The title of my forthcoming short novel is “How My Brain Ended Up Inside This Box”. I had a cover image in mind, which included, among other things, a photo of a pretty girl. People seem to like pretty girls on covers, and this particular photo resonated with my idea of the main character, who is a sort of uncertain-gendered – but pretty – artificial creature. In some ways she reminded me of a guy I used to know who was one of the prettiest women I ever saw – a trans female who never lived to make the full trans due to heroin and a certain abusive boyfriend. Jake (not his real name) was also probably the worst employee I ever had to manage. He was absolutely unable to do any sort of useful task whatever, but required such constant handholding that he might as well not even have been there. I had to fire him, which was not fun, but necessary. And I digress. The problem with putting the photo of the pretty girl on the cover is the unfortunate slang use of the word “box”, and especially the context of “inside this box”. She deserves better, so she won’t be seen on the cover. Instead, we have this final candidate, which I like even better anyway:
The original photos used for two of the various covers of Snapdragon Alley over the years came (with permission from the artist) from a blog post from gakuranman.com, specifically those from an old abandoned “elephant bus” he once found. This illustration is from a gimp project compositing a couple of those photographs
For those indie writers who have books on Amazon, the KDP site just got even more dataful with some new charts and stuff! They’ve added a Sales Dashboard with settable date parameters that breakdown your book sales versus book loans versus free downloads. I stretched out the timeline just to see what that would look like (although it only goes back 90 days, which is a shame. I’d like to see it go back further), and was a little startled to see that one day in March I had more than 300 downloads – turns out they were all from the Dragon City series of books, so they must have been featured on some website or mailer somewhere, and they’re getting some decent reviews and ratings from that spike. Mostly my books average around 20 downloads a day (almost all from the 22 free titles they still (gratefully) have going on there). Anyway, seems like as good a time as any to post the fourth cover of Snapdragon Alley, #44 in Children’s Science Fiction on Kindle right now.
time for a refresher cover image for one of my best and most popular books, Ledman Pickup is free as always on Smashwords and elsewhere:
If you were a sentient gadget, what would you do? Travel? See the world? After overhearing one warehouse worker tell another that ‘Green Bay is better than San Francisco’, a newly conscious handheld device decides to re-route its shipping destination. From there one hell of a wild goose chase is on as its owners race to bring it in before it gets away.
(the gimp’d ninja on the cover is from a bit of graffiti stenciled on a warehouse wall in Dunedin, New Zealand, merged with a photo of a leaf)
The world’s #1 Big-Data Detective returns in another unrealistic adventure. This time there are disappearing dogs, cars that won’t start, and people who have been partially electrocuted, perhaps by God. Part Freakonomics, part Sherlock Holmes, part Doctor Who, part somewhere on the spectrum and 100% completely absurd, The Abnormalities series continues with Abnormality #4, Zappers
Abnormality #4: Zappers
by Tom Lichtenberg
copyright 2014 by Tom Lichtenberg
One dreary morning, Dillon Sharif pedaled furiously while trying to think of an opening line. On such cold, gray and rainy days he unfurled the yellow awning above the elliptical machine out on his luxury penthouse balcony, and took to it to work out whatever was on his mind. Although his famous brain regularly solved the most complex problems, there was one nagging issue which continually recurred and to which he’d found no solution yet. He just couldn’t figure out how to deal with his lover’s other lovers. Dillon was involved in a polyamorous situation and he still wasn’t quite sure of the etiquette of how one was supposed to relate to the others in the mix. He did not send them birthday cards, nor were they personal correspondents. He had met all the regulars at one time or another, usually briefly and always somewhat awkwardly. Their queen, Karen Clyde, was a famous actress and scene-maker, and Dillon was her brilliant billionaire. He was a well-known amateur big data detective, grandson and heir to the founders of the AllDat Corporation, Wilkins and Kintara Soh. They were the proprietary owners of all of the world’s past, present and future human-generated information, with the contracts and patents to prove it and the high-powered lawyers to enforce it. Dillon could have whatever he wanted, and as it happened, he wanted Karen Clyde, but he knew that by himself he simply wasn’t enough for her, and Karen, he freely confessed, was too much for him, so there had to be others. The fact of them was not the problem. He could just not figure out what to do about them.
Dillon was not a social misfit, as so many extremely intelligent people seem to be, but he was not terribly sociable either. He preferred the company of his own mind, which spent most of its time occupied in highly concurrent processing and contemplation of the massive amounts of data to which he was unusually privy. There was literally not a single bit of information that he did not have access to, and he had developed some unique mental tactics and skills to work with it all. Surprisingly, he’d found little in the world’s data banks to aid him in his task of getting along well with his fellow polyamorees. The reverse was far more common. Polygamist men were a dime a dozen historically, and although their women had not recorded all that much about their means and methods of dealing with one another, there were at least some sources, but the men involved in the opposite arrangements seemed to be far less likely to put their feelings about it down on paper.
Most of the time this issue didn’t even come up, but that day Dillon had a reason to think about it, due to a case he was working on. He wanted to contact one of the them directly. It was not Vitaly Fleschko, the reigning world heavyweight wrestling champion, with whom a conversation was never easy, seeing as the man knew only about four words in English, and none of those were especially interesting, and it was not Jasper Coleridge, the part-time celebrity chef and full-time hipster CPA who lived in Beverly Hills and never met a word he didn’t like. The one he wanted to see was Joey Mangiamo, a Fiat mechanic who lived and worked in Brooklyn. Dillon had already told his right-hand person, the Commander, about his desire to travel East, and she was likely to inform him any moment of their imminent departure. The Commander was the most efficient person he had ever known, and served as his driver as well as pilot and all-around fixer and arranger. She would have him in New York facing Mangiamo by the end of the day, and he had to come up with an opening line as soon as possible.
He knew that before anything else, they would shake hands. This much was certain. Dillon would be wearing jeans and a black leather jacket, a vintage Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap and work boots. That part was easily planned out, and it was important to Dillon that he dress exactly right for every occasion. He had made some amazing discoveries based on wardrobe selection and their impact on human affairs, and took such matters quite seriously. He was vain, and with cause, for he kept his body in excellent shape and was still quite good-looking for someone who had celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday on several occasions. He kept his neat, dark hair trimmed and his pencil-thin mustache groomed just so at all times. He maintained a well-stocked wardrobe that was regularly rotated by Wearabulous, the super-upscale clothier subscription service.
He pedaled like crazy on the balcony in the rain, worrying about the opening line, and puzzling, in the back of his mind, the case he was presently working on. Like most of his cases, it involved a variety of seemingly unrelated events filtered from his in-basket by his curiously telepathic secretary, Bermuda Hills. She had no idea why he had plucked her from poverty and obscurity to live in a pricey high-rise atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill, and he never bothered to tell her, but he had known from the moment he first read the email she’d sent him about some mysterious late night beepings that she would serve him well, and she did. She had an uncanny ability to pick out the messages he would most likely be interested in from all the nonsensical ones he received every day from people all around the world. Ever since he had solved some baffling mysteries, and especially since the time he’d figured out precisely how a woman could win the lottery every single time, causing that entire industry to collapse overnight, people assumed he could solve any problem whatsoever, so they wrote him, constantly, asking and pleading for help.
Most of the cards and letters and emails and text messages he received were mundane and rather pathetic. Before he’d hired Bermuda Hills, he’d had to slog through them all by himself, but now he let her do all that, and although not every one she forwarded was worth his time, more often than not they were. That morning’s crop had been especially intriguing. From several sources came complaints about dogs that had run away. One such letter would mean nothing, but more than a dozen telling the same story in the same way on the same day was definitely suspicious. Then there were several from people concerned about loved ones who had suddenly gone off and joined the Zappers, a new religious cult that was gaining membership rapidly. On top of that, Bermuda had picked out a bunch of messages about people whose cars had failed to start that morning. To most people, none of this would have meant a thing, but to Dillon Sharif they formed a case worthy of attention.
It was the matter of the cars that led him to the idea of consulting Joey Mangiamo. He could simply call the man, of course, but Dillon generally preferred to work onsite, and since New York was also the source of at least one of each of the problems, he could also justify the trip that way, but he knew the real reason he was going was to finally try and make some headway into the mechanisms of co-polyamory accommodation. Karen Clyde often teased him about his worries about it. Vitaly and Jasper, after all, were good friends and often spent time together, with Jasper talking all the time and Vitaly not at all. She told him that it didn’t matter to her if her lovers got along, or not, or even knew each other, or not, as long as they were all happy with their own arrangement with her, and Dillon certainly was. He had very little interest in romance, apparently channeling most of his testosterone into database analysis, except when he was on a case, and the more fascinating the mystery, the more interested he became in Karen. She must have enjoyed this particular type of interest, because she often checked in to gauge the state of his mind.
She called while he was finishing up his exercise routine and since the Commander ight be ready at any moment, he tried to keep the conversation short.
“How’s it going?” she asked. “Anything?” Most of the time she considered him to be ‘difficult, but worth it’. Her other men wanted more of her while he often seemed to want less. His dry spells were all too frequent, and she didn’t understand that. Surely there had to be enough mysteries in the world to keep him interested and occupied.
“It might be nothing,” he said, “but I’m not sure yet. I am flying to New York, though. Today.”
“Aww, I wish I was going to be here,” she said, “but I’m at the airport myself right now. Off to South Yemen, you know, that movie about the modern goddess.”
“It’s about you?” he said, and she chuckled appropriately.
“Hardly,” she said, “There’s this goddess and she is like twelve thousand years old only she comes back and the world is divided into these two groups. One of the groups only eats rice and the other group never combs their hair. So she has to save the world or something. I don’t even know.”
“But you’re the goddess, of course,” he said.
“Naturally,” she replied. “Hey, just because you’re going to New York, don’t think you have to go and see Joey. I know it makes you uneasy.”
“Actually,” he told her, “it’s one of the reasons I am going. I want to see him. There’s something I need to talk to him about.”
“Okay,” she said, “but mind you, Joey’s not big on talking.” It occurred to her that she maybe shouldn’t have put it that way, but he knew what she meant and he really didn’t mind. Joey liked to screw. It was no big secret.
“Anyway,” he said, “the Commander is waiting. I have to go now.”
“I’ll be back in four days,” she said, “do you think the case might take that long?”
“I hope not,” he said, and they both sighed. Timing was everything in their relationship.
“Can you tell me about it?” she asked.
“Sorry, I have to go,” he said, disconnecting the call. The Commander was indeed waiting at the door, about to knock as Dillon opened it.
“Are we ready?” he asked.
“Yes, sir!” she replied, as she stepped inside and gathered together his carry-on items. They used the private elevator to descend into the private garage, where the Commander maintained their fleet of alternatively-fueled cars in excellent repair. She liked to select her vehicles for the occasion much as Dillon chose his outfits, and for the rainy day drive to the air strip she had them in a yellow four-wheel drive Jeep powered by a newish fuel source made from butterfly eggs, seaweed and rainwater. The mileage was terrible but the odor was semi-tropical.
“What do you say to someone you don’t really know but have heard a lot about?” Dillon asked her a rare question during the ride. Most of the time their communications consisted merely of transactional instructions.
“Depends on whether you’ve heard good things, I suppose,” she mused.
“Say it’s a friend of a friend,” Dillon said, and the Commander nearly replied with ‘oh, you mean Joey Mangiamo’ but she held her tongue. What she knew that he didn’t know she knew she was glad that he didn’t know she knew.
“I might say something about the weather,” she said instead.
“The weather,” Dillon pondered. “That’s a good one.” He filed that information away in a region of his brain marked for sooner rather than later.
The Commander was an excellent pilot, having flown for the Air Force in a previous career, and possibly also for the Secret Service, a post she would neither confirm nor deny. She loved the small jet she’d recommended for Dillon, a new edition to the fleet, and was happy to have the opportunity to guide it clear across the country once again. They spoke no more along the way, and Dillon used the time to consider the three major elements of the case.
He believed they had to be related, and had arrived at enough correlations from the data set presented to confirm that notion. There were enough missing dogs, non-starting cars and cult-converted relations that were potentially connected both in time and space, although none were directly related. That is to say that none of the runaway dogs belonged to people who could not rev their engines and/or had family members who were recently ‘touched by the Lord’. It troubled him that he had not seen any earlier reports, but he was certain there had been some. Bermuda must have passed over similar messages from previous days because there had not been enough scale or overlap. They must have been sparsely reported, a Zapper here and a missing dog there. It was only the conglomeration of so many on the same day that drew Bermuda’s attention to them.
The Zapper phenomenon itself was fairly recent. Dillon tracked its origin to a mere three weeks before, when the first pair of the zapped had come together to share their experiences. Both had been praying alone in their own homes when they suddenly felt a surge of electrical charge flow through their bodies, not enough voltage to do them any serious harm but more than enough to drive them to their feet and shout out loud. It had to be the Lord. There was no other possible explanation. Neither had been touching any appliances and there had been no thunder showers in the vicinity. They’d posted an ad online inquiring if anyone else had had a similar event, and soon they were joined by several dozen other victims in the vicinity.
They soon found that the strange experience was not restricted to one area. It did seem to begin there in Long Island, but then expanded chronologically along a more or less straight line through the city and down along the interstate route I-95, heading towards the nation’s capital. By the time Dillon linked it to the stray canines and defective automobiles, there were legitimate Zappers as far south as Wilmington, Delaware. There were also a lot of fake Zappers too, phonies sprouting up all over the country who claimed to have been struck by the same charge, but Dillon felt he was able to distinguish the true from the false by a variety of ancillary anecdotes. The Truly Zapped had markings on their fingernails that could not easily be duplicated by artificial means, even by people who deliberately stuck their fingers into live electrical sockets in order to communicate directly with their God. There was no shortage of those incidents, but the nail marks could not be matched. Also, the Genuinely Struck tended to use the same curious speech patterns which perhaps only Dillon was capable of discerning.
He half-intended to trace the zap trail from its source, but had not yet decided if his physical presence would make any difference, or if that was only part of the general excuse he was using to justify his journey eastward. The New York area often figured in the pleas for help he received daily, if only because of the sheer size of the population and the general sense of desperation he often sensed in the eco-sphere whenever he was there. In any case, it was no surprise that there was a missing dog or two and some mis-firing engines in the area as well. Dillon perused the documents on his tablet, also considering the metadata associated with the messages. The texts were never enough on its own. He always considered the sender, the sender’s locale, the timing, the route, the sender’s background, any other messages the sender or people related to the sender may have sent, other messages and activities the sender was involved in, their online profiles, the profiles of their associates, all of their histories, caches, cookies, files in storage, photos, videos, postings, tweets, statuses both shared and allegedly private.
There was nothing he did not readily have access to. If and when he wanted, he brought up photo and video captures of the people involved, collated by city-, state- and corporate-managed cameras. He could easily put together the daily life of practically any citizen foreign or domestic, and knew exactly who else in the world was capable of doing what he did. Unlike them, however, he also knew exactly who was actually doing it, and where and when and how. Big data was, after all, his business. For the most part, it didn’t worry him. There were dictators who had the goods on their enemies, but then again, dictators had always had that. In previous times they’d used informants along with their spies. They may not have had access to the data transmitted by people’s wifi-connected light bulbs, but they could even more easily find out who was at home and when they were at home and who was there with them, merely by bribing or coercing the neighbors. Dillon knew that the average citizen had more to fear from the guy next door than from big government spy agencies.
They also had more to fear from little data than big. In most case, one single bit of data was far more determinative in a person’s interaction with the law than all the big data warehoused and stored in machines put together. Examples of this single bit of data could easily be summarized. Dark skin was an obvious case in point. This one data point had caused more trouble for more people than perhaps any other in the history of America. In other countries, other single bits were more significant. Being female was often a serious fact. Even being detected as female in the womb could be, and often was, fatal. Speaking the wrong language, wearing the wrong head gear, growing or not growing a beard, all of these were cases where small data in different parts of the world could be extremely important.
Big data certainly had its uses. It could be trolled and mined to great effect where advertising was concerned. The same algorithms that were used to recommend different musical artists a person might enjoy were also deployed to recommend shaving creams and adult entertainments, restaurants and vacation spots. They were employed to direct the news stories a person might be interested in, and in the same way prevent one from seeing the stories that same person ought to see but which wouldn’t in any way benefit the provider’s bottom line. All of this deliberation and data-mining could eventually lead to a state where the world was divided into two groups, be it those who ate only rice and those who never combed their hair, or some other more practical division of interest. Dillon understood the implications but still felt that the basic human behaviors would continue to underline society no matter who knew what or what they did about it.
His own data-mining during the flight led him to one possible conclusion, one he sincerely hoped was wrong. He also hoped that Joey Mangiamo would be able to confirm the answer to one of his questions. Although he had said nothing about Mangiamo, he wasn’t surprised when the Commander, after landing the plane and hustling him into a hybrid black limousine allegedly powered by rare, accumulated starlight, drove him directly to the Fiat repair shop owned and operated by Mangiamo. She did not say a word either, but pulled up in front of the shop, parked, tipped her pilot’s cap over her eyes and settled down in the driver’s seat for a brief power nap. This was a familiar signal which let Dillon know they had arrived at their destination. He got out of the car, slung his leather jacket over his shoulder, and noted that the later afternoon weather was warm and rather humid.
He had met Mangiamo only once before, but he could not remember the circumstances. He thought it was in a smoky tavern, but it might have been somewhere in a city square, or possibly a department store. He could have consulted his records, but decided it was not important. He retained a strong impression of the man as being uncommonly ugly as well as fat and short. Mangiamo was still exactly that, and greasy and dirty to boot as he emerged from beneath a raised truck to greet his visitor.
“Sharif,” he grinned, holding out his hand, daring Dillon to take a hold of it. Dillon did, and provided a firm handshake. Whatever Mangiamo may have thought of him, Dillon was certainly not that. He was never what anyone thought of him, but always simply himself.
“Joey,” he said, “nice weather you’ve got here.”
“Yeah well if you like it don’t stick around because it’s gonna change,” Mangiamo said, admiring his own cleverness. Dillon noted that the neighborhood was as grimy as Joey’s hands, and that there was no one on the street and hardly any traffic. Dillon relaxed a little, feeling that he was at least dressed appropriately, as he’d forethought.
“Can I offer you something?” Mangiamo spoke with his hands like a well-raised Italian-American, and spread them out now to indicate that he had access to anything Dillon might desire, while at the same time grinning like an idiot with the thought that here he was, an everyday schmoe, playing host to one of the richest men in the world. Mangiamo had one thing Dillon didn’t have, and he seemed to know it. He had, or so it was rumored, an uncanny sexual charisma, and that, to Joey’s mind, was worth more than all the billions in the world. Both of them had Karen Clyde, only Mangiamo had her more and more often.
“I just wanted to ask you a question,” Dillon said, and Mangiamo’s mind immediately went right there again.
“About cars,” Dillon added, to Joey’s great disappointment.
“Sure,” he said, “I know a lot about them too.”
“Say a car won’t start, “Dillon started.
“Could be the battery. Could be the alternator …” Joey began to expound but Dillon lifted one index finger in the air, and raised one eyebrow just a tad, and Joey broke off.
“Sorry, I just meant to add that in this case there is no physical problem with the car or with any of its components.”
“So, what? It’s got emotional problems?” Joey laughed, “or maybe it’s some kind of spiritual thing? It needs an exorcist or something?”
“Software, I’m thinking,” Dillon said, ignoring the jokes. “An OTA perhaps?”
“Over-the-air update,” Dillon said. “Do you ever come across something like that?”
Actually, Dillon already knew the answer to the question. He had already known it earlier that morning, while still on his elliptical machine, before he’d even made the decision to fly to New York, and yet here he was, face to face with Joey Mangiamo, trying to make contact, trying to be the sort of guy who easily and naturally gets along with the other guys in his boat, so to speak.
“I’ve seen it,” Joey said, adopting a professional tone. “The manufacturers send out a system update and sometimes it’s a bad job. Usually it’s something minor, like the mirrors get readjusted or the radio stations reset. Customers complain but it’s easily fixed. Just takes another update. But you’re saying they’re making it so the car won’t start? I don’t think I’ve seen that one yet. There’d be hell to pay. Recalls. Lawsuits. I don’t think their testing would let that happen.”
‘But it is possible,” Dillon nodded. “Thanks. Thanks a lot. I wasn’t sure.”
“Anytime,” Joey said, and for a moment the two stood on the sidewalk, both equally uncertain what to do or say next.
“Well, I’ve got to get going,” Dillon said at last. “I appreciate your time.”
“Glad to help,” Joey said, extending his hand again. Dillon shook it, then adjusted his cap, turned and got back into the limo. Joey watched as the Commander drove away, then shrugged his shoulders, grunted, and went back into his shop.
“Weird guy,” he said to his assistant, who was still under the truck doing something with a wrench. The assistant ignored him. He wasn’t interested in anything his boss had to say unless he was giving him an order, money, or letting him go home.
The Commander had to ask her boss where he wanted to go next. She was guessing that maybe he was done for the day and would want to head to the Waldorf-Astoria, his favorite spot when staying in New York, so she was generally heading in that direction, but she was wrong. He gave her an address in the opposite direction, east to Hicksville on Long Island. She was just as happy to be driving him anywhere at all. Dillon had decided after all to view first-hand the area of the first reported zapping.
They entered the town by way of South Broadway and peering out the window Dillon noted the customary pairings of related businesses, the candy shop and the dentist office, the pet store and veterinary hospital, the realtor and the hardware store, each existing to complement and supplement some other endeavor, and everywhere you went you saw the same artifacts of humanity. He felt he could be anywhere at all, and that was what puzzled him at the moment, the question he truly did have and one that Joey Mangiamo could not possibly have an answer for. The question was, why here? The zapping might just as easily have begin anywhere else in the world. If the answer was what he feared, then there was a chance he might have come to the right place, not just anywhere, but exactly where he was supposed to come, where he had been deliberately led by someone whose existence he was certain of, but whose identity remained completely unknown.
Dillon Sharif had made an enemy, and not just any enemy, but a special one, an enemy of tremendous range and subtlety. Dillon first became aware of his existence in the case of the lost souls, where packages had been pirated and redirected to http-encoded mailbox numbers for the sole purpose of sending him, and no one else, a specific message. The essence of that message was “catch me if you can”. Dillon had no doubt this same person was behind it all. He, or possibly she, but in Dillon’s mind always ‘he’, had definite technical abilities. He could use big data to find his targets, and use their wifi connected devices toward whatever purpose he had in mind.
During the flight, Dillon had reviewed all of the data associated with these seemingly random and isolated cases and resolved the facts that brought them together. For one thing, all of the dogs had been kept in yards with electronic fences. Then, the cars were all recent models and wifi-enabled. And of course the zappers all lived in homes with some kind of connected device, whether it was merely their cable TVs, their wireless phones or some other gadgets. Almost everyone did, so this was easy to overlook as being too obvious, and he had nearly made that mistake himself. Now Dillon felt that his adversary was providing certain cars with over-the-air updates that prevented them from starting. He was powering off electrical fences that had kept dogs in their yards, but more than that. First he was driving the dogs crazy somehow, probably broadcasting signals inaudible to humans that would make the dogs not only run away but stay away. Dogs typically loved their homes and would do anything to remain and protect them. Dillon was not a dog-lover, but he knew that this was wrong. The animals deserved more compassion and respect. As for the zapping, that was perhaps a bit more complicated. There was no single common device capable of such a thing as far as he knew, but there had to be something. Maybe it was the voltage, or maybe the current, or maybe an attribute of transistors or capacitors, or maybe it was just the service provider.
Of course! Dillon nearly banged his head on the window as he realized this missing piece. One of the great economic truisms of the current age was consolidation. In nearly every industry, competition led to collusion, led to consolidation until there were two dominant players, with perhaps a distant third and a handful of also-rans. This was as true for oil companies as it was for software giants, as it was for big box stores, grocery chains, food companies, agri-business, financial institutions, and practically every other area of business. They hid their tracks well, presented different brands and logos as if there were a multiplicity of concerns, but of all the many types of soda you could buy, each of them belonged to one of only two companies. Of all the gas stations you could fill up at, behind the signs there were only two or three at most. This was also true for internet service providers. Consolidation had naturally led to there being only two major players and a handful of minor ones. Here in New York, and along the interstate southwards there was only one, the BWC. The same pipes carried all the same traffic in the same way. The device at the other end was insignificant if the enemy had figured out how to transmit electrical shock through the wifi-connection itself. It would happen through the air.
Wireless signals were the new aether, that legendary medium ancient scientists believed to permeate the atmosphere, also known as the pure essence breathed by the gods, the substance that controlled all natural phenomena. In the days when wise men believed in such a thing it did not exist in reality, but now that no one even imagined it to be, there it was, all around us all the time, the frequencies that carried all the world’s data from source to sink, from server to gadget, from producer to consumer and back again. Data lived and breathed and flew about on the wireless all the time and everywhere. If the ancient gods were to return and breathe in the wireless, they would know all and see all, just as Dillon could, just as the AllDat Corporation did, just as the great nation-state spy-masters did. They were like gods, and so now was the enemy.
The enemy was here, right here in Hicksville. Dillon knew it for certain now. The enemy would not have led him here for no reason. He wanted to be known. He craved attention, especially Dillon’s attention. No one else in the world could have deciphered this code, these signals, this trap.
“How do we find him?” he wondered aloud, causing the Commander to reply, after a minute in which she waited to see if he answered his own question,
“Find who, sir?”
“287 Plainview Road coming up,” she added, repeating the original destination she’d given him.
“Oh right, thanks,” he said, and opened the window to look out when she stopped the car. There was nothing to see, just some typically over-large suburban houses surrounded by well-kept lawns.
“Now let’s take a look at 29 Larch Street,” he said, and the Commander started up the car again and headed towards Cedar Street, the most direct route to the new destination.
“There’s supposedly a computer company here,” Dillon muttered as they drove up the road. According to his maps, the Monument Technology Corporation was located at the address they just passed, but instead there was just a big white Cape Cod-style house with no sign indicating any sort of business at all. The entire neighborhood was completely residential, including Larch Street, where the house at the address he supplied was yet another tedious residence. The Commander pulled over, stopped the car, and awaited further instruction.
Dillon was working his tablet furiously. The history of the Monument Technology Corporation was diffuse and confusing. It seemed to exist sporadically, some years filing taxes and other years not. It held several patents, none of which were related to each other, and most of which were not even remotely concerned with the fields of computers or even technology in general. Some were agricultural. Some were multicultural. Some were exceedingly obtuse, inventions which served no logical purpose. There was a formula for turning chicken bones into a feeble commercial paste. There was a recipe for combining unopened cans of tuna fish with standard staples and rusty deck nails to produce a useless semi-metallic substance of no value. There was a patent for the production of comic books with no illustrations. There was a procedure for the application of considerable effort toward no result. None of it made any sense at all.
The registered owner of the Monument Technology Corporation was listed as a Mister Dennis Hobbs. Dillon found no other record of the existence of this Dennis Hobbs. There were other Dennis Hobbses of course, but he quickly proved to his own satisfaction that none of them were this one. The deed of the house at the corporation’s alleged address belonged to a Jimmy Kruzel. Dillon knew that name. Kruzel was the operator of a popular chain of faux riverboat gambling establishments, and Dillon ascertained that Kruzel was at that very moment traveling in the newly thriving markets of Northern Africa, and had been there for the past month. Dillon reviewed some video of Kruzel’s activities during that time, most of which involved alchohol and females. He found nothing in Kruzel’s records to indicate much of any cerebral capacity, and certainly no signs of any mastermind capability. So who, then, was this Dennis Hobbs person, and what did he want with Dillon Sharif?
The Commander did not need to be told to wait. She stopped at the house he indicated, parked the car, and prepared herself for another brief rest. Dillon got out of the car, walked up to the front door and knocked. He did not have to wait long. A man answered the door and smiled at Dillon.
“Can I help you with something?” he asked. Dillon hesitated before replying, and in that moment surreptitiously snapped a photo of the man with the micro-camera he kept embedded in an ear stub. The man was nearly as tall as Dillon, perhaps six foot one, a bit on the heavy side, not in the greatest shape physically. He was very pale, nearly albino-shade, with short straw-colored hair and faint blue eyes. He wore a neatly pressed, white and blue-striped button-down long sleeve shirt, business slacks and loafers, as if ‘casual’ was a word he preferred to deny. Dillon was certain the man never wore a hat of any kind, but always dressed the same way, indoors or out, summer or winter or anywhere in between.
“I’m looking for Dennis Hobbs,” he said. “Is that you?”
“No,” the man said. “I don’t know a Dennis Hobbs. Are you sure you’re at the right place?”
“Monument Technology Corporation?” he said. The man’s smile widened.
“It’s just a house,” he said.
“I see,” Dillon nodded. “Well, I’m sorry to bother you then. Thank you.”
He turned to leave and noticed that the man did not move but kept staring after him as he walked back down the pathway. It was only when he reached the sidewalk, and looked back, that the man closed the door. Dillon paused for a moment and checked to see if the man might now be standing behind one of the windows on either side of the door, but he didn’t see anyone. He crossed the street and was just reaching for the door when a a jolt of electricity blasted his whole body and knocked him off his feet. It felt like it hit him everywhere at once and though it lasted for mere milliseconds, the aftershocks kept buzzing through him as he lay flat on his back on the road. The Commander leaped from the driver’s seat and was by his side in a flash. She checked his eyes first, then his heart and his breathing, and saw that he seemed to be all right, just momentarily stunned. She lifted his head up to make sure he wasn’t bleeding under there. Dillon took a deep breath and started to get up. The Commander assisted him.
“Are you hurt?” she asked.
“A little fried,” he muttered, struggling to his feet. He held up his hands and inspected his fingernails. The tell-tale pattern was beginning to appear on them.
“I was zapped,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” the Commander replied. “Toppled you right over. Never seen that before.”
“Change of plans,” he said, as she opened the rear door of the limo.
“Turn everything off – phones, computers, everything. Leave the car but take the stuff. We’re walking. We’ll find a cab or whatever, get to the nearest motel, as fast as we can. I’ve got work to do.”
“Yes, sir!” the Commander was on it. She might not have looked it – in fact she looked absurdly like the outermost shell of the largest Russian nesting doll ever built – but the Commander was quick as well as strong, and soon they were on their way towards South Broadway, where she had noticed an All Rite All Nite Inn just blocks away.
“No wi-fi,” Dillon said as they walked. The Commander did not know if he was speaking to her or to himself so she did not reply, but listened closely.
“This man has access, and some kind of tool, more like a weapon. He’s more than one step ahead but I’ve got to try and stop him.”
Dillon had already formed a plan of action, and once they were checked into a room, he pulled out his extra-secure backup laptop from one of the carry-on bags. He connected it to the ethernet outlet and logged on to his own AllDat Corporation private virtual network. He felt sure there was no way the enemy could be aware even of the existence of this connection, so he had at least a momentary advantage. He uploaded the photo from his earcam and followed his hunch that the man was an employee of BWC. Scanning for a face match took only a few seconds and there he was. His real name was Mortimer Janssen. Thirty-two years old. Single. Originally from Norway. His current position was Systems Administrator, and Dillon quickly ascertained that Janssen had indeed been secreting data files off the mainframes. No doubt he had securely stored them somewhere else, somewhere it would be difficult for Dillon to locate, but at least he could put an end to future access now, with one click on the keyboard.
But would that be enough? Dillon was still twitching from the zapping and boiling with a desire for revenge. He could certainly do it. Janssen had read access to the internet and phone data of millions of people, but Dillon had both read and write access. He could insert data into Janssen’s personal profile. He could download all sorts of illicit material into Janssen’s work computer. He could revoke the man’s driver’s license, cancel his passport, place his name and image into every law enforcement agency’s most wanted list. He could plant evidence, fabricate charges, put out APB’s. He could literally do anything he wanted to this or any other person. Assuming this was the person, of course, that the man he’d met at the door of that house, the man who said he wasn’t Dennis Hobbs was actually the man who was doing these things, zapping people at random, redirecting packages, damaging cars and liberating dogs. It had to be him. Dillon was certain of it, but just as he was about to begin that nefarious data entry work, he stopped himself and took a deep breath.
This is my best chance, he said to himself. He’s probably already getting away. Just to be sure, Dillon summoned up the latest surveillance video from the streets surrounding that house. Yes, there he was, Dennis Hobbs or Mortimer Janssen or not, in his silly dress clothes, sneaking out the back door only moments after Dillon had roused himself from the pavement. There was Janssen again, getting into a gasoline-burning compact car, license plate ABL 5792. He ran the number and found it heading towards Queens, on a direct route to New York’s JFK international airport. He would get there in less than fifteen minutes, given current traffic conditions. Dillon could have it intercepted before it even arrived. He could have the man picked up and arrested for practically any crime he could imagine. Dillon felt both rage and shame building up inside him simultaneously. I can do this, he told himself. I shouldn’t be doing this, he replied. He sat there, willing but unable to proceed, well aware of right and wrong and how the two of them at that moment were perfectly canceling each other out.
A familiar face flickered onto his laptop screen, and then another. He heard an old man speaking.
“You really want this guy.” It was his grandfather, Wilkins Sharif, looking pretty sharp for an old man. His wife sat beside him, the legendary Kintara Soh. She too was smiling.
“Consider it done,” she said.
“I don’t know what to do,” Dillon confessed, misunderstanding her.
“You don’t have to do anything,” Wilkins reassured him. “Janssen happens to be a very wanted man in Norway. He’s been a bad boy. Extradition is waiting for him at Gate B-43.”
“He thinks he’s going to Brazil,” Kintara smiled.
“It’ll be a bit colder than that where he’s really going,” Wilkins added.
“But how did you know?” Dillon asked, genuinely baffled. “I didn’t do anything, not yet. I only looked him up.”
Wilkins and Kintara exchanged glances. They were a lovely old couple, both slender and graceful, growing perfectly wrinkled and gray together.
“You’re watching me,” Dillon said. “You’re watching me all the time, aren’t you?”
“We do have some alerts in place,” Kintara confessed. “After all, we worry about you.”
“We got a notification when it happened.”
“When he zapped me? How?”
“Your heart,” Kintara said. “It stopped beating there for a moment. That must have been scary for you. I know it was for me.”
“You’re monitoring my heart?”
“Well, we love you, honey,” she said.
“But …” Dillon couldn’t think of anything else to say. They had always been rather over-protective, and it was understandable. They had been the only parents he’d ever known and he was their one and only heir. Big Brother may be watching everyone, but not nearly as closely as a hovering mom and dad.