by Karlos Allen
part 1 of 3
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?
O’Leary barely made it in the door of the station the next morning when Chief Duyck called him into his office. ”Sit down, Chuck; I’d like to ask you about the case.”
O’Leary shook his wearily. “No, I haven’t turned it over to the Feds, Chief.” He started to stand up.
“That’s not what I wanted to talk about. You may or may not know this, but we track officers’ AI searches. We have to; it’s a protection for the public because of the power you have.”
O’Leary shook his head in confusion. “I haven’t been going anywhere inappropriate, Chief.”
“I know that, but it seems you’ve been spending a good deal of time on something called the Bio-Server Project. What’s that all about?”
O’Leary paused; the Chief never asked for details on a case. “The note the bomber left mentioned it. All of the normal channels have come up dry. I began looking into this to see if it would lead me to him.” And it did, lucky me!
“It seems a waste of time and department resources, Chuck, to be chasing conspiracy theories. I notice you’ve also been meeting with people in the anti-tech movement.”
“Yes. That’s my job. It may come as a surprise to you but sometimes you can’t find what you want with a Web search.”
“That just means you haven’t properly formulated the criteria.” Duyck looked smug; O’Leary carefully sat on his hand so it wouldn’t fly up and hit his boss. “Sometimes I think former Detective Logan’s influence is still a little strong on you. At any rate, I want you to start investigating this case properly. No more of this wandering off and looking at whatever catches your eye. We can’t waste taxpayer dollars doing that, we don’t have enough of them as it is. Do we have an understanding?”
O’Leary thought it over very carefully and then sat on his other hand. He was right-handed, but his left hand was volunteering to join the conversation. He couldn’t afford that; his alimony payment was too big.
“Sir,” he said very carefully, “were you ever in a police department before you were elected?”
“You know I wasn’t, Chuck. I’ve always been careful not to interfere in day-to-day operations. ‘Let the pros do what they do best’, that was my campaign slogan.” He managed to look even smugger.
“Well, if you don’t mind my saying so, you’re interfering now. A detective catches criminals by investigating little odd things about a case that don’t add up, not by writing a better search query. The bomber was very good and very careful. If I have to stick to traditional approaches, I might as well give up and turn it over to the Feds right now.” He waited for the Chief to crumble.
“If that’s the case then, don’t give it another thought. A Federal Anti-Terror Agent contacted me this morning asking about your investigation.”
“Really? How did he find out?”
“I don’t know. I’m not about to question a Federal Agent in the performance of his duties. I showed him the evidence we’d been able to collect and where your searches were going. We both agreed that this was a clear indication that you were getting desperate.
“Don’t worry; I emphasized just how competent you are. He agreed with my assessment that this case was cold and that there was no point in pursuing it unless the bomber struck again. So, if you’re down to this, then we’ll just put it on the back burner and move on, shall we?”
“No, sir, we won’t.” O’Leary wished he could sit on his mouth too, but it wasn’t happening.
“You may be an expert at golf, but you are absolutely incompetent to make judgments on police work. I don’t know who got to the agent you talked to, but I am not going to give up the case and you cannot stop me. Besides the fact that it is my job to do this, officers were injured in this attack.
“A real police chief would not only be supporting me all the way, he would be on my back wanting to know why I wasn’t moving faster. I guess that explains everything right there though, doesn’t it? You aren’t a real police chief. You are nothing but a very good politician.”
The smug look was gone. What replaced it made O’Leary pull his hands back out from under him just in case things got violent.
“You will turn in your badge, your gun and your cap.” Duyck’s voice was a cold monotone. “You will walk out of this station and consider yourself on unpaid administrative leave for as long as I can possibly stretch it out. I would fire you now except that the union would raise a stink. When you do come back, Officer O’Leary, you will be in charge of nothing but the coffee pot.”
O’Leary didn’t remember walking into Ernie’s Diner. He vaguely remembered waving when Ernie greeted him. He was sitting in a booth staring at the table when Ernie spoke up at his elbow. “Will you have the usual, Detective?”
There was a silence, “Is it your ex-wife, Detective?” He saw Ernie shake his head, “Women can be so vicious.”
“No, it’s not my ex. I just got suspended from my job. Technically I’m not a ‘detective’ anymore.”
“I told my boss what I thought of him.”
“That is never wise. I know that I do not ask my employees what they think of me; I would have to fire them all, either for insubordination or for lying. What possessed you to do this?”
“He tried to get me to drop a case.”
Ernie was about to say something else when someone yelled for him from the kitchen. He rushed off only to return a few minutes later with the communicator headset in his hand, its cord trailing behind him.
“There’s a call for you, Detective. I believe it’s that wonderful woman you’ve been seeing.” He winked broadly, “She’s tracked you down.”
O’Leary took the set and fit it over his head. “Yes?”
“Chuck? Where have you been? Margie’s been trying to get hold of you all morning, she has that data for you and you haven’t shown up at the office to pick it up.”
“Sorry.” He explained what happened. “I guess I’ll have to find some other way to make contact with her.”
There was a pause, “It’s OK, Mr. O’Leary, I’ll print it out here at Christie’s office. If you wait there we’ll bring it over to you.”
“Um... Margie? Is Christie OK with this?”
“Yes I am, Chuck. We had a long talk last night. You might have noticed that I didn’t say much at Vinh’s? We were working things out. Margie has to ask permission to speak through me, but in return she’s willing to run little errands for me when I absolutely need to find something on the Web. You see, I’m not really her neighbor, I’m her landlady, so we think of it as a rental agreement.”
“I... see. Well, if you two are happy, I am too. If you want to come over, I’ll wait for you.” He handed the headset back to Ernie. “Thanks, Ernie, I’m not hungry right now, but could I have a really strong cup of coffee?”
“Of course, Detective. It will be on the house.”
O’Leary was about halfway through one of the strongest coffees he’d ever had when Christie showed up. He ignored Ernie’s grin as the owner insisted on escorting her over to his booth. She ordered some pop and he hurried away to get it, assuring her that it was free. “Anything for a friend of the Detective.”
“What was that all about?”
He shook his head, “Ernie’s an incurable romantic. You’d think he was French. Don’t worry about it. What do you have for me?”
She reached in her bag and pulled out a sheaf of paper. “Here you go.”
“Thanks.” He started leafing through them when Ernie brought back her drink.
“Thank you Ernie.” She took a drink while he hovered there. “By the way, where did you come up with the idea of a privacy club anyway? I’ve never heard of one before.”
His face went very dead. “I don’t like Mental Interface, Ms. Porter.”
O’Leary added without looking up, “He calls them ‘infidel devices’.”
Ernie looked over at him for a moment and then shrugged. “The persona calls for that.”
“Yes, if you are going to sell Middle Eastern food, people expect you to talk a certain way; even Detective O’Leary here, who knows better, plays along with it.”
“Well, if you don’t like MI we could certainly use you. We can stop this, you know.”
Ernie shrugged. “Perhaps, but I think you will get farther trying to rescue the astronauts before they all kill each other.” He left to serve another customer.
“Well,” she looked back, “I never figured him for a cynic.”
O’Leary looked up, “It’s not just that. The Terror Wars may be over, but if you come from certain parts of the world you still have to be very careful. I have colleagues that make points with the Chief by watching people who fit certain profiles.”
Christie looked as though she’d just turned over a rotten log and found him under it. “I can’t believe you would be a part of that.”
He suddenly felt very tired, “Christie, I’m a homicide detective. I catch people who kill other people. That’s all I want to do and my superiors know that. And that means I’ve probably gone as far as I can in the force. Frankly, I’m OK with that.” He turned back to the papers.
After a long silence he looked up, “Did you read any of this?”
“No. We just printed it out and came over. Margie seemed pretty excited.”
“Well, she has good instincts. What she was able to dig up was the biographical information on the mental patients that the thread referred to, as well as their current location.”
“Thread?...” Christie looked inward for a second. “Oh! Thanks Margie. Never mind Chuck, I’m caught up now. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”
O’Leary looked at her oddly, “This is going to take some getting used to. You realize you’re going online without people knowing it?”
“Not right now; I can’t. And outside of Ernie’s I wouldn’t go online, Margie would. I’d just ask the question and the knowledge would float up out of my memory as though I’d always known it. It’s a real improvement on those 3D offices you use.”
“Possibly, we don’t know what the long-term effects are, though. These folks,” he tapped the printout, “ended up in a nut house.”
“Why? Was it because others didn’t understand what was happening?”
“No, it sounds more like the AI’s took over their minds, at least part of the time. Margie wouldn’t do that I’m sure, but others might.”
“So... what now?”
“A couple things. First, I need to see what the Old Man had for me and then I think we need to talk to a few people.”
“What about your suspension?”
“So I’m not getting paid to work right now. I never did this for the money anyway.” He tried to leave a tip when they left but Christie beat him to it.
They stopped back at her office and he put the memory stick in the terminal and waited while it read and printed out the contents. Gathering those papers up and trying not to mix the two stacks, he headed back out to the car.
Once again he turned west toward the Nehalem and got in the Auto drive lane, this time headed south. He settled back and started to read through the Old Man’s data. It was pretty thin. Looking at the date-time stamps on the files he realized that it had taken the Old Man about three months to find what Margie had found in one afternoon.
“Hey, Christie, it looks like he was able to put together a timeline for the Project. According to this, the earliest references run back to about 2015, about twenty years ago. He wasn’t able to tie down any official start dates or any public records, but it looks like most of the research happened at the Semi-Conductor Process Consortium Facility. I remember that one. The press called it the ‘Omega Fab’.” He shook his head, grinning. “Christie?”
He looked over at her. She was staring out the windshield, her face blank and her lips moving slightly. She seemed to be trying to say something.
He leaned over, “What? What’s wrong?”
“Cap...” she husked out, “cap...off.”
He stared uncomprehendingly for a second and then reached up and yanked the wig and cap off her head.
She collapsed back into the seat and sat there with her eyes closed, “Thanks.”
“I don’t know.”
“Margie? Do you know what happened?”
There was a silence.
“Margie! Can you hear me? What’s going on?”
“S-sorry, Mr. O’Leary. It was trying to deactivate me.”
“I think it works with Tech Support. There was a tracer on me and something was trying to re-write my root files. I tried to get offline, but it followed me through the cap into Christie’s head.”
“How did it happen?”
Christie seemed to be back in control. “While you were talking, I started asking Margie some questions, just trying to get more background information. I asked her what the ‘Omega Fab’ was. I’d never heard of it. The next thing I knew she was back in my head screaming at me to pull my cap off. I tried, but I couldn’t move my arms. I could barely get my mouth to move. That’s when you looked over.”
“I see. I should have thought of this. A Federal agent got Chief Duyck to suspend me because I refused to stop investigating the Project. It should have occurred to me that they would be watching Margie too.” While he was talking he began running his coffee maker. “Here, you need this.”
“Thanks.” She took a long drink. “What was the Omega Fab anyway?”
“It was big deal in the news about twenty-odd years ago. If I remember it right, it went something like this. Chip development was getting too expensive for any company, even the big ones like Intel or AMD, to do on their own. The government wasn’t interested in working on it, so Intel, AMD, and Taiwan Semiconductor got together. They were going to take one last crack at the ten gigahertz barrier.
“I remember my uncle working as a tech there. The agreement between them was that they would develop the process technology together and then go off and design chips separately in their own facilities. It was a huge building; all the processing was done in either pure nitrogen or hard vacuum. My uncle said it was as close as he was ever going to get to being an astronaut. The thing cost about twenty billion dollars to build and ran around five billion a year to operate.”
“It ran for about five years. I think they did crack the barrier, but there was no way they could make a profit. So Taiwan Semiconductor sold out its share to the other two companies. They tried to keep going for a couple years more, but the debt and the expense of running the fab just about drove them under.
“To keep going they had to merge, and INT-AMD was born. That was a big deal; those two companies hated each other. In fact it had gotten personal a couple of times.”
“Is the fab still running?”
“No, you can see it out north of Highway 26. I think the office buildings are being used, but the facilities aren’t. It was about that time that they officially abandoned process development. They were the last companies to do that. You must not be from around here, Christie, everybody knows this.”
“No, I moved out here when they abandoned New Orleans after Hypercane Olga ripped out the levies. Free Minds was looking for a new assistant head and I took the job.” She paused. “You know, that story you told isn’t very plausible.”
Copyright © 2010 by Karlos Allen