Authors: B. V. Larson

Tags: #Technological Fiction


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But none of these things had brought on her tears. It was when she opened the hamper, which overflowed with underwear, socks, shorts and t-shirts, that she saw the sweatshirt. There, stuffed in among a dozen dirty items, was the red sweatshirt that she had insisted that he take with him this morning in his backpack. He had ditched it, stuffing it in the hamper rather than carrying it all day. It was ironic, she thought, that only this morning her biggest concern had been Justin’s sweatshirt.

She closed the hamper and padded down the hall. As she walked through the house, it seemed as though she was a stranger here, or rather that this house was one that she had lived in long ago. She stepped into the sunken living room/dining room combination. She recalled that when they had bought the house, the original floor plan had called it the ‘great room’.

“I’ve got to do something,” said Ray, talking to the coffee table. He sat on an off-white leather couch with his elbows on his knees and his hands pressed up into his cheeks. He took up a cork disk that served as a coaster.

Sarah watched him for a moment and recalled how much trouble she had gone through to train Justin to use them. Ray tossed the coaster away and leaned back on the cool soft leather cushions. Sarah silently joined him, trying to force herself to relax. That backfired immediately. The couch, too, reminded her of Justin. He loved nothing better than to jump from the loveseat to the sofa and back again. Numerous scoldings and punishments had only taught him to be more discreet about it.

Leaning forward again with a sigh, Ray grabbed up the TV controller flipped and it on. The screen flashed, dimmed, then slowly brightened. It was Nickelodeon. Sarah wondered if Justin had had time to watch a cartoon this afternoon before—before
happened—or if it had just been left there from this morning.

Ray flipped to CNN Headlines and together they watched without seeing and listened without hearing. TV was good for that sort of thing, she thought. Sometimes it served to empty your head and numb your mind. When she was sick she always watched a lot of TV as it took her mind off of all the painful toxins that the bacteria were generating in her body.

Sarah broke the silence. “Have they called yet?”

“Nothing yet. I’m sure they’ll pick him up soon,” Ray told her with all the confidence he could muster in his voice.

“It’s getting dark,” she said in a hushed voice. “He didn’t take his sweatshirt. It’s still here.”

“The night is a warm one, Sarah,” said Ray, but she could tell that it was almost more than he could do to keep his voice from cracking. “He’ll be fine.”

Sarah went to the front window and gazed out at the darkening streets.

“Did you pick up his room?” asked Ray.

“No, I changed my mind. He’ll do it himself when he comes home. I don’t want you to touch a thing in there, either.”


For a time the only sound was that of the TV. A commercial came on selling diet soda. Next there was a car ad that told a funny story about animals but seemed to have little to do with cars. Sarah wondered vaguely if such ads sold cars, or if the ad men were just running out of fresh ideas.

A sudden, sharp knock at the door made them look at each other. It was an almost musical series of knocks, a rythmic rap-rap-RAP-rap-rap. Sarah and Ray glanced at each other. It was the kind of a knock that a friend would use to let you know who it was.

“I’ll get it,” said Ray, heading for the door. Sarah followed him, hoping, but trying not to, that it would be a smiling policeman with their sheepish son at his side.

Ray threw open the door with Sarah right behind him. They both blinked in confusion. An attractive woman in a red business dress greeted them. Her hair and nails were perfect. Her nail polish matched the red of her dress as exactly as her white teeth matched each other.

“Dr. and Ms. Vance, I’m Susan Cohen,” she said.

Ray and Sarah just stared at the woman without responding. Sarah blinked in confusion. Where was Justin?Then she saw the wire running up from the woman’s collar to the earplug. Her eyes followed the wires down to the microphone that she held nonchalantly at her side. Then she saw the men coming up behind her with camera equipment. One man with a boom-mike was shrugging on his jacket and slamming the door of their van. CHANNEL 7 NEWS blazed across the side of the van with the seven stylized as a jagged lightning bolt. Sarah’s frown grew as she realized that they had even had the gall to park in their driveway.

“Dr. Vance, we would like to interview you. We want to know if there is anything to the rumor that you are the man who released the virus that is even now raging across the internet?”

“No, we don’t have anything to say about that,” replied Ray.

“Are you aware sir, that according to my sources you are the FBI’s primary suspect?”

“What’s this about a virus?” demanded Sarah. “Don’t you people know anything about my son?”

Susan gave them each a calculating glance and smoothly switched tactics. The microphone came up to her lips and the cameras flipped on. Ray and Sarah blinked in the sudden glare of the portable floods. The man with the boom-mike had gotten his jacket on now and managed to thrust the instrument over everyone’s heads.

“Your son? Tell me more,” said the woman, waving the guy with the mike in a bit closer. The camera swung to zero in on Sarah. She could feel the heat from the bright lights on her cheeks. Out on the street she heard the squeal of brakes. Past the news crew, she could see another team unloading quickly onto her lawn. The second group came running. It was then that she realized that they really could smell blood.

“No, we haven’t —” began Ray.

Sarah stopped him with her hand. “Yes, we do want to talk to you. Wait here one moment.”

Sarah closed the door most of the way, but left it ajar. Through the crack came a gush of shifting white light. She thought crazily for a moment of an X-files episode and of brilliantly lit alien silhouettes. It did indeed feel as if her house were being invaded.

Running to the hall, she pulled a large 8x10 photograph from the wall. The picture was hung on a nail, which pulled until she ripped it loose. It came away from the sheetrock with a tearing sound. A piece of the baskets-and-flowers wallpaper sagged down. She barely noticed. The picture was of Justin, wearing a sweater and smiling for his school portrait just six months ago. When she got back the hall she discovered that a newsman had poked his head into the house and was talking very quickly to her husband.

Her first instinct was to bash him with the picture, but she restrained herself. She told herself that she needed these creatures. She pulled the door open wide over Ray’s protests and held the picture of her son up closely to the cameras. Outside, a third and fourth truck had disgorged more media people onto their property. The reporters backed away from her, the front rank hunkering down so as not to interfere with the camera angles. Closer still, crouched light and microphone men moved in circles at her feet with an odd humping gait. The image of a flock of vultures feasting on a fallen carcass came unbidden to her mind.

She kept her hands as steady as she could as she explained Justin’s disappearance. She made it sound as if the boy had been dragged from the house screaming all the while making a desperate 911 call for help as he had been taught in school. And for all she knew, that was exactly what had happened.

The cameras ate it up. She summoned up tears, wanting to keep the cameras on her. It wasn’t difficult. All the while she talked, she tried to keep Justin’s picture close to her face to give him maximum exposure. There was no knowing how many fleeting seconds their story would get on the evening news. She wanted every second she could get.

More crews kept rolling in from Sacramento, which was only a twenty-five minute drive to the East. Clearly, someone on the local police force had broken the story to the press. Sarah told herself that if it meant she would get Justin back faster, then she thanked them all. Some of the crews knew about Justin, others about the virus, but once they realized that both stories came from the same household, a feeling of real excitement swept over the flock. Sarah heard several times from many lips: “This will go national—”The thought both pleased and sickened her. She hated the idea of plastering her family across the nation, of losing their privacy to an army of newshounds armed with telephoto lenses and parabolic mikes. How long might it go on?

Ray was more reluctant to talk about the virus. He described the virus and the investigation, but without much enthusiasm. He had long ago divined Sarah’s plan, she could tell. She could tell too, that he didn’t want them to give him much airtime. He tried as best he could to keep turning the discussion back to their missing son, but the reporters were relentless.

Sarah felt as if she were learning of her husband’s doings on live TV. She watched as if from a distance, not really able to take it all in. It seemed impossible that there could be another threat to her family on this dark day. Her mind refused to fully grasp the possibility that her husband was suspected of criminal behavior.

Finally, Ray struck upon the perfect tact to shut down the cameras. He got technical about it. “Most likely, the virus operates by spoofing the servers with each packet. Masquerading as legitimate, the virus passes either as e-mail or using a FTP—that’s file transfer protocol, by the way, then causes the new host to run an executable that will repeat the process. I’m not sure how it’s by-passing the firewalls, however, but I’m sure we’ll understand it better after further investigation.”

There was a lot more like that, but soon even Sarah had tuned it out. Cameras and lights were switching off everywhere to save batteries. Soon, they managed to shut the door again, refusing further interviews until they knew something new. Reluctantly, the press released their carrion, but only for the moment.

Sarah leaned with her back against the door, and closed her eyes. What had it been? Perhaps twenty minutes? She felt as if she had been drained by a pack of vampires.

“Ray?” she said, rolling open her eyelids again. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

He shook his head and hugged her. “I thought you had enough to worry about.”

She nodded in agreement and collapsed on the couch.

Ray got them both a can of root beer from the fridge and they sat in front of the TV again. The phone began to ring again, and they let the machine get it. It was Ed Samuels from Valley Life, a Sacramento magazine, requesting an interview.

The news was just wrapping up the local report when they realized that they
the wrap-up story. The story was vague, but included two snippets of Sarah, holding up Justin’s picture and sobbing, and one of Ray, looking haggard and besieged. Sarah noticed that they had cut out his techie speech and replaced it with a voiceover that explained viruses in layman’s terms. She smiled grimly.

“They cut out your voice, but left me in because I sounded emotional,” said Sarah. “Dear God, I only hope that someone sees the picture and finds our baby.”

Then she began to cry, and Ray held her. His face was wet as well. At the end of the broadcast she was gratified and horrified to see her son’s face in a clear still on the news. Somehow, seeing that made it all certain, her baby was truly gone.

. . . 70 Hours and Counting . . .

CNN broke the story at 9:00 PM. It caught Ray and Sarah by surprise as they were in the middle of chewing their way through dinner. The white cartons of microwaved Chinese takeout had been haunting the fridge for three or four days now. Somehow, it still tasted good, if a bit soggy. Ray didn’t really feel much like eating, but knew that they should keep up their strength and alertness. He felt he wanted to be ready for anything. They couldn’t be much use to Justin if they were exhausted and starved. As he ate, however, he couldn’t help but wonder if Justin were hungry right now, and what, if anything, he might be eating. The thought made the almond chicken stick in his throat.

The CNN story began with a damage report concerning the virus. It was worse than Ray had feared. Far worse.

An attractive black anchorwoman with carefully coiffed hair gazed into the camera and read to the world with great seriousness. “Google, Apple and even the all-powerful Microsoft have reported that their servers are currently infected with the worst virus to hit the internet in history. The FBI reports that the virus first struck at around six AM. Eastern Standard Time at the University of California Campus in Davis, California. Since then it has moved with lightning speed throughout the internet, infecting millions of computers and slowing the world’s greatest network with a traffic jam. Net response times are sixty percent slower and dropping.

“Some critical servers, such as public online banking systems, are staying off-line for fear that they might be infected. This means that the internet has been effectively disrupted world-wide. Slowing down the recovery effort, investigators say, are those servers that are still up and running without countermeasures. Those servers are providing a refuge for the virus, as they continually spread the virus to any fixed system as soon as it comes back online. It has proven very difficult to alert each of the internet’s two billion users.”

The image flashed to a clip of a governmental briefing room. An NSA representative addressed a crowd of reporters. “An emergency communication path for a disaster of this kind simply doesn’t exist across international borders,” she explained. She was a blocky woman with glasses and a haircut that suggested that whenever a lock grew long enough bother her, she lopped it off with the kitchen scissors. “This virus seems to only be slowed down a few minutes by a firewall, and is definitely one of the most sophisticated we’ve ever seen. It makes many copies of itself all over every system it infects and the filenames, sizes and behaviors all seem to change frequently. It’s hard to put into words, but it almost seems to
somehow to our efforts at stopping it.”

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