Four Chapter Sample
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THE MEDIA REPUBLIC,
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Copyright ©2001 by Paul W. Dueweke
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Paul W. Dueweke
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"Television is democracy at its ugliest."
State of the Union
"Isn't that Lizzie Special something, Elliott?" Martha said. "I just knew she was going to win the primary. Didn't I tell you that a month ago?"
Elliott Townsend turned toward his wife seated beside him to respond, but she was already turned away from him toward one wall of the Clifford Hotel ballroom that exploded with TV coverage of the NBC Democratic Primary. From his elevated position near the center of the speaker's table, he scanned the ballroom audience, his co-workers. They were gathered here to honor him, to usher him into retirement. But Hollywood had seized them, had plucked their mind strings with measured strokes, and they resonated with tuned ardor.
Then his gaze tumbled to the program lying on the table in front of him. "Dr. Elliott T. Townsend, Director, HyperPhysics HyperCollider." While the cadence of the candidate birthing wrenched everyone else's attention to the TV, Elliott moved his coffee cup and continued reading through a crescent stain. "We present you with our sincere gratitude on this sixteenth day of July, 2048. The world joins us in thanking you for your guidance and inspiration and forty years of dedication to science and human development that
" The program blurred as his mind focused on those two words human development. The words stung as he rambled among the images of his distinguished career, strewn about like so many fallen trees awaiting their fate, and not caring.
He examined his career and human development while the ballroom thumped to the media event. He stared through the distortion of his wine glass stem at those two words. How had anything he'd ever done had any positive influence on human development?
His eyelids twitched reflexively in time to the drumming music as the words dissolved. He'd spent forty years in the world's most advanced scientific laboratory, surrounded by some of the most brilliant scientific minds of the century. Tremendous technical challenges filled his life; and there were the accolades including a Nobel Prize, The President's Science Prize, and two High Energy Physics Medals. He'd played an essential role in the most sophisticated display of technology ever composed. But what about human development? He worked it like a Rubic Cube that didn't quite come together.
The applause brought him back. He looked up in surprise, puzzled that he'd daydreamed through the media blitz, grateful that he didn't care. The audience began to refocus its attention on him as Dr. John Gingman rose to the podium. "We're all indebted that you've offered to share your special evening with the NBC Primary, Dr. Townsend." The room filled with a few seconds of applause as Elliott smiled to the assembly. "During this commercial break, we can continue with our tribute to Dr. Townsend." Dr. Gingman recited a litany of Elliott's achievements at the world's premier high-energy physics laboratory.
Elliott graciously accepted a piece of simulated black walnut with a brass plaque. They had named the new wing of the computation center after him, the lobby containing a similar plaque. He delivered a minute of forgotten oratory about his role in the evolution of the laboratory, about the endless quest for quarks, about the great advances that they'd bestowed on science and human development. He retreated to his seat beside Martha as the applause dissipated.
Dr. Gingman took the podium once more. "Dr. Townsend's great accomplishments could easily consume us for several evenings like this. As you all know, the Democratic Primary didn't end Wednesday as expected because Junkie and Tab have made spectacular comebacks to catch Lizzie Special. I know you're all as excited as Dr. Townsend to see who will be the NBC Democratic Party candidate for president. I think the final game of the evening is about to start, and then we'll get back to the real reason we're here this evening."
"This must be a very proud day for you, dear." Martha presented him a camera smile just before she turned toward the giant TV screen.
" The answer tumbled into his half cup of coffee and cooled it further. It must be, he thought. He sipped his merlot.
As the room darkened again and the thunder and lightening of NBC's most spectacular offering broke over the audience, Elliott's gaze tangled with the hair flowing from Martha's head. Did she see the same thing in him that he saw? Did she see in him a skeleton of empty years, a lost family? But where did I lose them, he thought. Of course, and she knows, too.
His eyes pierced the evening and clung to those times gone by, and the pain that had only subsided as he learned to anesthetize himself with years of long nights at the Lab. But the price of that anesthetic had been dear. It cost him Susie and Luke. It was the science fair and Dobbs. They talked about him at the Lab like he was a hero, but they didn't know about Ms. Dobbs. They didn't know that the Lab was just a hiding place for him.
Suddenly a blinding flash and a crash erupted into the room so even Elliott couldn't ignore it. Another world roared in upon him.
The game show MC prodded his simulated audience, arousing its synthetic emotions. His audience erupted, programmed with spontaneity, saturating the airwaves with ordered zeal. "This has turned out to be one of the tightest races in Election Beat history! Right now, Lizzie Special and Tab Hardman are both within fifty points of being the NBC candidate for President of the United States, and Junkie Gordon is right behind them with forty-six hundred points! The last time I saw a race this tight was for the Sixteenth Congressional District in North Carolina six years ago! This next game could put either Lizzie or Tab over the top; or if Junkie wins it, we could be in an unprecedented three way tie!"
Lizzie, Tab, and Junkie all pulsated before the cameras, whooping for the support of the hundreds of millions of viewers. A little American flag danced in Lizzie's hand, throbbing into a blur as she skipped out from the contestant booth. She tucked the flag handle into her cleavage, and performed an erotic dance, calling on all the physical assets she could reveal in this relatively low-key environment. If she'd been at a rally or a talk show, she could have provoked the audience with much more than a mere suggestion of her allure. But Election Beat maintained a conservative image, and she honored that tradition.
Within a heartbeat, she was joined by Tab and Junkie who feared she might upstage them. Tab's youthful, tanned, athletic body and his prodigious biceps and surging crotch twisted in sensual rhythms. Junkie pranced about with jewels glistening, shadowed eyes flashing, and a well-choreographed grin seducing his adoring followers.
A laser show extravaganza heightened the mayhem; a bare-chested band, sporting peacock plumes, added cacophony. Screams and wails and applause flooded the broadcast and permeated the spirit of the American voter. This was primary night for the NBC Democrats. The soul of America lay exposed.
The NBC computer ran with all the speed and power built into it. It commanded the studio, keeping every player on cue, switching the active camera, balancing light and sound according to complex optimization codes, adjusting prompts to fit the evolving scenario which is never quite as rehearsed, interfacing with computers at a dozen NBC regional centers all over America which were taking the real time pulse of the electorate via millions of interactive TV dialogs.
The NBC computer executed countless instructions every second, calling subroutines and macros at a hundred software levels. Everyone expected a flawless production, and no one was disappointed. Network executives cheered the system performance. Party leaders inhaled the rating uptick. Americans devoured the carnival.
But the computer was just a machine, just doing its job.
After a sustained frenzy, the MC joined the three contestants amid hugs, thumbs up, and smiles. Everyone was exuberant, confident, and young. They played to the invisible sea of smiles swelling across the land behind the sterile eye of the studio camera. A throng of hands, joining in spasmodic devotion, resonated silently in their minds. The MC gathered them together, and with a communal embrace, shouted into the collective ear of America, "One of these three contestants will be your next president!"
The scene erupted once more as the primeval ritual soared to another orgasm and then slowly changed back to the game show whence it had evolved. The breathless candidates were coaxed back to their booths where a river of placid lights now flashed as a signal that the serious business of picking a presidential candidate was about to begin.
Elliott's eyes wandered from this media event to the people collected in his honor. His gaze stopped first on Martha who clutched her purse, her fingers fondling it as they would have the multimedia controller had she been in her living room. Every pair of eyes in the room, save one, was transfixed by the historic moment. Every face but one was upturned and bathed in the penumbrous glow of feral allegiance.
The game-show camera zoomed in on Lizzie's bronzed face, and the MC squeezed his face in beside her to nurture civic pride across America. "Ready, Lizzie?"
She rapped back, "Well don't you know
I'm ready to go
you need a blow?
just flash your dough."
The MC roared with delight and wagged his finger in front of the naughty guest. Lizzie grabbed his finger, swallowed it up to his knuckles, and sucked with her whole body in a convulsive rush, her eyes rolling heavenward. The band blasted ascending scales as the network computer broadcasted a sea of applause and whoops. In spite of the careful rehearsals, Tab nervously tried to interrupt this routine to gain the spotlight. The cameras ignored his gestures.
"Oh, Lizzie," the MC groaned, "you just got my vote! If you're elected president, can I be your first man?"
"That job was filled a lot of men ago, Rod, but you can sure be my next one."
With a high five and an intro from the band, the MC stepped over to Tab, who leaped into the charged aura surrounding the MC. Tab wore a multi-colored sleeveless shirt with a black tie to accentuate his conservative appearance.
"Well, Tab, you look like you're ready. Do you -- "
"Hey, I do! I sure do! I'm like up with you, like scratching the score! I mean we're together but not thick, you know what I mean." He rocked side-to-side so far that the camera had to zoom out to keep him in the picture.
The MC thrust himself into the camera and gestured with his eyebrows. "Okay, folks, sounds like Tab has got himself in the mood to play!" Relinquishing the camera to Tab again, he said, "Tab! Is there anything else -- "
"My people says
I'll be the Pres
It'll be toooo rad
in my White House
in my White House
Despite the MC's prodding, Tab didn't respond to the teleprompter which futilely flashed PAD. But the computer directed a world-class audience response to his patter. And viewers across America, and around the world, loved it just the same.
"You're my man, Tab!" the MC shouted into the din in mid high-five. "And you are up for the presidency!"
He then stepped to the last booth where Junkie stood, seemingly oblivious to the scene. His head was shaved save for one dread lock which curved around behind his head toward his chin and was interwoven with his beard. He said that gave him continuity with the universe and allowed him to recycle wisdom that most people let escape through their hair ends.
"No incertitude, Flash," Junkie assured. He looked directly into the camera, raised and cocked his head, and blew a diminutive kiss. The slightest of grins diffused from his eyes to his cheeks as thunderous applause, whoops, and foot stomping radiated across the globe from the NBC transmitter and was echoed by countless millions of feasting fans. "I've knocked balls with tougher scabs; and I always always come up with my pectoral per - pen - dic - u - lar." The airwaves erupted once more as Junkie gazed coolly into the camera and stroked his rope of hair as if asking for direction from his recycled wisdom.
"You have said it all, Junkie!" the MC testified with mock bows. "You have said it all! There's no doubt! You're king of the queers!" Once more, the airwaves resounded as Tab scowled and Lizzie applauded politely.
The camera slowly zoomed out during the applause to show all the contestants, each doing what their adoring fans had come to know and cherish them for. Each appealed to an element of the electorate in ways startlingly like their twentieth-century presidential ancestors.
Elliott's eyes wandered out into the audience that had gathered for him. Most of them were much younger than him. His gaze rambled from face to face, each upturned to the iridescent banquet, each feasting.
"Now it's time for each candidate to pick your topic," the MC said in a hushed tone, "and all you viewers at home get ready to vote. Okay, now each candidate, project your hologram for the viewers to see." The studio lights went out as three colorful holograms danced out of the contestant boxes and swirled together in a ring of brilliance before coming to rest. Each candidate gripped a signaling device and waited for the first round of play.
There was another computer, larger, more complex than the NBC main frame and more mature. It lived about twenty miles away in a big white building in the Hollywood Hills. It was tied to its disciple by a fiber optic network which carried data at thousands of gigabits-per-second tonight. This computer didn't execute instructions. It performed. And it was ecstatic.
This was payday. It was going public tonight with an incredible new technology, one that the masses would never even suspect. This computer lived a life of secrets secrets it shared with a select few humans in the media. And somber secrets it wasn't supposed to have secrets it shared with no human.
Martha drained the bottle of merlot. Elliott's gaze rebounded from the display, almost not seeing it. The antics, the staging, the battle of light and sound, all seemed so foreign to him. He reached for the cabernet. It was 2010 that was the year 2010. He knew how long ago that was. If he could just cut that year out of his life, just cut it out.
He looked at the field of daisies on the cabernet label. A beautiful, slender woman with barely-reddish hair sat on a blanket holding her glass toward a man as he filled it. She wore a white dress, too, just like Susie did on her wedding day, at least according to the photo she sent him.
Last time he said more than a handful of words to Susie was at Luke's wedding. She and John wanted to get married "away from the world." He accepted the maroon liquid that tempted his lips. Away from me, he thought. That was more than a dozen years after the science fair, and she still couldn't forgive her father. And now, so many more years have elapsed. I won't have my lab to hide in anymore. No more Higgs particles and quarks to count. Just me and Martha and our ugly history and all this bullshit around us.
Threat to the Republic
Professor Terra Halvorsen sat in her living room about a mile from her office at the Political Science Department. Curled in her lap lay her cat, Samantha, unresponsive to the commotion on the wall-TV before them. But Professor Halvorsen made up for Samantha's lethargy. She watched the Primary with singular intensity.
She wasn't interested in choosing a candidate or playing the games everyone swilled. Her focus slashed through the peripherals, digesting every facial expression, every movement, every shadow. She wasn't just watching; but dissecting, penetrating, analyzing. Her attention spotlighted the faces, looking for flaws, searching for any glimpse or clue to support her belief.
She'd developed a simple but controversial theory with painstaking research. But her effort had been met first with an artificial indifference that intellectuals reserve for issues that cause concern, but which they hope will just disappear with neglect. This indifference turned to hostility by the university administrators as it became clear that Professor Halvorsen wouldn't just go away.
Professor Halvorsen nudged Samantha, and the black and white ball turned her head sideways and looked up at her with one eye. She nudged her again. "Come on, Sammy. I have to get up now, so it's time for you to vamoose."
Samantha stretched one paw far up her robe until it came to rest on bare skin. "Ouch! Not with your claws, Sammy!" She stood up with Samantha who jumped down in displeasure.
The sudden movement caused a pair of eyes to retreat quickly and silently from the skylight. Several feet over the professor's head, this pair of eyes had watched the scene intently. The brain behind these eyes, however, was assimilating data in a different way and for a different reason than was Professor Halvorsen. Although this being was as intent on her as she was on the candidates, it had vastly different intentions. With the stealth of a cat, it repositioned three of its legs on the wooden shakes. The two eyes telescoped forward again until they could once more observe the setting below. It was trained to be exceedingly cautious, and it carried out its missions with diligence and tenacity. It had been an A+ student. A "jaw" was carefully tucked beneath it like a napalm bomb beneath an attack plane. It would be called on at the proper time.
Its control system continually checked the status of each critical subsystem, maintaining a readiness for any eventuality. A single drop of venom fell on the roof, and as if embarrassed by this tiny infraction of robotic protocol, it adjusted the pressure on the injector to prevent another such occurrence. Meanwhile, it resumed its surveillance on its target human.
Professor Halvorsen's hair was long and blond, like her name might suggest. Though in her late forties, she had no trouble avoiding accumulations of fat since she subscribed to the latest regimen of drugs which sculpted her body chemistry to her desires. Her slender legs rose like saplings into the terry cloth attending her. She brushed her hair behind her right ear and walked toward her study where she sat down before a computer. Her hair slowly regained its desired position, strand by strand, like a child testing a distracted parent.
The dormant computer surged to life with a touch. With a few glances at icons and some verbal commands, she had ultra-high-resolution images of the three candidates from the Primary at her command. Now she could examine them again, but at her leisure and with all the power of the best image analysis software at her disposal.
She had worked at the University for nearly twenty years, though they'd not been easy years. The problem wasn't lack of publishing. She had seventy presentations and journal articles to her credit. She'd chaired numerous symposia and co-edited two books, one of which became a popular text book early in her career. The problem wasn't her relationship with students or lack of teaching ability. The undergraduate course she had regularly taught was popular and received the highest grades from her students.
The University, however, hadn't allowed her to teach a course for years. She was told that many of the students completing her class had "demonstrated an unhealthy attitude toward many of the basic tenants of twenty-first-century disciplined democracy" and that many parents and alumni had complained about her iconoclast views.
Cynical was the University's word describing her view of government, and there was no need for cynicism. The Government had taken dramatic steps to insure total and uncompromising honesty in the political process. Technology wrested every bit of lying and empire building out of the political arena. In fact, the socially-correct term for politician had recently become social principal which had been shortened to sopal and was being further shortened to pal by a subtle media campaign.
But Professor Halvorsen refused to believe that Government could be trusted to monitor its own integrity and maintain the degree of discipline presumed by its new role. Since the media's traditional watchdog role had become compromised by its alignments with political parties, she felt there might no longer be anyone overseeing the overseer.
Most skeptics like her had been weeded out of the education establishment over the last twenty years. But her brother-in-law occupied a very influential position at the National Subsidy Foundation and she had an aunt at the National Pension for Preceptors. This helped make her maverick ways tolerable to an intolerant aristocracy.
Technology had become the principal tool of the many tentacles of Government. Not only did it allow unprecedented access to the minds of the electorate, it provided a subtle wall between it and them, a barrier that ordinary people could neither understand nor penetrate. Technology was the most effective isolation Government could maintain during a period when it claimed to be bringing both the leaders and the led into a historically-unique milieu, a oneness of body and function that would preserve fundamental rights into the centuries that followed.
Professor Halvorsen had her PhD in political science, but understood that the science of poli-sci wasn't the science of the technological elite. She felt she would have to understand technology if she were to understand the workings of this new republic, so she studied communication engineering. But this had become another wedge between herself and the Political Science Department. They resented her as uppity, an engineering transvestite. Her research into political trends and electro-optical imaging technology made her aware of the fantastic potential for its use and abuse.
This research and her outspokenness had gelled in the events of this evening. Tonight she would test her theory based on thousands of hours of research. It would be her vindication to the University. She would have hard data that not even an academic community, dedicated to the status quo and fearful of government funding agencies, could ignore.
Her rooftop visitor began the next stage of its mission. It opened the skylight with its myriad of tools and used its eight perfectly coordinated legs to climb into the skylight well where it was only a dozen feet to the floor. Attaching itself to the roof with a thread of synthetic silk, its jet-black body, about the size of a cat, lowered into Professor Halvorsen's living room. It descended its silken thread as if it had been bred for a billion years for just this task. Eight legs flexed gracefully to a silent ballet in its brain.
Its goal, however, wasn't centered on the illumination of beauty, but on extinguishing truth. Reaching the floor, it disconnected the silken tether and examined the surroundings with both visible and infrared sensors. A single-minded goal drove each movement.
Its feline size and spindly legs did not suggest the immense power built into it or the intelligence which allowed autonomous completion of the most complex assignments. It was a monument to the highest callings of human ingenuity and art. It was also a terrifying and vulgar machine the progeny of the excellence and the malignancy of man.
Silently creeping toward Professor Halvorsen's study, its arachnid movements were controlled by a brain whose evolution was integrated with that of man, not spiders. It entered the room where its target was seated facing sideways so her peripheral vision intersected the robot. Her attention, however, was focused on her own mission.
Samantha napped with her head buried in the folds of a mauve robe. The spider's movements slowed to mimic a stalking cat as it approached its victim, a victim who was at that moment reveling in her future, a future the spider was committed to erasing.
Suddenly Samantha raised her head, her ears at first forward to sense the silence, and then lay back to the frontier of terror. The spider now had its injector fully armed, its legs tensioned for attack, its brain calculating angles, forces, trajectories, maneuvers, sequences.
Professor Halvorsen looked down at Samantha, then turned her head slowly toward the doorway. A gasp rose involuntarily from her throat, a beautiful soft throat that was now at the center of the spider's zoom-optics field-of-view. In a fraction of an instant, the spider was wrapping its legs about her head and her shoulders in the last embrace that Professor Halvorsen would ever experience. The injector plunged deep into her throat and remained only long enough to expel its venom. The trio was now tumbling across the floor, but only Samantha got up and ran. Stalker and prey were locked together in a union that would last only a moment, only until her every muscle became limp, and a thoughtful and beautiful woman was transformed into just a body.
Looking for More
The Townsends sat in their breakfast room sipping fresh coffee and reading fresh news. They each had their own copy of the Times in front of them dated 9:13 AM MDT, July 17, 2048. Elliott looked at the corner with the "next page" icon, and page three instantly appeared on the electronic paper display before him. He folded it in half, sat back, and looked at the top headline "LIZZIE WINS BIG." It responded by filling the page with a replay of last night's "Election Beat." Elliott had the interface icon set to "reader only" so a coherent sound pattern would be projected toward him in such a way that only his ears received the message so as not to bother Martha with her own reading.
"Well, Lizzie, last night you topped the comp and with one hell of a finish. At this rate, you'll sweep the finals, and you could become our next Pres."
"You know, Jack, I've been dreamin' at this for years, and I can't say enough about my NBC spags." Her blond ponytail danced in time with her breasts and gestures. "It's a shine, and I'll sure try to live up to the specs. We've got some tough issues in our face, and I think I can help America over the humps." She faced the camera, exposed her widest smile, waved a small American flag with one hand, and gave a thumbs up with the other, all accompanied by more thunderous applause.
"Lizzie," the MC continued, "you started out as a tennis star at Sportford, then turned pro and grabbed the top prize money six years in a row. Then you cranked with American Warriors for a diversion, and you just warped out a new book Safe Drugs and Pro Tennis. And with all this, you still have time for your rap group, and they're the highest paid in the business according to Hard Sex last month. And if that isn't enough, your latest movie, Cape Desire III, has been tops at the box for two quads." The MC turned to the TV viewers. "As you can see, Lizzie brings it all to her bid for the Chief Chief. But Lizzie has some pretty tough competitors. Let's bang with the other two. First is Tab Hardman who's sure no stranger to our studio. Tab started out on the Soaps and got interested in public service after he pegged the rates as the gay pimp, Roundmouth Robbins, on NBC's Nights of Rapture where he also pegged the TV pay scales making him the second highest paid
Elliott fast-forwarded to the last contestant, Junkie Gordon. "
and since leaving the Dung Druggers, Junkie's been composing and performing music for some of the biggest flicks like Big Kink II and Pillage IV. Junkie's a little different cuz he's already served time in the Senate where
Elliott's attention shifted out the window. There was Lizzie with her ponytail bobbing and her nipples erect, and Junkie with his silver chains and noserings. Tab was there too. And the constant applause, and the flags and holograms and shouts and more applause and categories and cameras and MCs and smiles, a sea of smiles. He saw countless Americans sitting at home, enchanted by entertainers and living their lives vicariously in them. Some entertainers called themselves baseball players, some musicians, others movie stars. Entertainment was their craft.
He saw another world of entertainers, but they called themselves news anchors, journalists, and editors. Their goals and tactics were similar to those who admitted to being entertainers. They all, in fact, worked together in the same business infotainment.
The common thread was money. The unwealthy loved wealth and loved wealthy people and the glamour they surround themselves with. And it didn't matter if these heroes had talent or were offensive. Their display of wealth and disdain for the unwealthy and the hype they heaped upon themselves were exactly the qualities that bound their patrons to them.
"How did all this happen? How could it?" he said, his lips reacting to the images.
Elliott retreated to his paper. He looked at the corner with the "next page" icon and page three appeared. He sat back, and looked at the top headline: "ORGANIZED CRIME WAVE ACCELERATES."
"Organized crime has become increasingly aggressive with its high-tech hit squads. Hardly a day goes by without murders attributed to wars among rival factions. It's become common to use robots to kill operatives and burned out agents. The advantage of a hit robot is twofold: first, the robots are more clandestine than a human can be, but more important, a robot leaves no telltale DNA or chemical print. And even if one is apprehended, there's no way to trace it to its source if its users have taken the proper precautions.
"These robots are frequently called spiders for obvious reasons. They're very expensive, and it's unlikely anyone would have access to such advanced technology except organized crime. When asked if the FBI or COPE has any such devices, the FBI spokesperson said, 'Absolutely not.'"
Elliott looked away from the article and shuttered at the thought of an encounter with such a thing. He hated and feared spiders since that childhood day when he'd been tasked to clean out the garage. His doctor theorized he must have gotten into a nest of brown recluse spiders judging by the multiple punctures on his face and neck. Elliott lay in a coma for two weeks.
He'd never been able to talk to anyone about what actually happened that day. His thoughts could proceed only to the point where he began to drag a used tire off of an overhead shelf. The next thing he remembered was waking up in the hospital. Since then, he's been subconsciously on the guard against chance meetings with spiders. He would frequently break into a sweat with itching and swelling arms just at the sight of a spider.
He forced his eyes back to the newspaper. "The FBI has identified the latest victim as Terra Halvorsen, a professor of political science. Dr. Halvorsen was murdered in her home. There was no sign of forced entry, and a single puncture wound was found in her neck. An autopsy report is pending.
"The FBI has traced Dr. Halvorsen's activities to dealing in the stolen advanced communication technology arena. She used her political science position as a cover in the lucrative technology espionage field. Most hit-robot victims don't have such an obvious connection with organized crime as Halvorsen, however FBI investigations invariably show that the victim was probably a discrete drug dealer or involved in some kind of international software trade."
Elliott watched without emotion. When he turned his eyes away from the newspaper toward Martha, the article stopped. Martha was watching something else and didn't notice his gaze at first. She finally looked up at him and said, "What're you looking at, Ted?"
"I just read --"
"There's this article about the Navy," Martha said. "Did you know they're going to start naming ships after baseball players? Don't you think that's nice? There's going to be a TV lottery or something to pick the names. You remember how you used to follow baseball when we first met?"
"Yeah. I used to." Elliott's stare shifted back to the back yard. "Remember when Susie was in college?" he asked, "She had that political science professor she thought was so great?"
"Yes," she said. "I remember that. She had some kind of Swedish name."
"Yes, that's it."
"Remember," Elliott continued, "when Luke got into college, he wanted to take the same course, but they wouldn't let Halvorsen teach it?"
"Yeah. That's right. There was an article in the Campus Daily about conspiracy. You even went to see Dean Tresbien about it, didn't you?"
Elliott nodded. "Stonewall Stewart."
"It was one of the few times you ever poked your nose out of your lab, at least since you stuck it into Susie's science career."
Elliott paused for a moment while Martha refreshed her coffee. "Halvorsen was murdered last night."
"Oh my goodness, Ted! That's terrible!"
"FBI says it was organized crime. Says she was involved in some kind of espionage." Their eyes met.
"Elliott, you just get that Don Quixote look out of your eyes. I haven't seen that look for a long, long time, but I know it means trouble. This sounds a lot more serious that just making the dean mad. You aren't a detective. Don't think because you don't know what to do with yourself now, you can start playing FBI. The University gave you your old office and full privileges for a year. I hope you spend time there instead of getting into trouble
like you used to before you married the Lab."
Elliott kept silent for a long time, adrift in the back yard. "Why do they ask such stupid questions on those game shows? And then pretend it's all so meaningful? It's all bullshit, you know! Where are the debates? Where are the real candidates that deal with real issues, or at least lie about them? They don't even do that any more. You remember that, Martha? Remember when the politicians used to lie about everything? They don't now. You watch those shows. They just talk about bullshit, right? Who needs to lie about that?"
"That seems a lot better than it used to be," Martha said. "Isn't bullshit better than lies?"
"I don't think that's very funny."
"I remember when we were young, and we were both active in politics," continued Martha. "I used to volunteer for the Democrats, and you were on some third party committee. We both used to get so upset about the politicians' lies. And we weren't the only ones. But now people don't get upset anymore. It's a much happier way to live. I know you understand that because you escaped, too. But you chose to hide in your lab with your equations and high voltages. The rest of the world escaped to the TV and being entertained. You see, it's all the same thing. You had your game, and we had ours. The difference is that you don't have your game anymore. But I still have mine."
Elliott frowned and looked out the window at Grunt, the little lawn maintenance robot. Grunt was just finishing trimming around the flower bed before following its standard routine of going next door to take care of the Mason's lawn.
"It's going to be tough for you until you can adjust to the world you're in now," she continued. "You've been away a long time. Just don't go criticizing the world I've grown into while you were off playing your silly games at work. Either join my world or leave me alone, but don't throw rocks and screw it up for me."
Elliott followed Grunt's progress, inwardly glad that Grunt was a tracked robot rather than an eight-legged one.
"And don't go stirring up trouble over this Halvorsen thing." She turned back to her newspaper. "You could get hurt."
"I could get hurt? What does that mean?"
"You know, you've had your head in the sand for a long time. Things have changed since you jumped into your little playground a lifetime ago and locked the door. I've heard stories that there's some group or something, I don't even know what, that takes care of people that stir up mud people like you. Maybe it's COPE."
"What are you talking about? COPE just sponsors candidates."
"See? You're just a stupid old man. You don't have any idea, do you?"
"My name is Professor Townsend from HPHC." Elliott paused and extended his hand to the middle-aged lady seated in her office next to the receptionist.
She slowly raised her head. Her hand followed reluctantly. "I am the Political Science Administrator."
"Dean Tresbien wanted me to come over to see if we could help sort out Professor Halvorsen's things," Elliott said.
The administrator squinted up at Elliott form her desk without moving her head. "I see, but we weren't expecting you, and I can't imagine what Professor Halvorsen would be doing with anyone from the HyperCollider. This is the Political Science Department, as I'm sure you are aware."
"Yes, it's a little strange, but we'd been collaborating on a data-analysis problem, something she was doing about candidates and funding. Anyway, it turned out that looking for correlations in her data was very similar to looking for certain high-energy-physics events in a chaotic background, so I was helping her apply our computer programs to her problem. Dean Tresbien thought I might be able to help sort out some computer files or something. I think there were several papers that were almost ready to publish, and we agreed it would be fitting for her name and the Political Science Department's to appear in the journals as a tribute to her great work."
"Yes," she drew out as she touched a button labeled Dean Tresbien. After listening for a half minute, she said, "Dean Tresbien is out of town today."
"It would only take me a few minutes to find the files we worked on together. I could put them together and leave them with you. It would be a snap, then, for the department to get them published."
"I wouldn't want to put you to such a trouble, Professor Townsend. I'm sure we can --
"Oh, I'd be happy to do it. Terra was such a wonderful person, and she had such insight into political affairs. I want to do something to memorialize her name. I promise I won't disturb anything, and I'll be gone in a jiffy." Elliott walked down the hall to a room marked Halvorsen, and entered.
The administrator said, "Wait just a minute!" but was too late. She punched the button labeled COPE.
Elliott was busy on Halvorsen's computer when he was interrupted by a scratching sound behind him. He looked up to the flick of a lighter. Two eyes studied the glow of tobacco as smoke billowed around them. Two lips parted just enough to liberate sweet smoke where it convolved into fractals. Elliott met his gaze through the cloud just as another cloud was born. They played a waiting game in non-committed silence. Finally, Elliott rose and stared into the steel face of Sherwood.
"I'm Professor Townsend. And you are?"
"I understand you were advised not to interfere with any of the Halvorsen things. We take quite a dim view of burglary."
"And who is we?" Elliott asked.
"I recommend that you leave behind anything you might have found here. This is all Government property, and you are liable for prosecution."
"I see," said Elliott. "And by what authority do you claim this as so-called Government Property?"
"You have precisely two options, Townsend. You may leave immediately with nothing more than what you arrived with, or
" He drew a long breath through the glowing tobacco and directed the rest of his sentence to the bowl of his pipe, punctuating it with aromatic bursts. "
you may leave immediately with some form of stolen property." He then raised his eyes toward Elliott. The image of Sherwood was disfigured by a gray cloud which slowly began to clear. "In the later event, we will surely have the pleasure of another meeting. Unless, of course, I am otherwise occupied, in which case I will apologize in advance for having to send one of my
" He removed the pipe from his mouth and exhaled the final word, "
To read the entire novel,
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Paul W. Dueweke
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