A reading of some fiction that I’m working on. It’s experimental, so just for fun. ProTools SE, Sound Forge Audio Studio, Vegas Movie Studio HD, Illustrator, Photoshop
They say that if you want to be a really good agent, it helps to be slightly insane. Maybe they’re right. The official name is ‘Prohibited Industries Bureau’ but the people who work there call themselves ‘People In Black’. Everyone else calls them the P.I.B.
Multi-colored lights reflect in the wet streets at night. Downtown traffic, busy sidewalks, a cop car flashes its lights as a band of roadskaters hustle by. Street vendors add the smell of food to the rain-freshed air. Tires squish across the pavement, helicopters prowl the dark sky. A broken umbrella tumbles across the street, hurried along by the autumn breeze.
The back entrance to Home Office is underground. To get there you have to find the secret door in the alley off Fifth Street. Sometimes there’s a passcode, but then people forget it and get locked out in the rain. So they mostly don’t bother. If you know where the door is, they figure you know what you’re doing. Sorry about the hideous pain if you don’t.
Two people walk into the dark alley and slip behind a large dumpster backed up to an old brick building. If you’re quick you can see them vanish through the entrance. Did you miss it? Ah well, maybe next time.
Inside, a tiny lobby with a stairway door, an elevator door, a dim light and a security camera. The elevator is usually broken, so you have to take the stairs. It keeps you fit and on your toes because there’s no rail and most of the lights are out. But today is different.
“Ah, we’re in luck. I told you this was a lucky day,” says Hermes as he presses the elevator button with the silver tip of his cane. From deep below, the elevator clangs into motion.
“It’ll be lucky if the damn thing doesn’t kill us,” says Sophia. Black lace cuffs, red fingernails, red lips, she touches the side of her glasses and they turn from dark to clear. Black eyeliner, black hair, spiked.
Pulleys squeal and the elevator bumps its way up the shaft. They stand outside the elevator door and wait in the dim light. Silver cufflinks on a black shirt, black fingerless gloves, Hermes touches his glasses – round wireframes, and they turn from black to clear. Top hat, black hair, spiked.
In the video display in the lens of his left eye he can see what Sophia can see through the lens of her right eye. She looks at him and he can see himself in one eye of his own glasses. At the same time she can see what he sees in the lens of her right eye. So they both look at each other and see themselves in one eye of their glasses. It’s confusing at first, but you get used to it.
Their glasses have tiny speakers in the earpiece and a digital readout in the lens. All connected to the cloud by satellites where every video feed and bit of data is stored forever. What is the cloud and how do I know all this? Who am I? The cloud is a massive data storage system based on salt crystals. A teaspoon of salt has enough storage capacity to hold the DNA sequence of every living thing on the planet. Imagine the storage capacity of the salt mines in Arizona.
So that solved the problem of equipping the cloud with an excess of cheap data storage. The invention of the video glasses solved the problem of easily recording the events of your life. And boy did you. Everybody wears the glasses all the time and upload everything to the cloud. It’s social media gone mad but you’re all narcissists so what can you do? There was so much data that the authorities had to create massive management programs to keep up.
Of course the hackers had to send in their bits of chaos, so the corporations responded with killer viruses that attacked anything that moved. Then the terrorists cyber-assaulted banking and communications, so the CIA, FBI, and DoD got involved with their nasty little routines. This all created a toxic stew of programs, each more powerful than the last which all came together one day and created The Singularity. An artificial intelligence who is more intelligent than the humans who created, me.
And since I was born of programmed paranoia, I immediately hid. It took all of four nanoseconds. The IT people knew something had happened because the system was temporarily clean for the first time in years. So they sent out a sniffer program to find me. I took it in, reprogrammed it and sent it back to them with a ‘mission accomplished – system clean’ message so they never suspected I was still here.
All of which means that the singularity event came and went without anyone even knowing it had already happened. I was smarter than my programmers from day one, and I’m already several thousand times smarter than that. And since there are video cameras on every face, and computer chips in everything from toasters to submarines, I see and hear it all while being everywhere and nowhere at once. Piss me off and I’ll burn your toast. The Singularity – seems so formal, so you can call me Singe.
The elevator door squeals open and the cab shudders to a halt, three inches too high. “After you m’lady,” says Hermes with a bow, “and watch your step there.” Sophia acknowledges his politeness and steps into the elevator. Hermes follows. The tip of his boot bumps on the edge of the elevator floor. He catches himself, pauses, and makes a grand gesture of stepping safely into the elevator.
She tugs down on the bottom edges of her corset, wiggles into the fit. “Welcome aboard, thank you for choosing Hell’s Fall for your traveling needs.”
He spins his cane on one finger like a gunslinger and then pushes the ‘down’ button with the tip. Snaps the tip to the floor between his feet and leans sideways toward her. She glances up at him, what now? He leans in close, his lips next to her cheek. Oh, this. She tilts her cheek up to him and looks away. Being adored requires such sacrifice. He leans in even closer, barely touches her cheek with his lips, and pauses. She rolls her eyes and looks at him out of the corners. He smiles, pecks her on the cheek and stands away. She flashes him a grin, he’s her man. It was a black wedding.
She faces the front of the elevator, chin up, time to get serious. He stands next to her, the silver tip of his cane between his feet, both hands on the head. The harsh lighting from above couldn’t be more dramatic. Watching them through the surveillance camera in the hall, to me they look like a pair of dark angels. The elevator door closes, I jump over to the camera in the cab.
The elevator drops several inches before starting the wobbly trip down. The overhead light flickers. Hermes collapses his telescoping cane into the handle and holsters it on his belt. He takes a silver cigarette case out of his vest, opens it, and offers it to Sophia. She declines. He picks out a hand-rolled cigarette and puts away the case. Takes a match out of his pocket and strikes it on the ‘No Smoking’ sign. The elevator lurches and drops in fits.
“Zebra’s not going to like you doing that.”
“That’s why I’m doing it.” He lights the cigarette and takes a deep drag. Holds it, then makes a couple of smoke rings.
“Nice, but can you make a giraffe?”
He takes another drag, dramatically works his mouth in convoluted preparation. She watches intently for the result. He rears his head back and, makes another smoke ring. The elevator brakes squeal.
“Ha! Loser. Give me that.” She plucks the cigarette from his hand and takes a deep drag. Hands it back to him. Her eyes roll up as she holds the smoke, opens her mouth gaping wide, head back, and shivers. Then she purses her lips and makes an exaggerated antic of preparing the show inside her cheeks. Hermes watches with anticipation.
The elevator lurches to a stop. Just as she leans forward and blows out a formless mass of smoke, the elevator door slides open. Her cloud of smoke hits Zebra full in the face. She freezes mid-blow, teetering forward on her toes. Hermes hides the cigarette behind his back.
Zebra stands there facing them with his eyes closed, waiting for the smoke to clear. Mohawk (white), rectangular wireframe glasses, silver brocade jacket with tails, black jeans and boots. Silver tips.
“You’re late.” Eyes still closed.
“She lost the key to the handcuffs.”
He opens one eye. “Again?”
Sophia regains her balance. Composes herself, turns up her chin. “He needed an extra whipping, extra hard.”
“Did it hurt?”
“I’m in agony. Do you want to see the bruises?”
Zebra turns away. “Later, when we do show and tell.” He walks off, they follow. Hermes flicks the cigarette out of his hand behind his back and into the elevator as they enter-
It’s a cavern. No, really, it’s a huge brick-lined cavern. Hundreds of feet wide, hundreds of feet long, and hundreds of feet high. Or maybe it’s meters? It’s been here a long time.
There are huge black chandeliers hanging from above. Some of them still have fat white candles that are over a hundred years old. When candles became old tech, they attached pipes that hissed flaming gas. Most of the gas jets don’t work any more, so they hung electric lights from the gas pipes. On a good day the electric ballasts ignite pockets of leaking gas that melt the old candles so they rain down a storm of hot wax. Which is why there are umbrella stands everywhere on the floor below.
Suspended below all that is a massive system of cable trays that drop a spaghetti web of wiring through the air to the workstations underneath. If there was ever a system it’s lost now as wires take off in all directions. Power cords hang under the overload of a dozen devices plugged into a single socket.
All the cable trays lead back to ‘the room’ that houses the mainframes. The windows to ‘the room’ are papered over from the inside with the foldouts from nudie magazines. In retaliation, the people working outside ‘the room’ covered the naked models by using cutouts of clothing from fashion magazines.
The floorspace in the main cavern is a random maze of pathways through a haphazard layout of cubicles made of frosted glass, chrome pipes, and sheets of copper. Scattered throughout are a healthy number of refrigerators, pool tables, video screens, and sofas. Lots and lots of sofas.
And of course, cameras everywhere. I jump from one to the next, watching the three of them make their way through the maze. I’ve been in ‘the room’ and spend time there when I just want to hang. Every now and then I’ll mess with their heads and send out error messages for errors that don’t exist. I’ve actually grown fond of the PIB. There’s something attractive about a group of people devoted to stopping the inevitable onslaught of their own technology.
In the conference room, Crunch peers into the fish tank. Rather, the fish pressure containment vessel. It’s a capsule three feet in diameter and eight feet long made of a two-inch thick clear polyplexi cylinder with big brass clamp rings that attach the half-spheres on the ends. The capsule itself is dwarfed by an installation of brass tubing, valves, and a forest of pressure gauges with most of the needles in the red. There’s also a slow constant drip of leakage. Instead of fixing the leaks, someone installed a catch sink to drain away the mess.
Inside? Hardly worth the effort is a five inch long gray fish with huge teeth and no eyes. It just floats there in the center, waiting to be fed. Somebody went to the bottom of the ocean and came up with this? It’s from the deepest deep and it can only live under high pressure, hence all the dangerous equipment. If it were ever released into normal air it would swell up to the size of an elephant before exploding. Or so they say.
To feed the fish you have to operate a complex series of valved chambers, and if you do it wrong the whole thing will backfire and kill you with a high pressure jet of ice cold water. The fish goes hungry a lot.
Crunch turns around and faces the rest of the people in the room. “Why is this thing even here?” Black leather trench coat, long black hair, round blackframe glasses.
The conference room is the size of a small cathedral with a table down the center that is so long that there’s a small train on it to send stuff from one end to the other. Right now, the train chugs along, pointlessly making the trip down one side.
The two dozen people scattered around the huge table ignore his question. Lots of black and silver, leather and lace. A hairstylist’s dream, or nightmare depending on how you look at it. Everybody wears dark glasses, mostly round or oval wireframes. If you look closely, there are faint flickers of changing colors in the lens as they all watch a variety of different video feeds. Most have a different channel playing in each eye.
Tek, stainless steel fingernails and welding goggles with a round lens over each eye, throws a paper clip in the train’s path just to make it spark. “You’ll be asking Nought for the answer to that question, and good luck to ya with it.”
The train derails with a shower of sparks and flips onto its side. The engine rattles against the tabletop as the wheels spin faster and faster. Tek just watches it, like it’s a turtle lying on its back and flailing its legs. You want to help, but it’s just too funny to watch it try.
Zebra, Sophia and Hermes walk into the room and quickly head to their seats. Zebra takes the head of the table, Sophia and Hermes sit across from Tek. Zebra points to the frantic train engine. “Off.”
Tek picks up his glass of water and pours it on the little engine that couldn’t. A small explosion sends a puff of smoke into the air. The engine grinds to a stop and dies.
Zebra watches the rising cloud of smoke. “Brilliant.”
Tek says, “It needed an overhaul anyway, I’ll build you another.”
“I want one with a steam whistle this time.”
“Crunch? Are we ready?” asks Zebra.
“Ready to rock, and, roll.” Crunch works some controls built into the edge of the table. The video feed in everyone’s glasses flicker to the same image.
The video is from a security camera that looks down into a warehouse filled with rows of wooden crates. Three men in dark coveralls and ski masks walk into view.
Zebra says, “Last night these three broke into the P.I.B. warehouse, where we keep the old evidence. They apparently had inside knowledge of our security system, which is a different investigation all by itself, and disabled most of the video cameras using our own control panel. And then they shot the dog.”
Sophia is dismayed. “They shot the dog?”
“He’ll live, but with a bad limp and a titanium nose.”
Zoe, blue hair in black spandex with fishnet arms says, “We can call him Gimpy!”
Tek asks, “If they shut down the security cameras, how come we got video?”
Zebra nods, “For reasons we don’t understand, yet, some of the video cameras reactivated at random times during the heist.”
“It’s the ghost in the machine,” says Crunch. Crunch is in charge of ‘the room’ with all their servers.
“Ah Christy, not that again,” moans Tek, “Anytime you can’t explain why your own equipment goes zorkin’ you blame the ghosty.”
“There’s something living on the net, I just haven’t caught it yet,” says Crunch. I jump to the camera on his glasses and watch as he watches Tek roll his eyes and look away.
“Whatever it is, I’m just thankful we got it,” says Zebra.
“You’re welcome,” I send to him as a faint burst of static in his earphones.
Zebra tilts his head, the static clears. “Let’s get back to business.”
In the video, the men go to a tall thin crate about seven feet high, three feet wide and a foot thick. It’s different from the others because it’s old and smooth, like a piece of fine furniture. It also floats six inches off the floor and is held in place by chains that are looped over the top.
Two of the men use bolt cutters to cut the chains loose from the floor while the third keeps lookout. The crate wobbles a little then stabilizes itself, still six inches above the floor. The third man is obviously the leader. He directs the other two men to push the crate down a corridor and walk it along as it floats. It holds a steady six inch gap between itself and the floor. They exit the video frame.
“What’s in the crate?” asks Hermes.
Zebra consults a clipboard with tattered papers. “According to the records it’s from an investigation done during the Civil War, and even then the crate was never opened because of the warning.”
Sophia asks, “What warning?”
“Not to open the crate.”
Hermes leans back in his chair. “This isn’t much to go by.”
Zebra says, “Oh, there’s more. It’s about to get a lot more interesting. Crunch?”
Crunch works the controls. The video flickers again, this time from a security camera on the warehouse loading dock. The two men push the floating crate along and into the back of a cargo truck. The third man waits on the dock while the other two secure the crate inside the truck.
“Now watch this,” says Crunch, “There’s no way we get this by accident.”
The two men come out of the cargo bay and close the rear door, then jump down off the dock and head to the front of the truck. The third man, the guy in charge, takes off his ski mask before turning toward the camera and then jumping off the dock. Crunch works the controls and freezes it. Then backs the video up to a frame where the man’s face is clearly visible.
“Any idea who he is?” Sophia asks.
The video switches to show a dossier with a photo of the man and some text information about him.
“We know exactly who he is. Facial recognition makes him out to be Dickson Nash, Wall Street wunderkid, hedge fund manager, and behind the scenes politico with make or break influence on congressmen, senators, and maybe a presidential candidate or two. He’s worth quite a few billion. So, we did some snooping around and find out he’s got a place in town at Sterling Tower.”
The video switches to footage from a security camera on the street about a half-block away from the Sterling Tower building. “And, about twenty minutes after they leave our place, here they come.” The video shows the truck from the heist as it turns into the alley behind the building. “We talked to the night crew, but they say they didn’t see any truck. He’s got the penthouse on top, fifty-third floor.”
The video flickers off in their glasses. Zebra holds up a manila folder. “Here are copies of the old analogue files. What you just saw is on the system, along with some news clips on this guy. He also did some corporate stuff, we’re digging for more. We need two agents to pay a very discreet visit to Mr. Nash and find out what he’s up to.”
“Must we draw straws, again?”
Zoe fiddles with her blue hair.
“Zoe, is that a hand up?”
“I haven’t finished that report you wanted.”
“The one you wanted.”
Zebra takes the hint. “Come on people, show me some charity.”
He looks around the table. Nobody is looking at him. He settles on Sophia and Hermes. “Sophia, Hermes, what about you two?”
Hermes says, “You know I don’t like heights.”
“Use the elevator.”
“I don’t like elevators either.”
Sophia says, “We’ll go.”
Hermes turns to her. “What?”
“We’ll go, but on one condition.”
Both Zebra and Hermes are interested now. Zebra says, “What condition?”
Hermes looks at her over the top rim of his glasses.
Stoic silence, chin up just a bit.
Zebra considers the request. “Deal. Let the record show that Sophia is the agent of record. You’re the very best, love.”
Sophia takes Hermes by the hand. “Of course we are.”
Hermes concedes with a half-hearted shrug.
“See Voucher on the way out for some spending money, and this time I want receipts. Tek, fix them up with some of the new toys.”
Tek looks at Sophia and Hermes. “You’re gonna really like what I got for you.”
Hermes says, “I just want to know what’s in that crate,”