Authors: B. V. Larson
Tags: #Technological Fiction
He leaned forward, his mind churning. “That’s what I saw. It seemed very smart. A new kind of beast entirely.”
He glanced at his wife, who was looking at him from two sunken eyes of worry. “Sarah,” he said. “I had nothing to do with releasing it, if that’s what you’re wondering. Unless, of course, I unwittingly taught its creator.”
“I know you didn’t do it, Babe,” she said, taking his hand. “I just hope that they don’t try to pin it on you because it’s an easy out for them.”
“Well, right now it might be helping us. It gave us a chance to put Justin’s face and name on every TV very quickly.”
She nodded and they turned back to the broadcast. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that she frequently glanced out the front window and at the phone. Every time it rang it was a reporter, but he could see her tense-up each time anyway. Would it be the police? Would they tell her they had found Justin? Would he be dead when they found him?
The camera was on the pretty anchorwoman again. “Internet-related stocks are expected to take a beating tomorrow morning when the exchange opens. Investors and economists both believe that this slump could possibly signal the beginning of a new recession, given the shaky reports from the high-tech industry in general that has been a leading profit area for investors in recent years. Claiming that many of these stocks have long been overrated against their real records of performance, economists predict a drop in stock prices across all the hi-tech industries.”
“And some bastard did this for fun,” he snorted. “Unbelievable.”
The story finally got around to their family. There he was, shouting his technical explanations to the crowd, except his words were unintelligible under the narration. He was described as a suspect and then Sarah was shown, sobbing with Justin’s picture held aloft. The anchor reported that whether or not there was any connection between the virus and the boy’s disappearance was unknown.
“We look like a couple of freaks caught up in some tabloid tragedy,” said Sarah. “Who would kidnap Justin because you released a virus?”
He shot her a glance and pondered her words. He had been so deep in shock today that he hadn’t considered the possibility of a connection between his two fantastic strokes of misfortune. He recalled that Arthur Conan Doyle had once written about fantastic coincidences in the guise of Sherlock Holmes. The gist had been that uncommon events occurred fairly often, but rarely did chance play two unusual cards at the same time—unless the dealer was a card shark.
He turned that over in his mind. The more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that there had to be a connection of some kind. He stood accused of a crime he did not commit, and his son had been kidnapped. All of this had happened in a single day. Assuming that the same party was responsible, who could it be? He simply couldn’t come up with anyone who wanted to destroy him. He had a few people that were enemies, he supposed, such as Abrams. But the furthest he could imagine Abrams going would be to attempt to block his tenure approval. Criminal frame-ups and felony kidnapping seemed far beyond his scope. Still, there had to be something. He felt sure of it.
He leaned forward and put his head in his hands. His fingers slowly gripped his hair and pulled. The sensation on his scalp felt good somehow. He needed to figure this out. He had to get Justin back, and he had to do it fast. But how?
She put a reassuring hand on the back of his neck. He didn’t move. He decided a good first move would be to replay the events of the day carefully through his mind.
Before he could begin, however, there came a knock at the door. This knock was different somehow from the knock of the countless reporters. It was louder, more authoritative. It was a heavy knock that demanded to be answered immediately.
Ray and Sarah glanced at each other. Her eyes were haunted, and he felt something snap inside him. He felt anger and decisiveness overtake him. He had sat around long enough while someone else’s virus was assigned to him and some half-interested stranger searched for his missing son. They didn’t have a peephole, so he rose and moved quickly to the kitchen window. The kitchen nook thrust outward from the house in the front and offered a better view of the porch. Besides, it was nice and dark in the kitchen. It was dark on the porch too, but he instantly recognized the silhouette of agent Vasquez and the bulkier outline of agent Johansen. Agent Vasquez had a sheath of papers in her hands. Out on the street, he saw a squad car pull up and two sheriff’s deputies climbed out. He knew in his heart that they weren’t coming just to question him this time.
Quietly, he slipped back out of the kitchen and into the living room. Sarah met him in the front hall, her face apprehensive. He raised a finger to his lips and kissed her on the forehead. She looked at him for a second and then flung herself on him.
“You’re leaving,” she whispered hoarsely in his ear.
He nodded, for a moment beyond speech. He held her shoulders and when he found his voice he spoke into her ear. “I have to try to help Justin. If I’m sitting in jail, I can’t do anything.”
She hugged him harder and made an odd sound of anguish. She didn’t argue aloud, they both knew there was nothing to say. The doorbell rang loudly then, and both of them jumped. He glanced at the door and gently pried her from his chest.
“I’ll be okay,” he said. “I’ll use Mrs. Trumble to communicate when I can. Also, try accessing my school account if they get the system up again. I’ll send e-mail. Delay them all you can, say I walked to the store an hour ago, say anything.”
Then he kissed her again and headed down the hall. His heart thumped so loudly in his chest that he wondered if the agents would hear it. His mind raced. He didn’t own a gun, and it probably would have been a bad idea to take one anyway. He had around a hundred bucks on him, and there was no time to pack anything. He snatched up his notebook computer from his desk. Fortunately, it was still packed up in its carrying case, the way he had brought it home from the lab last night. He hadn’t bothered to take it to work today as he was tired and had planned to come home as early as possible.
The hammering at the door grew more pressing. “Dr. Vance,” he heard Vasquez call out from the porch. “Open the door.”
He slung the black leather strap over his neck, feeling like a high tech thief on the run. The entire idea was insane. Then reality set back in and his smirk vanished. He went to the sliding glass door that led from the master bedroom into the backyard. His car was out front and hopelessly beyond reach. Stepping out into the night air, he was suddenly aware of every sound he made. Although it was nearly silent, the swish of the slider behind him seemed to roar out his presence to the world at large. He paused, breathing through his open mouth so that his whistling nostrils didn’t give him away. He took a deep breath and forced himself to relax. He couldn’t do Justin any good if he panicked and froze like a deer caught in a pickup truck’s headlights.
He considered the back gate and the alley beyond, then rejected the idea. For all he knew there was another squad car out there waiting for him. He listened for an idling engine, but heard nothing. He forced himself to trot to the fence separating his yard from the Trumbles and vaulted it. He would have had trouble getting over the five-foot tall fence any other day, but tonight adrenalin was dribbling into his bloodstream at top output. He knew the Trumbles didn’t have a dog and rarely ventured into the backyard except to keep it immaculately well-trimmed. His own was an overgrown jungle by comparison. He trotted across the lawn and moved to their side gate. Their house was on the corner, so they had easy access to the street. The gate clicked and stuck for a maddening moment, then squealed open on unoiled hinges. Irrationally, he cursed the Trumbles for shoddy maintenance, although the lord only knew the last time he had oiled anything on his property.
Once on the street, he headed across to the other side and walked swiftly into the nearest open alleyway. He knew the neighborhood well and it only took him minutes to get to an all-night gas station and used his wife’s cell phone. He hoped they weren’t tracing that one yet, but he knew it was only a matter of time. He called Brenda’s cell phone, got no answer, then called her house.
While he was waiting for her to call back, he saw two squad cars pull up to the stop sign fifty feet away. He tried to shrink into the shadows. Fortunately, the closest streetlight was out and left him a comforting pool of shadow to stand in.
It took long seconds for the squad cars to move on. Immediately after them, a featureless blue sedan pulled up that had government plates. Agent Vasquez sat at the wheel. She crashed the stop sign and headed for the I-80 onramp.
Soon after they were gone, the phone rang in his hand.
“Brenda?” he asked.
“Who’s this?” she barked back suspiciously. Ray felt a wave of relief to hear her voice.
“Brenda, I need your help.”
“Dammit, Brenda,” he said.
“Oh, sorry. Right. Well, Nameless One,
you need my help.”
Ray smiled and frowned at the same time. “Do you believe I’m innocent, Brenda?”
“Of course I do!” she exclaimed, sounding offended that he should ask. “Fucking feds are wasting precious resources on you while they could be solving two serious crimes.”
“Can you pick me up?”
“The Wendy’s on—the one we hate to go to.”
“Right. Give me twenty minutes. Make it fifteen.”
“Remember me at Christmas,” she said.
Ray took the time to buy a new prepaid phone at the first shop he passed. The whole shock of the idea that he was a fugitive from the law and on the run began to set in. He looked at everyone in the store as if they were about to perform a citizen’s arrest. Wasting no more time, he headed for Wendy’s—the one on Burgandy Avenue that sold burgers which Brenda always complained weren’t ‘fresh enough’.
. . . 69 Hours and Counting . . .
Between Stockton and Fresno I-5 was one of the loneliest stretches of highway in California. Signs read things like 40 MILES TO NEXT GAS and REST AREA 17 MILES. The moonless night was broken only by the neon shimmer of a mega-truck stop. The truck stop was a great, black island of tarmac surrounded by a gently rolling sea of foxtails. Spurlock’s van sat in a deserted corner of this dark continent. An electric glare of pink and green hues filtered through the windshield and past the dirty curtains to illuminate Spurlock’s hand. His silver thumb ring shone in the alien light.
Spurlock fed the kid another hotdog out of a plastic pack. Faintly pink, watery hotdog-juice ran down his hand and felt cold on his track marks. His hand trembled a bit as he pushed another hotdog between the bars of the cage, and he knew he was going to have to have a fix soon. He forced the thought away so he could enjoy himself.
“Here boy,” he chuckled, waggling the hotdog at the kid. “Come on, eat it!”
The kid had his hands tied behind his back now, but Spurlock had pulled his gag down so he could eat. The gag hung around his neck like a scarf. Tears rolled down the kid’s face as he came up and took a bite from the waggling hotdog.
“There we go!” Spurlock exclaimed. He laughed happily. “Good dog! Hungry doggie!”
Spurlock had always enjoyed this game with the runaways he had picked up before. He felt that it prepared them for their futures, that it was a preliminary to the training they would receive from the pros in L.A. Of course, then they wouldn’t be allowed to bite. He chuckled to himself at the thought and felt just a bit of arousal, which surprised him, because he rarely became aroused without a great deal of chemical help.
This chicken was younger than usual, but it all seemed like the same game to Spurlock. Usually, they had been hitch-hiking boys and girls in the twelve to fifteen year-old range. Occasionally, Spurlock had let them out of the cage and had popped them right there, when the mood had struck him, on the rusted metal ribs of the van’s floor. He had to have a fix for that sort of thing to occur, of course.
After the kid had finished two-thirds of the dangling hotdogs, Spurlock opened the top of the cage and reseated the gag. He gave the kid all the usual threats about making a sound, then resealed the top and climbed out of the van. After locking up he headed toward the truck stop diner. It was quite a trip, as he had parked way out on the very outer edge of the giant tarmac parking lot, where even the sleepy truckers rarely ventured. Spurlock walked at least fifty yards before he passed the first dark semi. The odds were that some cowboy trucker slept off the beer and the road in there, but Spurlock wasn’t really worried. It was rare that a chicken made any noise. He was always surprised that they didn’t just kick the side of the van and make whatever sound they could, but generally, they didn’t. Fear paralyzed most of them, and the few who did try something, he quickly straightened out with what his stepdaddy would have called: ‘a good, ole time,
Whistling to himself, Spurlock ignored the tremors in his arms as he stepped into the diner and sat down at the counter. He pulled a ten from his grime-coated jeans and stretched it out beside a forgotten water glass. The enormous waitress soon sailed up to him. She was a fiftyish bleached-blonde with an ass wider than Mack truck’s grille. She gave Spurlock a quick, up-down glance and frowned in disapproval.