Tags: chapter, IT, miniaturisation, molecular tracking device, MTD, novel, research, science fiction, speculative fiction, surveillance, technology
After work, Jessica and Fabien headed to his apartment. Franz and Myron scuttled into the underground and arrived at the street shortly before them. They hung back until the lights had been on for a while.
‘I hope this bloody-well works’ whispered Franz nervously. ‘Come on, lets get it over with.’
Fabien answered his door with an inquiring look. Myron asked to see Jessica, who recognised him instantly. She was polite, but perplexed to see him at her partner’s home. She didn’t invite them in.
Franz talked quickly and earnestly. He looked into Jessica’s eyes and asked for a few minutes of her time on a matter of extreme importance. Jessica considered his request and glanced at Fabien, who’d been studying the strangers with a suspicious eye. He shrugged.
‘What’s it about?’ said Jessica. ‘Is it to do with my cat?’
Franz snorted involuntarily, then glanced behind him. The porch was brightly lit: anyone could be watching from the darkness. ‘We’d really rather tell you inside. Believe me, it’s critical.’
Jessica folded her arms. ‘Tell us now or leave. We’re not having our night hijacked by religious nuts.’
Franz reluctantly gave a brief synopsis of his discoveries.
Incredulity, then scorn swept across Jessica’s face. When Franz finished, her expression was close to contempt. ‘That’s it?’
‘It’s a very brief summary, but yes,’ replied Franz defensively.
‘I think we’ll say goodnight then. Your “theory” has left me … underwhelmed.’ Jessica withdrew from the threshold.
‘Wait!’ Franz proffered Myron’s briefcase. ‘You only heard the tip of the iceberg. We’ve got evidence – plenty of it.’
‘No doubt. Now, thank you for coming and goodnight.’
Franz’s mind raced for something convincing, but he was stumped.
Then Myron addressed Fabien in a quiet voice. ‘OK. We’ll go. But before we do, may I just ask how old are your PCs are?’
Fabien glanced at Jessica. ‘Four months.’
‘In that case, I can guarantee they all contain Molecular Tracking Devices. How do you feel about that?’
‘He feels fine, because you’re spinning a load of crap,’ snapped Jessica. ‘Would you please go away now?’
She swung the door but Myron jammed his foot. Jessica’s eyes smoked, but before she could let fly, Myron held up a box.
‘If you give me five minutes, I can prove MTDs are hidden in your PCs,’ he said.
‘What the hell is that?’ asked Jessica.
Myron smiled with proprietary pride. ‘We call it the Ferret.’
Franz winced and put a hand to his brow.
‘Oh that’s great,’ exclaimed Jessica. ‘Jesus Christ; who are you people?!’
‘Five minutes and we’re gone,’ pleaded Myron. One of us can stay out here if you like.’
‘I’m going to crush your foot if you don’t shift it.’
‘Wait Jessie,’ said Fabien. ‘What have we got to lose? I don’t like the idea of our devices being in my PCs. Surely it’s worth just checking?’
As Jessica fumed at his contradiction, Fabian produced his most winning smile.
‘You bastard,’ she muttered and turned back to the others. ‘Alright, whoever you are, come in and give my paranoid lab technician what he wants.’
‘Thank you,’ sighed Franz, looking at Fabien.
Myron swiftly found four MTDs.
While Fabien and Jessica were still in shock, Franz emptied his evidence onto the coffee table and shot them the facts with both barrels.
As the awful truth dawned, Jessica took the expression of a mother finding her child a changeling. Like an old-fashioned Polaroid, Neville Major’s scheme revealed itself. A raft of coincidences, ambiguous remarks and mysterious occurrences formed a picture of crystalline clarity. How could she have been so blind, when the signs had been all around?
Jessica bent her head and wept. Her father had used his dying breath to warn her. She’d stubbornly refused to look beyond the data. Now she knew she’d been ETAT’s puppet – bastardising Hilton Diep’s life work into a devious machine. Despite her intellect, she’d been played like zither. Anguish and regret tore at her heart.
Fabien, also stunned, did his best to comfort her, but saw she was working up for an almighty howl. He addressed Franz. ‘We obviously believe you, but I don’t think we’re in any state to talk tonight. Can you possibly come back tomorrow?’
Franz nodded, his relief tinged with empathy. He shook Fabien’s hand as Jessica crumpled onto the couch and started keening into a cushion. The visitors took their leave.
The next day, seven young people sat on blankets in a deserted park under a threatening sky. The closest powered MTD lay hidden in a streetlight 200 metres away. As far as molecular transmissions were concerned, the group was ‘off-line’. Franz had picked the spot to minimise contact with anyone else braving the cool weather.
Jessica was red-eyed. Her raven hair clung lankly to her jumper. Fabien also looked shabby. Neither had slept. Franz introduced the couple to Julian, Antony and Derek. The mood was stilted and formal, their common interest generating scant warmth.
Franz moved quickly to business by asking Jessica to outline her understanding of the MTD situation. She began haltingly, as if describing a friend who’d died violently, recently and before her time. As she spoke of Neville Major, however, her voice steeled. She and Fabien now realised they’d been squeezed out of the loop. Certain that MTDs were being manufactured elsewhere, they also suspected work was being done on a second generation unit. They agreed that MTD proliferation in consumer goods would constitute a formidable intelligence network. Anyone with access to such a database could, if possessing the means to impose their will, literally rule the planet.
After the difficulties TASOM had endured to reach Jessica and Fabien, the couple’s validation seemed too easy to be true. Yet no other explanation fitted the facts. Franz felt silly calling their discovery a ‘global conspiracy’, but that was exactly how it looked.
‘It’s just mind-blowing,’ reflected Jessica. ‘Five years ago I held my father’s hit list of ETAT Members. All movers and shakers. Household names in communications, mining, transport, manufacturing, property, finance, health, law, government, environment … everything. This disparity convinced me there was no common thread. I now see it was perfect camouflage. Imagine the heights these people have scaled in the last half decade. They were all fast-tracking career animals. ETAT must be integrated up, down and sideways by now, at the highest levels of society.’
Julian shook his head in awe. ‘They’ve already got power. MTDs will help them spot anyone trying to take it away.’
The group fell into dejected silence.
For want of anything better to do, Derek unpacked the picnic basket. ’Might as well eat if we’re going to clobber the bastards.’
‘Yeah.’ Myron turned to Jessica and Fabien. ‘By the way, welcome to TASOM.’
‘Hang on,’ said Antony, setting up cups. ‘Let’s do this properly.’ He pulled a bottle from the basket and poured equal measures. On handing them out he offered a toast. ‘To the new associates of Technology for the Advancement and Service of Mankind, Jessica and Fabien: welcome to the fray!’
The cups clacked and some of the ice broke. The food looked suddenly appetising. They fell to eating and talking about their respective MTD experiences. Much was exchanged and both parties felt they weren’t alone. After getting over their bad start of the previous evening, Jessica and Franz admired each other’s achievements. He praised her extraordinary miniaturisation effort; she applauded his dogged haystack-needle investigation.
By day’s end, the group was well briefed. Derek had taken copious notes. A list of security safeguards had been agreed and a broad agenda set for the next meeting, five days hence. The venue would be the desert property Julian had bought. Meanwhile, everyone would behave as normally as possible.
Darkness approached. They collected their rubbish and made their separate ways home with mixed emotions. In taking on the mightiest power bloc ever created, their goal of reclaiming MTD technology was ambitious in the extreme. They had only vague ideas. They were anxious and not at all confident. But at least they were having a go.
As they quit the park for the city, they imagined MTDs all around. It was worse than being watched. For all they knew, their every cell was being scrutinised the instant they came in range of a loaded, powered machine. It was draining. It was also hard to think of refuges other than the park. Worse, according to Jessica’s speculations on a second generation device, new MTDs might penetrate even that natural haven.
Meanwhile, across the ocean, Neville Major was visiting one of his development teams. Some of the scientists had been part of Phases One and Two of the MTD project. Generous contracts with cut-throat disclosure clauses had kept Jessica’s former colleagues quiet. Officially they’d taken up ETAT’s offer of plum postings in different disciplines at the end of the miniaturisation effort. This was true, but not in the way Jessica and Fabien imagined.
Major conferred with Kit Vogels and Liam MacArthur - two particularly bright sparks. Vogels filled him in. ‘We’ve had success with this prototype front end, Mr Major. Liam has managed to convert the data strings to a wire-frame representation. Instead of being told what the target is, our ubercomputer throws up a pictorial representation. Additional data appear as labels, which can be filtered according to need.
‘Show me,’ commanded Major.
Vogels nodded to MacArthur, who summoned the application to the screen. A jumble of orange lines jostled like so many toothpicks.
Major frowned, trying to make sense of the chaotic display. ‘What’s this?’
‘It looks awful till you get the hang of it,’ explained Vogels. ‘But once we add shading, it’ll be much better.’ He punched a key and a series of tiny labels rode in sympathy with the lines.
At once Major discerned a moving streetscape. He made a noise of understanding.
Vogels looked up brightly. ‘You just got it, didn’t you sir?’
‘I did, yes. Very good.’
Vogels flushed to the roots of his red hair. ‘The labels make all the difference. As soon as you see the words, your brain makes the connection. What we’re watching is a crude representation of a self-powered MTD tracking down a narrow street. Quite trippy, really.’
MacArthur shot his teammate a warning glance.
Major was impressed. These young men had become the project’s driving force. There seemed no end to their innovations. ‘Why does the picture bob around so much? What have you used as a host?’
The two scientists cringed. Vogels took the plunge. ‘Er. His um … his name’s … M … Max.’
‘And who is Max?’
‘A Jack Russell terrier.’
MacArthur bit his tongue.
Major’s face darkened, but Vogels quickly intercepted. ‘Max is the random element in our experiments. We’ve sewn batteries into his collar. They’re an excellent power source for the device. He’s cheaper and less conspicuous than any purpose-built host. He takes us all over town, to the most inaccessible places, yet he always comes home at night for Kanga Chunks.’
‘Kanga Chunks?’ spluttered Major.
‘Yes sir. He loves ‘em. We couldn’t have developed this interface anywhere near as quickly without him.’
Major breathed slowly. ‘Do you two have any concept how much this project is costing?’
‘No sir,’ said Vogels. ‘But if our packages are anything to go by, it’s a shitload.’
‘Correct,’ barked Major, reddening. ‘Now do you really consider, as professional research scientists, that … Max constitutes the best possible use of ETAT resources?’
‘Vogels darted a look at MacArthur, who’d gone very pale. ‘With respect sir, you’ve instilled in us a keen desire for results. I venture that what you see here is a significant improvement on raw alphanumeric MTD transmissions. If you’re unhappy with our progress, then I can’t defend our methodology. If, however, you’re pleased with this result,’ he gestured to the screen, ‘I’d maintain that Max has been very good for the project.’
MacArthur tittered, converting it into a noisy cough. Major fixed Vogels with an icy stare. The younger man returned it for four seconds, before prudently looking away.
‘I suppose you men have a nickname for the Molecular Tracking Device,’ Major inquired stiffly.
Major sighed. ‘Mind telling me what it is?’
‘Well, apart from Max The Dog, we call it … Mother Teresa’s Dildo’.
‘Dare I ask why?’
‘Because when we’ve finished enhancing this device, it’ll be able to find absolutely anything.‘
Major paused, thinking. ‘Carry on,’ he said with effort, then walked briskly away.
MacArthur hissed at Vogels. ’Thy cohones are as bowling balls. Thou art a god!’
Vogels grinned wickedly and stared at the screen. ‘Not quite yet. But with this baby … it won’t be long.’
Read Chapter 23.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by Oggie Dog.
Tags: cat, chapter, internet, IT, molecular tracking device, MTD, novel, research, science fiction, speculative fiction, technology
With the exception of Julian Oberman, Franz’s Heilmayr’s friends wholeheartedly supported his continued investigation of the mystery devices. Once Julian saw he was the odd one out, he back-pedalled. It was better to be popular than safe.
Franz’s evidence was compelling; something was going on. The five men discussed the situation at length. Never had they been so serious in each other’s company.
They agreed that to learn what they were dealing with, they’d have to take a risk and search the Internet. Derek Eckersley and Antony Jarvish drew up a list of ambiguous keywords. Though the broad parameters would produce a mountain of articles, this was preferable to the tip-off potential of an explicit search. Ignorance had made them paranoid.
Julian knew he couldn’t participate in the Net search; he was too fearful of discovery. He asked if there were another way he could help. Franz already had something in mind. It was not what Julian was after.
‘I want you to buy a piece of desert,’ said Franz.
Julian felt himself sliding from the frying pan to the fire. ’What on earth for?’
‘We need a depot,’ said Franz. ‘Somewhere away from powered devices, where we can stockpile clean gear. I have a strong feeling we’re going to need it. If we wait much longer, there’ll be none left. We’ll be surrounded. We need to set up a sanctuary.’
Julian started to perspire. ‘But I can’t; Dad’ll spot the transaction in a flash.’
‘Not if you siphon funds gradually and do the deal under another name,’ said Myron. ‘That’s your speciality, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ said Julian desperately. ‘But I’ve never done it for myself, only my father.’
‘Well, bucko,’ said Antony, ‘You’ve got a choice: trawl the Net with us, buy the land, or get out of our gang.’
‘Stop it, Tony!’ said Franz. ‘We’re not a bloody gang, and baiting each other achieves nothing.’ He turned to Julian. ‘The fact is we need you. None of us has much money.’
‘Tell me about it,’ said Derek.
Franz continued. ‘We’re going to need funding if we’re to stay safe and make progress. We’ve each got talents and yours, Jules, is the acquisition and manipulation of other people’s money. If you want to be part of this venture, we need you to contribute according to your talents. Refusing won’t compromise our friendship, it’ll just mean we can’t include you; it wouldn’t be fair. So you do have a choice, but Tony’s dead wrong to make it a pressure decision. Just think about it. We need a base and you’re the only one who can buy one.’
‘I’ll do it,’ blurted Julian.
‘No, don’t decide now; it’s obviously a big deal for you. Take a few days to think it through properly.’
‘I have’, said Julian with more conviction than he possessed. ‘I’m buggered if I’m going to be Dad’s lapdog for the rest of my life!’
Antony applauded. ‘That’s the spirit! Welcome aboard!’
‘I’ll need a name,’ said Julian, suddenly all business. ‘Something to call the shell company.’
Franz took out a scrap of paper. ‘I have a name. You tell me if you think it’s suitable. It’s TASOM.’
‘How come that?’ asked Derek.
‘Technology for the Advancement and Service of Mankind,’ said Franz.
‘Woo hoo! What’s it mean?’
‘Well, this whole drama is about technology, right? We’ve just discovered that someone is starting to fuck with our machines. We’ve only spotted it by chance, even though technology is supposed to be our thing. We’re becoming … disenfranchised. If we can no longer understand or control our possessions, we’ll become slaves to them. Yet machines were always meant to serve us and help us advance, not the other way round. I’m suggesting that we represent mankind, and that our mission is to get a handle on what’s happening around us. Only with understanding can we claim to be in control. There, is that too deep for everybody?’
‘Sounds spot on to me,’ said Derek quietly.
‘Well put,’ agreed Antony. ‘Quite noble, really.’
‘It’s exactly what I was about to say,’ said Myron. The others looked at him. ‘No, seriously, ‘I’m there. I’m with it. All the way.’
Julian saw a chance to take his future into his own hands. The group needed him; it felt good to feel … equal. ‘Let’s do it!’
‘Well,’ said Derek, ‘TASOM it is then.’
Franz smiled humbly. ‘Thanks, you blokes.’
The rest of the evening was devoted to details. The young men began to grow up.
It took the members of TASOM seven weeks to locate Jessica Diep’s thesis among the reams of irrelevant Net articles. The temptation to ask directly for what they wanted had been maddening. It was Antony, covering more articles than Franz, Myron and Derek put together, who pulled the single ear of wheat from the megatons of chaff.
They met to study Jessica’s treatise on the feasibility of molecular identification. Franz paled at what he read. Jessica’s diagrams bore a startling resemblance to the X-rays of the mystery components he’d found. He ran a nervous hand through his wiry hair, in which traces of grey had recently appeared.
‘I can’t believe a twenty-one year old did this,’ said Myron, flipping through the download.
‘She’d beat the shit out of your tractor factory girls, that’s for sure,’ said Derek. ‘Look at her awards! Imagine how far she’s gone in the last ten years. She’s truly gifted.’
‘We now know roughly what we’re dealing with,’ interrupted Franz. ‘This molecular identifier is an intelligent, 3D, X-ray surveillance machine. What we don’t know is how powerful it is.
‘Or who’s using it,’ added Antony. ‘Or why.’
‘You can be sure it’s not for the greater glory of our race,’ said Julian. ‘Information is power. This thing is made for collecting data. Whoever’s using it is after power.’
‘Your father, perhaps?’
Julian glared at Antony.
‘Settle down, you two.’ Franz rubbed his stubble. ‘How’s the land going, Julian?’
‘Contrary to my detractors, I’ve raised enough to buy a property. It’s a shack on six hectares of badlands, thirty clicks West of Burnside.
‘Excellent,’ said Franz. ‘Get it.’
‘Surely you want to see it first?’ Julian was frightened by the sudden decision. ‘It’s pretty rough.’
Franz jabbed his finger at Jessica’s thesis. ‘This is extremely heavy duty shit, Jules. We don’t have time to lose. I trust your judgement; just get onto it.’ He addressed the others. ‘We’ve got to find this Diep woman, to see what she’s up to. We also need a better way to locate these … molecular identifiers. We can’t keep lugging everything to Derek’s for scanning, and we don’t know how risky it is to remove components from their host machines. Myron, see if you can use Diep’s design specs to knock up a program to reveal identifiers electronically.’
‘Antony, I need you to locate and download everything you can on Jessica Diep. Make sure you’re discreet.’
‘I’ll do my best,’ replied Antony tartly.
‘Derek, you need to milk your industry contacts. There has to be a huge number of people involved. Someone knows what’s going on. Find ‘em, talk to them, suck up to them, get ‘em pissed, whatever it takes.’
‘Also, we have to live our lives as normally as possible. Some sort of information gathering devices are all around us. To be safe, we must assume they’re very potent and very nasty. Until we know exactly what we’re dealing with, we must continue as if nothing has changed. OK?’
‘OK,’ chorused the others.
Under Franz’s competent leadership, TASOM made rapid progress.
Julian purchased the desert property without alerting his father and had an architect design an underground bunker, purportedly for a pistol shooting club.
Myron wrote a sophisticated program to recognise the molecular identifier’s unique construction. Franz incorporated the software into a portable unit, enabling the group to tell if a machine was loaded simply by monitoring its power use. Myron dubbed their creation the ‘Ferret’, since it tore through intricate conduits to flush elusive prey.
Antony built a dossier on Jessica, bursting with data on every aspect of her life. Like most people, she had a personal Internet site. Her brilliant university essays were still being downloaded by students. Yet nothing by or about her had been posted on the site for seven years. Nor did the Net list her as sick, dead or missing. It looked like she’d simply been too busy to post entries. Franz had a fair idea what she’d been working on, though Antony was unable to identify her employer.
Only Derek failed to produce a result. His carefully veiled inquiries elicited nothing but strange looks. Convinced of his targets’ ignorance, he felt he’d let his friends down, but they praised him for resisting the temptation to ask dangerously direct questions.
Franz collated the team’s efforts. One of his toughest decisions was to allow a visit to Jessica’s mother. Antony had convinced him it was the only way to pick up Jessica’s trail. Despite Antony’s assurances of caution, stealth and tact, Franz was scared. For all he knew, Lee Khuzain was in on the deal. Franz’s sole comfort concerned Lee’s essential oil boutique. Though seventy, her ads declared her available for consultations. This was much safer than visiting her home.
During his consultation, Antony steered the conversation to the breakdown of the family. He tapped Lee’s pride at her daughter’s achievements and discovered where Jessica worked. He was suspicious; he’d not encountered any Diep Research Centre on the Internet. Lee confirmed that Jessica was working on her father’s dream and produced a photograph. She mentioned a falling out with ‘that horrible man’ Neville Major and alluded to a boyfriend. Antony bought a two vials of ylang ylang and got out while he was ahead.
Franz sent Antony and Derek back to the Net to research Neville Major. Both men, having caught a whiff of the chase, began to get excited.
After months of effort, all the more painstaking for its secrecy, TASOM reached a watershed. They had a base, in which reposed a stockpile of obsolete but untainted PCs and other machines. They had a means of detecting the device they feared. They had profiles of the two people they considered primarily responsible for developing the device. And they had theories aplenty on the conspiracy they’d appeared uncovered. The question was, what next?
As Franz ran out of tasks to assign, he reluctantly admitted they’d gone as far as they could on the existing data. It was time for another risk. To reveal more pieces of the puzzle, TASOM had to make contact with Jessica Diep or Neville Major. But who to target, and how?
During an evening of agonising deliberation, Franz put these questions to the others. The first was relatively easy. Jessica was the one to which they could best relate. Like them, she was young and into computers. That she was quite beautiful didn’t hurt either. Neville Major, on the other hand, was fifty-six. His past deeds portrayed him as a seasoned and ruthless political animal. He reminded Julian of his father.
The second question was tougher. The Diep Research Centre was a fortress. Franz had staked it out and seen barely a soul entering or exiting the grounds. When Jessica left at night, it was either alone to her mother’s home or to an apartment with an athletic-looking young man. There was no pattern to her movements. Nor did she seem to have any interests outside her triangle of destinations. TASOM wrestled with the problem of how to get to Jessica without raising suspicion. They were amateurs. They’d worked long and hard, but now they were stuck.
Franz saw seeds of discontent and proposed a session. They hadn’t had a good blowout for months and the drugs provided a welcome release. As the night progressed, even Franz loosened up a bit.
At around midnight, a mightily intoxicated Julian Oberman moved that TASOM kidnap Jessica’s cat. He slurringly suggested they hold it hostage, and use it to wring salient details from a distraught Jessica. Franz modified the plan: they’d hold the cat until Jessica lost hope. In her emotional state, her guard would be down. The right questions at the right time could trigger valuable clues.
By the light of day, the friends realised this plan was pathetic. But it was all they had. Impatient for progress, Franz intercepted the cat at dusk. Sociable by nature, it devoured the drugged meat from his hand and surrendered to his sports bag. Myron wondered at their chances of saving the universe by such means.
The lost posters appeared next day. Jessica and her mother risked substantial fines for their unauthorised communiques and many were removed by angry surface owners. The rest slid from riotous plastic billboards during two days of rain.
Franz watched Jessica arrive home. An hour later, he saw Myron approach the Diep household – mews emanating from the box under his arm. Franz monitored the exchange and nodded with satisfaction as Jessica’s face lit up. Myron was invited inside.
Some time later, Myron reappeared on the doorstep and took his leave from a smiling Jessica. It looked good. Franz raced back to Myron’s house. Burning with curiosity, he made cups of tea for the others as they arrived. Myron seemed to take an age. Finally, all five members of TASOM were assembled.
‘What did she say?’ asked Franz impatiently.
Myron savoured the moment. ‘We had a lovely time. Lee Khuzain makes the best biscuits.’
‘Cut the crap.’
‘OK. Jessica is working with her technician boyfriend and another scientist on a prototype production line for the Molecular Tracking Device or MTD. The device has been miniaturised and is almost ready for full-scale production.’
‘Where’s the prototype line?’
‘In the research centre. They’re turning out about five hundred a day.’ Myron grinned. ‘Not bad intelligence for a cup of coffee and a chat, eh?’
‘It doesn’t make sense,’ said Antony. ‘They must be making more. Franz has isolated fifty devices in our possessions alone. You can’t tell me we’ve been lucky enough to score ten percent of a day’s production.’
‘Maybe they’re onto us and we’ve been targeted,’ proposed Derek.
‘No way,’ said Franz. ‘The four of you bought your loaded possessions all over town, at times and locations impossible to predict.’
‘Then there’s only one other explanation,’ sighed Myron. ‘MTDs are being produced elsewhere. Shit; I thought I’d done so well, too.’
‘You did,’ said Franz, patting Myron’s shoulder. ‘You connected with Jessica. Tell me, was she cagey or furtive when talking about her work?’
‘On the contrary, she wouldn’t shut up! But everything she said was in the context of her lover, Fabien Varste. She raved about him non-stop.’
‘How long did she say she’d been working on the pilot line?’ asked Derek.
‘That’s a hell of a long time. I wonder if she’s been … ‘
‘Sidelined?’ suggested Antony. ‘Happens all the time at uni. Gun academics get sinecures to stop them rocking the boat.’
Franz pounded his fist lightly on the table. ‘We’ve got to talk to her again; and this Varste character. We’re running in circles with what we’ve got. For all we know, someone else could be driving the real project.’
‘Does Fabien have a cat?’ inquired Julian.
‘Don’t be stupid! We’ve spent enough time fart-arseing around. I’ve a feeling this is already out of our control.’
Julian looked hurt, but said nothing.
Franz continued. ‘Myron, she knows you. we’ll follow her to Varste’s place, ask for ten minutes of their time and show ‘em what we’ve got. Hopefully, they’ll keep their hands off each other long enough to have a look. It’s the only way.’
‘Alright,’ said Myron. ‘We’ll stake out the centre until she heads off to his place. With any luck, it’ll be tomorrow.’
Read Chapter 21.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by digitalMindy.
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.
Tags: alcohol, bar, bouncer, CBD, cigarette, de facto cigarette, miniaturisation, MTD, relationship, research, Retro Bar, romance, science fiction, speculative fiction, technology, tobacco
Jessica Diep killed the lights and locked the research centre. Filled with petty reconfigurations and endless testing for questionable gains, her week had been as uninspiring as the month preceding it. Developing the Molecular Tracking Device had been the proud realisation of her father’s dream. Miniaturisation had generated a fresh array of challenges.
Optimising the pilot production line simply wasn’t in the same league. Her team had been reduced to six and they were all on the cusp of boredom, painting by complex numbers. Tired and deflated, Jessica pocketed her locking card and entered the car park.
Phase Three did have advantages. She no longer had to live in the centre, working up to twenty hours a day. The project had taken its toll and she was beginning to look her years. She was happy to spend evenings at home with her mother and had begun to reflect that her whole life had revolved around molecular tracking technology. What had happened to her adolescence? Her twenties?
Such thoughts occupied her as she paced to her car. She didn’t hear her name hailed from the exit. Nor did she notice the young man running lightly towards her. Only when Fabien Varste overtook her and performed a low, theatrical bow did she react.
‘Hey! What the… Fabien! You scared the daylights out of me!’
Fabien flashed even teeth. ‘Ah! Got you that time, Boss. Man, were you away with the fairies or what?’
Jessica smiled, despite herself. ‘Yes, yes, “salaam” to you too, Brother. But stay your shenanigans. What brings you back here on a Friday night? Surely you have places to go?’
‘Ah but of course — and so do you, if I may so presume.’
She looked at him. ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘O Fates! She has forgotten! What did I ever do to deserve such a heartless team leader?’
‘Lord, the drama!’ Jessica leaned against her car. ‘What did I forget, your birthday?’
‘Oh no, my mentor; worse! Do our water cooler conferences mean nothing to you? A year ago today, you saw fit to hire me onto your team. You took a stupid child from the scrap heap and taught me everything I know. And now, I can only celebrate this momentous anniversary with you, tonight!’
Jessica folded her long arms. ‘You certainly are one for dramatics. How come you never became an actor?’
‘It was your eyes, Boss. They led me from my calling to a place where I would forever be the dolt who ruined tests and lost files.’ Fabien cringed inwardly at his clumsy departure from rehearsal.
Jessica’s tone was one of thinning tolerance. ‘I’m sorry, but what’s this all about really?’ Then she recalled his previous week’s invitation. He’d mentioned it so casually, so passively that she’d discarded it without a thought.
Fabien noted her flicker of comprehension. He composed himself and in his deep, true voice said, ‘Jessica, a year ago you gave me a job I didn’t fully deserve. You’ve been very good to me and I am grateful. I’ve enjoyed working and learning with you. I was hoping you might let me buy you a drink on your way home.’
Jessica blinked. She’d never heard such a serious sentence from him. The five years separating them had always felt more like fifteen. For once she saw him as something other than the workplace clown. ‘That’s sweet of you, Fabien, but I’m very tired and I have to get home. My mother’s expecting me.’
‘Jessica,’ again the resonant tone, ‘this will not take long. You’ll be home in little more than an hour.’ Fabien proffered his mobile with more bravado than he knew he had. ‘Could I suggest that you ring your mother for me?’
No one told Jessica what to do, let alone her assistant. She formed a biting retort, but Fabien shrank away, arms in mock surrender.
‘Sorry, Boss. I can see you’re tired and have more important things to do. It was just really important to me that you came tonight. Forget it.’
Jessica watched him go and felt a pang of guilt. She dined with her mother every night; what was the big deal there? Fabien had asked for an hour. Though not as intelligent as he’d appeared on paper, his contribution to the team had been significant.
‘Fabien!’ The name echoed eerily and he turned, lifted with hope. ‘Wait there!’ Jessica climbed into her car. The batteries bled and she drew up beside him. ‘Alright; one drink. I have to admit you’ve earned it. Where to?’
Fabien grinned and gripped the door, rocking the vehicle slightly. ‘Ah, that’s part of the surprise!’
The streets were busy. All the technology in the world couldn’t replace a Friday night with friends. Light rain swirled between the buildings. The streets were mirrors on which silent vehicles laid silver ribbons.
Fabien motioned Jessica into in a side street. Springing from the car, he offered to help her from the low seat. ‘I’m so pleased you decided to come. Thank you.’
Jessica declined his hand. ‘No worries. I’m happy to be here, wherever this is.’
‘All will be revealed; just walk this way.’
He guided her down an alley. She could tell it was part of the old city from the cobblestones visible beneath their high-tech veneer. The space was so narrow and the buildings so tall that little rain made it to the ground. Two ragged kittens played under a string of recycling bins. Their stiff-tailed posturing and comic pounces made Jessica smile.
‘We’re here; this is the place.’
Jessica saw a massive iron door, centuries old. Huge bolts studded the surface. Paint clung to dints and tears in a crude palimpsest of eras and episodes. Accustomed to grey furniture and pastel partitions, Jessica marvelled at the door’s texture, tracing her fingertips along an ancient scar.
‘I have to knock. Could I get past you please?’
‘Yes. Yes, of course.’
‘You like the door too, eh? It blew me away when I first saw it. They don’t build them like that any more, do they?’
‘No, they certainly don’t.’
Gripping a knocker the size of a porthole, Fabien sounded four loud clangs. There came the sound of bolts withdrawing and the great door swung. A bald, ageing bouncer appeared. His professional scowl twisted into a gap-toothed grimace and his gravel voice grated. ‘Fabien, lad! How are you my boy? Come in, come in and bring your companion with you.’
Fabien stepped into the foyer, relieved to be on familiar ground. ‘Hello Gerald, it’s good to see you again. May I present my team leader, Dr Jessica Diep? Jessica, meet Gerald Bouvier, crowd control technician for the Retro Bar.’
Gerald bowed and took Jessica’s hand with incongruous grace. ‘Enchanted.’
‘Pleased to meet you.’ She glanced about. ‘Have… have you worked here long?’
Gerald drew himself up. ‘For as long as there has been a past, I have been here in the present. My vocation will forever be to guard this establishment from the vicissitudes of the future.’
‘Then how about guarding us from our thirst, Sir Gerald?’ Fabien whispered to Jessica, ‘all he does is read history all day; he’s out of his mind with bullshit!’
‘I hear you, heathen!’ Gerald growled. ‘Begone! Ascend your godless mountain and consume your evil liquors.’ He grabbed Fabien in a headlock and made to dash his head against the banister. Fabien dug sharply into Gerald’s ribs and broke free. Laughing, he fled up the stairs and beckoned to Jessica. Gerald hurled a final curse and retired chuckling to his cubby-hole.
Jessica studied the surroundings as they ascended. On the right was a sheer drop to bituminous black carpet. The rough walls, also black, were dimly lit. Posters touted seminal acts from the controversial ‘bleen’ era, so long gone that even its tribute bands were extinct. The place reeked of nostalgia and had a snug, worn feel about it. Jessica felt a flicker of enthusiasm for her outing. She peered past Fabien as he opened the landing door.
He turned smiling, eyebrow cocked. Stunned that he had progressed so far into his vision. ‘Ready?’
‘Yes, Fabien, lead on.’
The first thing to strike Jessica was the haze of blue smoke. It transported her back to the courtyard below her father’s old office, where she’d often seen his colleagues smoking tobacco.
‘You’ll never catch me using that substitute crap, Missy,’ one had proclaimed through his stained moustache. ‘Don’t you know it’s the carcinogens that make a smoke worthwhile?’
She touched Fabien’s sleeve, innervating his arm. ‘Is that real tobacco?’
‘Y…Yes. How can you tell?’
‘I saw it when I was a kid. I can’t believe it’s still around!’
‘The regulars here are purists; they literally live in the past. Look, there’s a table.’
They settled into a circular booth. Jessica stared at the décor, some of which looked as old as the front door. Everything obviously predated recycling triggers. Television receivers hung from stout rods, their role integrated into PCs at the time of her birth. Books made of paper and mobiles the size of house bricks flanked an oil heater. Other items she had seen in museums. More were unfamiliar, the detritus of consumerism.
Fabien was watching her closely. ‘What do you think?’
Jessica twisted in her seat. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. How’d you find this place?’
‘A friend at gym told me. Working at the centre all day, I got sick of filtered air and plastic. See this table? It’s wood. Feel the seat; it’s leather — bright red. How long since you saw a primary colour? You picked up on the smell; just wait till you hear some sounds.’
‘But Fabien, where did they get all this stuff? I recognise some of it, but it all looks sort of… alien.’
”’There is nothing so unfamiliar as the recent past.” There’s one for you to look up. Now, let me get you a drink.’
‘I’ll just have a mineral water, thanks.’
‘No way! You can’t. You promised you’d have a drink with me.’
‘Yes, but I’m driving…’
‘Home to your mother’s in one hour, remember?’
‘Alright, alright; I’ll have a drink. What do you recommend?’
‘I will surprise you, just leave it to me.’
Jessica watched him at the bar. It fitted that he went to a gym. Her eyes flicked over his body and she realised she’d never considered what he did outside work. She ran her hands across the dimpled couch. The cracked leather indeed felt different to the clinical surfaces of her world. She leaned back and let herself relax a little, finding with a start that she was getting a mild head rush from the smoke. What would it be like to inhale the fragrant vapour from its source?
Fabien returned with four drinks and two packets. Placing them carefully on the table, he slid opposite her and began a ceremony. ‘Jessica Diep; welcome. Before you I put a single malt Irish whiskey with ice. Beside that, a frosty glass of dark ale. In front I place delicious cashew nuts. Behind, the finest rolling tobacco known to man. And so,’ he performed an elaborate flourish, ‘ta-da!’
To his delight, Jessica actually clapped her hands and laughed. ‘You are one strange man, Fabien Varste. Where do I start?’
‘With the whiskey, Boss! The whiskey!’
Condensation coursed down the tumbler as Jessica brought it close to her face. Through dimpled cubes and bronze fluid she saw Fabien raising a toast. ‘Cheers,’ she murmured and closed her eyes. Barley, oak and spring water burned and cooled in one swift motion. In her empty stomach she felt a soft, far away collision. Then an even gentler impact occurred in her brain.
‘Shit, woman, you don’t muck around!’
Jessica stared at the empty glass. ‘I haven’t drunk for ages. Was that, er, good whiskey?’
‘The best; cost me three days’ pay!’
Jessica smiled and reached for her beer. ‘I feel like some cashews. You’re saying this is the only way I can get to them?’
‘Yes. Beer first, then nuts.’
They clinked and drank deeply, the ale a perfect chaser. More customers arrived. A couple dressed in the fashion of four decades past sauntered to a booth. A business suit joined others at the bar and ordered vodka shots.
‘Ready for the next phase?’
Jessica looked at the packet of tobacco and waved her hand. ‘Not for me, thanks. You go ahead.’
‘Ah, but I bought it specially for you. You want to try it, do you not?’
‘I seem to be getting plenty from the environment.’
‘It’s not the same. I saw it in your face; you want to sample real tobacco. Come on, die a little!’
Fabien turned the packet over and over, caressing it. His performance made her laugh again.
‘Alright, give me a damn cigarette. Lord! What I have to do for my assistant!’
Fabien smiled at his victory. Things were going better than he could have dreamed. He rolled a pinch of tobacco between his palms, draped it along a cleft of paper and deftly entombed it with a lick. Taking a match, he poked in a few shreds and twisted the cylinder shut. Jessica hesitated, then took it from him and examined it like an artefact.
When the link to cancer was proven beyond dispute, the tobacco companies changed strategy. Funds earmarked for advertising and litigation were ploughed into research until a harmless substitute, accepted by most smokers, was eventually developed. Jessica had smoked a few de facto cigarettes but had never touched one of their disgraced predecessors.
Her common sense said ‘no’. Piqued by alcohol, the uninspiring week and her recent introspection, her curiosity countered with ‘yes’. She lit up and drew back. Though the physical effects were the same as a de facto, her mental reaction was as complex as the smoke leaving her lips. She felt disobedient, then guilty, then heavy with a vague yearning. To belong to a gym. To have friends. To perhaps even fit into an alternative scene like the Retro Bar.
Fabien stayed quiet while she smoked pensively. Her ride ran its course and returned to its platform, but not to the exact point of departure. Calm again, but slightly unsettled, she sank further into the leather.
‘Not bad, Fabien. Not bad at all.’
Fabien fought to conceal his excitement. ‘You pull like a pro, Boss; I’m impressed.’ He fumbled in his jacket.
Jessica took a long last drag and blew it at the ceiling. ‘Do you reckon we could dispense with the ‘‘Boss’’ routine?’ She looked at Fabien and received a shock. In his palm was a small package. She frowned. ‘What is that, and why?’
Fabien’s grin was awkward and motile. ‘I told you I was grateful for my job, B… Jessica. This is the token with which I say “thank you”.’ The package landed in Jessica’s hand and scrunched as he folded her fingers onto it.
To her annoyance, Jessica blushed. The only men ever to give her presents had been her father and a couple of preferred suppliers. She stared at her lap, reflecting that Fabien’s fingers had been clammy, almost wet.
‘Open it,’ he prompted.
‘Thank you,’ she replied woodenly. ‘This is most unexpected.’ She tried to save the pretty paper, but Fabien had mummified it with tape. She filled the ashtray with fragments until a small box appeared. ‘Jewellery,’ she thought, her involuntary interest pierced with concern. Fabien leaned forward eagerly.
She snapped the lid open. On a satin bed lay a pendant with a gold chain. Fixed in crystal was an MTD, fresh from their pilot production line. The piece was obviously hand crafted at considerable expense and the combination worked.
Jessica was flabbergasted. She turned the pendant over and over, trying to determine how the MTD, effectively her totem, had been incorporated without creating a flaw.
Fabien studied her reaction. ‘You like it… don’t you?’
‘…Yes. But it’s far too much; I can’t possibly accept it.’
‘You can and you must. I had it made for you; it cannot be returned.’
‘But it’s…,’ Jessica’s voice rose with exasperation. ‘Why on earth do you want to give it to me?’
‘I already told you. You turned my life around when you chose me for your team. I love my job, I admire you and I am grateful. Please keep it.’
Jessica regarded the pendant, realising she wanted to put it on, just to see how it looked.
Fabien swallowed hard; fortune had favoured him this far. Reaching forward, he fastened the chain around Jessica’s neck. Then he gathered her hair and drew it through the glinting circle. It cascaded, soft as mink, through his hands and fell around her shoulders.
Jessica bristled and went rigid. She watched Fabien resume his seat, hands shaking, then slowly picked up the pendant and stroked it again. Fabien looked back, sweating on the gamble of his life.
A full minute passed, during which Jessica detected the same sense of power she had begun to derive from public speaking. Suddenly, she felt like another drink.
Fabien fidgeted and went red. Then crimson. Then beet.
‘Thank you, Fabien. I accept your generous gift.’
He shook his head in smiling disbelief and grabbed some tobacco, only to scatter it over the table. He looked up embarrassed. ‘Would you, um… would you excuse me for a moment?’
As Jessica inclined her head, Fabien propelled himself towards to the bathroom. Jessica examined her gift as she replayed the last scene. Then she tossed her head and strode to the bar. The bartender listened studiously to her order, debited her account and waved her back to her seat.
Read Chapter 12.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Tags: data, internet, internet nodes, molecular tracking device, MTD, nanotechnology, politics, storage
In designing the second MTD demonstration, Jessica Diep left nothing to chance. Now she was personally lacing the auditorium with dozens of the tiny units. It was a year to the day since the debacle in which Neville Major had threatened and humiliated her. By the time the ETAT delegates were seated, she’d logged all the data she needed to blow them away.
This time she was operating without support, so improved was the MTD’s reliability. Major had moved her forward into the lights, where her jet hair shimmered and flashed. She caught her reflection in the speech projector and was well pleased. Her tailored investment was paying dividends. A thrill of elation swept through her body and flushed her cheeks as diplomatic applause followed Major’s introduction.
Just before starting, Jessica thought she glimpsed her father in the sea of faces. A cry formed in her throat until reason quashed it. Then he was gone, lost in the spotlight that swung to engulf her. She toyed with sorrow, then chose to treat the apparition as an endorsement. Drawing a deep breath, she squared her frame and let Hilton’s spirit empower her.
She differentiated between real and fake jewellery, triggering an argument between two secret lovers. She had fifty wristwatches collected in identical pouches. Running a match of skin cell signatures, she returned them, sight unseen, to their amazed owners. In response to a haughty challenge, she nominated those people who had cut their face or legs shaving that morning. To her surprise and the gallery’s amusement, it transpired that the sceptic (now thoroughly abashed) had done both.
Jessica fanned the mirth by identifying Members with red underwear, the MTDs accessing all known dye formulae from the Internet. Riding waves of applause she felt sharp and clever. When the questions began, confidence gilded her tongue as she delivered parry and riposte with mounting élan.
Time grew viscous beneath the lights. The swift handling of every challenge gave her languid seconds for reflection. She became acutely alive to her heartbeat, her breathing, the gradual dewing of her forehead and the slither of silk on her skin.
Though the MTD could have sold itself, its charismatic champion clinched the deal. Only the most ardent detractors held out as the session ran its course. Soon the sheer power of the technology would bludgeon even them into line.
Major gaped at Jessica like a gargoyle, ill at ease from conflicting emotions. Each frisson he felt from her dispatch of a hated critic fuelled his long-held fear of her popularity — a concern now sharpened by the pleasure she was taking in her performance. He scanned the audience and noted heads bent in conference. Given a little mentoring, Jessica could easily be considered a star recruit.
The MTD was now almost certain to form the cornerstone of ETAT security strategy. If she had a shred of ambition, there was a growing risk she could usurp him.
In Phase Two she’d taken to treating him with cool disdain. Major had borne it for the sake of the project, comforted by his contingency plan. The three men being trained to succeed her were progressing well, their secret work on the second-generation MTD outstanding.
Having once again anticipated ETAT thinking, Major’s project plan for Phase Three was endorsed. The wording was perfect. By prioritising a production line, he could isolate Jessica from second-generation activity. By the time she realised she was in a backwater, the project would have been swept from her.
With mass production underway, ETAT used its connections to make MTDs mandatory in all powered devices. Virtually all manufactured goods contained some manifestation of electronics. Short product cycles, recycling triggers and consumer desire for the latest models ensured rapid saturation. Toasters, PCs, shavers, cars, doorbells, toys, lights. Each machine became, on replacement, an ETAT-run intelligence gathering outpost.
Titanic Internet nodes were assigned to store transmitted signatures. For each node filled, two more spawned automatically. New signatures were cross-linked to those recorded, while superseded transmissions were archived. The scale of processing defied comprehension and challenged the limits of computer power for the first time in decades.
Read Chapter 10.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by Arenamontanus.