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: army, chapter, internet, novel, science fiction, speculative fiction, television, The Game, TV
Gregor Klimt signed into the army the day he turned sixteen. The government of the day had found it progressively difficult to interest people in the art of murder. Reducing the age of self determination had produced a good supply of impoverished, disgruntled, rebellious and adventurous youths. In possessing all four attributes, Gregor epitomized the target audience.
For a while, things at home had been good. Gregor’s father had been caught in the infectious quest for knowledge which had swept the planet when the Internet came of age. Honore Klimt amazed himself and his wife by discovering other subjects in the universe as interesting as football.
The mind-blowing variety of interactive sites teased him from his narrow mind set. For the first time in his humble life, he felt like part of a bigger picture. Further motivation was provided at his local pub, where peers vied to outdo each other with trivia.
The phenomenon was widespread. The poorer the person, the keener his desire to embrace one of the few great levellers – education. Every fact increased their sense of worth. It was a renaissance. The masses were enchanted by the ease with which they could learn. ‘Net sites were infinitely more entertaining than the condescending artifice of television. It was more controllable than astral travelling, every bit as exhilarating and just as cheap. Billions spent countless hours improving their minds. Those seeking only entertainment still learned subconsciously. After a few years, the population became better informed in more areas than any generation prior.
The dissipation of ignorance struck at the heart of institutions reliant on secrecy and misinformation to control their subjects. Motorists learned of the oil industry’s conspiracy to suppress solar power. Religious devotees questioned strict codes of conduct and devotion to individual leaders. The middle class saw poverty’s role in destroying the environment. The image of the black, malnourished child was replaced with the understanding that sharing resources was logical and good business.
Stereotypes crumbled. Fear of the unknown dissipated. Broader views were taken and both sides heard. White, misogynous homophobes enjoyed articles by Asian lesbians. Across the planet, blinkers were quietly removed without pressure or recrimination. Holism became fashionable. Extremists competed to personify tolerance. Die-hard conservatives became the new pariahs. Throughout the world grew a feeling of oneness and hope. Perhaps, after millennia of destruction, humanity was on the verge of getting it right.
The phenomenon lasted for a decade. It later became known, bitterly by many, as The Temporary Period of Enlightenment.
Television had been the world’s largest industry for decades. The vested interests were enormous. The loss of viewers could not pass unchallenged.
A three-pronged viewer recovery strategy was devised and the Internet was inundated with advertising. First, ex-viewers were tantalised with sensational new programs, produced with record budgets and hyped as never before. Next came saturation with nostalgia about the comfort and security of a familiar medium. Third, a range of competitions with odds and prizes of unprecedented generosity sprang into life.
The Internet could not respond. Nor was it in the business of competing with other media. People came to it of their own accord. Having got what they wanted, most felt they’d learned enough and were ready for a change. So they reverted to new, improved TV. It offered simultaneous familiarity and novelty. The ratings crisis was averted and humanity’s best shot at utopia was advertised to death.
Following The Temporary Period of Enlightenment, Honore Klimt came out of orbit and touched down onto his couch. With his return came a resumption of attendant behaviours. To bolster his feelings of self worth and control, he began to abuse his family again. Though more articulate and inventive, he was every bit as violent.
When Gregor was fifteen, Honore snapped his wife’s arm in a tantrum. Gregor defended her. He was tall and solid. Honore was shorter, but had a labourer’s strength.
The next day, nursing a cracked rib and cuts above both eyes, Gregor contacted the army recruiting centre.
Private Klimt’s first year in the army was better than he had ever imagined. What had begun as an escape turned out to be his calling. His body responded magnificently to the arduous training and he became immensely strong. He kept his blond hair to a bristle. His face became taut and his eyes sharpened.
Gregor excelled at all things physical but was slow to absorb theory. He manipulated heavy arms like cutlery, drove articulated vehicles like golf carts and ran obstacle courses in record time. In communications, gun laying and battle strategy, however, he was invariably bottom of the class. His comrades thought him loyal, but stupid. Despite appearances, they were wrong on the second count. Though a concept could elude him for weeks, Gregor never let it beat him. Doggedly he worked at it until it fitted his conduit of understanding. Once he had something, he had it for life.
With his physical prowess, popularity and gradual assimilation of theory, Gregor eventually made corporal. It had taken four years to reach the first rung of his career ladder. He set himself the target of sergeant within three years. It took him five.
Gregor loved his position. In commanding respect from above and below, he felt he’d found his niche.
Gregor’s happiness lasted two years. During a private celebration to mark his twenty-seventh birthday, a jealous captain appeared, silencing the music and bringing the guests to groggy attention. Gregor approached the officer bearing a drink and invited him to join the party. The captain knocked Gregor’s hand away, slopping the drink over his own immaculate uniform. The crowd suppressed their laughter with effort. Furious, the captain questioned Gregor’s suitability as a sergeant and a soldier. Gregor withstood the diatribe, until accused of abandoning his mother. His fist snapped the officer’s jaw like a wishbone and he was arrested. Busted to private, his career was over.
Lonely and embittered, Gregor left the only place to which he’d belonged. He drifted from job to job, each more purposeless than the last. His outrage at being ruined on the whim of an upper-class mandarin deepened as he spent the next eight years on the poverty line.
At thirty-five, Gregor hit a mid-life crisis. Unable to save and unmotivated to maintain his body, he saw his life pissed against the walls of the hovels in which he had lived. New products and industries had periodically caught his eye. Opportunities were all around. Why had he not made something else of himself? Disgusted with his introspection, he resolved to get his life in order.
He searched for a job to hold his interest. An disposal store needed a night manager. Though recycling was effortless, selling surplus equipment was more economic. To his surprise, Gregor was hired.
The store’s owner had long wanted to retire. When Gregor had mastered his role, he offered him a deal. In return for living above the store, Gregor took on the bookwork and oversaw the day manager.
It was just the break Gregor needed and he opened a savings account.
In joining the military, Gregor had escaped the television viewer recovery campaign. For him, the ‘Net was still the premium source of entertainment and information. Now he had the opportunity to return. During each day and on quiet nights, he brought himself up to speed with the topics that had interested him as a child. Then he looked at the army, finding it fused with the navy, air corps and police force. Neither modern combat nor rationalist budgets could sustain four separate empires. Officers were resigning en masse, ahead of projected redundancies.
Gregor researched the man who’d ruined him. He saw with anger that he’d left the army early, set up his own company and was helping government to dismantle the very institution that had fed him for thirty years. Gregor was disgusted. Prakash had only made colonel. By getting out ahead of the rest, he’d snatched a pivotol role that should have gone to a more experienced officer. Not satisfied with destroying a popular and capable sergeant, Prakash had taken it upon himself to trash the whole system.
This personally relevant snapshot of the changing world sparked an interest in broader current affairs. Gregor spent more time scouring the ‘Net, and he became conversant with a wide range of issues.
It was surprising that one tutored in violence reacted so strongly to The Game. Gregor had been appalled at the inaugural telecast of the new television program. His amazement and distress was twofold.
On the first level, he couldn’t accept that the people he’d sworn to protect as a soldier were willing to risk their lives for consumer goods and cash. During all his years on skid row, he’d never contemplated suicide. Yet this was what the punters were doing. No matter that the odds of losing were tiny, nor the prizes titanic.
Gregor was further revolted by the avarice of Game contestants. He’d learned to live frugally. Many of the people on the program were middle and upper class. They had the freedom to experience life more fully than he ever could, yet it wasn’t enough. There they were, heads inside a new-age guillotine for the sake of a bigger house, more cash and a car. It was greed incarnate.
Gregor’s circumstances and education improved gradually. He remained single, in love with his window on the world. Shortly after turning thirty-nine, he was informed that Honore had broken his mother’s neck and had not been seen since. Her will bore his father’s stamp and he inherited nothing. At the cremation, Gregor promised revenge.
After thirteen months of winners, a contestant finally died in The Game. The replay broke all ratings records and was used relentlessly as a teaser. To Gregor’s dismay, the Internet erupted with positive reactions.
Apart from his opposition to The Game, Gregor differed from others in another critical respect. His address was one of only a handful that hadn’t been invaded by Molecular Tracking Devices. Gregor was ignorant of their existence, let alone their growing presence. It was thus due to no effort on his part that he was ‘off line’. The product cycle for military equipment was considerably longer than its civilian counterpart. MTDs had only recently made it into the newly combined armed force; it’d be some time before they made it out. High-tech gear was so obsolete on decommissioning that Gregor’s employer didn’t carry it. The store was thus an invisible island in a transparent sea of MTDs. Nor were even Gregor’s personal possessions modern. Penniless when he began the job, he’d taken his first pay in stock items. His wrist-watch, alarm clock, lamp, PC and so on were all ex-military, and MTD-free.
Gregor’s temporary immunity from MTD coverage, however, did not exempt him from The New Deal.
By the time the prospectus came out, ETAT was widely considered to be running civilisation’s critical systems. All it lacked was a mandate. With characteristic foresight, the cartel greatly downplayed its power. The New Deal prospectus took the form of an offer from a reliable supplier to discerning clients.
Though Gregor despised the clauses dealing with fiscal advancement via The Game, he was interested in the order and certainty ETAT promised. All citizens would know their place. Political intrigue would disappear from the equation and decent men could earn a living free of the vagaries of economics. The New Deal was the motivation he needed to consolidate his savings and make the transition to self employment. His discipline had slipped with age and he was well short of the sum he needed to buy out his employer. Using the formula provided to calculate his net worth, he saw he was within reach of Comfortable Status, provided he knuckled down.
When society reacted favourably to The New Deal, Gregor created a four-year classification deferment request. He was prepared to accept three: anything less would condemn him to Poor Status, which prohibited business ownership.
ETAT had commissioned information centres in all cities. Sourced using Member connections, they were well located, appointed and managed. Ordinary citizens worked there as in the branches of any large corporation. Clause by clause, they interpreted The New Deal for the public, unconscious of ETAT’s broader design. Well paid and treated with respect, ETAT consultants became loyal and discrete.
It was to such a centre that Gregor cycled one hot Monday morning. He tethered his old police bicycle to one of many carrels. A concierge directed him.
Gregor saw with surprise that the information centre occupied the entire floor. Orange booths were dispersed evenly over an expanse of blue carpet. Though Gregor was early, the place was nearly full. He realised why ETAT had opened new centres elsewhere in the city. People were taking The New Deal very seriously, learning all they could before accepting its provisions.
Gregor’s consultant was a round-faced man whose name tag read Wu Chen. He greeted Gregor with a graphic display of mismatched teeth. ‘Please, Mr Klimt, take a seat.’ Gregor complied warily. Chen moved his chair forward with a series of mincing shuffles until his chest pressed against the table. Gregor folded his arms over his battered despatch rider’s case.
Chen pointed a fresh grin at Gregor. ‘I am told you are interested in a deferment of classification. Could I please see your forms?’ Gregor complied and Chen bowed studiously over the first page, examining it minutely. His nose tracked centimetres from the paper. Gregor found himself wanting to smack the consultant’s head into the table.
Chen began tutting and his brow furrowed. He became progressively animated as he worked his way down the third of Gregor’s forms. Gregor glared, willing him to finish. With a slow exhalation, Chen sat back and regarded to Gregor, a study of solicitude.
‘What is it? What’s wrong with my application?’ Gregor’s meaty hands clenched.
‘I see difficulties,’ said Chen, closing his eyes and raising his eyebrows.
The tone and proximity of Gregor’s voice startled Chen. ‘What made you enter the army so young, then terminate your career?’
‘Why did you spend less than a year at each of your last ten jobs?’
‘I’ve been at my current job for three years!’
‘Yes, but overall your work history is chequered. What guarantee can you give that you will stay where you are now?’
‘My word,’ said Gregor.
Chen chuckled and shook his head. ‘Mr Klimt, I do not mean to disillusion you, but your word is hardly sufficient collateral for me to authorise a deferral.’
‘Apart from my employment history, what else do you have a problem with?’
‘Your level of education.’
‘But I passed everything the army threw at me!’
‘True, but you had a hard time of it.’
‘What does that matter, if I passed in the end?’
‘The heart of any successful classification deferment,’ recited Chen, ‘is the candidate’s capacity to generate significant wealth. Prerequisites for significant wealth generation are windfall, use of capital or rapid assimilation of knowledge pursuant to more gainful employment. You may have passed your exams, Mr Klimt, but you are not a fast learner. It is my assessment, therefore, that you could not assimilate sufficient information to start a new career in the space of four years.’
‘Fine; give me longer.’
‘I cannot do that. The prospectus clearly states that the maximum deferment period is four years.’
Gregor held his temper. ‘You said one of the criteria was the use of existing capital.’
‘Well, I intend to buy the store in which I work.’ He produced a spreadsheet. Wu leaned forward. Gregor traced a thick finger over two columns and continued. ‘As you can see from my projections, I’ll accumulate the purchase price of the store in just under four years. If I …’
‘That is too long.’
‘Will … will you just let me finish?’
‘If I reduce my discretionary spending according to this table, I can raise the money in three years. It’ll be tough, but I can manage it. All I want is the chance to buy my own business. After that, my revenue will be more than enough to qualify me for Comfortable Status.’
‘Yes, but … ‘
‘Then you agree?’
‘Yes, but look at your cash flow. Your net worth will take longer than four years to reach threshold. You need to be at threshold before the cut-off date, not after it.’
‘But you acknowledge I’d have the potential to reach that level?’
‘Assuming your figures are correct, yes. But you’re missing the point. The cut-off date for The New Deal is intended to be a snapshot of society. We cannot have you moving around when we take it. You would … blur the picture.’ Chen smiled, enchanted with his analogy.
‘I’d … blur the picture?’
‘Yes. I am sorry Mr Klimt, but I can find no grounds to approve your application.’
‘And what’s your view on The New Deal being accepted by society?’
Chen leaned back beaming. ‘Oh, I am sure it will be accepted. All the comments I have heard in this centre have been most positive.’
‘And there’s nothing you can do to let me reach my chosen level by dint of saving and hard work?’
Chen glanced at his watch and gathered Gregor’s forms. ‘No, Mr Klimt, your time frame is too long. I can do nothing unless you have something else for me.’
‘I do, actually,’ said Gregor quietly.
Chen looked up expectantly. Gregor’s fist slammed into his face, knocking him through the wall of the booth.
In breaking off at the root, Chen’s teeth finally had something in common.
Read Chapter 16.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by CelebMuscle.
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.