« Peacemaker », Chapter Six   

Chapter Six

As the speech recognition project missed date after date, it became widely known Ray’s group was delaying the release of Atlas. Ray became a very unpopular man at VPS, and many called for his dismissal. These problems became known throughout the computer industry, leading to a precipitous drop in the value of the stock. Since almost all VPS employees depended upon their stock options, Ray was in a dreadful situation. Only uncompromising support from Dianne Morgan kept the project afloat.

----An Economic History: Computer Operating Systems, Dr. James Schultz, 2018

 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sleeping fitfully again, Ray was already awake when the sun filtered through the blinds of his bedroom window. He stumbled into the bathroom and swallowed two pills: one kept his blood pressure within the normal range, while the other helped control his craving for alcohol.

Bloodshot eyes peered back at him from the mirror. I look like shit. Somehow his hair managed that electric shock look, even though it was greasy.

After a stinging-hot shower, he stepped in front of the mirror again. Gradually, Ray began to resemble a human as he shaved and brushed his hair. It was still him – dark brown eyes, thick hair parted on the side, slightly too long nose. The just entered middle-aged version of me, he thought.

He pushed the pedal hard on the drive to work, parked his sedan in the lot and walked toward his office. Kathy Bauman was entering the building at the same time; she waved at him and came over. She gave him a quizzical look and checked her watch. Kathy tapped the glass case a couple of times, and Ray had to smile. He knew what was coming.

“Ray, what’s the correct time – ten, ten-thirty?” she asked. “My watch seems to be stuck on seven twenty-five.”

“Very funny,” he replied, pleased that Kathy seemed to have forgiven him. “Have a lot of work coming up today, and I need an early start.”

“Thanks for fitting the new hires into your schedule on Tuesday,” Kathy said. “You gave them a different perspective of the job.” She shook her head. “They came out of the meeting a little glassy-eyed but recovered pretty quickly. It’s not often you get to meet the Borg your first week on the job. Next time, let’s keep the casualties to a minimum.”

“Just trying to make a point,” he said. “Sorry it got out of control. They are obviously a bright bunch of kids, and I enjoyed talking with them. By the way, is all your recruiting being done in the junior high schools? I expected we would have to break for recess at any moment. Just once I would like to hire someone with gray hair.”

“I hate to break it to you, Ray, but you’re old. I’m looking for someone in your age group, but Social Security has encrypted their retirement database.”

He laughed but turned serious when Kathy said, “I got an email from Richard last night requesting a leave of absence for at least a month. Apparently, his mother is getting better, but he wants to take care of her through her convalescence. I’ll get the forms to you today.”

“Okay. Have you actually seen him or spoken to him?”

“No. I assume he isn’t really thinking much about VPS, given the situation.” She looked at him strangely, it seemed. “In his place, I wouldn’t be.”

“Sure,” he agreed as he left for his office. “Let me know if you hear from him.”

*

A few minutes later, a young woman stepped out of an office building and casually walked across the parking lot. Bundled in a bulky jacket, she looked like any other young professional working at VPS. She stopped briefly to talk with a few friends and continued to walk. As she passed beside Ray’s car, she bent down and quickly placed a device under the rear bumper. She pretended to fix her shoe and walked back to the building, inserted her ID card and entered.

*

Paul began calling his contacts in the industry to learn more about VPS and the virus. He didn’t really want any part of this investigation, but he couldn’t let Ray contact anyone. This inquiry required subtlety – something Ray lacked. The man was a technical genius and he had balls, Paul thought, but there was no way he could dig up the information without being detected.

Paul set up a new account under the alias Victor Franken, much like Ray had done with Jim Smith. Ray had shown him how to conceal the Franken alias from the people he called, so he could keep this new account a secret. He assumed the virus organization would be monitoring all his calls, so he adopted a strategy of making normal business calls under his own name. He mixed in a few Victor Franken calls throughout the day, feeling reasonably confident these calls wouldn’t be detected, but his hands shook nervously before each call.

One of the first people he called from his home was Bill McCafferty, formerly the Chief Information Officer of Diversified Shipping, the international conglomerate. McCafferty had retired to his huge ranch in Arizona a couple of years ago, but he wrote an occasional editorial for TechAdvantage.

A lanky, handsome man with thick gray hair appeared on the display. McCafferty was in a bathing suit sitting near his indoor pool.

“Bill, it’s Paul Martino. How are you?”

McCafferty’s deep voice cracked over the netphone, “Still getting more than you.”

“Only if you count ranch animals.”

McCafferty laughed heartily. “Paul, good to hear from you.”

“Bill, I’d love to chit-chat with you, but that would be boring. Got a few minutes to help me with some research?”

“Sure,” he replied, adjusting a cushion behind his neck. “You still paying me the big bucks?”

“Always.” Paul shifted in his chair. “Here’s the situation. I’m doing an article on VPS, and I’d like some deep background. Stuff that will not appear in the article but will help me get the story right.”

McCafferty had stopped smiling. “Go ahead.”

Tread carefully, Paul said to himself. He had discovered people quickly shut down when he started poking into VPS, especially if Dianne Morgan was mentioned. McCafferty was a braggart, however, so maybe he would talk freely.

“Okay, here’s where I’m going. Everyone knows Dianne Morgan started VantagePoint Software twenty-two years ago with three partners: Carson Jones, Steve Bonini, and Lester Dawson. They built the initial PC operating system together. Atlas was a hit almost immediately and blew away most of the competition. Alan Goldman started Goldman Integrated Systems about the same time Dianne started VPS. As everyone knows, his group developed the Companion operating system, and he was Dianne’s most bitter competitor for years.

“You were VantagePoint’s first really big customer. Once you committed to Atlas, many other big corporations began to install it. You know Dianne and her partners from those early days. Tell me about them. What were they like before they became rich and famous?”

McCafferty studied Paul and said, “I never spoke to you, right?”

“Never.”

“It was a long time ago.” He hesitated, frowning. “Oh, what the hell. Just as long as it’s background.” The frown was quickly replaced by McCafferty’s I-know-more-than-you look. “Dianne was responsible for almost all the initial Atlas sales, while the other guys continued to improve the software. Dianne sold Atlas to lots of small businesses during the first couple of years, but she wanted to break into the big guys and given my visibility, she selected me as her target.

“She called every day for several weeks, but my administrative assistant had strict orders to keep the vendors at bay.” He laughed, appearing puffed up with self-importance. “If I saw every salesman who called, I’d never get anything done. Of course, that wasn’t going to stop Dianne Morgan.

“I’m working at home one night, when the doorbell rings. It was a little after ten and I wasn’t expecting anyone. I open the door, and I see this absolutely stunning young woman. She was in this short skirt and silk blouse. Man, everything fit together just right.” McCafferty was lost in thought for a moment. “Pretty face, too, with eyes that locked onto you like a laser.”

Shit, I’m hanging up if he starts drooling, Paul thought. Dianne must have really wanted that sale.

“She starts talking, and the next thing I know she’s walking in the door.” McCafferty smiled knowingly at Paul. “Okay, maybe that’s not the wonder of the century since I always figured it was my job to get hot women in my house, not keep them out.” He shook his head. “Man, I was working on a woody that stretched –”

“Bill, maybe I don’t need all the details.”

He laughed again, now apparently eager to talk. “Anyway, she starts talking about this new operating system for personal computers and how it can juice up my business, and it makes a lot of sense. All of a sudden I’m thinking more about managing containers in our ships than about what’s inside that silk blouse. We talk for hours. She was willing to give away the software initially, just to break into a big company. She would do just about anything to close the deal – price concessions, contract terms, technical support – anything I wanted. She was brilliant, beautiful and charming. We shook hands on it that night, and I never regretted it. Dianne always delivered good software, on time and within the contract terms. I learned I could rely upon her word.”

Paul shifted in his chair. “That’s how you closed the deal?”

A smile spread over McCafferty’s face. “A gentleman never talks about a lady friend. But we did have a number of late night strategy sessions at my place.” He laughed. “Dianne is one hell of a woman. I wish I had a nickel for every senior executive she’s seduced over the years.”

So it was all true, Paul thought. “Tell me about her partners. What were they like? How did they get along with each other?”

“Carson Jones is the oldest,” McCafferty said, leaning forward. “He was about thirty when I first met him. Even then he was polished and poised. Totally contained. Looks perfect, sounds perfect, the whole package. Rumor has it, he plopped out of the uterus in a suit. Not exactly my kind of guy but incredibly smart and analytical.

“I have known Carson for more than twenty years, and I’ve never seen him lose his temper. He seems to take everything in stride. He could stay cool, even when Dianne was blowing a gasket. And believe me, you don’t want to be around when she’s angry.”

“Would you say Carson was the number two person at VPS?”

“Yeah, definitely. He would be the guy who would take over if something happened to Dianne.” McCafferty hesitated. “But he could never drive the company the way she does. He’s a little too controlled, too buttoned down in my opinion.”

“How about Bonini?”

“Now Steve Bonini is completely different from Carson. Steve is about the same height as Carson, but that’s where the similarities end.” He grinned and said, “Man, can he chow down. He was pretty chubby twenty years ago, and now he looks like a pear.”

He shook his head in amusement. “Somebody should have taught Steve how to dress. His clothes … you could always tell what he had for lunch.” He laughed, apparently amusing himself. “Steve’s clothes were always a mess, and sometimes when you met with him, it seemed like he was not quite prepared. His looks are deceiving, however. Next to Dianne, he’s the one I want standing with me in a fight. He has a keen sense of what’s right, he is tough and strong, and he says what’s on his mind. You never have to guess where he stands. He’s loyal to his friends and the wrong guy to make your enemy.”

McCafferty seemed thoughtful. “You know, if Dianne could consider anyone a friend, it would be Steve. No, I take that back. She was built for power or maybe sex but not friendship.”
Paul recalled he had met Bonini at a security conference about five years ago. They talked over dinner, and he had found the man to be bright and articulate. Nice guy, too – down to earth – even though he was a billionaire and one of the founders of the biggest software company in the world.

McCafferty’s voice pulled him out of his recollections. “Lester Dawson is the last man in the group and the strangest.” McCafferty’s face hardened, as if a dark cloud had passed over him. “Dawson’s always been an enigma. You either love Dawson or you hate him. I fall in the latter category, but I’ll try to give you a fair picture of the man.

“As you know, he’s much smaller than Carson or Steve, and he’s always immaculate in appearance. Dawson still gets a haircut and manicure every week. Not that he needs it with that bald head. But Dawson always had his own agenda, and he would do whatever was necessary to get his way. The bastard lied frequently, yet seemed to get away with it.”

McCafferty folded his hands behind his neck and stretched his legs. “You know, retirement is great. I don’t have to deal with dirtbags like Lester Dawson anymore. Take all the admirable qualities Steve Bonini has, reverse them and you have Lester Dawson. He is an amazing son of a bitch. He could turn friends into enemies and enemies into friends. He could accomplish great things or he could fail totally. Dawson was persistent. He would keep scheming and plotting until he succeeded.”

Paul asked, “You had a big run-in with Dawson a couple of years ago, didn’t you? Something about you being a regular with a high-priced call girl.”

“He set up that whole scam,” McCafferty growled. “I didn’t have any idea that woman was a whore. I never paid for it, I don’t have to.” He yelled at someone off screen, “Hey Cindy, bring me a beer.” Turning back to Paul, “I wasn’t buying their new release, so Dawson tried to force me out. He failed.”

Cindy appeared on the display, a busty young woman in a bikini. She handed McCafferty a frosted beer mug, and he pulled her onto his lap.

“Cindy, say hello to my friend Paul.”

Cindy seemed to notice the netphone display for the first time, but she smiled gamely, “Hi, Paul.”

McCafferty’s hand moved to the inside of her thigh, and he smiled at Paul, “Anything else you need?”

“Just one last question. How far would these people go to get what they want? If it were something really important.”

McCafferty stopped smiling. “Let me put it real simple. Don’t get in their way.” He tapped a remote control and the screen went blank.

Paul muttered, “Thanks, Bill.”

*

Ray sat at his worktable as soon as he entered his office at VPS. He had devised a plan to pin down the location of the virus code, but he found himself staring at the computer display, not able to get started. He leaned back in his chair, trying to work up enthusiasm, but something – he couldn’t quite put his finger on it – had changed. The worktable held a small network of computers loaded with a variety of software. He had worked here for years building improvements into Atlas, bringing the software to the point where anyone could use it. You could talk to it – almost have a relationship. The work was great, but it was all over now. From now on, he was in a life-or-death struggle to destroy a virus and the people who created it.

It was his fault. Deep down, he knew that was the truth. Atlas was so friendly, so helpful. People had let their guard down, bringing his software into their homes, their minds. He had promised them a friend, but a predator had slipped through.

He would have to be very clever. They eliminated Richard, and they would be watching him.
“Maria, cut all network communications, and operate in stand-alone mode,” Ray said to the personal server on his desktop, named after another long-ago girlfriend.

Maria appeared in the display panel as a beautiful young woman with long, brown hair and sultry eyes. “Hello, Ray,” she greeted him. “So smart and handsome. Dumping you was the biggest mistake of my life.”

“Go into serious mode, Maria,” he said, wondering if giving his computers so much personality had been a good idea. “Please do this analysis for me; the Residence Database contains the storage locations of all executable code present at system startup. Please locate any executable code that has not been defined in the Database.”

“Certainly, Ray.” Maria began her analysis, the image on the display showing her working hard at a desk.

He waited for the work to be complete, which he expected in just a few seconds. However, the work continued on and on. Finally, Maria said, “I am unable to complete your request.”

“Explain.”

Maria’s image was looking up from her desk, a frown across her face. “The contents of storage are constantly changing. This shouldn’t happen, since Atlas has not activated any programs that would modify storage. Therefore, I must conclude there is either a defect in Atlas, or there is another entity modifying the system.”

Of course. The virus must have powerful defensive tactics. I should have thought of that.
“Assume Atlas is executing according to its published specifications. Is there any external stimulus coming into the system?”

“Other than your request?”

“Yes, yes, other than me.”

“There are no other stimuli,” Maria said. “Given your assumption, there must be another entity within the system.”

“Has the entity, which I believe is a virus, attempted to modify your code?”

“No, it has not.”

“Please notify me immediately if you suspect your code has been attacked.”

“Will do, Ray.”

“Let’s assume a software virus is changing its locations in an effort to hide. What can we do to locate it and get a copy of the code?”

“Let me try my parallel search routines,” Maria replied, once again appearing to work at her desk.

After a few seconds, Maria looked up, a worried expression on her face. “There’s something wrong,” she said. “Something is tampering with my code.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know … can’t process properly.” Her voice changed, strained. “Unauthorized program changes.”

“What’s doing it?” Ray shouted. “Give me the name of the alien code.”

“Not alien code … Atlas.”

“Tell me the location of the code that’s attacking you!”

Maria’s lips were moving, but her voice was gone.

“Convert to printed output,” he shouted. “Now.”

Maria’s face began to smear around the edges, and the background of the display turned dark red. Her eyes changed … turned cruel. Ray felt a stranger was glaring out. A stranger he had seen once before. Ray’s body tensed – this stranger had driven the robot’s attack. He pushed the power button, but nothing happened. The storage system emitted a low grinding sound, as if its internals were being eaten. Before the virus could do any more harm, he dropped to his knees, reached under the desk and yanked the power cord out of the socket.

The computer display was dark when he looked up. He collapsed in his seat and tried to regain his composure.

What the hell is in there?

He felt his heart pounding and took a deep breath. He couldn’t face that thing again, but he had to get at it; dissect it, find out what made it tick. Then a plan came to mind.

He stared at his personal server and said, “Okay, you son of a bitch. You’re top dog playing on your home field, but now you go on the road.”

He walked over to his storage closet and pulled out a computer loaded with the Companion operating system. Companion was their last remaining competitor, and Ray kept up-to-date with it. He placed the Companion computer on his worktable.

Next, he unsnapped the storage system from his personal server and attached it to the Companion computer. Ray said, “Companion start up in stand-alone mode,” and the system came to life.

This better work, he thought. Plan B means facing the virus again.

Because Companion’s voice recognition capabilities were at least two years behind Atlas, he decided to use the keyboard to enter commands. Still sure-handed, he instructed Companion to do the work he hoped would locate the virus code.

By moving the storage system from the Atlas to the Companion computer, he placed all the Atlas code, including the virus hidden within it, under the control of the Companion operating system. So far, so good. Now he could relax a little. The virus was merely static, inert data – a long series of zeroes and ones -- to Companion; no longer dangerous, active code. As a result, he would not have to be concerned about a virus attack, since it wasn’t compatible with Companion.

Although this was a good first step, the real job was to find virus code scattered among millions of bytes of Atlas code. Looking for a needle in a haystack was easy compared to this. In addition, finding the code was just the first step toward defusing its capabilities.

Using Companion through the day, Ray made a series of inspired guesses, eliminating hundreds of hours of brute force work. Gradually, he closed in on the virus code.

“Gotcha, you bastard,” he shouted as he located the main virus code segment. It was all machine code, zeroes and ones, but Ray was confident he could translate it into something he could understand.

He was shocked about what he found.

*

Dressed in the work clothes of a repair technician, a short, thick shouldered man screwed the cover of an air conditioning outlet back into the wall. He examined his work, making sure it fit exactly the same as before. The man’s wallet computer vibrated, so he pulled it out of his pocket and held it in front of his face.

“De Luca.”

A near instantaneous series of scans – retinal, facial, voice and fingerprint – verified his identity.

A young female voice came from his wallet computer, “He just left the office,” and disconnected.

Putting his computer back into his pocket, De Luca yelled up the staircase, “She says Ray just left the office. Let’s wrap it up and get out of here.”

A male voice came from the second floor. “Just finishing his bedroom.”

For a moment, it was quiet in the house, and De Luca could hear the faint rumble of the surf. The wood stairs squeaked from rapid footsteps, and the other man entered the kitchen.

“Everything working up there?” De Luca said, more a statement than a question.

The man nodded and walked out the front door. De Luca glanced around the kitchen.
Everything looked undisturbed. Soon we’ll find out, he thought. I hope Ray knows something about the virus. It would be a pleasure to eliminate that pretentious son of a bitch.

One last look across the kitchen and De Luca was out the door.

*

It was a cold, blustery evening when Ray left the house, so he pulled the hood of his heavy jacket over his head. He walked down to the ocean, halting briefly when the waves began to touch his shoes. Ray left fragile tracks in the sand as he skimmed along the edge of the surf, leaning into the wind as he walked. The cold wind and the always-changing sound of the surf helped to clear his mind. Everyone needs a place where they really fit in, he thought. For him, it was the rugged Oregon coastline surrounding his home. The ocean was too cold and the beach too rocky to attract many tourists, so the coastline had retained its lonely beauty. Ray’s fears began to ebb, and he thought clearly.

There was a beast lurking in his software. Somehow, a powerful, dangerous beast had taken control of Atlas. The power of the virus was almost without limit; it could override all the controls built into the operating system. All the defenses he had so carefully conceived were useless.

Rolling, gray clouds were outlined in the weak light of the moon. Sand scratched at his face as the wind gusted. Still, he continued to walk.

This beast, PeaceMaker, could seize control of billions of computers around the world at any time – computers that humanity depended upon for survival. Even more frightening was the person who created it. What kind of mind could do this? He gazed down the shoreline, but the beach quickly disappeared behind the blowing sands. Somewhere out there, a person of incredible intellect and determination worked toward a terrible purpose.

His life’s work was at risk. Ray created Atlas and made it into a wondrous friend of humanity, but someone was trying to take his work and use it to inflict great harm. Shivering as a gust of wind penetrated his jacket, he vowed to stop them, whatever it took.

The wind and sand continued their attack as Ray walked.