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Rusted Chrome

by Karlos Allen

Day One

part 1 of 4

The place: Portland, Oregon. The time: the not too distant future, in an era of global warming and urban sprawl. Mental Interface with the Web is commonplace, and virtual and physical reality are sometimes hard to distinguish.

Charles O’Leary is a detective for the Portland police. His assignment: to investigate the bombing of a Web server farm. The terrorist’s motives are not entirely clear: the bomb itself does limited damage, but the mental damage caused to workers interfacing with the Web is serious indeed. A message from the bomber raises an ominous question: What is a Bio-Server, and how do you know if you are one?

Detective O’Leary reached for his fifth cup of coffee of the day. His stomach protested the influx of acid, but his brain overruled it in favor of the caffeine rush that would follow. Later, he promised himself, I’ll get some food on top of it later.

His partner, Lieutenant Okawa, threaded his way across the office, already online. You could tell that from the glassy stare and the tendency to start muttering to himself.

O’Leary looked at his own cap with a little distaste. Place looks like the psych ward with all these grown people wandering around talking to themselves. He was about to say it out loud when Okawa gurgled and fell over.

O’Leary jumped out of his chair and ran over to him. Okawa looked bad: he had bloody foam coming out of his mouth where he’d bitten his cheeks and tongue and his legs kicked spasmodically as though he were going through heroin withdrawal. The most disturbing thing was his eyes: wide open and dilated, they pointed in opposite directions as though he was trying to look both ways at once.

O’Leary swept out of the way anything that the lieutenant could hit and stood back. “Call the EMT’s, Bill’s down!...” he trailed off, looking around.

Everyone with a cap on was out, four of them were down and several others were frozen, staring off into space. Occasionally one would twitch. The few who hadn’t gone online yet had their hands full handling the bad cases.

An officer heard him yell and started to go online to get help. Immediately, his eyes rolled back in his head and he started shaking and drooling.

“Don’t go online!” O’Leary shouted as another officer reached for his cap. “Call them using the emergency communicators, and warn them not to go online either.”

The officer nodded and headed for one of the desks.

O’Leary looked back down at Okawa in time to see him suddenly relax and fall asleep. The other seizure cases were doing the same, while the absence cases were gradually coming out of it.

A few minutes later, when the EMT’s arrived and began checking them out, everyone seemed almost normal. Carefully, wincing inside as he did so, O’Leary picked up the cap and put it on. He ran a few diagnostics and then logged on to the Web.

His office, with the simulated desk and file cabinet, seemed normal. When he “walked” over and “opened” the drawer, the files presented themselves without any trouble. Nothing appeared tampered with so, looking around one last time, he carefully came back to the real world.

The senior EMT was standing nearby, patiently waiting for him. “Is it safe?”

“It looks like it.”

“Good, I’ve got paperwork to fill out.” His eyes glazed over and he started muttering to himself.

O’Leary looked down at the red stains in the carpet where Okawa had been lying and scratched his head. The cap always made him itch. He’d kept going back, but they could never get it right and most of the “adjustments” brought on fierce headaches. He’d finally given up, figuring it was all in his head. He was watching the last gurney roll out the door when the EMT came back offline shaking his head.

“This happen anywhere else?”

“Yeah.” Fhe EMT nodded. “We’ve been getting calls from all over town. The only thing in common has been that they were all online. I almost think this is a network issue rather than a medical one. These folks just happened to be on the wrong node when it happened and it fed back into them.”

“Has this ever happened before?”

“I don’t know; I’ll google it.” His eyes rolled back in his head and he started muttering to himself. O’Leary edged around so he could catch him if he went down; carefully looking around to make sure he had a clear path to the floor.

A minute or so later his eyes snapped open. “Yeah, during development, but they said the bugs were worked out of it when it went commercial. It happened mostly if the signal was suddenly dropped. With the coverage we have now, that’s almost impossible.”

“Can that happen accidentally?’

“Beats me. You’ll have to take that up with IT.”

Reflexively he started go online, and then decided against it. Instead he left the office and headed upstairs to the IT department. The place looked horrible. They’d all been online when whatever it was had happened. Most of them were collapsed in their chairs still unconscious, a few were laid out on the floor and one tech was hopelessly tangled in some cords. He’d apparently been working on one of the servers.

Something odd about the way the tech was hanging made O’Leary look closer. The congested face and protruding, purple tongue confirmed his suspicions. The cords had tangled around his neck, garroting him.

O’Leary ran back downstairs to catch the EMT’s and get them upstairs to attend to the IT techs. As they gathered their equipment, he put his coat on and went outside. After that sight, he needed more coffee and this time he was going to put some food on top of it.

Ernie’s Diner was his haven from work. It sold absolute peace and quiet. If you wanted to be offline for a while, this is where you came. The metal mesh of a Faraday cage completely surrounded it, and the only way the outside world could reach you was through a land-line communicator, and Ernie controlled it.

As-salamu alaykum, Detective O’Leary!” Ernie himself was there to greet him when he stepped through the mesh curtain, his brown face and full beard belying his name. O’Leary suspected he’d adopted the name for business purposes, though his customary greeting quickly dispelled any stereotypes. Then again maybe he just enjoyed the looks on people’s faces the first time they heard him.

Wa alaykum as-salam, Ernie. Anything odd happen this morning?”

“No, thanks to God. All the customers have been happy and hungry. Why do you ask?”

O’Leary filled him in on what he’d seen at the office, leaving out the corpse in the IT Department.

Ernie shook his head. “Such a thing would never happen here. Those infidel devices, pardon me Detective, cannot penetrate. All of my customers have been safe.”

“That’s why I come here. I’ll have my usual.”

Ernie hurried away shouting orders while O’Leary settled down in one of the booths, grateful for the chance to relax. The smell of strong Turkish coffee snapped his eyes open a few minutes later. As he sipped it, the images of his co-workers hitting the floor kept running through his head. What happened? Was it really just a network problem? He dealt with headaches and had heard of people having weird dreams, but nothing like this. Could it have been an attack? The Terror War was supposed to be over, but the training was still a requirement in the Department. He began going through possibilities, just in case.

Doodling on a napkin in front of him, he began listing them out. Method: Virus? Have to talk to IT (when they recovered) about that possibility. Power surge (or drop) caused by sabotage? That should show up as physical damage. He could start pulling status logs once he got back online. He grinned to himself, thinking about what his trainer would say to that.

“Status logs!” he’d snort. “Bud, you need to get up off your... chair and get out there yourself. A cop who won’t visit the scene of a crime in person isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit.” The Old Man hadn’t taken the changes well.

He shrugged mentally; he was going to have to talk to IT before he could go any further. Meantime he’d keep an eye out for any news reports.

What about motive? That one was easy. There were more people who had issues with technology in general and the Web — especially Mental Interface — in particular than any ten police agencies could track. Fortunately, most of them were harmless; they made a lot of noise and sued just about anybody they could, but that was as far as they went. Might need to talk to a few of them though; they usually had a fair idea what their less patient “fellow travelers” were up to.

What to do then? He needed more facts. He was making up a mental list of where to start looking first when Ernie reappeared carrying a platter and shaking his head disapprovingly. O’Leary braced himself for the inevitable lecture.

“Steak and eggs, steak and eggs. Detective you should try something different, we have an excellent goat curry. You should at least try it. How are you going to understand the people you serve and protect if you won’t try their food?”

O’Leary shook his head wearily, “Ernie, you know how weak my stomach is. I can’t even look at a curry, let alone bring myself to eat it. What can I say? I’m squeamish.”

Ernie walked away muttering. O’Leary bolted his food and got out, swiping his card at the door on his way. A half hour later he was standing on the top floor of the Veteran’s Hospital admiring the view of Mt. Hood.

So many people had succumbed to the attack that they couldn’t all be kept for observation. The absence cases had been sent home with strict orders not to use a cap for at least twenty-four hours, while the seizure cases were being shoehorned into every empty bed that could be found.

Okawa had ended up here, twenty miles from the office, because that was where room could be had. The doctor had just been going in to examine him when O’Leary showed up.

“Give me about fifteen minutes, Detective,” he said when O’Leary presented his badge. “I need to make sure there’s no trauma.” He gestured with the PET scanner he held in his left hand. “After that you can probably talk to him for a few minutes. Don’t be surprised if he drops off on you. Seizures are exhausting. Also, don’t be surprised if there’s some confusion or memory loss, it’s pretty common. It’s also usually temporary.” The doctor turned down the hall toward Okawa’s room.

O’Leary fell in step with him. “How have the other patients been, Doctor? Anything odd or different?”

“No, I’ve treated epileptics before. A seizure is a seizure, Detective, whether it’s caused by drugs, disease, trauma or shock. It manifests itself pretty characteristically. I’ve just never had an epidemic of them.” He went into the room, closing the door behind him.

O’Leary wandered off to the waiting area to renew his acquaintance with the view. He remembered the first time he’d seen it as a child. The details were fuzzy, a friend of the family had gotten hurt and they had come to visit. And he’d discovered that the mountain was more than just a peak on the eastern horizon.

It still looked the same, except that the glacier had melted, but the city had changed a lot. Back then this had been a fairly affluent area and, Oregonians being the way they were about trees, the view outside of the city proper had been of a forest with occasional buildings showing through.

Now, except for a few scraggly firs, the trees were gone. Instead, there was just a sea of houses, apartments and worn strip malls stretching all the way down the hill and as far east as you could see. He knew if he had been able to look west, he’d see the same thing all the way to the Coast range. A monument to battles lost against urban sprawl and out-of-state developers.

He’d managed to work up a real bout of nostalgia when a nurse called, saying Okawa was ready to see him.

Okawa looked up from a laptop he was working at, “Hey Chuck, can you get my cap for me? These laptops are terrible.”

“I don’t think the doctor wants you using a cap right now, Bill. You had a pretty bad time this morning.”

“I did? Is that why I’m here?”

“Yeah, do you remember anything?”

Okawa looked off for a moment, “Nope, I remember getting up this morning and then waking up here in my skivvies with a nurse taking my vitals. Did something happen?”

O’Leary filled him in. He was wrapping things up when Okawa interrupted. “Say, Chuck, could you get my cap for me from the office? These laptops are terrible.”

O’Leary eased over and pressed the nurse call button. Without missing a beat he continued, “I don’t think the doctor wants you using a cap right now, Bill. We were just talking about what happened to you this morning.”

“We were? What happened? I remember getting up out of bed and then I woke up here in my skivvies with a nurse checking my vitals.”

The nurse quietly stepped into the room right then. O’Leary got up and headed her off, “I pushed the call button; he didn’t. He’s not remembering anything.”

“That’s not surprising, Detective, a seizure-”

“I know about that. I’m talking about right now. I’m starting to have the same conversation all over with him and he doesn’t remember the first time.”

“Hey, Chuck,” Okawa called over from his bed, “What am I doing here anyway? Did you bring me here? Could you get me my cap? I’ve got work to do and these laptops are terrible.”

O’Leary looked at the nurse, “That’s the third time he’s asked for his cap in the last ten minutes. And now he doesn’t seem to remember waking up here.”

The nurse nodded and left.

Okawa watched her go. “Cute isn’t she? Is that why I’m here? You using me to help you pick up women now?”

“Funny, Bill. Very funny. No, you had a bad seizure this morning, so did a lot of other people. They were all online when it happened. Do you remember anything?”

“Sorry, Chuck, nothing.” He was obviously straining to keep himself together. “If I had my cap... Why don’t I have it anyway? These laptops are—”

“Terrible. I know, you keep saying that.”

“I do?”

“Yeah, Bill, you do. I don’t think you’re well yet. The doctor’s coming back to take another look at you. I’m going to start looking around to see what caused all of this. See you later.”

“See ya, Chuck. Oh, and, Chuck? When you come back, bring my cap will you?”

O’Leary gave in. “Sure, Bill, anything you say.”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2010 by Karlos Allen

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