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 He was quiet and withdrawn.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: molecular tracking device, nanotechnology, novel, Panrax, personal computer, science fiction, speculative fiction, technology, The Game
The trains ran all night. Julian Oberman surfaced near his new apartment and walked along a handsome, tree-lined street. His expensive boots trod a granite footpath damp with leaves. Hands deep in his voluminous overcoat, he sniffed the cold air. His intoxication was fading fast, replaced by weariness and wanton hunger.
A glimmer in the east told him the time. It was nice to have stayed out all night, especially with the weekend to recover. He reflected on his evening. Franz’s warehouse and its set of regular visitors provided welcome relief from the sycophantic court life of his father.
He envied Franz and Myron: their fortunes depended solely on their efforts. Though far from wealthy, they called their own shots and experienced success and failure as undiluted events. Julian wondered what it’d be like to live by his wits. Property deals were events in which he could participate only vicariously. He hungered for an adventure, the outcome of which would hang on his intrinsic merit.
He nodded to the doorman. The elevator deposited him onto thick carpet. His door opened with a fragrant sigh. The cleaners had done well. He called down to the kitchen for sausages, eggs, onions and potato slices – his favourite hangover cure. He had it for breakfast on most days anyway, as his girth testified.
He filled his spa and lowered himself into the swirling water. He lay back, a towel behind his neck, and sipped a precocious Chardonnay. His mind wandered, then seized on the evening’s discussion of the Panrax schematic error. First he sought a way to profit from the company’s omission. The reward for alerting Panrax would be negligible. Demonstrating commercial loss would be complicated, and his father would surely forbid him exposing the source of the illicit test rig. Julian switched levels. Why was the resistor not labelled? Was it deliberate? Sabotage? His imagination ran. What if it were something disguised as a resistor: a microphone, some tricky customer research instrument, a bomb? The size of the component didn’t restrict his speculations. All his possessions were top shelf. Since miniaturisation was expensive, he’d encountered it widely.
When his breakfast arrived, Julian had finished the wine and was deep in an erotic spy fantasy. Dripping across the floor, he fought the tent pole in his bathrobe. This was made harder by the attractive house girl who accepted his palm print. He’d gladly have foregone his meal to take her to his torrid spa. But her professional smile could not conceal her distaste for his thick lips and drooping eyelids. She handed him the tray and fled.
Dejected, Julian sat in the kitchenette to eat. He flicked through a dozen channels, finding nothing of interest. The warming of his body outside and in made him sleepy. With fantasies extinguished by the bathroom Mirror of Truth, he went to bed. His last command to the apartment’s central PC was to shut the blinds. He peered through the gloom at the 4000K, high above on its mezzanine. As was common to high-end Panrax products, the PC designed its own screen savers in real time. It was better than having a fish tank. Panrax owners swore their machines had personalities, as indicated by their unique choice of images. Julian hadn’t owned his long enough to have formed an opinion; he just liked the pretty colours. As he settled, the 4000K bathed the apartment in blue.
Julian woke refreshed and ready for diversion. The blinds opened and thin sunshine streamed through the Western windows. He guessed it was 14:30; his bedside terminal read 16:50. Stretching and scratching, he checked his communication directory. Not even a telemarketer had tried him while he slept. He felt miffed, then very lonely. It was Saturday afternoon. Out in the world people were playing sport, watching it with friends, spending time with partners or getting ready for exciting events. Why wasn’t he? Julian didn’t try hard for answers; they were more upsetting than the questions. He paced before his wall of glass, oblivious to the mighty views. Once again he’d have to initiate contact if he wanted to go out. Munching messily on a chocolate bar, he flopped back onto his bed and summoned a register of his abortive forays into the elusive world of ‘good times’.
The spreadsheet catalogued Julian’s contact with people he’d met more than once. The list was generously titled ‘friends’. Other columns held details of calls made and received, including date, duration, topics discussed and action items. The final column contained remarks, and the preponderance of negative ones formed the litany of a lonely man.
Julian sorted the data by date and scanned the faces of those he’d not approached for longest. Some he couldn’t even name. Others bore damning summaries. Reluctantly, he archived four women and two men. Though he had little or no prospect of seeing them again, he couldn’t delete them outright. He scrolled. As the names became familiar and the comments more positive, so did the number of contacts – 97 percent of which he’d initiated. Statistically, the men he’d drunk with the previous night were his best friends. Except for Antony Jarvish, he’d called them all at least once during the week. Only Franz had called him. Though Franz was the person most likely to see him again, his acceptance could nudge him closer to burnout. Julian knew he should let Franz lie fallow for a while, but he couldn’t abide another Saturday alone.
Julian stamped his foot and looked heavenward. At that moment, the 4000K’s screen saver switched from a glacier motif to one of fireworks. The sudden change caught Julian’s eye and triggered a memory. Of course! Franz had asked if he could pull apart his new PC! And fuck it if he hadn’t tried to put him off! Julian slapped his forehead. Here, alone, he couldn’t give a shit about possessions. He’d swap them all for one good friend. Franz had said, ‘one day soon’. Today was soon! For once, Julian had a legitimate reason to call someone.
He pulled on a silk shirt and designer jeans. His stomach bounced on his thighs as he scrambled up the mezzanine ladder. Plumping into the beautifully designed work station, he bashed out Franz’s number and fought to regain his breath.
‘Hello. This is Franz Heilmayr…’
‘Franz?’ gushed Julian, ‘it’s me. How are you?’
‘I’m not here right now, but if you’d like to leave a message…’
Julian collapsed inwardly. He might have known. Franz was off with friends somewhere, participating in the universe. Julian watched the recorded face with malice, when it suddenly acquired a four day stubble.
‘Sorry about that Julian,’ said the real Franz, ‘I was out the back.’
Julian spluttered with relief. ‘Er. Hi, F..Franz. How’re you going?’
‘Excellent, man. How ’bout you?’
‘Oh, pretty good; bit woozy from last night, you know. Did you have a nice time?’
‘Yeah, always do. It was good to have you over. You mustn’t mind Tony, he’s just a frustrated lefty. He had quite a go at you last night.’
Julian forced a laugh. ‘Oh, that. Hey, I know he was only fooling around. He’s a good bloke, really.’
‘Yeah, he adds a lot to the mix.’
‘Couldn’t agree more.’ Julian noticed with trepidation that dusk was approaching. He drew a breath. ‘What are you up to tonight, man?’ He held the remaining air.
‘Party,’ replied Franz, blithe to the bolt in Julian’s heart.
‘Oh, yeah?’ said Julian faintly, ‘whereabouts?’
‘Next door. One of my customers, by coincidence. He’s into flings and he saw my plate downstairs. I fixed his projector for free and he invited me to his do. Bloody handy; I’ll literally be able to crawl home.’
Julian’s grin looked more like a grimace. His heart palpitated weakly beneath the mezzanine. ‘That’s great, Franz. Who’re you going with?’
‘Just me. I was going to invite Myron, but he’s busy.’
Julian’s heart wearily performed a double somersault with a half turn and landed back in his throat. ‘Really? You’re going alone?’
‘Yeah. Sometimes I do that; it’s the best way to meet people. You’re not worried about whether your mate’s having a good time. And you can be outrageous and no one you know will ever find out. I’ve had a shit of a week and I’m looking forward to some anonymous shenanigans.’ His eyes twinkled beneath fair lashes. ‘I mean, how often do you have a houseful of game, drugged-up women next door to you? Once I get them on a tour of my haunted computer caves, it’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s fancy dress, you know – check this out!’
Franz vanished from the screen. Julian sat, utterly thwarted from attending a marvellous party with his statistical best friend. Hopelessness hatched in his stomach and spread through his body.
Franz reappeared in a costume made entirely from computer hardware. He’d skilfully woven wiring harnesses into a colourful and flexible fabric. Thicker strands secured the material around him and held a range of componentry. Julian watched him prance and cavort for his benefit.
‘Well, squadron leader, what do you think?’
‘Yeah, isn’t it!’ Franz was oblivious to Julian’s tone. ‘But wait, there’s more: watch this!’ He clapped his hands and the lights went out. The suit lit up with hundreds of tiny globes. Optical fibres channelled thirty hues around Franz’s body. Enhanced by his enthusiastic gyrations, the effect was stunning.
‘It’s wonderful,’ was all Julian could muster. This was obviously the party to end all parties.
‘Thanks mate, I’m pretty proud of it myself. Looks like I haven’t lost my touch with the gear after all.’ Franz grabbed his beer. ‘Now then, what can I do for you?’
‘I just rang to say you can check out the Panrax whenever you like.’
‘That’d be great. When would suit?’
‘Tomorrow?’ suggested Julian, with little conviction.
Franz shook his head ruefully. ‘Oh, man, I don’t think I’ll be up to it; not after tonight.’
‘I’ll call you. I’d love to see it, but I don’t know how rooted I’m going to be.’
‘That’d be fine. I’ll be here; just give me a call when you’ve made a decision.’
‘Great. So what are you up to tonight?’
‘I… I’m er… having dinner with some friends… from overseas.’
‘Nice one, have a groovy time. And now I have to go go go go!’ Franz touched a panel crimped to his sleeve and the lights began strobing wildly. He started to jig around again.
‘Alright, Franz have a good night.’
His back to the monitor, Franz waved farewell.
Julian angrily severed the link, slumped back in his chair and exhaled loudly. ‘Fuck!’ He clenched his fists. ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! FUUUUUCK!!’
The sun dipped low. Though his face was suffused with gold, Julian felt as cold as stone under sleet. He toyed with going back to bed, thought momentarily of suicide, then rejected both ideas in favour of a trusted third. He had nothing but money. Once again he’d buy his happiness, rather than hang on the mercy of others.
An hour later, he was high on cocaine. A meek knock confirmed that the doorman had earned his tip.
Belly spilling from a silk dressing gown, Julian propped himself against the door frame. His attempt at a greeting produced only a leer, instantly repelling the two young women in the corridor. He ushered them in groggily, topped up his Scotch and waved at them to undress. On seeing them burst from their pretty lingerie, he became sluggishly aroused. He accosted them with contempt, in an effort to conceal his own self-revulsion. The oriental ran professional fingers over his hairy shoulders, her pert breasts flattened against his sweating back. Impatiently Julian grabbed her forearm and dragged her into his field of vision while the blonde dropped to her knees and gingerly parted his robe.
Julian was still asleep when Franz called the next day. Bleary eyed and dishevelled, he confronted the monitor.
‘Julian! How goes it? Shit, looks like it was big old dinner.’
Julian stared at him. ‘Oh… yeah… we had a ball.’ His senses dragged themselves into focus. ‘How was the fling?’
‘Shithouse,’ muttered Franz.
Julian’s interest sparked. ‘Really, how come?’
‘Fucking guests didn’t dress up. The arsehole said it was fancy dress. I created the world’s most amazing outfit and only three of the other fuckers made any effort whatsoever. I was the only one who’d put any thought into it. The rest just wore a few clashing colours, which is probably what that lot wear all the time anyway. Wankers. They thought I was hired entertainment! I was so pissed off. I still am. And not one girl in the haunted computer caves either. I was in bed, alone, by 23:00. Can you believe it?’
Julian gloated. For once, he’d enjoyed a better Saturday night than someone else. ‘That’s really ordinary, Franz, especially after the guy said you should dress up.’
‘Too right. Anyway, what can you do? You live and learn. There’s always next Saturday.’
Julian did not wish to even contemplate that crisis. ‘So, what can I do for you this,’ he parted the blinds and squinted outside, ‘grey Sunday morning?’
‘I thought I’d take up your offer to look at the Panrax.’
Julian experienced a rare feeling. Shagged and drug-fucked, his craving for company had diminished. He even felt he could play it cool. ‘Hell, man, as you say, last night’s dinner was pretty heavy. I’m only half awake.’
Franz was immune to the hint. ‘I’ll come over in a couple of hours then, OK?’
Julian was powerless. Franz could easily lose interest. He had to take his social interaction when he could get it. ‘That’d be fine, Franz. See you at 15:30?’
‘How about 15:00?’
God; he couldn’t even control the time. ‘Sure.’
‘Unreal. See you then.’
‘Bye.’ Julian hung up and sighed. A jack hammer began pounding at his temples.
Julian and Franz sat on the mezzanine. Franz was in the driver’s seat, checking the 4000K’s schematic. Everything was as he’d seen two days earlier. He powered down and produced his tool kit.
‘Given this is a stolen unit, we needn’t worry about voiding any warranties, eh?’
‘I’d still rather you were careful’, replied Julian. ‘There’s always the chance Dad may reclaim it. And could you drop the theft references please?’
‘You’re a tetchy thing today. Were you on the old hooter last night?’
‘Nuh, just a few lines of blow.’ Julian winced as Franz’s nippers severed the strap securing the power module. ‘Maybe I should leave you to this. How about a cup of tea?’
‘Got any coffee?’
‘Sure, how do you have it?’
‘White with one.’
While Julian fumbled in the kitchenette, Franz removed the suspect resistor and found it identical to the one from Myron’s machine. Then he conceived a more dramatic test, rebooting just as Julian mounted the platform, shakily bearing a tray.
Julian was relieved to see the Panrax coming back to life. ‘That was quick. How’d you go?’
‘I’ll know in a few minutes.’
Julian glimpsed Franz’s tweezers, still clamped around a blue gob of plastic.
‘Is that from inside my PC?’
Franz squirmed. ‘…Yeah.’
‘What’s it doing out of my PC?’
‘I’m running a little test,’ admitted Franz guiltily. ‘Don’t worry, I’ve done it a hundred times.’
‘That’s crap, Franz. Why didn’t you ask if you could start the machine with a piece missing? They don’t put resistors in for fun. What if the fucking thing burns out?’
‘It won’t, OK? I’ve got a theory.’
‘And if you’re wrong, I’ve got a smouldering wreck.’
‘Trust me, Julian,’ said Franz testily. ‘I know what I’m doing.’
‘What choice have I got? You’re already off and running.’
The two lapsed into uncomfortable silence. Julian gave Franz his coffee and they watched the Panrax go through its paces. While Julian expected smoke with every new sub-routine, Franz didn’t believe the resistor was critical to the PC’s operation.
The 4000K tested every circuit, impressing Franz with its power. Julian’s fear was replaced with relief and proprietary pride.
Franz held up the resistor. ‘May I have this?’
‘Yeah. Your machine obviously doesn’t need it. I want to know what’s inside.’
‘Will you have to destroy it?’
‘Depends what it’s wrapped in. I’ll use Derek’s X-ray scanner, but if it’s shielded, I’ll need to remove the coating.’
‘Can’t you just borrow it?’ whined Julian. ‘If you need to mess with it, you could call me first.’
‘Why not make a decision now? This could turn out to be very exciting.’
‘When would you go to Derek’s?’
‘Tonight, if he’s home.’
‘Could I come?’
‘Of course. Come on, let’s call him.’
‘Fuck it’, thought Julian, ‘it’s only a resistor. Why do I get so wound up?’
He turned to Franz. ‘OK Let’s do it.’
‘Attaboy!’ Franz keyed Derek’s number from memory.
Derek Eckersley lay in his lounge watching a documentary, his short legs propped on a stool. When the call came in, he muted the broadcast and opened a small communication box so as not to lose the thread of his programme. ‘Franz! Hey, thanks for Friday; I had a ball. How’re you going?
‘Excellent. Julian’s here too.’
‘Listen man,’ said Franz, ‘remember how we found that bogus resistor on the schematic of Julian’s Panrax?’
‘Well, I removed it, and it turned out to be a third wheel. The PC doesn’t use it at all.’
‘That’s pretty silly,’ commented Derek, half watching his documentary.
‘Damn right. I’m suspicious; maybe it’s not a resistor.’
‘But you checked Myron’s and it was.’
‘Yeah, I know, but it’s occurred to me the resistor thing could be just camouflage.’
‘Bit far fetched, don’t you think? Why go to the trouble?’
‘I don’t know, but I want to run it through your scanner.’
‘Sorry man, the globe’s gone. I blew it heating a pie.’
‘I did! I thought it might work like a microwave, just… take longer, you know?’
‘Remind me never to commission a network from you, Derek. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.’
‘Well, you never know unless you have a go.’
Franz chuckled. ‘You bloody loony. Hey, how’d you like me to fix it for you?’
‘Cool. I can’t tell you how I miss watching mosquitos digest my blood. When d’you want to come?’
‘Now? I’ll just have to whip home for the part.’
‘OK. I’ll get a bottle breathing. You might as well stay for tea.’
‘So long as it’s not pies.’
‘No, no; cheese platter.’
‘OK, see you inside an hour.’ Franz rang off and started packing up his tools, then suddenly turned to Julian. ‘You alright, man?’
‘Yes. ‘I’m just really tired.’
‘D’you still want to come to Derek’s?’
‘No, I think I’ll give it a miss. Just let me know how you get on, alright?’
‘Absolutely. I’ll keep you in the loop. Thanks for the coffee, and the resistor. We’ll only break it if necessary.’
‘OK Franz, I trust you.’
Franz slung his bag. ‘I’ll leave you with this magnificent view. You’ve got a really good place here.’
‘See you later.’
The door slammed and Julian was alone again. He checked his schedule for Monday. The usual meetings awaited, as did the patronising scrutiny of his father. He took five sleeping pills and set his alarm. He’d suffered enough disappointment for one weekend.
That evening his mobile rang. His PC intercepted the signal and directed the caller to leave a message. Franz’s voice, thick with wine, carved itself into Julian’s message bank.
‘Julian, old fruit! How’re they hangin’?’ Giggles from a drunken Derek in the background. ‘We’ve unfortunately, had to tear open your resistor.’ Fresh giggles. ‘The good news… is that it’s not a resistor at all!’ Franz swigged from an empty bottle. ‘The bad news… cobber… is that we don’t know what the fuck it is. The other good news… is that it’s something very new and very… intricate. You might like to warn Mr Price that we’re coming to abduct his “resistor” sometime tomorrow. In conclusion…’
For reasons known only to himself, Derek decided to demonstrate a head-high football tackle. The camera witnessed a small, agile man sailing across the room to collide with a larger, sandy-headed figure. They fell to the floor, wrestling and laughing hysterically. Derek’s bottle toppled from his monitor and landed on a dozen keys, terminating the call.
Julian’s PC logged the message and reverted to powersave.
‘What do you think?’ asked a bleary-eyed Derek.
Antony Jarvish rearranged his lanky frame and held the photographic plate at arm’s length. Turning it upside down, he closed one eye and pulled it slowly towards him.
‘Antony’, said Franz impatiently, ‘it’s not magic.’
Jarvish put the plate down and bit his woeful cafeteria biscuit. ‘I know. In a nutshell, I can make neither head nor tail of your X-rays. The resolution is dreadful for a start.’
‘I didn’t have the right globe.’
‘Whatever it is, it looks quite novel.’
‘Has any of your students come up with anything like it?’, asked Derek.
‘No, but it could be worth checking with the other professors. Do you have copies?’
Franz shook his head. ‘No offence, Tony, but until we know what it is, I’d like to keep it under wraps.’
‘Fair enough. Sorry I don’t have any answers.’
‘Don’t worry, I’m as stumped as you are and I’m supposed to keep up with this stuff.’
‘Well, so am I, actually.’
‘Oh hell, I know that; I’m not suggesting you aren’t.’
Jarvish dusted crumbs from his suit. ‘No offence taken. And now I have a lecture to give. Good to see you all.’
They stood and shook hands. ‘Thanks for your time,’ said Myron. ‘It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one in the dark.’
‘Yes,’ said Antony. ‘Goodbye.’ He swept to the stairs as a metallic tone shrilled across the campus.
‘He’s always a bit off at work,’ explained Derek. ‘He never knows who’s watching. There’s a gang of lecturers furious at his promotion.’
‘He’s done well for a young bloke, hasn’t he?’ said Myron.
‘Yes,’ agreed Franz. ‘Pity he can’t identify the component.’
‘What do you want to do now?’
‘Get a proper globe for Derek’s scanner and give your “resistor” the treatment.’
Myron swallowed. ‘I guess it’s in the name of computer science.’
‘Don’t worry; your toy’ll work fine without it. Guaranteed.’ He surveyed the empty cafeteria. ‘Let’s get out of here; this place gives me the creeps.’
Derek gave Franz his locking card and returned to his consulting. Myron and Franz spent the rest of the day comparing X-rays of the two Panrax components. They were identical. Neither man could fathom the breathtakingly intricate structures. Franz suggested contacting Panrax. Myron pointed out that one of the resistors was from a stolen test rig. They argued until interrupted by Franz’s mobile phone. It was his neighbour.
‘Franz? Hi, it’s Wade. I thought I should call you. Um… the military appears to be trashing your apartment; they’re at it now.’
A deafening crash in the background froze Franz’s blood. ‘How long’ve they been there?’
‘Only a few minutes, but they’re going at it hammer and tongs. Are.. are you in some kind of trouble?’
‘No Wade, not at all. This sounds like a very big mistake. Thanks for calling. I’ll be straight over.’
‘Um, Franz?’ Wade sounded edgy. ‘If they ask… you don’t know me, OK?’
‘No Wade, I don’t. You’re just some bloke next door, alright?’
‘Yes. Thank you. Thanks a lot. See ya.’
Franz rushed to the door. ‘I’ve gotta go, man. Trouble at home.’
‘I’ll come with you.’
‘No way; I don’t want you involved. Stay here or go home. Here, give me those resistors.’
Myron had never seen his friend so rattled. He handed over the components, which had been split open for examination.
‘I’ll call you,’ said Franz hurriedly.
‘Sure you don’t want me along?’
‘No, but thanks.’ He stuffed the resistors into his jacket and bolted to the underground.
Franz tore up the escalator. His home was being raided. Julian’s fear had been valid after all. The stolen field PC must have negotiated an uplink and advised its location. He rushed into the park near his warehouse. Through the foliage he spotted two snub-nosed trucks. Patrolling around them was a military policeman. Franz readied himself. There was no point fleeing, his whole life was upstairs. He dropped to the ground and took out his locking card. Glancing around, he jabbed the card into the moist earth. Then he wrapped the resistors in his handkerchief and poked them into the slit. Tamping it shut, he stood and scattered leaves over the site. The army was sure to search him, and for some reason he felt uneasy about the mystery components.
Another crash sounded from his apartment. He stepped forward and was spotted. Franz identified himself and surrendered to a cursory body search. The guard contacted his commander, who sent a soldier down to fetch him.
Franz’s home was in tatters, all the more dramatic for the computer debris that sprawled across the floor and crunched beneath the boots of the soldiers searching for more stolen equipment. On his kitchen table lay the field unit which had triggered the catastrophe. Almost completely decomposed, the remaining pieces of camouflaged casing were a dead give-away.
Franz’s view was suddenly blocked by the squad commander; a bear of a man with eyes of iron. The name on his tunic was ‘TSARITSYN’. He glared at his clipboard, then levelled his gaze at Franz. ‘So you’re Heilmayr. Let’s talk.’
Read Chapter 15.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by Joe Seggiola.
Tags: information technology, IT, left wing, military, PC, personal computer, political science, politics, recycling code, recycling trigger, right wing, sociology
Eager for a relaxed evening of socialising, Myron Price ascended the spiral staircase to Franz Heilmayr’s apartment. Below him, deteriorating componentry lined a maintenance pit from the defunct elevator.
Franz attributed this debris to the increasing complexity of computer hardware. Not only was it becoming more difficult to work on, it was practically built to fall apart on leaving the factory.
Franz appeared at his door. ‘Hello Squadron Leader; fancy a beer?’
Myron reached into his bag. ‘I’ve got some thanks, but a stubby holder would be handy.’
Myron took a deep draught. It was Friday night; life was good. He stacked his remaining bottles in the magnet-ridden refrigerator and turned smiling. ‘Lead on.’
Though he’d spent countless evenings at the warehouse, Myron never failed to marvel at Franz’s parts collection. It towered in columns, spewed from cartons and draggled from groaning shelves. His friends shared his fascination and often fossicked contentedly when there was a lull in conversation. Around the squat pine coffee table lounged three men in their mid-twenties.
Myron had met them all through Franz. Though good drinking partners, they were a little too fond of invective for his liking. There followed the usual pleasantries. Myron pulled two marijuana cones to catch up, then addressed Julian Arison, sole child of rich parents.
Julian’s round face split at the mention of his new apartment. ‘It’s fabulous, Myron. As big as this, but the mezzanines give it much more floor space. I’ve also put a platform below this enormous circular bay window in the west wall. I’ve got all my equipment up there, including my new Panrax…’
‘What model?’ Myron interrupted.
‘Absolutely. Flies like shit off a shovel; you should check it out.’
‘But the 4000 series isn’t due out till next year.’
‘I know. Dad got me a test rig from the factory; he knows a director. Strictly confidential, you realise.’
‘Of course,’ the others chorused.
‘Anyway, I’ve set it up in front of this window. Once it’s dark and I log on to StarGazer, you can’t see where the screen ends and the night begins. It’s wild.’
‘And you’re sure about the model?’
Julian flung out his arms. ‘Yes! Christ, what do I have to do to convince you?’
‘We believe you Julian,’ said Franz. ‘It’s just unusual for a company to let a test rig walk out like that. Can you imagine how ropeable the development engineers would be?’
‘They’ve got dozens of the things,’ said Julian. ‘One less isn’t going to bring down the government.’
‘What does your father do again?’ said Antony Jarvish.
‘Isn’t that what you did your final year project on?’
‘Yes. Dad connected me with some people.’
Julian coloured. ‘And what does your father do — clean toilets? Is that what you did your project on?’
‘Not quite,’ Antony returned smoothly, delighted with Julian’s reaction. ‘Mine was the creation of antimatter from the onanistic contents of your bedside rubbish bin. As I recall, our first sample yielded the very thing we were looking for. Unfortunately, there wasn’t nearly enough of it to attract a grant.’
Julian weathered the others’ laughter.
‘I’m just amazed,’ said Myron. ‘I thought I was hot shit with my 3700J.’
Franz repacked the bong pipe as its emanations wafted to the ceiling beams. ‘Don’t judge yourself by what you possess, man. Even if all your friends do.’
‘Look who’s talking,’ said Derek. ‘See what you’ve amassed over the years.’
Franz eyed the systems analyst and gestured to his jungle of computer gear. ‘If you reckon this is worth something, you know less about information technology than I dare consider.’
‘We all have our specialities,’ said Antony. ‘Franz is our hardware man, Myron’s into programming, Derek loves his systems, I teach rude little buggers how to use them and Julian is the quintessential consumer.’
‘I’ll drink to that.’ Franz rose. ‘Anyone for another? Who’s been following the election?’
Derek Eckersley gestured for a drink. ‘Why bother? The coverage is crap, as usual.’
‘You can’t blame them,’ said Antony. ‘Nobody cares who wins anyway. The pollies lost most people when they invented “non-core” promises. In any case, Net voting has made the whole campaign thing redundant. Why listen to the bastards when you can read their lies online and register your protest from the comfort of own your toilet?’
Julian peered over his glass. ‘That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?’
‘No one cares who wins.’
‘By “no one” I mean mainstream society — say the middle eighty-five percent.’
‘So fifteen percent do give a damn. That’s a significant demographic.’
‘True, but the groups comprising it are so splintered they’ll have no influence on the outcome. It doesn’t matter whether they care or not.’
Derek took his beer from Franz. ‘You just contradicted yourself, Tony. Last week you said society would ultimately succumb to extremists, since only they could be bothered to participate in politics. “The apathetic majority will forfeit its right to democracy”.’
Antony crossed his long legs. ‘True, but I didn’t give a timeframe. The number of mainstream citizens who currently participate is still sufficient to block any single fringe group.’
‘You’ve wormed your way out of that part; now explain why eighty-five percent of the population is uninterested in choosing a new government.’
‘That’s a lot harder for a young mind to grasp, Julian.’
‘Sounds like a cop-out to me.’
Antony stared at the ceiling, his palms touching as if in prayer. ‘Let me see if I can break it into smaller pieces for you.’
‘Alright: I want you to picture a long beach, terminated at each end by rocks.’
‘Got it,’ said Myron.
‘Near each set of rocks is a mobile ice-cream stand. Myron, you’re the proprietor of one stand and Julian, you operate the other.’
‘Leasehold or freehold?’
‘It’s public land Julian; not for sale even to your father. Now, it’s a hot summer and the beach is full of bathers. They thrash through the surf — young, salty thighs quivering in the sunshine…’
Franz cleared his throat. ‘I think we get the idea.’
‘OK; these women come out of the sea wanting an ice cream. To which stand do they walk?’
‘Mine, of course,’ said Julian.
‘Because of my superior marketing plan and loyalty scheme.’
‘Come off it,’ Derek cried. ‘You’re flogging ice cream.’
‘Alright, because I’m cheaper.’
‘No,’ said Antony, ‘the price is fixed, the product homogenous and customers have perfect information and access. They only come to your stand if they’re closer to it than Myron’s at the moment they want something.’
‘Ha!’ said Myron, ‘so I’ll get half the customers.’
‘Exactly! Julian, do you agree that under these conditions the market would be evenly split?’
‘Yes, but only under those circumstances. In a free market, Myron would be out of business in a day.’
Myron clapped him on the back. ‘Well, I’m here for the whole summer, boyo. So let’s hear the theory.’
Antony smiled. ‘As he has indicated, Julian is keen to capture Myron’s market share.’
‘How do you do it? All you may change is your location.’
‘Easy,’ said Julian. ‘I move away from the rocks and get sand both sides of me.’
‘Thus exposing yourself to a greater number of sylph-like maidens with huge…’
‘Tony!’ said Franz.
‘You’d get more customers,’ Antony completed hurriedly. ‘Myron, what would be your response to Julian’s Machiavellian posturing?’
‘I’d move too!’
‘Another beach,’ Julian muttered.
‘No,’ said Myron, ‘I’d move closer to the middle. In fact, I’d move to the exact centre of the beach and double my market share.’
‘Not quite. You’d double your market coverage, but be next to your arch rival.’
Julian leaned forward. ‘Of course! I’d already be in the middle; it’s the only way to cover the whole beach.’
‘So in theory,’ said Derek, ‘they’d each have half the market, but be sitting alongside their only competitor.’
Antony mimed applause.
‘Wonderful,’ said Julian, ‘So why do eighty-five percent of people not give a damn about politics?’
Antony’s silhouette rose tall against the city lights. One hand in his jacket, he parodied himself as professor and ponderously circled the mismatched assembly of chairs.
‘The ice-cream stands represent our two main political parties. Ice cream, a constant, represents the machinery of government. Party ideologies are represented by Julian and Myron initially occupying opposite ends of the beach. When founded, the parties represented two social extremes. They were as far from each other as the ends of our beach, get it?’
‘Go on,’ said Julian.
‘This ideological differentiation has decreased over time. Policies have softened. The Left has acquired business acumen while the Right has learned compassion. Each shift has earned a temporary increase in market share. When the Left forged links with big business, it bewitched the middle class. When the Right addressed conservation issues, the greenies leapt the fence faster than those furless rabbits they’ve been trying to kill off.’
‘I see.’ Myron put down his beer. ‘Each move towards the centre has produced more customers for their brand of ice cream.’
‘Precisely! As a result, both parties are now in the middle of the beach. On most issues there’s no light between them; their products taste the same. Only the fanatics bother to differentiate, and their support is based merely on memories of what the parties once represented. The rest of the population couldn’t give a flying fuck.’
Antony turned and retraced his steps. ‘Now, imagine the local council resolves to close one ice cream stand and beach-goers are asked to choose which one. I say eighty-five percent don’t care who wins, yet enough will participate to prevent the extremists from saving their preferred vendor. Unable to differentiate between the candidates, the mainstream will base their selection on apolitical criteria like the rumoured size of Mr Price’s penis, the arson allegedly perpetrated by the rotund Mr Arison and the Great Maggot Sundae Mystery. So long as ice cream remains available, the vendor is immaterial. Ergo no one cares and TV coverage of the beach vote is abysmal.’
Everyone clapped and Antony bowed with a modest smile, his shadow wobbling high on the wall.
‘Julian,’ asked Franz, ‘would you mind if I came over one day soon and pulled apart your new Panrax?’
‘Oh, you know me, always eager to keep track of the Joneses.’
Julian frowned, bereft of an excuse.
‘It’s painless,’ said Myron. ‘Franz did mine on Monday and put it back together good as new. We even defeated the tractor factory girls at Stalingrad.’
‘What tractor factory girls?’ asked Derek.
‘I’ll tell you later,’ said Franz. ‘How about it, Julian?’
‘Sure,’ said Julian reluctantly. ‘But why? It’ll be at the trade shows soon.’
‘Can’t stand them,’ said Franz. ‘Soulless suits haunting a stuffy exhibition space. Leering over bikini-clad hostesses and rushing home to wank over the brochures.’
‘Sounds alright to me,’ said Derek.
‘No way, that scene can scorch your heart to cinders. I can’t handle it.’
Myron sauntered towards the toilet. ‘Are you gonna look for that superfluous resistor, Franz? The one that wasn’t in the schematic?’
‘Shit yeah; that’s been bugging me. I nearly rang Panrax this week. It’s bound to have been corrected in Julian’s unit.’
Antony put the finishing touches to a long joint. ‘What’s the problem?’
Julian sat up. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my machine; it goes like a dream.’
‘So does mine,’ said Myron. ‘Franz is referring to an omission in the schematic of an apparently unnecessary resistor.’
‘That’d have to be rare,’ said Derek.
‘Impossible,’ Julian asserted. ‘The consequences to Panrax of that getting out would be horrendous.’
‘That’s what I told Myron when we found it,’ said Franz. ‘Yet, there it wasn’t. For no one to see.’
‘I’d be stunned if it’s true; that’s unheard of. Are you positive?’
‘Julian, old fruit, I may be a bit behind the times, but I know more than most. Give me the benefit of the doubt, will you?’
‘And you haven’t called Panrax yet.’
Julian pursed his thick lips and gazed at a candle.
Antony lit up from it. ‘I know what you’re thinking, you mercenary bastard. I can hear those opportunist gears grinding away.’
Julian ignored him. ‘Franz, could you key up my machine and access its schematic?’
‘Nothing simpler.’ Franz disappeared behind a junk pile and returned with an old camouflaged field PC. He clunked it on the table, along with two power packs.
The toilet flushed and Myron exclaimed from across the room. ‘Shit, man! Where’d you get that?’
‘Garage sale. This guy souvenired it during a military exercise near his property.’
‘How old is it?’
‘Five years, at least.’
‘And still in one piece?’
‘Yeah. The techs would’ve transmitted the recycling code as soon as they gave up looking for it, but my guy beat ‘em to the punch by pulling the packs. I’ll be interested to see how long it lasts once it’s powered up. I don’t know how long they keep transmitting codes.’
‘I’ve heard they don’t quit till the unit responds,’ said Antony, ‘and that there’s loads of strings hunting for lost gear to trigger.’
‘Well they can’t really use date triggers can they?’ said Derek. ‘God, imagine that; you’re on a ridge running artillery co-ordinates. Suddenly you hear “ping” and your PC turns to polymers beneath your fingers.’
Franz clicked the power packs into place. ‘Well, we’ll soon see if this critter’s number is still being called.’
Julian was anxious. ‘Don’t we risk being discovered with stolen goods?’
‘Not a chance. Without an uplink it won’t even know what planet it’s on.’
‘Wow,’ said Derek, ‘a hostage.’
‘But what if it secures a Net link?’
Franz rolled his eyes. ‘Julian, this drone’s been down so long no provider’s even gonna look at it. Relax; we’re not going to be carted away and shot.’
Julian emptied his glass, filled it and drained it again. Sullenly he watched Franz coax the PC to life. ‘What’re you going to do with it?’
Franz scanned the lines of text streaming up the screen. ‘Have a yarn with your machine.’
‘For God’s sake,’ said Antony, ‘keep your hair on. I’m sure Franz has the matter in hand.’
‘He’s only going to check one of your files,’ said Myron. ‘It’ll take five seconds, won’t it Franz?’
The engineer didn’t answer. An old universal operating system logo filled the screen. Then he was inside a transfer utility.
Julian’s face grew taut. ‘Franz! I don’t want you jeopardising my…’
Franz calmly hit “return”. ‘It’s over; I’ve copied the schematic. There’ll be no trace this machine ever talked to yours.’
‘How can you be so sure?’
‘It’s my job and you’re my friend. I’d never do anything to endanger either, alright?’
Derek preferred the joint. ‘Do us all a favour Jules; have this, instead of kittens.’
Julian inhaled and relaxed visibly. ‘Alright Franz; you took me by surprise, that’s all.’
‘Sorry about that, chieftain. It’ll never happen again.’ Franz entered the 4000K’s schematic and navigated to the power module.
‘Groovy.’ Myron’s head moved in sympathy with the flight.
‘Beats the crap out of the old handbooks,’ Antony agreed.
‘Oh, I don’t know. At least you knew where you were with those. This thing’s harder to fly than it is to read. Ah, here it is.’ Franz panned around the sub-assembly corresponding to the one in Myron’s machine, then checked the schematic against its illustrations. He sat back abruptly and the others crowded around.
‘What is it?’
‘Yeah, tell us for Christ’s sake.’
‘I can’t believe it!’ Franz exclaimed. ‘It’s not listed!’
‘Such a large company, too,’ said Antony. ‘This could void their accreditation overnight.’
Julian tapped his lip. ‘True.’
‘I’m floored,’ said Franz. ‘Why leave it out? Could they really make the same mistake twice?’
Myron binned his bottle. ‘Well, think about it. How many people ever use their manuals? And of those, who bothers with the schematic? I bet it’s riddled with errors. Why would Panrax bother to make it perfect when no one’ll ever notice?’
‘Legally they have to detail everything in the box,’ said Julian. They wouldn’t dare release a document containing known errors.’
‘Still,’ said Franz, ‘Myron has a point. From a return-on-investment aspect, the effort spent on manuals is wasted. Maybe Panrax diverted money from support to R&D.’
‘Their help desk’s certainly second to none,’ said Antony. ‘That could be part of the plan. By serving customers online for free, they render the manual obsolete.’
Julian gazed outside at a winking communications tower. ‘I don’t buy it; they’ve got too much to lose. Quality accreditation is Criterion One for business. They wouldn’t risk it for anything.’
Franz stared at the PC, whose screen saver featured a colourful night bombardment. ‘Myron, could you knock up a program to analyse this schematic?’
‘In what way?’
‘Highlight any elements conflicting with electronic theory.’
‘If you give me all the parameters; but not tonight.’
‘No, we’ve had enough excitement for one evening. Let’s move to something lighter.’
Antony glanced at Julian. ‘How about the election?’
Franz grabbed the remote. ‘Let’s see what’s on.’
‘Franz,’ said Derek uncertainly, ‘I think your military drone has received a message.’
Franz turned to the PC as a string of numbers sped across the screen.
He tilted the unit, then yelped and snatched his hand from the burning power packs. The PC tumbled to the floor. With a wisp of acrid smoke, the packs triggered molecular melt down and expired. It would be hours before the unit showed signs of deterioration and days before recycling was complete. Franz nudged the wreck away with his foot.
‘Nice show,’ said Antony.
Franz sighed. ‘Not much for twenty bucks though. I thought they would’ve given up by now.’
‘I wonder if that’s what happens to prisoners of war,’ said Derek. ‘God, you’d be keen to get word out you were still alive!’
‘Bloody oath. Oh, well; easy come, easy go. At least I’ve seen something new tonight.’
‘Two new things,’ said Julian. ‘Can you please let me know how you go with Myron’s program?’
‘Sure. Now I suggest we get drunk, watch TV and chill the fuck out.’
Read Chapter 09A.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by Kuba Bożanowski.
Tags: advertising, advertitle, CBD, chapter, fabric violation zone, IT, Moore's Law, narcotic template renaturing, novel, PC, personal computer, recycling trigger, science fiction, speculative fiction, Stalingrad, technology, tractor
Myron Price sprinted up his stone stairs and fished a locking card from his runner. Entering the relative warmth of his cottage, he felt satisfaction at having risen early on another winter morning. Fourteen kilometres was pretty good for one who sat on his backside all day.
At twenty-five he was determined to maintain his physique, unable to fathom why so many men took thirty as their cue to obesity. Each run set him further from average and he was glad of the distance.
Myron towelled his face and relished the excitement of his day off. It had been a good month and his home-based software consultancy could tick over without him. His second reward was to be the latest performance PC. The Panrax 3700J boasted far more power than his business required and quite enough to make the most of the latest games.
Brochures littered the lounge. Though computing was his passion, Myron didn’t like online catalogues. In anticipating a major purchase, it was more satisfying to possess the desired object on glossy paper than to see it on a monitor. Faced with this reality, advertisers had met strict environmental standards with recycling triggers. Of the various triggers available, single-use literature employed fabric violation zones.
Tearing a zone initiated an accelerated weakening of molecular bonds which, under time lapse, looked like an eerie invisible fire. Showered and shaved, Myron ripped and binned the brochures he no longer wanted. By collection day, the paper discarded during the month would be reduced to fibres tailor-made for reconstitution.
Myron saved the well-thumbed Panrax brochure and felt a tug of pleasure. Soon he would own the finest PC yet built. Too distracted for breakfast, he left home with a light step and a sense of anticipation remembered from childhood.
Soon Myron was slicing through bubble wrap and tape. His face glowed as cardboard petals revealed the black device swathed in cellophane. His superseded PC called Franz Heilmayr, who looked up from his soldering iron.
‘Hello, Mr Price. What’ve you got there then?’
‘The new toy, just out of the box.’
‘I see,’ said Franz with feigned disapproval. ‘And what possessed you to purchase this…,’ he peered through his sandy fringe.
Myron grinned. ’3700J. I told you I was due for a reward.’
‘You must have done some very special work.’
‘Yeah, well, my company values me extremely highly. It follows that I should be compensated accordingly.’
‘I’m very happy for you.’
Myron knew his friend was envious, but not enough to begrudge him pleasure. ‘Thanks. Now, what say you come over and road test it with me?’
‘I can’t, I’ve got jobs on.’
‘Oh, bullshit! How can you think of work?’ Myron’s eyes narrowed conspiratorially. ‘I’ll let you take it to bits.’
Franz contemplated his bench. He enjoyed his work, but it didn’t compare to pulling apart the latest box. ‘You won’t have kittens every time I use my pliers?’
‘Absolutely not. Once we’ve seen what it can do, you may disembowel it — so long as you get us back online for tonight’s campaign.’
Franz’s pale blue eyes stared. ‘Shit! Is it two weeks already? Kiev seems like yesterday.’
‘Ja,’ said Myron, ‘und tonight is Stalingrad. We’re going to combine your paratroop strategy with this new beast. We’ll run their moves and send ours back so damn fast it’ll take their heads clean off!’
‘I still think they’re women,’ said Franz, referring to the team which challenged them fortnightly on PanzerNet. ‘Why else would they want to stay anonymous?’
Myron laughed. ‘Just because your dream girl has to be able to change a fan belt on a Tiger II.’
‘That’s not true! It’s their tactics; they’re diabolical and quite… merciless.’
‘Franz, I don’t care if we’re fighting gifted ferrets. If we don’t take Stalingrad tonight, our whole campaign’s at risk. So the sooner you satisfy your curiosity, the better we can ready for the fray.’
‘Alright; how does this sound? I’ll meet you half way. You play with your bells and whistles; I’ll come after lunch, look inside and get us up by 18:00. Then we can have a spot of pre-battle sustenance and I can enjoy the evening without freaking out about work. OK?’
‘You’ll miss the fireworks.’
‘I’m sure you’ll deign to run them again for me.’
‘Yeah, righto, but I want you here no later than 13:00. You know how carried away you get.’
‘Alright,’ said Franz, ‘See you then.’
Myron slid the 3700J into his workstation, then fetched a beer. It was mid-morning, but he felt like celebrating. He settled back to watch the PC self test and the beverage went warm in his hand. The industry managed to produce a unit totally superior to its predecessor every two years. Myron never witnessed the change without a feeling of awe. Would the technology never reach a limit? After wrestling with the improbability of his machine’s existence, he surrendered to the fact and simply enjoyed the invention whose complexity was approaching that of the human brain.
Franz Heilmayr shared Myron’s interest, but was less demonstrative. Dressed as usual in his rough, many-pocketed blouse and trousers, he removed the casing while Myron made a late lunch, then systematically disassembled the Panrax. Inside he discovered components which all but defied recognition. Paying homage to those responsible, he realised he’d have to study up to offer a customisation service.
Towards the end of his voyage, Franz grunted.
Myron looked up from a magazine. ‘What is it?’
‘Something strange.’ Franz slipped the Panrax’s manual into Myron’s old PC and a detailed schematic filled the screen. His tweezers held a blue, egg-shaped gob of plastic, three millimetres high and two wide. A fibre protruded from the narrow end. On the table lay a power module.
Myron felt a stab of anxiety. ‘You haven’t busted it, have you?’ He received the Look of Death. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean that. What is it?’
‘Good question, infidel,’ said Franz. ‘It’s a resistor, but as to its purpose, I know not. Even more amazing than my admission of ignorance, your manual doesn’t seem to know either.’
Myron pointed. ‘Did it come from there?’
Franz peered through his magnifying glass. ‘Yes, where a resistor has no place to be. Thinking I was onto another ingenious piece of redesign, I called up the schematic. The component isn’t named at all. See?’
Myron followed the tweezers but saw only a sea of angular tagliatelli. ‘I’ll take your word for it.’
‘Well, my word says it doesn’t match the product.’
Franz shook his head. ‘Not likely; the legal ramifications would be horrendous. Quality Control would never allow it.’
‘But it could be an error,’ said Myron, with no other idea to offer.
‘Possible, but extremely unlikely. I’d lay sixty to one against it.’
‘Well… what, then?’
‘I don’t know. There, I’ve said it again — that’s twice in one month!’ Franz rummaged in his tool bag and withdrew a slim rectangular card.
‘What’re you doing now?’
‘Keep your pants on; just a once over with the multimeter.’
‘Ah, to see if the resistor really is a resistor?’
Myron was pleased with his glimmer of understanding. Franz performed the standard tests, then pushed away from the desk and rubbed his eyes.
‘I’ll be damned; it is a resistor. But what’s it doing there? I’ve gotta get up to speed with this stuff if I’m to stay in business.’
‘Well it’s nice to see that hardware can be as fickle as software,’ said Myron. ‘I’ve always envied you working with things you could smash against the wall. I’ve never had that luxury with coding.’
Franz stared at the schematic. ‘Looks like you might be right about the typo. You should’ve taken my odds.’ He began to reassemble the PC. ‘Why don’t you call Panrax? They might send you a token of thanks.’
‘What would I tell them? “The thingo left of the jigger is light on for tendrils”? They’d think I was mad. You’re the boffin; you call ‘em. Just put me down for twenty percent of the reward, whatever it is.’
‘If it’s booze, you’ll not get a drop. Ignorant bastard.’
‘Oh-ho! Bastard am I? Gunner Heilmayr wishes to forfeit his chance to duel with the gorgeous tractor factory amazons using Colonel Price’s superior technology. The Eastern Front Dating Agency is no more!’
‘Steady on, you black mongrel. Drummer Price forgets that Field Marshall Heilmayr has his precious technology in a thousand pieces and that without a full retraction of his insulting outburst, such pieces shall be reunited nevermore.’
Myron leapt to attention. ‘Sir, I hereby request permission to withdraw my insinuation that you participate in our campaign merely to nurture twisted fantasies about women who are into turn-based battle simulations. Forgive me.’
Franz returned the salute. ‘You are forgiven. Your penance shall be to command auxiliary units for the first hour. Also, I want a beer.’
‘Yes Sir! Now, please put my baby back together.’
After three days, Myron had a good idea of what his machine could do. As he watched it handle his most complicated applications with ease, he felt humbled and even sad that he had nothing with which to challenge it. He imagined himself devising software of a complexity that demanded a new class of platform. His accounting and investment programs seemed drab and trivial by comparison.
On Friday he prepared for a drinking and bullshit session with Franz. Though alcohol, like all drugs, had been replaced by templates kind to bodies, it retained its disinhibiting effects. Narcotic Template Renaturing was akin to DNA engineering. Feeding off each other, the two research streams had developed in parallel. Just as it were possible to switch off codes for hereditary traits, adjustments in the molecular composition of intoxicants had swept away the undesirable consequences of a big night out.
Myron filled his freezer bag and wondered why many people had to be pissed to reveal their feelings. The situation had a flip side: if you wanted the truth from someone, you need only get him drunk. Myron resolved to raise the topic after a few beers.
‘It’s a funny old world,’ he said sagely to the mirror.
‘Mustn’t grumble,’ his reflection agreed brightly.
He lived in a doughnut-shaped zone that had once serviced the CBD. Now sourcing decisions were based on performance indicators and customers had abandoned their quest for human service. Materials and products sped cheaply and cleanly beneath the city, making it no longer necessary to locate close to clients. Zones became blurred as manufacturers moved out. Developers renovated most of the shells; councils demolished others for parks. A few niche businesses lived on among nascent residential communities.
Myron power-walked along reclaimed nature strips and bicycle tracks, past converted warehouses, concept domiciles and a growing number of svelte, well-designed public housing projects. Bricks and cancered concrete fought carbon fibre and Electroglass for his attention — two centuries of urban history framed in competing elevations.
The one constant among the farrago was advertising. Whoever owned a surface could rent it and few had resisted the temptation. Some builders even specialised in windowless homes, since unbroken surfaces commanded higher returns. Cued by their own flashing facades, owner-occupiers used the rent for gambling, intoxicants or take-away food. The fiscal advantage of prostituting the suburb thus returned via domestic budgets to corporate coffers.
A phalanx of these ‘advertitles’ pulsed a visual metronome at the end of Myron’s street — garish characters streaming over walls and roofs. As Myron approached, they quizzed his mobile and switched to products in keeping with his purchasing history.
PCs aside, Myron was one of the few consumers who bought only what he required. He was in tune with his needs and no advertising, however intuitive, could move him. Like his friends, Myron deplored the mainstream and was proudly immune to calls for conformity, unless disinhibited by narcotics. Stoned, he was as vulnerable as any to sugar and sex. In his defence, he’d once held that society had been psychologically drugged and was experiencing an era he termed ‘The Global Munchies’. As a Rational Man, he could connect with the majority only by submitting to a drug-induced transformation of identity.
Myron’s friends, themselves considerably disinhibited at the time, had replied candidly that he was full of shit.
Read Chapter 07.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Tags: chapter, molecular tracking device, novel, PC, personal computer, research, science fiction, speculative fiction, technology
Hilton Diep had been a pioneer, leading forensics into the realm of molecular analysis. His team had given society a spectacular edge over crime, until the underworld developed countermeasures. Stripped of funding by their disillusioned law enforcement clients, Hilton and his colleagues had continued to refine their technology in their own time. Over decades they’d faded away, until only Hilton remained to mentor the students who’d grown up around the project.
Now with his organs beyond rejuvenation, the old man was in decline. He spent more and more time in the immersion unit he’d designed around his mainframe, scouring the Internet for clues of what might lie beyond death.
The door beeped and Hilton opened it to his daughter Jessica. Whatever Lee Khuzain’s motivation to marry a man thirty-two years her senior, the partnership had worked. The combination of Asian and Middle-Eastern blood had produced a handsome girl with brooding brow, interrogative gaze and a regal stillness that both unsettled and attracted.
‘Sorry to interrupt Dad; there’s someone to see you.’
Hilton winced. ‘Why can’t I take it here?’
‘It’s not virtual; he’s in the hall.’
‘Well, send him up. Who is it anyway?’
‘No-one we know. He says he’s from television and that it’s urgent he speak with you personally.’
Hilton’s rheumy eyes almost twinkled. ‘Ha! They’ve finally decided to do my life story.’
‘No Dad. He’s here about the project. He mentioned funding. Jesus! Will you get down there?’
Standing at the front door in tailored charcoal, Neville Major appraised Hilton during his unsteady descent. Though the file images bore scant resemblance to this bent little man, Major wasn’t fooled. Diep’s recent essays were as brilliant as ever. Major offered a manicured hand as Hilton negotiated the last stair.
‘Good morning, Mr Diep. I am…’
‘Neville Major,’ said Hilton, adjusting his dressing gown.
Major hesitated, recovering quickly. ‘Yes. I’m with television. You’re familiar with the industry?’
‘Not with the industry, Mr Major, but with that band of scoundrels known as “ETAT”. A cartel of which I believe you are a Member.’
Major coloured. ‘I think you may have the wrong man, Sir. I am Senior Executive in Charge of…’
‘…Wresting Control of the Planet from Those Who Inhabit It,’ Hilton icily completed.
‘You follow politics.’
‘I follow the world. I value it highly and despise any threat to it.’
‘You consider me a threat?’
‘Your colleagues command a great deal of information. More so than our elected governments, by my reckoning. I’d wager there isn’t a key enterprise or subsector council you don’t plan to infiltrate, if you haven’t already.’
‘Yes, indeed! What’s more disturbing is that the data you control used to be in the public domain. I notice PBW Corporation hasn’t done much for humanity since acquiring their portfolio of rice genomes. Then again, it’s only been sixteen years. You’re on the board there; what’s your take on things?’
Major’s flush deepened.
‘Yes indeed. You ETAT people are all very eager to conceal the extent to which you already pull strings. You’ve revealed nothing of yourselves other than your title, and even that hasn’t been openly declared. Your Members are creeping onto the world stage in every arena: industry, media, politics, even religion. Should I not see you as threat?’
‘You accuse ETAT of specific misdeeds?’
‘Why waste my breath? With so much at stake, I’ve no doubt you’re past masters at denial — if not concealment.’
Major smiled thinly. ‘A barbed compliment indeed. To accept it I must confess our crimes. Now what do you imagine they are?’
Hilton shuffled to the window. ‘I’ve no idea. I’m a scientist, not a politician. All I have is my fear of a burgeoning cartel with an undisclosed mission and zero integrity. No doubt you’ll dismiss my concerns as the ravings of dementia.’
Major was more impressed than concerned. Diep had made some sharp observations but wouldn’t live long enough to join the dots.
‘Sir, you are far from senile. I shall dismiss your concerns, but not for the reason you suggest. You have invented a conspiracy more labyrinthine than could exist in the real world.’
Hilton gazed outside and sighed. His back gave a warning twinge. ‘I imagine we’ll hear that a great deal in years to come. The universal panacea: “it can’t happen here”. Hmm, there’s our first daffodil.’
‘Mr Diep, I represent the television industry. Having studied your daughter’s thesis, we’re keen to learn more about the origins of this remarkable tracking technology. We wish to document the history of molecular forensics, focusing on your contribution.’
‘You’re lying. Or is it a jonquil? You can never tell until they bloom.’
Major stilled his temper with effort. ‘As payment for your co-operation and to help you continue your research, we have prepared a substantial offer.’
Hilton turned abruptly, a fresh line of pain on his face. ‘Get out of my house.’
‘Mr. Diep, you don’t understand. We will pay you to complete your life’s work.’
Though his crippled frame was comic compared to Major’s lanky build, the intensity of Hilton’s voice made the younger man step back. He kept moving, as if leaving of his own accord, then drew up piously on the threshold.
‘I came today to discuss a generous capital injection for your molecular identification project. You seem more interested in my political affiliations than in resurrecting your brainchild. I leave you to ponder the waste of your unfinished work. Good day.’
Hilton trembled with rage. ‘You’re a liar and a charlatan! ETAT wants my invention for some reason or other and you’re the bell hop sent to fetch it from me.’
The front door slammed, dislodging a family portrait, as Jessica rushed into the room.
‘Dad! I cannot believe you! Why’d you throw him out? Did you hear what he said? This is the first expression of interest you’ve had since I was born! This was why I posted my thesis. Shit, Dad, we’ve been waiting twenty years for him!’
Hilton thrust his hands into his gown. ‘I should never have let you put that paper on the Net. I knew someone like him would come sniffing around.’
‘What do you mean, “someone like him”? Did you see how he was dressed? He’s loaded. And he’s from television. We could get more out of them than the cops ever put up. For Christ’s sake, Dad, what’s the problem? You’ve never even met him!’
His source of irritation gone, Hilton was calming rapidly. ‘I know him from the Net. He’s in league with a cohort of shady characters. They’re planning something. The signs are there, if you take your time and know where to look. The trouble is, no one cares who controls what anymore, so long as it keeps running.’
Jessica rolled her eyes. ‘Come off it Dad, you’ll have to do better than “shady characters”. That guy was our ticket. We’re not letting him go because you read some gossip in your booth.’
‘That’s enough, Jessica. Believe me, Major is bad news.’
‘How can you expect me to accept unsubstantiated allegations? You’re a scientist, Dad. So am I, almost. We deal in facts. You’ve never talked like this before. What’s the real reason you don’t like him?’
Hilton felt suddenly tired. His will to argue collected its things and made to leave. He ran a hand over his crumpled face and looked at Jessica, impatient for his response. ‘Trust me. Major came on behalf of ETAT. I don’t know why, but I’m certain their interest in our work is suspicious. Please, as a favour to me, just accept what I say.’
Jessica stared clear-eyed back at him. ‘You know I can’t do that; it contravenes everything you’ve taught me.’ Her voice softened. ‘What is it really? Are you frightened I’ll finish your work? Is that it?’
Hilton shook his head slowly.
She touched his arm. ‘You know I love you Dad, and that I’ve always loved your invention — from when I was a toddler in the lab, remember? What does it matter if I finish what you couldn’t? There’s no shame in that; it’s honourable.’ A car door slammed and Jessica sprang to the window. ‘Shit! He’s leaving! We can’t let him go!’
Hilton reached out to her. ‘Jessica! Don’t you dare go after him. You have no idea what these people are like. I forbid you to…’
But she was gone.
Though her passion and naiveté made her easy work, Neville Major was careful to treat Jessica with respect. No-one with a doctorate at twenty-four was a sure thing. He admitted he was an ETAT Member and described complex but innocuous links between ETAT and the television industry. Then he made visionary yet practical suggestions as to how molecular identification could benefit society. Jessica agreed to head up a research facility. Major noted with satisfaction that she’d come on board for a fraction of what ETAT had been prepared to offer her father. He was certain her research would eventually run rings around all that had preceded it.
Hilton begged Jessica to reconsider and drew dark images of Major’s hidden agenda. But he had raised her to be logical and independent. What he could not specify, Jessica dismissed. His defeat was heavy with irony; he’d once been every bit as headstrong. Concern for her welfare gnawed at him and his health began a steeper descent.
Jessica moved into the fabulously appointed research complex which Major had named ‘The Diep Research Centre’ in Hilton’s honour. To her delight, Major encouraged her to assemble her own team, with the exception of two ETAT-nominated candidates. She’d grown up with the children of the original developers. Many had done papers on the technology of their youth. All were keenly interested in Jessica’s project description and interviews quickly became ‘remember when’ sessions.
Major was unfazed by his charges’ familiarity with each other. The mix was perfect: common history underpinning experience, capped with youthful enthusiasm. His report to fellow ETAT Members rang with confidence.
The team assembled, Major slipped behind the scenes and became the perfect manager, removing obstacles and minimising interference. He foiled office politics, fostered the free flow of ideas and rewarded effort. The team barely noticed him and laboured with almost religious fervour. Never had they felt so motivated. They were continuing the work of their elders and refining the technology of the future — technology on which, according to their benefactor, the advancement of humanity depended. They ate, breathed and dreamed their project, even whispering about it during occasional, furtive couplings. It was the happiest team of keen, young minds ever assembled.
Two years into the molecular tracking development project, Hilton Diep tumbled down his stairs and shattered his pelvis. His wife Lee pleaded with him to undergo a risky replacement operation but he refused. Shock, compounded by concern for Jessica, sapped him of the strength to recover.
Jessica visited when her schedule permitted. One evening Hilton surfaced from delirium to startle his daughter with a sudden, lucid question.
‘Do you believe me about ETAT yet?’
‘Let’s not talk about that, Dad. I know you just wanted the best for me.’
Hilton’s eyes glimmered with anger. He swallowed dryly. ‘Don’t patronise me; not on my deathbed.’
Jessica flushed. ‘Do we have to deal with this now Dad? Is there nothing else to talk about…’
‘…in my last days?’
‘Yes. That. I didn’t mean to be hurtful. It just seems such a waste of time to rake over old arguments.’
Hilton dug his fingers into her arm and raised himself painfully. ‘Jessica! The signs are all around now. They’ve started to come out; I can name thirty in positions of power. Real, push-the-button, make-it-happen power. Surely you’ve noticed their growing profile? ETAT is becoming a household name. People are beginning to acknowledge Member influence. Governments are hiring them as consultants for God’s sake! You must see it — it’s all around!’
Jessica pressed him back. ‘Dad, just take it easy will you? Look at your damn monitor!’
He fought her off. ‘Stupid girl! Why won’t you listen? I’d renounce my life’s work if it’d make you quit your precious patron. Can’t you look around for once and spot the changes? Your ETAT is positioning itself to devour the world and all you can do is humour me!’
A nurse bustled into the room, checked the monitor and glared at Jessica. ‘What’s going on here?’
‘I must ask you to leave; Mr Diep is too frail to be upset like this.’
‘Not another word. Please leave; you may return this evening.’ The nurse deposited a sedative into Hilton’s drip.
Hilton lay back. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Just relax, Mr Diep. The doctor will be along shortly.’
Hilton turned to Jessica, who had surprised herself by backing off, and extended his arm. Dodging a lethal look from the nurse she took his hand.
‘Just… check it out… for yourself. Please?’
‘… Alright, I will.’
Jessica tucked his arm under the blankets and walked thoughtfully from the ward.
Four days later, Hilton slipped into a coma and died. Jessica kept her promise. With Major’s encouragement she took compassionate leave. Despite Hilton’s notes, however, her research revealed nothing sinister about ETAT. All she could discern was a collection of prominent, variously gifted citizens involved in global projects of great import. She found no financial, legal, political or philosophical connections between the named Members and couldn’t even see the point of using a common title for such a disparate group. She scoured the Net, following her father’s ‘leads’. In every case, she dismissed his fears for lack of evidence. Conscience appeased, she grieved, comforted her mother and threw herself back into her work.
Read Chapter 03.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by Phil Gibbs.