by Karlos Allen
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?
The alarm didn’t go off. That was what woke O’Leary up the next morning: the silence. He sat up and checked the clock, feeling a brief rush of panic when he realized that he was an hour late for work.
Oh yeah, that’s right. I don’t work anymore. He knew what ‘unpaid administrative leave’ usually meant. It was what a chief did when he wanted someone off the force but needed time to square it with the union. I guess I should call the steward, but I’ll bet he already knows. It helps that the Chief is his brother-in-law. He decided against that; futility just depressed him.
He got up, carefully ducking his head so as not to bash it on the underside of the shelf he kept his clothes on. He punched the button on the coffee-maker and then folded the bed into the wall. The underside of the bed frame unfolded into a chair and stand that was just large enough to hold a cup and a plate.
Reaching up, he pulled down the icebox from its storage nook in the ceiling. He glanced in and saw a cardboard box marked ‘breakfast burritos’. Opening it up he saw that there was one left. He smelled it. Hmmmm, not too bad yet. If I set the microwave to ‘sterilize’, it should be safe to eat.
A few minutes later he was washing down a slightly sour-tasting burrito with large gulps of coffee and trying not to gag. The sterilize setting on the oven wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. It was one of those things he remembered every time he tried to eat something that really should have been thrown away instead.
With his second cup steaming at his elbow, and the gentle gurgling of his stomach as it wrestled with his ‘breakfast’ playing in the background, O’Leary tried to fit the pieces together.
Mental Interface has issues. That’s not really surprising, most things do. This one may have got away from us, though. These AI’s act more like people than programs and are unstable.
They also take up a lot of memory space and processing bandwidth. People who know they have AI’s in their heads can talk to them offline — and they go crazy. Christie’s face the first time Margie came over to ‘visit’ flashed into his memory.
At least one AI was psychopathic. Or is it sociopathic? I always get those mixed up. At any rate it’s dead. Isn’t it? O’Leary didn’t want to slap his forehead yet, but he did start to feel like something was coming together.
We don’t know that Alex is dead. We only know that Hector is dead. The AI’s are tied to their hosts now; or at least Margie is. But they weren’t back then. Lisa mentioned techs downloading AI’s to each other. That was the ‘workaround’. If Alex — or something like Alex — is still alive, what is it doing? Does Tech Support know about it?
Who contacted Duyck? That was the other question. The Chief was absolutely spineless, everyone knew that. The running joke at work was that you didn’t have to worry about corruption with him in charge; he didn’t have the nerve or the imagination. But if someone called and said he was a Federal Agent, Duyck wouldn’t have had the nerve to check his story either. Especially if the ‘Agent’ was telling him what he wanted to hear.
O’Leary finished his coffee and stood up. I need to get a cap. His scalp started to itch at the thought.
Getting caps wasn’t hard. You found them in computer stores right up front between the processors and the uplinks. There was even a fitting room where you could try out different models, from a cheap model that was often bundled free with new systems — and guaranteed to give you a splitting headache — all the way to models so high-end that they came with timers to automatically log you off periodically so that you wouldn’t forget to do things like eat and sleep.
O’Leary didn’t have a lot of money; that was another benefit of unpaid leave. You wouldn’t get severance till you were officially off the force, and that could be stretched out for a long time. He chose the cheapest model he could use without too much pain and winced as the cost was deducted from his account. He winced again when he paid for the unlimited connection service. You tend to forget about the cost of things when the taxpayers are picking up the tab for you.
He walked back home and settled in. The registration really didn’t take as long as he’d feared and he was even able to cut the cost of the connection service by agreeing to host a couple of ad trojans in some unused space in his cortex. He wondered how many other applications were coming along for the ride.
His new office didn’t look like much, and neither did his avatar. He stuck with the detective theme but just picked an old Alan Ladd photo from the clip art. This whole thing was going to be temporary anyway.
A couple of hours after starting with the installation, he settled down to do some real work. The first thing he did was to put in a call to Margie.
“We’re sorry,” the vaguely female voice said into his ear, “but the number you have dialed is disconnected or no longer in service. Please hang up and try again.” There was a loud click and then an irritating buzz.
He swore and tried Christie’s voice communicator.
“Americans for Free Minds. Don’t get caught in Big Brother’s Web. This is Denise speaking, how may I direct your call?”
“This is Chuck, is Christie in?”
“Yes, she is. Just a moment.”
“Yeah. Is Margie online?”
“No, she still can’t get on. She thinks she’s been locked out of the system.”
“I think she’s right. I just tried to get hold of her and got a disconnected number.”
“Did you get a cap?”
“Yeah, it’s killing my head already, but I’m not going to be able to get anything done without...”
There was a tap on the door. For a split second O’Leary thought someone was knocking on the door to his apartment when he suddenly noticed that the door to his office started to swing open.
“Hey, Christie, I’ll call you back. It seems I have some company.”
By now the door was completely opened and a vaguely man-shaped shape had drifted in. As he watched, it solidified into something more obviously man-shaped yet certainly not human. There was only a suggestion of a face and of clothing in a style that was about twenty years out of date.
“Don’t bother calling your friend. The connection’s been broken.” The voice, on the other hand, was disappointingly normal.
O’Leary sat back in his seat. “I’m not surprised. You probably wouldn’t want witnesses around, would you, Alex?”
The shape didn’t move or show any expression but O’Leary got the impression of surprise.
“You are right, I also do not want interference. Not now, and not ever.”
“Are you warning me off?”
“No. Warning is a human tactic. I have examined instances when it is used and have found that they were almost always ignored. Therefore it is obvious that they are a waste of time. I do not waste time. I also do not tolerate threats. I remove them.”
Something vaguely gun-shaped appeared and pointed at him. O’Leary dropped behind the desk. As it promptly disappeared, he cursed himself for forgetting that he was online. But if the desk isn’t real, then neither is the gun.
There was a loud roaring in his ears and he faded out thinking that for something that wasn’t real, it sure hurt...
* * *
At first it was dark, and then it was light, and then the light changed. A dark shape took up part of the light. It was... it was... something. He knew what it was but it seemed too hard to try to think of it. He started to close his eyes.
He opened his eyes again. The... face (he congratulated himself for remembering) was back. It kept yelling, but with two voices, which struck him as odd. He was sure that it usually went one face to one voice. Apparently it wanted something.
He smacked his lips and moved his tongue. There was a funny taste in his mouth. Blood (he congratulated himself again). “Who’s Chuck?”
“Oh no. You are NOT doing this to me! Wake up, Chuck!”
His face felt wet. Water was falling off the other face and landing on his. He wondered why.
The face went away for a minute, and then it came back, but the other voice was talking. “Chuck, what year is it?”
He pondered. Why is the face asking this? I know what year it is! It’s... it’s... Hmmm. Out loud he said, “I knew that a minute ago.”
“Chuck! Who am I?”
This was getting crazy! The face was asking the stupidest questions! “If you don’t know who you are, I’m not going to tell you.” There that should fix the face!
The face made another noise and went away again. Chuck drifted away to where it was dark and quiet.
* * *
The next time he opened his eyes he was in a dim room. He moved his head and immediately regretted it. Oh, wow, that must have been some fight! I wonder if I won? He groaned slightly and a face appeared. It was Christie. Over her shoulder hovered Miko.
“Whew, where am I?”
“Are you OK?”
“I think so, I’m just really stiff and sore. What happened?”
“We were on the com, remember? You just said something about having a visitor when we got cut off. I tried to call back but the com returned a message saying that the number was not in service. That got us worried so we came right over.”
“How did you know where I lived, or how to get in?”
“It was a good thing too. When we got in you were lying on the floor, seizing. Your cap was lying next to you. It must have fallen off when you went down.”
“That’s not surprising. Those things are always coming off at the worst times. I think I vaguely remember waking up and seeing you.”
“Yeah, you weren’t very cooperative. You kept calling me ‘face’ and wouldn’t answer any questions. When you passed out again, I looked around and found Bill and Miko’s number and called over there. Miko came over and we got you over here.”
“You’re in the boys’ room right now,” Miko added.
“Thanks, but why didn’t you call the EMT’s?”
“It was Margie’s idea. She thinks that it might be useful for you not to show up as alive anywhere for a while. Just in case you’d been attacked. Is there anything to that?”
O’Leary tried to shake his head and then groaned. “Let me think. I was on the com with you. I heard a knock on my door, and then it opened.”
“That’s not possible, Chuck. Your door was locked and we checked its log. You were the last person to open it.”
“No, no, not that door. The door to my office, online. It opened. Somebody came in.” He paused. “I think it was Alex.”
Christie sucked in a breath. “The AI?”
“Yeah, I think it tried to kill me. It’s kinda hazy but I vaguely remember a gun, or something like a gun, going off.”
“What good would that do? It’s not real.”
“I don’t know. Maybe it has a flair for the dramatic, or maybe the OS that governs caps requires it.”
“If that’s the case, you shouldn’t be alive. If that cap hadn’t fallen off...” Miko didn’t finish the thought.
Christie bent down and picked it up. “It shouldn’t have fallen off. These things are made to stick.” She flipped it inside out and looked at it. “Well, here’s your problem, Chuck. You never took the plastic shields off the nodes. It amazing you were even able to get a signal.”
“What shields? I never take anything off the nodes, and the techs never said anything about it.”
“Well, that might explain why you always get headaches and itchy scalp from the caps. The techs probably never looked. It’s like checking to see if something’s plugged in. You just assume it is. Anyway, that may have saved you. If the cap fell off before the attack was finished, the loss in signal would have looked like you really did die. You’re right, Margie does have good instincts.”
“Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence, you two,” said Margie. “Now none of us can get online. How do we get anywhere with this?
Chuck yawned hugely. I sure don’t know.” He drifted back to sleep.
The next time he woke up, it was dark. A vague shape stood in the room. He wondered who it was. It fumbled around on the table next to his bed.
Suddenly he heard Miko’s voice in the hall. She whispered something urgently in Japanese. He tried to translate, but he’d never really been fluent and it was too much work. The shape whispered back in the same language and he recognized Bill’s voice. He was about to say something when Bill snatched up the cap and put it on his head.
“Bill! No!” Miko was screaming now.
There was a pause, and then Bill said in a normal but slightly bewildered tone, “What? Why is everybody yelling at me?”
“Bill? Are you OK?” O’Leary levered himself up on to one elbow.
“Yeah, but I’ve had the strangest dream...” He trailed off.
Miko, seeing that O’Leary was awake anyway, turned on the light (which O’Leary immediately regretted) and stepped into the room. She looked at her husband for a second. “Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I think so. I’ve got kind of a headache. What’s Chuck doing here? Did he get sick?”
Miko reached up and plucked the cap off her husband’s head. “He’s had an accident. Why don’t you come into the living room and I’ll explain it to you? He needs his rest.” She set the cap back on the nightstand and put her hand on Bill’s arm, gently pulling him toward the door.
A few seconds later the light clicked off. O’Leary drifted back to sleep.
Copyright © 2010 by Karlos Allen