This is a politically charged science fiction story about mining the asteroid belt.
Chapter One – Rendezvous at Ricks
An I.V. drip slowly dispensed a neuron-stimulating solution into Norma’s brain. The slighltly caustic solution wended its way through a few feet of yellow rubber tubing, through a gleaming stainless-steel spike inserted into a raised blue vein in Norma's soft pearly arm, and from there her heart, beating rapidly, but not dangerously so, sent the solution home to its target. The solution was one of the vital ingredients of SR—Supra Reality—the hottest info technology of the 21st century, which evolved from the much more sedate Virtual Reality of the 1990s. The other ingredients of SR included the traditional goggles and data gloves; the Internet, which provided SR participants with a common meeting ground; and the carbon-based biochip cerebral implants which enabled those participants to “pick” one another’s brains.
Within seconds of the catalyst entering Norma’s system, her brain lit up like some megalopolis city hall switchboard, sending out thousands of queries and directives, and receiving the same every second. She was plugged into SR-land and she was on the prowl. Her target was Nick and his highly protected “Level 25” program. Nothing could stop her—nothing short of total network logjam paralysis or perhaps a major brainpan gasket fissure. But these events, once common in the early days of SR, were almost nonexistent probabilities in 2018.
Norma was a 38 year-old Serbian freelance ‘Net agent who’d led a rather tumultuous life. Both her parents had been eminent computer scientists at the University of Belgrade and Norma had enjoyed all the warmth, comfort, and intellectual stimulation that a childhood in upper-middle class academia could offer. But her parents were martyred in the conflagration of ethnic strife which consumed Yugoslavia in the 1990s and she became an orphan. She spent her adolescence shuttling from one refugee camp to another in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia, acquiring hard-bitten, back alley skills for survival and adopting a sullen, forlorn demeanor which did not leave her until she met Dmitri in Srebrenica in the autumn of 1996.
Dmitri, a Bulgarian computer programmer twenty years older than Norma, was the founder and president of SUNF, the Serpska United National Front, a ragtag collection of extremist, allegedly political-minded cyberpunks, ostensibly committed to the restoration of an ethnically diverse and politically tolerant Yugoslavia through the enlightened use of high info technology. But in reality, Dmitri had assembled around him a passel of pimply-faced geeks, eager to play with high-tech gadgets and maybe meet some girls.
In the 1980s, Dmitri had been the hero among the young hackers of Bulgaria, he being one of the first to use the Arpanet—the American Defense Department’s precursor to the Internet—to infiltrate highly secure and highly sensitive data bases of the U.S.’s National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, and National Aeronautic and Space Administration, among others. His tour de force was the sale to the Soviet Union of some NASA codes which enabled the U.S.S.R. in 1986 to sabotage the American Space Shuttle program, in effect setting it back five years. Possessing a rather charismatic personality, he was constantly surrounded by a coterie of programmers and dilettantes, whom he entertained lavishly at all the night raves in Sofia’s underground techno dance clubs. These blowouts were fueled by copious quantities of drugs, most notably Ecstasy and DMT, which Dmitri purchased with the profits from his espionage activities.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early ‘90s, the winds of fortune sent Dmitri scurrying to Bosnia, where civil unrest had created numerous pockets of power vacuum just waiting to be filled. He landed in 1993 in Srebrenica where, masquerading as a Bosnian Serb, he founded SUNF with his old Sofia gang and began scouting for new local talent. Three years later, he found his most promising prospect—the scrappy 16 year-old Norma. Norma and Dmitri hit it off grandly. She became his student, disciple, confidante, and, eventually, lover. They collaborated on many of the most important breakthroughs in Supra Reality, which, by the late 1990s, was gathering a very full head of steam. They sold patents from these discoveries and used the money to build up SUNF’s power base.
But the many years of heavy drug use began to wear on Dmitri and he developed one hell of a psychosis. By 1999, he had become convinced that the much touted “Y2K” bug that would plague most computer systems beginning at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000, would, in fact, herald in much graver problems for mankind than jammed elevators and faulty ATM transactions. He and his fellow SUNF devotees believed that AI-driven machines, robots of every stripe—industrial, domestic, and military—would take advantage of the widespread computer crashes in 2000 to overrun, dominate, and enslave mankind. Such was their despondency, that in the last week of December 1999, they committed suicide en masse by drinking cranberry juice spiked heavily with digitalis, covering themselves with black lace shrouds and lying on the floor of their compound to die.
Everyone in SUNF was dead—everyone, that is, except for Norma. She was never the naïve, idealistic type, and although she’d been utterly devoted to Dmitri for almost four years, she was even more devoted to herself. So after watching the last member of the cult/techno-political party expire, she took the treasury’s funds and after a short search around battle-ravaged Srebrenica, found and purchased a tractor trailer, loaded it with millions of dollars worth of SR gear and headed northeast to Minsk, Belarus, where she set up shop as an infotech consultant, this time as a solo act. Now she was a hacker for hire to the highest bidder—she no longer cared about helping to solve the world’s problems, only about fattening her own purse. Call her a cyberpunk or a data whore—she didn’t care, just as long as her fee was paid, preferably in U.S. greenbacks and not in worthless rubles or zlotys.
For the next eight years her main client was the Commonwealth of Independent States which consisted of Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine. In 2000 the C.I.S. was swallowed up, in the west by Poland and Lithuania and in the east by China and Mongolia. It was time for Norma to move on and find a new employer. She relocated her operation to the dingy Adriatic seaport city of Tirane, Albania and began working for the C.S.S.I.P.S., the Confederated Sino-Slavic Islamic People’s States, or as it was more succinctly known: “The New Red Order” or N.R.O.
The N.R.O. was an archipelago of authoritarian, fundamentalist regimes stretching from Beijing, China through the former Soviet Central Asian republics all the way to Albania. Beijing was the dominant power among these states and was now, in 2018, concentrating most of her energy in her westernmost satellite outpost of Albania. For the last ten years she had been employing crack ‘Net agents to prowl the Web and steal S.R. technology crucial to her designs for world domination. And she was relying on her top agent, Norma, to bring home the most critical piece of S.R. software, Level 25.
As the mist cleared, Norma could start to make out the images in the digital landscape before her more clearly. She reached up into the upper left corner of her field of vision and pressed an S.R. button. A dialogue box popped open in front of her and with the tip of her right index finger she scrawled in it an alphanumeric series—this was the identifying code for an Individual S.R. Personality Construct, the so-called ISPAC code, which is like a fingerprint or DNA for an S.R. participant. She was using a Construct Identifier and Locator, a piece of software strictly prohibited by the Global Software Authority in its Special Cybernetic Addendum to the Privacy Act of 1964. But Norma was not one to concern herself with legal niceties.
Within seconds a beep sounded and another alphanumeric series presented itself in the dialogue box. This was the S.R. memory address of the construct which Norma was trying to find. She pressed the “go to” button and was immediately whisked away to where her quarry, Nick, lay. Once again she had to wait a couple of seconds for the cybermist to clear and then she was able to take in and evaluate her surroundings.
She was in a 1940s Moroccan seaside bar—Rick’s Place. Actually, it had more of the feel of a Hollywood soundstage. Sam, the piano player, leisurely picked out a plaintive tune on the ivories. At the bar sat Nick, disguised as Humphrey Bogart. In the twinkling of an eye, or perhaps more aptly in the click of the CPU’s quartz crystal clock, Norma transformed herself into Lauren Bacall. She wore a tan mohair suit, complete with padded shoulders, knee-length skirt and floppy hat with a garish peacock feather. Her light brunette hair was fashioned into long wavy curls, her eyelashes were thick and lustrous and her lips appeared larger than life with bright crimson lipstick. She was drop-dead gorgeous, as the standards of 75 years ago went.
She sauntered up to the stool next to Nick and sat down. She pulled a pack of Chesterfields from her purse and demurely placed a cigarette between her lips. Nick swung around on his stool to face her, flipped open his Zippo and offered her a light. The ceiling fan overhead creaked as it spun around languorously in the stifling desert air.
“What’s a dame like you doing in a joint like this?” Nick asked.
“Well, a person’s gotta be in one place if they’re not in another,” Norma replied.
“How true,” said Nick and he let out a soft chuckle.
“What’s a gal gotta do to get a drink in this place?” whined Norma playfully.
Nick snapped his fingers and in a trice Rick materialized behind the bar. He set down a drink on the bar in front of Norma, a fruity concoction with a little paper umbrella sticking out.
“Hubert Burns at your service,” Nick said as extended his hand for Norma to shake, “intrepid reporter for the Herald Tribune. I’ve been dispatched to North Africa to cover England’s and America’s repulsion of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Taking in a little R & R here in sunny Casablanca.”
Norma shook the proffered hand and rattled off her own extemporaneous cover story: “Lorraine Bridges, spoiled debutante and heiress to the Bridges-Colfax Diamond Mine fortune in South Africa. Stranded in this city of intrigue while I wait for a steamer to carry me home to Durban.”
As Nick released Norma’s right hand he noticed the gleaming band of platinum on the ring finger of her other hand. His gaze returned upward, into Norma’s eyes, two icy-blue steel ball-bearings which told Nick nothing about their owner. He exhaled leisurely and a small cloud of blue cigarette smoke wafted up into the ceiling fan. His eyes spoke volumes, though; they were smiling eyes; they sparkled; they were the chief contribution to Nick’s charm. They were his women-hunting eyes and he had them set on stun. He was curious to find out if Norma wouldn’t be able to deflect them.
They sipped their drinks and chatted equably for a quarter of an hour while in the background Sam played his monotonous dirge over and over. They talked about the most mundane matter—topics such as the Saharan climate and how Norma’s outfit was most ill-suited to it. Nick tried to steer the conversation toward Norma’s background, but these attempts Norma fended off coyly. He brought up the war in Europe and the war in the Pacific, but she was plainly uninterested.
Finally, Nick flung a few francs at Sam and told him a little heatedly and sarcastically, “Whyncha lay off it, Sam. Go learn a new tune!” Sam stood up and hurried off, knocking the piano stool over in the process. The bar was suddenly silent, save for the creaking of the fan.
Nick pointed at Norma’s ring and said, accusingly and sneeringly, “Alright, doll, let’s have the straight dope now! Who’re you running from? And don’t give me any more of that spring chicken tripe!”
“Oh, no!” she protested, “you’ve got it all wrong. It’s not like that at all, Mr. Burns. Why this—this is merely a traveling accessory. It’s my personal organizer.” And with that Norma pulled the ring up over a knuckle and twisted it back and forth. In the air above the bar between the two of them a two by three foot diaphanous computer screen opened up. In it scrolled by in rapid succession: a spreadsheet with figures apparently related to Norma’s monthly budget; the fields and records of Norma’s telephone and address database; and, before it closed with a zip, blocks of obtuse assembly language code.
Norma slid the ring back in place, thinking ruefully to herself, “How could I have done such a stupid thing!? I should’ve made at least a cursory inspection of my appearance before I walked into a singles bar decorated like that! I’ve been at this game eighteen years, why am I staring to slip up now?”
The ring had been a gift from Dmitri some twenty years ago. And though it once bore a great deal of emotional significance for Norma, she now wore it solely for its utilitarian aspect. Indeed, the platinum exterior housed kilometers of submicroelectronic circuitry, which, combined with the bioimplant in Norma’s brain, gave her some extraordinarily nefarious powers which few others on this planet enjoyed. She made a mental note to start wearing the ring on a different finger.
“An accessory! Of course! Now I’ve heard everything!” Nick roared with laughter. “I didn’t doubt you for a second, babe.” Nick let out a low whistle and fanned himself with his fedora.
“But you gotta believe me, sweetie, I’m pure as the driven snow,” said Norma as she leaned over and gripped Nick’s hairy forearm with her smooth and pale, yet firm hand. She wasn’t quite sure what was happening here, but she decided to put on an air of mildly raucous levity and to go along with it—whatever it was.
And what, in heaven’s name was real here? In reality there was no Rick’s Place, no Sam the piano player, no creaking ceiling fan, nor flirting 1940s characters swiveling about on barstools. That was all in cyberspace—fleeting phantasmagoria—spurious digital signals coursing through fiber optic cables, bouncing off satellite dishes high above the stratosphere and eventually making their home in the interstitial neural spaces of some cyberpunk’s brain. It was said that information was power—refined information at least. But raw data abounded everywhere: it was like seawater; it came in unstoppable waves and like the briny liquid it was quite unpalatable. And it seemed to Norma, to Nick, and to everybody involved with info technology in the second decade of the second millennium (and that was probably 75% of the 25 billion human souls alive) that the polar icecaps were melting and mankind would soon drown in the oceans of useless data.
Five thousand miles of empty space separated Norma and Nick. Nick lay back, all wired up and connected to his neurostimulant I.V. drip, in a suspensor chair in his high tech studio bachelor pad in stylish exurban Houston. He was plugged into one end of a circuit which ran across the world to a soundproofed, camouflaged tractor trailer parked in an alley in Tirane’s gritty smelly industrial section, between a fish-processing plant on one side and a fertilizer factory on the other. This was Norma’s base of operations in Albania, and the malevolent, methodical machinations underway here gave off its own peculiar scent of unreality.
While Nick lay twitching in his chair and Norma lay similarly in hers, the digits of her right hand gesticulating frantically, a HomeCray personal supercomputer, which took up 15 feet of the trailer’s tight space, worked calmly and diligently to dissect Nick’s brain, or at least that portion of it which surrounded his bioimplant. The “brain-dissecting” program had kicked in the moment Norma grasped Nick’s arm.
Examining the contents of conventional silicon-based memory chips is a fairly simple matter. The cells of data in such chips are arranged much like the array of boxes in a post office. Each box has a specific address and when a chip is presented with the appropriate digital signals it surrenders the contents associated with that address.
Extracting data from a carbon-based bioimplant with neural network architecture like the one found in Nick’s brain is an entirely different prospect, some several orders of difficulty higher. One need now deal with various strategies taken from different areas of discrete mathematics, topology, non-Euclidean geometry, and non-linear analysis. One need know a thing or two about bijections and surjections, Abelian groups and ring theory, and local energy minima and maxima. But even all of this didn’t guarantee a bloody thing. Data, in a neural network, just didn’t exist at a given address as in a serial silicon chip. It was at once everywhere and nowhere. It was stored by means of associations and just as with the human brain, could only be recalled by the same agent which stored it. Suffice it to say that information stored in a neural network was afforded a high level of security.
That is, until Norma’s ingenious Neural NetCracker software is brought to bear on the problem. Using a host of sophisticated extraction, decryption, and enhancement tools, Norma could take the two-dimensional, or Cartesian, world of neural interconnections, the excited or inhibited synapses at a given instant in time, and follow their development through time, thus giving a three-dimensional picture, the so-called “global” representation of that area in the brain which constituted the interface between cerebrum and implant.
If one had enough of a notion as to what they were looking for in the global view—a seed, or a clue, that is—then using Norma’s program one could virtually see into another’s brain, or at least that part which interface with the bioimplant, and, by extension, with the Internet.
The only person who possessed this unique program was Norma. She also had in her keeping a small block of code known as the “header tab” for the Level 25 program, the program she sought to extract from Nick’s implant, and this header tab was sufficient to serve as the seed in a run of the NutCracker program. All that was needed now to ensure a good rendition of Nick’s global bioimplant representation was a sufficiently prolonged stimulation of Nick’s nervous system—enough stimulation to bring about the direct memory transfer between Nick’s brain and Norma’s program. It was such stimulation Norma hoped to effect when she clutched Nick’s wrist.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” he said, “I’m being paged and I guess I’ll have to take my leave now—it appears to be urgent.” He reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a sheet of bright light about the size of a business card. On it a string of neon-blue alphanumeric characters glowed. “My Web address…look me up sometime.”
Norma took the calling card and slid it into her purse. “I will,” she responded, then watched as Nick donned his hat, tipped it once toward her and shuffled out of the bar into the stifling desert air. She closed her eyes briefly and when she reopened them she was back in her trailer in Tirane.
She immediately swiveled in her suspensor chair toward the HomeCray’s large display screen. What she saw there was rather disappointing. Because of the interruption caused by Nick’s pager, she hadn’t been able to induce an adequate direct memory transfer between Nick’s implant and the transducers of her HomeCray computer and its NetCracker program. The global representation of Nick’s implant interface on the screen gave no hint whatsoever of the secrets of Level 25 which lay within. All that appeared were nebulous clouds of yellow, blue, and green dots, embryonic in nature and aborted before they could be of any use.
“Damn,” muttered Norma distastefully as she removed her S.R. gear and rose from the chair. She rubbed her eyes and stared at her reflection in a mirror on the trailer’s wall. She observed the wrinkles around the corners of her mouth, the crow’s feet which had recently made their appearance in the corners of her eyes. She sighed. She thought to herself that she would have to meet Nick again in cyberspace and do whatever was necessary to ensure that he spilled the contents of his implant; he must yield up Level 25. And strangely enough, she remarked to herself, she was looking forward to it.
Chapter 2 – Beltway Bound
Nick was rudely awakened from his diversionary pleasures in Rick’s Place in Casablanca and brought back to the real-time pressures of his NASA career in Houston by the persistent beeping of his pager. He slid out of his suspensor chair and strolled over to the large, flat computer screen on the living room wall which served as the interface for all of his phone, fax, e-mail, and v-mail communications. He pressed a button below the screen: the beeping ceased and the screen filled with apparently meaningless gibberish, a mish-mash of letters, digits, and punctuation marks, along with an assortment of strange symbols which comprised the other 140-odd slots in the extended ASCII code. This pager message was encrypted, not surprising in these days of widespread eavesdropping—usually undertaken in the service of police surveillance or for blackmail purposes. Even the most routine, mundane messages, business or personal, were encrypted. One military intelligence-gathering outfit had a motto which summed up quite aptly the mood of the present day: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”
Nick pressed another button and entered in a password. The onscreen gibberish took on a more meaningful hue. The message read: “Nick, get your ass in here PDQ! We’re now in Contingency Mode Red—Stanford.” Nick grumbled. It was 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning. His weekend was on the verge of ruin. And probably because of some trivial problem that those idiots in the Supra Software R & D department could just as well handle themselves, he thought. They, especially his boss, Stanford Desjardins, were easily thrown into a panic over problems, which, when calmly analyzed by Nick, were shown to be entirely routine and completely tractable. How the department had managed to keep itself together before he showed up ten years earlier as a junior software engineer was beyond him. Well, he would have to report in, but he wasn’t going to break his neck doing it. He was still in his pajamas, unshaved and unshowered.
An hour later he was leaving his cul-de-sac, one of the hundreds of identical dead-end lanes which sprouted off the four-lane artery running through Zone 5 in the southwestern corner of Houston’s residential district. The only thing to distinguish his street from all the others surrounding it was its grid-number: D-23. From high in the air, this part of the city—with its broad parallel avenues, and an infinitude of smaller streets spiraling off the avenues, and a further plenitude of cul-de-sacs branching off of those streets like the minute veins in a maple leaf or the alveoli in a lung—this fractal city had the appearance of a gargantuan integrated circuit.
Within minutes of boarding his MagLev car, Nick was approaching the infodustrial district. Traffic was rather light this crisp, bright October morning. It was usually rather light every morning. In the twenty-first century, though the world was beset by extreme overpopulation, at least pollution, hunger, disease, and traffic jams had been largely eliminated. And, Nick ruminated as he left behind him the last vestiges of the residential district, the superpowers, that is, the Corporate States of America and the New Red Order (China, really), had finally stuck a seemingly peaceful balance of power. The future hadn’t looked this bright for as long as he could remember—which made the announcement of Contingency Mode Red seem all the more Chicken Littleish.
Entry into the infodustrial district was through a huge, black plastic tube-tunnel, out of which radiated, at various angles, eight smaller tubes like the hairless legs of some giant spider. Each of these “legs” led to a different zone of infodustrial Houston, whose immensity boggled the mind. In fact, it marched on in drab sterility to the west for over 200 kilometers to what had once been Austin, the capital of Texas before the C.S.A. became fully centralized, did away with state governments, and established corporate headquarters in the administrative district of Houston, similarly immense, drab, and sterile, and stretching farther than the eye could see to the north to what had once been Dallas-Fort Worth.
For some reason a red light flashed on and off over the entrance to the tunnel. The sensors in Nick’s car saw it before he did and the car stopped thirty feet before the entrance. Any cars arriving after his would automatically stop, leaving five foot gaps between themselves. After 90 seconds, the red light still flashed, a most rare occurrence, indeed. Perhaps, Nick pondered, workers were inside the tunnel installing anti-sabotage devices. He’d heard rumors that such work was taking place all over the infodustrial district. But on a Sunday?!
He rolled down the windows of the cab to take in some of the cool autumn air. He noticed that on both sides of the MagRail small sections of the fence had been toppled, evidently to allow pedestrians to cross (at their own peril) the MagLev highway. It seemed to Nick logical that a crossing, albeit an impromptu one, should be placed here. Vehicles had to slow down, and sometimes, as now, even stop before entering the infodustrial district tunnel. A person had less of a chance of becoming road kill here than on other parts of the magnetic roadway, where cars regularly exceeded speeds of 200 kph.
This got Nick to thinking about just what kind of person lived out in these parts and would use this crossing. Just as in the divided Germany of an earlier generation, where a whole subculture of social misfits, bohemians, and renegades lived in makeshift camps in the western shadow of the infamous Berlin Wall, so too now did all the detritus of the infotechnological age congregate here in the no-man’s land on the border between Houston’s residential and infodustrial districts. They made their squalid camps in the culverts beneath and around the massive MagLev tubes that shot off toward the various pockets of prosperity in the Infodustrial Complex. These peoples were the marginalized losers in the modern infotechnological equation: they came from among the 25% of the population engaged in non-infotech vocations. Many had been skilled laborers, factory hands, shop rats, and artisans in the previous economy. They had been a proud and stubborn breed, but were now redundant. America’s collective skill base had “evolved” to the sophisticated level of information processing. “Crude” hardware demands could be satisfied cheaply and efficiently by “jobbing out” such contracts overseas where the labor base had not similarly evolved. Those foolish Americans who had once worked with their hands and had refused to retool and work with their heads had lost out. Instead of the American Dream, they partook in the American Nightmare.
These holdouts were a small minority, Nick realized, however much the liberal-leaning online social commentators trumpeted their plight. And, Nick suspected, most of the denizens of the hobo camps along this border were probably drug addicts, sexual deviants, or perhaps artistes manqué. There was little hope for the first two classes of dropout, but there was no reason that the failed painters, writers, sculptors, and musicians of the old days could not wear implants in the left side of their brains and become content providers on the ‘Net. Then they could happily participate in today’s economy. But they were contrary folk, and they probably deserved the misery in which they dwelt.
Just then his noontime reveries were interrupted when out of the corner of his eye he sped a nattily dressed, middle-aged man, with gray dreadlocks, abundant facial piercings, and tribal tattoos on both arms coming through the opening in the fence to his left. He appeared headed for Nick’s car. Oh great, he thought, just what I need! The man was probably going to try to sell Nick some scavenged, obsolescent electronic parts of maybe some much adulterated neurostimulant. That was how these bums eked out a living, Nick had heard. It was too late to roll up the window without appearing afraid or rude. But the man was empty-handed. He walked up to the driver’s side window, fixed his placid stare on Nick and said calmly: “The apocalypse shall claim the highest level.”
“What?!” asked Nick, dumbfounded.
“The highest level shall fail!” the scruffy man stated, somewhat more forcefully.
“What are you—,” Nick started to say, but at that moment the windows began to slowly roll up as a warning buzzer sounded, and the car started to glide forward into the tunnel. Well, that’s no surprise really, Nick thought, just another one of Houston’s burnt-out junkies. But he mentioned the highest level…
Nick’s car glided to a halt on the landing deck on the 52nd floor of Building 19-B, home of NASA’s Supra Reality Software Research and Development Division. It hummed softly as Nick stepped out. He reached in through the open window and pressed a button on the dashboard labeled “Auto-Park”. With cautious acceleration, the car departed without Nick, and with the aid of an on-board navigation system it made its way to the employees’ parking deck on the 125th floor, found an empty slot and powered itself down. It would reawaken when Nick pressed another button on his key fob.
He entered the building and immediately headed down the main hallway toward the elevator which would plunge him 65 floors down, into the bowels of paved-over Earth, where his department occupied a suite of high-security labs and offices. On his way to the elevator he passed the employees’ cafeteria. Inside, a skeleton crew of programmers and analysts ate their Sunday dinners. Most ate meals which they’d brought in from home and heated in the microwave ovens. Arrayed around the walls were vending machines from which the workers could purchase food if they wished, but few opted to, because it was heavily processed synthetic food shipped in from NASA’s food processing research and development facility in the Space Shuttle Support Services Division. A sign near one of the machines invited personnel to fill out a comment card and to “let us know how we can improve the quality of our products”. One such card was taped to the bottom of the sign. It read, in large block letters: “TAKE THESE MAGGOT-GAGGINGS AND BLAST THEM OFF INTO A BLACK HOLE!!!”
Nick got in the elevator and descended to sub-basement level 13. After going through the annoying, but necessary, security procedures, including voice check, retinal scan, and implant query, he entered Stanford Desjardin’s office. He expected to find his boss alone, since he and the occasional trainee or two were the only staff members to come in on Sundays. But to his surprise, he found not only Stanford, who was seated in his luxuriantly padded leather chair behind a large mahogany desk, but also five other rather grim-faced men in black jumpsuits sitting in a semi-circle in front of the desk. Nick recognized them as members of the Security Contingent, which shared S.B.L. 13 with the contrastingly happy-go-lucky R & D team. They all regarded Nick with a look of gravity as he bounced into the room, grabbed an empty chair, swung it around and sat on it backwards, resting his arms on the back of the chair.
“What’s cookin’, Chief?” Nick asked, puzzled and slightly nervous.
“Afternoon, Nick. Sorry to have to drag you in here on your day off, but it’s kind of serious—like I told you already: Contingency Mode Red’s been declared.”
“But why? And what’s that got to do with me?”
“I’ll let Major Inqvist fill you in. You know our local SecCon chief, I’m sure.” Stanford swept his hand, palm up, toward the beefiest and apparently eldest (judging from the wrinkled face and the gray, close-cropped hair atop the square, knobby head) of the five paramilitary men seated in front of him.
Nick nodded affirmation. He knew the Major in passing, had exchanged pleasantries with him and his wife at NASA picnics and Christmas parties. But they certainly didn’t run in the same social circles. Nick’s crowd was full of yuppies—brash, flighty types—some were programmers and others were artsy, dilettantish poseurs, but all were laid-back party animals. Major Inqvist’s world, in sharp contrast, was peopled by rigid right-wingers, uptight authoritarians who saw conspiracy and intrigue lurking around every corner.
Major Inqvist sat up squarely in his chair, consulted his clipboard briefly, then looked at Nick. “you’re familiar with Level 25, then?” he asked Nick.
“Well I should hope so,” Nick answered with a look of incredulity and a chuckle, “I wrote most of it!”
“But of course,” the security chief drawled in a tone that seemed to say: Shut up, punk! It’s my job to ascertain the facts, however obvious they may seem to you. “Well, we’ve recently received intelligence indicating that the N.R.O. wants that program bad and have put up a sizable bounty to get it.”
It didn’t surprise Nick that the N.R.O. would covet Level 25. After all, it was the final module in a state-of-the-art system which would make extra-terrestrial mining economically feasible. The actual space-borne mining machines had been available for years now—even the Chinese had them—but the guidance and control software needed to operate these machines had been much more difficult to develop—not only technical problems beset the program, but financial and political as well. Nick had been on the project for eight years now, it had become his sole focus. And now the project’s culmination loomed on the horizon—maybe it would be complete in as soon as six months.
No, it didn’t surprise him that the only other superpower in the world wanted this potent software—it was going to make a lot of people very rich—but why would they try to steal it, endangering hard-won global peace and security, when, five years after the release date of the software, they would simply be given Level 25, in accordance with the Space Exploration and Exploitation Treaty, the so-called Baku Accord which the C.S.S.I.P.S. and the C.S.A. had both signed in 2009. The main provision of this agreement provided for the fruits of all economic exploitation of outer space to be shared in by all the nations of Earth, regardless of terrestrial military alliances; it was an inspired document, with much flowery rhetoric about “the shifting sands of earthly affairs” and “the infinite ethereal bounty of the universal cornucopia” and how mankind should set aside petty squabbles and come together in a “modern Brotherhood of the Cosmos”. To all observers at the time, it had been ratified in good faith by both parties.
“I knew that Level 25 was a hot ticket, but I wasn’t aware that it had a price on its head,” Nick retorted. His tone conveyed skepticism as well as disdain for the security chief’s alarmist attitude.
“The price is on your head,” Major Inqvist said, with a bit of a self-satisfied sneer. “When’s the last time you downloaded Level 25?” he asked.
“Why, yesterday morning, in the full privacy and security of my office across the hall. It was only a partial download. I put the Gravitron Calibration Hash Tables into S-RAM and calculated new resultant vectors—more accurate vectors, I hope.”
“And when you were done…?”
“Standard measures: upload through a Triplex link, then I did a full data swipe on the S-RAM—you can check it right now, if you want.”
“That won’t be necessary. And this is the same cautious, painstaking routine you take every time you work on Level 25?”
“Of course, I always—“
“Even when you’re in a rush to get out the door on a Friday night to jam with your buddies in that punk band of yours? Or maybe you got a hot date with Trixie or Babs or some ‘Net chatroom bimbo?”
“Now wait just a minute! My record of thoroughness, reliability, security, uh, integrity…everything, why it just speaks for itself! There’s no way—!”
Stanford Desjardins held up a hand and motioned for silence. “Gentlemen, gentlemen! No need to get all hot under the collar. No one’s making any accusations here. If there’s been any leakage…why, then all we can do now is take preventive measures. And we’re here now to implement some damage control, post haste!”
Another member of the security team spoke now, a younger man who was Nick’s age. Nick recognized him from the technopunk dance clubs he frequented. Probably not a bad chap, Nick thought, can’t possibly be as anal as his boss…not yet anyway.
“We’ve booked passage for you on a shuttle leaving NASAir Interplanetary Spaceport in Corpus Christi at 1900 hours.”
“What are you talking about?!” Nick demanded.
“You’re going to the asteroid belt, Nick…for safe-keeping, of course, and as long as you’ve gotta be there you can oversee Beta-testing of Level 25. Get to know the hardware boys, they’re not such a bad lot, really, you’ll get on just fine,” Stanford told Nick in a somewhat offhand manner.
Nick’s face transformed gradually from quivering disbelief into a hideous mask of despair. Small drops of sweat rolled down over his creased forehead. “Now hold on one minute!” he wailed, “I’m not going anywhere, least of all to the asteroids! Level 25 won’t be ready for Beta-testing for at least another six months, and anyway we already have an experienced Beta-tester, John Alford—he spent three years on Tantalus-5X testing Levels 17 to 22, and he loved the belt—he can’t wait to go back!”
His loud protest fell on deaf ears. “That’s not the point! You’re a liability here. We need you—correction—we need your bioimplant as far away as possible while we quash Beijing’s little spy ring down here. Your personal wishes in this matter are entirely immaterial,” Major Inqvist let Nick know.
Nick rose. His brain reeled. He thought of his pleasant, ordered life on Earth. He thought of the alluring woman he’d met that morning at Rick’s Place. It was an S.R. encounter, granted, but it was an encounter he truly wanted to follow up. But now…he turned and started for the door. “Well, I better go home and get packed if I’m gonna make a flight at 1900 hours.” He frantically tried to form an escape plan in his head.
“That won’t be necessary—we’ve already detailed two men to your apartment to pack up everything you’ll need for your trip,” said the young security officer. Well on his way to being anal already, Nick thought.
“But I have to—“ was all Nick could get out before another security officer stood up, walked quickly the three paces to where Nick stood facing the door, and calmly placed an inoculation gun to the side of Nick’s neck and pulled the trigger.
Sfffft! went the gun and Nick’s eyes seemed to spin around several times before fixing themselves in a placid stare. His body went limp, but he remained standing. Insipid Muzak rang softly in his ears. He felt serene, warm—a grin akin to Mona Lisa’s began slowly to spread from ear to ear.
“That’s more like it,” said Major Inqvist as he rose and took hold of Nick’s arm. He turned his head toward Stanford and said, “I told you the smug little prick wouldn’t listen to reason.” And to Nick: “Come along now, let’s go for a spin.”
The major and his goon squad spirited Nick back up to the 52nd floor, loaded his agreeable body into a special NASA transport car and trundled him in an express MagLev tube directly to NASA’s launch facility in Corpus Christi, some 400 kilometers to the south. This MagLev tube ran through a wide expanse of devastated territory—some eighty square kilometers in all—in Houston’s administrative district. This area had been home to thousands upon thousands of warehouses—hardcopy repositories—places where the paper copies of government documents came to wait out the mandatory 100 years before they could be finally consigned to the flames. But the flames had come prematurely to these warehouses three years earlier. In rapid sequence, the warehouses’ climate control systems, sensors, and fire control systems, all autonomous and computerized, had failed. (“Sabotage” was whispered in some circles, but dismissed as “reactionary thinking”.)
Under the hot Texas sun, the trillions of cubic meters of cheap pulp reached kindling temperature and an epic blaze broke out, an out-of-control wildfire, which took over eight months to tame. Even now, wisps of smoke could be seen here and there, and the smell of waterlogged burnt paper was omnipresent, an everlasting testament to the myth of the “paperless office”.
With hours to spare, the NASA express car pulled into coastal Corpus Christi and Nick was deposited in a comfortable lounge at the Spaceport to await boarding of the Space Shuttle “Compromise”, destination: the belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter; in particular, Tantalus-5X, the base of NASA’s space mining experiment. For good measure, Nick was given another injection of Trianeze in his neck. He complacently nodded his approval.