Authors: B. V. Larson
Tags: #Technological Fiction
“What can I do for you?” she asked.
Spurlock chuckled. “You don’t want to know, mamma,” he said, “you don’t want to know.”
She put her hands on her swollen hips and glared at him. “Just order up, punk.”
At the edge of his vision, Spurlock noted that a few cowboy hats had already turned in his direction. Without looking around, he locked gazes with the glaring waitress and slowly licked his lips. She snorted and pulled out her order pad.
Spurlock smiled and indicated the crinkled ten on the counter. “Bring me as much coffee and biscuits with sausage gravy that this will buy. I don’t want nuthin’ else, missy.”
She shoved the notepad back into her voluminous apron and sailed away. Soon the coffee and a plate of biscuits with milky gray gravy appeared. It was just the way he liked it, with chunks of unidentifiable meat and soggy biscuits sopping up the grease. Spurlock dug in, but was soon distracted by the TV that was suspended at an angle over the far end of the counter. A CNN live report had just begun. A dark red line ran across the bottom of the screen, below it was the caption: Internet Virus Investigation. A woman’s face came into view. Spurlock stopped chewing when he recognized the scene in the background. It was Vance’s house.
He watched the broadcast in mild shock. The kid from the back of his van was right there, plastered all over the screen for
. That pretty bitch of a wife Vance had was waving the kid’s picture around for all she was worth, which wasn’t one twice-used rubber in Spurlock’s book. Then they were prattling on about some computer virus-thing that Vance was supposed to have released, and Spurlock was left wondering if they had found his plants yet. He squinted at the screen, and his mouth fell open as they reviewed the nationwide effects of this virus. What the hell had this Santa-bastard gotten him into?
A sudden, cold hand of fear gripped him as the broadcast continued. Would it end with his mugshot displayed for all the world to see like that fucking America’s Most Wanted bullshit show? Was it possible that the feds were on the ball this time—that he had already been fingered? He sipped his coffee and slid his eyes over the other patrons of the diner. Already, he suspected them all. Was there an undercover pig right here, right now, sizing him up for a collar when he went to take a piss or make a phone call?
None of the runaways he had picked up before had even made the local evening news. The problem was, he thought, this kid was too young, and this computer-thing was getting the press into an orgasmic state. You could just see and hear how they were eating it up. Nothing truly newsworthy had happened for nearly a week. To fill that daily twenty-four hour long void they had trotted out every heart-warming animal story and elementary school event they had, and now the newsboys were getting desperate for
to happen. Finally, it had happened, and it had happened to Thomas Bartholomew Spurlock.
Spurlock eyed the glass door. A little bell hung from the top on a spring and a paperclip so that anyone entering would sound a tiny scraping, jingling alarm. He hated those things. He stood up and walked toward it, seeing if anyone took notice or made a move on him. No one did. Mercifully, the broadcast ended even as he placed his hand on the scratched, black and gold word: PUSH. Spurlock felt a wave of relief. They hadn’t plastered his face on the fucking TV. At least not yet.
Spurlock paused and looked back at his plate. He hated to leave good food behind when he was so short on cash. Pursing his lips, he returned to the counter and took another bite. It had grown cool, but he ate it anyway.
The waitress floated by and gave him a cold, questioning glance. He leered at her unspoken question.
“Had to fart,” he said, “so I went over there.”
Impossibly, the waitress screwed her face into an expression that exuded even more disgust than before. Spurlock nodded to her and took another bite of soggy biscuit. Looking down, he frowned to himself.
There was no way the L.A. boys were going to cash him out for the kid now, this chicken was way too hot. So what the fuck was he going to do? He had been screwed. That Santa-bastard, Vance and the kid, they had all screwed him out of his money.
By the time he left, he was shaking with rage. The waitress said something to him, but it didn’t get through. When he straight-armed the door, the tiny bell scraped and jingled on the glass over his head. He reached up on impulse and yanked it loose, throwing it into the smog-choked juniper bushes outside.
“Hey!” he heard someone shout behind him.
Spurlock stalked off across the huge black parking lot. The heat of the day still emanated up from it. He wondered vaguely if one of the red necks would come after him. He really didn’t care if they did. Maybe a few cuts and bruises would make him feel better.
Brenda’s Honda pulled up twenty minutes after his phone call. He hadn’t even made it to Wendy’s yet. Ray slipped into the passenger side and heaved a sigh.
“Where to, Robin Hood?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I’m not sure.”
“You mean you don’t have a fantastic plan? Then why did you run?”she barked. “Do you understand that I’m aiding and abetting a suspected felon here, and now I’m an accomplice, or an accessory or conspirator or whatever the lawyers call you when you’re fucked by association?”
Ray looked at her. Her face was stretched and pale. She sat hunched forward and her hand gripped the stick shift tightly.
“This was a mistake,” he said, climbing out of the car.
He looked back into the window. “What?”
“I’m sorry. Get back in.”
After a moment he did. She put the car in gear and lurched out onto the road. She turned left, heading for I-80.
“I shouldn’t have gotten you involved in this thing,” he said.
“Bull. I’ve been involved since we first found the frigging bug last night. The only reason the feds don’t think I did it is because they don’t think I’m smart enough.”
He chuckled. “Lucky you.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“I need cash. Credit is too easy to trace.”
“Don’t I know it,” she said. “Which ATM?”
“There’s one on Market that takes almost any kind of plastic. I just hope they haven’t had time to freeze my accounts yet.”
She snorted. “It takes a while to do that kind of thing.”
“Yes, but these are special circumstances.”
“You’re right about that,” she said. “If they really think you created this thing, they’ll want you to help them stop it.”
“Help them stop it? Don’t you think they can just clean it off the disks like any other bug?”
She shook her head. “This isn’t just any bug. It keeps changing. I’ve been watching it come and go on the net and every time I think I’ve got its signature, it changes the handwriting, and I lose it again.”
“You mean it changes the filenames it uses?”
She laughed. “That’s just for starters. It changes where it goes in memory, how it moves over the net, how long it waits, even what it does to the disk.”
Ray slumped back against the Honda’s headrest. He had to reach back and pull it up to its fullest extension to be comfortable. His eyes closed, but he continued speaking.
“It must be big then, to do so much.”
“Yeah,” agreed Brenda. “It’s usually about ten megs on the disk, but bigger in memory.”
“Like I said, it changes everything, even its size.”
“Bigger in memory... That might mean it uses dynamic memory allocation.”
“Weird for a virus,” she said.
Ray shook his head. “I’ve been going over a mental list of my students who might put such a thing together. It keeps getting smaller the more I hear of its sophistication.”
“You’re right. It sounds to me like this is professional work, perhaps even the product of a team of professionals.”
“Or the work of one twisted genius. In software, one such mind can outperform an army of competent engineers.”
“This type of programming is a black art,” she agreed.
“Exactly,” he said, lifting his head from the headrest and opening his eyes again. “It is that black art element of programming that doesn’t exist in any other science, the ability to fabricate these—these frozen pieces of thought, and actually make them
something. The power of it is intoxicating. You could never create a killer physical robot that would do much damage, people would just blow it up. But software is invisible, uncontrollable. It can instantly make perfect copies of itself. It’s not confined by physical realities. In a way, the entire World Wide Web doesn’t
. It has almost no physical reality. That makes it easy to change or destroy very quickly.”
She gave him a sidelong glance. “Hearing you talk like that won’t help your case with the feds, you know, Ray.”
“Well, I’m trying to get into the mind of the perpetrator. He or she is out there, not too far from here, and I think they know what happened to Justin.”
“Ah,” she said.
“That’s why you ran from the feds.”
“Yes,” he admitted. “Perhaps I’m fooling myself, thinking I can do something about Justin’s disappearance. But I’ve got to try. If I don’t, I’ll always wonder if I could have changed things.”
She patted his shoulder awkwardly. The Honda dipped and jostled them as it swung into a parking lot. They rattled and lurched over a speed bump then pulled up to a dimly lit ATM. No one was near.
Ray looked around the car and found a candy wrapper on the floor. He scooped it up. “Got a stick of gum?” he asked.
She gave him a funny look, but dug one out of her purse. “This doesn’t seem like an appropriate moment to make jokes about my eating habits,” she chuckled, thumping her ample belly.
Ray snorted and climbed out of the car. The gum snapped in his working jaws. “I’ve got a James Bond plan. Be right back,” he muttered.
Holding his hand up to his face, he approached the ATM machine. These things always had cameras built into them, so he put his hand on it as soon as he reached the machine and found it. He took the gum out of his mouth, stuck the candy wrapper to it and then slapped the sticky side on the mirrored plastic dome that hid the camera.
He smiled to himself as he withdrew his limit in cash on all of his credit cards and his bank accounts. He felt lucky that the thing didn’t run out of cash on him. When he was done he had amassed a little over thirteen hundred dollars in twenties.
As he climbed back into the Honda, she looked at him strangely, “Gum and a candy wrapper? Did you do what I think you did?”
“Yup. I kind of always wanted to do something like that. It was that or flip them off. Either way, the feds are bound to check this video to see if it was me at some point so I wanted them to feel they got a show out of it.”
She shook her head. “You always joke around at the oddest times.”
“It’s an occupational hazard. Programmers all have goofy senses of humor,” he replied. “Besides, it relieves stress.”
He stuffed the cash into his wallet. It was so fat he could hardly fold it over and shove it into his pocket.
“Brenda, I need an active account on the net,” he said. “Let me still use some of the dead student accounts. If you see something happening there, just ignore it.”
“Can do. Where to now?”
“I need some food, a few necessities and at least a change of underwear. Then I suppose you can drop me at a cheap motel somewhere.”
“Well, I can do you for the food and stuff, but skivvies are going to be hard to find after 10:00 PM in Davis,” she laughed. She was quiet for a moment. “You know, you’ll need a car if you’re actually going to get something done.”
“No, Brenda,” he said, “I can’t accept. You’ve done enough already.”
“You can’t rent one, you would have to use a credit card, then the fed computers would trip on it.”
“Well yes, I suppose that would be too easy to trace.”
“And you can’t steal one, because that would kind of complicate the mission of proving your innocence.”
He sighed. “But Brenda, you said you didn’t want to get any more involved in all this.”
“Ahem,” she said, taking on the air of one reading a prepared statement. “You came to me and told me you wanted to borrow my car because you heard Justin had been sighted in San Francisco, and your own car had broken down. What could I do? I was overwhelmed by compassion and handed over the keys.”
He thought about it and realized she was right. He didn’t like getting her involved, but he felt he had to take her offer if it could possibly help Justin. He wondered about her kindness for a moment. They had known each other for two years now, and had the bond that grows between techies who labor together late at night. Did she have a thing for him? He had to suspect it. His female students did often enough. He grimaced. Somehow, that made it all worse. He felt he was taking advantage of her. For Justin’s sake he could do it, but not without regrets. He hoped that after this was all over he could make amends.
“Okay, you’re right. I need your car. How are we going to do this?”