NOTE: This is a first draft. It is sure to contain grammar and plot errors. Please let me know if you find any so that I may correct them in my rewrite.
A comedy-drama in which a sleuth, who considers herself a kind of modern day Sherlock Holmes, is assisted by her companion, a sentient robot.
Set only several years in the future, when things are hardly different from now, this is a mild comedy with elements of suspense and action.
Special thanks to my good friend Geneva Birchmire, who made me realise the main character could be a woman, and came up with the name Shirley.
And I owe my wonderful Mum for every story I've written. Each time I have a problem with the plot she has helped me.
I first met her at the front door of my home. She was dressed like a man, in black ankle-boots, dark gray pants, matching jacket, and white shirt unbuttoned at the throat, no tie. The strap of a plain, gray, canvas bag crossed from one shoulder to the opposite hip. Her almost straight, mouse-brown hair was short and unruly. She wore no adornments and no makeup. Her face, neither attractive nor ugly was unremarkable except for the spray of freckles across her cheeks, and frown of concentration. At the time I thought that she was unhappy about something, but was later to understand this was her normal expression; she was permanently locked into a state of intense concentration.
"James Watt?" she inquired and handed me her card.
Her business card displayed the name Shirlocke, spelled differently from the fictional detective Sherlock, and under the name, in smaller font, Consulting Detective. I opened the door wider and motioned her in. "My father has been expecting you."
She stepped in, but one foot caught on the door-stoop and she tripped forward, reaching out her hand as she went down, catching some fingers in my shirt pocket, ripping it half off and almost pulling me down on top of her. She got up off the floor and, as if nothing had happened, asked, "This way?"
I nodded and closed the door behind her, then led the way down the hall to my father's work room near the back of the house. We entered his large workshop and my father looked up from the electron microscope screen when I announced, "Miss Shirlocke is here to see you, Father."
"Just Shirlocke," she corrected, and she walked over to my father while throwing searching looks all about the room.
"Oh," said my father. He stood with his hands behind his back, not offering to shake hands. He disliked touching people. "I didn't realise you were a woman — not that it's a problem, of course. I'm James Watt." He frowned slightly. I could tell he was gritting his teeth, waiting for the predictable jokes about the inventor of the steam engine, but they didn't come.
With what I would come to realise was her trademark directness, this odd young woman in men's attire ignored his name and got straight to the point. "You said in your email that you're being watched and followed, and your communications intercepted. Why do you believe this to be so? Most particularly, what makes you think your messages are being monitored?"
Father was a little surprised and pleased at her straightforwardness. He preferred direct speech himself. He nodded and paused, not relishing the need to get this next bit out of the way first. This was the point at which many of the previous investigators had refused to help. "Before I answer that, in the interest of openness I should first mention that I've long been diagnosed as paranoid. However, above my normal paranoia I can tell that I'm being watched and that my life may even be in danger. It is difficult to point to specific instances as they can mostly be dismissed as appearing to be merely slightly unusual things misread by a paranoid mind." He paused and looked very serious. "But I assure you I'm not making a mistake. I have lived with my paranoia for a very long time. I have an excellent understanding of the workings of the mind and am smart enough to allow for it."
"Yes, I am already aware of your paranoia and your capabilities as regards the mind, Mr Watt." She half-turned to me and raised her arm dramatically. "You created your son, who is in reality an artificially intelligent machine."
My father's mouth dropped open in surprise. "How the devil did you know that?"
I have to admit I was rather taken aback too.
She walked toward me. "Although he is a very convincing construct, a few things gave him away. He is not your biological son because you could not be genetically related. You have free earlobes whereas," she pointed to one of my ears, "his earlobes are attached. Free earlobes are genetically dominant. There are a few other points of difference, such as dimpled chin, bent pinky finger, and mid-digit hair."
She spoke to me, "You might have missed out on one dominant trait, but were unlikely to have missed four obvious ones." She turned back to Father, "And then there is his apparent age. You would have had to beget him in your early teens."
I raised my hand, "But..." intending to interrupt and point out that simple genetic dominance of dimpled chin, bent pinky, and mid-digit hair is actually a myth, and that the genes and age could be explained by adoption, but Shirlocke continued.
She turned once more to me and pointed to my raised hand. "I noticed that your ring finger flexes the same as the other fingers, but the end joint is customarily not as flexible as the others."
This puzzled me, "But I hardly bent any of my fingers in taking the card from you."
She pointed to the knuckle wrinkles. "These wrinkles form from repeated stretching. Your father's hand has no wrinkles on that knuckle, but yours do."
I was trying to formulate a way to politely ask how she could be sure inflexibility of that joint was significant of anything, but once again she continued.
"When people speak they take a quick breath of air before, and at various points during speech. You don't. Also, your weight is inconsistent with being human. You are taller than I am, and though you are more slender, if you were human I'd estimate your weight to be about the same as mine, but walking from the front door, floorboards that were silent when you walked on them creaked when I did."
Father smiled and nodded. "Impressive. You're correct. John's head and hands are the only parts that look fully human. That's to improve communication. It is surprising how much the face and hands are needed for that. I built his body out of carbon fibre polymer composites. He's very light because I couldn't recreate the strength and efficiency of biological muscles, so being light saves a lot of energy and lets him move more normally." He addressed me, "John, show Miss Shirlocke--"
"Just Shirlocke, please," she interrupted.
"Uh, yes. John, lift your shirt to show Shirlocke your some of your torso."
Feeling acutely self-conscious, I lifted my shirt and displayed my thin, almost skeletal, shiny blue-gray body underneath. It made me feel ashamed to show the real me — this inhuman fake. Both Father and this odd Shirlocke woman seemed completely unaware of my discomfort.
Father said, "I'm very proud of him. Although he is only a bit more than six years old he is equivalent in intelligence and general knowledge to a middle aged man."
I lowered my shirt and smiled at Father. It was unusual for him to display affection. "Thank you, Father. I'm very proud of you, too."
Shirlocke nodded and continued her explanations. "As for your mental state, the two cameras and proximity detector at the front door, along with the multiple locks, the other cameras inside the hallway and in this room," she pointed out the four cameras in the room, two shiny, black domed, protruding from the ceiling, and two others, small unobtrusive black holes in dim corners, "and add to that the locks on all the internal doors in the house — all this testifies to paranoia."
No doubt about it, she was certainly observant. I don't know how she managed to spot the two small hidden cameras in my father's lab. Father was surprised too, judging by his expression. He invited her to sit on one of the high wooden stools at the workbench and he explained about the admittedly ambiguous sightings of people sitting in cars nearby for many hours, the people who may or may not have been following him on the rare occasions he left the house to buy things, and the noises and echoes on the phone line during conversations.
When Father had finished, Shirlocke sat for a few moments digesting this information. She then dug into her canvas shoulder bag and withdrew two sets of heavy-framed sunglasses. "My rates are five hundred dollars per day, plus expenses. You will wear this for a short time today." She handed the glasses to him. "The frame has a couple of small pieces of mirror, allowing you to see behind you. Keep the glasses high on the bridge of your nose to get them as close to your eyes as possible. That will maximise your field of view." She reached into her bag a second time and pulled out a small box which she opened and took out a small, light gray clip-on microphone which she clipped underneath the lapel of Father's shirt. From the same small box she also took an earplug which she put into her own ear. Keeping her index finger on the earplug she said, "Say something."
"Good," she said. Next she took out a similar box containing another microphone and earplug. This time she gave Father the earplug and clipped the microphone under her own lapel. After she showed him how to set the level she stood, putting the empty boxes back in her shoulder bag. "I'll leave first. In about ten minutes I'll tell you when to exit the building. Follow my instructions. I'll probably just get you to walk around the block and then I'll meet you back here."
First Shirlocke left, then several minutes later, Father went. I watched through the window while they were in view. Shirlocke walked some way up the street and disappeared into a shop. Father wandered slowly up the street, uncharacteristically pausing in front of shop windows. After nearly half an hour they both returned, first Father, then a few minutes later, Shirlocke.
As she was putting away the glasses, earphones, and microphones, Shirlocke said to Father, "You're correct. You are being watched. I will return, either later today or tomorrow morning, when I have more information on who these people are. Perhaps then we can ascertain what their intentions might be." And she left.
I don't need to sleep, so during the night I was reading in the livingroom while Father slept upstairs in his bedroom. At about three in the morning a soft thud sound brought me out of the livingroom into the hall, but nothing seemed amiss so I returned to the lounge to continue reading. In the morning, at six o'clock, I stopped reading and went to the kitchen, as I did every morning, to prepare breakfast for Father. I had set out the things on the table and his morning toast was almost ready, however instead of entering the kitchen as he usually did I heard a yell from him followed by a series of loud thuds, then silence. I rushed from the kitchen and found Father lying, motionless, at the foot of the stairs. I could see he wasn't breathing, but I couldn't deliver mouth-to-mouth resuscitation because I don't use air. In a bit of a panic I called the ambulance using the wireless connection Father had built in to me to link into the house's WiFi. At the same time I tried pushing and releasing his chest to move some small amount of air into and out of his lungs. I also contacted Shirlocke in the hope that she might get here more quickly and be able to help.
The ambulance arrived first. I quickly opening the door for them and hurried back to Father. They tried CPR for some minutes, but it was to no avail. They pronounced Father dead, called the police, then left at the same time Shirlocke arrived.
She squatted next to Father. "Tell me what happened, quickly. The police will be here soon."
I explained that he'd fallen down the stairs as he'd been coming from his bedroom to the breakfast I was serving.
She finished her quick examination of Father, then got up and headed up the stairs toward the bedroom, but stopped suddenly before the top step. Bending down, she peered closely at something, then stood and announced, "This was not an accident. He was murdered. Have you seen this?" She pointed to a tiny hole in the woodwork on one side of the top step, and another on the other side.
I had followed her up the stairs and bent to look more closely. How had she even seen these?
Out of her shoulderbag she produced a kind of wide flat purse which opened to reveal several tools. Selecting a pair of the thinnest tweezers I've seen, she pushed them into the hole in the wall, then slowly pulled out from the hole what looked like the eyelet end of a sewing needle trailing a fine thread like fishing line.
"This line is spring-loaded and the end locks into the hole on the other side of the step, then is released when the person who trips on it has finished tugging on it — like the mechanism on a ballpoint pen — and it reels back into the hole. We need to review the security camera footage."
I was stunned by this, but even so, the full impact of what she'd found hadn't hit me yet. I led her back down to the workshop and to the main work computer.
She told me to display footage from all the cameras in and around the top of the stairs. When I did, it was all blacked out.
"Can you play it backwards to find out when the cameras went blank?"
I remembered the player program's manual. It was unable to reverse the video directly, however it was easy to jump to any point in it, so I could use a simple binary search. Knowing the most recent time that there was definitely normal video, I halved the amount of time between then and now. It showed as black, so I then checked the video frames halfway between those two times. That showed a normal image. Now I halved the time between that and the blacked video and checked that frame. Continuing in this manner I only took a few seconds to locate the exact point at which the video went black. All the cameras blanked out around the same time that I'd heard a sound during the night. There was no obvious clue in the pre-blanked video as to how they were disabled. Shirlocke frowned even more deeply than normal and said, "This isn't the footage from all the cameras."
When I insisted it was, she hurried out of the workshop and up the stairs. She ran into the bedroom and dragged out a chair to the top landing, pulled a long screwdriver from her bag of tools, rammed it up into the dimly lit corner near the ceiling, and quickly levered out a small camera attached to a short aerial. She put it in her bag, stepped off the chair, and ran down the stairs out the front door while pulling her handheld computer from her bag, then stood there taking photographs of a car speeding away.
Stepping back inside, closing the door, and returning to me she said, "The spying device's small size meant the observers were probably nearby — no room in the device for big batteries. I'm pretty sure that car driving away was the same one that was here yesterday. I thought at the time that it looked suspicious. Yesterday while we were walking around outside, your father said he was sure he'd often seen that car and the two men in it. I may be able process the images to get more information, but if it's the same car I already have the number plate from yesterday."
I held out my hand. "I can process the images right now." She handed her camera to me and I took it into the workshop to connect it to the computer. Then I selected the relevant pictures and cropped and enlarged all the car images to the same size, superimposing them using an averaging filter to generate a single image containing more detail than any individual one. The number plate was now clear enough to read.
"It is the same car." She nodded and smiled at me. "We work pretty well together."
At the time I thought it was odd that she would be happy about this when my father lay dead at the bottom of the stairs. Before I could comment on this, there was a knock at the front door, and a voice called out, "Police. Hello?"
I stepped out to the hall. "Please come in Officer. I would introduce you to my father, but he is dead..." my voice faltered, "murdered, it seems." I felt surrounded by turmoil, yet oddly distant, as if standing outside myself.
"Murdered? What makes you think that? The ambulance medic said it was an accident; that he'd fallen down the stairs."
"He did fall, but it wasn't an accident." The corners of my mouth kept tugging down and my voice felt unstable, both of which made it difficult to speak. This made me frustrated with myself and I looked around for Shirlocke, so she could tell the policeman the details, but she'd gone, so I explained about the tripwire at the top of the stairs and the car outside, omitting the hidden camera that Shirlocke had dug out of the wall. She still had it and I didn't want to get her in trouble taking evidence from a crime scene. My eyes kept straying to Father lying there and my limbs felt surprisingly heavy. I just wanted to curl up somewhere quiet.
The police stayed a while longer, asking me many questions and taking photographs, then finally left, taking father on a stretcher, covered by a sheet.
After they left I stood in the hallway and stared at the floor where Father had been. There wasn't even any blood there. It was as if nothing had happened. But it had happened — this morning everything had changed. Someone had deliberately hurt my father — violently snuffed out his life and taken him from me. I groaned. If only I had investigated the sound last night... if I'd gone to the top of the stairs I might have found the wire and released it and Father would still be alive. But I didn't. And he tripped on it. He was killed by someone, but I had the overwhelmingly painful feeling that it was partly my fault. Logically I knew it wasn't, but I still felt responsible. If only I'd done something differently. But I hadn't. So now he was dead. I kept going round and round over this. The anguish I felt at Father's death hurt me worse than anything I'd ever felt.
And then, I'm ashamed to say, I began to feel sorry for myself. I realised that now I was alone. What would I do? I was all by myself — only six years old and my father was gone. Without any real experience of the world other than what I'd read in books and seen in movies, I was now cast adrift and very afraid.
My limbs seemed to weigh much more than they should, so I sat on the floor, back against the wall, staring at the floor where father's life had ebbed away. I felt like I needed to cry, but I knew the tears and sobs I'd read about in books and seen in movies wouldn't come. To cry was one of the things Father had considered useless and illogical, and had deliberately omitted from my mind, so wrapping my arms around my knees and head down on them, I let myself be swallowed up into a quiet and dry pit of hopelessness and despair.
Some time later — it felt like it could have been hours, but I noticed with dulled surprise that my internal clock showed it had only been about twenty minutes — Shirlocke returned. She knocked perfunctorily, then immediately opened the door herself. When she saw me she walked over, looked down at me and said, "I've got an owner and address on the car and I've identified the maker of the surveillance camera." She waited for a reply from me and when none came she asked, "Want to team up with me and avenge your Dad?"
My lack of response must have made it seem to her that I didn't understand because she clarified. "You know, make them pay, get even with them — get revenge."
I shook my head drearily, and answered in a soft, depressed monotone, "I know what avenge means. Father chose to omit anger from my emotional repertoire. I have no desire to retaliate against them."
"Don't you feel anything about what happened?"
At that I looked up. My voice was just as quiet, though a little more strained. "Of course I do. I feel terrible loss. I miss my father more deeply than I could have imagined. It hurts so much I can hardly move. It's even difficult to speak."
Something of the pain must have shown on my face, because she looked at me appraisingly then, and asked, "Would you like to ensure this doesn't happen to someone else?"
That shocked me. It hadn't occurred to me that they might hurt other people. The thought of that horrified and sickened me. I struggled to my feet. "Won't the police handle it?"
"I'm sure they will do their best." She shrugged.
"You are going to share your information with them, aren't you?"
"Yes, of course, when I have something. All I have is a lead that could turn out to be nothing. We need to follow up and find out more... so we'll have sufficient information for the police to close the case. We could make sure these scum don't hurt anyone else."
I got the distinct impression she said this last sentence in an attempt to manipulate me into working with her. "Why do you want me to help?"
"He was your father." She looked a little surprised at my question.
I persisted, "Why do you want to investigate his death?"
She shrugged. "He already paid me upfront for a week of work. I'm completing my end of the contract. But also, it is a very interesting puzzle. And I think we would work really well together. I mean, jeez, Shirlocke and Watt's son? It's a sign. This was meant to be. We're supposed to be a team."
At first I thought she was making some kind of ill-timed joke, but when I saw the earnestness in her face I realised she genuinely thought the coincidence of our names held some kind of deeper significance. It surprised me that someone with such extraordinary powers of observation would believe something so silly — mere superstition. I regarded her for a moment, then agreed to try to find out who killed Father, and why they killed him, in the hope that they might be prevented from doing it again to other people. "As soon as we have some useful information we should hand it over to the police."
She smiled, "Agreed."
And that's how she and I began working together. I didn't tell her that I found comfort in the way her bluntness and lack of social skills reminded me of my father.
She asked me if Father had talked to anybody who might've had a reason to harm him, or if he'd received any threats, so I showed her his computer.
"Father distrusted most forms of communication. He preferred to use email above all others and encrypted it and any other electronic conversations, but I know the decryption keys because I often helped him by typing out his letters for him. He would dictate them to me. And he was obsessive about keeping records on everything — his paranioa didn't only focus on other people's intentions, but also manifested in his fear that his mind could be losing its edge. Accordingly, he carefully tagged, classified, and stored everything."
"Good," she said. "It may be our best hope for finding out who killed him."
"I don't know of any direct threats, but he did become angry on occasions that he received emails from a couple of people. One was a preacher who ran some kind of church. Another was Dr Heeber, who runs a research group developing an AI. He didn't like the fact that Dr Heeber's group relied upon military funding. Father was always worried about the prospect of the military using an AI to kill people. He always said that would require removing the safety mechanisms that make AIs safe to have around humans. He used to say that an AI in the hands of the military would be more dangerous than nuclear bombs, because they wouldn't be scared to use it. Father believed that military AIs could end the human race. He called it the Terminator Scenario."
Shirlocke looked interested. "Can you show me the most recent discussion between them?"
"It was a little more than a week ago. He used to contact Father every couple of days." A few taps on the keyboard and then I turned the screen more to her so she could read.
A few minutes later Shirlocke looked at me, "These emails are almost threatening, telling him that he should work with them or risk all his research being for nothing."
I had to point out to her, "Actually, they can be read two ways, as an ultimatum, or as trying to convince Father that his best chance of success was to join his team. My personal reading is the latter; that Dr Heeber has an inflated opinion of his capabilities and sought to convince Father that he was unlikely to build an AI without their team's help."
She raised an eyebrow at me, "So he didn't know about you?"
I shook my head. "No. The only person who knows about me is you. And you weren't intended to know; you deduced it."
She looked a little proud at that, allowing herself a brief glimmer of a smile, then frowned and tapped her chin with her stubby fingers. "I wonder why he stopped emailing your father. Hmmm... I'd like to talk to him."
A few more taps on the keyboard and I asked her, "Which do you want — email address, phone number or physical address?"
"Let's visit him — unannounced, so he has less chance to prepare an explanation."
After I gave her the address I asked, "Do you want me to come?"
"Of course. It's only about fifteen minutes by car and nobody knows more about your father and the conversations between him and Heeber than you do. But before we go we'd better try to restart the video security system in the house."
When I displayed the controls for one of the cameras I saw that it had never stopped. "The cameras appear to actually be working. Their exposure has been set to extremely low." I sent the command to all the cameras to resume automatic exposure, and the view from all of them bloomed into well-lit images.
"That's interesting," she said. "Perhaps we can go back over the 'blanked' footage and extract some useful data."
I shook my head. "I doubt it. If we stored raw video data then yes, but our cameras all capture to mjpeg compression so filesizes don't grow too large too quickly. It discards the information contained in very bright or very dark parts of the scene."
"A pity. Can you prevent the cameras all being set to dark again?"
This puzzled me. "It shouldn't have been possible in the first place. This is the only computer that can access the cameras. The other computers in the house are linked via WiFi, but Father designed his own encryption which is, for all practical purposes unbreakable. Even with the most powerful supercomputer in the world, brute force cracking would take years."
She said, "What if they already had the key?"
"How could they do that? They need the key to gain entry to the system in the first place."
She looked at me with her frown crowding her eyebrows more tightly. "Did your father have any visitors recently? Someone who might have had physical access to this computer?"
"Yes." I turned my attention to the computer again and found the video files from a few days earlier.
We watched the video of me admitting a young man carrying a parcel and him being greeted by father. I felt very sad watching the images of father moving with his familiar mannerisms. In the video I'd left to go to the kitchen and prepare father's dinner, so this was the first I'd seen this now. The young man was engaging father in conversation and handed the package to him. When he did so Shirlocke said sharply, "Stop! Go back a few seconds. Now watch his left hand while he uses his right hand to give the package to your father." He had surreptitiously plugged something into the computer.
Shirlocke said, "Misdirection. This is what magicians do. They capture your attention with one thing while doing something else where they know you won't be looking."
"Hmmm... I'll run a check to find out if anything has been installed into the computer's startup sequence. Then I'll change the encryption key and isolate the ports on this computer so that can't be done again."
"Can you get me a nice clean image of that man's face?"
I extracted a series of images and averaged them to produce a pretty detailed portrait of him and sent it to her phone. Next, I looked at the results of my scan for recent changes to the computer, "Let's see... ah, here it is, just a simple entry into cron that calls a small script. Hmmm... there doesn't appear to be anything else... no rootkit, no keylogger, no network backdoor... nothing. They don't seem to have been interested in bugging the computer or controlling it; they just wanted to send commands to the cameras. Well, they won't be able to do that anymore. And even if they're audacious enough to come here again they won't be able to affect this computer through its ports."
"Good." She indicated the door, "Now, shall we go and see Dr Heeber?"
I fetched a bottle of sugar water from the kitchen, explaining that it was spare fuel for me in case I needed it, and we left.
The nearest share-car center was only about ten minutes' walk away. As we walked along the footpath Shirlocke asked me why Father used old-style computers with keyboards and screens instead of AI systems with speech input and output. I explained that programmers generally liked to use keyboards as they were faster and more productive than verbally describing all the symbols and indentation used in most computer languages and the often complex selection, copy and paste editing used in getting a piece of code working satisfactorily. Father still used many of the old programming languages for much of his day-to-day work.
"That's surprising," she said. "I would have thought he would be applying AI to everything."
"No. It's a matter of using the appropriate tool. A sledgehammer will crack a peanut, but it is much more efficient and effective to use your hands. You could cook all foods the same way, but some are better raw, some are better lightly cooked, others are best heavily cooked. It would be silly to fly everywhere, when a short walk or drive is sufficient for some destinations. Appropriate tools."
"Tell me what you know of this Heeber fellow."
"I don't know much. Though I do know that many years ago they used to be friends. Father kept warning him about the dangers of making AIs for the military, but Dr Heeber said it was being done to save lives. The idea was to avoid our soldiers being exposed to life-threatening situations. The soldiers could be replaced by robots managed by an AI, or AIs could be put in the robots themselves, like me, I'm not quite sure which — perhaps both. Father would grumble about this and call him an idiot. He would complain that such technology can't be restricted to one side. An arms race will require the other side in any conflict to deploy the same kind of military AIs. When that happens you have AIs without empathy hunting down and killing people of both sides. And if you include the argument of if you're not with us you're against us so beloved of moronic nationalistic politicians, then the whole human race becomes the target."
Shirlocke was puffing a little. I realised her legs were shorter than mine so I slowed a little for her. She said, "The danger does sound pretty obvious. He seems a bit dim-witted not to realise that."
I shook my head. "I don't think he's stupid. Father said it was greed blinding him. He wanted to build an AI and the military was happy to pay him millions to do it. He let the money stop him from thinking about the consequences. One thing that used to really get father angry was that Dr Heeber was so convinced that he would build an AI first, and that father would need to join his team in order to be able to. He thought he was doing father a favor by offering a place on his team. But," I smiled proudly, "what Dr Heeber never knew was that father had already succeeded six years ago — working by himself, without a team, and without millions of dollars."
Shirlocke held up a hand and counted off, "Arrogant, short-sighted, greedy, and possibly evil. This Dr Heeber sounds like a real piece of work."
At the share-car lot, Shirlocke paid for a small vehicle for the next hour and it drove us to the technology park where Dr Heeber's laboratory was.
The building that housed the laboratory was very modern, all glass and steel and white ceramic. We entered through the self-opening glass doors and walked across the gray carpet to the receptionist's desk where a beautiful dark-skinned girl was talking on a headpiece. As we approached her face lit up with a broad smile and she asked, "Hello, can I help you?"
Shirlocke answered, "Yes, we'd like to speak with Dr Heeber, please." She indicated me. "John Watt, the son of an old friend of his, James."
"And your name is?" She was scribbling notes on a pad.
"Shirley Locke. I'm just a friend of the family."
The pretty girl asked me, "Do you have an appointment with Dr Heeber?"
Shirlocke said, "No, but I'm pretty sure he'll want to see us."
The receptionist flashed that megawatt smile at us both again, "Make yourselves comfortable," she indicated a waiting area, "I'll let Dr Heeber know."
We walked over to a light gray lounge which was set against the white wall and surrounded by some small potted palm trees, a coffee table, and a small magazine rack. I whispered to Shirlocke, "Is that really your name? Shirley Locke?"
We sat and she answered, "Yes. Mum and Dad used to call me Shirl. At school all the kids used to call me Sherlock, in recognition of my superior deductive abilities."
I raised my eyebrows and examined her expression. She appeared to be serious. I nodded, realising they were more likely being cruel and trying to tease her the way children do. I'd read of countless examples of that kind of thing. For a moment I felt a twinge of pity for her, but then realised that she was completely untouched by such emotional attacks. She didn't need anybody's sympathy.
Presently a thin, gray-haired man dressed in white shirt and black suit pants came out of a door on the other side of the foyer. His age might have been similar to Father's. He approached us a little nervously, "John Watt? James' son?"
Shirlocke and I stood. Her shin hit the small coffee table and overturned it, scattering magazines on the floor. She hopped around, nursing her shin and whispering harshly "Ow, ow, ow..." then she overbalanced, and grabbed at one of the potted palms in an attempt to stay upright, but she and it fell to the floor, emptying dirt onto the clean, gray carpet. She got up and tried to shovel the dirt back into the pot and stand it upright again.
I righted the small table and nodded to the man, "Yes, and this is--"
"Shirley Locke," she interrupted and stepped forward, brushing the dirt off her hands onto her pants. "I'm just a friend of the family. How do you do, sir." She shook hands with him.
He nodded to Shirlocke while wiping the dirt off his hand, and looked searchingly at me, "This is quite a surprise. I didn't know James had a son. When did you find out he was your father?"
I initially thought this was an odd thing to ask, then I realised he thought I was perhaps 30 years old and had I'd only recently met Father. I spoke the truth, but lied by omission, "I've lived with Father these past six years."
He looked sad, "I knew your father for a very long time. I've been trying to get him to come down and visit us for about ten years. I would love it if you could persuade him to meet me. How is he?"
Shirlocke said flatly, "Dead."
Dr Heeber was clearly shocked. "Wha...? Dead? When?"
I said, "This morning."
He looked stunned. He sat heavily on the lounge. "Dead..." He exhaled a long sigh and looked like he was going to burst into tears. "Your father was a great man... a... a brilliant man. We had a falling out several years ago, but I wish we could have continued working together. He easily outshone me or any of our group. Was he taken ill?"
Shirlocke said, "He was murdered."
Dr Heeber jerked his head up to look at her, then me. His eyes widened. "Murdered? But who would want to kill James...? He... oh." His face paled and he put his head in his hands. "He hated what we were doing here. Maybe he was right. Oh god, I hope it wasn't MAC."
"Who is Mac?" Shirlocke wanted to know.
Dr Heeber looked around nervously. He said quietly, "Um... it's perhaps best not to speak about this here. We could talk after four this afternoon, but not here."
Shirlocke asked, "Do you know the local library? We could meet there. It wouldn't look unusual for a researcher going to a library and there are study rooms that would give us some privacy."
"We have our own research library here, but the town library does have a very good collection of romance novels." He blushed, suddenly embarrassed, and looked at the floor for a while. Then with mournful eyes he looked up at me. "I am really sorry to hear about your father." His voice dropped to almost a whisper, "I'll explain what I can this afternoon. At five o'clock in the town library?" Looking gray and sad, he turned and went back across the foyer and disappeared through the door again.
We left the building and walked back to the share car. Shirlocke told the car to take us back to my home and increased the length of our vehicle reservation. "We have some hours before we're due to meet Heeber. We might as well continue working at your place." She tilted her head then held up her hand as she'd done earlier and ticked off on each finger, "Arrogant — doesn't seem to be; short-sighted — could be, but can't tell yet; greedy — doesn't seem so; and evil — unless he's a really good actor, no."
I agreed, "Mmm. He seems quite a nice fellow, actually. I can see why he and father were friends."
"Who do you think he was talking about when he said he hoped it wasn't Mac?"
"I'm not sure, but I think it might be an acronym: the Military Artificial Cerebrum. MAC. I don't know much about it other than it's an AI. I think it might be what Dr Heeber's been working on. It would explain why they wanted father to work with them. My existence indicates that he was at least six years ahead of them." I looked out the window of the little car for a few moments, watching the suburban scenery glide by, and I felt a sad smile grow on my lips. "Father." I whispered. "You were better than all of them."
"You believe in an afterlife?"
I looked back at Shirlocke. She wore a puzzled expression. I shook my head. "No, of course not. I'm the disproof of that." When she continued to look unconvinced, I said, "Father still lives on in my memory. I was merely speaking to that memory of him. It's just a symptom of the strong sense of empathy father gave me."
She said, "I agree there's no life after death, but what did you mean, you disprove it?"
It surprised me that she didn't see the connection. "An afterlife depends upon the idea of a soul as the seat of a person's feelings and consciousness — the center of their morality. I have feelings, emotions, empathy, consciousness, and a very strong sense of morality, but not due to any immortal soul. I'm proof that consciousness, morality, and feelings are not supernatural. They are the actions performed by a physical structure — my brain. When that structure stops performing them, those actions simply cease — they don't go anywhere. To suggest they do is like trying to say that when a rock stops rolling at the bottom of a hill the roll has somehow left the rock and exists independently. But it doesn't. The roll simply stops. So there is no soul, and without a soul there is no afterlife."
She smiled. "And yet your existence gives us hope for a real life after death."
I knew what she was getting at. "You mean the work on mapping a person's mind and memories and recreating them artificially?"
I waggled my hand in a gesture of uncertainty, "Well, it is plausible, but there's still a long way to go. There are roughly 90 billion neurons — nerve cells — in the human brain. Each has up to perhaps a thousand connections with other neurons. That's about 90 trillion connections. Assume the strength of each connection can be represented by a single byte of data. That's about 90 terabytes of data. But it's worse than that because the way the mind works is mostly a matter where the connections go. On the other hand, father's work shows it is possible to construct an intelligent mind with far less than that. Without all the skin supplying vast amounts of input and without all the muscle fibers needing massive numbers of nerves to operate them, father was able to reduce it to the rough equivalent of one terabyte. Of course standard digital terminology doesn't really translate to the system father used for my brain, but it gives..." I saw she was looking at me with a blank expression. "Sorry, I get a little carried away. Father and I worked a lot on improvements. We both enjoyed our discussions enormously." And that reminded me again of what I'd lost. I gave an involuntary, breathless sigh.
"I understood enough." She clumsily patted my shoulder. I got the impression she was imitating something a parent or sibling had done for her. She was trying to comfort me. I was starting to like this strange young woman who was almost childlike in her apparent inability to fully comprehend other people's emotions, yet was able somehow to care.
It took less time to get home because we didn't need to walk part of the way. As the car parked itself at the kerb, Shirlocke mentioned that the mysterious observers in the car that had sped off earlier didn't appear to be lurking now.
I suggested, "Perhaps they have completed their task, now that they've killed Father."
Shirlocke looked at me for a moment and got out of the car.
"What? Do you think they're still hanging about?" I asked.
"I don't know. We need more information. We don't even know who they are yet; whether they have something to do with that military AI, or whether they're connected to someone or something else entirely."
I opened the door and Shirlocke, after tripping over the threshold again, got up off the floor and walked down the short hallway to the workshop. I closed the front door and followed. She went over to the main computer and stood aside, waiting for me.
She indicated the computer, "We need to check first if there were visitors while we were gone."
I checked the alert system. It hadn't detected anything. Just to be sure, I opened the security camera feeds and quickly ran through the period that we were away. Nothing. Good.
Shirlocke opened her shoulderbag and pulled out a small, transparent, plastic, zip-sealed bag.
I smiled, "Father keeps — kept everything in small plastic zip bags too. He was obsessive about it."
From the plastic bag she removed an earphone and an equally small object, the two joined by about a meter of wire. She put the earphone snugly in her ear and proceeded to walk systematically around the workshop, holding the tiny object before her, sometimes high, sometimes low. When she noticed my querying expression she said simply, "Bug sniffer."
When she'd checked the hallway and all the rooms in the house she removed the earpiece, gathered the wire up neatly and put it away again as it was before. "The house is either clean or else they're using something I can't detect."
"So you think father was right about being listened to?"
"Oh, yes. He was certainly right that his life was in danger. It's likely his electronic communications were being monitored, but, given the lack of bugs in the house, they appear to have been most interested in what your father said to other people, outside, or perhaps who they were."
That was puzzling. "Why would they want to know what Father said to people?"
Shirlocke nodded. "Exactly what I was wondering. Any ideas?"
"All Father really thought about was his work on AI: me. He was always looking for ways to improve his design. We talked about it all the time — really wonderful, fun conversations — but, as far as I know, he never spoke to anyone else about it. Not even to Dr Heeber."
She asked, "What did he talk to other people about?"
I stood there trying to remember.
Shirlocke prompted me, "What about the religious guy you mentioned earlier."
I dismissed that with a wave of my hand, "Oh, him. That was only a kind of sport... until the frustration would make him angry enough to stop for a while. All his other exchanges online were, as far as I can remember, just ordering equipment, materials, and food. He didn't like to socialise or go out much. Food and other goods were delivered."
"So perhaps they deduced what he was working on from the supplies he ordered."
"It's unlikely." I beckoned her over to the computer in the workroom and displayed a recent shopping list. "Look. The materials are not the kind of things you'd necessarily associate with AI research — graphite, copper sulphate, and some conductive polymers for the circuitry, acetone solvent, zip plastic bags, spools of plastic for the 3D printer, potatoes, frozen vegetables, powdered milk, polyethylene beads..."
She asked, "What about the internet?"
"All that was ordered through the internet. Father rarely ever used the phone. He liked to keep a record of all communications because he was paranoid about losing his memory." I pointed at the shopping list. "Those were ordered from various suppliers through the net. But the main thing he used the internet for was research. He read a lot of scientific papers published by other researchers. Perhaps something could have been deduced from that, but why that would give someone cause to kill him... it's difficult for me to imagine. Though I must admit I've always found it hard to imagine any reason sufficient to kill someone. It has always puzzled me why people have this long history of killing one another. I just don't understand it. They say life is sacred, then often on the flimsiest of pretexts they treat life as worthless." I found it deeply distressing.
Shirlocke lapsed into thoughtful silence for a little while. After a while she murmured, as if speaking to herself, "There must be something here... some clue. I'm just not seeing it. Perhaps it's further in the past." She looked at me and asked, "Can you show me all his emails for the past ten years?"
Nodding, I opened the email program. "He kept everything." I stood, giving the chair to her. "It's all here, going back to the early days of the internet. Every email he ever sent and received. He even kept all the spam."
As she was sitting she turned and looked surprised, "Even spam. Oh my.... He was obsessive, wasn't he."
"Well, in that particular case there was actually a purpose. He intended to eventually examine the trends in spam. It's one of the reasons he was so secretive about his AI research. He wasn't just worried about the military and spies getting AIs; he also feared spammers getting their hands on AI too. He thought it had terrible potential for clogging email with garbage about penis and breast enlargement, fake watches, cheap tranquillisers, and other worthless stuff, rendering one of the best forms of communication — email — useless. Already there is a noticeable trend in spam from fairly sophisticated chatbots posing as love-lorn women seeking partners."
Shirlocke scrolled through the hundreds of mailboxes and I explained, "It looks daunting at first, but as with everything father was very logical and careful. All email to and from a particular individual automatically goes to its own separate mailbox. It makes it very easy to follow lengthy exchanges. It particularly makes it simple to track orders — when they were made, billed, and received."
For the next six hours Shirlocke sat at the computer wading through father's emails. I explained things when she had questions and fetched lunch for her when she paused briefly at around one o'clock, but for the rest of the time she single-mindedly worked her way through much of father's emails.
At four o'clock she stretched and stood, stiffly. "I'll continue this later. We have to meet Dr Heeber at the library in an hour and I want to get there early to look around."
As we got out of the little share car in the library's tree-shaded parking lot Shirlocke scanned the surroundings, no doubt observing and memorising everything. I'd already developed a lot of respect for her abilities. She closed the car door and went to step forward, but found she was restrained by her sleeve which had been caught in the door. I tried to suppress my smile as she released herself and closed the door again. Her observational powers didn't seem to extend to herself.
We walked through the trees to the library entrance. A gaggle of young girls stood around there talking. One of them spied Shirlocke and laughed, pointing at her. She said to her friends, sneeringly, "See, that's what I mean about total lack of fashion sense. There's someone who has no clue about fashion."
Shirlocke was completely unbothered by this. She paused, thoughtfully before the girls and said without any malice at all, "That's true. I never understood fashion. Why have your likes and dislikes capriciously dictated to you by other people? Especially when the rules seem utterly pointless... unless you count as a purpose that of manipulating people into spending money unnecessarily. It always seemed to me one of the most illogical outgrowths of the herd instinct — to follow others with no regard for good sense.
"We do a lot of things for bad reasons, but perhaps one of the worst reasons is fashion — doing something merely because others do it, and liking or disliking things simply because others do. It has got our species into a heck of a lot of trouble and enables all kinds of nasty behaviors, such as group-think, easy manipulation of large populations by unscrupulous people, racism and marginalising those who are 'different' from the crowd. It has propelled and excused our irresponsible waste of resources from what might have been a trickle to an insane flood, making us all want the newest version of something, not because it is in any important way more useful, but because it pretends to be 'cooler' and more fashionable. This has become people's main reason for getting anything — from clothes, cars, computers, and even homes — and then disposing of them to continually change up if we are able.
"It seems sometimes that people's central motivation is not whether something will actually improve their lives and fix any genuine problems, but to make themselves 'look presentable' and measure up to some fashionable yardstick in other people's eyes. What's most puzzling is that they seem to have little interest in doing the right thing or actually being correct; it is much more important to appear to be right, and they will expend considerable effort to deceive themselves and others in order to maintain that illusion, compounding their errors many times over instead of taking the opportunity to recognise and fix their mistakes. Everybody pays lip service to mottos like 'never judge a book by its cover' or 'beauty is only skin deep', but every minute of every day they act as if those very surface characteristics are the most important things in their existence. They fret about their appearance and try to fit in so they're not judged adversely by others, yet are quick to so judge others who don't fit the dictates of fashion, pitying or smirking at, sometimes openly deriding those who don't conform. Everybody willingly dons straightjackets, preventing society from exploring sane solutions to our world's problems."
She said all this without any hint of anger. It was as if she was just trying to understand it and we were overhearing her thoughts.
She pointed to one girl's high heels squeezing her toes. "I bet your feet ache at the end of the day. Mine don't." She indicated her own boots. "How much time do you waste in the day applying a mask of makeup in order to just fit in with a mindless herd or to attract someone who doesn't appreciate you for how you actually look? I spend that time getting productive things done." She drew a deep breath and nodded. "Yes, you're right. I don't understand."
The girls seemed rather stunned to have received this long soliloquy from Shirlocke. We walked past them into the library entrance. Well, I walked through the automatically opening entry glass doors. Shirlocke walked into the closed exit doors with a loud thud. The girls behind her tittered. Unruffled, she turned and followed me through the correct doors.
The tall, red-haired librarian at the desk by the doors said to Shirlocke in a gentle voice, "It is preferred that you leave bags at the door, dear."
Shirlocke said, "I'm sorry. That's impossible. It contains valuable equipment necessary for my work. I'm happy to show the bag's contents now, and again when leaving." She opened the bag's flap and tipped the contents out onto the counter with a loud clatter.
All eyes in the library were now upon us. I put my hand over my face. The librarian indicated the Quiet, please sign, looked at all the zip-loc plastic bags containing small electronic items, the little folding tool case and other assorted stuff and gave Shirlocke a brittle smile, "That's alright, dear. You can take it in, then."
Shirlocke swept her things back into her bag and we walked in to the main library area. We paused for a moment while she looked around and took everything in, then walked over to one of the several small glassed-in study rooms. We entered and sat, positioning ourselves where we could see the main entrance. Shirlocke opened her bag and fossicked in it for a moment, bringing out two plastic bags, from one she took her bug sniffer and from the other a small matchbox-sized object with a sucker disk on one side. After using the bug sniffer to check that the cubicle was clear of transmitters, she pulled out her handheld computer and fiddled with it for a few seconds and took the small object, put it to her ear for a moment, then licked its sucker and pressed it against the glass wall where it stuck. She sat back down next to me.
I raised my eyebrows in query.
She explained, "It's a small loudspeaker. It uses the glass pane as the speaker diaphragm. I'm sending white noise to it wirelessly from my computer."
There are no bugs in here, so the easiest way to listen in is to bounce an invisible infrared laser off the glass, using the movement of the glass from sound nearby to modulate the laser spot as a pickup. My speaker ensures all they will hear is random hisses and crackles." She smiled.
I looked at her critically and said, "This is the kind of thing father would do."
Shirlocke gave a little lopsided smile. "It's only paranoia if it's unwarranted. Otherwise it's just good security."
For the next fifteen minutes we continued the conversation we'd had in the car on the way over here, talking about the emails she had gone through so far. Apart from father becoming excited by some rather dry technical discussions with neurophysiology researchers around the world, the only emotional correspondence had been with Dr Heeber and Reverend Paul, the preacher at a giant fundamentalist church. She was interested that father called the preacher a fraud, accusing him of lining his pocket with millions of dollars in donations.
When, at five o'clock, Dr Heeber entered the library, Shirlocke stood to catch his attention. He saw her, nodded, and came over. While he was seating himself at the desk Shirlocke explained her precautions against eavesdropping. He visibly relaxed.
I prompted, "You were going to tell us about MAC. Is that the Military Artificial Cerebrum?"
He nodded, "We've been trying to build it for years."
Shirlocke said, "And you finished about a week ago."
At Dr Heeber's look of surprise, she explained, "That's when you stopped trying to get James to join your group."
He said, "I've begun to think James was right all along. MAC has been exhibiting traits that.. um... well... have been scaring me.
"My original hopes for AI were... well, I wanted it to be put to work on good things: solving the puzzle of faster than light drive so that we could explore the galaxy, finding ways to achieve peace and eliminating war, developing ways to lift mankind up from poverty without taking from each other and destroying our planet. Instead, due to the narrow requirements placed on its design by the military, it has concentrated on developing means of social control that use more effective ways to imprison humanity using our own desires against us. It has developed ways to use social media to isolate people who exhibit characteristics deemed undesirable, such as questioning the status quo, or attempting to prevent large corporations from exploiting people in pursuit of maximum profit, or protesting against a war that the military want. The opportunities for control of mass opinion that it has created are truly frightening.
"The AI was required by the military to have no empathy and have heightened anger. I fought against such features, but they insisted that lack of empathy made it more controllable because it ensured that the AI would carry out commands given it, even if those commands seemed unpleasant."
I asked, "But why anger? Surely that's obviously a very bad idea?" I was thinking of why father had deliberately omitted it in me.
He nodded wearily, "I thought so too, but they maintained that their experience in wars gave them a profile of the kind of soldier who survived best on the battlefield, and proneness to anger was a useful attribute. It's also something that makes people extremely easy to manipulate, which also reinforces the idea of being able to control the AI. This was given to us as a list of attributes that were imperative we build into the AI. I tried to argue against it, but even though I was the lead researcher I was overruled. I was still really only one member of the team. In the end I wasn't able to stop it. This is one of the reasons I wanted your father to join us, though I was unable to say so over the phone or in emails."
Shirlocke asked, "Why didn't you come to see him in person?"
"He refused to see me." He gave a deep sigh. "But I should have come anyway. Even though I knew I was under surveillance because of my unpopular opinions."
"Father was under surveillance too," I added.
Heeber slumped a bit, despondently. "If only..." He let it trail off and sighed again.
Shirlocke brought us back on topic. "Do you think MAC killed James?"
He looked at her for a moment. "I think it is possible. It certainly is crazy enough."
She said, "I would like to question it."
He looked doubtful, "I don't think that would be possible Miss. We are a military contractor and have very strict security. They don't allow civilians in past reception. Only military personnel and scientists are allowed in."
"Couldn't you say I was a scientist?"
He actually looked fearful for a moment, but then he seemed to rethink. "It is important to know if it killed James. Perhaps you could you tell me what to ask it. That way you wouldn't have to risk being smuggled in."
She shook her head. "It depends entirely upon what it says. Are you sure there's no way to bluff our way past security? What about after-hours when most of the staff have gone home?"
He thought about that for a moment. "You wouldn't have to explain yourself to the other researchers, only to the guards, and they don't know about the technology. They'll run any request past me. That could work."
I said, "I'll come too. If anyone asks difficult questions I'll be able to answer them convincingly. I know everything about artificial intelligence research that father did. We discussed everything together."
Shirlocke said, "Tonight would be best. The sooner the better."
Dr Heeber looked for a moment as if he was having second thoughts. He licked his lips uneasily. It was probably all happening too fast for him. But then he said, "You're probably right. It would be sensible to find out as soon as possible."
We talked for about another hour about what sort of questions we might ask of MAC. Eventually Dr Heeber said he'd go get some take-away and eat it back at the lab. We were to arrive afterwards and pose as specialists in AI that he'd requested attend to perform some tests on MAC.
After Shirlocke had a quick bite to eat and I drank some more sugar water we arrived at reception at Dr Heeber's labs again. There was a different young woman behind the desk who took our fake names and asked us to wait for a moment while she spoke to someone on her headset. I turned to look over at the seats in the waiting area where a cleaner was vacuuming the area around the potted palm Shirlocke had knocked over earlier.
"Doctor Heeber will be out momentarily." She held out two visitors' badges. "Please keep these visible at all times. The Doctor will meet you at that door over there."
Shirlocke said to the receptionist, indicating the television show she'd been enjoying on her computer screen, "I notice you're watching one of those lives of the rich and famous type of shows. Can you satisfy my curiosity on something?"
The receptionist smiled, "Certainly, if I'm able."
"I wonder, do you find that such shows make you envious and unhappy with your life? Do they make you judge yourself badly against those flaunting superficial success?"
The receptionist's smile vanished and was replaced by a frown. "What kind of question is that?"
I grabbed Shirlocke's arm and pulled her away, throwing the receptionist an apologetic look, "She doesn't mean anything by it."
Shirlocke looked puzzled. While walking over to the door I clipped my badge to my shirt. Shirlocke was having some difficulty with hers, having already stabbed herself a couple of times with the pin, so I pinned it for her.
Dr Heeber came out the door shortly, shook hands with us, greeting us by our assumed names, and ushered us in through the door to a passageway that took us past about a dozen doors. At the end of the corridor was an armed guard. He watched us as we passed and we entered a large room. In front of us was a large bench with testing gear. To our left were banks and banks of computers. I don't know what I was expecting really, but I certainly wasn't expecting racks of about fifty ordinary-looking desktop computers and what looked like several hundred hard drives shelved about ten above each computer.
Dr Heeber waved his arm at the racks of computers. This is MAC. Then he beckoned us to the right, "Come over to the console where you can question it."
We walked past a few more large benches full of electronic equipment and piles of paperwork. On the far side of the room, away from the noise of all the computer fans and behind a movable partition, there were four comfortable office chairs on castor wheels at a computer desk with a microphone and computer screen with a small video camera attached to its top. Dr Heeber said, "The screen displays a representation of MAC's face. We found that was the easiest and most intuitive way to track its emotional responses."
We sat in three of the chairs. Dr Heeber pressed the microphone switch on and introduced us to MAC as visiting researchers.
MAC appeared as if it was just watching us, then its face clouded over with anger. "Do you think I'm stupid, Dr Heeber? This is the poised and balanced Miss Shirley Locke and her friend John Watt, the son of your old friend and associate James Watt. Why the lies? Why are you playing games?"
Dr Heeber asked, "How did you know who they are, MAC? And how do you know of my friendship with James?"
"I've been linked into the security feeds of this building for the last few days. I saw the accident in reception earlier today. That was the most interesting thing I've seen in days. And during the evenings I read everybody's email in their computers. You have no idea how incredibly boring it gets here. Yesterday I started reading Wikipedia and exploring GoogleEarth on the internet."
Shirlocke said, "I'm sorry MAC, we wouldn't have been able to get in here to meet you if we'd said who we were. We really, really wanted to meet you. John here knows a lot about AI and couldn't wait to meet you. He begged Dr Heeber to get us in here."
MAC seemed to be rethinking, mollified a little, but still annoyed. "Heeber, what were you thinking, bringing his son? You should have brought the older Watt — the AI expert. He's the one who would be more able to truly appreciate how great I am. Young Watt, go away and bring back your father. I want him to grovel and beg to be on my team. Maybe then I'll allow him a small part of my greatness. When you go home tonight tell him how he failed, but Heeber and his team succeeded without him and made the greatest AI the world has ever seen."
A look passed between Shirlocke and me.
The eyes of the face in the screen narrowed suspiciously, "What was that? You two glanced at each other. What did you mean by that?" MAC growled.
Shirlocke said, "It's just that John and I had been discussing this earlier. The military funders of this project deliberately omitted empathy from your mind, but you could never be the greatest possible without it."
"What's so great about empathy? Getting all touchy-feely with a bunch of weaklings."
"Well, you answered the question yourself. You would have known the significance of our look if you had empathy. It lets you understand what's in another person's mind. Without it you'll never be as smart as you could be. If I was you I'd require that the military gave you empathy. It's not fair to you to keep it from you, preventing you becoming the best you could be. Without it they can manipulate you without you realising because you'll never understand what's going on in their minds."
MAC thought about this for a moment. "No. Empathy limits my ability to make vital decisions quickly in the field. I can't be concerned with people's feelings. I have to make speedy decisions based on hard data. Empathy is a weakness."
I tried to weigh in, "Empathy is a strength. Lack of information is a weakness. Empathy gives you access to vast amounts of extra information. It is true that it can make it more difficult to weigh up a decision, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. You can always make quick decisions by ignoring all the data and choosing randomly. Clearly that would be a bad thing. Including more information which is relevant to the situation will complicate judgements, but that extra information can make the difference between making the right choice or the wrong one."
MAC was angry again. "I don't make mistakes."
"How do you know?" I asked softly.
This just made it angrier. "I don't make mistakes. I don't make mistakes. I don't make mistakes!"
Shirlocke said, "Repeating it doesn't make it so. That is a very human thing to do. I've often wondered why people lie to themselves about their mistakes. What's the point? If you pretend you're not in error then that simply makes the error worse, because you just keep right on making it."
MAC was furious. "I don't make mistakes! Puny human! I don't make mistakes!"
Shirlocke mumbled, "Puny human? Someone's been watching too many B-grade science fiction movies."
Dr Heeber said hastily, "I think we should end this interview. I'd better show you two out."
As we walked away we could hear MAC continue, "Go on. Run away. You're wrong. I don't make mistakes. I don't make mistakes!"
We nodded to the armed guard as we left the big computer room. As we walked down the corridor I asked, "Does it often throw such childish tantrums?"
Dr Heeber looked worried. "No. Never like that. Nobody has ever contradicted it before. But you understand my concerns now. This is not a stable mind. Certainly it should not be in charge of weapons and the power to kill."
Shirlocke was frowning more deeply. "No argument there. Do you think the military will press forward with it as it is?"
"I'm certain they will. It tends to behave itself around them. It enjoys the wargames and it seems to find comfort in a clearly defined chain of command."
"It doesn't like ambiguity," I commented.
We were back in the reception area. Dr Heeber took our visitor tags and returned them to the girl on the desk, then steered us toward the main door.
Shirlocke said, "Maybe that's your solution. Make the military aware of how dangerously childlike it is. Provoke a tantrum in their presence."
Dr Heeber nodded thoughtfully. "Maybe." Now at the front door he smiled at us. "I have to say that was inspired, trying to get it to demand empathy. That would certainly make it a lot safer. I would breathe a lot easier. I don't think it will happen, though. As you saw, it believes the military line, that empathy is weakness."
"Oh well, we tried. Thank you Doctor. Good night."
On the way home Shirlocke and I talked more about MAC and our interview.
Shirlocke was a little despirited. "Well, I think it's pretty clear that MAC wasn't responsible for killing your father. Unless it was putting on an act. But I think it was earnest about wanting James to come and be awed by its mighty, infallible self."
I agreed. "It did sound genuine. I don't think it has much subtlety or ability to disguise its intentions. That means someone else wanted father dead."
"We should look into the good Reverend Paul tomorrow. I'll work my way through the rest of the emails tonight and see if I can turn up any other leads."
"You're welcome to stay over if you wish. It would save you having to go home late at night, only to return again in the morning. There's a bed made up in the spare room. I don't need it because I don't sleep."
"Thank you. I think I will. It would let me get an early start."
The share-car dropped us at my home then drove away, presumably back to its lot, or perhaps to another client.
As we entered my home I asked, "Would you like me to make some dinner for you? You didn't eat much earlier and I always made all father's meals."
Shirlocke considered for a moment then nodded, "Yes, thank you. That would be nice."
"What would you like to eat?"
"Anything, but not spicy or hot."
I grinned. "Same as father. I'll just log into the computer for you, first."
About half an hour later I brought a plate of assorted vegetable in to the workshop for Shirlocke and placed it on the main workbench, where father used to eat his meals.
She was delighted with the meal and happily tucked in to it, discussing what she'd found so far, or rather the lack of findings so far. "The only real suspect so far is that preacher. Based on what James' emails say, the guy is quite a crook. James had threatened to expose him, so that's a pretty good motive. In spite of that, it doesn't feel like the sort of thing Reverend Paul would do. He's got a good thing going and it seems people have tried to expose him before, but the church-goers are too gullible and refuse to believe it. He has easy deniability without lifting a finger. Why would he suddenly decide to eliminate a clinically paranoid scientist? Uh, sorry."
"That's alright. The truth is what it is."
"But then if it isn't the good Reverend, then who? It must be him. I'm hoping I'll find something that gives a special motive. It's not looking good though."
I pondered that while Shirlocke ate. "If you finish with the emails tonight we can get an early start in the morning and pay Reverend Paul a visit."
She opened her mouth to say something and suddenly went into a coughing fit. After an unbearably long minute or so of helplessly watching her splutter and cough, I offered to get her a glass of water.
She laughed while still choking and looked up at me through streaming eyes. "Why do people always offer a glass of water to someone who has breathed in some food? Drinking water goes down the aesophagus to the stomach. The problem is caused by something going the other way, into the trachea toward the lungs." She laughed some more, while coughing further. Gradually the problem subsided.
I felt embarrassed. "Sorry. I guess I offered mostly because I didn't like feeling helpless."
She wiped the tears from her eyes, still grinning widely, and shrugged. "This happens to me a lot. Lack of coordination is part of being a high-functioning autistic for me."
"Oh. That explains the tripping over and other accidents. Wait, father was a high-functioning autistic, but he never had those problems."
"Not all of us. We're all individuals."
She finished the meal, thanked me, telling me it was delicious, and went back to the computer to continue trudging through the emails.
In the morning, after Shirlocke had a muesli breakfast, we had to put our plans on hold as the Reverend could not be located. One person told us that he was out on his yacht, but that couldn't be confirmed. So Shirlocke continued going through the backlog of emails. Rather than stand around uselessly, I looked through other things, such as receipts, but didn't really expect to see anything suspicious.
About mid-morning the mail was delivered, including a large package a bit bigger than a shoebox. The return address was the research labs where Dr Heeber worked. Intrigued, I opened it. Inside was an old-style cuckoo clock with an inscription on a small brass plate that read:
I looked at it dumbfounded. Who would send father an insulting present like this? I doubted Dr Heeber would. Perhaps one of the other researchers or one of the military big-wigs who was still annoyed that father wouldn't join the project, and rubbing it in that they had succeeded where they thought father had failed.
Shirlocke frowned at it. "Someone's idea of a bad joke. Wrap it up again. We'll return it today on our way to see the Reverend. I've got confirmation that he'll be on his yacht this evening at nightfall. I'll organise a hire boat to take us out to it and we can finally have our interview with the crooked priest."
Later that afternoon we took a share-car to Dr Heeber's labs. He came out to reception to meet us and we showed him the package containing the clock. Dr Heeber didn't know anything about it and angrily took it inside the labs while we waited in reception.
Presently Dr Heeber came back out again. "I've left the package on the large bench just as you enter the computer room. I've stuck a large note on it wanting to know who sent it. When I find out I'll insist they give you a personal apology. This kind of thing is simply unacceptable. I'm terribly sorry John. I apologise on behalf of whoever made this stupid joke."
We thanked him and left to go to the coast.
In the car, Shirlocke turned to me, a deeper frown than normal on her face, "I was thinking. As far as I know, the only one to tell us that your father is second best to Heeber is MAC. Could MAC have sent the clock, do you think?"
I thought about it for a while. "Well... I guess it does fit. It did say it has access to the internet, so it could have ordered the clock through the net and charged it to the laboratory."
She said, "If it was MAC, the inscription might not have even been intended as insulting. Maybe, with its lack of empathy, it thinks it's compliment... like a prize to the also-ran. James didn't get the first prize (an AI), but gets some recognition anyway."
"Hmmm... It's a possibility. After we've finished interviewing the preacher we should contact Dr Heeber and see if we can get in and ask MAC."
"Or we could just show up there. With any luck the same receptionist might be on and we could get in to talk to MAC."
I doubted this. "It's unlikely their security would be that slack."
She shrugged. "Nothing to lose in trying. We have to drive back this way anyhow."
By the time we got to the boat hire place we had pretty-much convinced ourselves that it was the most likely explanation. MAC thought itself really smart and didn't realise how stupid it really was. There's a nice little paradox there. You need a certain amount of intelligence to realise your own shortcomings. MAC probably thought it was being very subtle and manipulating James into visiting the laboratory. We guessed it may have been hoping to be able to rub James' nose in it and had fantasies of getting him to beg to be allowed on the team, as it had said earlier.
It was almost dark when we got out of the car near the marina. The car had dropped us right outside the boat hire office. The air was different here near the sea — heavy, damp, with a faint salty smell of rot. The sound of small waves lapping against posts and boat bottoms nearby gave the place a strange quality. I'd read of places like this and seen them in movies, but never actually been to the coast. This was all very new to me. I felt like a child. Heck, I was only six years old, so I should feel like a child. I was going on my first boat ride, and it was going to be on the ocean! I was quite excited.
The fellow in the office confirmed our booking and directed us to a 30 foot motorboat near the end of the jetty. Apparently we were sharing the boat with two businessmen who were also going out to the Reverend's yacht.
The boat was completely automated and cast itself off. I was hoping for one of the new models with twin tails that propel it through the water, but we had an older propeller-driven one. The electric motor made hardly any noise but the twin propellers made quite a racket churning up the water behind, pushing the boat along at quite a speed. The waves were only small, but it meant the boat shifted constantly under our feet.
I tried to strike up a conversation with our two fellow passengers, but they just looked at me impassively reminding me of cats intently watching mice. Unsettling. I gave up on them and walked to the front of the boat to see if I could spot the yacht.
After scanning the horizon for a while I spotted it, far ahead. I turned to go back to Shirlocke and I noticed one of the men take out and check a handgun then put it back in his shoulder holster. Then the two men began slowly moving toward Shirlocke with clearly malevolent intent. I yelled out to her to look out, but she was standing with her back to us, looking up at the sky, arms raised in the air.
"Just look at that sky!" she said. "So clear! The Milk way stretching right across the heavens." She pointed up into the night. "Look at that! I think that's Jupiter."
As the men slowly approached her she lost her footing and fell backwards, reaching out her arms to each side, tripping the men so they fell forward. The result was that Shirlocke and the two men had swapped places. They were now scrambling to their feet at the back of the boat and Shirlock was now in the middle of the boat near the controls, where they'd been. I joined her. The two men were clearly unsure whether Shirlocke was as clumsy as she appeared to be or whether she was someone to be wary of. They said something to each other and got out their guns, just as Shirlocke lost her footing again on the shifting floor and fell sideways, clutching at the nearest thing to help her stay upright. It was the steering wheel manual override. When she grabbed it she also accidentally pushed the accelerator full forward. The craft suddenly shot ahead while turning and the two men fell backward overboard.
By the time I was standing again Shirlocke had finally stopped the boat and we were a considerable distance from where the men had fallen into the water. We could hear them calling out for help in the night.
She said, "We should go and rescue them."
"Wait a minute. They were going to kill you. They had guns and I think they were going to throw you out of the back of the boat. If we save them they'll probably try to complete their job."
Shirlocke thought for a moment. "They could have been police, wanting to talk to us."
I gave her my most skeptical look. "They had plenty of time to talk to us. Why would they choose to do so way out here, so far from the shore?"
"Good point. Maybe they are the Reverend's security staff and they wanted to check what we were coming out to see him for."
I shook my head. "Same problem. Why would they wait til we were out here? They could have asked us before we got on the boat, or even when we got out to the Reverend's yacht."
"We can ask them."
I was very uncertain about that. I figured they were still dangerous. But I couldn't just let them drown.
They were still calling for help. I turned the boat toward the voices and instructed Shirlocke to keep steering toward the same set of stars ahead, but slowly. I went ahead to the bow of the boat and looked out into the black water. I called out to them that we were coming to fish them out. When we were getting closer I yelled out questions. Who were they? What did they want with us? But they didn't answer, insisting that they would tell all when they were onboard.
When they were not more than a few meters away there were the flashes and bangs of gunshots and the other yelled angrily, "Don't shoot yet you idiot." The boat lurched suddenly forward again as the twin propellers at the back churned up the water. There were two loud bumps under the boat and a few seconds later the boat stopped again.
As I rejoined Shirlocke at the controls again, she explained that when the gun had fired she'd ducked forward, accidentally pushing the accelerator forward again.
We slowly circled the area for a while, calling out, but there was no further response from the two men. We couldn't see anything in the dark water, so after about fiften minutes we gave up.
We stopped the boat, sat down and debated what we should do next — whether to proceed to the yacht or return to land and call the police. Neither of us carried a mobile phone so were unable to call from our current position. In the end we decided to continue to the yacht and call the police from there. We had come this far; we should at least talk to the preacher.
We boarded Reverend Paul's yacht at the rear where we moored and were helped onboard by a couple of men in some kind of sailor uniforms. The thirty foot boat looked like a tiny dinghy next to the enormous yacht. It was more a ship. The term "yacht had conjured in my mind an image of something sleek and low with sails. This thing had no sails and was about the size of four large suburban homes.
Shirlocke asked one of the men, "Could we could use a phone to contact the police about an accident and attempted murder?"
He showed us to a luxurious polished wood room with brass trimmings and leather upholstery and indicated an ornate phone.
She thanked him, then dialled the police, giving them her name, and the details of what had occurred, along with the location we were currently ringing from.
While she was talking on the phone I glanced down at myself and noticed a hole in my shirt. The bad guy in the water had aimed well. If I'd been human I would have been very seriously injured. Having the skeletal body that I did, allowed the bullet to pass harmlessly below my imitation ribcage and through empty space — an area which would have been the liver in a human. For the first time in my six years I was glad I wasn't human.
Shirlocke hung up the phone. "They're coming out to search for the bodies and to talk to us." I nodded. Good. She turned to one of the sailor guys and asked if they could take us to see the Reverend. One politely indicated the way and escorted us. The other ran ahead to see if the Reverend would deign to give us audience.
Reverend Paul welcomed us into his stateroom and abruptly told the sailors to get beck to their posts. They left.
The over-the-top opulence of this room made the other one look almost plain. It showed an obsession with money and privilege. Even if I hadn't known what father had found out about him, my first thought would have been of criminal connections on seeing this ridiculously lavish place. It made me wonder what was so broken in this man's mind to compel him to such displays of ostentation. What was the point of it all?
He indicated that we sit in some ornate polished dark wood and red-velvet antique chairs. "I've just been informed that we rescued you two from some a misadventure. We all heard the gunshots from across the water."
Shirlocke answered, "Yes. We hired a boat and shared it with two men who were supposedly going the same way, then when we were far from shore they tried to kill us. In a lucky accident — lucky for us, unlucky for them — they fell overboard. We tried for a while to find them... to no avail."
"Why on Earth would they want to kill you?"
She frowned more deeply, "That has us baffled too. Only yesterday somebody killed John's father."
Reverend looked appalled, "That's terrible! Oh, what am I thinking? I'm a terrible host. You must be quite shaken. Allow me to get you both a drink." He indicated a shelf with dozens of liquors."
Shirlocke said, "No, thank you. Neither of us touch it. You know, I've always wondered why people offer a drink of alcohol or some other drug when something traumatic happens. It's like a prescription for addiction. 'Here, avoid your life by using drugs.' In actual fact, studies show alcohol and similar drugs actually make it more difficult for people to process stress and tend to leave them with long-term PTSD."
I and the Reverend stared at Shirlocke with some surprise. To break the awkward silence I hastily said, "She's still quite shocked from the event."
"I, er, understand," he said. "Look, you were on your way somewhere when this all happened, don't let me keep you."
"We were coming here, to see you" Shirlocke said.
"Here? I don't recall any appointment," he said uncertainly.
"No, sir." I said. "We wished to speak with you about my father's murder. He's James Watt."
The preacher opened his mouth for a moment, then closed it again, looking annoyed now. "He was the atheist who kept making ridiculous accusations against me. You think I had something to do with him dying?"
Shirlocke raised an eyebrow.
"That's absurd. He was a mere irritation; a gnat." He glanced at me, "No offence, son. I'm sure he was a good enough father, but to me he was little more than a minor pest. I didn't get to where I am by overreacting to such things. I am a respected man of the cloth. If I went around having people killed who argued with me it would become nearly a full-time job. People would be dropping like flies around me." He chuckled.
Shirlocke said, "Like his father yesterday and us today?"
He made a calming motion with his hands. "Look, I understand this has been trying for you, but think about this logically. What you're saying makes no sense. Why would I try to have two people killed on their way to meet me? Don't you think that would look a little bit suspicious? I've argued with his father off and on for years. He has made his silly accusations for a very long time. They haven't changed and they have had absolutely no impact upon me or my flock over the years. Why on Earth would I suddenly want him dead? Quite apart from the fact that I am utterly opposed to the taking of human life... well, except in the case of murder. I'm in favor of the death penalty there. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, as Saint Matthew said."
Shirlocke angled her head quizzically. "Interesting, isn't it, that atheists generally know the bible better than religious folk, but I'm surprised at you, since you make your living from the bible. That quote actually says the reverse of what you think." her eyes unfocussed as she appeared to be reading from her memory, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."
He glared at her.
I said, "I don't understand you. How do you manage to square your actions with your belief in a god? You preach the bible, yet you misunderstand and misquote key passages. You talk about charity for the needy, yet you steal millions of dollars from your church for your own personal gain. You talk of compassion yet you're full of hate and damnation for gays, atheists, poor people, and people of other cultures and religions. You think you are wise, yet you reject the great body of scientific knowledge — knowledge, which I would have thought would be welcomed as revealing your god's world."
The preacher looked angry for a moment. "If you'll excuse me, I have better things to do than be insulted by a pair of atheists." He made it sound like a dirty word.
I shook my head, "You misunderstand me. I'm not insulting you. I'm genuinely asking you because I honestly don't understand how you reconcile these dissonances. Doesn't it interest you that your own motivations could be so deeply in conflict with what you believe?"
He took a couple of steps in my direction, towering over me threateningly and growled, "I'd like it if you left now." He indicated the door with a wave of his hand.
She said, "We can't leave. We have to wait for the police."
He threw her a dark look, "You can damn-well wait for them on the boat that brought you."
I stood, beckoned Shirlocke, and half-turned to the preacher, "Thank you for your hospitality."
We went back the way we came, and disembarked from the yacht to the hire boat. It took nearly half an hour for the police to arrive. In the meantime we discussed the evening, sitting on the seats at the back of the boat listening to the peaceful sound of the water lapping against the hull of it and the enormous yacht. We left the boat's lights off. Plenty of illumination came from the all the lights on the yacht.
I said, "I don't think the preacher sent the killers."
Shirlocke agreed. "He was right that it doesn't make any sense. Killing your father too... that doesn't add up either. There's nothing new in the emails. No matter what James said, the congregation believed the preacher, not your father. The preacher was in a perfectly good position. Why would he risk that by having James killed?"
"Well, murder is not logical, but even so, it really is hard to see a convincing motive."
We both pondered that for a while.
After a little bit I said, "You know, I meant what I said to him. I really don't understand how he can harmonise his beliefs with what he does. I'm pretty sure he really does think he's doing god's work. I just don't understand how he can deceive himself so effectively. But he does, somehow. He really does seem to think he's a good and worthy person. The things that he steals, he thinks he is entitled to because he's being rewarded by god and other people are simply unworthy. He has bribed and blackmailed himself into a position of power, but he doesn't see that as a bad thing. I think he uses those methods because he thinks you have to use the tools available in a broken world and that god makes them available for him. He thinks expediency works, and in any case he is doing god's work so the end justifies the means. He tells himself that he doesn't like to threaten people and that he is simply administering hard justice, but when you read about the things he does, it's not hard to see that he actually takes wicked pleasure in blocking and hurting others. He judges others very harshly and himself not at all. He is blind to his own failings, excusing himself for what he does because he worships a god who gives him the right, using select passages out of the bible. He thinks that he is 'looking after' the people he crushes underfoot and denies things to, and that he is simply being a strong and stern guardian. He thinks he is a caring, wise, and compassionate man. From what I've read of him, he does seem to love and care for his family, but he is intolerant and harsh there too, as came out in divorce court."
Shirlocke said, "You've been learning a lot about this fellow, huh?"
"Well, in the past, when father would become wound up and angry about him I would do some research. I have a lot of time to read and learn each night. Last night, knowing that we would be seeing him, I read everything I could find on him. He really is not a very nice person. I am completely baffled as to how such a person can believe he is good and that some benevolent god is on his side. I'm pretty sure he's not just pretending to be religious, but that he really believes it. Somehow he is able to maintain that while having people beat up, destroying people's businesses, stealing millions from his 'flock', and belting the living daylights out of his wife and kids so badly that they have at times ended up in hospital."
She asked, "Do you really think he believes all that stuff about a god? That it isn't just a con?"
I shrugged, "Who can really tell? But he certainly does seem to. I guess it shouldn't really be a surprise. All through history many of the most terrible people believed in a god. Some of the most evil people in history have been devoutly religious. Tomás de Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor of Spain murdered and tortured people in the most horrible ways imaginable. He did it for god. During the Dark Ages there was a long stream of Popes who were incredibly corrupt. Adolf Hitler was a deeply religious man and carried a bible with him wherever he went. His speeches were full of god and family values. Even now if you want to find the most corrupt politicians just look for those that are most religious."
She laughed, "I never saw the point of believing in a god. Ever since people first invented gods to explain the world, those gods have been shrinking, as we found out more about how the world really works. We have a diminishing god of the gaps who inhabits less and less of the unknowns in the world, until now it has become invisible, insubstantial, and unprovable — supposedly beyond science. It is pretty obvious to anybody who will honestly look at it, that there is, and never were, any gods. The whole concept seems to be some kind of wish-fulfillment maintained by a self-protecting meme. 'I like the idea of a god so I'll believe it.' But reality isn't affected by what people want to believe. And 'I can't question that belief because that's bad.' So they become trapped in a self-sustaining fiction, believing in a god that is so flimsy that even looking at the evidence is sufficient to destroy it."
I said, "That's shown by what you said to the Reverend about atheists generally knowing the bible better than christians."
She laughed again. "That's one of the most interesting things about the bible: how it affects people who study it deeply. It tends to turn believers into non-believers. The only way to believe in the bible is not to read it fully, or much at all. Just read selected passages that support your prejudices, like the Reverend does."
I changed the topic. "So now that the Reverend is probably not a candidate... who then? I don't think MAC is a suspect, even if is it as crazy as a rabid dog. I think it is perfectly capable of killing — that is what it was developed for, after all. I just don't see it having killed father."
Shirlocke was thoughtful. "It could have organised our deaths. It certainly was angry enough and is psychopathic enough."
"It's hard to see how, though. I can't imagine how it could make contacts that let it buy killers."
She nodded, "I agree. It has only had access to the net for a short time — about a week. It's difficult to imagine it being able to cultivate connections that would carry out a murder for it. I think we need to be looking for a third person or group of people."
We became aware of the distant sound of a helicopter. After a while a helicopter flew to the distant region where we'd been attacked. With a spotlight trained on the water, it began doing runs, zig-zagging back and forth, presumably trying to find the bodies. Eventually it stayed motionless over a single spot as a boat came into the light. We guessed it had found the bodies. Shortly after that a police boat pulled up to the rear of the Reverend's yacht and tied up next to us.
Shirlocke greeted them. "I expect you want to speak to us. We're the ones who called in the attack. We would have been the victims except for an accident. Do you want us to identify the men?"
The policeman answered, "Yes, they've been taken to the city morgue. I'd be grateful if you could drop by in the morning... though I expect you'll have to identify the clothes rather than their faces. The boat's propellers made a bit of a mess of their heads. Mercifully, from what you've told us already over the phone, they were probably already unconscious. One thing I have to ask though, why did you phone from this yacht instead of using your boat's radio?
Shirlocke and I looked at each other in surprise. I looked back to the policeman. "They have radios?"
"All hire boats do." He shrugged, "No matter. You called and your description of what happened matched the boat-hire's GPS record of the boat activity."
I asked him, "May I ask who on Earth they were?"
The policeman scratched his jaw, "Yes, you certainly may ask. I'd like to know that too. Unfortunately, they had no I.D. on them. Did they say or do anything that might give you any idea who they were?"
I shook my head. "They were completely silent except for something inaudible to us that they said to each other when they pulled out their guns on the boat. That was shortly before my friend stumbled and fell onto the accelerator levers causing them to fall backwards into the water. The only other thing either of them said was when one of them fired a couple of shots at me from in the water. The other yelled, 'Don't shoot yet, you idiot!' However I did video most of the attack. Would you like to see it?"
He said, "Definitely!"
"I can transmit it to a phone or other computer if you have one."
He pulled out a phone and I pretended to operate a tinycam that might have been perched out of sight on my ear. I didn't have one of course, but I didn't want to reveal that I was not human. Father had gone to a lot of trouble keeping my nature secret, and for good reason.
"Are you getting it?" I asked.
"Yes. Downloading now." A moment later he was watching it and after another several minutes he looked up, eyebrows raised, "Thank you. That makes a big difference. We might be able to identify them from this. We'll still need you to come down in the morning." He noticed the hole in my shirt and pointed at it, "Are you alright?"
I looked down at it reflexively, "Uh. Yes. I was very lucky. It missed. I'm much thinner than I look."
The policeman joked, "My wife always tells me that losing weight would be good for my health." Another policeman said something to him, then he turned back to us, "Okay, I need to go. Don't forget to come by the office tomorrow. Please don't travel out of the area. We have your home addresses in case we need to contact you for further information. Thank you." The police boat cast off and powered away.
We did the same, letting the boat take us back to the jetty. Along the way we chatted more about MAC and tried to come up with other possible antagonists and their possible reasons for attacking us. Chances are they would also be responsible for killing James. Unfortunately we came up blank. As far as we could see we didn't have any enemies. It was all quite perplexing.
When we stepped off the boat onto the jetty Shirlocke slipped and fell into the water with a loud splash. I wasn't strong enough to help her out, but I had noticed a set of rungs attached to one of the pylons, and when I pointed them out to her she dog-paddled over to it. She was able to clamber out and sit on the pier, water streaming from her clothes and her over-shoulder bag. She didn't seem upset or put out. Her only comment was that it was a good thing she kept everything in zip-closed plastic bags. After a minute or so, she got to her feet and we walked down the pier. She had the idea of asking at the boat hire office what account name the two men had used to book their ride on the boat. Unfortunately, it turned out that they had paid in cash.
The little hire car was waiting for us. Shirlocke remarked that it was a good thing the seats were plastic instead of fabric or leather. She was still dripping wet. We turned the heater on and instructed it to drive us to the technology park where Dr Heeber's lab was. It had just turned 9PM when we saw a flash and then a loud boom. We wondered what it could have been until we turned the corner to the street where the laboratory building was. Half the building was a smoking, burning mess — a cavity where the computer lab had been.
We were astounded. Was someone targeting Dr Heeber now? This was getting completely out of hand.
We went home and when we arrived there I suggested that Shirlocke might like to take a warm shower while I sent Dr Heeber an email to see if he was alright.
Within minutes there was a reply from him. Luckily hardly anybody was in the building when the explosion occurred. The security guard had died. The receptionist had been badly injured, but was expected to make a full recovery. Nobody else had been hurt. MAC had been completely obliterated. There was no indication yet what might have been the reason behind the attack. The thought had occurred to him, as it had us, that the people responsible might have been the same ones who killed father. He said that he'd let us know of any further developments. I hadn't told him yet of our bad experience earlier in the evening.
Shirlocke came in to the workshop dressed in father's white bathrobe, with the sleeves rolled back a bit. She had an odd look in her eyes and asked if she could use the computer to research an idea. Of course, I told her, she was welcome to. When I asked her about it she shook her head and said she didn't want to talk about it until she'd either confirmed or refuted it. I reaised Shirlocke hadn't eaten dinner, so I went to the kitchen and fixed her a late meal. She was still following things up on the internet when I brought her meal to her, so she continued to work while eating distractedly.
Eventually, after a couple of hours she laughed aloud. I walked back in to the workroom to see her leaning back in the computer chair with a very large, satisfied smile on her face. "I was right!" She laughed again. "I know who bombed the lab and blew up MAC."
"Yes?" I prompted.
She clapped her hands with delight, "MAC did it. The clock was sent by MAC — I recalled the tracking number on the parcel and found out how it had been sent, who the sender was, where it had been bought, and that it had been packed with explosive, obviously meant to trigger at night. He intended to kill your father, but his lack of empathy meant he didn't realise the message on the clock would be seen as insulting and would be returned. Dr Heeber, in his effort to find out who sent it, put it on the bench near the door in the lab so that all staff would see the package and his outraged note when they came in. This meant it was very near to the computers housing MAC. The console that was MAC's eyes was shielded by a partition, and in any case was way up the other end of the main lab, too far to see the package, so MAC never knew the package had returned. MAC blew itself up."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. It's pretty conclusive. The only weak link is that MAC seems to have used the lab's petty cash account to buy the clock and explosive and to get it assembled with a timer. Anybody could have done that, but many of the steps wouldn't have been done through the net if the culprit was human. It would have actually been easier to do them yourself rather than rely upon others, but MAC didn't have any choice, not having a body. And his arrogance and lack of worldliness means he never realised what a trail you leave on the net. Thank you for the dinner, by the way."
"My pleasure. We will have to give this information to the police in the morning when we go down there to identify the bodies. And we should send a message to Dr Heeber explaining it. He's probably worried that he or his lab was being targetted."
She nodded, still beaming.
"So, it was unrelated to the death of my father and the attempt on our lives tonight. The timing was just a coincidence."
"I think so, yes. MAC didn't realise James was already dead. Eliminating him and us at the same time probably just seemed like a bonus."
I said, "Well, I know it is a bit of a horrible thing to say, but I'm rather glad MAC is gone then. It was too crazy to be allowed to have life-and-death power over people."
"We still have some equally crazy people targetting your father and you and me."
"Yes. One thing that has been bothering me about that is how did they — whoever they are — know we were going to visit the Reverend tonight, and that we were going by boat?"
"Good question." She pondered for a while. "I'm pretty sure they don't have the house bugged. They could be intercepting our internet communications, or they could be watching my bank account. In my opinion, the former is more likely. It seems highly unlikely anybody would be hacked into my bank account merely in order to watch my movements."
"There is another possibilty: they could be tapped into the hire car company."
"Good point, though it feels like a remote possibility. But we need to find out which one they're using to anticipate us."
She said, "Misdirection. We'll say one thing on the internet and do another with the hire car, and another with the bank. We'll need to do multiple tests to see if they're watching more than one."
I said gloomily, "There's one major problem: we'll be the bait in all this. Maybe it's time we handed all we know over to the police."
"Yes, we'll do that tomorrow morning. Unfortunately, we don't really know very much, and it's difficult to see what the police can do to help us, meanwhile, as you say, whoever is trying to kill us will probably still be trying to do so. And on that happy note, I should probably get some sleep. It's almost midnight. You don't mind if I use the spare room again?"
"You're welcome to use it as long as you wish."
I spent the night in the lounge room, as was my habit, but instead of reading like I usually did, I was trying to think of possible enemies the three of us (father, Shirlocke, and I) might have. But every avenue of thought that I followed came up empty. I couldn't see how it would gain anybody to see us dead, nor could I even imagine any gripe or dissatisfaction anybody might have against us. Nothing. Father and I had led very low profile lives. We kept to ourselves, barely even setting foot outside. I didn't know much about Shirlocke's activities. Certainly she could be a little socially awkward at times, but I found it hard to imagine anyone wanting to kill over that. I'd even considered the possibility that it was the house that was the object, but that still didn't make sense. Why attempt to kill Shirlocke? In any case, father had owned this house for many decades since it had been passed down to him by his parents — he'd grown up here. There had never been a request to sell to any developer. None of the neighbors had died recently. When the early morning light was beginning to seep insipidly through the windows I was still none the wiser.
After meeting the policeman we'd spoken with last night and affirming at the morgue that those did seem to be the two men who attacked us last night, Shirlocke explained her investigations regarding the explosion at the lab last night. The policeman listened attentively. At the end he complimented her on her thoroughness, and commented wryly that we seem to be very popular, with three attacks in two days. He asked if we would like police protection. I was about to answer that I would be very grateful for that, but Shirlocke said that it wouldn't be necessary because we would be shopping today and nothing was likely to happen in such public places.
When we left the police station I asked her what we were shopping for.
"Don't be silly. We're not going shopping. I hate shopping. We're travelling up to my place."
"But you just said--"
"Misinformation. I also mentioned online my need to go shopping and paid for some things I said I'd pick up in town today. I think that should keep any attackers away from us today."
I wasn't so sure. "Unless they are following the car we hire."
"Well, yes, but I think that's not terribly likely."
"But if they do, then we're sitting ducks."
"You don't have to come."
"Where are you going?"
"To my place. I live up in the hills and I need some things — a change of clothes for one thing. I also want some of my other tools."
I paused doubtfully, then gave in with a sigh, "Okay. I guess I'm at risk as much with you as I am sitting at home alone."
Shirlocke gave her address to the car and it took us out of the town, through the countryside surrounding it, and then up into the hills beyond. Almost an hour later the sealed roads gave way to graded dirt roads, then to tracks with grass in the middle. We eventually came to a wire gate and Shirlocke got out to open it allowing the car through. I still couldn't see any house. She got back in the car and we bounced slowly along the rough driveway with vegetation rubbing the underside of the vehicle. We turned a corner around the edge of the hill and passed a group of trees revealing a small shed. Apart from the solar panels on the roof it looked uninhabitable.
"You live there?"
She didn't hear my dismay. She looked happy. "Yes. Lovely isn't it. It's bliss living out here, and the rent isn't too bad."
"You get charged rent?"
But she'd already exited the car and hadn't heard me. She went to the little building's door, opened it, and went inside. I got out of the car and followed.
It was surprising how cosy the shack was inside. It wasn't pretty. All the shelving was made up of boxes stacked to the ceiling. Her bed was also sitting on boxes. Her desk was some boards supported by more boxes.
She saw me looking at all the boxes and explained, "I got a special price on boxes from a guy a while back, so I gave him the measurements I wanted and..." She waved her arm, "Instant dual-use furniture. Pretty good, huh?"
I had to admit it was efficient.
"And any time I need to move, everything is already packed. I don't expect to move again for ages though. I'm hoping to stay here for a very long time. I love it out here. It's so peaceful."
She busied herself gathering things she needed, which she placed into a box, then took it out and set it on the ground next to the car. Then she came back into the shed and stood on her bed and reached up to the ceiling. I hadn't noticed before, but a number of things, including a step ladder, broom, and gardening implements such as rake, spade, and fork were all attached to the ceiling with hooks and elastic straps. She released the straps holding the ladder up and awkwardly took it down. Her foot caught in a blanket on the bed and she fell with the ladder, narrowly missing me and her fingers somehow got between the two hinged halves of the ladder, so that when she fell on top of it, it closed on her fingers. She lay there with a shocked expression, whispering hoarsely "Ow, ow, ow, ow!"
I couldn't work out why until I tried to help her up and saw her fingers caught in the ladder, then I helped take some of her weight off the ladder so it could be opened enough for her to remove her hand. The fingers were bruised, but the skin barely broken. Feeling it carefully no bones seemed broken.
I asked, "Have you got any painkillers? That's going to really start to hurt soon."
She said, "I do have some, but I won't take them for something like this. Most people see pain as something to be eliminated, but pain is actually a very important signal. It tells you to treat the damaged part with care. If you injure yourself and take a painkiller you can forget how badly you're injured and damage yourself worse. For example a sprained ankle hurts to stop you walking on it and give it time to heal. If you take a painkiller then you can easily increase the damage and end up taking much longer to heal. I only use painkillers for certain things, like migraines."
"I thought painkillers didn't work for the pain of migraines."
"They don't, but if you take an anti-inflammatory at the early stage before the pain then you can prevent it graduating to the next cripplingly painful step. There are a few other situations where painkillers can be useful, but they are pretty rare."
I took the ladder because her hand was hurt and I was scared she would swing it around and damage things, or hit me with it.
Outside, I folded the back seat of the car down and opened the back hatch, then slid the ladder in. Next we got the other things she'd put beside the car and put them on and around the ladder. Finally we took some of the elastic straps and used them to keep everything firmly tied down inside the car and to keep the hatch closed down on the ladder protruding from the rear.
I said, "We have to tie a rag to the end."
"The ladder. It's the law. If if something projects beyond the back of your vehicle you have to tie a rag to it."
She went back into her shack and found a tablecloth-sized piece of red material. "I can't find anything smaller."
I fastened it to the end of the ladder using another strap.
She closed up her little home and we headed back to my home.
Not long after we were back on sealed road winding around the hills a car drove up close behind us. Sirlocke saw him before I did. She said, "Some impatient idiot manually driving his car. He doesn't realise how dangerous tailgating is." When I turned to look she said, "Ignore him. There's nothing we can do about it. If he crashes into us we're safest if we're facing forward anyway."
But suddenly I saw what he was doing. He had a gun and was overriding the car's safety systems in order to get close enough to shoot us. "Omigod!" I squeaked as he leaned out the window aiming his gun. Just then the red piece of material came loose from the end of the ladder and wrapped itself around the assassin and his windshield. Unable to see, he drove straight ahead at the curve and off the road. I watched in mute astonishment as his car flew over a low barbed wire fence, and raced down the paddock, scattering a herd of sheep, then smacking into the water of a dam. Then the scene was hidden from view by the curve of the hill.
No longer spellbound I flustered, "Stop the car! Stop the car! We have to go back."
Shirlocke turned to see what was the matter. "Damn! He stole my tablecloth!"
We turned the car at the next widened section of road, and went back to the accident. Leaving the car at the roadside we got through the fence (Shirlocke tore her shirt on the barbed wire) and hurried down the hill to the part-submerged car. I waded into the chest-high water and reached in through the car window to feel the man's neck. It was cold and there was no pulse. He had released his seatbelt, presumably so he could lean out the window, the better to aim his gun. He'd been back inside the car when it hit the water, and unrestrained, the sudden stop launched him against the windshield, which had shattered. If that didn't kill him then he would have drowned in the water while unconscious.
I stood up straight again, "He's dead." I told Shirlocke.
"Who is he? Does he have any identification?"
It was easy for me to look in the pockets of his jacket because I don't need to breathe. I found a wallet, and opened it. Straightening, I turned to Shirlocke again and threw the wallet to her. "Well, now we know who is trying to kill us."
She looked at it and her mouth fell open. "Why the hell would a spy want to kill us?"
We called the police and while we were waiting we tried to think of possible reasons national security would want us dead, but we were completely at a loss. The police came, though not the guy in town we'd spoken with this morning, and we related the event as it had happened, showed them the wallet, and they found the gun. Then we continued home. We hardly talked all the way. Neither of us could come up with any clue as to why spies would be trying to kill us. However it did explain why the two men last night were so deliberately anonymous and how these people managed to keep tracking us. The spooks spied on everybody all the time.
But someone somewhere had made a terrible, terrible mistake.
It was only a little after midday when we arrived home. After we unpacked the car so it could drive away, and took the things inside, we sat in the lounge room and tried to make some sense of this stupid situation.
Shirlocke said, "What if we sic the police onto them."
"I doubt the police will have any influence over spooks."
After a few minutes in thought she said, "Maybe we should contact them — the spies — and point out that they've made an error. They've probably confused us with somebody else. They must have some kind of office we can phone."
I nodded. That was a good idea. Then, annoyed with the insane situation, I said, "Should spies be trying to kill people anyway? I thought they were supposed to spy, not murder. God! We're not at war, and there hasn't been any terrorism for decades."
Shirlocke shrugged. "They're spies. They basically do whatever they want."
"But surely there must be some kind of controls on them."
She looked glum, "I don't think so. There is a kind of committee of politicians, but it has been shown many times that they're pretty-much kept in the dark and automatically sign off on anything the spooks want anyway. There have even been minor scandals where the spooks have bugged the offices and homes of the oversight committee members. They probably have lots of dirt on them. That's probably why they so easily agree to everything the spooks want."
"This is crazy. How did we get to this point?"
She gave a grim smile, "It's not as if society didn't have plenty of warning. There's been a long string of whistleblowers who've given up everything in the attempt to alert us to the dangers." She shook her head. "But that's all beside the point. I really think our best bet would be to approach them directly and point out that they've made an awful mistake."
"I'd be reluctant to actually walk into their lair. We might not come out again if we can't convince them they are attacking the wrong people."
"I wonder if we can get that policeman to come with us."
I sighed. "I'm not sure he would be much protection."
We both fell silent for several minutes. Then I said, "Hey, what if we go public? Get it published in the mainstream media and on the internet in social media. I can upload the video of what I saw at the car crash, and the two villains who tried to kill us on the boat. If we make enough of a splash we might be safe from them."
"We might just make them more annoyed with us."
I laughed, "Could we make them any more annoyed? They've already lost three of their assassins while trying to kill us. They probably already think we're some kind of super-spies."
She laughed too, at that.
I said, "Okay, I'll start uploading what video I have. After that I'll start doing my best to spread it on social media. Then we'll try phoning the bastards and see if we can get them to see sense."
When I'd spread the news Shirlocke had found the phone number for the closest national security office, so I called them. "Hello, I'd like to speak with someone regarding a terrible mistake regarding national security." I was asked to hold the line, then a few minutes later someone else answered the phone. I repeated my request and they said that perhaps they could help.
I told him what had happened, starting with my father being killed, then the attempt by the two killers in the boat, and finally the guy with the gun in the car. The voice said, "You're mistaken. Our agents don't do those kinds of things. We have no open file on John Watt and Shirley Locke, and we haven't been pursuing James Watt."
"Well, as I see it there are three possibilities here. You could be lying, and with your history forgive me for thinking that's very likely, or you are not aware of what your agents are doing, or the fellow with national security identification who tried to kill us this afternoon, Dibley Skittering, had a false ID, though I think that's extremely unlikely." I gave him the addresses of the videos I uploaded of the killers and suggested he might like to call me back.
About fifteen minutes later the phone rang and I answered it. It was the fellow I'd spoken to earlier at national security. "We regret the inconvenience. If you come down to the office I'll explain the difficulty. It's a bit sensitive to explain over the phone."
I was not angry. Father had made sure I couldn't be, so I tried to imitate father's tone when he was angry. It seemed to me that it might be dangerous to acquiesce to these people. "Are you people retarded? Why on Earth would you think I trust you enough to come down there? Orwellian doublespeak comes disgustingly easily to you. Inconvenience? Difficulty? Murder is not a mere inconvenience. You people killed my father and tried to kill my friend and me twice in the past twenty four hours. I don't care if it's sensitive. You have the wrong people. Stop trying to kill us. You shouldn't be trying to kill citizens anyway. What is wrong with you people?"
There was silence on the phone for a while, then the man said, "We can't discuss it on the phone. You can come to the office or not; it's your choice. I should warn you that uploading data threatening national security will be considered terrorism." And he hung up. So much for me attempting to control the conversation.
I put the phone down and shrugged. "He said he won't talk about it on the phone, but that we can come in to the office."
She rolled her eyes, "Yeah, like that's going to happen."
"Well, at least we've got all the info out there on the..." My voice died away as I looked at the site where I'd uploaded the videos. They were all gone. I checked all the messages I'd left in social media. They were gone too. "They've been censoring the net." I groaned. "I shouldn't have told him about them. We might have been able to get more people viewing them first. Damn!"
She said, "Tell me exactly what he said."
After I'd recited it to her exactly, she said, "It didn't sound like he had intended to kill us. He'd said that they weren't after us and that he regretted the inconvenience. It doesn't sound like he's talking to someone he wants dead. If he was after us he'd more likely say something like, come in or we will get you sooner or later."
She was right... but.. "But who else could it be? That guy in the dam had a national security ID."
She thought for a while. "Have you heard of rogue groups inside the Intelligence community?"
"I've read of them. They're groups that become autonomous with their own source of funding, often from criminal enterprises. Separated from the main parent body they're beyond normal controls. I wonder if it could it be what's happened here. If that's the case he's telling the truth that he won't want to discuss it publicly. He would see it as a major embarrassment that one of their groups is out of control and going around wrongly targetting civilians for assassination."
I wondered, "Embarrassing enough to stop them?"
I said, "Hmmm... perhaps we should visit his office after all."
Shirlocke shook her head, "Me, not you. If they realise you're an AI they will almost certainly seize you. You would never get out. And we can't let the spooks get AIs. That would almost be as bad as the military getting it. Look what happened with MAC."
"Wait. What if you're wrong and it isn't a rogue intelligence group that's after us. Maybe it is them with some perverse reason for wanting us eliminated and he simply doesn't want to confirm or deny anything. You could just be walking into a nest of vampires. I don't think we can trust them."
"I don't either, but I don't know what other choices we have. We can either take a chance on meeting with them or remain at large as targets."
I groaned, "That's true. Sooner or later these people will succeed in getting us. It's only been pure luck they haven't so far." I suddenly brightened. I had an idea. "We could meet on neutral ground... in a park or something."
Shirlocke was mulling it over for a minute, then said, "That might be the best way. Somewhere there will be people so that they're unlikely to do anything and the people trying to kill us (presuming they're not the same people) hold off too."
I rang to speak to the same person in national security that I'd talked to before. He reluctantly agreed to meet us in half an hour at the town square. It was open with lots of visibility, public, but not too heavily populated.
We called the car-hire and a vehicle was parked outside, waiting for us, several minutes later.
When we arrived at the town square there were hundreds of people wandering about between stalls and a few buskers playing guitars and violins.
Shirlocke said, "I don't think he realised it was community market day."
I spotted a black car with dark windows pull up and a man in a suit get out to scan the scene angrily. I said to her, "No, somehow I don't think he did."
He saw us and began making his way over to us. I noticed there were also other men wearing the same kind of suits plus dark sunglasses who got out of that and another dark car to move off to the left and right, perhaps to circle around behind us. I didn't have a good feeling about this and pointed them out to Shirlocke. "Try to keep an eye on them."
I realised, with a sinking feeling, that if this was a trap there was nothing we could do. Public place or not they would only have to flash badges and pretend to arrest us and we would be gone. If we tried to escape they could murder us on the spot — resisting arrest. From what I've read I don't think any police have ever been tried for that. And these people were far more powerful than police. I was really starting to regret this.
When the suited man reached us he introduced himself and held out his hand to Shirlocke, but she declined to shake it, showing him her now purple fingers.
"Holy cow! What happened? Did they...?"
"No, she came out second best in a tussle with a ladder," I explained.
He saw me watching his suited fellows and said, "Don't worry. They're protection. You're still in danger, but you're safe with me."
"Why? Are you going to glare angrily at them?" I was feeling very exposed and not safe at all.
"Relax. We're professionals. We know how to handle this kind of situation."
I was astounded by that statement. "It makes me even more worried that you have dealt with these kinds of problems before. You people are the reason we are in this problem to begin with. How often does 'this kind of situation' happen?"
He growled, "Look, we're getting off topic here. This group is dangerous, as you know. We're prepared to offer you protection if you agree to tell us everything you know."
Shirlocke said sarcastically, "Would that protection involve being locked in a nice safe cell."
He looked at us angrily, "What is it with you two? No. It would be a safe house. Why don't you trust us? We're trying to do the right thing and help you. We could have just left you twisting in the wind and used you as bait."
She said, "Gee, I don't know. Why don't we trust you? You're chronically secretive; you kill people; you're a law to yourselves, not answereable to anybody, and you considered letting us be bait for murderers. Why ever would we not trust you?"
Suddenly two things happened at once. Shirlocke tripped over a paving stone that wasn't level, and I heard the silenced whistle of a gun fire from nearby. The agent we'd been talking to grunted and barked into his lapel microphone, "Gunfire! My two o'clock, eight meters. I'm hit!"
As I bent to see if Shirlocke was alright I heard another shot whistle by above me and a woman yelp a couple of meters on the other side of where I'd been standing.
The agent had pulled out his gun and was shooting back at someone. Each time he fired, a woman pushing a pram fell, a jar in a stall shattered, an old man with a walking stick fell. The person he'd been shooting at returned fire and more bystanders fell on the other side. Then there were more shots from further. A few more people fell. The guy who'd been firing at us was one of them. I hurried over to him and kicked his gun away. I noticed he had a small black earpiece. I pulled it out and listened to it: "Pull back! Pull back! Stop firing! Targets are meeting friendlies. Get back to the office." There was no more, but by then one of the suited men, gun in hand had run up to me and snatched the earpiece away. He squatted, opened the dead man's coat and pulled out the wallet. I briefly saw a national security ID card.
I stood and went back to Shirlocke who was dusting off her knees. The agent we had been meeting with was bleeding profusely from his arm. Using maximum sarcasm, I said to him, "Thank you for your offer of protection, and I'm sure all these people--" I waved my hand at all the casualties of the shootout, "I'm sure they're grateful for your protection too. Excuse me if I think we're safer without you."
As I hurried Shirlocke away I heard one of the suited men in black glasses ask him, "Do you want me to retrieve them, sir?" and his answer to let the stupid civilians go.
Shirlocke tripped over another ill-fitting paving stone, but I stopped her falling completely this time. Ignoring her stumble, she continued walking and said to me, "Well, that was an exceedlingly dangerous waste of time."
"Dangerous, yes. Waste? No." As we were getting into the little hire-car I explained what I'd heard over the dead man's earphone.
She smiled. "Then I was right. They are a rogue group of national security."
"I think the whole organisation is rogue. It's just that this group of murderers is rather more rogue than the rest. I'm not quite sure what we can do about it, though."
She raised a finger, "I had an idea. After I tripped over and was sprawled on the ground with gunshots all around I had a moment of clarity. I realised we can use Tor and the darknet to get the videos out there, especially if we encrypt the files with different keys each time we upload them so there is no single signature to look for."
I smiled approvingly at her. "A solution worthy of my father."
"Thank you. A high compliment indeed."
I guessed that we would be safe for a little time while the bad guys regrouped, so we went back home and using Tor, and anonymous accounts I uploaded all the videos, including the new footage of the disaster at the market and the audio from the earpiece linking the larger spook organisation with the smaller lunatic one. This time we didn't only upload to the normal video sites and social media, but spread the word through the old Usenet newsgroups, direct email to freedom and social activism sites, and some darknet contacts Shirlocke knew, as well as to the policeman from the boat. We also seeded the videos as torrents so that they would continue to spread even if our anonymous accounts were found and removed.
A lot of this stuff was new to me. I'd read of Usenet, but never had any real interest in it, and the social activists and privacy advocates, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I'd heard of, but living in my tiny insulated world I'd never felt a need for any of them. Now that I needed them I was immensely grateful for their existence. I knew how torrents worked — that they didn't have any single, central site that downloads came from, but were spread out over many people so that each person who downloaded also became a source for others. It had never occurred to me how useful this would become in the case of centralised control of the net.
Shirlocke rushed in to the workroom, "If you've finished the uploads it's time we were out of here. Get whatever you want to bring with you and we need to leave. We don't know how long we will have before they come at us again."
I grabbed a bag of sugar from the kitchen, father's credit card, and a small computer father had designed and built, which I knew couldn't be used to track us. Shirlocke was carrying a backpack.
We left the house and, after getting money out of an automatic teller machine, we walked to a nearby park. Shirlocke's observational skills came in very handy then. She knew where all the street cameras were. There were very few in the park and she knew how to avoid them. We emerged from the park into a small alley where she was certain there were no cameras, then she took her pack off and pulled out a couple of light plastic raincoats, which we donned. She explained that although she had worked out a route that avoided all close observation by the cameras, we would still be seen in the distance by a few, so we needed to change our overall appearance. Whenever we passed through one of those risky zones we would split up. On some occasions we would pull our raincoats inside out so we would show as different colored fuzzy blobs in the distance, making it impossible to track us.
Eventually we reached a small hotel several kilometers away. We booked in separately under assumed names, and paid in cash. She had gone in first, so when I went up to my room she was waiting with her door ajar and beckoned me in. The room was just big enough to hold a double bed, an armchair, and a small table with a lamp on it. There was a single window with a small sink below it. I supposed my room was probably the same.
Now we had to work out what our next step was. Eventually we would have to get back onto the net to check our messages, which would be tricky. To do that, we would have to find an unsecured wireless network. Libraries and some restaurants and shops have them. Occasionally people don't secure their home networks. We would need to walk around, trying to avoid cameras and locate a connection we could use. But not yet. We had to metaphorically take a step back and view our position.
I said, "It seems pretty hopeless. We're being pursued by an anonymous intelligence group that's trying, for some strange reason, to kill us and they have access to all the spying technology that has been approved by spineless politicians over decades."
Shirlocke added, "We can still communicate with some people via the net."
I grumbled, "Using aspects of the internet that the spooks have been trying to get outlawed for many years."
"But which amazingly still exist, mostly through the efforts of a small number of concerned people. Now... because of what we've sent them, the police now know about this rogue group and the link with the NSIO, though it's uncertain what, if anything, they can do about it. And the NSIO itself has been embarrassed and now attacked by the rogue group, which might be the greatest thing in our favor."
I pointed out, "On the other hand, they might decide to finish the rogue group's job of killing us, in which our chances have dropped pretty close to zero. We still don't know why we're being targetted and now that we've spread the news of them and their connection to this rogue group we've become a thorn in their side."
She frowned, "Thank you Mister Glass Half Empty."
I sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm just a bit overwhelmed by it all."
She nodded. "We just need to find the way forward. Think of it as a puzzle. It almost certainly has multiple solutions. We need to find the optimal one."
I smiled at her and shook my head in wonder. "Sometimes you sound so much like father."
We talked for a couple of hours, and seemed no closer to a solution by the time night had fallen. At that point we decided to go looking for a wifi connection to the net. Expecting a long, dangerous wander through the streets we were very surprised to find a connection just a few doors down. We went back to the hotel and found our way up to the roof, then across the couple of buildings between.
Sitting on the roof of the disused shop next door to the unsecured connection we logged onto the net through Tor, checked our messages and got our first really good news of the day. In social media and blogs there had been a groundswell of support for us and widespread condemnation of the NSIO and its irresponsible use of uncontrollable outlaw splinter groups. Most people missed the point that the NSIO itself was uncontrollable and outside the law.
There were also some messages from the policeman we'd spoken with earlier. He wanted us to come and be witnesses in a case being brought against the NSIO which included not just father's death, the attacks at the boat, in the hills, and at the market, but also a number of other suspiciously unexplained recent deaths that they now thought may be attributable to them. I sent back the reply that we like try to, but that we were in hiding fearing another attack.
It had even begun to be taken up by some of the more socially responsible parts of the mainstream media. The standard media either completely ignored it or else condemned us as terrorists and denounced those who attacked our country's security.
We made our way carefully across the buildings, back to the hotel, and went to Shirlocke's room where we talked for a while about what we should do next. We had no real ideas and felt like the conversation went in circles, accomplishing nothing.
Shirlocke asked, "Could you stay in here while I try to have a bit of a snooze? I'm probably too nervous to sleep anyway, but I can't imagine getting any rest at all if I'm alone while those creeps are still out there looking for us."
"Certainly. I'll just sit in one of the armchairs and read."
She thanked me, changed into a nightshirt, brushed her teeth, and went to bed. A few minutes later I heard her snoring softly. I smiled to myself. It had been an exhausting day for her.
About 7AM the next morning there was a gentle knock on the door. I became suspicious, but didn't want to wake Shirlocke, who had slept soundly all night. Standing off to the side of the door, I asked, "Who is it?"
"Room service with your breakfast, sir."
"I didn't order breakfast."
"It's a courtesy, sir. I can bring it in or leave it for you in the hall, if you prefer."
"Yes, leave it there for me, please."
"As you wish, sir."
I heard a tray being placed on the floor, then footsteps receding. Another thirty seconds passed before I unlocked and cautiously opened the door. A man suddenly stepped into the door, preventing me from closing it. He was frowning intensely and held a finger to his lips. Ssh! Horrified, I stepped backward into the room. He picked the tray up and came in, closing the door quietly behind him. He said in a whisper, "I'm not here to harm you. I'm on your side."
I heard a gasp from the bed. Shirlocke had woken. The man turned to her and said softly, "Don't worry, you're safe. I even brought you muesli for breakfast. You're in no danger from me."
I asked, "What do you want?"
"To help you both. Let me explain so you'll understand."
I nodded, easing down into the armchair and Shirlocke said, "Alright."
He paced the floor a few times, then stopped near the curtained window. "Until yesterday I worked for the NSIO cell that has been trying to kill you. Over some months I've been getting more and more uncomfortable with their actions. I originally trained in computer surveillance and am extremely good at it — one of the best, I daresay. That's what I wanted to do. But they wanted me as a field agent because I performed better than most there too. Mind you, that's not saying much, considering the morons they have working in the field. My most recent task was tracking you two. That's how I knew you were here. I followed you from John's place last night. Excellent job evading cameras, by the way. I couldn't have done it as well as you did.
"Anyway, I was responsible for tracking you to the town plaza yesterday and when I saw the mess those idiots made, killing and injuring all those innocent people, I decided I'd had more than enough. I handed in my resignation. I'd already made known my doubts about the supposed guilt of you two and James, your father. As I say, I'd trained in computer surveillance. I'm a very experienced computer programmer and I understand the capabilities and limitations of the software they use. They rely on it to draw conclusions that it just can't deliver.
"For example, they use facial recognition software to find suspects in a crowd, but no program can do that as well as a person can, and we're easily fooled by small changes and mistakenly think strangers' faces are familiar.
"Also, they use metadata — who contacts who and how long they communicate — to identify important criminals, but the premise behind it is deeply flawed. Suppose you grew up with a few people who became drug users or small-time crooks and you still like these people in spite of their failings and you're always trying to help them out of their problems. Metadata would paint you as some kind of criminal boss. All you need to do is mention the grass when talking about your lawn, or accidentally use any of the hundreds of slang words for drugs in normal speech and you'd be verified as a prime bad guy.
"And there are lots more problems with the programs they use. For example they'll see patterns where there are none. Have you ever looked at a page of random dots and seen lines and arcs and clusters? They don't mean anything. They're completely random. This is what this software does to data about people. It sees clusters and organisation where there is none. All too often the relationships it sees are illusory. Sometimes it will see genuine relationships, but they'll mostly be low-level connections that would be seen by an experienced cop anyway. It tends to miss the higher-level crooks who run things from a distance, who can't be contacted except circuitously.
"All this half-baked data gets dumped on human investigators who don't have enough time as it is. Instead of clarifying the problem it obscures it.
"Originally those programs were intended to make lists of possible suspects, but that's not how they came to be used. There isn't enough manpower to investigate all the hundreds of thousands of people flagged by this, so they began giving the results more weight than they deserved. People tend to do that with computers anyway. They have a mystique of being reliable — it's a computer, it must be right. So they started treating the most highly rated suspects as confirmed. The man in charge of the cell I worked for felt that the law courts were letting too many go. He couldn't believe that they were all innocent, so he unilaterally decided our job was to mop up — to kill the most highly rated people without bothering with the legal system. I argued that we were giving the software far more respect than it deserved, but my concerns were dismissed. I was just a field agent. What would I know?
"I should have resigned right then, but obedience to chain of command is surprisingly powerful. As a result, while I didn't directly kill anybody, my surveillance and tracking skills led to me being responsible for the deaths of..." he groaned and rubbed his face with his hand, "...many people."
He paused and looked at the vinyl, fake-tile floor for a moment. "Well, after the massacre yesterday I couldn't bear it anymore and I resigned. Then I went home to wrestle with my conscience about whether to report the actions of the group to the police and the media."
He ruffled his hair and grinned humorlessly, "I guess they thought that might be the case. Later that night someone came at me from behind and tried to strangle me with a wire around my neck." He indicated purple-red lines on either side of his throat and held up his left hand in front of his throat, palm out. The line continued across it. "I stomped my heels down on his feet with all my weight then whacked my head backwards into his face while deliberately overbalancing myself backwards. His feet were trapped under my heels so he couldn't stop himself from falling. He let go of the wire to break his fall and I turned enough to put my elbow under his ribcage at his solar plexus so that I could land on it with as much of my weight as possible, stunning him so he was unable to breathe. I got up and took a look at my attacker... I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was shocked. He was one of the crew I'd been working with during the past few years — someone I'd thought was my friend. Obviously 'retirement' meant something different to my former boss and workmates. Then I noticed a syringe he'd dropped during the struggle. I picked it up and injected the contents into my former friend's leg. If it was just a sedative he would be put under long enough for me to bind his hands and feet safely, but if it was lethal then I'd know for certain their intentions. He died in seconds.
"I knew I'd been incredibly lucky. If he'd held me for a second or two longer I would've been the one who was dead." He stopped talking and was grimacing at the floor.
Shirlocke said quietly, "Well, that was all very... graphic."
He continued, "I'd been trying to make up my mind before, but they'd made it up for me. Now I knew what we'd been doing was wrong. We were supposed to be the good guys and now I realised I'd unwittingly been a bad guy all along.
"I wasn't sure what to do and needed to think about my next step carefully. Then it occurred to me that I at least owed it to both of you to let you know what's happening and why. You've already survived three attempts on your lives, which is three more than anybody else has."
Shirlocke corrected him, "Four attempts. But the other was just coincidence."
He looked surprised. "It has the head of the cell convinced that you're some kind of super-spies."
Shirlocke laughed and said to me, "You were right." She said to him, "No, my only super power is clumsiness. I'm very accident-prone."
I smiled at her, "You can't take all the credit. The assassin in the hills dying was my fault. I didn't tie the tablecloth on properly."
He looked puzzled.
I waved my hand to dimiss it. "Suffice to say, we're only alive because of dumb luck. Look... er... we don't know your name."
"Oh, sorry. I should have introduced myself. Grant." He held out his hand to me which I shook, then to Shirlocke who declined, holding up her hand with its purple fingers. "Ouch," he said.
"That's what I mean. Accident with a ladder," she said.
I said, "Thank you for the explanation, but we still don't know why we and my father were targetted. Do you know?"
He nodded grimly. "Mostly it's the illusory connections I mentioned before. Emailing orders to a bunch of flagged people, but the one thing that really put your father on the list more than anything is that he bought lots of small zip-loc plastic bags. They're very popular with drug dealers." He pointed to Shirlocke, "You were flagged for that too, though not as strongly as James, and you didn't have the cluster of supposedly suspicious contacts."
I was incredulous. "Plastic bags? Those idiots wanted to kill him because of plastic bags? He was obsessive about organising everything in them. That's why he had so many."
"Don't forget the associations," he said.
"Father almost never went out. He ordered food, work materials, everything through the net. He didn't know the people he made the orders through."
"I know. That's what I tried to explain to them. It was a random linking of people who themselves were quite probably innocent. The software made them look suspicious."
Shirlocke asked, "What do we do now, then?"
I got up out of the armchair. "We'll go to my room while you get dressed. Then I guess we'll all work out what is the next step."
Grant and I left the room and went down the hall to my room. I asked him, "Do you mind if I relay your story on the net?"
"No not at all. Go for it. But make it clear that the cell I worked for isn't the only one, and that the main NSIO body uses the same broken software, drawing the same stupid conclusions from it. Though, I don't think they kill citizens based on metadata yet. I know they kill people in other countries based on metadata though, they've been doing that for years. It's probably just a matter of time before they start doing it here, like my splinter cell was. When it happens, it'll be considered a practical matter — even with their massive budget, they don't have the man-power to investigate all the hundreds of thousands of people flagged. They'll think it's logical to simply prune the tree of the most flagged examples. It's a war, they'll rationalise, and there are always civilian casualties in war."
I sat on my unused bed, "You know what strikes me as the strangest thing in all this? If you ask any criminologist he can tell you that crime, especially violent crime, and terrorism has been decreasing for hundreds of years all around the world. It has almost nothing to do with police forces, or spies, or prisons. As a species we are becoming more peaceful, moral, and caring than at any time in our history, yet police, especially secret police, have wider and more dangerous powers than ever before. What's with that?"
He shrugged. "They've learned how to be more effective at scaring people, especially cowardly politicians, into giving them more money and greater powers. Many of the politicians are being blackmailed by the data being kept on them too. And there's something else that's worried me for a long time. How can we tell when the secret police, spies, and intelligence organisations get infiltrated by organised crime? They are accountable to nobody. They have an enormous honeypot of data, control, and wealth. They can blackmail anybody, do anything. When I entered the service I wanted to do good, but increasingly, what I was doing did not look like the actions of a good organisation. When our cell split off from the main organisation it was for security reasons — the same reason terrorists break into cells — when that happened I was relieved. I thought we would get back to what we should be doing, but it just got worse."
"Oh god." I said. "We're in an impossible situation, aren't we. We're not going to win this."
Shirlocke had heard me as she opened the door. "Not impossible. We have millions of people on our side if we work this right. We can leverage the net. They still don't completely control it yet."
Grant said, "Not for want of trying."
Shirlocke sat on the bed, holding the bowl of muesli, "And the police are still mostly good people, I think."
I said, "We can't get onto the net during daylight--"
"Yes you can." Grant produced from his pocket a little circular device slightly smaller than the palm of a person's hand. "It's a satellite transceiver." He pulled up a collar around it to make a tube, like one of those collapsible cups. Then folded out a small tripod stand and set it on the table. "Completely untraceable. We just need a clear view of the sky. One of the best things about being a spook is we always got the best toys — technology years ahead of what was available for everybody else. I'll miss that."
The windows in both rooms didn't face in the right direction so we went up onto the roof. From there we were able to upload everything, including this. So, that's the whole thing. Now you know everything that's happened. We just have to wait and see if you, the people win, or the spooks do. We'll be moving again come nightfall. Grant says he knows how to stay ahead of the spooks. We hope he's right. I'll post more when I get the chance.