The Game – Chapter 17January 21, 2013 at 5:04 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: chapter, miniaturisation, molecular tracking device, MTD, novel, PC, personal computer, personal risk, science fiction, speculative fiction, technology, The Game
Franz Heilmayr‘s fine for receiving stolen military goods obliterated his savings. His months in prison were the most miserable of his life. He worried sick imagining his customers trying to contact him. He visualised them giving up on him, one by one. It was mid-product-cycle time, his busiest. His business was destroyed.
He cried when Myron Price offered to put him up for as long as he needed. Myron’s lounge became the new forum for their friends. Even Julian Oberman felt sympathy for Franz, who’d lost his sense of fun and mischief. His dry sense of humour had drowned. He was quiet and withdrawn.
While Myron worked in his front room, Franz pottered with what the group had salvaged from the trashed warehouse. Everything else had been removed for recycling, at Franz’s expense, by a furious landlord. Myron had a shed in his back yard. He made a space for Franz, that he might recover the confidence to begin again.
Franz cooked most nights, after which he and Myron sat around the heater, watching television or talking over drinks. Franz was obsessed with his arrest, having relived every moment of it countless times. After a month, Myron was close to telling him to shut up about his conspiracy theory.
Franz thought the military raid was triggered not by the stolen army PC, but by the mystery Panrax components. He argued that the raid occurred too long after the unit had received its self-destruct code. Why would the army wait three days to recover the unit and arrest its abductor? Such a serious crime warranted immediate action, especially with disintegrating evidence.
Secondly, the two Panrax components had disappeared from their hiding place. Following Franz’s frenzied phone instructions, Myron had scoured the park but found nothing. So did Franz, on his release. He was sure no one had seen him crouching in the bushes that day. Someone had located the components by other means and taken them. And was it mere coincidence that the shit had only hit the fan after the two ‘resistors’ had been exposed to each other? Some synergy must have occurred.
Finally, neither Myron’s schematic anomaly program nor Franz’s complete teardown of the two Panrax PCs had revealed anything else out of order. The ‘resistors’ were the PCs’ only non-essential components.
Though time strengthened Franz’s certainty of foul play, it also brought a degree of relief. Myron secretly tracked down a few of Franz’s old clients. Every now and then, a job came Franz’s way, enabling him to tinker for a few hours. The work replenished his depleted reserves of self esteem, money and spare parts. The shed began to fill with his concept of treasure.
This peaceful existence might have continued, were it not for the official release of the Panrax 4100K. Unwilling to own anything but the best, Julian obtained one as a matter of course. His test rig had been rendered obsolete by the improvements Panrax had achieved in the last months of validation. His other motivation was to own something that made him interesting to others. He knew Franz would be keen to check out the unit and invited him for dinner. To Julian’s delight, Myron asked if he could come too.
After a catered meal and two bottles of heavily wooded red, Julian led his guests to the computer platform. His favourite space flight simulator chattered to itself, the stars on the screen blending seamlessly with those wheeling beyond the huge bay window. The 4100K’s casing came off in seconds. Franz removed the power supply and broke it into sub-assemblies. He peered at a familiar array of components and gasped in disbelief.
‘What is it?’ asked Julian anxiously.
‘It’s gone!’ said Franz, turning the sub-assembly over and over in amazement. ‘It’s fucking gone!’
‘So it was a typo after all,’ concluded Myron.
Franz shot him a venomous look. ‘No way! Don’t you see? They’re on to us!’
Myron was stung by his friend’s retort. ‘Come on, man. Surely the simplest explanation is the best. Panrax have realised their error and fixed it in the final model. That’s the purpose of validation.’
Franz tore the sub-assembly into components, muttering through gritted teeth. ‘You believe what you like. I say our discovery has been noticed and that Panrax has moved the bogus resistor somewhere else. You saw the X-rays; that thing was unlike anything any of us had seen. I can’t believe you’re prepared to dismiss the whole thing as a … typo.’ His fingers worked at a stubborn mounting.
Julian hovered behind him. ‘I say, um Franz; I can see you’re excited. D’you think you could be a bit more careful with the merchandise?’
Franz formed a biting reply, then looked at his friends and at the mess he was making. ‘Shit. I’m sorry. This thing’s been fucking with my brain since I was arrested. It’s really got me wired.’
Julian saw a chance for brownie points. ‘I’ll tell you what: let’s leave the Panrax for tonight. I’ve got three more bottles of that red. You can both crash here. In the morning, you can take the machine to Derek’s house and go over it with the proper tools. How does that sound?’
Franz looked at his hands; they were shaking. He couldn’t resist the offer of a complete teardown, even if it meant waiting ten hours to start. ‘That’s very kind, Julian; very good of you. Are you sure you won’t mind me taking it to bits?’
Julian solemnly addressed the others. ‘I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately. I realise that in the past I’ve been something of a tight arse. I’m beginning to see there’s more to life than consumer goods. I’d be honoured if you pulled the Panrax to bits, Franz. Shit, what if you really are onto something? We could all use a little excitement, couldn’t we?’
‘Yeah,’ said Myron. Franz nodded.
‘OK, so let’s put some of Dad’s wealth to good use and get rotten.’ Julian shepherded them to the intimate lounge area at the southern end of the apartment. For once, he felt like a reasonable and even faintly popular human.
Franz woke first the next morning. Hung over, he prised his eyes open, lay back on the guest futon and looked up at the ceiling. For a moment he thought he was back in his old warehouse. Then he felt silk and remembered where he was, and what the day had in store.
Suddenly excited, Franz rolled over and spotted Myron on another futon. He dragged himself to the edge of the loft and peered down at Julian’s bedroom. He too was asleep. Groping for his watch, Franz saw it was only 05:50. Damn! He was wide awake and rearing to rip the 4100K to shreds. He felt like a child in a motel with his parents, dying for the knock and slide of the breakfast tray. Unable to lie still, he padded down the stairs and climbed the ladder to where the PC lay in pieces. Quietly he began to reassemble them for the journey to Derek Eckersley’s house.
At 06:30, Myron’s watch sounded an alarm. He rose groggily and began dressing. The co-ordination needed to pull his trousers on so soon after waking was too great. He fell back onto the futon, knocking over an empty bottle. It smashed on a marble ashtray. ‘Sorry, Julian,’ called Myron, on seeing his host convulse beneath his doona. Franz grinned. A stroke of luck for them to be up so soon.
Myron finished dressing and hurried home to get changed for his run. Franz carried the Panrax carefully down the ladder. Julian watched, stretching and scratching himself in opulent pyjamas. He directed Franz to the 4100K’s travel crate and rang down for a trolley. Without waiting for breakfast, Franz thanked him and set off into the grey dawn.
Despite the hour, Derek welcomed Franz into his studio. Franz brought him up to date over strong coffee. By the time Derek was ready for work, Franz had cleared bench space in his hobby room and was laying out tools.
‘Here’s the locking card, man,’ said Derek. ‘Wish I could stay and watch.’
‘Why don’t you?’
‘Can’t. We throw the switch on the new shipyards network today. I’ve gotta make sure the dumb-arse CEO plugs it in before screaming that it doesn’t work.’
‘You poor bugger.’
‘I envy you. You’ve got no money, no job and no security. But you’ve got all day to play with someone else’s toys. If we die tonight, you’ll have had more fun than the richest working person alive.’
‘It’s not all beer and skittles,’ returned Franz, ‘I get dreadful fear sometimes. And without Myron, I’d really be on the shit heap. But I agree that today I’ll have a more meaningful and enjoyable time than most. I’m sorry you can’t stay; and I greatly appreciate the use of all your gear.’
‘Think nothing of it. Tell me all about it tonight.’
‘Will do,’ promised Franz, beginning his disassembly.
In contrast to his fevered pawings of the previous evening, Franz operated calmly and methodically. He copied the Panrax’s help directory and loaded it onto one of Derek’s many PCs. Screen by screen, he compared the 4100K’s hardware to its schematic, marvelling that the secrets of the new machine were his for the plundering. How amazing that a company could reveal its designs to the world, knowing that by the time anyone copied them, they’d already be superseded.
He hunted all morning for an unnamed or unnecessary resistor, but all were labelled and essential. The mystery component had vanished. By lunchtime, Franz could no longer deny his hangover. He downed tools and fortified himself with toasted sandwiches, soft drink and more coffee. Then he completed his search. There was no anomaly in the schematic. Franz was frustrated, but not surprised. Steeling himself, he began the second phase of his investigation – verifying the identity of every resistor in the PC with the X-ray scanner. He was still at it when Derek returned that evening.
Franz was too wasted to continue after dinner. He asked if he could return the next day. Yet after another twelve-hour stint that consumed all Derek’s remaining photographic plates, he still had nothing. He asked Derek for money to buy more.
‘Do you have to use so many plates on each resistor?’
‘It’s the only way,’ explained Franz. ‘The little fuckers behave exactly like resistors under the standard tests. They only way to confirm their identity is either by exploratory surgery or X-ray. I can’t afford to destroy Julian’s machine. Even if I did, I’d have nothing to compare to the images I took of the first two resistors.’
‘You’ve still got the original X-rays?’
‘No. They went during the raid. I’m using the drawings I made.’
‘Well I’d like to help, Franz, but those plates are bloody expensive. You’ve already used up my supply for the rest of the year.’
‘I’m sorry about that, man. I promise I’ll pay you back.’
‘I’m not so much worried about the money, more that you’ve set yourself such a punishing regime. You want to nail every elevation of every resistor in the Panrax. It’ll take you weeks. Myron could be right, you know. His typo theory is more plausible … don’t you think?’
Franz sighed, searching for the right words. ‘Mate, I’ve been farting about with hardware since I was three. I’ve been inside more PCs than buildings. Despite the fact the buggers regularly mutate beyond recognition, they’re still, at ground level, nothing more than sophisticated adding machines. I know them, Derek; I’ve got a feel for them. I sense, with every fibre, that there’s a ghost in that machine. I have to find it, or spend the rest of my life wondering why I couldn’t. Please lend me the loot and let me come back for a few more days. I swear I’ll make it up to you.’
Derek regarded his friend with sorrow; jail had really rattled him. He doubted Franz would find anything, however many X-rays he took. ‘Alright.’ He pulled out his wallet and withdrew a silver account card. Franz’s face lit up. ‘Get another five boxes. It’s all I can afford right now, OK?’
‘Sure,’ agreed Franz eagerly. A piece of his old self returned. ‘Thank you, you won’t regret it I promise.’
Derek got up to load the dishwasher. ‘Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Just make every plate count.’
Friday dawned clear and sunny. As before, Franz saw Derek off to work and quickly settled down to his project. He’d made a list of target resistors, based on what he knew about the two he’d encountered before. The X-ray plates delivered overnight were enough to study only a small fraction of the PC’s resistors. So he had to choose. Using the schematic, he highlighted the resistors closest to the power supply module. The first target surrendered its contents to the X-ray scanner. It was like any normal resistor. So was the next one. And the next one. And the next. And the next.
Franz ploughed doggedly through his list, the supply of plates dwindling steadily. After a miserable lunch, he set to work on his last few choices. Like a roulette player stuck too long to a recalcitrant number, he couldn’t abandon his methodology so late in the experiment. Heart in mouth, he carefully developed the last elevation of the last resistor on his list. With sickening recognition, he beheld the simple circuitry of a common resistor. In utter disgust, he flicked the plate across the room. It flipped and dived before landing near a delivery box, in which remained only three plates – too few to study even one more resistor properly.
Franz stormed into the kitchen, set the coffee machine going and slumped at the table. What now? He’d achieved nothing but inconvenience for his friend and debt for himself. He was completely fucked. The coffee ready, he leaned over to pour a cup. The fancy new design was not practical and a thin, scalding jet seared the tender skin of his forearm. The shock gave way to pain and was then eclipsed by rage. For one quiet moment, Franz contemplated the frayed end of his tether. Then he hurled it the coffee machine against the kitchen’s far wall. The unit exploded into steaming fragments. Most shattered further on hitting the floor. Those that didn’t were crushed beneath Franz’s berserk boots as he vented months of frustration.
Exhausted, Franz sank to the floor amid the wet debris. He stared ahead, freckled hands in his lap. After what could’ve been ten minutes or fifty, he came slowly out of his trance. The first thing he registered was the coffee machine’s smashed power module lying between his legs. A severed resistor poked out at him like a tongue. Beside the resistor was a diode, hanging from an optical fibre. Franz blinked.
He picked up the power module and examined it. Though worlds away from the Panrax, the arrangement of primary components was comparable. He tore into the hobby room. Pouncing on the 4100K’s schematic, he summoned the PC’s power module. On reaching the site from which the suspect resistor had disappeared, he panned right. There was the symbol for diode. He noted the number and flew to the Panrax. Swiftly, he located and removed the component, holding it up to the light with his pliers. It was the same size as the resistors he’d been dealing with for three days.
Fighting to restrain false hope, Franz placed the diode inside the X-ray scanner and loaded one of the remaining plates. But in his excitement he tore the film. Swearing profusely, he carefully took another plate and loaded it correctly. He photographed an elevation and waited for the exposure to develop. With trembling hands, he snapped the print onto the backlit viewing surface. At last, he witnessed the bizarre and convoluted outline he’d twice encountered before. He’d done it! Without a clue from the schematic and in spite of completely new camouflage, he’d found in the Panrax 4100K the same mystery component that had been hidden inside the 3700J and the 4000K.
Franz couldn’t wait to tell Derek. As he keyed his mobile, the doorbell rang. Franz froze. Memories of the raid on his warehouse flooded back. He waited. The doorbell sounded again. His mind raced. He had to see who was at the door. He removed his shoes and padded down the hallway. He peered nervously through the security viewer. Julian Oberman was turning to quit the doorstep. With relief, Franz welcomed his friend inside. ‘Shit, man, I thought you were the army, coming to get me again.’
‘I was in the area,’ lied Julian. ‘I thought I’d drop in to see how you were going.’
‘You came at the right time. Have I got something special to show you. Come here!’
Julian, who didn’t possess a tenth of Franz’s faith or tenacity, was impressed. ‘You’ve done well Franz. I can’t believe you had the courage to mess with this stuff, when you thought it was linked to the raid.’ He squinted at the diode in the X-ray scanner. ‘Geez, they’re devious little buggers, aren’t they? You could stick one of these anywhere. What d’you reckon they’re for?’
A strange look passed over Franz’s face, like a cloud shadow over a cornfield. He bolted into the kitchen, snatched the power module from the coffee machine and yanked out the diode. Ignoring Julian’s questions, he used his last plate on a shot identical to the one of the Panrax diode. He put the photograph beside the one already on the viewing surface. The images were identical.
‘SHIT! There’s one in the fucking coffee pot! Last time I put two of these things together, I went to prison! Now I’ve done it again! Julian, get out of here. Ring Derek. Tell him not to come home until I contact him. I’ve gotta get the Panrax back together. These bastards may be all over the place. Fucking with them must send a signal to whoever has put them there.’
‘But … ‘
‘Just do it! Go! Go now!’ Franz searched frantically for components. Julian, terrified of trouble, fled the studio and hurried back to his workplace, calling Derek on the way.
Franz toiled feverishly to complete the job in record time. Apprehension bathed him in sweat and made his breathing short and shallow. Something was happening. Something sinister. He started at every sound from outside. By the time he finished, he was a wreck.
Franz waited for the axe to fall. But as days passed without incident, he began to calm down. His friends developed alternative explanations for the warehouse raid. Favourite of these was that the resistor from Julian’s stolen test rig had triggered the drama of its own accord; there was no magic synergy between components. Though unconvinced, Franz felt safe enough to resume his investigation after a week. His discoveries had whetted his appetite. Yet he remained nervous and became fanatically cautious.
Borrowing money from Myron for more X-ray plates, Franz set to determining the distribution of the mystery components. Using the elevation that had yielded his earlier successes, he photographed the power modules of various machines belonging to his friends. He was staggered at how many mystery components he found – always near their host’s power module, and disguised as any of a range of parts common to that domain. What he couldn’t figure out was the pattern of component distribution. He created a table listing the specifications of each machine and pored over it for trends. He found that ‘loaded’ machines displayed no additional differences to ‘clean’ machines. His learning curve plateaued maddeningly.
The key came to him by chance, when Myron lost his wristwatch. It had been clean, as was Franz’s. Myron, envious of Franz’s solid-looking unit, bought an identical replacement which Franz scanned. It was loaded. Franz entered its specifications, identical to those of his own watch, onto the spreadsheet. Only then did the penny drop. The sole difference between the two units was that Myron’s was newer.
Franz excitedly entered the production date of other target machines. A trend appeared. The more dates he entered, the sharper the dividing line between loaded and clean machines. The mystery devices had been around for nineteen months. Anything manufactured prior to that was clean. Myron’s Panrax must have been one of the first PCs to be loaded. Franz reasoned that devices were being planted in every conceivable powered product.
The scope of the apparent conspiracy surpassed his maddest theories. His mind raced among the implications. The earth had short product cycles, universal recycling, rabid advertising and ceaseless demand for the latest and best of everything. In just a few years, all but the most durable, low-tech products would be loaded. Mystery devices would be everywhere! He had to find out what the device was for. This was sure to be a difficult if not dangerous exercise. He had to brief his friends.
Read Chapter 18.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by V31S70.