Authors: B. V. Larson

Tags: #Technological Fiction


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“Conjecture, Vance. Pure conjecture. You speak as if the virus was thinking, alive. It is only a program, written by one of your graduate students—”

“We don’t know that,” interjected Brenda defensively.

Abrams didn’t even acknowledge her. He wasn’t through with Ray yet. “Your ideas are absurd. You destroyed my work.”

“Yes, but I felt I had to.”

“You admit it?” Abrams demanded suddenly, excitement and victory rising in his voice. “You admit that you did this thing?”

“It was necessary.”

Abrams nodded quickly, several times. It was a bird-like gesture. He looked away. “Very well. Very well.”

“Look, Dr. Abrams, many people lost their research. You only lost the last two or three months worth—”

“The best months, Vance. The gene strand was nearly complete. The breakthrough work—”

“But you can recover. You must have some of it on your computer.”

“The files were too large.”

“Viruses are never pleasant. We must guard against them continually.”

Abrams narrowed his eyes and looked at Ray with new interest. “What we must guard against are those who create them, Vance. So, this is the kind of thing you teach our students to create, eh? Very well.”

Ray opened his mouth to say more, but suddenly the man turned on his heel and marched out of the lab.

“Boy, he really worked you over,” said Dr. Ingles. He stepped up and pulled a cigarette from his sports coat. Brenda watched with apprehension as he put it in his mouth, produced a lighter, then, just as he was about to light up, paused. Holding the lighter and the cigarette up, one in each hand, he gestured with them as he spoke. “When are you up for tenure, Ray?”

“Huh?” said Ray. “Umm, this year, I guess, Jim.”

Dr. Ingles fondled his cigarette, putting it into his mouth and sort of chewing on it. The tension in Brenda was evident. She hated smoking, especially in her lab. Dr. Ingles was one of the worst offenders, always seeming to forget that the world had changed and cigarettes had lost favor during the change.

Ingles nodded. “Second time at bat, eh?”

Ray blinked, wondering where Ingles was going with this. The man was rarely direct. “Right.”

Ingles flicked open the lighter, toyed with the thumbwheel. Brenda tensed visibly. He closed the lighter with a snap. “‘Very well.’ Abrams kept saying. I wonder what he meant?”

Ray felt a jolt in his deadened mind. “He’s on the approval committee this year.”

“Eh? Which committee?”

“The tenure committee,” said Ray, realizing thoroughly that he had been led down the primrose path once again by Ingles to a point of logic. Ray wondered if his students hated that approach or loved it.

“Ah, yes,” said Ingles, as if just reaching the same conclusion himself. “About this virus, Ray...”

Ray looked at him warily, preparing for yet another mental assault. Sometimes dealing with the brilliant idiosyncrasies of the other faculty took a great deal of patience.

“It seems to me that it sounds too sophisticated for a student to create. Too much work, too many different functions... I wonder what the Feds will say.”

Ray blinked and frowned. This time he didn’t follow Ingles at all.

“Well, I’ve got to go see what backups I have myself. Is the system up again yet?” asked Ingles.

“Still rebooting,” answered Brenda. “Give us another half-hour. But we won’t be online again for user access for some time. We have to assess the damage and try to eradicate the virus. The FBI will probably slow things down, too.”

Ingles nodded and headed toward the exit. Standing half-in and half-out of the lab, he lit up his cigarette. Brenda’s face reddened as blue smoke wafted into her lab. On a U. C. campus, smoking anywhere was a huge sin.

“One last thing, Ray,” he said from the door. “Don’t skip anything with the Feds. Don’t leave something out that looks bad later.”

Ray frowned and opened his mouth to ask what he meant, but the doors were already swinging shut.


Ray barely had time to gulp down half a tuna sandwich and a paper cup of boiled coffee before the feds arrived. To his mild surprise, only one of them had a crew cut and neither wore sunglasses. Even more unexpected, one of them was a Hispanic woman. She was the mean one.

“Agent Johansen and Agent Vasquez,” gushed Rhonda Wells, leading them in. “This is the lab where the unfortunate incident occurred.”

“Correction, madam,” snapped Agent Vasquez. “The incident only began here. It is far from finished.”

Wells blinked, then recovered his composure. “Surely, this thing will soon be under control.”

“Possibly,” said Vasquez. “But it isn’t even known how many systems are infected yet. Many feeder systems have pulled off the internet, others have yet to get the word. We have no idea yet how many are infected. They can’t connect back up without knowing the net is clean, so the damage is continuing in any case.”

Wells nodded and blinked faster. Ray hid a smile. Wells was overly impressed by authority figures. He suspected that was why she had sought to work her way up as far as possible.

“This is Brenda Hastings, she is the director of our main computer science lab,” Wells continued as smoothly as possible. Her tone seemed to indicate that the agents were on a field trip rather than conducting a criminal investigation. “And this is Dr. Ray Vance, computer science faculty.”

The agents eyed him and he nodded back. No handshakes were offered. Ray was too tired and irritated to care.

They began an impressive series of questions, quickly isolating the events of the morning. Johansen, a stocky man of medium height, recorded everything with a hand-held voice recorder. Vasquez took occasional notes.

“So it was you, Dr. Vance, who shut down the system. Why?”

Ray had known this question would be coming, and he felt he was ready for it. “Because I believed that the virus was stalling us, making it look like we could recover if we allowed the disk backup to finish before shutting down. I believe that it was using the time to infect more systems.”

Vasquez raised her eyebrows a fraction. The silent Agent Johansen frowned and aimed his recorder at Ray. The red indicator light on the device glowed. “On what do you base this belief, Doctor?” asked Vasquez.

“First, the lines were all coming alive, showing a lot of activity on the ports that wasn’t our doing. Second, the virus was very sophisticated, and could have easily been devised to destroy the disk data thoroughly—but it didn’t. Instead, it disabled the Optical drive, messed up the disk, not completely mind you, just enough to panic us, then left us an out with the backup drive system.”

There was moment of quiet while everyone looked at Ray blankly. “Dr. Vance, are you aware that there is no record of any virus that would be so sophisticated?”

“Yes, I teach the operating systems classes here.”

“I see, so viruses are definitely in your field of expertise.”

Ray nodded. Uncontrollably, he yawned.

“Haven’t you been sleeping, Doctor?”

Ray shook his head. “We had trouble with the system last night. Brenda and I were working on it until three.”

Agent Vasquez nodded and made a note in her notebook. Ray began to wonder how long they would want to go over this. He had already cancelled his 1:00 PM class and planned to leave early to get some sleep before Justin came home and tackled him. To be sure, he would come in and spend the evening and much of the night in the lab again to try and isolate the virus files. Sarah was going to be pissed.

“How did you get into the room with the computer hardware, Doctor?”

Ray blinked. “I—ah, I have a copy of a master key. It works with most of the doors on campus. A lot of the faculty have them.” He felt a guilty heat rising in his neck. He looked around and noticed that everyone was staring at him seriously. No one was talking or smiling. Their lack of movement was disconcerting.

“Dr. Wells,” said Agent Vasquez, turning to face the dean. “Are you aware of an informal agreement among the faculty to have access to such a key?”

“Certainly not,” she said. She avoided Ray’s eyes.

“Wait a minute, here,” said Ray. “I think we’re getting a bit off track. Aren’t we supposed to be isolating the virus and finding out how to eradicate it?”

Agent Vasquez nodded in agreement. “There is another team coming up from Los Angeles tonight. They will work with the system all night until the virus is isolated and understood.”

“I’ve got it rebooting now,” said Brenda.

“Good,” Vasquez said. She turned her ever-serious gaze back to Ray. “Does that concern you, Dr. Vance?”

“No, not if we’ve cut out all the external lines.”

“So, if we keep the machine isolated, disconnected from the internet and from the outside lines, the virus can’t get out of the system?”

“Ah, no—wait,” Ray said, as things finally began to sink in. He flicked his red, burning eyes over the four of them. Only Johansen met his gaze. The man never stopped flatly staring at him, watching him, as if he expected him to do something at any moment...

His mind raced ahead. He had overreacted, they were right. All he had needed to do was pull all the external lines. If he had cut the connections to the outside world, he could have stopped the virus from damaging anything more than their local system. He had made a mistake. In a flash, he recalled Dr. Ingles’ words:
Don’t leave something out that looks bad later.
That cagey bastard. He had foreseen all of this.

“Okay, I see what you are driving at,” said Ray. “You have a point. I could have just cut the outside lines. I think I overreacted. But I just didn’t want it to get out. As a data-destructive virus, it had to be stopped before it trashed every other server it could reach.”

Vasquez turned to Johansen. “Are there any reports of data-destructive behavior outside of this lab?” she asked.

“No,” answered Johansen. He gazed coldly at Ray while he spoke, “The virus is spreading with frightening speed, but so far it hasn’t done any damage other than eating up resources. The only erased files we know of are right here.”

“Well,” said Ray, trying not to stammer. “I wasn’t even sure which of the peripherals back there controlled the external lines, so I killed them all to be safe. I just didn’t know what the thing was doing,” he finished lamely.

“A moment ago, you claimed to know exactly what it was doing, Doctor,” said Agent Vasquez. “I quote: ‘Second, the virus was very sophisticated, and could have easily been devised to destroy the disk data thoroughly—but it didn’t.’“

They were all looking at him again now, with a new coldness in their eyes. For the first time, he felt something more than embarrassment. For the first time, he felt alarmed.

“Whoa, hold on a minute here!” he said, laughing tightly. “I see where this is going. You people don’t actually believe that I would release a virus, do you?”

“That remains to be seen, Dr. Vance,” said Agent Vasquez.

... 78 Hours and Counting ...

It was Wednesday and Justin’s school always let out at 1:30 PM on Wednesdays. When Justin left for home, he was glad that the gray van was nowhere in sight. He was in such a good mood that he walked on the edge of the curbs almost the entire way home—the whole three blocks—his Nikes slipping off into the gutter only twice. It was a personal record for him, and he felt that today would be a lucky day. He practiced his whistling, which he really couldn’t do yet, but he tried. As he walked he shaped and reshaped his mouth to make hissing and peeping sounds vaguely like cartoon theme songs.

When he reached home, he realized right away that no one was home. This was not the usual for a Thursday, as Daddy was generally home by this time, but it wasn’t unknown, either. What he was supposed to do was go to Billy’s grandma’s house and watch TV with Billy until his dad got home. But he didn’t want to do this, because Billy didn’t watch the same cartoons as he did in the afternoon and because Billy’s house and Billy’s grandma smelled kinda funny. So instead, he used his secret way in.

Going through the side gate and around to the back, he found the window into the guest bedroom that never shut right and pulled off the screen. Within a minute he was inside and climbing down off the bed. He began to whistle again, proud of himself, when he heard something.

There was a rattle and a thump. Something was in his parents’ bedroom; something was in the drawers. Justin thought of the bird that had flown into the living room last summer and had to be caught in his dad’s jacket and tossed outside. Or maybe it was the neighbor’s cat, who always seemed to be sneaking in and running around on the counters in the kitchen.

Then he heard the creak of floorboards. It was a
, a
, almost certainly. Justin thought about climbing out the window again, but he was worried that the robber might hear him this time. There was no easy way out the front door, so Justin crept down the hallway to the study. He lifted the phone handset. In the dimly lit room, the glow of the keypad seemed bright and the drone of the dial tone seemed like the roar of an engine. With shaking fingers, he dialed 9-1-1, just as the kids always did on those real-life rescue shows.

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