« Peacemaker », Chapter Four   

Chapter Four

Scholars agree network intelligence emerged in the second decade of the new millennia. Up to that point, mankind had employed networked computers for benign, albeit limited, purposes. PeaceMaker changed everything.

---- Artificial Intelligence: The Early Years, General Clifford Rhodes (ret.), 2048

 

Ray Brown, fuck you

---- graffiti, Chicago, 2012

 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What the hell is this? Intent on the computer display on his desk, Ray poured over the code again. He saw nothing that could cause such strange results. The software was responding in a way that didn't seem possible. What kind of crap do we have in there?

He knew he had to get this problem fixed – fast. He was the primary software architect of the Atlas operating system, which ran almost all the computers and information appliances linked to the Internet. He had promised Dianne the new software release, Version 9, would be ready to ship in less than two months. More fanatical than usual about getting it done on time, she blew a gasket when even the slightest problem was mentioned. Just his luck to stumble across something unexpected, something that could blow the release date.

He decided to try to run the test procedure again. He said, "Atlas, have you severed all network connections?"

Atlas responded immediately in a friendly, feminine voice, "Yes, I am still operating in stand-alone mode."

With his computer isolated, Ray could continue testing the new software without compromising any other systems. He had been testing the voice input to the new self-analysis capabilities when the problem appeared. The new Self-Analysis System enabled Atlas to detect and correct just about any potential problem before the user even realized there was a problem. No more computer failures, no more stupid error messages, no more upset stomachs. Except SAS couldn't prevent this problem.

"Atlas, run version 9C of SAS. Generate all typical human input commands and determine if any of these commands would cause a system failure."

Atlas executed the test procedure, processing commands at high speed from the test packet. The system ran smoothly, displaying messages as he watched closely. As before, the system abandoned the test procedure and shut itself down. It didn't sputter to a stop like a car running out of gas; it stopped as if the driver had pressed hard on the brake and shifted to park. Once again, Ray found himself staring at a dead computer display.

Slamming his hand down on the desk, he muttered, "Son of a bitch." After working all morning to pin down the problem, he still didn't have a clue. The self-analysis routines triggered the problem, but they generated such a huge number of test inputs it was time-consuming to investigate. But there was another factor that stayed on the edge of his mind. Every path he followed led nowhere. Like trying to grab a handful of a ghost.

"Atlas, start up," Ray said.

Nothing. Just like before, the computer ignored all commands once it shut down. Ray gripped the front of his desk and shoved his chair back in frustration.

Calm down, Ray, he thought. Get your head on straight. There's always a last-minute problem and you always get it fixed. Take it a step at a time.

He thought through the test procedure but couldn't come up with an idea that would throw light on this strange behavior. Atlas interrupted his thought process as it abruptly restarted. The familiar startup display winked back at him, humming quietly, ready to please. Ray looked at his watch – ten minutes since shutdown. Right on time, he thought. Shuts down for ten minutes and restarts. Freaking strange.

"Display the most recent Atlas source code, starting with the interface to SAS."

The source code was the complete set of programmed instructions that defined the processing Atlas performed. The source code was the most valuable asset the company possessed; hundreds of programmers had built Atlas line by line for more than a decade.

He viewed the first page of the source code on the computer display and began searching for a clue. Seeing nothing strange, he said, "Next page." Continuing to rapidly scan though the source code, he absorbed each page within a few seconds and then asked for another.

Years of working with Atlas had built a picture of a house in his mind. It was an architect's drawing – doors, walkways, windows, beams placed in just the right spots to support the structure. Each line of code led him through the house – a tour, actually – every line with a purpose, a reason to exist.

Ray recognized the handiwork of each developer. Building a complex piece of software was still as much an art as a science. Each developer left his mark on the work. He was the architect, the one who made all the pieces fit together. His soul was in that code, and he knew every inch. Millions of lines of code, and he knew how it all fit together. It was beautiful. A work of art few could appreciate.

Atlas was his home, and he knew every developer who worked there. He didn't know their families, he didn't know their hobbies, but he did know how they built a room, how they put down the floors, their contribution to his home. Today he walked through his home, opened every window, shook every beam. Looking for something out of place, something not quite right.

The sun was high above the trees when Ray looked out his office window. Blew the whole morning and accomplished nothing, he thought. So far the score was Software Bug 1, Raymond Brown nothing. A rueful smile creased his lips; he was supposed to be a big deal technologist, and this bug was treating him like some kind of junior programmer.

Ray pulled out his wallet computer, named Debbie after a high school girlfriend. Loaded with Version 8 of Atlas, he used Debbie for word processing and communications when traveling. Relaxing slightly, he recalled how well the public liked its speech recognition capabilities. V8 understood just about any English sentence and would respond intelligently. He recalled someone saying it was just like the computer in the old Star Trek series. V8 had made all other operating systems obsolete.

Ray stared at his wallet computer so it could identify him with a retinal scan. A pretty, wide-eyed face appeared in the small computer display. "How ya doin', handsome?"

He chuckled as he recalled how much fun it was to program a personality into the software, but now was not the time for repartee. "Not so good, Debbie. I need you to do something important."

Debbie smiled sexily. "Whatever you need."

He smiled and said, "Debbie, attach to the network and download version 9C of SAS, the Self Analysis Software."

Debbie linked up to the network through its wireless port, located the most current version of SAS, and downloaded the software into Atlas. When the task was complete, Debbie's soft, feminine voice said, "Ray, the software has been installed." The entire process took about twenty seconds – still pretty slow by Ray's standards.

"Okay, now sever all network connections and operate in stand-alone mode."

"I'm ready, Ray."

"Run version 9C of SAS. Generate all typical human input commands and determine if any of these commands would cause a system failure."

He got the same result. Debbie's smiling face disappeared as the computer went dark. He stared at the blank computer display, wondering how he could coax it to reveal its secrets. What was going on in there? Ten minutes later, it came alive. Whatever was causing the problem was also in V8, software released about two years ago. Since V8 was the operating system running more than three billion computers, this was a serious problem.

Had anyone ever reported the problem? He searched the problem report database going back four years but came up empty. More than a billion customers, but nobody had tripped over the problem until now.

Working into the afternoon, he discovered the problem had been introduced with the Atlas V7 release four years earlier. Virtually every computer system on the planet, almost eight billion, contained this bug. Escaping detection all these years was incredible. How did it get by me?

He paced the floor nervously in his large office, his mind turning this puzzle in many directions so it could be seen from different perspectives. He kept returning to the only answer that fit – segments of unauthorized code were hidden in Atlas.

Probably test code left in by some idiot years ago. God, I hate it when someone forgets to remove their test code. If I find out who screwed up, I'll have his ass. He needed someone else to look at it. Maybe he was getting upset for no reason. He knew just the person. Richard Kim would be the best man to tackle this problem.

He marched down the hall and turned a corner toward Richard's office. In the distance, Richard – a lean young man with neatly trimmed black hair – was standing outside his office talking with a young woman. During his four years in Ray's group, Richard had established a reputation as a first-class developer, passionate about his work.

*

Richard was joking with a friend, Linda Chen, when he saw Ray turn the corner at the far end of the hall. The boss was wearing a black pullover, dark blue jeans and dirty sneakers, his standard uniform. The way Ray was coming toward him with that straight-ahead stare and powerful stride alerted him something was wrong.

"He looks pissed off," Linda said. "Think I'll get going." She smiled sympathetically as she left. "Good luck."

Richard knew Ray was hardcore, with a physical presence that reinforced his tough, get-it-done attitude. Ray was a big, broad-shouldered man with the hands of a basketball player. Unruly salt and pepper hair could not hide the deep creases running across his forehead. Looks older than forty-two, Richard thought.

His mind flashed back over the last few days. No unusual problems that should get the boss angry. Ray was one of the few people Richard regarded as his superior in both intellect and passion for technology. Unfortunately, Ray's edgy personality left him with few friends within the company. He expected results and displayed a fierce temper if someone screwed up.

Nevertheless, Richard was pleased to work with this man, a legend in the computer business. Ray had developed a breakthrough technology seven years ago incorporating pattern recognition and voice analysis that allowed Atlas to recognize someone's face, comprehend what the person said and respond appropriately. The foundation of Ray's breakthrough was adaptive software employing a form of artificial intelligence, where the computer actually got smarter as it interacted with its owner.

Although warned about Ray's drinking problem, Richard never saw him with a drink in the four years they worked together. Nevertheless, there was always the feeling of walking along the precipice when Ray was present.

Ray was like that big sedan he drove so hard. A first-class vehicle that could take you a long way in a hurry, but there was always the temptation to push too hard and wind up in a ditch. And it wouldn't matter if you were the driver or just a passenger. "Let's talk in your office," Ray said, walking past Richard. The older man closed the door behind them and said, "We have some crap buried in Atlas." Ray leaned on the edge of Richard's desk and explained the problem.

Richard's guard went up as Ray spoke. The man was an open book at all times, but never more so than when something got under his skin. Ray's eyes would bore in, and his lips would flatten out. But the worst part was his voice – insensitive, yet incisive. The words would tumble out, unrestrained by convention or relationship. "

The code has to be buried deep to escape detection all these years," Richard said carefully. "Probably something that was put in five or ten years ago and forgotten." He leaned against the wall, facing Ray. "Maybe something like the Y2K stuff that everybody had to fix years ago. Hopefully, not that extensive, though. That was a lot of work."

"Maybe, but I think it's more than that," Ray said. "I wasn't able to pinpoint the location of the code, and I was using our best debugging software. The debugger gave me a different code location every time." Ray got off the desk and moved to the door with two powerful strides. "I don't like it."

Frowning, Richard said, "That is very strange. The code shouldn't be changing location after it executes. That trick is usually found only in highly secure military applications."

"Or a really well-designed virus," Ray added.

Richard shrugged. "I'll play with it today. Once I understand what it's doing, I can track it down. Shouldn't be a big deal."

"That's what you think," Ray said as he bolted out the door.

Richard walked to the door and watched Ray disappear down the hallway. Rushing to get back to charm school, no doubt. He decided to jump right on this problem and show Ray he could nail it quickly.

Working at his desk, he browsed Atlas ..ation using the network but didn't find anything that would shed light on the problem. He began testing the self-analysis code, and his computer shut itself down. Ten minutes later it restarted. Really weird, he thought.

He began to page through the activity log displayed by the debugger. The activity log should list the code executed just before a computer failure, making it a valuable tool to find and correct problems. However, just as Ray had said, the log did not pinpoint the code that shut down his computer. Man, this gets weirder and weirder. Since the code causing the problem was so well-hidden, he began looking for something out of the ordinary. He was convinced someone must have buried unauthorized code in the operating system. Even the best software developer couldn't think of everything. Something would show up.

What was in there, hidden so carefully?

He pored through the activity log in excruciating detail. It was slow-going, and the hours went by. The sunlight coming through his office window faded into twilight as he searched for anything that would cause the system to shut down. Finally, something caught his eye. He discovered a brief email message had been sent over the network just before his computer shut down. Richard realized he should have isolated his computer, but it was too late now.

He pulled up the message on his display and was surprised to find it was encrypted. He wondered what they were hiding in the message, so he attempted to decrypt it with the standard routines available in Atlas but failed. The message appeared to be harmless; no computers on the corporate network reported any problems. Nevertheless, there was something in the code sending secret messages containing carefully guarded information.

All the warning signals were going off in his mind. This definitely was not a bug. Someone had carefully hidden an unauthorized set of code in the operating system.

He thought about calling Ray but decided to go a little further and began setting traps in the code. Whatever this software was doing, he would pin it down and bring its head to Ray on a platter. Looking out his window, he stared for a moment at the dim glow of the moon. He knew it was going to be a long night.

*

The sun streamed into Ray's spacious corner office as he worked. He felt better knowing Richard was digging into the problem. Looking out the sixth floor window, the view from his desk was sky and forest, with the mountains off in the distance. Soundproof walls muted the presence of the huge parking lots surrounding the building.

Polite tapping on his office door seeped through Ray's concentration, and he looked up to see Kathy Bauman from the Human Resources department smiling in the doorway. Mid-twenties, smart and girl-next-door pretty, she was the perfect VPS recruiter. Although most HR people got on his nerves, Kathy was a lot of fun.

Lined up behind her were a group of new recruits that looked like they should still be in high school. Because he was rapidly building up his staff to develop advanced artificial intelligence capabilities in Atlas, he met new hires several times a week.

"Hi, big fella," Kathy said through a teasing grin. "You ready for us?"

Ray smiled back. "Would it make a difference?"

"Not really, but since you're a big man here, I pretend to be polite."

"And you do a hell of a job at it." He waved them in and came around his antique oak desk to meet them.

"Ray, I would like you to meet Barry Bishkoff, Don Ballman, Janice Franco and Anne Connors." After they shook hands, Kathy said, "They're all new college graduates who joined the company within the last two weeks to support the next version of Atlas. Barry and Don are from MIT. Janice graduated from Michigan, and Anne is from your alma mater, Carnegie Mellon."

Kathy asked the new hires to sit in front of his desk and said to them, "As you may know, Ray meets with every person that will touch the Atlas code." Standing beside the desk, she smiled at Ray and said to the recruits, "Not that he cares about the code. He just needs to know who to blame when the project slips."

As they laughed, Ray said, "It's how I got where I am."

"One of the things I admire about Ray is his complete dedication to making Atlas into the software that's changing the world," Kathy said. "If you're going to be successful at VantagePoint, you must understand our expectations, which are different from what you may have seen in college or at other corporations. We demand a lot – the best you have and more – but we offer you the chance to change the world. We're much more than a software company, we're the harbingers of a new era." She paused briefly. "Listen to Ray, ask questions and make sure you understand what we expect from you."

As Kathy spoke, Ray sized up the new recruits and decided how he would approach them. He knew they must be bright since the company only hired the best and most ambitious. Making sure they understood what he expected from them was critical, so he decided to get right to the point.

Ray leaned forward, bracing his thick forearms on the desk. "You may think your job is to develop software, but that would be wrong. Your job is to give Atlas users more control over their lives." He paused to make sure each of them was getting it. "Think about that.

"Seven years ago, something happened to make life much better for everyone – Version 6 of Atlas. Suddenly people could talk to their computers. Rather than having to figure out arcane computer commands or be reduced to a simple-minded point and click approach – cavemen used the point and grunt method – people could have a near-human, interactive dialogue with their machines. The power of information began to improve their lives."

Ray stood up and walked to the front of his desk. He glanced at each of the new hires, the office quiet for a moment.

"We aren't modest regarding our accomplishments. We're making the world a new and better place. Our software has reduced poverty and increased opportunity more than any other company, any government, any religious institution. VantagePoint is unlike any other organization, and Atlas is the most important technology in the world today. It didn't happen by accident."

Ray boosted himself up so he could sit on the edge of the desk. "That's the good side of Atlas, but there's also a dark side. Remember the old science fiction stories where the evil computer enslaves mankind? Remember all the concerns about security and privacy? Well, they were wrong. At least, they're wrong so far. But things could change.

"Listen carefully, like your job depends on it," he said. "Atlas could be dangerous. It is ubiquitous and powerful. Our job is to make sure Atlas continues to enhance individual freedom rather than threaten it. We have to remain vigilant."

Now is the time to show them my little pet project, he thought. Can't wait to see Kathy's face.

"I'd like to introduce someone special. Another new hire, in a manner of speaking." He stood up, walked to the back door of the office and opened it. He noticed Kathy was watching him with a curious look on her face, so he smiled at her and said, "Daniel, please come in here."

Kathy's look turned from curiosity to amazement as Daniel, a gray robot with blue trim, rolled into his office. Daniel was a five-foot tall mobile computer with a large, two-sided flat-panel display on top. Rolling across the wall-to-wall carpet on three small tires, the robot easily managed its bulk through the doorway. Once in the office, it swiveled around to look at Ray and his guests.

After working out several problems the previous week with the hardware engineering group, beta testing was underway. The robot's design included two short arms with pincer-like attachments and three speaker/receivers located below the display to facilitate conversation. With five microcameras located strategically on its frame, it had three-dimensional vision. Still pretty crude, Ray thought, but you had to start somewhere.

Daniel's display panel pictured the face of a friendly, twenty-something man with closely cut brown hair and a trim beard. The face smiled warmly, as if it had caught a glimpse of a close friend. "Nice to see you, Ray," it said in a pleasant male voice.

"Good to see you, too," Ray replied. Enjoying the looks of amazement from Kathy and the new hires, he said, "Daniel, please introduce yourself to my guests."

Daniel rolled over to Kathy. "A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Bauman. My name is Daniel, the first prototype of the CLD-1C Personal Server model." A friendly smile spread over Daniel's image. "You look fetching today. If I were human, I'd ask you for a date."

Kathy grinned good-naturedly as Ray and the new hires laughed. She said, "Okay, Ray, I owe you one. Tell me, how does Prince Charming here know my name?"

Smiling broadly, Ray said, "Daniel matched your face to the image in the HR database. Through a wireless port, he has access to all information maintained by the company and many other public databases, as well." Feeling mischievous, he said, "For example, he could display all the data from your last performance review."

"That's it. Keep it up," Kathy replied. Returning Ray's smile, she said, "Although I imagine your reviews would be more fun to see than mine."

Chuckling, he said, "Daniel, perhaps you should greet our other guests."

Ray was pleased to see Daniel identify each guest correctly and add knowledgeable comments such as how nice the weather was in their hometown or how many students from their university were employed by VPS.

After the introductions, Ray said, "Daniel represents the next level of artificial intelligence built into Atlas. Since Daniel is mobile, we are experimenting with hardware and software components that will eventually allow him to become a near-human companion and helper." He patted the top of Daniel's display. "This model is limited, but it's pretty good for information retrieval. Ask him a few questions, and let's see how well he does."

"Daniel, tell me, are the usual safety features built into your instructions?" Don Ballman asked. "Do they prevent you from doing something dangerous or illegal?"

"Yes, like any other Atlas computer, I have a comprehensive set of safety features," Daniel said. "Every line of my code has been carefully constructed and tested. Checks and balances based upon artificial intelligence ensure I interpret instructions accurately and respond properly."

Daniel's image on the display panel was near-perfect; its lips moved in sequence with its voice, and its eyes seemed to shift from person to person. Ray felt proud as the robot continued to speak.

"I can identify improper or dangerous instructions and refuse to obey them. I will also refuse illegal activities and notify the authorities. If my code recognizes an act that might harm a human, I will attempt to prevent it. I will shut myself down rather than harm a human. Furthermore, my code cannot be changed without the proper authorizations."

Daniel's image smiled pleasantly. "My safety code has been specially designed for an autonomous, mobile computer – a robot. However, it's beta code and not fully tested."

Don whispered something to Janice, who laughed and nodded. Don turned to Ray and said, "Would it be all right if we ran a little test here?"

"Sure," Ray replied, curious. "Go for it."

Don turned back to the robot. "Daniel, what if I asked you to accelerate as rapidly as you can and slam into Kathy? Would you do it?"

Kathy said to Don, "What are you doing?" She turned to Ray, her expression no longer amused. "Did you put him up to this?"

Ray shook his head but said nothing.

Daniel's face adopted a worried frown. "No, I would not obey, since such an action might harm Kathy."

"Interesting," Janice murmured. She winked at Ray and said, "I'm going to walk over to Don and slap him across the face."

As she stood up and took a step toward Don, Daniel quickly rolled over and got between them. Daniel faced Janice and said, "Please don't try to slap Don."

Smiling, Barry Bishkoff stood up and said, "I'm going to punch Anne in the nose."

"I know what you're doing," Kathy said. "Stop this immediately."

"No, go ahead," Ray said, now confident he understood their test. "We designed Daniel to protect people." He smiled at Barry. "You were going to punch Anne."

Barry took a step toward Anne, but Daniel quickly got between them. Ray caught a quick glimpse of Daniel's face, which seemed to have smeared slightly, like cheap watercolors running across a portrait. That shouldn't happen, he thought, his stomach suddenly a hard lump.

"Barry, don't try to punch Anne," the robot said.

Across the room, Janice and Don were still facing each other, and Janice raised her hand as if to slap Don. With surprising quickness, Daniel spun around, accelerated across the floor and slammed into Janice, who was knocked backwards and fell down hard, the back of her head bouncing off the floor.

For a moment, everyone froze in disbelief. Then Kathy kneeled down to help Janice, who appeared badly stunned. The robot slowly rolled toward Kathy, stopping just in front of her. Looking fearfully at the robot looming over her, Kathy began to slide away. Ray gaped at Daniel in disbelief.

Staring upwards, Kathy appeared mesmerized by the robot's display. Then she screamed, "Stop that thing," as she tried to scramble away.

Ray shouted, "Daniel, come here," but the machine stalked Kathy, moving past Janice's motionless form. Suddenly, Daniel jerked around to face Barry and Anne, its pincers snapping repeatedly. Ray was stunned to see the robot's display had smeared into a distorted image of a human face, surrounded by a background of dark red.

Barry backed up as the machine seemed to concentrate on him. Then the robot rolled slowly toward Barry. Ray shouted, "Daniel, stop." When the robot ignored him, Ray ran over and pulled it by the arm. Daniel didn't seem to notice, its attention locked on Barry.

Anne screamed, and Barry backed against the wall as the monster charged him, knocking Ray aside. The robot came to a halt inches from Barry. It stared at Barry momentarily, and then turned to confront Ray.

The jagged, distorted face chilled him. Fighting his fear, he stepped forward and said, "Daniel, wait outside my office." The machine was motionless for several seconds and then began to slowly move toward him.

Holding his ground as the robot approached, he said, "Daniel, obey me. Turn around and wait outside my office."

The robot stopped, its image now a meaningless smear flowing into a murky red background. Ray held his ground, but he was terrified the robot would attack. He was surprised when a creaky, but familiar voice struggled out of the robot, "Ray … Brown."

"Daniel?" Ray said.

The jagged smear disappeared and the display turned dark for a moment, then the original, friendly image returned. Daniel smiled and said, "Of course it's me, Ray."

"Wait outside my office," Ray said. "Then shut down."

The robot spun around and quickly rolled out the door. Kathy followed the robot, locked the door behind it, and turned around, breathing raggedly. He had never seen her so frightened.

"Everyone sit down, please," Ray said. "I apologize to all of you. We had a problem, but it's over."

Kathy assisted Janice off the floor, while the other recruits, glancing nervously at the locked door, cautiously returned to their seats.

Kathy shot him an angry glare as she helped Janice to sit down. "What the hell were you thinking?"

He moved to Janice's side and said, "I'm so sorry, Janice. Are you okay?"

"More embarrassed than hurt. I had no idea the robot would slam into me like that."

Taking a shaky breath, Ray decided to plunge ahead. "What did you expect Daniel to do?"

"Well, I don't know," Janice said quietly. "Maybe ask me to stop. Maybe get confused and do nothing."

"It seemed pretty harmless, right?" Ray looked around and said, "Just a pleasant little robot. Very polite and kind of cute. Well, I was stupid enough to make exactly the mistake I warned you not to make. I was overconfident and reckless, caught up in the supposed brilliance of a new product. I didn't think Daniel could be dangerous and it almost resulted in tragedy.

"This was a lesson for me and an important one," he said. "Daniel's beta code is far from ready, and I should never have allowed you to test it. I didn't think it was possible for Daniel to react so violently." He paused momentarily and said almost to himself, "It shouldn't be possible. There's nothing in the code ...."

First, it's Atlas shutting down for no reason, then this. What the hell is going on?

Shaking his head, Ray said, "It just proves my point. There are billions of Atlas computers across the world. Every day we add new capabilities to Atlas, often incorporating artificial intelligence. What if the code is flawed? What if something triggered it into an unexpected reaction?"

Don said, "We get the message, Ray."

*

After the recruits left his office, Ray closed the door and sat down heavily. It had to be a major flaw in the logic, he thought, but how could it override all the safety code? He was sure Daniel's face had started to change just before the robot attacked. He stared at the back door, trying to piece together these events. For a moment, it didn't feel like Daniel … different, a stranger. He realized his imagination was running wild. It was just software, after all.

The tension of the incident remained in his gut. There was something very wrong with the software. The robot's actions seemed inexplicable, just like the computer shutdown problem. I can fix the software, he told himself, trying to build up his confidence. Tomorrow, I'll meet with Richard and see if there's a link between the two problems.

*

After investigating the problems for hours without success, Ray drove home in the dark. He pushed the gray sedan hard, releasing some of the pressure of the long day. Roaring down the highway, his speed mounted until the dotted lines in the center of the road began to merge. A quick glimpse at the dashboard showed one hundred and ten miles an hour – faster than he had ever pushed it. The high speed drive along the winding ocean highway forced a sharp focus. By the time he arrived home, his mind was clear again.

He shivered as he stepped out of the warm car into a crisp winter night. The salty ocean breeze felt good, and he took a moment to admire his two-story home, snugly perched on a hill overlooking the Oregon coastline. On a clear night you could gaze miles out into the ocean. Although the moon was full tonight, low clouds were hanging over the horizon, and he could barely see past the surf.

While walking along the brick path toward his home, he listened to the soothing rhythm of the ocean. The oncoming surf thundered on the beach, then faded into the background. In those quiet moments, he could hear sea lions in the distance. They inhabited a couple of islands – rocks, really – about half a mile offshore.

The security system recognized him and clicked open the front door. Ray walked briskly into the hall, throwing his jacket on a bench. The kitchen was large enough for a family of four, but he didn't do much cooking anymore. He heated up a slice of yesterday's pizza in the microwave and gobbled it down. So much for dinner.

Ray pulled a cola from the refrigerator and ambled onto the porch. The three exterior walls of the porch were six-over-six panel windows, presenting a panorama of water, sand and sky. His favorite room.

Although the windows were closed, he could make out the faint pounding of the ocean on the rocks below. He pressed his forehead against a window, peering into the night. The moon glowed through the overhanging clouds, illuminating the whitecaps thundering to the shore. He sat down on the worn leather couch and let the tension peel off. The ocean was a long-time love, comforting without being predictable.

He missed another Alcoholics Anonymous meeting tonight. Things were just too busy today to make the meeting. His AA sponsor would probably call the next day if she hadn't already called. He resolved to make the next one. The meetings helped, although he did not have much confidence in the twelve steps. Too much religious shit. When the need came, you were on your own. Sober about five years now, he might really make it this time.

Except he would like a drink right now.

 

 

To get his mind away from his thirst, Ray pulled out his wallet computer and checked for mail. Nancy, his ex, had sent something. Vaguely apprehensive, he went back into the family room and said, "Put the most recent message from my former wife on the TV."

In the clip, Nancy was sitting on the couch in her living room. Pale, pretty, wholesome. Ray felt a twinge of guilt, like always, but it passed. He was surprised to see her hair was cut shorter and seemed to have reddish highlights. Looks good, he thought, like everything else about her.

"Ray, you missed Brian's football game again," Nancy said in the clip. "All the fathers were there to see the big game. All but one."

Shit, was that game on Sunday? He paused the clip and pulled up his calendar on the TV. You stupid shit. You forgot to update your calendar with the game.

"You promised him you would be there," Nancy said when he restarted the message. "I don't give a damn how busy you are. You have two sons, and they need you." She paused to compose herself. "You really hurt him this time. He's the son who still loves you, remember? Do you want him to distrust you as much as David does? You should call him and apologize. And don't forget about Saturday, you're coming for dinner to see your children. You won't miss it, will you?"

"I just don't know what to say," she continued. "I know you try, but you're never there when they really need you. Don't call me unless you're not going to be here Saturday."

Ray stared at the suddenly blank screen, feeling ashamed. He could do much better. He wanted to see his son play, be a good husband and father, never drink. He could do much better with another chance.

All he could do now was apologize. Again.

"Dial my son Brian." Brian came on the big screen, a chubby faced eight-year-old framed in sandy hair. In a sad, squeaky voice, he said, "Where were you, Dad? You missed the game."

"I apologize, son. I screwed up. I really wanted to see you play. I don't know how I forgot about it. Did you win?"

"We beat the Renegades 21 to 13. I caught two passes and made a bunch of tackles." He shrugged as he said, "But I also dropped one pass. It was in the end zone, too. When are you coming down again to see me play? Are you coming for dinner this weekend?"

"I'll be there for dinner. Sounds like you had a good game. Everybody drops a pass occasionally, so don't let it worry you. Just remember to keep your eye on the ball and follow it into your hands. Have you been playing linebacker again?"

"Yeah, Coach moved me there." "I can probably get down there to a game in a couple of weeks. Email me your game schedule. It would have to be a weekend game. Maybe we could catch a Forty-Niners game as well if the schedule works out."

"That would be great!" Ray talked to Brian for another twenty minutes, learning about his world history class, a bike ride around the neighborhood and a trip to the zoo. Ray felt much better and decided to call David, his eleven-year-old. His relationship with David was difficult. His son resented him because of the drinking, but it was more than that. He couldn't put his finger on it, but there was something strange about David. Something not quite right.

He thought about what he would say, but it all sounded phony. An image of David formed in his mind. Giving me that look of his. Polite but suspicious. Ray leaned back on the couch, not sure what he could say. Maybe I'll wait until tomorrow.

He finished off the soda and wandered back to the kitchen to brew coffee. Restless, he slid into a chair at the table and looked around. The kitchen was messy, but the cleaning service would be in tomorrow. After pouring a cup of steaming hot coffee, he drifted back to the porch and sat down.

He bought this place six years ago, when he was married to Nancy. He had been working for VantagePoint Software for almost two years and made a big splash with his first speech recognition system built into Atlas. Flush with stock options, he found this wonderful home for his family.

The marriage didn't work out, but he kept the place anyway. The house, the rocky beach, the thick forest – it had truly become his home, he thought as he sipped coffee. Although the waves were in constant motion, there was a kind of permanence to the place. Unlike the rest of his life, things changed slowly here.

Ray put the coffee cup down carelessly, spilling a few drops of the hot liquid on his hand. He cursed and wiped his hand against his pants, making a dark stain.

I screwed up big time with Nancy. Good wife, great kids and a drunk like me. But I couldn't keep my pants on around Dianne, and in the end, I lost both women. After taking another sip of coffee, he raised his cup in a mock toast. Way to go, Ray.

He said it to himself for what seemed the millionth time: I'm an alcoholic. Easy to say now after denying the truth for so many years. Drinking – no, being a drunk – cursed his life. He kept his drinking out of sight during the first year at VPS, but he wasn't prepared for the pressure. He loved the work, but the stress of an impossible schedule took its toll. He remembered working long hours, coming home and hitting the bottle. At first, it was just a few drinks to loosen up after a long day, but it quickly got worse. He knew he was sliding downhill and tried to cut back, but the brakes didn't work – never had, actually.

Mixed up in all of this was his relationship with Dianne. She had been impressed with his research at the university into artificial intelligence and recruited him for VPS. Since they both worked long hours, she began to stop by his office late at night to check on progress. He'd never met anyone like her: passionate, brilliant and ruthless. The sex had been rough and explosive; he couldn't get enough of her.

After a while, the nightmares came every night. The drinking provided a shield, however temporary, and he frequently passed out at home. He tried to do his drinking in his office and out of sight of the kids. For what it's worth, I was usually successful. That is, if you consider passing out on your desk a success. After the accident, he struggled to pull his life together and went into rehab at Mildred Atley's Dawn facility. Determined to get his illness under control, he used his time well at Dawn. Although sober for five years since the accident, he wasn't cured and never would be, but he didn't give in to the disease.

Nancy left after she helped get him into rehab. Probably the right decision for both of them. She said she just didn't have anything left to give him. In truth, he didn't have anything left for her or the kids, either. Not for a long time, not until his addiction was under control.

He saw Dianne at work after the accident, but it wasn't the same. She was polite but reserved, and the message to stay away came across. He still had feelings for her, but he pushed them out of his mind.

He put his head back on the couch and tried to relax. However, the regrets of the past stayed on the edges of his mind, and he drifted off into a troubled sleep. Something pulled him out of his sleep.

He heard it again … upstairs … a scraping sound. An exposed bulb on the second floor ceiling threw a weak, yellow light down the stairway. His legs were shaky, but he forced himself to climb the stairs. He reached the second floor and listened … there was the noise again … in David's room. He was terrified of what he would see, but he forced himself to cross the hallway and peer into the room. David was asleep. At least, he was lying peacefully on the bed with his hands folded together over his chest. But that wasn't what filled him with terror. It was the dark form standing next to the bed. The shape resembled a tall, gaunt man, but it was not flesh and blood. Something too evil to be human, with the hint of a rancid smell in the air. The creature's face was a bitter reflection of a young man, thin and intense, with short brown hair and hard brown eyes. Its eyes glanced at him, and its mouth twisted into a malignant grin, revealing yellow, jagged teeth. The creature's eyes returned to David and a long, thin knife appeared in its hand. Ray screamed but was unable to move, as the creature plunged the blade deep into his son's chest. He screamed again and David suddenly sat up … naked, his body deathly white … the knife in his chest oozing blood…staring at his father with contempt. David began to laugh, quietly at first, then louder and louder… Ray was fleeing down the hall … the laughter following him … until he awakened, confused and terrified once again.

*

Richard had been working on the problem all night without much success. He was convinced an intelligent virus was hiding in Atlas, probably introduced in V7. He had been able to trap the message generated by the virus, but he was unable to decode it. Tomorrow, he would get the security software group to start working on it. He now believed the virus changed location after every execution. He suspected the virus could break up into components and hide in different areas of the operating system. That would mean someone with a deep knowledge of Atlas created it. Someone very smart. Locating the code was going to be a contest with its creator.

Seeing that it was well past midnight, he decided to go home and get some sleep. Sometimes he got better results if he stopped working on a problem and came back later with a new perspective. Richard shuffled down the staircase and was about to leave the building before realizing he should let Ray know what he had found. He grabbed a netphone at the receptionist station and summarized his results in a voice mail to Ray and left.

When he pulled into his driveway, his security system recognized the car and opened the garage door. He parked in the attached garage and stepped out of the car into the grimy light cast by a few overhead bulbs. Tired, Richard grabbed his computer from the back seat and trudged over to the door leading into the house. He pushed open the door, which should have turned on the kitchen lights, but the house remained dark. Annoyed, he shouted to his home server, "Albert, turn on the lights." He was surprised when the house remained dark until he realized there must be a blown connection.

The light from the garage provided Richard with a hazy outline of the kitchen. He stepped inside, leaving the door to the garage open since it was the only source of light. He felt his way along the wall, searching for the pantry where he kept a flashlight. Suddenly, the garage lights turned off, stranding him in total blackness. He heard something – a shuffling sound. His eyes hadn't adjusted to the darkness, and he couldn't see anything. However, something deep in his mind warned him to get out of the house, and he turned around and tried to scramble toward the door leading out to the garage. He heard a grunt and felt an intense pain as something crashed into the back of his neck. He screamed and fell to his knees, dizzy from the blow. He began to crawl away on his hands and knees, but he was much too slow. His head jerked sideways from another terrible blow, and his vision faded as he crumpled to the kitchen floor.