by Robert H. Prestridge
part 1 of 3
Oh, Arnie, here we go again, Frank Dunninger thought.
Dunninger stepped out of his rental sprinter in front of the Joe and Mira Waverly residence in Topeka. Mira Waverly had called Baanders Corporation, the company for which Dunninger worked as Chief Troubleshooting Officer of Implants, in a panic earlier that day. Her husband, Joe, had caught a virus while exercising on the Xii.
Sometimes a troubleshooter could stop implant viruses while jacked into the System. And sometimes, on occasions like these, a troubleshooter like Dunninger needed to make house calls.
A wave of late summer heat and humidity struck him. The front door of the Waverly residence dilated. A woman ran towards Dunninger, waving her arms.
“Mira Waverly?” Dunninger said, to ensure that he had the right person.
“He’s in the back,” the woman said, panting. “In the back. In the back.”
She jabbed a bony finger in the air, indicating the backyard of her one-storey house. She hadn’t answered Dunninger’s question, but he knew that she was, indeed, Mira Waverly.
“Let’s see what we have here,” Dunninger said, carrying the jank that he was going to need.
In the chainlink-fenced backyard, in a grove of willows, was Joe Waverly on all fours. Dunninger felt sweat collecting on his neck, under his arms, and on his lower back.
“He’s been acting like Francesca all morning,” Mira Waverly said.
“Francesca?” Dunninger said.
She nodded. “Our pug. She died a year ago. Joe’s missed her terribly, you know.”
Joe Waverly did, indeed, resemble a Chinese pug. His moon-shaped head was bald, his jowls were dark from being unshaven, and his eyes were bulbous and watery. He was panting and his pink tongue was hanging out from the corner of his mouth.
Dunninger crept towards the willows, not wanting to frighten the man-dog. It was Arnie’s work, and Arnie had been busy all week, infecting the implants of the owner of a teriyaki restaurant in downtown Seattle, a painter in the north end of Oakland, and a househusband on the Baltimore waterfront, and Dunninger felt exhausted by the continual crisscrossing of the country.
“Easy, boy, easy,” Dunninger said. “You’re a good dog, aren’t you?”
“Please don’t hurt him,” Mira Waverly said from somewhere behind the willows.
Dunninger breathed evenly. “No one’s going to hurt him, Mrs. Waverly. And no one’s going to get hurt.”
The man-dog darted out of the willows, barking and heading towards the far end of the backyard. Dunninger chased after him. The man-dog turned, leaped in the air, and ran circles on all fours around Dunninger.
Winded, Dunninger stopped chasing the man-dog. The man-dog stopped running and kept his wary eyes on the implants troubleshooter.
“Yes, Mr., uh—”
“Dunninger. Frank Dunninger. Do you have any chicken or steak, something that I can lure him with?”
Great. “How about one of Francesca’s old toys?”
“We still might have a tin of her treats.”
Dunninger wiped his sweaty brow with the back of his wrist. The air smelled like a stagnant creek. Dunninger was glad that he didn’t live in Kansas during late summer.
“That will do,” he said, having almost recovered his breath.
“I’ll be right back,” Mira Waverly said.
Dunninger heard her hurrying into the house.
A few seconds later, Mira Waverly returned. She handed Dunninger a titanium container. He ejected a jerky treat from the container, held the treat out to Joe Waverly, and smiled.
“That’s a good boy,” Dunninger said to entice the man-dog. “Come and see what I’ve got for you.”
Joe Waverly edged his head forward, sniffing. His wet nostrils flared. The man-dog moved forward, licking his lips.
Dunninger smiled, beckoning. “There’s a good dog...”
“This is horrible,” Mira Waverly said, sounding as if she might have a nervous breakdown.
“Good boy, good boy,” Dunninger said.
Joe Waverly opened his mouth to take the treat from Dunninger’s outstretched hand. The implants troubleshooter sprang and fell flat on the man-dog, pinning him to the ground.
The man-dog growled, snapping at Dunninger, who inserted the jank into one of the man-dog’s triceps. Joe Waverly struggled as the nano-engineered anti-virus entered his bloodstream and sped towards its intended target, the pancreatic implant that Arnie’s virus had infected.
A minute passed. Joe Waverly stopped fighting.
Dunninger released the man and stood.
The man winked at Dunninger. “Hiya, hiya, hiya, Frankie baby.” The cackle was a high-pitched nerd’s.
“Arnie?” Dunninger stepped towards the man. “Arnie, is that you?”
“That’s not my husband’s voice,” Mira Waverly said, wailing.
Joe Waverly blinked.
“What in the samtarnation is going on?” he said. He looked peeved and Dunninger offered a hand to help him up. The ex-pug brushed grass and debris from his clothes. “What am I doing out here?”
“Joe,” his wife said, rushing to him, throwing her arms around his chest. “Joe, you’re back.”
Arnie, Dunninger thought, why do you do this to me?
Mira Waverly glowered at Dunninger. “Don’t think that I’m not going to spread the word about this,” she said. “If Baanders can’t protect their customers any better, then you should be out of business.”
Dunninger sighed, picking up the jank. He felt a migraine coming on because of the extreme Kansas heat and its accompanying humidity. What he desired most was a quick shower, a few ice-cold Coronas with twists of lime, and sleep while in transit back to Seattle.
A cat yowled somewhere in the distance.
“And don’t think that we’re going to pay for this,” Mira Waverly said, jabbing her bony finger at him. “We’re not going to pay you one damn cent.”
Dunninger nodded. “Baanders Corporation backs everything that it produces, Ms. Waverly. You don’t have to pay anything.”
And with that, Dunninger nodded politely and exited the backyard, the migraine pounding his skull like a jackhammer eating through concrete.
* * *
Dunninger, who was jacked into the System, studied graphs, figures, and charts forming and re-forming on his primary monitor.
No sign of Arnie, at least not yet.
Of course, Arnie, whoever Arnie was, wasn’t the first implants hacker with whom Dunninger had dealt. He had gone after several — T-Rex, Mighty-Mighty, Joe the Elder, Joe the Younger, Banger Heloise Hellacious 314Y — and had caught each and every one of them.
The first wave of malicious hacking of human implants had, of course, caused problems — some deadly, some fundamentally minor — for the people who had had implants. Fortunately, Dunninger’s company, and others, had created stabilizing units so that the nervous systems in the body could not be overridden.
However, malicious hackers had learned that they could create viruses that played with the mind. Stabilizing units could not stop these attacks, because to stop the mind was to shut down the brain, which, of course, meant inevitable death for the person with the infected implant.
Dunninger placed a finger to his lips. He blinked. His eyes felt dry, and he knew that if he looked into a mirror, he would see the reflection of an exhausted man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
He rose from his chair and went to a window.
Across Lake Washington, illuminated homes dotted a ridge. Dunninger wondered where Arnie lived, how he lived, and, for that matter, why he lived.
Dunninger went back to his chair and sat down.
He heard a knock. He swiveled in his chair. Evelyn, his wife, was standing in the doorway of his study.
“Please don’t tell me you’re going to stay up all night again,” she said.
“Not all night. I promise.”
His brush with stomach cancer had forced Dunninger not to work for more than twelve hours a day. Of course, it wasn’t only rest or relaxation that had helped him to recover, but the implant that his company had created.
“Not even most of the night, mister. I’ll give you another half hour, okay? Then it’s time for bed.”
“Okay. I promise.”
Evelyn stepped into the study. She put her arms around his neck, ran her fingers through the remnants of his hair, and kissed the top of his forehead.
“I miss you when you’re obsessed,” she said. “Sometimes I wish you were a surgeon or something less stressful. And that you weren’t such a workaholic.”
“I wish I could find something to help me relax.”
“Oh, I’ve got the answer for that,” she said.
Dunninger chuckled. “Oh, I’m sure that you do.”
He relaxed into her warmth. She smelled of burnt cookies, one of Dunninger’s favorite scents, which indicated that she had been working on one of her Bakelite projects. Dunninger closed his eyes and let his senses revel in her.
A few moments later, he opened his eyes and pulled away. “I’ve got to get back to work,” he said. “Arnie’s got to be stopped.”
“You have twenty-four minutes,” Evelyn said, turning.
“Twenty-three minutes now,” she said, exiting the study.
Dunninger swiveled in his chair and looked at his primary monitor. He sighed. Who are you, Arnie, and what do you want? And why are you so difficult to find?
Dunninger popped a vanilla-flavored nutrients tab into his mouth. His eyelids felt heavy, and he told himself that he would go to bed shortly.
He awoke to find that he had fallen asleep in his study. Affixed to his primary monitor was a note in Evelyn’s calligraphic handwriting:
PROMISE? I’LL LET IT GO THIS TIME. NO HUNTING TONIGHT, MISTER!
Dunninger laughed, removed the note, and attached it to the wall with a filament tack among other notes Evelyn had written him.
He unjacked himself from the System, showered, and dressed, all in less than ten minutes. After that, he left for work in his sprinter, arriving at the Puget Sound offices of Baanders Corporation about thirty minutes later.
M. Jiddu Baanders, his boss, scanthought a note to Dunninger, asking to see him right away.
“Anything?” Baanders said, sitting on his desk, arms crossed.
“Nothing yet,” Dunninger said. “I sense that I’m getting close.”
Baanders raised an eyebrow. “What makes you so sure of that, Frank?”
“Because Arnie is making this personal.” Dunninger cleared his throat. “He knows who I am and he knows that I’m on to him. He’s taunting me, trying to show me that he’s smarter and better than me.”
Had anyone else asked that question, Dunninger would have felt insulted. But he didn’t feel insulted now. He knew that Baanders was asking the question in an objective way.
“No, he’s not,” Dunninger said. “Or she’s not.”
Baanders nodded. “Could it possibly be someone within the company?”
“I checked,” Dunninger said, shaking his head. “There’s no evidence linking it to anyone here. Arnie’s a wild card.”
“So now what, Frank?”
Dunninger looked out one of the windows. A ferry sped across the Sound, heading towards Bainbridge Island. A crying seagull flew by another window.
The implants troubleshooter looked at his boss. “I’ll continue to study the attack patterns,” Dunninger said. “Arnie can’t keep this up forever.”
“Let’s hope not,” Baanders said, standing. “By the way, we had three more outbreaks early this morning, all of them house calls.”
“Oh, no.” Dunninger felt the onset of another migraine. His mouth tasted bitter, like lead from a pencil. “Where?”
“Honolulu, Cleveland, and Cedar Rapids,” Baanders said. “In that order.”
“I’m on my way.”
“Be sure to get some rest tonight,” Dunninger heard Baanders say as the implants troubleshooter exited the office. “You’re looking like something not even the cat would drag in.”
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Robert H. Prestridge