Abnormality #3: Lost Souls
by Tom Lichtenberg
copyright 2014 by Tom Lichtenberg
(also free from Smashwords)
She was a half-Japanese half-Maori all-Canadian punk rocker from Vancouver and let’s face it. If you were a dethroned princess raised in foster care in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and it rained all the time, you’d be pretty pissed off too. Kintara Soh never made it easy for anyone, and no one ever made it easy for her. By fifteen she was on her own, out on the streets, playing bass and yelling her lungs out nightly on stage with her band, The Sidewalk Hosers. By seventeen she was touring East Asia and winning multiple Grungy awards. By nineteen she’d added college graduate to her attainments, on her fast track to law school and ultimate global domination. Always a force, never bending, let alone breaking, she let no one and nothing stand in her way. Except for this one guy she met and fell in love with, a cranky Middle Eastern loner named Wilkins Sharif. In some ways they were mirror images of one another – both small and slight, bony and dark with narrow eyes, jet black hair and pointy chins. In other ways they could not have been more different – she loud, he quiet, she stubborn, he yielding – but over time they melded and merged to such an extent that it could be difficult to tell where one left off and the other began.
They were as unlikely couple to end up where they did, incredibly rich, holders of a seemingly infinite number of patents, and owners of the rights to practically every drop of data on the planet. They achieved this status the old-fashioned way, through small print, technicalities, and a ruthless cleverness that never let up. Machiavelli would have adored these little people, but their philosophies were never rooted in European traditions. They came from warriors and empire builders, but from those whose time had been delayed, deterred by the white generations whose time, like everyone’s before them, had come and gone. The world belonged to the South and the East in these times, and Mr. and Mrs. Sharif were the South and the East personified.
She never knew how she’d become a remote personality, with an infallible ability to quietly distinguish all forests from all trees. Through the years of ascent to power she had mellowed, grown wise, and felt she was capable of anything, even learning the languages of birds if that was what she desired. She had seen through every human motivation, understood every action and reaction. People were a known and limited set, and she craved, as ever, new knowledge. She worked eighteen hours a day, but each one began the same way. She would stroll through her extensive gardens each morning at dawn, listening and watching, looking for patterns, in search of the key to understanding those glorious little creatures, and when it was time to come back inside, she felt refreshed and looked forward to one of her favorite times of the day, the opening of her grandson’s mail.
Dillon Sharif was fast becoming known as the world’s number one “big data” detective, and the tag seemed to fit his personality perfectly. Dillon was not terribly interested in everyday people, just as there is not a lot of human interest in big data. The forces at work collecting and processing all of the world’s individuals’ personal information are not converting it into dramatic soap operas. Quite the contrary, they are mainly interesting in selling stuff to people, in knowing exactly how and what to offer them. They are mapping and reducing the species into a race of narrowly targeted consumers. Big data is not interested in souls, neither lost nor found. And like big data, Dillon’s mind spent much of its time in a cloud, sifting through and analyzing bits and bytes of information. He especially enjoyed doing this while working out on the elliptical machine he kept out on the balcony of his luxurious Nob Hill penthouse apartment overlooking vast stretches of San Francisco and the bay area. It was one thing to have access to all the information in the world, courtesy of his grandparents’ life work as founders and leaders of the AllDat Corporation, but quite another to make some sort of sense of it all. He was a living hadoop, a walking breathing searching and sorting algorithm of a good-looking young man. While not ungracious or socially defective like so many other computer-type people, he was rather a bit cold, with a short supply of charm and a definite deficiency of charisma. He had little use for such qualities.
One thing he did have was money. Lots and lots of money, and he used it for whatever he wanted. High on that list was a personal secretary to help him sort through the hundreds of messages he received every day from people all over the world asking him to help solve the sorts of problems they considered unusual or strange. Most of these simply weren’t, and he’d grown weary of looking at those in the months since he’d first come to the public’s attention through a curious viral video he’d released, explaining exactly how any woman could correctly calculate lottery numbers, based on the current state of a close male’s virility and the differential between his and her choice of hat. At first glance, this seems to make no sense at all, but such is the power of big data. Things don’t need to make sense. They simply have to be true. Plugging in the variables, and having his right-hand-woman, who was known publicly as the Commander, do the actual work, Dillon’s algorithm resulted in her winning enough lottos in a row that the state of California had to shut down the entire program. They were still working at re-jiggering the thing, submitting their code to Dillon on a regular basis, yet still unable to shake the Sexy Hat Theorem.
His personal secretary was Bermuda Hills, a woman he plucked from obscurity, seemingly at random, who turned out to be just the right person for the job. Not only did she have a fine instinct for the truly odd request, but she also got along well with the old folks, who insisted on previewing all of the incoming mail, despite their advanced age and heavy workloads. Wilkins Sharif was especially curious about the dilemmas of mankind. Cynical to the max both by nature and experience, he chortled over every fool who was baffled by the mundane. They regularly received notifications from people who hallucinated holy figurines in their various food items. They heard from those whose lucky numbers suddenly stopped being so lucky. They were informed of dogs climbing small trees, of ducks flying in unusual patterns, of things that went beep in the night, chickens that crossed roads, cats with a sixth sense or a tenth life, children who were born knowing ancient languages in which the only words were ‘goo’ and ‘ga’.
Wilkins and Bermuda had many a good laugh in the mornings while they shared such items over the broadband link between San Francisco and Golden Bay on the South Island of New Zealand, where the elder Sharifs were spending the winter. It was morning for both, though Wilkins and Kintara were of course always one day ahead. Kintara was not so much amused as bored by these trivialities, so she spent much of the link time scuttling back and forth between the kitchen and the living room, preparing tea and snacks, watering the house plants, or dabbing at her current set of oil paintings which stood on a row of easels in front of the picture window overlooking a most magnificent ocean view. She painted portraits of souls, lost souls as she called them. These could take any form whatsoever. She limited herself in no way. Some of them had found their way into world-class museums and others into the homes of wealthy collectors. These she considered to be even more lost than ever.
“You will like this one, Miss Kintara,” Bermuda Hills said one day while Kintara was momentarily in view on her screen. Kintara stopped and gave her a gentle smile. She approved of Bermuda in a general way, as she did of anyone who was nice to her grandson.
“Dear Mister Detective, it begins,” Bermuda read from an email. “Last night I received a very strange phone call. It was from a man I didn’t know. He asked if I was me, and then told me that Package Express had delivered my package to his mailbox instead of my post office box. My phone number was on the label so he called me. I know that packages can be delivered to the wrong place sometimes, but this guy lives twelve miles away. I drove out to pick up the item. The road is a rural highway and right where he told me I would I found a row of five mailboxes with what looked like random numbers on them. My post office box number is 507 and there was a 507 there, right next to the other boxes which were numbered 206, 308, 417 and 429. The other odd fact is that there is no side road or driveway anywhere near where these mailboxes are. They’re just there on the side of the highway in front of some bushes.”
“No road?” Wilkins was intrigued. “Did they give us the number of the person who called?”
“Nope,” Bermuda replied, “that’s about it. Their own name and number is the rest of it.”
“I’d mark it,” he said and she agreed. Kintara shuffled along without a sound. Bermuda might have through she would like it, but she didn’t. She sensed there was probably something sinister going on behind it and she had no patience for evil. She dabbed a little at a painting of a rock in a field, but after a moment returned to join her husband. Bermuda was reading the next message.
“I received a phone call from a strange man,” the email said, “telling me that my husband was at his house, insisting it was ours. You must know that my husband is neither ill nor old. He is also not crazy. When I went to get him, he was upset and angry, furious at me for not being there already and demanding to know what this other man was doing in our home. At first I couldn’t convince him that he was in the wrong place. He claimed to recognize all the furniture and even the pictures on the wall! It wasn’t until he looked at the TV set, a Toshiba, that he started to think maybe I was right. He would never buy a Toshiba TV set. He is a Samsung man all the way. He stared at that television like it was the burning bush from the Bible, and then he let me lead him out to the car. He is sitting there on the couch right now, looking at our Samsung and shaking his head. I’m afraid he’s lost his mind and I don’t know what to do.”
“Another lost soul,” Kintara muttered, and then she spoke louder.
“The next one!” she insisted, “read the next one please.”
“Okay,” Bermuda said. “Here it is. Dear Mister Detective, my computer game is acting weird. It always did diamonds and bubbles but now it’s spitting numbers out of a cannon and blowing them up.”
Bermuda looked up at the screen, waiting for a response.
“The next one,” Kintara requested, “quickly!”
“This one’s marked urgent. It just came in a moment ago. It says, Hello,” Bermuda read, “I don’t know if you can help me but whatever. I am on a bus to Logan. At least I was supposed to be on a bus to Logan. All of us here on this bus think we are going from Pocatello to Logan except the driver who is taking us to somewhere called Palmetto. I don’t even know where Palmetto is. I think it might be in a different state. We have been on this bus for a long time, longer than it would take to get to Logan. The driver insists this is the bus to Palmetto and he won’t stop. Some of us have called the police but no one has showed up yet. It’s getting weird on this bus.”
“Get these to Dillon right away,” Kintara interrupted, “and hurry.”
Bermuda did not need to be told twice. She was already on her way upstairs. Bermuda and Bethany Rush, aka. the Commander, lived on the floor below Dillon Sharif, and possessed the only other keys to his apartment. She found him on the balcony, working up a sweat on the elliptical machine. Their relationship was extremely formal. She did her job and he paid her very well.
“Your grandmother seemed very interested in these particular messages,” she told him.
“Really?” Dillon was surprised, and snatched the printouts from Bermuda’s hand. As he said nothing else, she knew she was dismissed, and turned to leave. Usually once he selected a case from the morning mail she was free to do as she pleased the rest of the day. That morning looked like a fine day for sailing. Bermuda was taking lessons and had her eye on a particular schooner.
“Get the Commander,” Dillon said, and then she knew the day was all hers. The Commander would take it from there.
Dillon hopped off the bike and pulled out his tablet to call his grandmother. He wanted to know what she was thinking. He saw right away what the messages had in common – things in the wrong places – but it was very unusual for Kintara to take a particular interest in his cases. He expected it from her husband but Kintara maintained such an even keel that he couldn’t even remember her looking upset, until now.
“I’m worried,” she told him. “There might be interference on the time line.”
“The time line?” Dillon was confused. “What time line?”
“This one of course,” she said.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Dillon confessed. His grandparents were practical people, secular to the core. He had never heard any mystical nonsense or pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo coming from either one. They had raised him on scientific principles and the one simple rule that this world should be enough for anyone.
“You probably think I’m crazy,” she said, “or losing it like that man in the wrong house, but I need to show you something. Over here.”
She walked over to her oil paintings and turned the camera to scan them for Dillon.
“I’ve been working on these for the past week or so,” she said. “I don’t know why. But you see now, don’t you?”
He did. The very first one she showed him was of a rusty old mailbox, alone in the woods with the number 429 painted on it. The next was of pink and purple bubbles in a cloud. The third one showed a rotting log cabin with faint black lettering over the door, spelling out the word ‘Palmetto’.
“Okay,” he said, “that is pretty weird, but what’s it got to do with a time line?”
“Things leak out,” Kintara said. “There’s no time to explain. You have to get to Nevada right away and stop that bus before it reaches the ghost town. Call me on the way but go. Now!”
Dillon did not like to be rushed, but he was determined to follow his grandmother’s instructions to the letter. Even though his wardrobe selection was always extremely important to him, he did not dawdle over it this time, but grabbed the first combination of clothes he came up with, which later turned out, to his dismay, to be a mismatch of dark gray dress slacks, bright blue soccer socks, a Hawaiian print shirt and a Seattle Mariners baseball cap, none of which went together in any way at all.
The Commander was already waiting for him, and while they rode down their own personal elevator to their own personal garage beneath the building, he informed her of their destination and need for speed.
“How we’re going to stop a bus I have no idea,” he added.
“Yes, sir. Leave it to me, sir,” replied Bethany Rush, who was quite incapable of giving him “no” for an answer to anything.
The Commander was particular about her cars, and for this occasion chose a new sporty Brazilian model powered by a fuel formed from a genetic mutation of mosquito willpower. The engine provided endless kinetic motion accompanied by only the faintest annoying whine, but it was the right tool for the job and they arrived at the airstrip in less than fifteen minutes. There they quickly boarded Dillon’s private jet and soon were flying off towards the historic abandoned town of Palmetto, Nevada.
During the flight, Dillon reviewed the four messages that had been brought to his attention. First he focused on the bus memo, and calculated the distances involved. A bus headed for Logan, Utah from Pocatello, Idaho should take approximately an hour and a half, but if it were headed instead for Palmetto, the trip could last for more than nine hours, assuming of course that a passenger revolt was unsuccessful and the police continued to fail to intervene. This gave them plenty of time, more than two hours, to make the relatively short flight and figure out what to do next. There was nothing else to do about that for the moment, so he considered the other cases.
The mailboxes at first seemed very strange to him. There was no good reason why a Package Express driver would deliver a package intended for a post office box to anything other than a post office, especially not some random mailbox on some random street some dozen miles away! This seemed to be a genuine mystery, but he was not long in deciphering it. He considered the numbers on the mailboxes. This was more interesting to Dillon. He knew from experience that there are really no such things as random numbers. Ask anyone to think up a number at random and whatever they come up with can be analyzed for some personal meaning. He got this idea from Sigmund Freud and considered it to be one of the instances where Freud was really on to something. In this case, a solution to the puzzle was readily at hand. All of the numbers provided in the message were rarely used HTTP protocol status codes. No doubt the joker who thought them up, most likely the man who called, was some kind of networking geek. He was re-routing packages through their computer system. Dillon dispatched a note to the head of security at Package Express, and turned his attention to the next message.
The computer game in question was called Pansy Pat and was well-known for its deceptively simple and highly addictive qualities. He downloaded the latest version onto his tablet and played around with it for a few minutes. There were only diamonds and bubbles. You used the diamonds to pierce the bubbles, which seemed absurd, as bubbles are easily popped and hardly require a diamond to do the job. For each bubble popped, you were rewarded with a virtual Q-tip. Collect enough Q-tips and you could purchase a small rectangular square of a hideous calico cloth. There were sweatshops in South Carolina and Louisiana were people, even children, worked night and day popping bubbles and selling rewards in shady markets on online. There were no cannons firing off exploding numbers, but as he thought about it, he remembered coming across some bits of code that, put together, would do just that. Those bits of code resided in different repositories, but they were hosted by the same source, a git provider out of Yemen. He smiled as he thought of the old mantra about writing computer functions for re-use. Was this a case of malicious recombinant methods, one of inadvertent code reincarnation, or something else entirely?
The developers of Pansy Pat were in no way related to the makers of PrimeKill or Fusilage as far as he could recall, so he put together a few queries and fired them off. The results came back negative. It would have taken a highly corrupted build environment to force an over-the-air update of Pansy Pat software through the All-Site AppStore to make that happen. As far as he knew, it wasn’t even possible. Still, it was something to ask his grandparents. They might have some idea. Then he remembered that he was supposed to call Kintara back.
“You were going to tell me something about time lines and interference,” he reminded her when she appeared on the screen. She seemed pleased to note that he was already in the air.
“Everything is information,” she said, “but you already know that. You also know that information is time-sensitive. What good are your lottery numbers if they were from last weeks lottery? How many times have you heard the expression ‘now you tell me!’. The wrong information at the wrong time can mess up everything. Not getting the information you need when you need it can cause all sorts of problems.”
“Of course, Gran,” Dillon prodded her to get to the point.
“What are memories but data?” she continued, ignoring him, “time-stamped and stored away, chronological information. People forget things, they remember things, they are reminded, triggered, the memory comes flooding back. It seems quite mysterious, don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” he said, “sometimes a taste or a smell can bring back the most vivid imagery.”
“That’s exactly what I mean,” she said. “We don’t really know that much about how it all works, even now when we’ve mapped all the emotions and can visualize all the patterns and waves. The brain remains enigmatic, and not only the human brain, but the brains of all creatures, great and small. We are always on the boundary, on the edge of discovery, but our findings are always relatively meager, never the breakthrough, never the big key.”
“They’re getting closer all the time,” Dillon said.
“There’s one factor that can’t be accounted for,” she said, “and that’s time. We proceed along the linear line we know, and base all our assumptions on its correctness. But there is no such thing as time. There are only all the myriad changes occurring within and without of all things living and not. These are not all organically synchronized, but operate interdependently with quantum behaviors. There is cause and effect only on some levels. But we, and I mean our scientists as well, cannot operate outside of our own perceived experience. We cannot end and experiment before we begin it. We cannot draw data from different points along its procedure. We are bound by laws which in fact do not exist.”
“What did you mean about interference?”
“All of those messages are telling us the same thing,” she replied. “And I’m sure there were more. You could ask Bermuda to double-check but I think you already have all the information you need. Just stop that bus. Look in the driver’s eyes. Ask him one question. That’s all you need to do.”
“You’ll know,” she assured him. “You’ll know from the look in his eyes.”
“We’re almost there,” the Commander’s voice came over the intercom. “We’ll be touching down in five minutes.”
“Good luck,” Kintara wished him, and she hung up before he could get another word in.
Dillon was not at all sure what Kintara meant. He did not believe that all the messages were related. He thought he had solved the mailbox problem and was pretty sure about Pansy Pat. That left the man who didn’t know where his home was and the renegade bus driver. Both could probably be explained by some sort of dementia, but he had never known his grandmother to be wrong about anything, so he decided he would have to think again.
The re-thinking had to wait, however, as the Commander brought the plane down for an easy landing at a private air strip in the desert. Debarking, Dillon was surprised to see a large transit bus waiting for them. One glance at the Commander was enough to tell him he needed to climb on board that thing. She followed and before he could even choose a seat she had started it up and pulled out onto the adjacent highway.
“I suppose there’s no point in asking,” he said, taking a seat right behind her.
“If you like, sir. I tracked the cellphone of the correspondent and using global positioning was able to ascertain he current coordinates. We should come to intercept in approximately three minutes. I diverged our landing and ordered this present mode of transportation, but there is no need for concern. This vehicle runs on recycled hydrogenated vegetable oil. It may smell a bit, but is one hundred percent sustainable.”
“But why a bus?”
“Yes, sir? Certainly. We are going to need to block the highway in order to force the oncoming bus to halt. This vehicle has more than the width to accomplish that task. It’s only a two-lane highway.”
Dillon sighed and sat back. Sometimes he wished the Commander weren’t so incredibly competent. It made his own efforts seem less than spectacular sometimes, and he did like to shine. The bus roared up the road and soon slowed, came to a stop, then methodically planted itself sideways on the highway. The Commander had chosen a long, straight stretch of road, and he noted with awe that she had even selected a bright green bus for the occasion. It stood out glaringly against the pale brown landscape. Within moments he caught side of the rogue bus heading towards them. He worried for a moment that it might not stop, but might plow straight through them, but it did not. The driver might be suffering from an episode of instantaneous dementia, but he was still able to recognize an immovable object staring him in the face. The bus slowed and came to a stop twenty feet in front of his own.
Dillon got off his bus and walked around to the other one, where the driver opened the door for him. As he climbed up the stairs, he saw a gaggle of frantic passengers all risen from their seats and shouting at the driver and at one another. The driver was an old man, as Dillon had expected, but seemed far older than he would have thought possible. The man looked positively like a skeleton, a bald one at that, all gleaming skull and deep eye sockets and teeth, impossibly large teeth. Dillon ignored the clamoring passengers and looked closely into the driver’s eyes. The driver seemed to be looking back at him, but might have been gazing off into space as far as Dillon could tell. The man was clearly not entirely in the present. And Dillon suddenly knew what to ask him.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but just how old is your grandmother now?”
The driver blinked and cocked his head, then blinked again and opened his mouth, but nothing came out of it.
“He won’t talk,” shouted a nearby passenger, a middle-aged woman with a hefty blond coiffure, “he won’t say a damn word, just keeps driving and driving.”
“Where are we anyway?” yelled another one.
“And who the heck are you?” somebody else said.
“Are you the police?”
“Get him out of here!” someone demanded.
The driver slowly unbuckled his seat belt, stood up, and started towards the steps. He would have walked right into Dillon had not the latter backed down the stairs and retreated from the bus before him. The driver stepped outside into the hot sun, turned and looked back up at the road he’d just come down.
“I reckon Carson City will be back that-a-way apiece,” he drawled.
The Commander, who had come up to join her boss, nodded in agreement.
“About a half an hour’s drive,” she said.
“Somebody better take these people,” the driver said, waving in the general direction of the bus. “I got a funeral to attend.”
“A funeral?” Dillon asked, but there was no answer. The driver took three steps forward and keeled over, dead.
“What did you say to him?” asked the woman with the hairstyle, who was standing on the bottom step.
“If you’ll get back in the bus, ma’am,” the Commander suggested. “My assistant will take you all to Carson City and we’ll put you up for the night in a very nice motel I know there.”
“Your assistant?” Dillon started to ask, but before he could get the words out he saw a young woman emerging from the back door of his own bus, someone he had never seen before in his life. He had no idea who she was or where she’d come from.
“I thought it prudent,” the Commander told him.
The situation was well in hand. The Commander had also thought to bring refreshments for the no-doubt weary and cranky passengers. In minutes they were all settled back in their seats and headed in the opposite direction, inconvenienced for sure, but from then on were well looked after.
“I don’t know how you do it,” Dillon said to the Commander once they were back on their own bus, returning to the air strip. He searched the entire vehicle this time but found no other hidden passengers.
“Just thinking ahead,” was the Commander’s reply.
“Thinking ahead?” Dillon repeated her words out loud, not requiring a response. If a person can think ahead, he thought, why can’t they also think behind? Isn’t that what memory is? Information with a time stamp, his grandmother had told him. And if a person can think ahead and think behind, why can’t they think anywhere in the time line? Is that how it works? Is that what she meant by interference? Not interference in the sense of someone or something intervening in events, but interference in the sense of static, of noise, of confusion, scattering, displacement, disassociation.
On the plane ride back, Dillon researched the man who mistook another home for his own. Had he lived at that address before? No. Would he live at that address at some time in the future? Who could tell? Nobody knows the future, even though it’s right there in front of us all the time! And what about Pansy Pat? Think! Would some game designer in the future combine those pieces of code together and release them as a new version of an old game? Did it already happen? How many other people received that particular update? And the mailboxes. Think, man, think! Who puts mailboxes on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, gives them special code numbers, hacks into a delivery company’s system, redirects packages and then calls the people those packages belong to? Who would do all that and why?
Dillon decided he was over-thinking the case. There had to be a simple explanation, something that would tie it all together. He considered paying a visit to the man who went home wrong, but decided to talk things over with his grandmother first. He called her up and explained what happened with the bus driver, and she only seemed saddened to hear about it. She had nothing new to add, but only repeated her insistence that the cases were related. She suggested he check the rest of the day’s messages himself to see if Bermuda had missed anything, anything at all that might provide another clue.
He did just that, later in the evening, after taking a break to workout, shower, dine and relax. He sat out on the balcony, watching the fog roll in over Twin Peaks, and scrolled through the entire collection of the day’s requests. There were no other messages that seemed related, only the usual assortment of nonsense submitted by people who seemingly could not understand the simple facts of coincidence. No, it was not really curious that a dog barked at the same time every evening. The dog had its reasons. It was not strange for the same person to be on the same trolley every morning, no matter if it looked like they had a job or not. It was unusual, but not a portent of anything, that a pair of dice turned up sixes seven times in a row.
There was only one message that stood out, and it was the one that came right after the urgent bus text, the one Bermuda couldn’t get to because Kintara had made her rush upstairs. It consisted of three numbers, and punctuation:
Quickly, Dillon consulted a page on HTTP status codes. The message translated fluently. Too many requests?
Partial Content …
Dillon looked up again at the mass of cold fog spilling over the hills and heading his way. So this is what it’s like, he thought, to have an arch-enemy.