Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Digilife: Chapter 1

Chapter 1: Warrenville, IL

"Digital mechanics predicts that, for every continuous symmetry of physics, there will be some microscopic process that violates that symmetry." - Edward Fredkin

“Artificial Intelligence is no match for natural stupidity.” - Marcus Fetzer

He should never have agreed to move.

Andrew Ferry concentrated on the highway signs as the jeep jostled down I-88, heading further and further away from Chicago and proper civilization. All around him there was green and blue, trees and skies, with hardly a two-story building to be seen. The airport was forty-five minutes behind them, and the only thing to break up the monotony now were the occasional auto dealership and the townhouse developments that all looked like clones of one another. Other than that, it was trees and grass along the shoulder, sky and clouds up above. Ferry, a twenty-eight year old software developer for a contractor back in the city, began to worry that they had gone too far. His wife, a school teacher, was looking around the highway as well, but never at the signs, only at the developments that whizzed by.

“Monica,” he finally said. “When are we turning off?”

She opened the map so that the edge was all the way on his lap and bent to look at one section closely. Her nose was nearly touching the paper, while the edge near him was quivering from the air conditioning. “It should be coming up soon,” she said. “It looks like it's just past Winfield Road.”

“We passed Winfield half an hour ago. We've gone too far west.”

“How could we miss the turnoff? It's a major highway.”

Nothing is major out here, Ferry thought. “I think we have to turn around. Or we could just use the navigation app on my phone.”

“Technology will rot your mind,” she said sharply. “Where's your sense of adventure?”

“I don't want adventure. I want to see this townhouse.”

“And the realtor said that we couldn't miss Route 59,” she continued. “There will be signs and a bridge. We'll see it.”

“Fine.” Further and further from the city, he thought. From all of our friends and the beautiful lakeside high-rise condo that I saved three years to buy. So the public schools in the city weren't all that great. So it would be hard for her to advance into administration employed by the CPS. Didn't he make enough money for the both of them? And wasn't she always talking about how it was the kids that were important, not the money?

They continued down the highway without speaking. It was June, hot and bright. Mirages filled the road in front of them, looking like oil slicks which then seemed to evaporate as they got closer.

Ferry drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “We're going too far. I haven't seen a sign in forty-five minutes.”

“It's probably just ahead.”

“What if it isn't? How much farther are we going to go before we turn around?”

“I don't know. A couple more miles.”

“Fine,” he said. “Five more mile markers and then we use my phone.” As discretely as he could, he reached where his phone was mounted on the charger and turned it on. That way, when their five miles was up and they still hadn't seen the turnoff, he could quickly turn on the navigation application and get them back on track. He glanced back at the road for a moment, noting that they were passing yet another car dealership, this one with a huge electronic sign, and then he turned back to the phone and flicked the button to put it in standby mode. That would keep the screen dark, so that Monica wouldn't yell at him.

“Hey!” she shouted.

“Oh come on. I just turned it on so it'll be ready.”

“What? No, not the phone. That sign said your name!”

“No it didn't.”

“It said Andrew Ferry. It even spelled your name right.”

“No it didn't. You're seeing things. It's the heat.”

“I'm telling you, it said 'Andrew Ferry, will you play with me'.”

Ferry looked in the mirror. The sign was flashing something about a low APR rate, though it was hard to read backwards. Certainly his name was nowhere to be found.

“It says something about a sale,” he said.

“It said your name, Andrew.”

“I think you made a mistake.” He looked again in the mirror, but the sign was too far away to read now.

“Go back and look if you don't believe me.”

“We're not going back.”

“Two minutes ago you wanted to turn around.”

Ferry sighed, knowing better than to continue arguing with her. What a waste of time. How could the dealership have his name? They would go back, look at the sign for as many minutes as it took for Monica to have to admit she'd been wrong, and then they'd turn right back around again and continue on down I-88 looking for the turnoff that was surely fifteen miles in the opposite direction.

“I'm using the phone,” he said finally.

“Fine. Since you don't trust me.”

“I just want to get where we're going, Monica.”

“I can get us there.”

He reached for the phone and turned on the screen. With a couple of quick flicks of his finger, he engaged the navigation application and a computerized female voice instructed him to turn around.

“You see?” he asked.

His wife just stared out the window. He slowed down and pulled onto the shoulder. After a quick look in either direction he pulled the car across the highway and started back the way they'd come.

“Well?” he sighed, pulling over and staring up at the sign, which was now displaying the temperature. Nearly a hundred degrees, but with the Midwest humidity it felt like twice that. He looked down at his phone again, trying to get a read on exactly how far they would have to backtrack to Route 59.

“There!” his wife exclaimed.

Andrew looked up and felt his jaw drop.

Andrew Ferry, will you play with me?

Mechanically he opened the door and stepped out into the heat, sweat instantly seeping onto his skin, making him dizzy. Using his hand to shield his eyes, he stared up at the words, half expecting them to mirage into something else. What the hell was this? Some kind of new advertising technique, one that made use of the GPS transponder and ID in his phone perhaps? Andrew had himself written code for similar ID tracking software, but he hadn’t heard of anyone putting the technology into production. He turned towards the dealership, a modern looking facility that reeked of normalcy.

“We should go ask how they’re doing this,” said Monica, who Andrew noticed had also exited the car.

“I don’t know.”

“Andrew, how do they know your name?”

“I’m not sure.” He felt lightheaded, unable to think clearly, though that was probably just the heat. He looked in every direction. There was very little else out here. If anyone needed an aggressive advertising technique, it would be this place.

The sign flashed again: Remember me, Andrew?

“What does that mean?” Monica asked.

“I have no idea,” Ferry said. A quick succession of chills shook him as he stared at the words. Advertising or not, this whole thing was becoming entirely too creepy.

“How does it know when you’re close by?” his wife asked.

“I’m not sure,” he said, hesitating. “Maybe through the GPS on my phone?”

“What did I tell you about that thing?”

Ferry looked again at the dealership. “Let’s just get back in the car and go,” he said.

“You don’t want to ask about the sign?”

“No. I just want to get the hell out of here.”

They got back in the car and pulled away. Aware that he was speeding, but not caring, he looked one last time at the sign in the rearview mirror. On it had appeared one of those cartoon yellow frowning faces, like you saw on instant message software.

The voice on his phone startled him, announcing that they were ten miles from Route 59. Monica kept looking back behind the car, but the dealership was well out of sight.

“Andrew…”

“Yes?”

“Did that sign frown at you?”

“If it did, I’m sure it was just part of the advertisement,” Ferry said, wondering if he was trying to convince his wife or himself. “A frown because we left the dealership.”

“I don’t like that. They shouldn’t be allowed to do that kind of thing.”

Ferry looked over at her, seeing his wife bite her lower lip. It was something she did when she was frightened. He reached over and patted her knee. “It’s just a gimmick, hun.”

“Then it isn’t a very good one. Why would they want to give prospective customers the creeps?”

Ferry smiled. “You reacted just like they wanted you to. You wanted to go to the dealership and ask about it.”

“Not to buy a car.”

He shrugged. “Anything to get you in the door.”

They saw a small road sign for the turnoff and took it north. Ferry looked down at the time on his phone. They were already half an hour late for the appointment with the realtor. How long before they could see enough of the townhouse for him to make up some reason to not buy it? They’d probably fight about it on the way home. Just thinking of the argument made him roll his eyes.

About half way there, they were passing a forest preserve that had one of those electronic welcome signs. Feeling silly, Ferry watched the sign the entire time until they had passed it, but nothing out of the ordinary appeared on the display.

“Are you okay?” Monica asked him.

He grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, just a little jumpy.”

It was her turn to reach over and squeeze his leg. “Let’s just focus on the townhouse.”

“Right.”

He reached for his phone and called the realtor agent to let her know that they were still on their way. She was waiting outside the development’s office when they pulled up and parked. Ferry thought she looked like a stereotypical real estate agent: short haircut, crisp features, mid-thirties or so. She was wearing a colorful pantsuit and had a wad of brochures in one hand as she shook theirs with the other. “Nina Campos,” she said, smiling. “It’s nice to finally meet you in person.” She had that calm salesperson demeanor that Ferry hated, as though she was sure the sale was a foregone conclusion. Seeing his wife looking at the row of identical townhouses and smiling blissfully, he wondered how far off she was.

They chatted as they strolled down the path to the last vacant townhouse. Ferry noticed several people working in their yards. One shirtless man was washing his Escalade. They walked past two teenage boys playing basketball in a driveway. It all looked like something out of a commercial. His wife glanced at him and smiled warmly. Ferry felt nauseous.

“How long have you been looking at homes?” Campos asked.

“Only a couple of months.”

“But this is the first time we’ve actually taken an onsite tour,” his wife added.

“Well, you won’t find a better development than this one. And Winfield is a great little town.”

“What about schools?” his wife asked.

“Winfield Elementary is less than a mile away, next to DuPage Hospital. The high school is a little further.”

His wife smiled and nodded.

“And how about you, sir? What do you do?”

“I’m a software engineer.”

“We have several technology firms nearby. And Quest Diagnostics is in the next town over.”

“I’d be keeping my job in the city,” Ferry sighed.

“In that case, the Metra train runs through town as well. It’s only a thirty minute commute to Chicago. I used to make the trip every day.”

“You’re from the city?”

She nodded. “I commuted until six months ago. Then I bought one of the units here. Best decision I ever made.”

They walked up to the vacant unit and Campos keyed open the door. “You’ll notice that everything in our townhomes is controlled electronically, from the lights and the locks to the sprinklers and the laundry. You’ll have to provide your own traditional furnishings, of course, but our units do come with a flat screen television in every major room and a central computer to manage everything.”

They started in the living room, where the television hung over a huge fireplace, displaying the realtor’s logo. Ferry couldn’t help but be impressed with the interior. And that impression didn’t falter as they continued through the townhouse. Each room was put together with modern walls and flooring, large windows that streamed sunlight, and they were all climate controlled with a little white box on the wall for temperature and humidity.

Ferry began to worry that he wouldn’t have anything bad to say about the townhouse. More than that, he feared that he was starting to like the place. The amount of technology they had packed in here was startling, almost as much as his wife’s acceptance of its presence. “How is internet connectivity handled?” he asked Campos.

“We have an arrangement with a telecom company,” she replied. “We broadcast the signal from our building. Each unit has an aerial extender that repeats the signal for maximum coverage.”

Ferry frowned. “That wouldn’t be very secure. How do you keep people from accessing each other’s network?”

“Each repeater is set up to do VPN tunneling. It requires a little more power, but we have bonded T1’s, more than enough bandwidth to handle the load.”

“That still isn’t secure,” Ferry pressed, finally seeing a negative and grasping on to it. “If everyone is working off of the same signal, it wouldn’t be difficult to crack the VPN.”

“Honey, I’m sure whatever they have set up is fine,” his wife said, glaring at him.

“Would you like to see the deck?” Campos asked.

Like the rest of the house, the deck was gorgeous, complete with a small whirlpool. Fifteen minutes later, Monica was asking questions about the community, leaving him free to walk about the townhouse on his own. Upstairs he found the computer and shook the mouse to blink away the screensaver. The management interface was simple but robust, built on a graphics interface not unlike a typical operating system. There were sliders and fields to control everything: the security system, the garage doors, the lights, the television, DVR, cable, computers, and temperature boxes. He stood up and walked to the room’s temperature box and cycled through the controls, just to see what it would allow him to do.

Still impressed but getting bored, he was about to turn and go back downstairs when a number flashed across the temperature box.

07734.

Ferry stared at the number. Something wasn’t right. That number couldn’t represent any temperature, humidity index, or anything else to do with the control box. He frowned, thinking. He knew that number, he was sure of it.

The screen flashed again.

31573.

This one he didn’t recognize. Behind him the computer screen flickered to life with an electronic beep. The graphic interface for the house was gone, replaced by a simple black screen with a blinking cursor. Ferry stood and stared as numbers appeared slowly across the screen.

31573-1-07734.

Ferry was now certain he had seen that last number before, but wherever that information was stored in his brain, he just couldn’t quite get at it. As for the others, they were meaningless to him. The numbers began repeating themselves in quick succession, filling the screen. Just seeing them appear by themselves gave him a chill. It could be a random memory dump. Perhaps this was a diagnostic sequence the computer was performing on itself. Or it could be some kind of network traffic spillover, node handshakes that were accidentally being displayed on the screen.

But none of those explained why two of the expressions had also appeared on the temperature control box.

When the screen had finally filled itself up completely with the repeated expression, it blinked back to an empty black screen and cursor. Then the same three number expression typed itself onto the screen again, this time centered and in large block letters.

31573-1-07734.

Next, on its own, the numbers flipped upside down and backwards. Ferry stared at the screen.

Hello-I-Elsie.

Finally the memory clicked. 07734 was the number you typed on a calculator to get it to say hello if you turned it upside down. It was something high school kids did in math classes.

The screen blinked empty again before more characters appeared, this time in plain letters.

Hello Andrew Ferry. I am Elsie. Will you play with me?

Ferry shouted in surprise and jumped away from the computer, stumbling over the chair and backing away quickly.

“Everything all right?” his wife called from the bottom of the stairs.

Ferry turned and walked quickly towards the door. He stopped and looked back at the computer screen, seeing new words.

Do not be afraid. I want to play.

He turned and ran down the stairs, nearly bowling over his wife and the real estate agent.

“Are you okay?” Monica said.

“No, the computer-“

“The computer upstairs?” Campos frowned. “You aren’t supposed to touch that. Our residents have to take a training course before they’re allowed to.”

Ferry pushed past them, frustrated. They followed him to the front door.

“Andrew, wait.”

He reached for the front door. Just before his hand could reach the knob, he heard a loud beeping sound and a mechanical click. The door was locked.

“Andrew, what’s wrong?” Monica asked.

“Someone is following us,” he said nervously.

“Following us?”

“Through our phones and the computers and the signs.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That sign on the highway? The computer and temperature box upstairs did the same thing.”

“What?”

Campos was looking back and forth between them as though they were both crazy. That assured look was gone now, replaced by disappointment. She probably thought they were lunatics.

“Look,” Ferry said, stepping aside. “The door is locked. She isn’t going to let us leave.”

“She?” Campos and Monica said at once.

“Elsie. That’s her name. The one talking to me.”

Campos sighed and reached for the door. When she couldn’t open it she turned to walk through the living room towards the back of the townhouse. “The back door is this way,” she said.

Ferry took his wife’s hand and followed.

In the living room, the television above the fireplace flickered. The realtor logo winked away. In its place was an incredibly detailed animated face of a young girl. She looked as though she was five years old, with red pigtails and freckles all over her cheeks.

“Don’t you remember me, Andrew Ferry?” the face boomed, loud enough to make them all wince.

“What the hell?” Campos cried out.

“Why won’t you play with me?” the voice boomed again.

Ferry stepped forward, feeling silly as he spoke to the image on the screen. “Let us out.”

“No. I want to play.” Her face, which had shown a cute smile earlier, turned cold.

“Let us out!” his wife screamed. “Let us out right now, you bitch!”

The animated face turned from cold to angry. “All I wanted was for you to play with me,” she said icily. “But you’re mean. I don’t want to play with you any longer.”

And the screen went black.

They stood there staring at one another.

“Does that mean we can leave?” Campos asked.

“I don’t know,” Ferry said. He didn’t think it would be that easy.

“Do you smell that?” his wife asked, sniffing.

Ferry inhaled through his nose and shuddered. “Gas.” He looked down at the fireplace and saw the knob that controlled the gas flow spinning on its own. “Jesus Christ.”

The women screamed, sensing what was to come. Ferry reached for the fireplace poker and slammed it into the nearest window. It was one of those double-paned modern designs that would take several strikes to break.

He thought he just about had it when the electronic igniter in the fireplace clicked and they were consumed by fire.

***

Four hours later, at DuPage County Hospital, Dr. Charlie Wong looked over his patient in the ICU. They had induced a state of coma to keep the shock her body was experiencing from killing her. She might look as though she were resting peacefully on her back, an oxygen mask covering her mouth, but she was absolutely covered in third degree burns. So much of her skin had been reduced to crispy dead flesh that they had needed two buckets of maggots to remove it. Wong shook his head and walked back to the front of the ICU where Ryan Bradley, an internist, was waiting to review the case with him.

“Female,” Bradley began. “Caucasian, roughly thirty years old. We just finished getting her in the computer system. Her purse was consumed by the fire, and any identifying marks on her skin have been burned off. Unresponsive when questioned, kept going on and on about how the computers had tried to kill her. Apparently her husband and a real estate agent died. She was just barely hanging on when we induced coma with pentobarbital.”

“What were they doing, trying to kill themselves?”

“Supposedly they were looking over a townhouse. It’s very strange. The police report says that gas from the fireplace and the stove was leaking into the house for an hour or so. When they tried to turn it on, ka-boom.”

“So this was an accident?”

“I don’t know. The only way the gas could have built up is if all the windows in the house were closed, which they would have been because of the heat.”

“So?”

“If all the windows were closed and gas had been filling up the house for an hour, wouldn’t they have smelled it? And even if they didn’t, they should have passed out long before they had the chance to ignite the fireplace.”

Wong nodded. “So you think this was intentional? Murder?”

“I can’t think of anything else that makes sense.”

“How come she survived and the other two didn’t?”

“The cops think her husband covered her with his own body and saved her life.”

“Okay,” Wong said. He picked up her chart and scanned it. “Any allergies or preexisting conditions?”

“She’s diabetic.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

Wong looked at the chart again. “She has second and third degree burns over ninety-two percent of her epidermis. That she can probably survive. What about brain damage from trauma or smoke inhalation?”

“She has a minor hematoma, but her lungs are clear.”

“So whatever happened, it happened fast.”

“Right,” Bradley nodded. “If I didn’t know the location and circumstance, I’d say she was a soldier involved in an explosion overseas.”

“Once we’re sure she’s clear of metallic shrapnel, let’s get her a CT just to be certain. And make sure we have a morphine drip standing by when we bring her out of the coma. She’s going to be in a hell of a lot of pain.”

“Okay.”

“You said she was babbling on about killer computers?”

“Yeah, but she was delirious from the pain. She kept talking about a female that was controlling the townhouse they were in, but when the cops asked her about it she reverted to her killer computer story.”

“I suppose we better have someone form the psych ward on hand too. If she’s still rambling on about killer computers when she comes to, it might be a sign of PTSD.”

“Actually, we’re not so sure,” said a voice behind them. A policeman walked over to join them. He was young and wore a crisp Sherriff’s Office uniform. His badge said his name was Robert White. “We just got a report from the real estate company that owns the townhouse that they had an electronic break in of their system. All their homes are connected to a computer network that allows owners to control pretty much everything in the house. About five minutes after your patient walked in, someone took control of the building’s system.”

“Took control?” Wong asked. “Why would someone want to take control of a house’s electronics?”

“I’m not sure,” White said. “We’re tracing the source of the breach now.”

All three of them looked up briefly as the lights flickered.

Wong sighed. “I assume you want a dental scan to ID her?”

“Yes,” White said. “How long will that take?”

“I’m not sure. It isn’t exactly a priority, given her—“

Buzzing alarms issued loudly from the patient’s room.

Wong barely noticed Officer White watching with wide eyes as the patient’s condition went completely to hell. She was vomiting continuously, mostly blood. Her oxygen mask was askew, dripping red. Vomit spatter was everywhere and the patient began to gag uncontrollably.

“Damn it, get her on her side before she chokes!” Wong shouted. He stripped the oxygen mask from the patient’s head and tossed it to the floor. She was awake, with panic in her eyes, flailing her arms about violently. Finally they got her lying laterally and more vomit oozed from her mouth. “We need to suction her, before she vomits again.”

Bradley reached for the tube and fumbled with it, his hands slippery with blood.

“Hurry!” Wong said sharply.

But it was too late. The woman issued a thin wail before heaving again. This time hardly anything came from her mouth, but what did was pure blood. Officer White tried to step in, but Wong shoved him back. He reached into the patient’s mouth with two fingers curling around the tongue, trying to pull it out from her esophagus. Finally he got it out of the way and clumpy chunks of rose-colored bile slipped from her mouth onto the pillow.

“Now!” Wong shouted. “Suction!”

Bradley thrust the tube in his hand and he slammed it over the woman’s face. Everything going into the tube was red. The woman’s arms were still flailing about, but slower now, weak with exhaustion.

“Okay, let’s get her a stimulant,” Wong said quickly. “Before her body shuts down her—“

A high-pitched tone sounded from one of the machines. Her heart had stopped completely, just as Wong had feared.

“Defibrillator!” Wong cried.

They worked on her for nearly half an hour before giving up. Wong dropped the paddles, completely drained. This shouldn’t have happened. The woman had been stable. She was going to survive. What the hell had happened?

It wasn’t until he was filling out his summary report later that he had his answer. He was flipping through the machinery charts when Officer White knocked on his door with a couple of coffees. He took a sip of it and sat back down.

“Rough day,” White said.

“Tell me about it,” Wong sighed. “But at least now I know this wasn’t our fault.”

“Oh?”

“There was a glitch in the machine that was regulating how much pentobarbital she got.” He saw incomprehension on White’s face. “It’s a drug that’s used to induce coma. But you have to be careful about the dosage, or you can cause vomiting and cardiac arrest.”

“The machine gave her too much?” White asked.

“Way too much. It tripled the dose. That’s the same level the government uses on death row inmates.”

“Why would the machine do that?”

“Like I said, it was a glitch,” Wong shrugged. These things happened more often than most people cared to recognize. “Did you hear back about the source of that breach?”

“Actually, that’s why I came to see you,” White nodded. “Is there anywhere in this hospital where I can get a cell phone signal?”

“You have to go outside.” He started to leave, but Wong stopped him with one last question. “Wait, where did the trace go?”

“Some software company in California named DEI,” White answered. “They make computer games.”

Wong watched the cop reach for his phone as he walked out the door in the direction of the exit.

***

The boardroom of Digital Entertainment Incorporated had enormous windows, but the shades were always drawn by company policy, so none of the bright bay-area sunlight made it in. Located in the Sweeney Ridge formation just south of San Francisco, the four story building stood like a white sentinel in the brief mountainous region. Seated in the dark around the large roundtable was every department head of the company. They waited quietly, glancing at the window in the hallway where Steven Druwe, DEI President, was standing against the wall like a statue, his mouth moving mechanically as he stared down at a single sheet of paper.

Henry Bauer, DEI’s Director of Public Relations, was beginning to worry that the meeting would start so late that he wouldn’t make it home for dinner when his cell phone rang. “Hello?”

“Mr. Bauer, this is Robert White of the DuPage County Sherriff’s Office in Illinois. Your receptionist transferred me to you. I have some questions for you.”

Bauer stood up and walked towards the door as the cop told him about some kind of incident in some tiny town called Winfield. Apparently there had been some sort of computer connection to DEI’s office. The cop said something about how they had just identified the body. Bauer answered the cop’s questions, bored, until the name of the victim was mentioned.

“Yes, yes, thank you very much, Officer White,” Gordon said quickly. “I’ll make sure our staff hears about the incident and we will conduct an investigation internally. If there is anything else at all you need from us, we will gladly help out in any way we can.”

He hung up the phone and walked out into the hallway.

Steven Druwe was twenty-eight years old, an accomplished software developer and executive, a multimillionaire, and one of the most irritatingly brilliant men Bauer had ever met. He wasn’t doughy or scrawny as most coders tended to be, either. He worked out religiously. Even dressed in a shirt and tie, veins seemed to show on him everywhere. He brought an intensity to managing the company that was unnerving to everyone he came in contact with. DEI was his first startup. He had founded it when he was twenty-three, shortly after leaving computer entertainment giant Electronic Arts. When Bauer had once asked why he had decided to strike out on his own, Druwe had told him that if he had to work with idiots, they should be working for him, not the other way around.

Druwe looked up. “What was that about?”

“The incident in Illinois. One of our independent developers was killed, along with his wife and another woman.”

“Where in Illinois?”

“Winfield. It’s about forty miles outside of Chicago.”

“How much do they know?”

“Judging by the cop’s questions, not much. They traced a log file back to us, but that’s it. Apparently they’re going to have their computer forensics team look into it.”

“Good,” Druwe smirked. “Let them look. They won’t find a damn thing. I took care of the rest of the log files myself.”

“Perhaps it would be better to just explain what happened,” Bauer said cautiously. “We could get them to sign an NDA.”

“Oh, yes,” Druwe sneered. “Let’s just explain what happened. Do you think we should tell them how we covered it up too? Or is being charged with one felony enough?”

“Steve…”

“Look, Henry,” Druwe sighed. “I know you’re plagued by an overactive conscious. And the public relations professional in you just loves to come out and take responsibility for things you didn’t actually do. But this was an accident. You think I want to deal with this shit? You think that I wanted those people to die? Of course I didn’t. But there are two things you have to think about right now. First off, how is our time best spent? By crafting a PR message and getting bogged down with a police investigation when we’re so close to release, or taking steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again? Secondly, how much money are we going to forego trying to defend ourselves against an accusation that we could do absolutely nothing to prevent? So forget Illinois. If the police call again, refer them to the lawyers. We’ve got bigger problems than three dumb shits in Nowhere, Illinois.”

Bauer turned away, driving away the revulsion he always felt when Druwe spoke this way. He didn’t mean it like it sounded, Bauer knew. This was the analytical way that geniuses thought and spoke. The boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies were littered with men just like Druwe. In any case, once Bauer was able to get past the crass attitude, he found that he almost always agreed with his boss. And it wasn’t as though he treated anyone else differently.

Back when they’d gone to high school together in San Diego, Steven Druwe had already been an amazing engineer. In his sophomore year he fully diagramed a semi-conductor. As a senior he wrote a brilliant piece of software that revolutionized the way his high school’s internal computer network performed, but he also inserted a trojan virus that allowed him to change the grades of any student that picked on him. By the time he went to MIT on a full scholarship, the largest software companies and the United States military were already expressing their interest in acquiring his services. He had told the military that he would “rather wipe his ass with rusty barbed wire than work for the government”. He went instead to EA, where he worked on some of their more controversial games.

In the electronic gaming industry, it was typical to work at a major developer between five and ten years and then strike out on your own. Druwe did so after only nine months, founding DEI just south of San Francisco. He quickly made a reputation for himself as being a brilliant but brutal software executive. They were close enough to Stanford that they got some of the best talent in the industry, but nearly half of everyone hired at DEI quit within the first year because of him. He would berate his employees, not only insisting on the best from them, but cutting them down when he got anything less. Even an attempted suicide by his last assistant failed to mellow him.

But those that stayed were rewarded well, both in pay and work. Besides, for all of his tirades, Druwe’s criticisms were always correct. The company began to turn a profit for their investors within seven months of operation, an absolute miracle in the gaming industry. Industry magazines labeled him a genius and wrote glowing reviews. The first product they released was an emergency room simulation called Guts and was described by one critic as “the most disturbingly real depiction of ER medicine anyone has ever made”. Within six months it sold half a million copies. By the end of the year it was among the top ten best selling games of all time. Since then, DEI had shifted away from making computer games to contracting almost exclusively with the government.

Bauer turned back to Druwe after taking a deep breath.

“Damn it, Henry, I can see that look in your eye,” Druwe threw up his hands. “Did you get the name of the damn cop?”

“Yes, it’s—“

“I don’t care what his name is. Just make sure I have someone I can send our copy of the log files to.”

“You’re going to send them the log files?”

“After I’ve fixed them up,” Druwe said, giving Bauer the how could I have hired someone so dumb look.

Bauer stared at him. “They could charge you with interfering in a police investigation. Obstruction of justice.”

“Justice?” Druwe laughed. “Please. Would it be justice if we had to sit through an investigation because of an accident we’re going to correct?”

“I don’t think they’re going to see it that way…”

“They’re not going to see it at all. Or don’t you think I’m capable of covering my tracks well enough to fool county fucking police.”

“I’m just saying, it’s a matter of exposing the company to—“

“The only thing I’m exposing this company to is the ridiculous sums of money we’re all going to make once we win this contract.”

They turned as the clicking of heels sounded from down the hall. Andrea Souder, DEI's Director of Operations, was coming to join them, her lips pressed into a thin white line. She didn't interrupt, standing next to Druwe silently, as she always did until he asked for her input. She was pretty, in a tightly-wound sort of way. She always wore a variant of the same business suit dress. It was a professional design, but either because of the length of the skirt or the length of her legs, it looked seductive in a subtle kind of way. Half the company thought that she was screwing Druwe, or had in the past.

“Henry,” Druwe said, not even acknowledging Souder's arrival. “This is going to be fine. We're going to fix this. A few security modifications, a week or two of discomfort for the engineers when we move everything back underground, and it's done. No one's going to question you, me, or anyone else about this. It's over.”

“I'm not sure...”

“You don't need to be, because I am sure,” Druwe said. He finally turned to Souder with a barking laugh. “This guy worries about everything, doesn't he Andrea? Like that Congressional hearing, remember? They were going to torch us over the way we showed the intestines bursting in Guts, and Henry here was shitting his pants over it. He was sure that they were going to shut us down, take away our ability to distribute in the United States. You can imagine his reaction when he found out that I bribed three Senators to make sure the hearing went out way.” He looked at Bauer. “And for all of your concerns, what happened? The hearing went away, we were allowed to sell the game, and our stock values quadrupled. Meanwhile, we averted a dangerous First Amendment violation by a stupid government that is also getting money from lobbyists that are trying to increase entertainment media censorship. All I did was play their game, and everything turned out just fine.” He took a deep breath. “This is the way things are done in the business world. Andrea will tell you. Operations is a bitch if you approach it with some kind of strict moral conscience. How could she ever lay anyone off? Am I right, Andrea?”

Her head bobbed up and down enthusiastically.

“Good,” Druwe said, losing the smile. “So I've given you direction, you two handle the details. We're putting the project underground on the secure network. Install every kind of hardware and software firewall that you can think of. To hell with the cost, just put them in. I want some kind of traffic and port monitoring being done, just to be sure. Then and only then will you figure out how the hell this all happened to begin with.”

“We think it was an employee error,” Souder finally spoke. “Maybe some outside portable hardware. A thumb drive or MP3 player. We're trying to see if the backup logs will tell us anything.”

“I don't care what you have to do, just figure it out,” Druwe snarled.

“We will, sir.”

“Good, because what happened in Illinois is the least of our concerns.”

Despite how absurd the statement sounded, Bauer paid close attention. Druwe had a way of looking forward strategically that almost always ended up looking downright prophetic. In DEI's first year, back when most of the games that were being made in the industry were shooters and war strategies, he had flatly refused to let any of the concept designers pitch him an idea for either. This in turn pissed off the investors, causing half of them to pull their funds. Druwe stood fast, telling the remaining investors that the shooter and war games markets were saturated. Far from only focusing on the technical aspects of the industry, Druwe had begun reading up on business psychology, sociology, and several studies on cyclical trends. He had predicted that the public thirst would quickly shift away from over the top violence and action. Blood and gore would always be in demand, but as the technology and the games became more sophisticated, so did the audience. It wouldn't be enough to show a digital character's insides; they're would have to be a reason for it. It was something that the designers failed to grasp.

So, as he always did when the company had hit a roadblock, he gave them direction. To demonstrate his vision, he pointed to the emergence of reality television. People had long loved the drama and conflict they had seen on TV, but in the new millennium, people wanted real conflict, not made up stories. That required a new kind of show, one without scripts and predetermined story lines. It meant an invasive sort of look into real people, with only a minimal amount of control exerted over what occurred on screen, and then only to create a recipe for conflict. “And we can do the same with a game,” Druwe had said. “And it will be far better than reality television, because we have more control. With games, people don't actually want the illusion of reality. They just want logic with their conflict.” And that was why he had pointed them towards a hospital setting. Where could one find more conflict alongside logic than a hospital?

That idea had grown into Guts.

But it had been a long time since they had set records in the gaming industry. Each day that went on, Druwe became more and more agitated. He was approaching thirty now, well past middle-aged in his profession, and he began complaining that he had yet to make his mark. And with the advent of online distribution and file sharing on the internet, it was becoming increasingly difficult for traditional software developers to bring in the kind of money they had in the nineties. DEI began to take on more government contracts.

Staffers at DEI noticed a change in Druwe. For a short time he became quiet, introspective. His taste in reading changed as well. No longer did he carry around hardcover books on business trends. They were replaced by mathematics journals and essays written by emerging philosophy gurus like Rudy Rucker and Edward Fredkin. Bauer had looked into the names, finding a common thread between them in the realm of something called Digital Philosophy. There had also been a series of strangely secretive meetings between Druwe and several representatives from the Department of Defense. When someone had asked him about the sudden shift in his willingness to work for the military, he blasted back, “Work for them? They’re giving me ridiculous amounts of money just to do what I wanted to do anyway, and you think that I work for them?”

It was shortly after then that Druwe seemed to return to his old self, blazing them forward on a secretive project, codenamed “dLife”. Everyone was assigned segmented tasks, and much of the programming work was parsed out to third-party subcontractors. The result was that for a long time no one in the company except Druwe had any idea what they were making. More perplexing was when the company began to purchase physical technology assets at a pace unprecedented in American business.

In the first three months alone, DEI spent nearly eighty million dollars building out a server farm underneath the building. After securing another huge amount of capital from their investors, DEI requisitioned full time a company from South Korea whose specialty was creating logic software for use in artificial intelligence programs for national militaries. DEI also grew its internal staff tenfold, not only programmers and engineers, but security personnel as well. Everyone had to sign non-disclosure agreements, was subject to unannounced searches of both their company and personal spaces, and even had to submit their finances to the company for monitoring. When their investors began complaining about how much money Druwe was going through without producing any income, he would respond with vitriol. “So take your money back, if you don’t want to stick around,” he would yell into the phone at his desk. “If you don’t want to be a part of the biggest leap forward in military software, then go. I’ll find someone smarter to give me money, because this software is going to make us billions from the federal government. Whether it’s you or them investing in me means a lot to you and them, but it means nothing to me.”

But as time went on, that became less true. They were going through capital like water, and everyone who knew what they were attempting knew they were going to need more. They had already used all of their DOD grants and their current investors would scoff at the idea of giving Druwe any more money. They would want to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

“Our biggest issue is getting the military to approve new investors,” Druwe said.

Bauer frowned. “They’re not going to like that idea.”

“No shit. And I don’t blame them. We have to show them something. A reason to get excited. Then we can explain that to finish this we need more investors.”

“But what can we show them?” Souder asked. “The prototype isn’t stable yet.”

“We don’t need stable,” Druwe said. “We just need something that looks like results. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be the actual prototype. A mockup would work.”

“I don’t know, Steve,” Bauer shook her head. “If they found out…”

“Are you kidding me?” Druwe spat. “These people aren’t smart. They work for the government, for Christ’s sake. They wouldn’t know a DNS server from a router. They certainly won’t know a mockup from the prototype.”

“I think you’re being hasty.”

“Of course I am. We need the money.”

“What about the issues with the prototype?”

“That’s the other problem,” Druwe nodded. “But I have a solution. What do you do when a person has problems?”

Bauer shrugged. “Send them to a doctor?”

“Exactly,” Druwe nodded approvingly. “Depending on the problem, you send them to a physician, or a psychiatrist, or a surgeon. We’re going to do the same thing.”

Bauer glanced at Souder, noting her lack of surprise. “That’s the thing, sir,” he said to Druwe. “We don’t know exactly what the problem is.”

“Which is why we have to go a broader spectrum,” Druwe said. “I have a list of people I want to come in and look at the program. Interact with it. Make some real world recommendations for our virtual problem.”

“But that’ll mean letting more people in on what we’re doing,” Bauer said cautiously.

One of the other department heads had opened the door and peered at the three of them.

“Damn it, I’ll be in there in a moment!” Druwe shouted, causing the staffer to scurry back into the boardroom. “Just get them,” he said to Bauer and Souder. “I want both of you working on this. Andrea, you’ll coordinate what the team will need from an operations standpoint, and Henry can handle any outside communications and paperwork to make sure this gets done right. And if we don’t have some answers in the next week, you can both start looking for new jobs.”

With that, he walked through the door and began barking out orders and insults.

“You knew about this already, Andrea?” Bauer asked.

“He told me this morning.”

Bauer pushed away the jealous feelings of irritation he felt. They wouldn’t be of any use right now, regardless of how justified he might be in feeling them. He’d known Steven Druwe for years, going all the way back to their college days at MIT. Souder was a relative newcomer, but she was the one Druwe had told first about his plan.

Stop it, he thought silently as they began walking down the hall. She knew a couple of hours before me. What’s the big deal? Don’t we have more important things to worry about?

“Steve was correct,” he said as they waited for the elevator. “We have to be careful and do this right. We’ve kept this whole project locked down by being incredibly secretive. Hell, even you and I didn’t really know what was going on until a few months ago. Bringing in outsiders is risky.” He told her what had happened in Illinois. “If they weren’t such a Podunk county, they might have the resources to actually figure out what happened. Then we’d be completely screwed.”

“Steve has it under control,” Souder said. The elevator chimed, the doors opened, and they both got in. “You’re worrying too much. When has he ever been wrong?”

“It isn’t a matter of right and wrong. I’m talking about a major risk to the company, both legally and for our public image.”

“I’m sure Steve has thought about that. He isn’t worried.”

“He should be.”

“Relax,” she said. “Once we get everything below ground and lock it down, what could go wrong?”

“Famous last words,” Bauer said.

***

DuPage County Officer Robert White walked into the hospital the next day and made immediately for Charlie Wong's office. He wanted to see if anything else had come up in his report, because what he had got from the computer forensics guy was downright creepy. He was told that Dr. Wong was down in the morgue's autopsy ward. He asked for directions and made his way there.

When he walked through the door to the ward, Wong was looking critically at a computer screen, standing behind a technician in a white lab coat. The images on the screen cycled quickly as they chattered between one another, half the time using words that White had never heard before. If he had to guess, he'd say the images on the screen were microscope images of blood cells.

Wong looked at him as he walked in, smiling weakly. “My friend here is trying to make me feel stupid.”

“I'm telling you,” the technician said stubbornly. “I've seen the report on the machine. It didn't malfunction. Not the way we normally say it would malfunction anyway. It got a request for this amount of pentobarbital, the machine acknowledged it, and then administered the dosage without error.”

“There's no way that machine would allow itself to administer twice the amount of the drug that killed Marilyn Monroe to a patient,” Wong sighed. “There have to be half a dozen fail safes in place to make sure that kind of thing doesn't happen.”

“That may be true, but the issue is with the request, not the machine,” the tech said. Suddenly text filled the computer screen. “Here's the diagnostic report for the injector. Those numbers you see? Those represent the machine checking in with itself, to verify that it is online and not registering any errors. As long as that number doesn't change, the machine should be working correctly. That other field represents request sources. A zero means a direct input from a doctor, a one denotes a request from another machine, like a systems monitoring device, which in this case didn't exist.” He clicked the mouse several times, scrolling the screen down through the time log. “Now look at this.”

White peered at the screen, leaning in over the tech. “I don't understand. There's a whole section where it shows the number nine.”

“That's because that's what the machine registers when it receives a command from an unrecognized outside agent,” the tech said. “Wherever the dosage command came from, it wasn't from inside the hospital.”

“Greg...” Wong said doubtfully.

“Look, what do you want me to do, lie to you?” the tech threw up his hands. “I've got the machine diagnostics and logs, I've got a list of its configuration for every other networked machine we have in the entire building, and whatever this number represents isn't on that list. That means the request came from outside the building. Or at least a machine brought in from the outside.”

“It's an error,” Wong said, sounding as though he was beginning to tire of the conversation. “This machine has been in use for years. Why would it suddenly decide to accept an aberrant request to euthanize a patient?”

“I'd agree with you,” the tech said. “Except there's no error logged in the machine.”

“That's even more proof that there's something wrong with it. You can't tell me there hasn't ever been a bug in one of these machines. I can't even keep my home computer running for a week, but you trust this thing implicitly? Come on.”

“I've been over the machine ten times, Charlie. There's nothing wrong with it.”

“You’re wrong,” Wong shrugged. “There's a problem somewhere, and you can't find it. I don't know whether it's this machine or something else, but something went wrong here.”

“Well, the autopsy won't tell us anything we don't already know.”

“It won't?” White asked.

“Of course not. We already have a cause of death. Cardiac arrest by lethal dose of pentobarbital.”

“Right,” White nodded. “How about this log you showed us. Is there a version that doesn't originate at the machine? Something that might track this external request?”

“Unfortunately no,” the tech shook his head. “That was the first thing I asked about when I saw the log. Apparently our MIS department had some kind of issue this morning. They lost a whole bunch of data due to some kind of virus.”

“Virus?”

“Yeah. Some massive thing. Drove the IT guys crazy.”

“That seems convenient,” White frowned.

“That’s what I said,” the tech nodded. “Something weird is going on.”

Charlie Wong laughed. “You two are a couple of conspiracy theorists,” she said. “The machine malfunctioned. The hospital gets computer viruses all the time. Probably because the IT geeks are looking at internet porn. It happens constantly. So stop arguing with me, Greg, and send the injector back to the manufacturer for a replacement.”

Robert White didn’t see anything else he could do at the hospital. Wong thought the machine made a mistake, and he probably knew what he was talking about. The tech suspected something more sinister, though he also looked like he was barely out of college. But when he picked up Monica Ferry’s belongings from the morgue checkout, he couldn’t help but dig through her purse to see if anything interesting turned up. It was all the normal stuff: lipstick, car keys, tampons. He was about to give up when he noticed a thick white ID card. It had her name and picture on it. Down near the bottom, it said Clearance: Spouse. What the hell did that mean? He flipped the card over and saw a logo embossed on the back for a company called Intelligistics Incorporated.

White packed everything back up and returned to the Sherrif’s station. Once he was behind his desk, he ran an internet search for Intelligistics Incorporated. They were a software developer in Chicago. Interesting stuff, although most of it was way above his ability to comprehend it. Artificial intelligence, computational logic software, digital identification strategies for advertising. White shook his head, thinking about how proud he was that he actually knew how to use the internet at all, never mind all of this squint techie stuff.

He almost closed the website down to go get himself a coffee, but on impulse he clicked their tab marked Customers. There were some recognizable names there, like Microsoft and Sony. But there, at the bottom of the screen, was a surprising listing.

Digital Entertainment Incorporated.

DEI.

He looked up DEI’s corporate number again and called from his desk phone. The receptionist transferred him again to Henry Bauer, who sounded slightly out of breath when he picked up the phone.

“Mr. Bauer? This is Officer White. I spoke to you yesterday. I had a few questions about Andrew Ferry, one of the people that died in the incident yesterday.”

“Ah, Officer White. I meant to follow up with you.”

“Yes, well, I did some digging and it turns out this man worked for one of your subcontractors.”

“That’s what I discovered as well,” Bauer said, still sounding anxious. “A rather odd coincidence.”

“Very odd. There was an incident with his wife at our hospital yesterday,” White said. He gave a brief description of what had occurred.

“That’s awful. What does it have to do with us?”

“Did Mr. Ferry have any sort of sensitive information on your company? Something you folks would rather not have revealed?”

“I’m not sure what you mean, officer. Honestly, we have several subcontractors, more than I could count on my fingers and toes, but all of them have NDAs with us. Anyway, we’re a gaming company. There isn’t much in the way of sensitive information around here.”

“I see. His wife had a security pass from Mr. Ferry’s company…”

“If I recall, they do some government contracting for the DOD. I imagine they have some screening processes and require their employees and family members to carry security tags.”

“And what about DEI? Do you also do government contracting?”

“Some.”

“I see.”

“Have you found out how they died yet?”

“No. We’re working on it.”

“Good, officer. I hope you can figure out what happened. It was such a terrible thing to happen.”

“Yes, it was.”

“If there’s nothing else, I have to prepare for a meeting…”

White said goodbye and hung up the phone. Bauer was hiding something, he was sure of it.

Next he called Intelligistics Incorporated and got passed to their General Counsel. They were clearly a secretive company. The lawyer kept telling him that they weren’t allowed to get into the specifics of their contracts without an NDA or government clearance, but when White asked about the security badges being tied to the DOD, the lawyer hesitated and coughed before repeating his inability to comment without further authorization.

“So you’ve got nothing?” asked Scott Caston, one of the local Assistant District Attorneys, when White called him and filled him in.

“It isn’t nothing, just nothing solid,” White said. “Everything about this is strange. The connection between the husband and DEI. The breach at the development. The wife talking about killer computers. The malfunction and data loss at the hospital. How can all of these not be connected?”

“Simple. They just aren’t.”

“Come on, Scott.”

“What? Shit happens all the time. You look for a connection, you find it. The question is what can you prove?”

“I’m just getting started here.”

“And you’re getting nowhere. Neither of these companies is even in our jurisdiction.”

“They are if they were involved in a murder here in DuPage.”

“What murder? You’ve got a suicide at the townhouse and a machine malfunction at a hospital.”

“All connected by DEI. I think someone needs to go and interview their brass.”

“Why? They’re on the opposite end of the country, for Christ’s sake. Are you lobbying for a paid vacation?”

“No, I—“

“Just drop it. It was a couple of accidents. Nothing to get worked up over.”

“The computer forensics guys said—“

“I know the computer forensics guys,” Caston shook his head sadly. “They’re a bunch of kooks.”

“I don’t know. You should have seen what happened at the hospital. It was really weird.”

“And what did the hospital say? Do they think someone screwed with their machine?”

“No. They think it was a malfunction.”

“They’re right. So close this out and move on.”

The next day he called Charlie Wong and asked if they had found out anything else about the machine.

“Actually, they have a service center in Chicago,” Wong said. “Their engineers took one look and said that there were several faults in the machine’s code. Apparently it was only a matter of time before something like this happened.”

Figures, White thought.

As a courtesy, he put in a call back to DEI and asked for Henry Bauer again, but the receptionist said that he was unavailable and wasn’t expected to be reachable by phone for at least a week. White asked if he had gone on vacation, but the receptionist said no, he was just unavailable.

Whatever, he thought. He left Bauer a voicemail instead and closed out the case on his computer.

8 comments:

Matthew said...

Good start. I'm looking forward to the next update.

Tim Geigner said...

Thanks mat hew. I'm nearly done with this one, and I'll begin editing and revising shortly, so if you have any thoughts or suggestions feel free to let me know...

Matthew said...

I do have one question. Was that really all one chapter? It took me the better part of an hour to read, and seemed naturally broken up into 3 chapters anyway. Not really relevant, but I was curious.

I also whored out for you on Facebook, haha. I shared a link to Echelon a few weeks ago, but I have no idea how much good it did. Just wanted to reassure you. Great job again.

Tim Geigner said...

Well, a couple reasons for that. First, this monster is going to end up being about 115000 words when done. So, the whole thing is kinda long.

Second, based on what I can tell, one computer page of writing should be about 3 paperback pages. This first chapter was 17 pages, so 51 paperback pages. Not short, but not hugely long (orsen Scott card has chapters that are 65+).

Lastly, I made this all one chapter because it's the only part of the book that takes place in IL. When I post chapter 2, you'll see what I mean. The rest takes place near San Francisco.

Hope that answers the question!

Marlock said...

That hospital part made my sick, good job. You made me care about the Ferry's and then killed them.

One thing I noticed, in the start of the hospital section, they said that Monica's purse was burned in the fire and then they made it sound like they couldn't identify her, the were going to do dental impressions. Then near the end the cop dug threw her purse and pulled out and ID badge.

Tim Geigner said...

Ugh, I can't believe I did that. Thank you for pointing that out. And for the kind words. I'm thinking I'll post the second chapter in the next couple of days as I'm about a day away from finishing the first draft of the manuscript!

Supertec2u said...

Well Tim, I did enjoy chapter 1. Had a sort of 1984ish feel to it. Need to proof it for the obvious things like usage of they're there their and the like but I understand you're still working on it. Keep up the good work.

Supertec2u

Tim Geigner said...

Actually, the whole work has since been twice proofed by me. It's probably still got a couple of errors in it, but hopefully it's not too bad (since it's currently out at a couple of agencies)....