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Chapter Five

We now realize Ray was significantly isolated from society. After the breakup of his marriage, he found it difficult to establish personal relationships of any type. Associates at VPS considered him trustworthy and honest but also distant and hot tempered. Except for his sons and surprisingly, his former wife, his only close relationship was with Paul Martino, the owner of TechAdvantage, at the time a leading online magazine.

---- Wild Seed: A Biography of Raymond Brown, Dr. Elizabeth Rollins, 2026

 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Ray pushed his big sedan hard driving to work the next morning. The VantagePoint Complex in central Oregon appeared suddenly as he came over a hill – six towering buildings surrounded by parking lots. Rather than being integrated with the surrounding hills, the entire area had been leveled and paved over to make room for parking. Every time he saw the Complex, the feeling grew that the buildings were being imposed upon an unwilling environment. Always the VantagePoint way of doing things, he thought.

After parking his car in an outer lot, he walked to Richard’s office. The fresh air seemed to aggravate the painful throb in his head. The software problem was serious and they had to come up with something fast.

He knocked on Richard’s door, but nobody answered. He pushed on the door but was surprised to find it locked. Ray knocked on the door again, louder this time, but there was no response. He guessed that Richard worked late last night so maybe he was coming in a little later this morning. Maybe he figured it out already. If Richard thought it was a major problem, he would have been in the office already. Ray felt a little better and went back to his office, planning to work on other issues. He was sure Richard would call when he arrived.

Ray checked his watch several times, but he didn’t hear anything from Richard. At 10 am, he decided to call Richard. No answer, so he left a message. He called again at 10:30 and 11:00 without success. He swallowed several aspirins as he worked, but his head continued to throb. Finally, unable to focus on his work, he hurried over to Richard’s office, but it was still locked. Ray checked with a few nearby people, but nobody had seen anything. He called Richard’s personal netphone, but there was no answer.

Something was wrong. Richard would never leave him hanging like this. He composed himself and called Kathy Bauman. “Hi Kathy, this is Ray Brown. Have you heard anything from Richard Kim? I can’t reach him, and I’m a little concerned.”

“Oh, it’s you,” Kathy said, her voice lacking its usual warmth. “I was going to call you. I just read an email Richard sent me last night. His mother suffered a heart attack, and he was leaving immediately to be with her. It wasn’t too clear, but apparently, she lives in China and Richard caught a flight out last night. He wasn’t sure how long he would be gone, but we should plan for a couple of weeks.”

“Did he leave an address or netphone number?”

“No, but we should have something in the database.” After a brief delay, she said, “Strange. We don’t seem to have any netphone numbers for an emergency or next of kin. I guess we’ll have to wait for him to call in.”

After hanging up, he leaned back, feeling sick to his stomach. He didn’t think Richard would be calling in.

*

Dianne was working in her office when her computer said, “Anonymous netphone caller. Message has security level 2.”

Important, but not an emergency, she thought. Only a few people could make that call and she could guess who it would be. Rather than listening openly, Dianne picked up the netphone. “Go ahead.” She waited until the computers on both ends of the call verified their identities.

“Caller identity validated as Alpha 6,” the computer said, confirming her earlier guess. Now they could speak, with computers passing encrypted messages between them.

A moment later, a scratchy voice filled her ear. “The problem is resolved.”

Although the sound was electronically distorted, she recognized him immediately.

“Any loose ends?” Dianne replied, knowing that her voice would also be distorted. If anyone were listening, they would be unable to identify her voice or decrypt the message. Security had never been more important; the time to attack was approaching fast, and her enemies were clever.

“Not that we can see,” he said, “but we are monitoring the situation.”

The netphone display was blacked out, but she picked up a momentary hesitation. “What is it?”

“This might have nothing to do with our plans, but something strange occurred in Ray’s office yesterday,” he said. “Did you know he was working on a robot?”

“He’s been experimenting with models for about a year,” she said. “It’s a hobby, really. We are years away from building a commercial product, if anything develops at all.”

“One of our operatives was present during an orientation meeting where a robot attacked a group of new hires.” He described the session in Ray’s office.

“She thinks the image in the display resembled PeaceMaker?” Dianne asked, tapping her fingers on the desk.

“She’s not positive, it happened too fast,” he said. “But she’s a reliable young woman.”

“I know.” A moment later, she asked, “Did Ray realize what was happening?”

“She doesn’t think so, but it’s getting too big, too complex to hide. The adaptive software keeps growing, so there may be additional incidents. Too many people are getting close to us. We have to make our move.”

“Soon,” she said. “We need to deal with the other problem, then we can strike. Any penetration of our computers yesterday?

“Nothing.”

“They may have all the information they need to attack us,” she said. “Have you increased security?”

“Yes, discreetly, as you ordered,” he said.

“That’s enough for now, but stay alert,” she said. “I also want you to watch Ray closely. Contact me immediately if he does anything suspicious. At the right time, we’ll remove him and the others and begin the netwar.”

“The incident with the robot?”

She thought for a moment, for the first time noticing her fingers tapping on the desk. “Just a normal bug,” she said, stopping the tapping. “Have her spread the story. Everyone will see it as amusing, unimportant. Wacky Ray again.”

Dianne terminated the call and sat back, thinking it was all coming to a head. Maybe Ray wouldn’t get in the way. She’d do what she could for him. After all, he was a brilliant man, and we could use his skills later. She pulled out her silver lighter and lit up, feeling disgusted.

At least be honest with yourself, she thought, her fingers working furiously again.

*

Ray paced back and forth across his office, trying to pull it all together. No matter how he looked at it, he came to the same conclusion: someone planted a virus within Atlas, and they were willing to kill anyone who discovered it. It had to be a group; one person couldn’t pull this off. The purpose of this virus wasn’t clear, but if it could take control of Atlas computers across the world, its power was unimaginable.

He stopped pacing and sat down at his desk. He couldn’t believe this was really happening. The planning required to pull this off, the discipline to spread it across the Internet … my God. Every Atlas computer, from the largest corporate installation to the PC on your kid’s desk, was infected. The power…

Ray couldn’t wait any longer. He had to learn more about the virus. I have to do something to stop these bastards. In his message, Richard explained how something hidden in Atlas generated an encrypted message. Ray believed the virus had sent a message indicating someone was tampering with it. Nothing else fit. It would be easy to identify Richard as the intruder. So the virus notifies its creator that Richard is a threat, and Richard disappears.

Although was he was feeling a hard lump in his stomach again, Ray didn’t believe he was in immediate danger. It was unlikely they were aware of the vmail Richard sent him, since it came from the receptionist’s desk. However, they may suspect Richard alerted someone. He knew they would monitor his activities, as well as a number of other people who work with Richard. He would have to be very careful, since they were probably tapping into everything he does on the computer. Ray knew he would disappear, too, if they learn he has discovered the virus.

It was just dumb luck he was still alive. If his computer had been online while testing SAS, the virus would have warned them about him, and he would have shared Richard’s fate. In any case, Ray thought, he needed another system to use for testing the virus. One they couldn’t tap into.

After wiping clean his current operating system, he reloaded a fresh copy of Atlas. The new system was also contaminated, but this copy of the virus didn’t know about his investigation. At least, that’s my theory. Now for the test. Ray instructed Atlas to go on-line, and he checked for messages. Nothing. He was safe for the moment.

It suddenly occurred to him that they might be watching him at this very moment. Wiping out the operating system might have roused their suspicions. Trying to appear calm and businesslike, he went to a hacker web page on the Internet and downloaded a wireless sniffer – software that he could use to detect transmissions from a hidden camera or another type of sensor. While the sniffer was performing its investigation, Ray worked on other matters. Time ticked by slowly, but only a few minutes had actually passed before the sniffer reported back. The office was clean. The killers hadn’t bugged his office – yet. He made a mental note to use the sniffer in his home tonight.

Next, he took one of his spare computers and created a new identity in the corporate database – a fictitious person working for Human Resources called Jim Smith. Several weeks should go by before anyone discovers this new identity. Once Jim Smith was established, Ray cleared any references to himself as the authorizing manager, enabling him to safely communicate through the new identity.

As he was doing this, he received an email from Richard:

Ray, as you probably know, my Mom had a heart attack yesterday. She is in critical condition at Zhao Ziyang Hospital in Wuhan. I don’t know how long I will be out. It depends on how well she does. Send me mail if you need to contact me. I will respond to email when I can.

Richard

No mention of the virus. Just plain text – no voice or video. Richard, I am so sorry I got you involved. A thought elbowed in, a drink would really help now. Ray leaned back, pushing the need from his mind.

I will not go down that path again.

There were only two things in his life he was proud of: his kids first and then his software. His heart was with his kids, but his soul was in that software.
Given some time, he might be able to neutralize the virus. Every piece of code has weaknesses. He would find the weak points and attack. Where he needed help was in figuring out the identities of the people who created this monster. He was a software developer, not a detective. He could trust only one person with this – Paul Martino.

Dammit, Paul is my best friend.

Ray hated the idea of pulling Paul into such a dangerous situation, but he would be the best person for the job. Paul was the owner of TechAdvantage, an interactive magazine that tracks new technologies and trends. Paul had a network of contacts, and he knew how to dig out a story.

Ray had met Paul almost twelve years ago, when he was a professor at Carnegie Mellon and Paul a technology reporter for a local newspaper. Paul had interviewed him about his artificial intelligence research and the two of them had really hit it off. They had dinner together that evening and had kept in touch ever since, getting together whenever they could. Paul had helped Ray deal with his drinking problem and their friendship had blossomed over the years. Paul was smart and honest with a great sense of humor.

Using the Jim Smith identity, Ray called Paul through his computer. Paul’s image popped up on the display – a thick bellied, balding man with sharp features and alert eyes. Just seeing his friend lifted Ray’s spirits.

Paul gave Ray a puzzled look. “Okay, Ray, I give up. Why the fuck are you using the name Jim Smith?”

“Nice to see you, too, Paul.” Ray gave his friend an appraising look. “You look like you’re putting on a little weight. You should try cutting back to five or six meals a day.”

“Look who’s talking,” Paul said, leaning back in his chair. “You’ve turned into quite the porker yourself, you know. Did you just stray away from the herd?”

Ray slapped his stomach and said, “It’s all muscle. Not like that fat butt of yours hanging over the back of your chair.”

“At least I can still fit into a chair. I heard VantagePoint got you a park bench to spread out those cheeks.”

“So how is life treating you?” Ray asked.

“My girlfriend dumped me, my magazine is being sued, and I have gas. Your call is actually the highlight of my day.” Paul popped a chocolate square into his mouth and said, “Shows how pathetic I have become.”

Ray smiled. “It’s about time you realized what a pathetic mess you are. Actually, realizing you truly are pathetic shows growth, development even. I’m proud of you, Paul, in a manner of speaking.”

“What a pleasure … to speak to you,” Paul said, slurring his words as he swallowed the chocolate. “I get tired of all the normal people I have to deal with. You’re a breath of fetid air.” Paul made an exaggerated gesture of looking at his watch. “Although I realize I’m always a joy to chat with, was there some reason you were calling me?”

Reality pushed back into his mind. He couldn’t delay it any more. “I have a problem, a big problem. I’ve stumbled across a very dangerous situation, and I need your help.”

“You’re serious?”

“Yes. You will also be in danger, if you get involved.”

“Jim Smith, huh.” Paul stared through the display at Ray for a brief moment. “Shit. I haven’t signed up, but tell me what’s going on.”

Ray told him everything he knew about the situation, being careful to make sure his friend understood the potential danger. Paul sat straight in his chair, listening quietly until Ray finished.

“Okay, so what you have is some undocumented code that may or may not be a virus, and Richard Kim, who may or may not be in China,” Paul said. Before Ray could speak, Paul said, “I’m not saying you’re right or wrong, but it’s pretty sketchy.”

“Don’t forget about the encrypted email.”

“I’m not ignoring that,” Paul said. “You have any idea why someone would do this?”

“How the hell would I know?” Ray shouted. “I just stumbled over the damn thing.” Lowering his voice, he said, “It’s real, Paul. I’m not dreaming this up. Somebody with bad intentions created this virus.”

“Have you considered going to the police or the FBI?” Paul asked.

“I have thought about that. First, I’m not absolutely certain Richard has been abducted. If he turns up in a few days, people will think I’m drinking again. I don’t have any evidence a crime has been committed, either. With the information I have right now, I just don’t think the FBI would take me seriously. A perfunctory investigation would be worse than no investigation at all. Whoever created this virus might learn of the investigation and – who knows – they might attack immediately. I’m also concerned they may kill Richard, if he’s still alive.”

Paul seemed to think about that. “I hope you’re wrong. If this virus really exists, it would be a dangerous enemy. Everything worth doing depends upon a computer. An attack on the infrastructure could cripple the country.” He hesitated and said, “Okay, I suppose somebody has to look into this. We don’t know who created the virus or what their purpose might be. It could be a foreign government, a group of terrorists, a criminal organization or some other whacked out group. But it has to be someone who knows Atlas inside and out.”

“Here’s what I suggest,” Ray said. “Let’s take the next few days and investigate quietly. Let me work on the virus code. I think I can get a better handle on its capabilities. This will begin to give us some ideas on how to attack it.

“You should start to think about the nutcase that created it,” he continued. “Nobody knows more about this business than you. You’ve been meeting the top technologists, entrepreneurs and other key people in the industry for more than a decade. My guess is you’ve probably met the people who created the virus.”

Paul stared at Ray and shook his head, a rueful grin turning up the corners of his mouth. “Ray, lots of people have friends that call them to go to a ballgame, or maybe just to complain about their in-laws. But not me. No, my friends prefer to take on terrorist groups. They call me up and ask me to investigate some freaking group that kidnaps people and may be planning world domination. Fucking A! Sure, I’ll figure out who created the virus. I’ve got the rest of the day open.”

Ray laughed, a little too hard, but relieved that Paul was with him. “Glad to see you’re taking it so well. Actually, I would like to meet you Friday night and get our initial thoughts together. I’ll fly down to San Francisco and meet you at your place about 11pm. We really need to move quickly on this.”

“I gotta be honest with you. I’m getting scared,” Paul said. “These guys, if they exist, may be capable of doing just about anything they want. I can see you are determined to do this, so I’ll help you for the next couple of days. I’m not committing to go any further. Okay?”

“Fair enough. I know it’s asking a lot. See you Friday night.”