillusionments. This icon whispered sincerity and trust. It exposed itself guilelessly, seeking to help, or be helped by, a helpless world. This icon was a fossil of another age.

Guinda had been comfortable with her culture, but now a veil overshadowed it. Elliott was not the author of this veil, but he did provide buoyancy, bearing it to the surface. She was unsure about yesterday’s events—and today’s feelings. But in a few days, she would probably forget about Elliott, and her life would return to its former state. That comforted and disturbed her.

Her automatic receptionist suddenly alerted that a visitor had entered the lobby. Oh, no, she thought. Now Elliott has come here. That’ll make things stickier. But it wasn’t Elliott. She hurtled to her feet as Sherwood appeared in her doorway.

“What a pleasant surprise to meet you face to face, Sherwood,” she lied unconvincingly.

He entered in silence, looking around as an art critic would evaluate a candidate acquisition. He slowly approached her and reached out his right hand in the customary way, still scanning the surroundings. His examination then focused on Guinda.

“I just wanted to drop in to see how things were going, Burns,” he returned the lie. “I should spend more time in the field, but …” Sherwood was poorly equipped to engage in small talk and could rarely complete a sentence that was not focused on his objective. Although a coldly focused man, his speech was less abbreviated in person than when projected in the artificial environment of a phone call or a holographic meeting. His arrogance in person, however, more than made up for this small concession. A face-to-face dialogue with Sherwood bore more resemblance to an archery match than to a conversation. Sherwood carefully diagrammed each sentence before he released the string and reached for another from his quiver.

“I have been looking over your record since you joined us. You have great potential for going far in the party. It is difficult to find people your age with the intelligence and commitment it takes to be a dependable asset to the organization. I have taken a special interest in your future because you are encountering problems that are bound to raise legitimate questions, questions which are direct results of your perceptiveness, moral values, and judgment—in short, the very qualities that make you a valued member of our team.”

Guinda shifted her weight nervously and made curious shapes with her hands behind her back. She had difficulty attending to his words with his ego challenging her.

“It is quite normal for a dedicated field coordinator such as yourself to confront various issues in the dispatch of her duties that need to be addressed so she can continue with clear direction. I am, of course, referring to Townsend’s visit to your office and the issues that raises about anarchists and the legitimacy of our electoral system. I have seen this sort of thing happen before with less experienced staff members, and I believe it is important to meet the issues honestly and directly so you can judge for yourself what position you prefer to take.”

Sherwood invited Guinda to be seated as he did the same. “Do you mind if I smoke?” he asked. Guinda looked around the office as if to point out with her eyes that there were no ashtrays. As she returned her eyes to Sherwood, he retrieved his pipe from his pocket and began to tamp the tobacco in its bowl. His gold lighter then torched the tobacco, and he began his lesson.

“Do you enjoy the election games, Burns?” he said as the smoke rummaged through his hair.

“I feel they—” Guinda began but was not allowed to finish.

“How about the holographic legislative voting-sessions, Burns. Do you think they bring the people closer to their government?”

“Yes, they give a great deal of—”

“And the energy of the whole process. Do you think that helps motivate the voters?”

“Yes.”

“You are exactly right, Burns. But do you know that such popular involvement is a recent phenomenon? Many of the junior staff do not understand how the present politics has evolved. You are surely aware that the way our representatives are elected is substantially different from the past, but then, the way we do most things is just as different. Politics has evolved with technology to better serve the needs of its constituents. Today, more people take a more active role in the political process than ever before. As little as fifty years ago that was not the situation.

“In the twentieth century, few people voted. People were disenchanted with politics. They felt they did not make a difference. They saw that the two parties had come so close together that there was no longer a substantial difference between them. True, the candidates still campaigned as if there were some great gulf separating them, but it was mostly illusory. Taxes always went up. The debt always went up. Liberties always declined. One party would declare war on poverty, but poverty was never conquered. The other party would declare war on Vietnam, but Vietnam was never conquered. They all declared war on government waste and inefficiency, but the bureaucracy grew year after year. Balancing the budget was the mantra for decades, but the deficit grew every year.” Sherwood paused to relight his pipe. The curling vortices helped to accurately guide each sentence to its target.

“A strange thing happened as all this evolved. The two parties became so middle-of-the-road, that no politician was willing to try anything new because he knew there was just a whisper of a difference between himself and his opponent; and any platform that was unacceptable to just one special interest group could cost him the election. Every politician had something for everyone. That kind of a system just proliferated the problems. By the early part of the century, every activity under government influence was a quagmire, and that was nearly everything. Do you get the sense of what I am saying, Burns?”

“Yes, I do. But what about anarchists? And why do you think Townsend is one?” questioned Guinda with surprising completeness.

“After the turn of the century, a few media leaders convened to examine the true state of the union, quite independent of the optimistic lies of the politicians. Their conclusions were sobering and alarming. First, they concluded that the financial structure of the Government had essentially collapsed; the Government and the Media simply hadn’t admitted it yet. Second, they concluded that private enterprise had evolved to a much more advanced state than the political establishment. Technology had allowed business to address the needs of smaller and more singular groups with greater and greater efficiency. Automated factories built custom houses at tract-house prices. And the news media delivered electronic newspapers, custom configured for each subscriber, within minutes of the reported events. The political establishment had, on the other hand, clung to its protectionist laws and policies to maintain the illusion of a two-party system.

“Their third conclusion raised great debate within the Media community. These leaders concluded that the Media was more responsible for the deteriorated state of society than the political establishment itself. They reasoned that the Media historically had represented the voice of the people against power-seeking collectivists, whether government, business, labor, or religion. That changed, however, during the twentieth century, only the Media did not tell anyone, so the masses kept naively believing it still represented them.

“Over the century, the Media became focused on short-term profits and market share. As it began to absorb its share of MBAs, its product shifted from information and entertainment to a merger of the two—infotainment. The news had become a marketing tool rather than a vehicle for truth. The MBAs discovered that sensationalism sells. The sex lives, nannies, and rubber checks of politicians made page one while the transfer of trillions of dollars to friends of the establishment was generally ignored. The masturbation of a Hollywood celebrity would crowd out a Supreme Court decision.

“And it worked. The infotainment industry grew and prospered. And the masses did not have to be troubled by onerous details. The Media performed a service for the Government that Government could never have achieved on its own merits: the Media bestowed credibility on an incredible aristocracy.”

Sherwood paused and looked with disapproval at his pipe. It had failed to produce the river of smoke into his lungs. The smoky obscurity lingering about him had started to dissipate, and with it, his arrogance. His exposure as a human being momentarily disrupted his ability as a pedagogue. He immediately corrected the situation with an infusion of tobacco. Guinda seized the opportunity. “But there have always been minor parties and even independents. Do these have anything to do with the anarchists?”

His pipe resuscitated, he re-embarked, his authority amended. The relief showed in his eyes as they were devoured by the billowing anonymity. “The Media Summit believed politics could benefit from advanced technologies and an entrepreneurial approach to the political process. They decided to use their position of influence to save our republic. A bold experiment was begun to personalize politics, to bring politics to the individuals, thereby bringing individuals back to politics. We see the result of that experiment today. The majority of people feel good about politics and about their active participation in the political process. We have injected energy and purpose into the voting process. We have brought politicians and the issues right into the home. Their programs appeal at the individual level rather than at the group level of the past.

“There are, however, a few people opposed to these improvements. Their numbers are dwindling, but they occasionally emerge. We attempt to maintain the system as free from such impediments as possible since they are irrelevant and disruptive to the main event. Just as the Minutemen repelled invasion, we must be vigilant to the most seemingly benign threats.

“This brings us to your friend, Townsend.” Sherwood paused with his pipe now standing at the ready in his right hand at mouth level. The smoke cleared and revealed a pair of gray eyes now fixed intently on Guinda. She was unaccustomed to Sherwood actually looking at her, and she wondered if her nervousness was manifest in her eyes. And why did he refer to Townsend as her friend? Could he somehow know about her second meeting with Elliott?

During this silent interchange, the slightest grin slowly unfolded on Sherwood’s face. It did not involve his mouth but just his eyes, and not their size or their shape, but their essence. They evolved from the piercing eyes of an inquisitor to the taunting eyes of a precocious child holding a favorite toy just out of reach of a smaller comrade.

Sherwood stood up, his attention seemingly focused on making sure his pipe was completely extinguished before replacing it in the pouch in his pocket. Guinda vertically joined him. “Do not become enchanted by such people. They romanticize about events that caused great discord and suboptimization in a world as different from today as Townsend is from you. They seek to destroy the order that has allowed the twenty-first century to blossom. I doubt that Townsend will ever contact you again, but if he should, let me know immediately so we might act accordingly. Any more questions?”

“Ah … no.”

He shook her hand politely, maintaining eye contact with her. Guinda shifted her eyes to the right, and their hands parted.

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTY

Robot Spies

 

Elliott read the unsigned note in disbelief, then reread it in swelling anger: “You’re being surveilled by COPE. They think you’re an anarchist. You may be in danger. I’ll call you at the appropriate time. Please destroy.”

The entrenched tactics of bygone tyrannies skulked from the note and filled the air with acrid vapors. This was an artifact of centuries past. Yet this was the twenty-first century, the age of freedom and enlightenment. This memorial to the age of monarchs eulogized a palace guard protecting the privileged, reaffirming the ageless dogma of “might makes right.”

Elliott envisioned some faceless bureaucrat signing an order to surveil one Elliott T. Townsend for expressing an opinion contrary to the monarch’s. He was just a name on some list of anarchists in a computer file somewhere with gigabytes of other trivia. He considered how it might have happened, maybe with some baseball slugger newly arrived in Congress, knocking mud from his cleats by doing a favor for a COPE bureaucrat to expand some surveillance program, each the master of the other—and now each the master of him.

He’d spent his career in the quest for truth, pure truth, the secrets of the building blocks of the universe. It was not the truth of convenience, not the sensational truth so easily dispensed by his accusers. But what were they accusing him of? Anarchy? He was no anarchist. He felt some ubiquitous organization tightening its coils about him. Dobbs’s eyes suddenly confronted him.

He entered the TV room where Martha was watching The 404 Place, a late morning soap that boasted of being the most prolific political career-launching medium in the industry. It had introduced over two-dozen national political figures to the public. Entertainers with political ambitions actually paid NBC to make appearances on the show.

“A few days ago you said something about them hurting me. I thought you were just angry. What were you talking about?”

“Ted, what’s the matter? What happened?”

“You remember that woman I went to see at the CBS office, and then I went to have lunch with her the next day?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I got this note from her today. She says COPE is surveilling me.”

“You mean somebody is following you? Are you sure?” Martha questioned in disbelief. Her eyes darted from one window to another.

“Yes, I guess that’s what it means. But the other day, you said somebody could hurt me. Were you talking about COPE?”

“I read an article a long time ago, but then I never heard anything else about it. Some reporter said that COPE uses illegal means to monitor people, and he even said there were several unsolved murders suspiciously linked to COPE. But that was the only thing I ever heard about it. The story just disappeared, and I forgot about it. It sort of reminded me of those CIA stories we used to read about a long time ago.”

“But you didn’t really forget about it, did you,” Elliott replied. “You really believed it. Otherwise you wouldn’t have said that to me.”

“Elliott, I new there was going to be trouble. You’re just too outspoken … and too old fashioned. Things just aren’t the way they used to be. You’re acting like nothing has happened in the last forty years—like we’re still back in the twentieth century. Times have changed. It’s a more mellow time now.”

“You call that stuff you watch on TV mellow? The times aren’t mellow, Martha. But everybody’s brains are mellow. The people running the country sure aren’t mellow—just everybody’s brains. I don’t know if its mellow or jello. All I know is that I’m living in a world of bullshit. And now this. I’m being watched like a common criminal.”

“You aren’t a criminal but you are suspicious. You’re so far out in left field or right field or somewhere, that people are suspicious of you. You’re just going to hurt yourself, and me too. This foolishness of yours has to stop. I didn’t think you could get into trouble that fast. I thought it would take you months. You’ve done it in just a few days. I’m impressed.”

Elliott wanted to ignore Martha’s sarcasm, but it reflected an image painfully close to reality. Without responding, he turned and walked away.

His logical mind drove him toward trying to determine the seriousness of his situation and the capability of his surveillant. A simple test might tell him about whoever was assigned to tail him, if, in fact, it wasn’t all just a ruse. He backed his car out of the driveway, trying to nonchalantly scan the neighborhood for something unusual. The only misplaced object he noticed was a small gray car parked nearby, but it could easily have been one of the many robotic delivery cars that plied the streets.

As he started down the street, the small gray car came to life and start to follow him. When he stopped, it also stopped. When he moved, it waited a discrete time and then followed. Elliott was amused by the antics of his robotic shadow. It had clearly been programmed to follow him and probably report his comings and goings to some central computer. He drove around the block and returned to his driveway. The little gray car politely returned to its spot. He knew that he would have no trouble evading this spy at the desired time. If this was the best COPE could do, he could safely ignore them until they tired of his mundane brand of anarchy and went home.

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

Bad News

 

After Sherwood’s visit, the remainder of Guinda’s morning seemed as muddled as the whirls and shadows of blue-gray smoke through which Sherwood had launched his monologue. The smoke captivated that memory nearly as much as the face and the words. When she closed her eyes, though, the smoke would dissipate so the whole experience could recur. As she replayed vignettes of Sherwood’s monologue in her mind, her confusion would swell, then ebb, then swell again.

She recalled lying on the grass in her back yard on a summer evening with her best friend, Geena. They mingled their thoughts, fears, and fantasies in the darkness as adolescents had for a million dreams. The chilled northern sky would capture first their eyes, then their minds, and finally their hopes. They would imagine themselves standing on some distant heavenly body, looking down on the earth, and understanding life in a way denied to those cloaked in its folds. Such insight was granted to only the select, and Guinda and Geena vowed that this night would forever bind them. Then a billowy castle cloud would sail between them and that sphere of mystery below, and the revealed secrets of life would be replaced once more with new twists of old riddles. Their séance would carry them far into the night, ending in layers of silence.

The revelations Sherwood made about the Media Summit and its role in the rebirth of America were new concepts, disturbing concepts. She had studied political science for years at the university and had never encountered these facts, if they were facts. The modern form of the political process had been taught as a natural evolution, driven by technology and voter maturation. Never before had she encountered a culpable media, and he used a word foreign to her lexicon—infotainment. Was this a new riddle or an answer to an old one?

She thought back to her master’s thesis, “Dynamic Functional Initiatives and their Effect on Voter Base Preferences Resulting from Parallel Incremental Contingencies.” She had spent countless hours researching the most obscure records and scouring the literature. But here was a new wave history, an unauthorized view of political evolution. Her thoughts wandered about that period of her life. Her attention quickly focused on the central figure of her graduate-school experience.

Guinda’s thesis advisor had been there every time she needed help interpreting some obscure bit of information or making sense of conflicting statistics. The word anarchist never even appeared in her thesis, and anarchy was not an issue in any of her courses. Yet, in the world she now found herself, there seemed to be some unmatched struggle going on between the establishment and the anarchists.

The time seemed right to lean on her ex-professor to help understand this new phenomenon. Since they had stayed in occasional contact over the few years since Guinda left, it was perfectly natural for Guinda to ask her mentor’s advice about this.

The professor’s phone rang twice and was answered, “Good morning, political science.”

“Good morning, may I speak to Professor Halvorsen, please?”

“I’m sorry, but Professor Halvorsen is no longer with the University. Is there someone else in the department who can help you?” the voice responded.

“Terry, is that you?” Guinda asked.

“Yes.”

“This is Guin Burns.”

“Guin, how are you? We miss you around here.”

“I’m just fine. How’s everything around poli-sci?”

Terry answered, “I guess you haven’t heard about Terra.”

“No, and I’m really surprised she left. Where did she go?”

“She didn’t go anywhere. She’s dead.”

Guinda stopped cold, unable to respond. “She died a few days ago. I’m just in the process of putting together a little memorial newsletter. You’ll probably receive yours soon.”

“What happened, Terry?”

“We aren’t quite sure, but it looks like murder. She was killed by a lethal injection, and the FBI has taken over the investigation. They won’t let the local police get involved. They say it had something to do with some kind of international espionage.”

“What!” Guinda said. “That’s absolutely ridiculous!”

“I know, Guin. I think so too. We were all so stunned by it. You just can’t imagine how it has upset some of the people around here.”

Guinda composed herself and asked, “Have they caught whoever did it?”

“That’s one of the strange parts. The FBI just said that there were no DNA prints of any kind left behind, and then they said, ‘No more comment’. Whoever or whatever did it was extremely professional and seems to have vanished without a clue. It seems really odd to us that there could be no trail, but that’s what the investigation shows so far.”

“How is TJ taking it?” Guinda asked.

“I saw him at her memorial service, but I didn’t talk to him. Did you know their relationship was off? That happened several months ago. Terra seemed isolated lately.”

“I knew there was some tension between Terra and some upper levels of the University,” Guinda said. “She seemed highly thought of, but I never knew for sure what was going on.”

“There were some at the University who claimed she was jeopardizing a lot of research funds with her investigations of some of the candidates. The story I heard was that she found out some things that were a little strange, and the Dean of Liberal Arts Research suggested she find more-useful ways to spend her time. Terra, of course, was very stubborn about it, and wasn’t about to be intimidated by the head shed and their funding problems. This is all just scuttlebutt. I don’t think anything ever went onto paper. But there were some bad feelings.”

“Did Terra ever document any of her findings?” Guinda asked.

“I don’t think so. I cruised through her files after she died to make sure the Department had a copy of anything important. I didn’t find anything about any candidates.”

“Do you know if anyone ever called her an anarchist?”

Terry thought for a minute and then said, “No, I can’t recall anything like that?”

A few more minutes of memorial exchange transpired before the conversation ended.

Guinda walked around her office, first to the window, then to her desk, then back to the window. Her mind was filled with conjecture. She finally sat on the edge of her desk and considered all the puzzle pieces before her. Not even one edge was completed; but if she once finished all four edges, she knew she would be drawn into the center. The size and complexity of the puzzle intrigued her. She couldn’t resist holding each piece in her hand, rotating it, measuring its fit. And there were all those pieces in the box, a box tightly covered by an unprinted lid. Dare she remove the lid?

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

Files

 

Saturday morning found Guinda at home, but this wasn’t a day for relaxing. She rummaged through her electronic notebook from graduate school for a specific piece of data. She hoped this web address would help unlock some of the mystery surrounding Terra Halvorsen’s death and give her some insight into the mysteries of COPE.

After a few minutes, the number appeared. Guinda jotted it down along with the word following it. It was a password into a special computer account that the University maintained for a number of professors doing research at facilities remote from the University. The account was with a private computer networking company, and it allowed a faculty member at some location off campus to access a computer network for collection and storage of data without entering the University network. It was a security issue for the University to limit access to the campus network while still providing a computer network for its off-site research faculty.

Few faculty members used this service because of the hassle of maintaining two separate systems of computer files, but Terra had looked at it differently. To her, it was an opportunity to isolate her files from the University. In fact, she did most of her work on the private network and kept a modest collection of files on the University network, more for appearance than for function.

When Guinda worked for Terra as a graduate assistant and thesis student, she’d become familiar with Terra’s system and had used it frequently herself. She felt there was a good chance that Terra’s account would still be active since it was probably paid for annually or semiannually. It was certainly worth a try. She entered the address at her computer, and the display immediately responded with: WELCOME TO LEASNET. PLEASE ENTER YOUR USER NAME.

Guinda responded with: HALVORSEN.

The computer responded: PLEASE ENTER YOUR PASSWORD.

Guinda replied: TJESSEH

Her display responded: INVALID LOGIN.

Okay. She changed her password. Not surprising. Let’s see, what is her other nephew’s name? … Richard … she always called him Ricky … or was it Richy? Well, here goes one. Terra always bracketed some word with her initials for a password. Guinda entered: TRICHYH.

INVALID LOGIN.

She tried: TRICKYH

INVALID LOGIN.

Then she tried: TRICHARDH

INVALID LOGIN.

Let’s see. What else might she use for … her cat. That’s it.

She entered: TSAMANTHAH.

WELCOME TO LEASNET, PROFESSOR HALVORSEN. YOUR LAST LOGIN WAS 3:45:26 PM; JULY 21, 2048. PLEASE MAKE A SELECTION FROM ANY MENU.

What’s going on? That was just yesterday. Who else has been nosing around in here? She selected LAST TRANSACTION from the menu.

LAST TRANSACTION WAS 3:45:26 PM; JULY 21, 2048.

NO FILES WERE ADDED OR MODIFIED.

14 FILES WERE DELETED.

0 FILES REMAIN.

DO YOU WISH A LIST OF THE FILES DELETED?

Rats! All the files are gone. Somebody beat me to it by just one day. She entered: YES.

11 FILES DELETED:

ARIS

CANDIDATE 1

CANDIDATE 2

CANDIDATE 3

GAMES 42

GAMES 44

GAMES 46

GAMES 48

HOLO/ANIMATION

HOLO/BLOCKBUSTER

XBLOCKBUSTER

Guinda tried to open several files, but was never surprised by the computer’s response: THAT FILE HAS BEEN DELETED.

Guinda logged off in despair. Someone had beaten her to it by only 18 hours, but who? Was it someone like her, searching for truth? Or was it someone suppressing truth?

The blank computer screen mesmerized her. It was a luminous atonal poem that sterilized her thoughts. But a puzzle piece emerged from the blur. One moment she was transfixed by the electronic blizzard; and the next, she pondered a puzzle piece, then another, and another. She knew COPE was related to Terra’s death and Elliott’s surveillance. She was stuck. The pieces wouldn’t stay together.

Her gaze wandered from the computer screen to the nearby phone. There was no one she could turn to for advice now except … Could Elliott help? Could she trust him? If Sherwood feared him, maybe he was okay.

The sound of her phone startled her. She tried to ignore it, but it begged like a child whining. She looked at its answer icon, making the connection. “Hello.”

“Good morning,” replied a gentle voice. “Is this Guinda?”

“Yes.”

“This is Elliott Townsend. How are you this morning?”

“Where are you calling from?” Guinda asked nervously.

“Don’t worry. I wasn’t followed, and they can’t tap my call. That little robotic car they put on my tail doesn’t do well on sidewalks and stairs. I just cut down a sidewalk between houses with my bike, went up a flight of stairs to the EL level on University Avenue, and biked over to my old office here at the Lab. They let me have the use of it for a year, for transition they said. So I thought today was a good time for transitioning.”

“You wouldn’t believe what’s going on! My old professor has been murdered, and I think COPE had something to do with it. I don’t know what to do next.”

“If we put our heads together, we might be able to figure something out.”

“Don’t take COPE too lightly, Elliott.”

“Their surveillance car couldn’t follow me.”

“There’s more to COPE than surveillance,” she said. “They have spiders—killer spiders.”

A long pause followed. “Yeah, I’ve heard of them.” Another pause followed as Guinda’s hard swallow came over the line. “But I’m just a nobody, Guin.”

“You’re somebody to COPE—and Sherwood. I’ll tell you about him, but just be careful. I don’t think Terra was careful enough.”

“Terra Halvorsen?”

“You knew her?”

“Sort of. Guess I need to look out for spiders, too.”

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Feelings

 

Guinda checked her front door display and opened the door.

Her eyes met his in silence. Elliott was the first to speak. “I’m so sorry about your professor. It must have been a terrible shock to you. I knew of her through my daughter, and I read about her death in the paper.”

“She and I seemed to understand each other,” Guinda said. “We liked each other. Maybe it was more respect than anything else. But I’m afraid that what happened to Terra may be just the tip of a much bigger iceberg.”

“I’ll help you any way I can, Guin.”

“You know, that’s what’s so funny. I hardly know you, and we come from two worlds that could hardly be more different.”

“And I’m old enough to be your grandfather.”

“Yes, that too. And yet, here I am talking to you about this. Do you understand how that can be?”

“You know, there’s so little I understand anymore. Maybe you’re coming to the wrong person for help.”

“I hope not.” A long, uneasy silence followed.

“Let’s sit down, and you can fill me in,” Elliott suggested.

Over the next few minutes, Guinda told Elliott all about her discussions with Sherwood, about the death of Halvorsen, and about her experience with the computer files. She expressed her frustration about the present situation and her uncertainty about a course of action.

“It’s kind of coincidental that our paths came close to each other. I’ve met Sherwood, at least the guy I met sounds like him, and I too tried to retrieve Terra’s files, but on her computer in her office. There was nothing there. It sounds like you might have come closer to pay dirt though.”

“But the files I found were all deleted. They’re no good at all to us.”

“Maybe I can at least help you with that problem,” Elliott said. “Those files that were deleted may not be gone after all. When a file is deleted from a computer, it doesn’t necessarily erase what is there. It merely makes that part of the computer’s memory available for another file to be written over it. There are utility programs that can access those memory locations where the deleted files were stored and, if they haven’t been written over yet, you may be able to retrieve them.”

“You mean if we can get there before somebody else puts something else in its place, we may be able to get it back?”

“That’s the idea, so let’s get started. There’s a chance we can do it since the files were deleted only yesterday, and this is a weekend.”

Guinda got them back into the Leasnet system, and then Elliott took over. He investigated several menus to find the proper application to do the job, but he was unsuccessful.

“It was a good idea,” Guinda said despondently, “but I guess they just don’t have the right software.”

“Not so fast. I know we have the software at the lab. I’ll just upload a copy to Leasnet.”

Elliott worked the menus and the keyboard for a while, and the next thing they knew, they had the message: PLEASE SELECT THE FILES YOU WISH TO RETRIEVE.

They selected all 11 files, and the computer responded: 7 OF THE 11 FILES ARE 100% INTACT, 4 ARE PARTIALLY INTACT. WHICH ONES DO YOU WISH TO SAVE?

They responded: ALL.

The computer replied: ALL 11 FILES AND PARTIAL FILES SAVED.

“Fantastic!” shouted Guinda. “You’re a genius!”

“Well, I’m not exactly a genius, but it did work out pretty well,” Elliott said with some pride. “We aren’t quite done yet. Now we need to get these files transferred here.”

“Why don’t we just read them where they are?” questioned Guinda.

“There are a couple of problems with that. The most important reason is that we’ve changed the configuration of the database by rewriting those files. Suppose whoever deleted them checks back for some reason and sees them back in the system? It would be obvious that someone has been into the database, and there’s probably a trail that leads right to you. The best thing is to delete the files again as soon as possible, and there’s no better time than now.”

“Okay, I should have plenty of storage left in my cube for that stuff. Let’s do it.”

Elliott proceeded to download all the files to Guinda’s computer. Then with them safely in residence in their new home, he deleted them from Leasnet. Next, he uploaded them to his computer at the lab so there would be another copy for safety. The only thing left to do was to wade through the files looking for anything interesting or incriminating.

The next few hours were spent looking over each other’s shoulders at page after page of occasionally interesting, but usually totally boring, text and pictures. ARIS was nothing more than a collection of dozens of papers relating in general to the modern political process. CANDIDATE 1 and CANDIDATE 2 were collages of vitae and other biographical data about dozens of candidates for political office. They searched in vain for earth shaking political dirt but found only the usual. Little was news, and none was interesting. They decided that CANDIDATE 3 was probably more of the same and just skimmed it.

It became clear that this marathon session had to end. It was now late afternoon, and they had searched only four of the fourteen files. So far, none of it contained anything written by Halvorsen, nor was there any personal correspondence with her. It was nothing more than what a zealous student would have uncovered in a library search. This was not the stuff of great intrigue. Neither of them could take any more of the political trivia for a while.

“We need a brake, Elliott. This stuff looks like it could go on forever.”

“I never thought being a detective could be so boring,” Elliott admitted. “I wonder why Halvorsen saved all this junk.”

“I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that she didn’t do things for nothing. She was an extremely orderly and fastidious woman. If it hadn’t been for her wisdom and encouragement, I would have never finished my thesis. She was pretty incredible.”

“It’s good that you had someone like her to help you,” Elliott said. “A lot of professors in grad school are so focused on research they lose track of their responsibility to their students. It sounds like you had a pretty good experience in college.”

“Well, I have to admit that Terra was unique in that respect. She wasn’t even my thesis advisor, but she worked with me as if she were. My actual advisor was a guy named Joe Geper. He was the department chairman at the time. He lived in his own little world and didn’t seem to understand why I was hanging around there. One time I thought I’d go to see him about something, I forget what the problem was anymore. But anyway, I walked up to his office door, which he always kept shut, and knocked, and nothing happened, and knocked again, and I finally started to walk away because I figured he wasn’t in. I got a couple of steps away, and I heard this, ‘Yeeees?’ and so I went back and opened the door. He was sitting behind his desk peering at me through his bifocals with his feet propped up and some journal open on his lap. I was sure I woke him up, but I proceeded to tell him about this problem and asked his advice.

“After listening politely to me, he put his journal on the desk and stood up. ‘You know, Greta,’ he said, ‘It’s neither fish nor fowl.’ He walked toward me scratching one of his chins. ‘It’s neither fish nor fowl.’

“I stood still and looked down at him. He shuffled past me to the outer office and stopped and scanned every direction looking for something. He said, ‘Now where is my cup? I know it’s here somewhere.’ He stumbled around the place for a while looking everywhere. Then he walked out into the hallway, turned left, and dragged himself down hall still muttering, ‘I know it’s somewhere. I know it’s somewhere.’ That was the last time I ever spoke to him. I finished my thesis with Halvorsen’s help, and I graduated, and he never even spoke to me again, and I sure as heck didn’t want to talk to him. So that was the extent of my relationship with my thesis advisor.”

“But he was right, wasn’t he?” Elliott replied with a grin.

“What do you mean?”

“It really was neither fish nor fowl,” Elliott jibed.

Guinda laughed. “Yeah, he had that right on.” Guinda stood up and stretched, nearly popping the buttons on her blouse. Elliott gulped and lost his train of thought. “How about something to eat?” She walked toward the kitchen, and Elliott followed her with his eyes.

“Sounds good to me. I can go out and get some sushi or something,” Elliott offered.

“You like sushi, too? Fantastic! I love it. How about if we make some right here? I don’t have any fish—or fowl—but I think I’ve got all the makings for some damn good sushi. What do you think?”

“Let’s do it,” Elliott responded enthusiastically.

Guinda rummaged through the refrigerator and came up with an arm full of ingredients. “Here’s some cream cheese, and an avo, and some left over asparagus, and a tomato. And here’s even a package of seaweed.”

“You’ve got a better stocked refrigerator than I do. We’d have to be satisfied with a cheddar cheese and bean sushi wrapped in lettuce at my house. Our Japanese cook grew up south of the border,” Elliott joked.

“I’m flexible. Could be an orgasmic experience,” Guinda joked in return. “How about a beer while we’re rustling up this grub? When you said south of the border, that reminded me I have some Tecates in there.”

“Great idea! Thought you’d never ask. Here, let me get the beer going. Looks like you’ve got your hands full with the rice.” Elliott poured two glasses of Tecate and presented one to Guinda. “Here’s to Terra Halvorsen, Guin. She must have been a very special person.”

“She was. … She was unique. … But I seem to have an affinity for unique people.”

“How’s that?”

“You’re a pretty unique person, too. I’ve never met anyone like you before. And it’s been years since I met anybody who blushes! … In some ways, you and Terra are much alike.”

“Was she old, too?” Elliott asked with a laugh.

“My Aunt Germaine told me, ‘You’re only as old as you feel,’ and if you feel as old as you act, then you’re just a kid inside.”

“Well, I haven’t looked at my insides lately, but the outside of me doesn’t play with marbles anymore.”

“I see the way you zip around on that bike. You can’t be very old if you do that.”

“The only reason I ride a bike is that I can’t pass the driving test anymore. The last time I went down there to get my license renewed, they took one look at me, tore up my license, and told me I was lucky that I could still put one foot in front of the other. I told them if they gave me my license back, I’d promise to only use it for ID when I wanted to buy beer. But that didn’t work, so here I am peddling around town on a bike.”

“I think you’re in pretty darn good shape for however old you claim to be.”

“Thank you, Guin, and I can say the same about you.”

“You can’t make me blush by telling me I’m in good shape. I know I’ve got a great body, but I lack … maturity,” she said as she laughed and dragged out the word maturity throwing her head back and accentuating one breast dramatically.

“That’s okay, I think I’ve got us both covered on that score. With my maturity and your body, we make a great pair.”

The rice and the veggies were soon ready, and they began rolling sushi, making bets on whose sushi would hold together the best.

“COPE says you’re dangerous. Sherwood says you’re an anarchist. He thinks you may be planning something.”

“I guess it all depends on your point of view, Guin. I’ve never considered myself dangerous, but my point of view is certainly uncommon enough these days that somebody entrenched in the establishment might view me as dangerous. As for anarchy, I have to plead ignorance on that one. I don’t know what this Sherwood guy means by that, but according to my understanding of the word, I wouldn’t call myself an anarchist. I believe in a strong constitution, but where I probably differ from Sherwood is that I believe in following the one we’ve got rather than inventing a new one just to suit my own purposes. My biggest sin is that I’m old fashioned, which used to be okay but now is illegal … or at least, unhealthy. I really can’t understand why I’m so important to this guy. I haven’t done anything, and I’m nobody. It sounds like Terra was a low profile person, too. I wonder if we’ll ever figure out why they got to her.”

“I don’t know, but it upsets me that it may be our own government behind all this stuff.”

“You’ve been working for CBS for two years now, haven’t you? Haven’t there been any other unusual things going on?”

“Please don’t take this the wrong way, Ted, but before you walked into my office the other day, I was totally in love with my job. I only had to deal with those moguls at the regional office about once a month, and even that wasn’t so bad until that creep, Sherwood, showed up a little while ago. And I can even tolerate him, except in person. I never had any of this cloak and dagger stuff to deal with until Sherwood got on your case. It’s been really exciting dealing with the University and the students and getting the political candidates to come and make appearances. What I’m seeing now is that there’s a whole other side to this politics business that I didn’t even know about.”

“And now that you’ve seen both sides, what do you think?” asked Elliott.

“But that’s the whole problem. I haven’t really seen both sides. I don’t know what I’ve seen. It’s confusing as hell. And then you come along with your new ideas.”

“But my ideas aren’t new, Guin. Yours are the new ones. I’m the dinosaur.”

“Well, they’re sure different from what I know and all the things I grew up with. I really felt good about what I’ve been doing and my role at CBS and the candidates I work for. And now, all of the sudden, there’s you and Sherwood and Terra and her secret files and anarchists and surveillance. What am I supposed to make of all that?”

“I wish I could help you understand,” Elliott said with a sigh, “but I’m even more on the outside than you are. I’ve isolated myself from all this nonsense for more years than you’ve even been alive. I wasn’t joking about being a dinosaur. I roamed the planet in prehistoric days when things were a whole lot different. I guess that’s why COPE feels threatened by us dinosaurs, because we’re not quite extinct yet.”

“You know, Ted, you still owe me the end of your science-fair story.”

Elliott stirred some wasabi into his soy sauce in silence. “I’ve never told this story to anyone. I hoped I’d forget it with time, but I remember every single detail … as much as I tried to forget. I’ve always hoped the people who witnessed my … disintegration, didn’t have as good a memory as mine. But I think the people who mean the most to me are cursed with quite excellent memories.”

Picking up a sushi roll delicately between two chopsticks, his gaze rose across the counter to meet Guinda’s. There was true fear in his eyes as he said, “Okay.” He began.

 

  • * *

 

The day of the science fair finally arrived. On that one weekend each year, the screeches, laughter, and tears of the pursuers of round balls yielded to the screeches, laughter, and tears of the pursuers of scientific truth. Friday evening was reserved for the setup of the displays. Then Saturday morning would bring the judges to scrutinize each entry and rank it among Trumpet’s finest young scientists.

When the Townsends brought Susie’s material into the gymnasium that Friday night, the setup had already been well choreographed. Luke knew exactly how the Legos were supposed to be arranged, in fact he was the one who had suggested using them. The tabletop display with its artistically arranged materials nestled in their appropriate places was his personal contribution. Every time Susie or Martha would rearrange his display, they were met with Luke’s retribution whereupon he would reinstate its correct order.

Elliott stood back and contributed pride. The Townsend crew worked like a well-oiled machine and was completed before many others could even choose a leader, which was usually done by attrition.

Bobby Schneider’s booth was next to Susie’s. He was a seventh grader with an engineering project consisting of a plastic model of a 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 with a sign “This is how cars used to be made” and a model of a new Jaguar with its sign “This is how cars are made today.”

Bobby’s sister knocked the Jaguar off the table, breaking off a fender and a bumper. Bobby responded by pushing her into another project, a homemade liquid-crystal computer display, which tumbled to the floor ripping off electrical contacts. Gloria Falquist was a little upset at seeing her work treated so rudely and with one swat of her vengeful arm, sent Bobby’s engineering triumphs careening across the floor.

The Ford survived with minor scratches. The Jag was totaled. It had become a one-wheeled convertible without a windshield or a hood. Bobby included no conclusions, but the message seemed clear: hang on to your old Ford.

The levity surrounding the science fair was soon to end. Tomorrow morning was judgment day, and there was more than a pair of skis riding on its outcome.

The judges worked from 8 AM until noon reading abstracts, notebooks, and conclusions of the 88 entries and examining piles of gear. As in earlier years, environmental science was the most popular entry. At exactly noon, Ms. Dobbs opened the doors of the gym and invited the anxious participants to enter. Susie was, of course, near the front of the line and pushed passed several other kids to race to her booth. The rest of the Townsends were quite a ways back, and only Luke broke and ran when he got through the door. He ran up behind Susie, tugged on her right sleeve, and shouted, “Ok, Otter, what color skis you gonna pick?”

Susie shook him off with such violence that he fell to the floor.

“What’d you do that for?” he yelled. But by the time he regained his feet, she was gone. He looked around and could only see children dancing and hopping about with blue, red, and green ribbons and their parents beginning to filter in. The noise approached the pain threshold in every direction but was especially loud two booths down where an eighth grader, Melissa Macon, was shouting for her parents to hurry up as she waved to them with a blue ribbon and a white ribbon. Elliott and Martha finally arrived and stood beside Luke.

“Is that the best prize, Daddy? Is that what that means?”

“No, Luke, that’s not what Honorable Mention means,” Martha said. “Maybe your father could explain to you what it means.”

“Well, Daddy, is it better than first prize? What does it mean?”

“It … ah … means … it’s the prize they give you if they don’t want to hurt your feelings. … The judges didn’t think it was any good. … Dobbs didn’t think it was any good.”

Elliott slowly reached for the three evaluation forms. The one on top was from N. Mayfield. Under the comments section it simply said, “Good job.”

The next evaluation comment was from R. Rock and said, “Nice display.”

The last form bore the name S. Dobbs and read, “This project is devoid of the human qualities that mark the environmental sciences and direct the cause of enlightened human ecology as we evolve from the unconscionable state of technology expansionism to the state of perfect environmental harmony.”

“That goddamned bitch!” Elliott whispered. “That goddamned bitch!”

“I feel terrible about this,” whined Martha. “I feel like it’s all my fault.” Elliott looked up with surprise to meet her gaze. “About a week ago, Susie asked if she could trust you because you told her to use her data the way it is and not worry about some other kind of truth or something. I told her that you’re the scientist and you should know more about this kind of thing than either of us. If I’d just kept my mouth shut, she probably would have gotten the right answer.”

“Daddy, did you know Susie was going to lose? I thought you were helping her so she’d win.”

“Well, Dr. Townsend,” Martha’s icy words broke against Elliott in stormy waves, “what do you have to say?”

But Elliott was no longer listening. He began walking around the science fair with a mission. On the next aisle, he found the seventh-grade first prize, a model of a short section of DNA by Sally Mipps. A pretty blonde girl posed before it for a photo with her blue ribbon. “Jesus! Goldilocks plays with her tinker toys and wins a prize,” he said to himself but loudly enough so the man behind the camera suddenly rose above it and followed Elliott with his eyes.

Elliott trudged down the isle again, stares and disbelief retreating from his stern. His own eyes darted from side to side, searching every booth, inspecting each project for the telltale symbol of triumph. “Ah, here’s another blue ribbon,” he said pushing aside several excited people to gain access to the front row. Before him was the fifth grade first prize, a hastily colored time line of the last hundred years chronicling many of the species that had become extinct during that period. At the far right of the time line, the young prophet questioned, “When will Homos Apiens become extinct????”

Elliott leaned over to Charlie Ringwood and said, “I’ll bet your boy spent a lot of time on this project last night. It shows!” Charlie’s smile evaporated as Elliott pushed away to continue his search, muttering as he left, “Christ, he must be sleeping with Dobbs.”

As Elliott continued along the aisles overflowing with smiles and flashes, drops of sweat formed and fell from his nose. His eyes became frantic and squinted as he zigzagged his way down each aisle, pausing only enough to check out the ribbon on each exhibit, leaving a trail of jostled people behind him. The people he encountered had no faces, no names. He was as ignorant of the feelings in his wake as he was of his constant mutterings. He stopped a couple of times to reread the Dobbs comment he clutched in his left hand. “This project is devoid of the human qualities—”

“Who the hell is she?” he muttered, bumping into the faceless Mr. Compton, who tried to ignore the intrusion as he resumed a conversation with the chairman of the school board. “This is all bullshit, not science. Doesn’t Dobbs know the difference between bullshit and science?”

He rounded the corner of the last aisle and came face to face with Richie Stevens, who was ecstatic about winning the first prize for the sixth grade. He elbowed Richie aside to gain his position in front of a neatly executed geologic cross section of the valley beneath the city. The various strata were represented by different colored sands in a plastic case that must have spent its earlier life as an ant farm. “So, Mr. Stevens plays in a sand box and wins a blue ribbon. You must be very proud of your sandbox, Richie,” Elliott said to the young boy as his mother pulled her son aside, whispering something in his ear. Then Elliott asked him with a grin, “Check it for cat shit?”

Before the several shocked looks could register on him, he was gone. He continued his serpentine walk down that last aisle, still not finding what he was searching for. As he walked blindly around the corner of that last aisle, he heard a crunch under his left foot. He picked up the broken plastic pieces and put them together in his hands. Looks like the hood of a model car, he thought. “Wonder if this is from the grand prize winner.”

Elliott dropped the pieces and began a march back toward the Townsend green ribbon. As he rounded the corner of that aisle, he noticed a crowd around a display near the now-deserted Susie Townsend booth. He pushed to the front and stood before the newly dedicated shrine of science at Trumpet Elementary, the grand prizewinner. Large letters across the top proclaimed “Our Environment—A Critical Overview.” On the center billboard was a collage of glossy pictures clipped from expensive magazines depicting a broad range of “environmental horrors.” A picture of a garbage dump featured a plastic shopping bag blowing in an otherwise unsullied breeze and the caption “plastic packaging defiles our landfills.” Another photo showed brown water streaming out of a pipe into a mucky river with the caption “industry desecrates our rivers and streams.” A picture of a high-rise condominium complex was accompanied by “developers destroy our wetlands.”

Elliott stood motionless except for the heaving of his chest, which coincided, with the uncontrolled sounds of his labored breathing. He looked to the right and saw a blue ribbon for first prize in the eighth grade. Partially covering that was another ribbon, this one as white as the fur of the endangered harp seal pup. Its golden center proclaimed “Best of Fair.” By now, Melissa Macon had moved away from him at the request of Ms. Dobbs.

Elliott’s hand trembled as he reached for the evaluation sheets. The one on top was signed by S. Dobbs. Its comment section was filled with perfectly formed letters: “Environmental science studies the relationship between humans and the earth on which we reside. It relates to how we treat the earth and how we heed the cries of its inhabitants. In it, we consider our errors and how we can rehabilitate a planet all but destroyed in our reckless plunder of the very resources on which we depend. This excellent project embodies the very soul of those principles and should be a guide for those students who follow.”

“Can I help you, Mr. Townsend?” came the unheard question from Ms. Dobbs.

He looked up at the display and he saw process-control flow-charts for a state-of-the-art recycling plant. Blinking and refocusing, the flow charts became a picture of a nuclear power plant. He glanced to one side and saw a detailed energy analysis of the glass bottle cycle, which evolved, with his eye massage into a picture of an enormous tree half way between towering into the forest canopy and its final submission to the chain saw.

“Mr. Townsend, can I help you find you daughter’s exhibit? … Mr. Townsend! You appear to be lost, and we would like very much to help you locate young Ms. Townsend’s booth so we can finish taking our pictures here for the year book.” Ms. Dobbs took Elliott’s arm to move him away from the prize-winning display.

Elliott turned with a snap toward the voice. “What?”

“I said, we are trying to take some more pictures here and—”

Elliott looked down at the evaluation sheet in his hand. He slowly began to crumble it.

“Mr. Townsend, that is not your property!” Ms. Dobbs ripped half of it from his hand. “Now look what …”

“You bitch,” he said in a controlled voice.

The group went instantly silent as Elliott and Dobbs faced each other. Dobbs was the first to react. “If all you can do is—”

“Do you call this hype, science? Look at it, Dobbs!” His voice rose in frenzied swells. “It’s nothing but bullshit! Show me the science!”

“Look, Townsend, if—”

“This whole show is bullshit, Dobbs! My girl worked for months to compete with bullshit. Why didn’t you just call it a bullshit fair? You don’t know what science is!”

By now, Mr. Compton and two of the larger faculty had arrived. Martha and Luke also arrived with Susie. Their mouths gaped as three men hustled Elliott toward the door. Nearly the entire assemblage of the science fair convened around the scene. As the eruption reached its climax, every pair of eyes attended the small posse shuffling away from the grand prizewinner.

Melissa stood flanked by her mother on one side, holding her hand, and by her science teacher on her other side. Dobbs, however, played no part in the consolation. Her attention fixed on Elliott Townsend as he approached his final exit from Trumpet Elementary. She published compassion with her hands, one expressively encased in the other, and with the erectness of her body, stern but sensitive.

But her eyes told a different story. They gleamed with the grandeur of a full moon. They sparkled full, bright, and zealous. Her cheeks could not disobey the subtle commands of her eyes as they stretched upward delicately. Even her lips responded like the tide lifted by a distant moon. Ms. Dobbs experienced a euphoria that she skillfully concealed, but for her eyes. Her eyes revealed a story of triumph and vindication.

No one could read that message, however, because every eye was fixed on Elliott, every eye but his own. Just as Mr. Macon heroically opened the door, Elliott wrenched one arm free and swung about to face Dobbs. He alone looked into her eyes for an eternal moment. And her look penetrated him. His protest evaporated and an odor of defeat rose from him. His captors smelled victory and thrust their victim out. They slammed the door shut.

When Elliott finally returned home, he faced a sullen, silent front. He scanned the faces, busy with make work tasks, closed to him. Luke studied a book with artificial attention. Martha scrubbed sparkling china.

“Where’s Susie?” Elliott asked.

“In her room,” came the cold response from Luke as he rose to leave the living room. As he walked past his father, Elliott put his hand on his shoulder. “Snake,” he whispered. Luke twisted sideways, and Elliott’s hand grasped only air as Luke continued to his room and closed the door with a click.

Martha interrupted his silent stance. “We got a ride home with the Beldens.”

Elliott reached into his left pocket. “Oh. I have the keys here.”

“Lucky for us, Susie had a house key.”

“Yeah, I guess I better get the car,” Elliott said softly.

“That would be nice.”

Elliott approached Martha and touched her. “I’m sorry, Marty. I’m sorry.”

Without turning or even slowing her incessant scrubbing, she responded in a guttural tone, “Don’t you dare touch me. Don’t you ever touch me again.”

Elliott inhaled the vengeance and repelled. An Arctic blast buried his retreating hand as her toxin infected his body and capsized his spirit. He trembled at the finality of her passion. Without realizing how, he found himself standing outside Susie’s room. His hand knocked gently, received no response, then reached for the doorknob. Susie’s room was dimly lit by the darkening sky. A figure in dirty running shoes lay in a ball on the bed.

“Susie? … Susie? … I just …”

The figure rose halfway. “How …” she sobbed. “How could you do that?”

“I … I don’t know what to say, Susie. I’m—”

“Just get out of here! I don’t want to ever talk to you again!” She picked up something on her bed and threw it. It hit Elliott and fell to the floor. Susie rejoined her pillow. Elliott picked up her science-fair notebook.

In his hands he held the tear-stained results of her exhausting labor. The pages sang to him with the hours that he’d spent with his young protégé. Elliott recalled when he’d given the notebook to Susie and explained the importance of keeping a detailed account of her activity. He replayed that day and others as he fondled the notebook. Elliott dropped the book and his daughter’s career on the corner of the bed and left the room.

The next day, Elliott said he was way behind on a project at the Lab and spent the whole Sunday there. It became increasingly common for him to not return home until after the children had gone to bed. After a while, the Lab became his sanctuary, and he embraced it. His old family seemed to thrive in his absence. His work became increasingly exciting as he immersed himself more deeply into the projects. Year after year, he provided the Lab with a fertile imagination and boundless energy and enthusiasm. It provided him with a caring family, a responsive receptacle for his devotion.

 

  • * *

 

Elliott sat on the bar stool, motionless except for the figures he traced in the soy sauce. Guinda now stood beside him, drawing him close, feeling the warm tears through her blouse. Neither said anything. Neither moved, save for the subtle motion of sobs beside her.

“That’s what happened in 2010,” he finally said.

“You had a mental breakdown. It happens a lot. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Straightening up and pushing a sushi roll across his plate, he said, “It wasn’t a breakdown. It was a tantrum. I was thirty-four, had a Ph.D., was a respected member of the community with a wonderful family. I irrevocably disgraced myself and that family. And I’ve been running from that all my life.”

“You’ll feel better now, Ted, now that you’ve let it out. It can’t hurt you any more now that it’s outside.”

“If only that were true, Guinda. But the truth is, I’d give anything now for you not to know that about me. I could hide behind my Nobel Prize and all that before, but now you know who I really am. Now you’re like Susie and Luke and Martha, just another face I need to beg forgiveness from.”

“Why would you need forgiveness from me? I’m just …”

Elliott studied the soy sauce. Guinda studied Elliott.

Finally she said, “Did Susie really forsake science after that?”

“No. I guess even a raving lunatic of a father couldn’t snuff that fire out. She became a computer scientist and has been very successful designing advanced neural-networks.”

“She was able to look past her father’s limitations and measure you on a more enduring scale. How about Luke?”

“He followed in her footsteps, but he’s concentrating on the development of DNA-based computers at the University of Dayton. He’s on sabbatical in Japan right now.”

“So he, too, was able to pick out his father’s best qualities and not hold a single event against you. Are they close to you now?”

“No.”

“Well, it looks like you did a lot more right things than wrong things.”

“I think the biggest right thing I did was leaving them alone after the science fair. I shudder to think what might have happened if I’d influenced them more than I did.”

“You don’t give yourself much credit, Ted. You were probably the biggest influence in their lives. And it was during those important early years. Take it from me. My father was never around. I have absolutely no memory of him. Mom divorced him when I was real little, and I never saw him again after that.”

They and their refreshed Tecates moved to the living room after the sushi disappeared. A glass-wall exposure to the west dazzled him as he deposited the two beers on the glass coffee table. The sun shone a deep crimson as it descended toward its temporary extinction. It seemed to be suspended just outside for their pleasure alone in defiance of Kepler. The table cradled a thick glass top with deeply cut geometric patterns on its underside. The sun’s evening rays refracted their way through that maze of glass prisms, engulfing the room in a mosaic of glints and spectra. The light sought to analyze and expose every detail of those glass furrows, as if they were magnets drawing each photon into their mysterious web of angles by an invisible force and then dispatching it again in a direction prescribed by some timeless canon.

Elliott rotated one of the beer glasses and watched the display change. As he stood pondering the spectacle, Guinda walked in. “If that’s too bright for you, I can just draw the drapes.”

“No. Please don’t. Look how those patterns dance across the wall just by moving these things a little?” He performed a little show for Guinda with the colorful forms doing pirouettes around the walls and ceiling.

“That’s great! I didn’t know you were a performing artist, too,” Guinda giggled.

“I was a goat in our third-grade Christmas pageant. I butted Christine Beste and knocked her into the manger to show her my undying love.”

“I’ll bet she was impressed with that!”

“Yes, I guess impressed is one word,” Elliott continued. “She cut her lip and got blood all over the Christ child. But the worst part was that I had to take the manger home and have my dad fix it that night. And, of course, he asked all the right questions. That put a damper on my show biz career … until the next Christmas, anyway.”

“Did you get into more trouble then?”

“No. The next year I played a bale of straw, and Christine decided to sit that one out, so the whole thing was pretty forgettable.”

“Suppose we sit on the deck instead of in here, Ted.”

After arranging themselves on the glider at one end of the redwood deck overlooking the manicured courtyard below, Elliott said, “You never said much about growing up in Missouri. Did you live in the city? You know, I’m from Missouri, too. I’m a little curious about what it was like there a couple of generations after I left.”

“I guess you could call me a city girl, maybe suburban is a better way to put it. I grew up in a little town but it was all surrounded by other towns, which were also surrounded by other towns. A few of the towns even had downtowns. You could tell when you were downtown because there was usually an old church or an old town hall in among the Holo-Wars and the Century Plazas. In some towns, they’d just have a rock with a brass plate to tell you where the town hall used to be. That way you had more room for the Psych Riders and Virtual Beats and things.

“When you drove around, you’d never know what town you were in except for the sign that would say Ginkgo Heights, Home of Virgin. And then you’d pass another sign that would say Terman, Home of Rod Thumper. I’ve always been proud of coming from the hometown of Long Comma Dick and Extortia. They’re pretty famous, probably end up in Congress.”

“Did you have a favorite hangout?”

Guinda adjusted her long, golden legs across the wicker table top in front of them. Her shorts stretched upward as she sank deeper into the cushion, but no tan line appeared. “Sure, we used to hang out at the Fairway Center a lot. Our favorite place was O’Doul’s Deli. They had this Grindello Special, and if you were good friends of whoever was working there, you could count on an extra dill pickle and a free bag of chips. The owner knew about the freebies, but she didn’t mind.

“She had this big TV in the back room where we used to watch political game shows and talk shows and soaps; and when we’d go home, Mother would have the same things on TV. She said I was really lucky to be surrounded by so many solid, public-spirited influences all those years. When she was a kid, most of the shows were still the old-time ones before they started putting the public figures on them. When she was in high school, she took this course in contemporary women’s issues, and one of her assignments was to demonstrate at the state capitol for that new law that required that at least half of the TV shows feature public figures.

“She told stories about the women’s movement after the turn of the century. She said women were just beginning to appreciate their sexual powers as a strong political force and if women didn’t get into politics when they were young and sexy, they were missing a real opportunity.”

“Is that what you’re trying to do, Guin?”

“Well, I guess that’s been in the back of my mind for a long time now. I’ve kept my body in pretty good shape, and I’ve got some Olympic medals, but I’m 26 now, and it won’t be too long before my breasts start drooping and my nipples get mushy,” she said matter-of-factly, “and then I won’t be worth much in politics.”

“Do you think your breasts are your greatest assets?”

“Sure! Don’t you?”

“Well Guin, I’ll have to admit that your body is pretty exciting.” The blush rose on his face, overcoming the evening shadows. “But it’s not your greatest asset. You’re so much more than an exciting body.”

“Then what is,” she asked, sitting up straight and taking his wrinkled, hairy hand between her soft, smooth hands. “I’d really like to know what your opinion is, Ted.”

“I think it’s your smile. … I think it’s your energy. … But more than anything else, Guin, I think it’s your … your honesty,” he said, responding to her touch. “I admire honesty and guilelessness and sincerity. I don’t see much of it anymore, and you’ve reminded me of the simple beauties I used to know in my youth … like the wind in my hair and the mockingbirds singing in the treetops. I knew a girl like you in another century, on another planet. I’ve replaced all that with equations and quarks for so long, but you’ve reminded me that it’s still alive and that it’s the same now as it was then. It’s me who’s changed. But you’re bringing me back.”

“I can bring even more back to you, Ted.” She stroked his hand and his arm. “Does my body still excite you?”

Elliott gulped and said fearfully, but without hesitation, “Very much.”

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

Martha’s Family

 

Elliott peddled the dimly lit streets with an impotent headlight challenging the obscurity ahead. The beacon could barely sire a shadow. Elliott’s eyes probed the somber light, searching for a course through the confusion. But the greater confusion was one of feelings not shadows, of exhumed passions not exacting passages. His progress was slowed more by a reeling soul than by any unseen peril. Images filled the darkness ahead with laughing teeth, blonde hair falling over bare shoulders, and sanguine nipples pressed between famished lips. The images were alien, impressionistic. They could only be inventions. He had stumbled upon an oasis and feared that his interminable desert had created a mirage conceived in desire.

Maybe Guinda’s forest green dress with the single button undone had transported him to some dream world, a soap opera where that button had been a subtle invitation. In that world, such incidents led to cryptic flirts and double entendre, then to passionate touches seasoned with frenzy. But tonight wasn’t like that—was it? Could it have been real? And kissing Guinda had not been the harbinger of something greater. It was one with what followed, an essential element of passion. One flowed into the other like dew condensing from a summer fog.

Would reality deny him this? He and Guinda were separated by chasms of reality.

Tonight, however, he had become a dream, a passion perfected. He had lingered in the soft flesh of a goddess beyond reach. But he’d somehow reached her. She beckoned him to her where she molded a man who had never existed before. It happened as naturally as the sun fondles the earth, and the earth invites the moon. He dared not fear that it was a fantasy, or it might be.

He stopped to clear his mind, to banish the images, yet begging for their reinstatement. Tonight’s journey home would have to be accompanied by these cherished ghosts. Elliott would have to rely on reflex.

 

  • * *

 

Martha was seated in the TV room with her “family” when Elliott got home. He stood in the doorway and watched, unseen by Martha. Over the years, she’d dubbed her favorite TV series as “my family” because Elliott was usually not around, and when he was, he would rarely watch TV with her. They became a substitute for her own missing family after their kids left home. This particular show was simply a tool for entertainment and marketing with few political overtones. This evening’s two-hour episode was being broadcast in interactive holovision.

Martha sat away from the center of the room and two holographic images sat before her. The images were poor quality, lacking the contrast and the vivid color of real people. There was also a noticeable lag between Martha’s part of the dialogue and the response of her family. Elliott imagined the massive computers and data translators back at the network processing mind-boggling volumes of data to analyze Martha’s comments and then formulate and transmit her family’s responses. All this was done according to a phenomenally complex set of personal-interaction rules and algorithms customized for the episode.

Joel and Jan were average looking Hollywood family folks. They were well on the young side of middle age and exuded good looks, confidence, polish, charm, wit, and wealth. They represented the American ideal of what everyone over fifty wished they could be. If you could not identify with Joel or Jan, you fell outside of the range of average Americana that sought nightly relief from the lunacy of life in the hyper lunacy of TV.

“You know, Jan, I don’t think Martha has ever been to our beach home with us,” Joel said. “It really embodies the magic of the sea. We always come away totally rejuvenated, don’t we?”

“Yes, it would be marvelous if Martha would come along next time. We have such nice neighbors, too. There’s that handsome gentleman, Nicholas, who seems to always be trying to get me into the bedroom. He says he always feels so aroused after a nude romp in the surf, and he immediately thinks of me. What a silly boy.” Jan looked at Joel and winked mischievously. “I believe Marty would really enjoy him. He has such energy, and he’s so clever. Do you know he can name every player on the all star team and exactly how much each one makes?”

“He sounds very fascinating,” Martha said. “Is he conversant in the arts?

The holographic images paused awkwardly as the massive computer power at a far off TV studio churned and processed volumes of data that would stagger the mind of even the most savvy computer engineer. These computers were carrying on millions of independent conversations with multi-media players all over the country of over a half billion people. But it was the complexity of the holographic image generation and the conversation logic and the rate at which the network could transmit the processed and formatted data out to the users that slowed the response noticeably. But disciples had come to accept this small credibility gap in a totally fictitious adventure.

“It’s funny you should ask that particular question, Marty. Jan and I were just talking about it this morning at breakfast.” Joel crossed his legs and smiled at Martha. His smile displayed some of the flaws that the infant technology of holographic animation exhibited.

Jan continued, “Nicky and I took a video tour of the Shorter Collection of Contemporary Graphic Icons last week and he was quite amazing. He follows all the auctions and can tell you who bought what and how much they paid for it—”

“And who the artist’s lovers have been,” interrupted Joel. “And he’s really quite liberal. He doesn’t care whether the artist is gay or Lesbian or even straight. ‘It’s all the same art no matter who they do it to in bed,’ he says.”

“He even dabbles in art himself. It’s his own variation of misrepresentation greaser art. He feels the artist shouldn’t be bounded by any media. His works are often filled with invisible spots that he says relate to all the repression of his youth. His latest piece is the cardboard side of a toilet paper box, and he has this knife slice right through the middle of it, and here’s the heavy part. He called it Mommy … just Mommy. When I saw that, it was like my first exposure to real art. It made me think a lot about my mother and how I relate to her. It’s one of those things that goes way beyond art.”

“That’s right, Jan. I think he’s a real Renaissance man,” Joel said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if his stuff ends up at The Shorter some day. He’s so deep and has so many facets, and his art has such therapeutic value. I told my mother about that piece, and she wanted to buy it, but Nicky said he just couldn’t sell it yet. There’s too much of himself in it, and it reveals so much about him. He’s quite shy and a very private person.”

“When I see really sensitive art like that,” Martha replied, “It makes me curious about how the artist is able to achieve such meaning and emotion with such simplicity of expression. I’m actually jealous that I can’t be so creative.”

“You know, Marty,” said Joel after a pause. “A lot of people feel the same way. That’s why we’re thrilled to share people like Nicky with people like you who can really appreciate such talent. And you know who makes it all possible? It’s the friendly people at InterCon Airlines. Did you know they have a special package to take you from City Airport right to Los Angeles International. It includes overnight accommodations just a block from The Shorter Museum.”

The wall TV behind Jan and Joel filled with the best exhibits of twenty-first-century icon art. The famous Clouds J filled the center of the collage with its marijuana smoke plumes. “I’m sure you already know about all the other cultural activities in that area. There’s the High Rollers Hall of Fame, which is a tribute to the top moneymakers in the entire entertainment industry, and of course, you can’t miss the brand new Music Showcase. It traces the evolution of music since the turn of the century. Their most recent addition shows how the long-running battle between drug rap and DC crap for the top of the charts has provided such a wealth of benefits for our country. Even the President has endorsed this exhibit, saying it demonstrates once more how much we have to gain by a healthy coalition of government and the private sector.”

This was accompanied by more promotion filling the wall. Jugs Gypsy danced across the screen in synch with some room-shaking beats wearing nothing more than a single pink kneepad and the sweat streaming from her tanned body. She was accompanied by a chorus of male dancers called The Danglers who were similarly dressed but with blue kneepads and each with a nose ring. Jugs and the Danglers were the hottest entertainers in Hollywood. Most of their incomprehensible wealth came from the endless commercials they did. Every Madison Avenue agency understood their drawing power.

“There’s so much to experience in the cultural center of LA that you could spend a week there. Now that Ted is retired, he might want to come with you on one of your trips. By the way, you and Ted could combine that with a trip to see Luke and Marie while they’re in Japan.”

The screen filled with a picture of their son, Luke, and his SO, Marie. Luke winked and said, “Come on and see us, Mom.” Marie smiled. A long pause occurred, during which Luke and Marie continued their waving, winking, and smiling. Martha sat motionless, a smile tattooed across her misty face. “InterCon’s Suborbital Service can put you in Tokyo in just two hours.”

Joel interrupted the trance gently. “We can put together a package of the two trips at about a forty percent saving from our normal ‘terrific traveler’ fare. But this package is good for only a short time this summer.” Joel picked up the pace until he was pitching at full hype with Jugs and the Danglers pulsating their usual background. “Let me know ASAP, Marty. We’re holding two spots open for you and Ted. It would be a dream come true for Luke!” As he concluded, an electronic paper composer silently spun a colorful brochure highlighting the InterCon special that had just been offered by Joel and the rest of his Madison Avenue family.

“Well, Marty, we’ve come to the end of another …”

Elliott stood in the foyer and stared through Jan, through the wall TV screen. His stare was fixed on infinity, finally intercepted by some distant galaxy. That far-off galaxy was his real home. It harmonized with Elliott and he with it. Whatever the galaxy where his mind came to rest, it was less alien than his earthly home. The heavens begot him for that distant home, and he sought solace there. But the waves of earthly gravity forced him back, no matter how many light-dreams away he’d strayed.

He shifted his stare to the kitchen and followed it with dazed steps. Standing before the refrigerator, he gradually awoke, as if being stirred from a dream by a distant bell.

His day emerged, a day filled with discovery and no discovery, and with Guinda. COPE buzzed through him and questions about murder and why they feared Halvorsen—and him. Guinda returned. And there were Joel and Jan seated in his TV room, and yet not there. Jugs and the Danglers danced in front of him. He closed his eyes, but they still danced. Luke blossomed but seemed like just another part of the invasion. Susie replaced Luke.

Finally, there was Martha, paying daily homage to her holographic family’s trivial existence. But was Elliott Townsend real, he wondered? He was real once, when they used to go on Friday night dates to the super market and when they painted every room in their first house together. But sometime he lost his reality. Maybe when Martha discovered Joel and Jan. No, before that. And it didn’t even happen in an instant. It happened like a tide overcomes one rock, then another, and another. You don’t know it’s happened until one day you look at a picture and then you look in a mirror. How could Marty have been so efficiently kidnapped that not even she knew she was being stolen?

The refrigerator once more began to bring him back. He pulled the door open, picked up a Pete’s, and suddenly the entire episode with Joel and Jan roared at him like a freight train. He dropped the bottle, his eyes fixed on the two-liter bottle of Fantasy Cola facing him. Jugs and the Danglers danced across the label in an effort to kidnap him, to condemn him.

The sound of the bottle of ale crashing startled Martha. “Ted, is that you? … Ted?”

Elliott did not hear her. He was not even aware of the golden ale oozing around his feet, seeping under each shoe, making unseen Rorschach patterns. Martha entered the room. “Ted, it is you. Why didn’t you answer me? Elliott? … Look at the mess you’ve made. You have beer all over the floor. … I just had the nicest visit with Joel and Jan. We talked for nearly two hours. They’re the nicest people. Do you know, they have one of those big houses on the beach at Malibu that you see in all the magazines? They said I can go there with them sometime. Wouldn’t that be nice? … Ted? … Ted!”

“What?”

“Look at that mess! Why are you just standing there? I was just visiting with Joel and—”

“They aren’t real, Martha.”

“Don’t you start on that again, Elliott. They’re just as real as any of your friends. You try to belittle all my friends. Well, they are real. They’re as real as you!”

“They aren’t real. They’re some computer in Hollywood. They’re just silicon and wire and plastic, all stuffed into boxes and plugged into the wall. They don’t have blood or brains or bones. They don’t care about you. It’s all just bullshit.”

“You think everything is bullshit if you don’t agree with it. Well, you’re not as smart as you think, Dr. Townsend. Where are your friends? Can you just call your friends any time you want? Are your friends honest with you? I think you’re jealous because you don’t have friends like mine. If I wanted to, I could call Joel and Jan right now, and they would be back here in an instant. Tell me about one friend of yours who would do that. Go ahead, tell me. Who would care? If I got sick or something and ended up in the hospital, they’d send me flowers and even visit me if the hospital was properly equipped.”

“And they’d bill your account. All they want is to get money out of you and get you to buy all the stupid stuff they advertise,” Elliott responded as he began to clean up the spill. “And you call them your friends. What a joke!”

“And how about all your friends at the lab? How often do they come and visit you? All they ever cared about was getting your help to solve their problems. And how many times have they called you since you retired? Your best friends are those equations you fiddle with and those particles you keep looking for but can’t find. Talk about my fantasy world.”

“You know, Martha, I just don’t understand your world. Everything is just hype and gimmicks, hype and gimmicks. None of those singers and dancers has any more talent than I do. Years ago their gimmick was to take their clothes off. Then everybody did it. Now that Jugs woman has a chorus of synchronized peckers behind her, and then she adds that last bit of gimmickry, the kneepads. She’s just a hack, a billionaire hack. She can’t dance, she can’t act, and she sure as hell can’t sing. She has a great body, but so do millions of other women. So what does she bring to entertainment that’s quality, that’s unique? Why does she make a billion dollars just for taking off her clothes, singing some obscene lyrics off key, and carrying a bottle of cola all over the world? I guess the real question is, why do you keep buying that crap and keep stuffing money in her pockets … if she had pockets.

“Entertainment is all anybody cares about anymore. If you’ve got a catchy gimmick and drown out everything else with bouncing ponytails and tits and peckers, all synchronized to that thumping they call music, you can become a billionaire. No talent, just tits and peckers and thumps … and money, truckloads of money pouring in every day from all those adoring fans who live their lives in the entertainers, whose very existences are personified by the rudeness of their idols, and their arrogance and bad manners, and childish craving for attention, and most of all their incredible wealth. They use that money to mock their fans, to chastise them for their gullibility and for being such an easy sting.”

“You’re just jealous, Elliott. That’s all you are is jealous. They’ve got it, and you don’t, and it just eats at you. Well, I don’t think you have anything to be jealous about. You’ve been living off your fans your whole life, too. Your sting has been an intellectual one, so in your community it’s been as acceptable as the bouncing tits and peckers that you find so repulsive. But it’s the same thing. What did you ever do that’s done anybody any good. You sit in you fancy lab spending all that stolen tax money. And what’s your product? Just paper and promises and big words that nobody understands—and Nobel prizes. What’s any of that ever done for anybody?

“And it’s not just high-energy physics. It’s everybody in that whole intellectual, academic community. How about those three queer ecology professors who got that grant to spend two years at all those beaches observing birds and counting the times they had to run away from people. And that was supposed to tell us something about man’s impact on bird life. And those results were so valuable, they got another grant to do the same thing in the Southern Hemisphere. Remember, they said it was an incomplete database? They had to see if the birds ran clockwise or counterclockwise. Talk about bullshit!

“And most of the sociology department at the University,” continued Martha, “has been on the dole for years studying the relationship between cricket chirping and welfare rates, and now they have a program to bring millions of crickets into the inner city. They say the crickets will pay for themselves in just one month if the welfare payments decline to what they are out in the country. You know that kind of thing is rampant throughout the colleges. At least the money going to Jugs and the Danglers is freely contributed by their fans, not doled out by the politicians like in your world.”

Elliott could not lift his eyes from the last remains of his Pete’s. “I know. That’s one of the things I can’t figure out. I can understand money being stolen from people and them feeling powerless to stop it. But I can’t figure why they would voluntarily line the pockets of so many worthless people. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Maybe we don’t consider Jugs and The Fungi and Hard-Ons to be worthless. Maybe they bring us something we need. Maybe our lives and their gimmicks are so intertwined that we need them just as much as they need our bucks. They represent reality for us in a world that seems to have lost all reality. But they have as much value to us as your equations have to you. Isn’t my TV family just like your science? It doesn’t mean anything to anybody else, but that’s enough for me. Now you’ve lost your fantasy world, but don’t blame me for that. It’s time you grab onto what’s available and quit griping about it.”

Martha turned and walked back to the TV room where she fumbled with controls and menus and icons to reestablish her own reality. Elliott finished cleaning up Pete’s and paused for a long time before the trash receptacle. How easy it was to discard what you didn’t want. Pick it up, open the little door, throw it in, and it’s gone. And if they wanted to, it could be even easier. They could get one of those little handmaiden robots that follows you up and takes care of all those details like spills and dirt. Elliott looked at the trash door. I wonder if COPE has a robot to clean up little messes like Halvorsen or Townsend … or Burns.

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

Susie

 

Elliott and Martha sat in their breakfast room, one reading, and the other just staring into the newspaper.

“Susie called yesterday while you were out,” Martha said without raising her eyes. Elliott looked up at her media-focused face. “She wanted to know if you’d be home this morning.” Elliott continued to stare at Martha. She turned the page and began reading a new article. “I told her I never knew what kind of trouble you were out getting into, but I’d at least tell you about it.”

“Is she going to call back this morning?” Elliott said.

“She has some business at the University today. Said she’d stop by this morning. Her flight gets in at ten.” Elliott’s eyes wandered back to his unread front page. Martha turned another page and scanned the headlines. “She’s going to rent a car and come over.” Her eyes stopped. “Isn’t that interesting? Junkie Gordon is suing NBC for a rematch. I wonder why? Lizzie won the debate fair-and-square.”

“It’s good for prime time advertisers,” Elliott said.

Martha looked up at Elliott and then back down at her paper. “I suppose you’ll be pulling one of your disappearing acts this morning.”

Two hours later, Elliott stood in the late morning sun of their rear deck picking faded geranium leaves from a flowerbox. The sound of a door behind him caused him to turn. A slender woman stepped out onto the deck. Elliott faced Dr. Susan Alvarez.

“Good morning, Dad,” she said as she stepped toward him. After a brief hug, Elliott stepped back and looked into his daughter’s eyes. She maintained a hold on one of his hands, but he seemed not to need this restraint as his eyes rummaged through her hair and her lips and then back to her eyes.

“I never appreciated before … just how beautiful you are, Susan. Why do you suppose that is?”

“I don’t know.” She swallowed hard, biting her upper lip. She stroked the back of his hand with her thumb.

He looked down at her hands and was startled at how similar they looked to Guinda’s. His beautiful daughter was a few years older than his exquisite lover. “Martha is watching TV. She’ll be so glad you’re here.”

“Please don’t tell her just yet. I’ve got some things I wanted to talk to you about first.”

They sat down on a pair of chairs beside a glass table.

“You’re probably wondering what all this is about. I don’t really have an appointment at the University this afternoon like I told Mom. There are a couple things I had to tell you in person … and one of them just can’t wait.”

Elliott took a deep breath and sat back, running his fingers over his forehead.

“We haven’t had a very good relationship for a long time,” she began. “I blamed you for turning away from me a long time ago, but over the last few years, I’ve realized that I’m the one who turned away from you.”

“No, no, Susie. It wasn’t your fault. I—”

“Wait a minute, Dad. Let’s not play this game of each of us blaming ourselves until after you’ve heard me out. I’ve thought a lot about this over the years, and I convinced myself I’d forgiven you for abandoning Luke and me. Then I thought, who abandoned who? I knew you were tortured by that day at the science fair, and I could have helped you—but I didn’t.

“You see, I knew what really happened that day. You thought I was just a kid and those skis and your big scene were so important to me. But I was a smart kid, and I saw what happened. You saw your little girl being stepped on and insulted, and in a way that would leave some indelible imprint. So you attacked that bitch, Dobbs, in my behalf.”

Susie reached for Elliott’s hand and held it. “You might have been a little more delicate about it.” Elliott fought back a grin, but Susie encouraged it with her own. “But you sure as hell let everybody know what you thought of her, and they better not pull any more crap like that with you around.”

Father and daughter held hands and laughed to each other. Then Elliott’s smile faded and he said, “But then I ran away. Your hero abandoned you.”

“Yeah. And that’s what I held against you for so long.”

“What changed your mind?”

“I finally realized that I was the one who kicked you out of my life.”

“But you were just a kid and very upset.”

“I knew you’d come home and apologize to me. I had a couple hours to think about it. I was a very smart kid. I knew exactly what I was going to say to you before you ever walked into my room. I’m not sure to this day why I had to hurt you. Maybe it was really Dobbs I was trying to get.”

“Maybe you weren’t as smart as you thought.”

Susie nodded her head. “There is that possibility.”

“So why was it so important for you to come here today and tell me this?”

“Okay. Now I’ll tell you what precipitated this trip. I heard through the grapevine that you’ve been stirring up trouble again.”

“What do you mean?”

“COPE trouble—with a guy named Sherwood.”

Elliott squinted his eyes. “Did Martha tell you? But wait, I never told her Sherwood’s name.”

“Mom had nothing to do with this. You see, I’m somewhat of an insider at COPE. I’ve been doing some consulting work there, and I’ll tell you one thing, Dad. Don’t cross swords with COPE. Or Sherwood.”

Susie sat back in her chair and began her tale of computer development in the grand style of COPE and Dr. Planck. “Then a while after Planck’s supposed suicide, I got a call from a woman right in the guts of COPE named Jenner, just Jenner, a real nerd. She wanted me to help her sort some things out with the COPE main frame, but the funny part was that she didn’t want me to visit her or even call her. She came up to see me a couple of times, and the kind of stuff she was asking told me she was right in that computer’s brain and plucking strings that should never be plucked, at least if you have any regard for self preservation.

“Day before yesterday, she came to see me with this wild scheme for sending the computer back to the Stone Age, and I helped her refine it. But mostly, I was the Planck history. Planck never documented what he was doing.”

“So you and Jenner are the only ones who know what’s going on at COPE?” Elliott said.

“Don’t worry about me, Dad. Jenner took very careful precautions to keep me clean. There’s no way to tie me to her scheme. But here’s the interesting part. On this last visit, she was just talking over lunch about this really weird guy named Sherwood. Apparently, she and Sherwood collaborated on some super-secret program at COPE that had something to do with enforcement robotics. That’s all she’d tell me, but you can probably guess what it means.

“Anyway, she was telling me about this Sherwood guy who is apparently a cross between an Einstein and a Dracula. He wears some different hats at COPE, but his latest job is a Field Liaison Officer right here in this district. And his first case is some physicist who just retired from the Hyper Collider and is an anarchist. It didn’t take me too long to figure that one out, so I thought I’d better get over here and give you some sound advice—get off your white horse, Dad. Whatever you’re doing, stop. It isn’t worth the risk.

“Don’t try dueling with this Sherwood creep. He plays with some very dangerous toys. And it’s no game.”

PART FOUR

 

Spiders

—the present—

 

 

“It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.”

— Voltaire

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

The Halvorsen Secret

 

A distant bolt of lightning cast subtle beacons across the bedroom ceiling. Elliott lay in the darkness waiting for each illumination and its thunderous sibling. Other spectators closer to the storm endured its savagery, but here the softer strokes prevailed.

Martha lay beside him, sedated by her multi-media day, oblivious to nature’s multi-media night. Her face turned toward him, scintillating in the bursts. Her lips tight and her face intense, she may have been refining some dream, condensing it, mixing applause, replaying the action, adding a laugh track, saluting the trivia. He wondered if he figured into her dream, or if it was reserved for her real family.

Another flash, then a longer delay. The flashes grew dimmer, the crashes rumbled longer and lower until they lost their discrete identities and merged into a single chorus.

This light show took him back to the Fourth-of-July fireworks displays he enjoyed as a boy. But this time, a blue explosion spotlighted Guinda’s eyes. In a green burst, he saw Guinda in her forest green dress with the single button undone. In a multicolored star, she stroked every part of him, slowly reviving the man who had lived in another century. Then a flood of other images returned, beckoning him to follow, drawing him in, and at the same time offending him. There were Halvorsen, Sherwood, the bouncing ponytails, the synchronous tits and peckers, the hype and gimmicks, the childlike followers, the fraud.

Elliott suddenly became aware of the silence. The storm had vanished, bathing the room in uniform emptiness and steady breathing. Images blended, then faded one by one into the darkness.

A few minutes later, Elliott found himself where he knew he would end up. He logged on to his computer at the lab, wove his way through the security labyrinth, and transferred the Halvorsen files to his machine at home. He logged off and began sifting through the mass of documentation. GAMES 46 was slightly more interesting than the nonsense he and Guinda had reviewed at her house. Some of the files were multi-media videos of various election game shows from recent years while others were transcripts. Elliott didn’t know what he was looking for, adding to the tedium. He watched several videos on double-speed, jogging through the advertising. He slowed it to normal speed for a while.

Campaigns for $6000.”

“In 2036, a nationally aired videotape of Senator Ted Cassidy giving oral sex to the First Gentleman inadvertently began this now-common political strategy. … Yes, Gaff?”

“What is Blowing Your Way to the Top?”

“Right, Gaff, and you’re certainly blowing away your competition tonight. That puts you in a commanding lead.”

Presidents for $8000.”

Soap Digest has given this man the crown for the championship Presidential Erection. … Yes, Gaff?”

“Who is Bondo Longo?”

“Right again, Gaff, and you’re a long way ahead of the competition.”

Drugs-in-Office for $8000.”

“First Gentleman, Darin Nightly, advised parents across America to give this drug to their teenage children daily. … Gaff?”

“What is hormone-atrol?”

“Right again, Gaff, and you certainly have control tonight!”

“You know, Alan, I have a confession to make. I still use hormone-atrol every day. It keeps me clearheaded under pressure, but the best part is it prolongs my orgasms. I just can’t say enough good things about it.”

“That’s some good advice and the end of tonight’s round. It looks like Gaff Trolley is well on her way to becoming California’s next senator. One more performance like this next week, Gaff, and I’m sure everybody back home will be convinced of your qualifications. After your spectacular career in the Soaps and MTV, you’re one of the best-known faces in America. Your political career will be just as spectacular … and rewarding,” Allen said with a wink.

The video portion of the multi-media file ended. An editor’s note appeared immediately:

“End of test clip 7. (6APR46) Trolley – no shadows.”

Elliott wondered what that meant. He’d zipped through similar notes, so he backed up a couple of minutes and replayed. Hmm, that’s interesting. There really aren’t any shadows on Trolley. I wonder how they did that. He froze several frames and inspected them. There were shadows on the others but none on Trolley’s face.

According to the note, this tape was made over two years ago. Trolley must be a senator in California by now with all that network hustle behind her. … I wonder. Elliott performed some brief magic with menus, and he quickly had an up-to-the-minute almanac on his display. US SENATORS he queried. Hmm, Trolley isn’t there. He tried HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES. Trolley wasn’t there. Then he tried SOAPS. Hmm, Trolley isn’t there either. How about MTV? … Nope. ENTERTAINERS? … Not there either. Strange. How could Gaff Trolley be such a superstar and not even appear in this almanac? They list thousands of entertainers. Maybe she didn’t get elected after all and just decided to retire with her billion dollars. Could be, I guess.

He registered the problem and continued, reviewing several more test clips in various game-show settings. Finally he happened upon a file called “test-clip index.” It listed nine test clips dating from 2045 to 2046, each with a cryptic descriptor like “Felter – eyes/lips synched” or “Wacker – without gestures” or “Wacker – with gestures” or “Trolley – eyes muted.”

Elliott sat back and stared at the screen in disbelief. Suddenly all those test clips began to make sense. “So that’s what those bastards are up to!” he shouted. “Could this be what got Halvorsen murdered?”

Elliott thought about the files he had left on his computer at the lab, the same files he was now reading. Maybe I ought to hide those things or put access restrictions on them, he thought. He reentered the lab computer and asked for a directory of his files.

ZERO FILES. ALL FILES DELETED 04:22: 36 JULY 23, 2048.

Elliott looked at his watch, 5:11. While he’d been watching Trolley and the others, someone broke into the lab computer and erased all his files. He wondered if they were totally gone or if he might retrieve them as he had done at Guinda’s.

He menued a command, and the computer responded: ALL FILES DELETED AND SCRUBBED 04:22:36 JULY 23, 2048.

The lab computer had a special SECURE DELETE command that wrote over the deleted files with random numbers to prevent them from ever being retrieved. The hacker knew how to use it.

Elliott queried the system to find out how this hacker had entered. The computer responded:

USER: FIELD SERVICE

FILE EDITOR: GNU-EMACS.

So that’s it, Elliott thought. He used the field service account and then got super-user privileges through the Gnu editor. I thought that bug had been fixed years ago, in fact decades ago. That was a classic bug when I was in college. What the hell good is our computer security department if they can’t close a simple trap door in I-don’t-know-how-many years.

The hacker knew what he was doing. Computer manufacturers frequently leave an account open that their service reps can later enter to debug system problems. In this case it had the tricky password SERVICE. Once into the system, the hacker used an old bug in an old editor program to gain privileged status as a super-user, that is, they could access any account in the entire system. Elliott was sure that his account with its stolen Halvorsen files was the target.

If the hacker could break into the lab computer, would it be possible to break into my computer here at home? That’s unlikely, but I am on a network.

Elliott quickly wrote a copy of the Halvorsen files on a portable optical disk. Then he decided to retrench to that archaic form of communication called paper. All the fancy electronic and optical data-storage media were fine for most purposes, but he would feel so much better now if he could just hold in his hands a pile of old-fashioned sheets of paper with printed words and pictures. No electronic necromancer would be able to spirit that away from him with some digital wizardry. No more electronic cat-and-mouse. He transferred the files once more to the lab computer for it to spit out a copy on paper. It would be a considerable stack of paper, but it would be totally his, not subject to the whims of some cowardly hacker in front of an anonymous machine electronically snooping from a million miles away. Just to make sure, he disconnected his computer from the network as soon as he received the cue that the transfer to the lab was complete.

Now with the immediate crisis resolved, Elliott had time to reflect on the meaning of it all. He sat back and cupped one hand over his mouth as he stared beyond the computer display before him. COPE must have either followed him to Guinda’s house or had her under surveillance. But is COPE a human or a machine? The candidate fraud he’d witnessed a few minutes ago seemed like humans deceiving other humans. But how can you tell anymore? Whoever’s behind it, COPE knows about the Halvorsen files and Guinda’s theft of those files. They know about her collaboration with Elliott. The bottom line is that Guinda is in as much danger as he, but she doesn’t realize it yet. Elliott weighed various options.

His best option was to get to the safety of his office at the lab. There he would be able to warn Guinda undetected and retrieve the paper copy of the Halvorsen files. The security of the lab would provide him a safe haven from which to make his next move. He would probably have to get Guinda to the lab for her safety. He wondered how hard it would be to elude whoever or whatever surveillant was assigned to him today.

Elliott crept toward a window facing the front of his house. Without moving the curtain, he carefully peeked out the window and spotted a small gray car parked about three houses down. It looked bigger than the one he evaded the day before. This one, he thought, might contain one of those eight-legged robots that could run down somebody like me with four legs tied behind its back. He pictured a giant spider stalking him. He noticed his hand on the curtain draw rope becoming clammy. “It’s just a machine,” he whispered. “Don’t think of it as a spider, just one of Sherwood’s goddamned toys. Besides, it may just be another one of those silly cars.”

He wasn’t sure how to deal with this new spy. Was it the same kind he had easily outwitted before or a more advanced one that could handle stairs and sidewalks? Or were the robot’s instructions more malevolent than before? He knew a little about hit robots. Could COPE, or Sherwood, have such a fate in mind for him or Guinda, or both of them?

Elliott looked again through the hazy dawn at the little gray car. He pulled one side of the drapes back about an inch, just far enough to get a glimpse. But in that brief moment, he saw the car move, just a little bit, just enough maybe for it to get a better vantage point. Maybe it had to move just the tiniest amount for one of its sensors to zoom in on that curtain to maybe see who was behind it. But with the light so dim, maybe it hadn’t even moved at all.

The sudden, or imagined, movement, of the little car startled Elliott. He pulled away from the window, retreating behind the curtain that protected him from unseen sensors that must be continually scanning his house. Those marvelous sensors were focusing attention on him with a passionless commitment that no human could ever match. The wheeled spy was constantly on guard so not to miss even the slightest movement in his house, not a door opening, not a blind closing, not a secret glance toward it. Its vision system was superior to a man’s. It could detect the slightest change and then instantly zoom in on that tiny event to examine and record even finer-grain data. And all the while, it would maintain constant vigilance over the larger scene, looking for anomalies, searching for clues of any kind to keep ahead of its victim. And always seeming to be asleep.

Elliott imagined that the innocuous looking car could be much more than just a spy. It might contain a wily, impersonal killer, a killer whose actions would be difficult to trace back to its human master. He thought about Halvorsen—and her killer. Maybe his turn was next; maybe Guinda had already succumbed to this evil. He peeked through a crack in the curtain. “You’re perfectly patient and perfectly in control. For now,” he growled. “But you can’t feel anxious about an approaching struggle. You can’t prime yourself to do better than you’re programmed to do or give more than a hundred percent. But I can.”

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

The Hunt

 

He backed his car out of the garage into the street and drove away. After he had gone about a half block, the little gray robot car lurched forward in pursuit. Elliott rounded the corner as usual and then floored the accelerator. By the time the robot rounded that corner, Elliott was nearly to the end of the block. He reeled around that corner with a squeal and saw his opportunity. He screeched to a halt, opened the door, pressed the AUTO button, and dove out between two parked cars in the street, slamming the door behind him. He lay perfectly still on the street as his car sped away toward a destination he’d programmed into it. He stopped his heart as the robot car zoomed by.

When he heard it disappear around the next corner, he raised himself onto his stiff and bleeding knees and thought, Those robots aren’t so smart after all. He limped toward home, hardly noticing his torn and bloodstained pants. He had defeated a professional hit robot, and it was easy. He proudly walked up to his front door. Within a minute, he left for the lab on his bike.

 

  • * *

 

Elliott was not the only one making progress, however. The robot had soon determined that Elliott’s car was lacking an occupant and began a methodical backtrack. The exploration progressed slowly but exhaustively, using the robot’s visual, infrared, and chemical sensors to their fullest. The hunter worked onerously backward, searching for any trace of Elliott. It appeared to be more tracker than automobile as it scouted both sides of the street back along its path. Shuffling forward, backward, to each side, it moved like a bloodhound, systematically comparing and analyzing; intensively exploring, sniffing, scanning, until it reached the two parked cars where Elliott had taken refuge. It probed the invisible bloodstain on the pavement, noting the residual heat where Elliott had lain, interrogating the surroundings to determine the direction he had gone. It easily located the trail from Elliott’s DNA scent.

But now the gray car needed support. The rear hatch popped up just a crack, then checked itself. Some event swelled the shadowed interior, some ritual driven not by zeal but by millions of lines of computer code, a program so complex that no human genius could decipher it in a human lifetime, yet so basic in function that it radiated an artform, a lifeform, all its own.

The hatch then sprang open with a snap, splitting the Sunday dawn silence. Out of the inner gloom emerged a slender, black leg. Its curved shape extended, then straightened, then curled, then waved in a circular motion as it searched for footing. Once it located the ledge, it probed briefly to locate its edge, all the while the leg growing, twisting, curling sinuously like a shiny black-racer snake seeking prey. It probed further, locating the ground a few inches away.

Having surveyed the bounds of its environment, deliberation and caution transformed into quickness and confidence as it rose from the car in an artfully choreographed and executed assemblé. Each of its eight legs danced to some unheard melody, anticipating the needs and movements of the other seven. Eight legs acted in concert as the spider scrambled in quick but fluid movements onto the ground.

It was a spider, yet it was not a spider. It lived but was not alive. It saw and felt but had no passion or vision. It engendered vitality but propagated death. When the spider walked, its legs seemed to be dancing like a principal of the Bolshoi. When running, its legs seemed simply to disappear and then reappear in a different place, each reappearance furthering the ambitions of the brain within.

The spider had more-highly-developed functions than the gray car. But what made it such a terrible adversary had less to do with its sensors and cunning than with its incredible mobility. Each of its jet-black, seemingly jointless, legs actually comprised over a hundred joints made of piezorestrictive materials, which allowed the legs to tie themselves into knots if desired. In spite of this amazing flexibility, a spider could arm-wrestle eight men to a draw and run down a target like a panther.

Its body was the size, shape, and color of a pure-black house-cat, but turned sideways. It could move in any direction equally well without turning. Two camera-like eyes were attached to a pair of telescoping tubes to elevate or separate the eyes when it needed stealth or extreme stereo vision. A third lens for infrared gleamed spitefully like the mirror of the wicked Queen Aurora and was confined to the body of the spider.

It hunted and killed in almost total silence, the only sound coming from the tap, tap, tap of its carbon and urethane feet when it charged across a hard surface, terror writhing from it like an octet of cobras.

Now those finely honed hunting instincts had been released. It lunged forward with electronic zeal on the trail of today’s target, Dr. Elliott T. Townsend.

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

Elliott’s Nemesis

 

Elliott pedaled down the driveway, turned away from the direction of the approaching spider, and disappeared around the first corner just before the spider, with the little car following it, entered his street a block away. Elliott had made this trip to the Lab so many times that it was reflexive. On this early Sunday morning, though, he wasn’t challenged by speeding cars. Long shadows stretched across vacant sidewalks and streets. The sun greeted only a lone biker … and a synthetic spider.

The events of the last twenty-four hours filled Elliott’s mind so full of questions that he had no room left to think of where he was going. Fortunately, he didn’t need to be conscious of his destination to make progress toward it.

Nor did the spider need to see its prey to track it. The still, damp, morning air was perfect for chemical tracking, and the spider had a quiver of sensors to perform this wonder. It was able to track the slight trace of Elliott’s body vapors. The process was slow, but continuous. While the spider laboriously tracked Elliott’s trail, the little gray car began its own wider, less-focused search, always in communication with its partner.

Meanwhile, Elliott pedaled past the University confident that he at least didn’t have to worry about being followed. He would be to the Lab in about ten minutes, and he began prioritizing what he had to do when he got there. Since there was so little traffic, he could see, and be seen, for some distance. He didn’t give this fact much consideration until he noticed a car stop at an intersection ahead. As he approached, a knot tightened in his stomach when he saw it back up and disappear behind some parked cars.

What else could it mean, he thought. It’s waiting to ambush me. I can’t go back. All I can do is to go where it can’t. He stopped, dragged his bike up the curb, and ran it over to the low fence marking the edge of the University. He grunted his bike over the fence and then followed it with even more grunting. He hadn’t climbed a fence in thirty years, and never before with such passion. As he went over the top, his shoe caught, and he ended up lying on the ground on the other side with his foot hanging at the top of the fence. Even in this awkward position, he could see the little upside-down car speeding toward him.

“Damn these old bones!” he cursed as he yanked his foot loose with bits of flesh still clinging to the fence. “Why don’t they work for me like they used to?” The pain stabbed up his leg, but he had no time to think about that. His only chance was escape through the campus. As he mounted his bike, the little car screeched to a halt on the street just thirty feet away. He faced his adversary grimacing in pain. He tried to hate it, but he couldn’t. It was just a bunch of plastic and metal and integrated circuits. But he could hate its master. He could hate COPE and the coward that had programmed this thing to torture him. And he could fear it.

But then the little car did something that notched the fear-level up. A small turret rose from its top with an electrically powered gun that pointed at Elliott as he fled. There was no sound, no smoke, as it fired. Elliott expected to feel a bullet enter his back. He pictured himself knocked off his bike and the gun taking aim for a second shot to make sure the job was finished. He waited for the impact as he bumped over the grass toward a grove of Ponderosa pines. Then he heard it, but not what he expected. He heard the bullet ricochet from a steel pipe in the fence. The same fence that had just mangled his foot now saved his life. Once again, he thought the robot wasn’t so smart, but he’d been wrong the first time.

He’d covered about half the distance to the trees over the dewy grass, and he hoped it would take a few seconds to recharge the firing capacitors of the silent weapon. “Not enough time!” he grunted loudly. “Got to get into those trees!” He pedaled harder and harder, and the trees loomed before him, but he knew he’d be too late. He visualized the bullet flying toward him and knew this would be the end. But he had to try; he had to play it out. He reached the first tree, but it was too late.

The gun fired just as he swerved behind that first mammoth pine tree. The bullet blew him off his bike. But it was wooden shrapnel from the bullet ripping into the tree just inches behind him that made him lose control and dive headlong into the pine bark mulch. He lay there for a moment believing he’d been spared, not just for a few more seconds, but for always. Now all he had to do was to keep covered behind these trees until he had lost the robot car.

He gathered himself together to peer around the tree back toward the little car, but hope was ripped from him like a grizzly ripping the heart from its prey. For the first time, he actually saw a spider, not just read about it. And this spider was after him. Its blurred legs carried it across the empty street toward the little car and toward him. The spider would be able to follow him anywhere he went. The hopelessness of his situation suddenly gripped him. How had the stakes risen so high since the incident with the inept robot car yesterday?

Elliott wasn’t the strong biker he’d been years before, and the rigors of today had worn him down so he dreaded what must happen next. The thought of running such an uneven race added weights to his limbs. As he began running with his bike toward the far side of the grove, the spider locked its sights onto him and cleared the fence like a deer.

Elliott couldn’t afford to even look back now, and he didn’t want to know the moment before the spider took him down. How will it kill me? It! I’m going to be killed by an it!

As he ran through the trees, an apparition of a giant brown-recluse gripped him with imaginary legs, embracing him breathlessly, spinning silk around his lifeless body. A simple injection would be better than being smothered and strangled by eight legs. The glacial faces of some anonymous civil servants at COPE loomed before him, dispassionately reading the report of this “loose end” being taken care of, and then throwing the report into the burn box. That’s all the attention he’d get. Guinda probably faced the same fate. He hadn’t meant to drag her down with his lunacy. He at least wanted to apologize to her, to explain that it was just an old man’s stupidity. To beg forgiveness.

Suddenly the firmness of a sidewalk under foot jolted him to his present needs. He swung his leg over the seat once more and started pumping pedals like he’d never pumped before, toward a group of buildings. Only two creatures were stirring here at this hour, one a terrified human, the other a terrible human invention.

The spider had its prey in sight now and was able to close the gap rapidly against this inferior target. Elliott had to somehow lose his attacker in the buildings ahead. He didn’t yet know how, but it was the only chance he saw. He heard the clatter of eight frenzied feet on the sidewalk even above the throbbing of his heart and the complaints of his bicycle. It’s already to the sidewalk. Damn it! Gaining too fast. Too fast! I have to go faster … faster. The clatter behind him grew louder. He braced himself for the attack as he sped past the sign reading “Heisenberg Natatorium.”

He leaped from his bike at the bottom of the steps leading to the row of front doors. He wasn’t even aware that he had not slowed down his bike. It continued riderless, careening off the steps and crashing into a concrete planter. The spider knew exactly which of the two was the high-value target. It bounded up the five limestone steps as if they were one. Elliott heard the hop and braced for the thing to land on his back and sink its toxic teeth into him or wrap its legs around his throat. Just as he reached for the first door, the spider landed after its long stride up the steps. The briefest relief hit Elliott as he realized that the jump he feared was not for him; it was just to clear the steps. But this relief endured no more than a heartbeat.

The door was locked! Then the spider’s rattling hooves went silent again. Elliott looked into the glass door and saw it flying toward him, airborne. He yanked himself by one door handle to the next one. This sudden action caused the trajectory of the spider to narrowly miss his back. As the spider flew past him crashing into the locked door, it reached out with two legs, which caught Elliott’s left shoulder, throwing him to the ground with a numbing blow. It, too, crashed, and much harder than the blow it had delivered to Elliott. Missing Elliott, it smashed into the steel post between two sets of doors. Both Elliott and the spider sat on the concrete just a few feet apart, each of them gathering their wits in surprisingly similar ways.

The spider was the first to its feet, its long legs tapping in some rhythmic pattern that could be understood only by a robotics programmer as its way of reestablishing a baseline coordinate system and testing its sensor systems before it could resume its attack. One of the legs tapped Elliott’s leg during this ritual. It was a surprisingly gentle tap, but Elliott reacted in revile and fear. He began limping down the row of doors, testing one then the next, all the while the sharp pain of the spider attack stabbing his shoulder. He reached the fourth door as the spider completed all its system checks and began scanning for its prey. It was easy to find.

Even the most professional hit-man would have winced in sympathy for this terrified figure of an old man stooped before an army of locked doors, a man bleeding and broken, trembling for that last bit of strength to resist the final onslaught. But this attacker was not a man. It had no sense of humanity, no feelings, no history of self to arouse empathy. It sensed only one thing—a target. It saw only an object whose characteristics matched a set of parameters that had been input to its memory. It knew only its instructions. It could only comply instantly and efficiently.

Elliott was only four doors away when the thing sprang. He was only four doors away when he reached that last door handle to give one last tug, when he felt that door suddenly yield to his tug. He swung the glass door open and fell inside. The spider landed in front of the door, reached one tentacle through the closing crack, and grabbed Elliott’s ankle. It was an uneven tug of war. Elliott pulling with all his might on the crash bar with both feet braced against the doorframe. The spider, with the strength of a weight lifter and a mechanical blind will, pulled Elliott’s foot relentlessly away from its hold. There could be but one winner in this unfair match.

But as clever as this spider’s attack program was that guided its every response to Elliott, it lacked the defiance of Elliott’s mind. It was engaged in a situation for which it had not been programmed. It failed to see that the key to victory was not Elliott’s leg that it grasped so rigidly, but the door that barred it from the rest of Elliott. With such a simple concept, it would’ve had no trouble prying the door open with its superior strength. But the instruction set it continually executed denied it this simple solution. The match was not as uneven as Elliott had feared.

Summoning his last reserve of strength, Elliott yelled and pulled the door shut and locked. The crushed tentacle still grasped his ankle as before, but Elliott now had a locked door between himself and his assassin.

His back was propped against a railing and both legs stretched out against the doorframe. For the first time he was able to examine the menace outside, just inches away. He studied its limb, which kinked through the crack between the distorted door and the frame. The tentacle still held tight to his ankle. Elliott stared at the spider, then at his leg. It was a stalemate. Each analyzed the situation in his or its own way.

Elliott now had time to think, to fear. The fact that this thing was not just a killer, but also a spider, now came to the front. He looked into eyes that he’d dreaded for over a half-century. If this was his final test, why did it have to be against such a thing? Why not a lion, or a rattle snake? He could deal with those. Why this thing?

“That’s it,” he said. “You’re not really a spider, just look like a spider.” He stared into its eyes, seeing his own minute reflection. “You’re just a goddamned machine.”

Its small size surprised him. From what he’d heard, he expected a much larger, and more formidable looking thing. Its size didn’t suggest its physical or intellectual power. Up close, it was a simple-looking machine, not as heinous as he’d conjectured. He almost expected a wicked mouth-full of jagged teeth dripping blood. “Wait a minute,” he mumbled. “What’s that thing?” He lowered his head to get a better view. There it was, the long, slender stainless steel tube was just visible on the creature’s belly. It slowly pulsed just perceptibly, in and out, in and out. Elliott’s eyes narrowed as he realized this was the killing device, a needle full of venom meant for him, venom that would be coursing through his own body if it weren’t for the single sheet of glass separating them. “You’re ready, aren’t you? You want to use that on me. And all because my name is on some list. You don’t hate me, don’t even know me. But you want to stick me with that thing.”

Elliott’s attention then refocused on his ankle as he felt its grip tighten. He strained at the oppressive grasp, but it wouldn’t budge. Its skin was smooth and cool, unlike his own. The spider had decided it was time for action. It began pulling with all its might on Elliott’s leg once more. It was dragging Elliott’s leg closer and closer to the crack between the door and the frame. As it performed this simple act of power, the door and the frame continually stripped away material from its leg since there simply wasn’t enough room in that crack for the tentacle. As the spider single-mindedly persisted in this, it was slowly destroying its leg.

After a short time, the power and control lines in the leg began to break, and Elliott could feel its grip loosen. He again tried prying the grasp from his leg, and this time it worked. He heard the carbon and plastic shell splinter. He embraced the wires snapping and delighted in the scrapes and grinds as the spider ripped its leg free, leaving a limp piece draped over Elliott’s leg.

It stood inches from Elliott, reconfiguring its motor commands to accommodate just seven legs. Elliott watched this exercise as he rubbed life back into his raw leg. He wished that the thing could experience the kind of pain he had in his own leg. “That’ll slow you down. But you don’t hurt, do you? You just ripped your leg off, and all you care about is reconfiguring some controls.”

He wished it pain, not to make it less effective, but to make it suffer. “God damn you! Why can’t you suffer? You just lost a leg!” As he examined it and hated it, he noticed another injury, one that might have prevented it from catching him as he fled through the door. The spider’s right eye was smashed. “So you’re half-blind, lost your depth perception. Too bad, you son-of-a-bitch. If I could get your other eye, I’d yank it out with my bare hands.”

Elliott tried to stand up, but every part of him ached at once, and he slumped back to the floor. “Got to get up,” he said through short bursts of breath. “Got to get up,” he said again as he used the railing to try to pull himself up. He fell back to the floor with a grunt. “Well, you half-blind, lame bastard, now what—” A pain shot up his side before he could finish the question.

As if in response, the spider began walking from door to door, testing each one. Since there were a dozen doors across the entrance, and Elliott had found one of the four he tried to be ajar, there was no way to tell if any others might be open. He watched with exhaustion and hatred as it moved down the line.

The spider grasped the handle of the second last door and pulled. Tight. It walked to the last door. Elliott squinted as one of the spider’s legs reached for the door handle. It shook the door, and it creaked, but it was locked. The spider returned to where Elliott and its leg lay on the floor.

“Can’t figure out what to do, can you? I’m right here, and you’re right there.” Every muscle in Elliott’s body ached. Both legs were bloodied and his left shoulder throbbed. He didn’t want to move.

He slowly became entombed in a scene he’d suppressed for over fifty years, a scene he’d claimed he couldn’t remember, a scene of a teenage boy in a far away garage. He was blond and freckled and not enthusiastic about his task. He climbed a stepladder and pulled a tire down, and a cloud of dirt fell onto him. He spat it out and rubbed his eyes. When he tugged on the second tire, another cloud fell onto his head, but this dirt was alive and crawled over him with a thousand legs. He screamed and began flailing at the sea of life as venomous jaws sought retribution, their red-hot needles piercing his skin. The pain and the terror had continued for half a century.

Elliott opened his eyes. He’d denied that vision for a lifetime, yet it lurked beneath his consciousness every day. Now, just a short spider jump from him, stood the Godzilla of spiders—with only a thin sheet of glass between them. He faced his ancient foe magnified a million times.

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

The Struggle Concludes

 

A simple action of the spider brought Elliott abruptly back to the present. It began with an exploratory tapping of one leg on the glass of the door between them. Elliott forced his eyes to the spot.

The tapping increased in intensity and was soon joined by two other legs. The door shuddered, but held, under the blows. Elliott’s concern escalated to fear as the glass cracked. Then another crack appeared … and another. The sound of the strikes also changed, from a sharp report on hard glass to the dull thud of something softer. The safety glass was being beaten into a putty of cracked pieces held together by tough plastic films. Elliott winced with each blow, understanding the meaning but unable to convince his body to take action. The cracks were now too many to count, and each blow caused the fractured glass plate to leap inward toward him. Elliott watched; then he crawled to the door and placed both hands on the rebounding glass. “No! No! Stay out!”

A leg poked through the glass next to one hand and cut him. Elliott braced himself for each strike, hardly aware of the pain. Another leg poked through and cut his other hand.

Elliott pulled back from the door, which was being demolished before his eyes. The hole in the center was quickly growing. A human attacker with such single-minded viciousness would now have glared menacingly at Elliott through the hole. But this attacker had no capacity for theatrics, it knew where it was going, and it proceeded efficiently and relentlessly.

The hole was now nearly large enough for the spider to crawl through. There would be no trial entries to test the hole size. When the hole was exactly large enough for it to enter and no larger, it would precisely execute an entry it had been taught by its human masters. It monitored the hole size with each additional blow. It would know when the time was right.

Elliott imagined the swift attack and lethal injection. The sequence flashed through his mind—the monster sinking its teeth into him, standing over him patiently until it was sure of his death, reporting back to COPE on another successful mission, going to a spider shop for repairs, then ready for another mission. “Just a goddamned machine. Following orders, that’s all. Some coward bureaucrat.” He watched the spider tug at a piece of glass. “This is total bullshit!”

As the last word rolled off his lips, he looked down and found himself on his feet. With no thought for his pain, he ran, away from the creature that was now delivering its last blow to the door. His running was a grotesque mixture of stumbling and plunging, but he was moving. As he reached the steps rising into the stands, he looked back. The spider had three legs and the remnants of its fourth inside the lobby and was negotiating its body through the hole. It was just a matter of seconds now.

Elliott limped up the stairway. He heard the clatter of seven legs scurrying across the marble floor toward him. It’ll fly up these stairs in three steps, he thought. Got to get to the top.

At the top of the steps was a wide aisle running all the way around the swimming pool and about twenty feet above it. At this end, there were no seats below the aisle, which was over one end of the pool. A lone jogger in a black swimsuit and earphones was running laps around the aisle as Elliott struggled to the top of the steps. The jogger arrived at the stairway just as Elliott reached that point. He was shocked to see anyone else there, especially the indigent-looking Elliott.

At that moment, the spider surged up the stairway. It took two steps on the stairs and leaped at Elliott just as he reached the top and just as the jogger arrived. The spider landed with all its might on the figure in its site and sank its fang deep into his neck as they both propelled forward with the force of the impact—a force so great that both spider and prey smashed against the railing and flipped over it. The two were locked together, man and robot, as they flew through the air and landed in the pool below.

Elliott looked over the railing from where he’d been knocked down by the jogger. Two bodies were interred below. One, dressed for swimming, had the physique of a swimmer, but made no attempt to move through the blue water. It bobbed in lane five, its arms and legs moving in spastic motions until it ceased altogether. The other body was clearly out of its element. It was a land creature and was sinking slowly with its seven legs thrashing, trying to reestablish its coordinate space in this new environment. No one had ever taught it how to interpret an absence of landmark data. By the time the spider reached the bottom, some bubbles had started rising from it and bright blue flashes emanated from several body and leg positions. The random leg motions continued as flashes and bubbles escaped. It finally became as motionless at the bottom of the pool as the other body was at the top.

Elliott sank back to the floor. Suddenly he remembered why he’d left his house. “Got to get to her before one of them does.”

 

 

CHAPTER FORTY

Guinda’s Demise

 

Elliott arrived at the entrance gate of the Lab in the back seat of a taxi, and the guard waved the car in when he showed his ID. Once at the main science building, he paid the driverless cab, and it sped away. He was glad to have met no one in the hall, for his sorry appearance would have led to unwanted attention. He collected the printed files on his way to his office and plopped himself with a loud sigh on the sofa.

He was on excellent terms with this sofa. It had been with him for nearly a quarter century, during which time he’d napped on it when he’d chosen the comfort of his work over his old family. It provided comfort all those years, and now he needed that comfort more than ever. The day’s events had exhausted him so much that everything seemed to dissolve into the background as he sprawled there. This was his first chance to relax in several hours. And those hours had been the most demanding of his life.

His thoughts began drifting aimlessly as in the final stage before sleep. But he sat up with a start. “Guinda!”

A cold hand gripped his stomach with the fear that it might be too late. He reached for his phone and caught himself in mid dial. What would he say to her? What if another spider had already gotten to her? Her only safety would be to join him here at the Lab, but how could she do that if a spider was waiting for the right time to strike?

I have to get her back here. We can study the rest of those files … and plan what to do next. He uneasily completed her phone number. As it rang, he prepared himself for the worst. He clenched the receiver and bit his lip.

“Hello,” came the response finally.

“Guinda! Thank God you’re okay! COPE knows everything. We’re both in danger! Can you talk?”

“Yes.”

“I found some really wild stuff in those Halvorsen files last night. I think there’s a plot going on to substitute holographic images for the real candidates. I think the networks are trying to control the candidates.”

“Yes?” came the less than enthusiastic response from Guinda.

“Not only that, they tried to kill me this morning. And I’m sure they know about you, too.”

“Are you okay now?” Guinda asked.

“Yeah, but I had some really close calls with this spider thing. I guess I was pretty lucky. It died and I didn’t.”

“Where are you?” Guinda asked automatically.

“At my office at the Lab. Security is pretty good here, and I think I’m safe … at least for a while. But I don’t think you are, Guin. In fact this call is probably being monitored. I think you’re in very great danger.”

“I don’t think I am, Elliott. I’m okay. I don’t think I have to worry.”

“You don’t understand, Guin. They know about you and me, and they tried to kill me. You may be next.”

“Don’t worry about me, Elliott. I can assure you that I’m all right. Just stay where you are, and I’ll come to you in about an hour. We need to talk about what’s going on and figure out what to do next. Just stay where you are, okay?”

Elliott paused for a long time and then responded, “Okay.”

He stood motionless beside the telephone. The words comforted him, but her voice boiled in him like an inferno. The conversation didn’t make sense. She’d seemed almost drugged when they first met at her office. He’d decided that her humanity was probably just repressed by the inhuman environment. He could taste the oppression of the setting himself and thought it must have an even more devastating effect on Guinda, working there day after day. But now at her home, she aired the same detachment. What’s going on? I wonder if COPE is there.

He imagined a spider or a spy car outside her house. Maybe she was too frightened to have him come to her now. Maybe a spider had gotten into to her house and was holding her prisoner. Maybe it wasn’t even her he just talked to. They might’ve killed her and installed a surrogate on her phone. Could be, he thought. COPE must have recordings of her voice and her telephone manner at work, and a computer simulation would sound like what I just heard. Elliott replayed the conversation in his mind and played it against his recall of their first meeting. She called him Townsend then, but COPE would know they were on a first name basis now and would expect her to call him Elliott. “That’s it,” he muttered, “she never called me Ted this time. She would have called me Ted … after what we … she would have called me Ted. They got her. I know those bastards got her.”

Elliott pictured one of those terrible spiders clutching her with its sinuous evil, pressing itself close to her delicate breasts, not to embrace her, but to exterminate the life in her young body. The vision of Guinda being strangled or poisoned by one of those monsters poisoned his mind. He saw the creature with its eight menacing legs breaking into her patio door from her upstairs deck. “No,” he said outloud, “the skylight … she keeps that skylight open in her bathroom. It would be easy for one of those things to climb up her roof and drop through the skylight … and kill her in her sleep. Those cowards are probably great at that. They probably killed her like they killed Halvorsen. And like they tried to kill me. How else can you explain that phone call? That wasn’t her. Somebody tried to make it sound like her—someone who didn’t know the real kindness in her voice.” His voice broke off to a whisper and then died on his lips. “How else can you explain it?”

He sank into a chair, staring at the phone. “It wasn’t her, so it must have been them.” He rose on his uncertain legs. “I have to find out, and if she’s dead …”

 

 

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

Sherwood Lays it Out

 

Guinda hung up the phone, turned to her visitor, and said, “They tried to kill Townsend this morning. Did you have anything to do with that?”

Her visitor stared unwaveringly at her.

“You at least knew about it, didn’t you?” Guinda continued. “You just told me he’d be safe if he didn’t make waves.”

Sherwood walked directly away from Guinda, his face a chalky void. His movements were unwilling but precise. It was as though there were demands being made on his body by competing masters. He stood before the window staring in the direction of a nearby clump of pampas grass with several wrens riding the plumes like marionettes guided by invisible strings. But he was conscious only of the ashen background swallowing the scene.

A slinking cat approached the grass, forcing Sherwood’s dormant sense of a world beyond his present mission to spring to life. Following the cat’s eyes toward its prey reawakened the voyeur and the predator within him. The wrens waved complacently, unaware of the approaching menace. His eyes grew intense, as did his need to share this moment. His hand probed a jacket pocket where the pipe waited faithfully.

“May I smoke, Burns?” Sherwood asked liturgically.

“I’d prefer you wouldn’t.”

Sherwood filled his pipe, his whole being now riveted to the outdoor drama. Practiced teeth lovingly embraced the loaded pipe. He rolled a gold-plated lighter in his right hand, exposing a microscopic amount of the underlying brass with every tumble. The cat stalked, its tail cocked beneath it like a catapult. It finally sprang at the wrens, its claws defining a killing arc, an arc it envisioned intersecting with the less lucky of the wrens as they fled. But the cat shredded only lifeless pampas stalks and landed beyond the grass with nothing but a shadow of sedge clutching at its fur.

Sherwood flicked the lighter, presented it to the pipe, and studied the glow of tobacco as smoke billowed around his face, chastising the unworthy cat. He turned toward Guinda, exhaling a sweet cloud that convolved into fractals. Guinda met his gaze through the cloud just as another was born. She attempted to play his waiting game in non-committed silence, but her skills were not properly polished.

“What do you want?” she asked in defeat, folding, then unfolding her arms.

Sherwood grinned faintly and sat down. A new cloud began to evolve about him, through the suburbs of which he watched Guinda. Her youth betrayed her as she read this message and slowly seated herself across the room, still within range. The two sat in silence for a while, Guinda studying the shrouded figure before her, Sherwood seeming to study the clouds.

“Why did you come here this morning, Sherwood?” Guinda punctuated the silence.

Sherwood crossed his legs and held his pipe in front of him. He examined the bottom of the bowl, holding it at various angles, rubbing it gently, fondling it, then bringing its stem to his lips once more. His attention then strayed from the pipe to a layer of smoke suspended motionless near one corner of the room. No hint of thought or emotion crossed his face as he studied this nothingness. Behind those eyes, the conscious mind was dormant. But the instinct was responding, conjecturing, playing the bishop against the pawn.

“Answer me, Sherwood!”

The outburst awakened his consciousness, but not to the extinction of his instinct. Instinct always functioned at a hundred percent, even though consciousness may have regained control of motor and verbal skills. He had no control of his instinct, although instinct always had priority over consciousness.

“How long have you been with the Party, Burns?”

She crossed her legs and fidgeted with her hands. Her body didn’t give her an edge here as with the other men in the Party. “Just over two years, but I’ve had—”

“I purchased this pipe from a very respected tobacconist last week. With his endorsement and its obvious qualities as being made of the finest briar, I had great expectations that this would become my most treasured pipe. But now, having shared a few reflective times together, I have concluded that there must be some subtle flaw in the material, some imperfection that would only manifest itself under the stress of several glowing bowls. It might simply be a void or a crack in the wood that prevents the uniform distribution of heat. On the other hand, it could be so subtle as an excessively wet spring a hundred years ago that produced a lower than usual density in one ring of the tree whence the bowl was drawn. It is difficult to understand how these imponderables can have such dramatic effects on the performance of highly prized objects. Have you ever experienced such a disappointment, Burns?”

Could he possibly know about the secret files I read, she thought. How could he? But why else would he be here? Her mind fogged over like the smoke that fled from Sherwood. “I guess I have. … I remember once—”

“You, of course, do not smoke a pipe, Burns, but you may have had such an experience with a tennis racket or some such object from which you demand high performance. But an even more curious thing about a pipe is that, despite its early disappointments, it might yet turn out to be a treasure. Sometimes a pipe is of such quality that it can actually temper itself under the stress of heat. Maybe the low-density layer of wood carbonizes so that the pipe actually turns out to be much finer than one that might not have undergone the extra stress. The self healing process under stress can be extraordinarily effective at producing quality that might be unachievable any other way.”

A couple unresponsive draws made Sherwood aware that his pipe had gone out. He shook his head and reached for his tobacco pouch, then continued his slow discourse. “You have some legitimate concerns about your party. Let me try to put these things in perspective.

“Businesses are successful when they are operated with careful consideration and analysis rather than with emotion and hype. Our political process seems to have an abundance of emotion and hype. Let me assure you that nothing could be farther from the truth. The gimmicks and the hype are only on the surface.

“Do you know who understands the thousands of new laws passed every year, Burns? Not the masses; they have time for only a few grabbers that the politicians throw them like the zookeeper at feeding time. One might think the politicians understand what they have created. Sound reasonable, Burns? … Wrong. The average law has so many amendments, modifications, and exceptions that it is a rare politician who knows anything of substance about the document they make the law of the land, binding everywhere and for all time. So who understands these laws? It is a select group called lobbyists. Only they care enough to wade through the piles to see what the law means to their employers. They support or oppose laws based on careful analysis, as inscrutable as the laws might be.

“It is a strange situation. Lobbyists and politicians write the bills to satisfy the special interest groups. But there are so many groups, and each bill has to have something for each of them. The beauty for the politicians is that the bills are so complex, it is easy to tell their constituents what they think they would like to hear. The whole idea is for the politicians to appear to be doing something, anything, to solve the perceived problems of the day.”

This was allowed to settle in while he tended to his pipe. Guinda thought of herself as astute, but this soliloquy revealed the raw edges of a system that she thought she understood. This was nothing like the explanations that graced the textbooks in her office. Is this really the way it is? she thought. But how can I believe anything this creep says?

Sherwood completed the relighting ceremony and settled back in his chair. “The Party has made remarkable progress with holographic virtual reality with the promise of such realism that it may someday become impossible to tell the difference between it and the real person. The objective is to make politician-to-human interactions so realistic that the human will forget he is talking to a hologram, not to the real politician.

“The next step is to totally replace the politician person with a 3-D image and program its responses so that all errors previously made by politicians can be eliminated. The Party has sometimes been embarrassed by the antics of poorly chosen politicians. Some of them do not have sufficient intelligence to even be politicians. Those kinds of embarrassments will be avoided in the future.

“Our final improvement will be the joint agreement between the two major parties to work together in a more cooperative way to preclude the dysfunctional environment of head-to-head campaigns. COPE, of course, will continue to protect the rights of the electorate, no matter what the environment.”

Guinda responded with disbelief, staring into the carpet, searching it for answers while Sherwood tamped the glowing ashes in his pipe. “You mean what Townsend said was right. They’re going to get rid of the real politicians and replace them with … ?” She sank back into her chair, intent on some code woven into the carpet.

“Politics is following the evolution of other parts of society. In previous eras, the quality of products was so undependable that products had to be visually inspected before purchase. With the advent of mass production and corporate images, consumers could be assured that a quality bar of soap, not a piece of chalk, lay within the package. Producers soon realized that the package was what the consumer bought, not the product inside.

“Politicians also began to understand packaging. As the candidates became more efficiently and attractively packaged, they also seemed to become mass-produced—commoditized, as the MBAs call it. Each one subscribed to the same basic collectivism but with subtle differences tuned to the array of special interests that supported them. All this focus on marketing made doing your civic duty more fun, like shopping.

“Now we are engaged in a great transition that will alter the form and function of politics. We have homogenized the product by replacing its human variability with a machine protocol. No longer will the package be marred by the iniquity that human packages proffer. The total product is now so agreeable that it will not even matter if the consumers wake up to the charade. They have transmuted, and their future is our history.”

He allowed the smoke to clear between them. Guinda’s eyes rose to meet his.

“And now there is the death of Halvorsen and how that might relate to COPE. I can only tell you that COPE takes a very serious view of anarchy. In COPE’s view, anyone advocating the overthrow of our form of government with romanticism such as that of the last century, is an anarchist. We will not allow the progress we have made to be compromised.

“When we spoke Friday morning in your office, I commented that you had great potential in the Party. Your performance reports have been quite favorable, the highest ratings. I believe you have the internal qualities to temper yourself, to make yourself better than you were.

“I am rarely wrong in such judgments. I expect this pipe to become my favorite because I am confident in my ability to make such considered selections, in spite of its initial failings. But if it ultimately disappoints me, it will become just another ember in my fireplace, just a glow that flickers out with the passage of time and is disposed with the residue of other common wood.”

Sherwood rose and retreated from his cloud toward the bay window. He didn’t notice that the wrens were gone; he didn’t notice that the gray cat was asleep under a bush. His consciousness had once more gone dormant. His instinct was now concentrating on Elliott. The cat suddenly raised its head. Sherwood’s instinct prepared to arouse his consciousness. The cat lowered its head, embedding its nose further into the fur of its belly. Sherwood’s instinct canceled its message.

Meanwhile Guinda turned over the mass of new data, processing the events of the last two days, picturing how her nipples might look on TV and how lighting might accent her feminine subtleties, wondering if Halvorsen really was an anarchist and if she herself would now be labeled one, picturing herself in a bright TV studio, her teeth shining, her golden ponytail bouncing, her other assets performing.

She and Sherwood were both surprised by his turning about and uttering. “Now we must consider how to dispose of Townsend. He will be expecting you shortly.”

 

 

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

Offense

 

The morning overcast thinned, and streaks of sun escaped through the white curtain blanketing the landscape. From his window on the third floor, Elliott could look over the lawn down the hill and past the front gate to the street beyond. He tried to formulate some plan among the thoughts that crowded in for attention.

An army of professional killers was chasing him, and even if he could evade them today, what would he do tomorrow? Even if he were to somehow climb from the well that swallowed him, there was another well just as deep beyond that. There seemed to be no solutions, only optional paths toward terminating the struggles.

“But of course,” he spoke, “those are still solutions, aren’t they. Even if I’m dead, and Guin is dead, and the whole world is bullshit. That’s a solution, isn’t it? … Yes, that’ll work, and it’s the most likely outcome.”

He was relieved that he could say it. It was refreshing for him to know that even his death at the hands of some soulless robot, would raise him out of the well. He must put up this last struggle, even though uncertain what he was struggling for. But first, he had to get to Guinda to find out whether she was dead or alive before he pushed for the final solution.

He suddenly took a step back from the window, his face pale as he confronted his enemy again. There was another gray car parked on the street just outside the gate. A chill crawled up his bones. He was probably the only one in the building looking out a window on this Sunday morning. It was therefore likely that the robot had spotted this figure of a man and may have identified it as Elliott. He imagined the optical sensors with their magnification and sensitivity cranked up to maximum, staring at him, processing images, calculating kill probabilities for various scenarios, optimizing how it could use its sensors most effectively.

“That’s it!” he shouted. “I think I have a surprise for you.” All this robotic attention focused on him gave him an idea, a way to get revenge, if revenge against an object is possible, but more important, a way to give himself an edge in the upcoming confrontation.

Elliott disappeared down the hall and came back in a few minutes with a cart full of some science-fiction looking equipment from his basement laboratory. He set up the device in front of the window and pointed it toward the little car. He set the MODE switch to CONTINUOUS and the POWER control to a very low setting. Now he was prepared to engage his enemy on more favorable terms. The enemy had blundered into a world where its diminutive target had some leverage. If Elliott understood nothing else about this strange world, he understood physics. And he was about to give an introductory lesson to his surveillant.

He began whistling the Toreador Song from Carmen as he fiddled with the cables and the controls. “This morning you were defeated by an unarmed and unprepared bullfighter. Pardon me; you might be erroneously programmed to call me a victim. The outcome of the first round undoubtedly surprised both of us. Now let’s see how the bull does against a bullfighter properly armed with this little laser.”

Elliott turned the laser on and pointed it though the window toward the little car. He centered the weak and harmless beam on the car. “Now, Señor Bull,” he said in his finest Spanish accent, “I shall give you a brief lesson in optical physics. You see, when you are looking at me,” he said as he continued to make last minute adjustments, “you are focusing the little bit of light reflecting from my body onto the most sensitive part of your sensor array. Now that I have you centered in this low power laser beam, I shall just turn it off for a few seconds to let you get used to not having that extra light in your sensitive little eyes.”

Elliott stepped in front of the window and waved at the robot to make sure it was zoomed in and focused on him. “And now, Señor Bull, take one last look at me, because it will be the last thing you ever see.” He flipped the MODE switch to SINGLE PULSE and the POWER control to MAXIMUM, placed his finger on the FIRE button, closed his eyes tightly, and pushed the button.

A brilliant green flash pierced the window, rushed over the laboratory lawn in the tiniest fraction of a second, and ripped into the video system of the robot car, burning out the sensor as if it had chanced to stare into a million suns. He repeated the flash several times. “Now, my stupid bull, you don’t even know why you just went blind, do you. You’re probably telling your spider friend in the back seat that you have just experienced a video failure and that he, or is it a she, should look up here and tell you what is going on. In that event, what’s bad for the bull is bad for the spider.” Elliott flashed the laser many more times over a couple minutes to make sure that he had burned out the visible sensors of both the car and the spider. This exercise would have little effect on infrared sensors, so he would still have to contend with those.

With his destructive mission completed, the levity that surrounded the skirmish vanished. Elliott looked out the window at the little car and whispered with a hatred that surprised him, “Try and stop me now, you blind son-of-a-bitch.”

He was soon behind the wheel of one of the lab’s pickup trucks and rolling down the long driveway. A short distance from the guardhouse, he stopped where he could clearly see the car. He kept the windows rolled up so the infrared imager in the car would not be able to see inside the truck. He let the truck roll a few feet down the driveway, and to his shock, the little car responded by moving a few feet toward the driveway.

Elliott’s jaw dropped as he jerked to a stop. The only sensor it could have left to see me would be the infrared imager unless I didn’t blind the video after all or unless the spider’s eyes survived. Maybe I just blinded the center of its video arrays and it’s smart enough to now limp along with its peripheral vision. Or maybe it’s just using its IR imager and betting that I’m the one in this truck. He drove down nearly to the guardhouse and halted. The car moved a few feet closer.

It seemed to be getting into position just as the little car this morning had done before firing at him. He remembered the tree bark shattering inches from his head. He heard the clatter of eight feet behind him and the crash of the spider monster into the glass door.

Then a vision of Guinda’s body lying silently in her bed with a single puncture wound in her throat engulfed him. They’d gone so far together in such a short time. Now he must see it to the end. He stared at the obstacle in his path and knew there would probably be others ahead; but he had to conquer his fear, because fear could cause him to make a mistake, to misjudge, to miss the obvious.

His heart beat wildly as his foot made the decision to go. Now Elliott was operating on instinct. He was no longer calculating the probability that he had somehow not blinded his adversary, nor determining what the capability of his foe might be if it were operating only with its IR imager. The pickup shot down the hill under the command of Elliott’s foot.

Near the end of the driveway, Elliott saw the turret on top of the little car. Now his hands joined the team as they whipped the steering wheel viciously to the left causing the pickup to rip through a median filled with bushy geraniums, bounce over a curb, tear through a newly planted lawn, continually changing course and accelerating toward their joint victim, which sat motionless, only its turret tracking the pickup’s trajectory. A bullet shattered the windshield, but Elliott was aware of only one thing now. In that last second before the impact, the inside of the pickup was filled with the cry of the attacker, “Señor Bull, meet Elliott Townsend!”

There was the briefest of silences before the crash of the large pickup into the side of the little car. The car caved in and careened across the street, rolling over twice, and coming to rest on its side against an oak tree. The pickup ricocheted out of control, spinning around, slamming against the opposite curb blowing one tire, and coming to rest in the parking lot of a computer distributor. Its front end was severely damaged and the windshield was mostly gone, however the electric drive train was operational.

Elliott sat dazed and motionless for some time with a collapsed airbag in his lap. He seemed unaware of the emergence of a pair of legs from the partially open rear hatch of the little car. A spider-like creature proceeded to creep out through the narrow aperture, not as a Chinese acrobat gracefully negotiates a tiny opening between a pair of teammates, but as a red-nosed clown stumbles through the window of a Volkswagen. It stood, unsure of itself, testing its environment in every direction with exploratory taps. It walked slowly in the direction of the pickup, stopping frequently to test the ground before it with an extended leg—tap, tap, tap. Then more steps and more taps. It stopped as if confused about its environment and the description of its victim. It stood there, tapping in every direction with its perfect tentacles as if trying to restore some order to this puzzle.

Elliott watched unresponsively. His mind was only slowly returning to the moment. Finally he understood the scene. He watched with pleasure as the spider, only about a hundred feet away, struggled with its blindness. A smile overtook him, but he quickly reminded himself that this spider, this thing, was incapable of suffering. Elliott wished he had the power to breath into it a soul. If only he could be God for just a minute, he would create in that spider a creature of extreme sensitivity, a creature that would be devastated by its disability, a creature that would agonize over its loss.

In lieu of such a reality, he fantasized it, the fantasy giving it meaning. He pointed the truck at the spider and accelerated toward it in uneven thumps. The spider reached out with one tentacle toward its attacker just before the truck crushed it against the remains of the little car. The one tentacle remained on the hood of the pickup and slowly curled inward until it became motionless. The fantasy was complete.

 

 

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

Spiders and Spies

 

Elliott stood behind a clump of pampas grass examining Guinda’s house. He had begun a new life there such a short time ago. Today’s few hours had been so jammed with a lifetime of trials that he hadn’t paused to consider the toll on his body—and on his mind. His physical agony clawed to the front now that he had lost the momentum of dueling with assassins for his next breath.

This was the letdown, both physical and mental. The battles for his life, and for whatever he believed in, lay in the swirling eddies at his stern. Before him lay a fog. And a gnawing guilt.

Trembling legs were the first sign of what was happening to his whole body. Some benches stood in the garden and beckoned him. One was partially hidden from direct view of the second floor deck that adjoined Guinda’s living room. He moved painfully toward that bench, instinctively looking around to see if anyone, or anything, was watching. The truth, in fact, hid well beyond such a token security check. A silent and nearly invisible sentinel lurked behind a bush on Guinda’s front porch at her downstairs entrance.

It had watched him since he entered the garden, moving like a jackal, always stealthy, always shadowed. It could wait like a practiced sniper. It could observe endlessly with a patience and a vigilance that few humans could even comprehend.

Elliott plopped down on the bench and surprised himself with a guttural sigh. The sentinel edged further out from behind the bush to a better position. Its interest in Elliott was as intense as Elliott’s interest in Guinda, but of a profoundly different nature. Its interest was based on a voluminous data set created by a bureaucrat motivated only by getting a paycheck. All that effort was being expended on Dr. Elliott T. Townsend, anarchist.

Elliott tried to relax those battle-weary muscles, but anxiety wouldn’t allow it. His focus was stuck on Guinda and his role in whatever had happened to her. Was I attracted to her just as a woman? he wondered. Or as a comrade in some struggle, this silly adventure we cooked up.

He shook his head. It wouldn’t clear. An adventure. Is that all this is? But it’s gone so wrong.

He studied the windows and the French door to the deck for some clue. I have to do something. Can’t just give up now. But what? Just go to the front door and knock? Call the police? Something.

“What if they haven’t killed her yet?” he mumbled to himself. He bolted upright in his seat. “What if … what if she’s a prisoner? But what if that wasn’t Guinda I talked to this morning? That’s for sure. I don’t know who, or what. But it wasn’t Guin.” He stared at the deck, but with just a glimmer of hope.

Suddenly a figure appeared at the window. Elliott crouched. He couldn’t tell much about the man at the window except that he was smoking a pipe.

“Sherwood,” he muttered.

Elliott could tell he wasn’t speaking, just standing and blowing great clouds of smoke against the glass where it mushroomed. Then a moment later he disappeared. Elliott stood up and took a step toward the house before pain stopped him.

As he moved, the sentinel stepped forward, ready for a confrontation, but still hidden from view. It lowered its body like a stalking cat, processing and measuring, not quite thinking. Each time Elliott took a step forward it inched its body closer and lower, always keeping its cover, always coming closer to that instruction buried deep in it’s operating program. One line of computer code would change it from surveillance mode to attack mode—a simple one-line instruction that meant life or death to Elliott.

The window again went blank. Elliott’s torment surged. He weighed his options. The answer was inside that house.

“I’ve got nothing to lose,” he whispered. “I’ll just go up to her front door. It’s still her door. She still lives there. If I do nothing, they’ll just track me down and kill me, and I’ll never know.”

He began to take another step toward the door and the waiting sentinel, but he was interrupted by the French doors swinging open. A wave of smoke broke over the threshold. Slowly a figure emerged with the escaping flood. It wasn’t the same figure he just saw at the window. Elliott first squinted and then rubbed his eyes imploring them to work younger.

“Guin!” he shouted taking a painful step forward, a step mimicked by the sentinel.

Guinda looked down into the garden and had no trouble recognizing the figure. She also had no trouble seeing the object slowly creeping down the steps from her front porch.

Elliott took more steps toward her shouting, “Guin, I thought you were dead!”

The sentinel’s intentions became obvious to her. She watched each painful step Elliott made toward her, and she watched the sentinel reach the bottom step, creeping lower to the ground, waiting for the proper time to spring. It stopped and waited as Elliott repeated each agonizing step that brought the spider closer to its attack sequence.

“Guin, are you okay?” came the cries from Elliott as he reached the center of the garden.

Sherwood joined Guinda on the deck and watched the melodrama unfold. Guinda looked at the spider below. It was ready. She looked at the battered man dragging himself across the garden toward her and toward it. Her face showed no emotion. She stepped to the railing and shouted, “Townsend, stop!”

At the sound of his name, he stiffened. “What?” he shouted back.

“Stop where you are.”

“What’s the matter, Guin?” Elliott said as he managed two more steps toward her.

The sentinel’s fang now throbbed, and its body was fully crouched. Its eight feet were dug into the flowerbed beneath the bush. It waited and watched and calculated.

“You’re in great danger here, Townsend,” she said with precision. “You’ll be killed if you come any closer. If you value your life, stop where you are.”

The footprint of her words pierced his brain and then ripped into his heart, but he reacted only to the latter. “I want to make sure everything is okay, Guin. I’m coming up.”

Sherwood stepped forward. “Burns was speaking the truth when she said you are in very grave danger, Townsend. You better stop where you are. The next step might be your last.”

“I’ve come this far, and I’m not leaving until I come up there and see Guinda!” He took his last step forward.

“Stop, Townsend! I don’t want you to come up. Don’t be a fool! Listen to Sherwood!” She turned abruptly and disappeared inside.

Elliott froze as he watched her vanish. When he first saw her in the doorway, his sense of danger evaporated because they once more owned that danger together. As the precision of her command crystallized, he realized that he now owned the danger alone. The empty space beside Sherwood attested to this new reality. But it was new only to Elliott. He’d converged on Guinda with the values of a bygone era. He’d embraced her as a woman, as a peer, and interpreted her acceptance of him in the light of that same lost age. The fossilized values of a dead century had blinded him to the exigencies of today. She was a child of the media and may have questioned that parentage but could never reject it. This congruence burst upon him. Guinda had never been a part of his world.

The loss of Guinda collapsed his view of this game. He suddenly lost interest in pursuing it to a solution. He’d once more betrayed himself. The memory of Ms. Dobbs’ eyes piercing his soul competed with the loss of Guinda Burns. But the reality of his present position could not be denied. He stared at the grass before him and reprimanded himself for being such a fool—such an old fool.

“Go sit on your park bench, Townsend, and I will come out and talk to you,” Sherwood said.

Elliott slowly obeyed. He had nothing left now but a blunted craving. Guinda had been his partner in the most exciting excursion of his life. But there was more. He was devastated by her betrayal of her principles—or were they his principles? In a sense, she had remained more faithful to her principles than he to his. No, it wasn’t just principles and adventures. He felt foolish, like a high-school boy who finds that his secret love has other interests. Could it simply be adolescent jealousy?

 

 

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR

The Media Republic

 

Sherwood descended the stairs and walked gingerly past the sentry, maintaining eye contact with it. Although he surmised it had been programmed specifically to keep Elliott out, he felt vulnerable as he passed within inches of it. He envisioned the sequence of integrated-circuit triggers as the spider achieved the optimal orientation, as it charged the plunger capacitor, as it commanded the needle to penetrate and the force-sensor feedback circuits stopped the penetration at the optimal depth, as the plunger injected the deadly load, and as the command for withdrawal brought the glistening needle back to storage. He feared its effectiveness with pride.

Sherwood joined Elliott on the bench, glancing back over his shoulder several times. They sat beside each other for some time in silence. Elliott leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, his hands folded in front of him. Sherwood initially wanted to dispose of him like an annoying mosquito. But the fact that Elliott was sitting there beside him was an outstanding feat, for he knew of COPE’s plans to eliminate Elliott that morning. Elliott must have some exceptional qualities to be able to outwit such opponents as COPE would throw against him. Beneath his Don Quixote exterior there must beat the heart of a formidable adversary. He wondered just what kind of a man Elliott might be.

Sherwood performed the ritual of selecting the appropriate tobacco for this occasion, cleaning his pipe bowl to preserve the purity of the blend, and filling the bowl and tamping it with his pipe-cleaning tool. He sat back against the bench and drew lightly on the pipe to insure that it was prepared. Elliott remained motionless as Sherwood applied fire to the tobacco and began producing clouds of some aromatic smoke of great complexity. The slightest of breezes carried the dispersing clouds past Elliott.

“You are playing a foolish and dangerous game, Townsend. Burns says you are just a harmless old man. We have encountered cases like you before. We usually dispatch them much more efficiently. There is never any real threat, but COPE does not like loose ends. Not good business.” Settling back into a position of arrogant disdain, Sherwood continued, “Tell me, Townsend, what did you expect to gain with your incursion into politics?”

Elliott turned his head enough to look at Sherwood and to attract his attention. “What’s going to happen to Guinda now?”

The question startled Sherwood, causing him to divert his eyes from the clouds attempting to flee his presence. He looked at Elliott somewhat confused by this role reversal.

“What’s going to happen to Guinda now?” Elliott repeated.

“Well, G … ah, Burns has a great deal of potential, and we plan to use her assets in upcoming—”

“You mean her body,” Elliott interrupted now looking squarely at Sherwood, causing him to shift his eyes away nervously.

“Burns has many assets besides the obvious physical ones,” Sherwood continued.

“Name some others,” Elliott demanded, still looking directly at the nervous Sherwood and moving his face closer to him.

“Well … her … ah … hair is very … ah … beautiful and … she won some medals in the Olympics and—”

“In what event?”

“Well, let’s see, … it was tennis, that’s it, tennis.”

“Swimming, you cretin, it was swimming. She won the gold in the 100 meter freestyle and the silver in the 200 meter butterfly, and she anchored the team that took the gold in the 400 meter relay.” Elliott returned his gaze to the earth just beyond his folded hands. “How about her Master’s degree in political science? How about her enthusiasm and dedication to the Party? How about her intelligence? How about her aggressiveness at uncovering the truth?” Silence now filled all the voids among the clouds of smoke.

During Elliott’s short testimonial, Sherwood had risen to his feet and withdrawn a couple paces upwind. He tapped his pipe bowl sharply on a steel railing, disgorging the old ashes, still burning furiously, which had failed him. He fumbled in his pocket for a new pouch of tobacco.

With a new charge of tobacco, Sherwood walked back to the bench and stood with his shadow directly intersecting Elliott’s folded hands. “I am here to convince you that it is in your interest, Townsend, and in the interest of whatever romantic and pedantic ideals you harbor about some nonexistent America, to desist in this nonsensical game you are playing.”

“Why are you so interested in preserving my life?” Elliott asked, turning to face Sherwood.

“Do you know who Jean D’Alembert was?” Sherwood asked.

Elliott maintained a fixed stare on Sherwood.

“The great Dr. Townsend, having studied theoretical physics, of course knows the name. But do you understand the significance of D’Alembert’s Principle?”

“What are you getting at, Sherwood? D’Alembert’s Principle is at the very core of our concept of classical mechanics. Without it, we could not have developed the Hamiltonian model of the physics of particles.”

“Which links,” Sherwood gestured with his pipe, “the physics of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. The point, Dr. Townsend, is simply this. When pure science is pursued for the sake of the science, with no concern for what technology might ever derive from it, we never can know what incredible connections may be drawn from it in the future—until that future arrives.”

“What’s the point, Sherwood?”

“Neutrino Wave-Function Exchange may be such a principle.”

Elliott held his breath as Sherwood projected a gray cloud into the air above him. “You won a Nobel Prize for discovering the Higgs Particle, a rather plebeian, yet time-consuming, effort by your own admonition. But your theory of Neutrino Wave-Function Exchange has been generally ignored by a physics community largely focused on funding issues. Your principle is quite subtle but may hold the key to understanding whence ninety percent of the universe derives its origin. Neutrino exchange may thrust physics into the twenty-second century.”

“You think my life should be preserved because of some arcane principle I derived?”

“The Principle of Neutrino Wave-Function Exchange exists quite independent of your life, Dr. Townsend. Where you separated yourself from the slugs surrounding us was your vision, your conscious decision to forsake all to pursue your science.”

Elliott studied Sherwood’s shoes for a moment and then snapped to his eyes. “You know nothing about my vision or my conscious decisions.”

Sherwood stood up and withdrew a couple paces where he pondered a cat sleeping in the shade of the Pampas grass with several wrens astride bobbing fronds just overhead. Then he looked back at Elliott and finally studied the flowers, behind which he knew a set of perfectly aligned sensors monitored his every movement.

Standing over Elliott, he said, “Let us not become engulfed in bygone ghosts. We have some important business to attend to—business which may have a great impact on your future.

“I will give you a simple option, Townsend, a second chance from an organization not accustomed to giving second chances. Your meddling in the affairs of COPE has nearly cost your life. I advise you to quit while you can. You Don Quixotes all have one major flaw in common, maybe stemming from a mutation somewhere in a chromosome. The bottom line is that you all think that someone cares, that if you can alert the masses, something will change.

“No one cares, Townsend. No … one … cares. No one other than the few foolish remaining Minutemen. Burns was mostly right. You are a harmless old fool.”

Sherwood retook his position seated beside Elliott. “You probably think people cared in the last century and that you and your Minuteman brethren can turn the clock back. Let me tell you how people cared in your century.

“Do you know what it means when your liabilities exceed you assets, Townsend, and the only way you can live is by borrowing more and more money every day? That is called bankruptcy. Do you know that by 1970, your favorite government was hopelessly bankrupt? By the 90s, the Government had created giveaway programs to pay out about forty trillion dollars that they knew would never exist. Do you know who cared? No one, Townsend. And do people care more today? You were a fool in the twentieth century. Imagine what a super fool you are in the twenty-first century.”

Elliott visualized Martha in the TV room with her friends. He saw bouncing nipples and peckers and game show contestants barking and smiling their way to Washington and millions of players at home cheering them on. He made no defense. “Get to the point. I don’t need a history lesson.”

“In 1935, the Social Security Act was passed by Congress. The politicians sold it to the masses in those depression days as a way to care for people who could not care for themselves. So you say your twentieth-century Congress cares after all? Take a look at Government revenues afterward. Your Government stole those ‘contributions’—nearly a trillion dollars by the end of the century. Social Security added over ten percent to Government revenue for a dozen years after it’s enactment. Any politician with a third grade education could have foreseen that. And you know they did.

“Whose problem did Social Security solve? Your caring Congress solved the only problem any politician ever has—revenue for his personal empire. From that empire comes votes, power, favors, status. The point is that no politician cares, or ever cared, or ever will care, about anything but where the dollars come from. The voters just want some strong, charismatic leader to whom they can transfer the burden of their conscience, which otherwise might nag them for not caring. And then Minuteman Townsend arrives to tell them that they should care about some ancient principles of freedom. You are the fool, Townsend, and those people at home, cheering for the candidates, real or otherwise, are the living reality.

“Your obtuse concept of freedom nearly caused the total collapse of the Government. We were dangerously close to a revolution because the Government could no longer borrow to pay its bills, and millions of people depended on that for their daily survival.

“Then some resourceful businesses teamed up with big labor and formed a coalition with a major TV network, and some Hollywood syndicates that put up unbeatable candidates with unbeatable campaigns. They called themselves The CBS Republicans.

“Of course, the campaigns were all the same lies that the masses had come to accept, but now the politicians started making some changes. Since we owned the politicians, they worked for us; and we started making some progress toward fiscal reforms. Then another network coalition, that called itself The NBC Democratic Party, started doing the same thing.

“After a few elections, Washington began to be occupied by the stars of the infotainment industry. Under their tutelage, the fiscal situation slowly turned around, and most people benefited. The Supreme Court supported this benign revolution with decisions that were no more unconstitutional than those of the previous century.

“The game shows were a stroke of genius. All that hype and nonsense is exactly what the voters wanted to further isolate them from the real business of government while giving them the sense that they were participants in the great American tradition of democracy.”

Elliott appeared to be displaced in time and space as he sat stoically with the words of the oracle tearing at his soul. He began to mumble audibly, “They all know deep down that it’s bullshit.”

Sherwood continued, “A media republic has risen from the ashes of the popular republic. And it works. But nothing lasts forever, right, Townsend? Ultimately, power will corrupt the leadership of the media republic just as it corrupted the masses who could not handle the power they possessed in the popular republic. But the masses are still gorging themselves on their newfound freedom from choice.

“Only one thing is certain. Whatever form our Government takes today or took in the past, it is intrinsically what the masses want. Our Government mirrors the will of the electorate. Government can have no deficiencies because it is the id of the masses. Their complaining and hand-wringing is all part of their mantra, their badge of participation.”

Sherwood rose, puffing heavily on his pipe. The bowl nearly glowed in response. A smile came over his face as he cherished the experience. “I believe this pipe will be just fine. It needed to be burned in, to excise that which was inadequate, to temper its fiber, to transfigure its soul.” He held the pipe up and examined it briefly. Then he turned his attention back to Elliott.

“There is one additional thing to bear in mind, Townsend.” Sherwood paused, during which the cloud of smoke cleared between them. “COPE has more spiders than you have lives.” With this, he blew a great cloud of smoke to envelope Elliott once more.

Elliott sat motionless, searching the ground beneath him for some form of truth to repudiate what was crushing his senses, but no truth rescued him. As another plume of smoke enveloped him, he fantasized that it was some poison gas that would make everything so simple. He embraced it and drew it into his lungs, awaiting relief. No, it was just smoke.

Sherwood interrupted the séance. “I suggest you go home, Townsend, and throw away any copies of the files you stole and go back to thinking about physics. It will be much more rewarding and will keep you out of trouble. That is my best offer, and a generous one.”

“This is all just an espionage game to you, isn’t it?” Elliott stood up, one leg nearly collapsing in complaint. “You’re just moving pawns and rooks around as you sit in your twenty-first century castle surrounded by your eight-legged centurions. But there’s more than just pride at stake here. There’s a whole way of life changing. And the people don’t even know about the fraud you petty monarchs are imposing on them. But you must be plenty scared of anarchists like me based on all the attention I’ve gotten in the last few days. You must realize there are thousands or millions of people out there just waiting for a wakeup call, and all it takes is one trouble maker with real ammunition to set things going against you and your phony candidates and your robot assassins. You are outside the law, not me. And you’re terrified that the free media will latch onto this Nobel-Prize-winning scientist with proof of a government conspiracy against the Constitution.”

“That is very exciting oratory, Townsend. But what about your lover? What do you suppose will happen to her career in the Party when they discover she is the one who hacked her way into the COPE files for your so-called proof?”

“She’ll have an even more exciting career in the revolution. She has talent you autocrats would never appreciate anyway.”

“Indeed. What clever rhetoric. And what is the probability of such a revolution even being recognized, much less successful? Apply your mathematical skills to that question.”

“There are some things that just have to be,” Elliott said. “I’ve come a long way in the last few days, and I have a clearer vision of where I have to go now than I’ve ever had before.”

“How do you think the COPE computer will feel about your revolution?”

Elliott searched Sherwood’s eyes looking for some clue to tell him how to respond, but the search was in vain.

“Come, come, Townsend. Surely the beautiful Dr. Alvarez shared some COPE family secrets with you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Let me put it very simply. At this time, the computer knows nothing about Dr. Alvarez’s role in Jenner’s plot. But that is a variable. You see, I have developed a very special relationship with this infamous computer. Jenner was stupid—and has died for that sin. But maybe the computer would be more lenient with Dr. Alvarez.”

Elliott squinted at his adversary. Sherwood fondled the bowl of his pipe as it drooped from his lips.

“Maybe you can learn from Jenner’s errors,” Sherwood said to his pipe, “for your daughter’s sake. You probably did not even know about Jenner’s demise. It pays to keep well informed.”

Sherwood didn’t see Elliott’s hand rising toward him. It grabbed his arm below the shoulder, surprising Sherwood so much that a glowing ember jumped from his pipe onto his pants. “If anything ever happens to Susie, then you’re next. And all your spiders and your cleverness and all that bullshit smoke won’t keep me from you.”

Sherwood recovered quickly and matched Elliott’s glare with a grin. “You know, Townsend, such a threat from anyone else would be just idle chatter. But I am forced to take you seriously. Some day we must discuss how you defeated two of COPE’s finest assassins. You are quite exceptional as both an intellectual and a military strategist. I would anticipate the challenge of an engagement between us.”

Sherwood’s face turned instantaneously serious as he wrenched Elliott’s hand away. “And you are wrong, Townsend. This is not a game to me. This is real. This is why I was born.” Then a grin began to return. “But I respect you, even admire you. That is the reason for my forbearance. Let me explain something so you can fully appreciate the value of the option I am offering you.

“Knowledge and knowing what to do with it are the most important factors in winning. I know about Jenner and Alvarez and the Asp and the computer and Jenner’s plot. Getting that data was as simple as lighting my pipe.” With that, he snapped open a gold lighter and snapped it closed in front of his smirking lips. “With that data, plus a little creative blackmail, I have extracted certain privileges from the Asp regarding access to special assistants. All other Field Liaison Officers are merely conduits between the district and COPE. Only I maintain my own enforcement staff. Of course, COPE also maintains its own independent enforcers. It sometimes is quite interesting how we keep tabs on each other. Those two spiders who attacked you today were COPE, although even I cannot tell which are which just by looking at them. The one that you nearly stumbled over behind us is not one of mine either. I am not sure what its mission is.

“As for the computer, I have made my piece with it. Of course, I had to get its attention first. Installing the Stone-Age switch did that quite effectively. That is the device that isolates the computer from the network managers so it cannot retrieve its spare parts as they come rolling in from all corners of the globe. It is completely outside the domain of the computer, and I alone control it. And it is not the crude affair that Jenner designed. She just never had a flair for hardware. All I need to do is activate the switch and inject the virus, a sequence I have automated in case something unpleasant should happen to me.

“I am not so foolish, though, to think that I am immune to the malice of that computer. I am sure it immediately began its own self-defense program. Since I do not thoroughly understand its capabilities, I cannot predict how long it will take to nullify my offense. It could be two years—or two hours. But however that hand is played, I also am a moving target. And my knowledge of spiders exceeds even the computer’s knowledge of spiders. I believe I have the edge.”

Elliott’s legs were becoming more stable now as he rose above Sherwood. “So, it’s the King Sherwood move. You control the computer, the computer controls COPE, and COPE controls America.”

“You do me an injustice, Townsend. I have no desire to be king, although the computer may feel differently about that.”

“How can you stand by and let COPE, or a computer, take over the leadership of America?”

“Have you noticed who has had the reins for almost three hundred years? And you can still ask that question? The reign of slugs is over. At least now there will be some rational explanation for why things happen. It will be a better time just as the last few years have been better than your century. You are witnessing true evolution. This is precisely what Darwin had in mind.

“Think about my generous offer, Townsend.”

Sherwood turned toward Guinda’s deck. There was no sign of her, and the doors were closed. The spider remained standing benignly near her front porch. As Sherwood moved, it seemed asleep. Its vitality had appeared to fade as it gave the impression of being dormant during the Sherwood monologue. But such inattention was merely an artifact of the human observer since this machine continued to maintain complete attention while updating its running analysis of the entire environment within the fields of its many sensors. It made no movement and gave no hint of the vast data it processed, but it was always on duty. It never became comfortable, tired, or bored. It logically conserved energy until it needed to move, but it was always ready to act in an instant.

Sherwood took several steps toward Guinda’s front door, leaving Elliott alone on the bench. Sherwood stopped at the sight of the spider standing motionless. He relit his pipe, puffed a couple of clouds of authority toward the spider, and resumed his stride confidently toward the door. This took him within a few feet of the spider as he walked toward the steps. He maintained his air of confidence as he passed it, glancing frequently out of the corners of his eyes. As he passed the spider, its sensors followed his movements, analyzed his trajectory, and processed gigabytes of data, all without the slightest hint of activity. But Sherwood knew it was busy; he knew the algorithms it called upon to analyze every step he took; he visualized the data streams, the logic states, the network activity. He reached the door, pulled it open, entered, and shut and locked it behind him. The spider suddenly came to life without any warning. It moved its left front leg first as it walked toward the front porch.

 

 

CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE

Denouement

 

Elliott sat in the pickup in his driveway. The shadows suspended over him reminded him of the lateness of the afternoon. His mind churned out options, many of which featured him as the leader of a voter rebellion against the contempt of the major parties. He was sure there must be millions of people who care, people who would gladly embrace the freedom to vote for real candidates rather than the media packages. He couldn’t be as alone as Sherwood said. He could start with a local newspaper and get grass-roots support with his revelations of the insidious nature of the present system. Once the story got into the media, COPE wouldn’t dare try to kill him or Susie. They could only hope that he would fail to attract enough voters and finally just burn himself out.

But he wouldn’t fail. He would attract young people to the truth, young people who could spread the truth much better than he could. He’d make Guinda understand that she could be a key element in this reawakening. He knew she couldn’t accept the lies, threats, and intimidation of the Party as she now understood it. Knowing the truth about Professor Halvorsen would ultimately dissuade her from serving the sinister forces responsible for her death.

“I know I can count on Guinda in the long run,” he whispered. “I know I can.”

He picked up the box on the front seat containing the paper and the optical disk copies of the Halvorsen files. He painfully walked to the front door and let himself in. His ears were greeted with a conversation as he approached the TV room. Martha was seated there talking with Jan and Joel.

“You know, Marty,” said Joel, “that new Democratic candidate for senator, José Maria Yamaguchi, really looks like the right person for the job. He’s so multi-cultural; he’ll be able to represent a lot of different interests. And now being multi-sexual, she’s a really strong supporter of women’s rights, too.”

Martha, sitting on the edge of her chair, interrupted. “I saw her on “Sex and Society” last night. She knew the answers to questions that you just wouldn’t believe. They asked her, ‘How frequently does Senator Leslie Dykes fake it with her SO, Georgina Fore?’ Without skipping a beat, she answered that Dykes hasn’t had an orgasm with Fore in over two years.”

“That’s right,” Jan said. “Then they asked, ‘What aphrodisiac drug holds the record for … ‘”

Elliott studied the floor at his feet. He bit his lower lip, but the pain could not divert his attention. A collage of today’s events rushed upon him. He reached out and found a wall to steady him. His eyes closed. His body swayed.

When his eyes reopened, Jan and Joel still endured, their lips alive, their faces blazing smiles. Earnest smiles. Textbook smiles. Their voices couldn’t reach him because his own mind was churning out such chaos—the tortured echoes of the last two days. The death rattles of his republic. This ground his mind to a standstill, much like sand slays a precision bearing, but not before extorting a brutal tax.

Elliott dragged himself upstairs to his bedroom, undressed, and was soon engulfed in a steamy shower. Guinda gushed from the streaming water to stimulate and please. And to torture. She massaged with stinging fingers, smothered with scorching lips, stole into every pore, and chafed every muscle. She exploited every sense but sound. Her voice lay dormant. Though he tried to resurrect it, he was denied the warmth of yesterday. And was thus spared today’s icy rebuff. That tradeoff was good.

He sat on the edge of his bed searching the Oriental carpet for answers, the same carpet that had inspired him toward politics just a few days ago. But this time, strawberry blond hair flowed from the filigreed fields. An honorable mention ribbon rose between raging beasts. He rubbed his eyes as they began to glaze over and then winced as a spider swelled from a distant corner of the carpet.

“Sherwood,” he muttered. “Sherwood is real. And he’s right. It’s not a game.”

Then a meerschaum pipe emerged from the carpet confusion. The menace was irrefutable. He closed his eyes to forget. But how could he?

I barely escaped two hit robots today, he thought. But men sent them after me. Mindless bureaucrats made the decision to kill me. A week ago that would have been science fiction, but now … now a computer can do that to Susie … a computer can order her to be murdered. Last week I would have laughed at that … but now it’s reality.

As he dressed, his mind ran back to “Sex and Society” and to the Joel and Jan hard sell. He sat beside his copy of the Halvorsen files running his hand over the smooth sheets of paper. He picked up the optical disk and stared at it for a long time. Just then, the TV sound came to the front. “The Debating Game” had just started, and the cheers bit into him. The MC stirred his audience with a titanic benediction, but it was soon lost to the sea of apostles eager for the rite to commence.

He picked up the box of the Halvorsen files and walked downstairs to the kitchen. He opened the disposal door, dropped both copies inside, closed the door, and pushed INCINERATE. He opened a bottle of Pete’s and walked into the TV room. Sitting beside Martha, he picked up a remote, multi-media controller. She looked at him with a question—then with a smirk.

“Would you show me how to pick a candidate with this thing—please?”

The end.

 

 

“When a people are corrupted,

the press may be made an engine to complete their ruin.”

— President John Adams

 

About the Author

Paul Dueweke

 

I wrote The Media Candidate in 1992, and it evolved into its present form over the next six years as I learned the craft of writing fiction. It is my first Shakespir publication. I would be very grateful to any reader who would write a Shakespir review of The Media Candidate.

I was a research physicist long before I turned to writing. But I’ve written five novels and am presently working on numbers six through twenty-seven. My first was an autobiography, MY LIFE AS IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN — a memoir for readers who find memoirs disagreeable and reality tedious, inspired by my lifelong obsession with Don Quixote and his ingenious view of reality. It took first place in the 2002 Independent E-book Awards – Humor Division. THE MEDIA CANDIDATE is a near-future, speculative science-fiction thriller inspired by watching too much TV. PRIONA is a multi-cultural, multi-generational story of love, poetry, music, and the dividing waters of race, set in the Jemez Pueblo of northern New Mexico. LAMB OF GOD is a psychological drama of how a young boy, surrounded by the racial and commercial tensions of the Arsenal of Democracy, Detroit during World War II, deals with the guilt of being too weak to save his twin from tragedy. It won second place in the 2003 Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards in a field of 370 entries. Finally, HORSE CAMP WEST is a modern western drama set on a dying ranch in the highlands of southern New Mexico. It was a 2002 EPPIE Award finalist. These books should be available at Shakespir later in 2016, but for the time being, you can get a taste of them at my website fictionQ.com. If you would like me to notify you when my next books hit the ground at Shakespir, drop me a line at editor at fictionQ.

I have spent forty years as a physicist in Ohio, New Mexico, and California. Some of those years I did basic physics research at The University of Dayton in the areas of ionizing radiation detectors, shock waves in solids, and infrared measurements. This stuff probably doesn’t excite very many of you, but it has been breathtaking for me. Call me a nerd, but I love science.

I spent some years at a beltway bandit* doing a funny thing they called system studies. Then I evolved into a mid-level manager for a big defense hardware company. I learned pretty quickly that upper management is really, really hungry. That's why middle management has to run so fast. Now I have become an even higher lifeform. I work off and on for an itsy bitsy company right in the bosom of Silicon Valley. My business card has a blank under my name so I can be anything I want. And I haven't needed a security clearance for the last twenty years.

I’m a firm believer in second careers. When I was doing physics research, I had to do mostly what other people wanted me to do. That was still great because it was such exciting stuff. But now I can write whatever I want to. Maybe that’s just as good, in a way. I think every writer should write as a second career, not as a first. It gives my writing roots and a unique point-of-view beyond writer.

I married Marilyn where we met at the University of Dayton. We moved to Alburquerque where our two daughters grew up; and now we all live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

FOOTNOTES:

  • Beltway Bandit — For those not conversant in Government Speak, a Beltway Bandit is one of the companies clustered around the Washington, DC Beltway that sells “professional services,” which is stuff the Government could do itself if they had any idea what they wanted done or if they weren’t fighting among themselves about who should do it.

Alburquerque — Most of you traditionally educated readers are probably under the mistaken opinion that the dusty little town in central New Mexico is Albuquerque, not Alburquerque. It was, however, named after Don Francisco Fernandez de la Cueva Enriquez, Duke of Alburquerque, Spain, and Viceroy of New Spain in 1706. About a hundred years later, it was misspelled to its present form. I, in the spirit of Don Quixote de la Mancha, have taken up the cause to redress the evil of misspelling the name of one so highly born.

 

 

WHAT REVIEWERS SAY

ABOUT MY BOOKS

 

THE MEDIA CANDIDATE

 

“It is not often I read something this well written. What a mix of farce, satire, techno-thriller, SF, romance, social commentary. And all good. You are at your best when into the technology. That you do as well as anyone in print. You either know exactly what you are talking about, both the actual technology and the processes within the organization, or you are the best damned bluffer I’ve ever read. The flashbacks to the school science fair touched me. I have been a science teacher who has advised his students to use the scientific method and then had a girl with a pretty display of pills win when judged by a community of morons. I know the scene, man and you got it right. Great!”

. . . David St.John, executive editor of Elderberry Press

 

 

 

The Media Candidate by Paul Dueweke

Books are like closed doors. You open them and step through into new worlds where you may find unusual people and live through unusual experiences. Those new worlds may be governed by leaders with new, perhaps frightening ideas.

The Media Candidate is one such world, a place where democracy has been replaced by media-led, computer tyranny. Using satire as a keen bladed weapon, Mr. Dueweke shows us what could happen if no effort is made to rein in government and the media as they gain ascendancy over the minds of the governed. Murder is rife as those who question this power are eliminated. Who is the mind behind the killings? A person or a computer? Or a combination of both?

If you like intrigue, mystery, and have an understanding of what drives characters, you will find this sci-fi satire interesting, peopled with well drawn characters who try to balance their acceptance of an unbalanced governing entity and their fear of the same.

I found the technology described herein enlightening. The author knows his subject and his people and has written an interesting story around them. If you like books that cross genre lines and want to see what could happen if the media is allowed to stay its present course, you will find this book a good read.

Review by Anne K. Edwards, author of “Death Comes Knocking”

for eBook Reviews Weekly

 

 

 

Word Wrap: A book review by Patricia Spork

The Media Candidate

by Paul Dueweke

 

Intellectual Techno Thrill! Recommended

 

The year is 2048. News media and celebrities have converged to political “infotainment”. NBC Democratic Party and CBS Republican Party candidates are actors, porn queens and musicians, all in the running for Presidential office. The Committee for Political Equality (CORE) preserves (actually, controls) political competition through neural computer networks and robotic assassins.

Elliot Townsend, a retired Nobel physicist, becomes suspicious about several deaths involving people charged with espionage. When Townsend personally investigates, he is labeled an “anarchist”. CORE field agent, Sherwood, formally a software developer for the Dagger Project (robotic assassin development) begins surveillance of the famed scientist. Townsend soon fears for his life and his family’s, and searches for evidence to enlighten the general public about CORE’s unethical practices.

Paul Dueweke, author, metamorphose programmed computers into thinking assassins by using rich, technical detail and vivid imagination. THE MEDIA CANDIDATE is a realistic view of what could be if media moguls and government officials had their ways in our world. Although written well, the HTML version could have used more editing, as a few words were misused or misspelled. Other than grammatical errors and a luke-warm ending, THE MEDIA CANDIDATE is a competitive techno-thriller for the science fiction genre.

Cindy Penn

Senior Editor,

Amazon top 50 Reviewer

eBook Specialist, Midwest Book Review

 


The Media Candidate

The Media Candidate is a rigorous, high-tech, action-thriller novel studying the merger of politics and the media, set in the presidential election year 2048. Politics in the mid twenty-first century has evolved to political game shows they call elections and to multimedia hype, sex, and trivia that sustains and embodies society. These are the icons of the reawakening of the American spirit of political participation. But behind this facade lurks an age old establishment sired by opportunities that aggressive humans have seized in every generation and in every fold of the social fabric. This social revolution mirrored a dazzling technology upheaval, an eruption which engendered a new player in the Government’s bureaucracy: an advanced neural-network computer. Trained to serve, to be a neurocrat, it transmuted into a clandestine monarch. This super computer contrived its own Boolean paranoia and a ruthless strategy that served it well against humans. Only a pair of humans struggled to understand it—its creator and a hacker. But neither had the insight to fear it. The computer lives at COPE, the Committee for Political Equality, a powerful Government agency formed by the first US President from one of the new “media parties.” COPE’s function is to maintain “a level playing field” for the political process, thus tightly controlling the political arena. Sherwood is a sinister and brilliant engineer turned spy and behavioral scholar. He teams with another nerd, the same hapless hacker who is on a collision course with the neural network, to tackle one of the most sensitive jobs at COPE—debugging COPE’s most efficient enforcer of the new century’s “disciplined democracy”: a cunning spider robot. The insightful neural network discovers the benefit of commanding such arachnids. COPE may control the masses, but the real master of this media republic controls COPE, and does it with such finesse that no one even suspects it … at least no one who lives. The tragic hero, Dr. Elliott T. Townsend, enters this strange world after a career buried in the depths of a high-energy physics lab. He encounters Guinda Burns, a beautiful, young, and naive worker for the CBS Republican Party, and they find themselves opposed by COPE and its enforcers and confronted by Sherwood. But Sherwood stuns Elliott with his insight that human nature is immutable, and that society has evolved very little despite harsh cosmetic changes. Elliott overcomes robotic spies and spider assassins, but he is not a leader, he is just a fossil of a bygone era, just as Guinda is a loyal daughter of her century. The ultimate question Elliott confronts is—does anyone care?

  • Author: Paul Dueweke
  • Published: 2016-09-04 00:21:03
  • Words: 83766
The Media Candidate The Media Candidate