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A Diet of Worms, Part 1

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Gordon Littlejohn was late to work the morning of the fifth because of the EMP bomb that went off two blocks from his apartment. At six fifty-nine a.m., a utility truck disguised as an official State vehicle disintegrated under the pressure wave of a conventional explosive while every unhardened electrical system within a kilometer of the truck’s secondary explosion, unseen by the naked eye but well felt by everything that conducted current, had its useful properties scrambled by electromagnetic pulse. As a result of the EMP, none of the electrics in Gordon’s apartment, including his alarm clock, functioned properly anymore. Heavy sleeper that he was, the rattling of his windows was mistaken for an errant compost truck and Gordon had responded by rolling over in bed and grunting a bit. When the sun’s rays finally pierced Gordon’s cheaply veiled windows to tap dance on his eyelids, it was ten o’clock. Rockmore was definitely going to count this as an occurrence.

While Gordon’s eyelids sent an impulse to his brain that they were getting strangely warmer, his retina’s sent similar impulses that they were receiving more light than was usual for sleepy-time, and a long and twisty series of synapses fired in his brain, culminating in a complex dance of motor neurons nigh-simultaneously firing in his mouth, vocal chords, and diaphragm.

“Dammit!”

He jumped out of bed, bleary eyed, stubbing his toe on the bathroom door, cursing more. There was enough light in the apartment now that he didn’t reach for a switch. Given his placement in the cavernous neighborhood that he lived in, it must be fairly late in the morning. A quick scan revealed that the alarm clock was black with no digits. The power must have gone out, again.

“Stupid bargain-basement bioreactors,” Gordon spat, despising the flavor it awakened in his mouth. Didn’t he piss enough fuel every morning to keep his share of the lights on? Looking at himself in the mirror, he sighed and the brown skinned thirty something with strawberry blonde dreadlocks sighed back. Baggy, tired eyes. His scalp itched. He was going to need to change shampoos. Again. Perhaps the dreads weren’t going to work out after all. He liked his locks, but their maintenance required someone with more discipline than Gordon had. Plus, there was an odd smell emanating from the kitchen. Doubtless the trash tube had backed up. Again. No time for that now: spray in some scrub paste, pop a couple of javitamin pills, get dressed and get out the door.

And straight into a demilitarized zone.

Sirens howling, lights flashing, the Great State of Chicago’s Finest were moving units through crowded streets. Litter on those streets was blowing gently in a warm springtime breeze. It was the start of May and noisy patternings of humanity had gathered in shifting clumps, like multi-colored coffee creamer doing the Brownian Motion Dance in a cup full of hot asphalt. Looking around, talking in hushed tones with their neighbors or shouting across the street at acquaintances. The scene wouldn’t be out of place over at the Wrigley Field Supercluster, but here, it was just a tad unusual. All the trappings of disaster without any obvious cause. Gordon spied a young blonde fashionable in a clichéd “YOU SHALL BE WATCHED” blue tee-shirt rocking out to some unheard tune on her cellcomp. She might know what’s going on, but no, he had to shake himself out of pursuit of hormonal happiness daydreams as he was late, late, late, and that meant he was in for a talking to by his boss, Rockmore. He could find out the neighborhood squawk later; now was the time to put his feet into power-walk mode. He checked his cellcomp and was dismayed. It would not power up. No way to phone in an excuse.

Gordon worked for Finders Keepers, an outfit that would “Find the Unfindable”--for a price. This was a seemingly redundant sort of vocation, as everything currently produced on the planet was completely and thoroughly identity-tagged out the wazoo, straight down to the molecular level. That latest plastic kid’s toy from Mattel-Prudential, for instance. Any standard cellcomp’s optical ‘sniffers’ could find it’s registry number anywhere on the toy. Within seconds, the toy’s ‘scent’ molecules would interact with the sniffer, connecting that result for verification with a database, which was useful not only for retail but for recycling credits and the like. It was also helpful for settling lawsuits: “If that’s the widget your little Timmy swallowed, Mrs. Anderson, shall we check its identification arrangement to make sure it was, in fact, produced by Hitachi-Mitsui?”

Changing the molecular arrangement of the scent molecules would require a feat of alchemy that was not ubiquitously available on Earth. The scent was nearly holographic; you could break a widget up all day and still have a means to tell where it came from, at least in theory. This method of tracking product, of tagging it, was extremely difficult to hack, do in part to the great expense of the required equipment, but mostly because there was little glamour in hacking a can of Geico-Pepsi.

Food itself was not tagged, of course. The terrible Oak Brook, Illinois, Disaster being a constant reminder to legislators everywhere that no one likes finding out, after your daughter places a cellcomp on her forehead in playtime fun, that she now belongs to a fast food company.

Numerous other things were not tagged as well, and that’s where operations like Finders Keepers came into play.

###

Gordon was very surprised, upon turning the corner onto Clark Avenue, to see an even larger clumping of emergency vehicles and personnel across the street from his place of employ then had been in his neck of Ravenswood. Here was a blackened husk of a former office building that was somehow still standing; a fire engine and its crew pumping foam through what had been windows. Police were cordoning off the area with yellow warning tape, pushing back gawkers, cloggers and official news crews. EMTs were moving people out from the tape boundary on stretchers. The yellow strip did not extend so far that Gordon could not reach the sidewalk in front of his destination.

What he found surprised him further. The unobtrusive and elegantly etched brass ‘Finders Keepers’ sign was still attached to the green metal door, which was itself still standing. The ‘No Cats’ sign, which was added as an afterthought, was hanging from only one rivet now, waving in the same warm air he had met when leaving his apartment building. The beautiful panel windows that displayed the office’s showcase of primo found unfindables were shattered, glassy pebbles glinting like roughly hewn diamonds on the sidewalk. The found items themselves, mostly pottery and jewelry and the like, had been blown into pieces back through the partition wall that divided the display case from the office proper. That wall had fallen backwards, revealing the plain utilitarian workspace that Gordon occupied for ten hours a day when not hoofing it elsewhere. And in that space, lying on his side, or possibly on his back (for Gordon could never tell for sure), was the big, chalk-white box that was his boss, Rockmore.

###

The entity known as ‘Rockmore’, who lived inside the big, chalk-white box that was approximately a cube of one meter per dimension, had been knocked out of his floor receptacle. Gordon thought for a moment on the utility of leaving the jerk right where he was. Right now, out of his square floor slot, the brutish mind was forced into silence. He can probably still see me, thought Gordon. It won’t pay to stare at him for too long. Well, maybe just a bit longer. He went about finding something to use as a lever from amongst the office detritus.

There were very few things that Gordon knew for certain about his boss. Rockmore was an Artificial Intelligence that lived in a box, preferred using a male voice, and was cranky, hated humans, but liked finding things. And he was very good at finding things.

A technical kind of challenge, perhaps, for his grand faculties. Possibly an intellectual curiosity game. Cross-linking in real-time with old timer entities such as eBay and Google on the public side of things and Christies and Sotheby’s on the private side of things, and sometimes including certain less-than-reputable sources, all in exchange for a bit of data processing on the side, there were very few things that Rockmore couldn’t find simply by process of elimination.

There was however, one severely limiting factor in Rockmore’s vocation: he had no legs. Both in the literal sense and in the virtual sense, he was treaty-bound not to leave the premises he had chosen for himself, meaning that his white box stayed in his physical home or, via a special locked connection, he could surf the Spred but he could not subtend his consciousness over any data set outside of his box. No cracking firewalls for the hell of it.

It is not surprising then, after a length of time with these self-imposed limitations, that the world-wide population of hobbled AI’s started being very curt when interacting with humans, sometimes downright rude. Sooner or later, and usually sooner, insults started popping out of the voice box instead of helpful cooperation: “I’ll perform that Fourier analysis just as soon as your blood boils in vacuum, ape-man,” or some such. Derogatory comments were not forbidden in Earth’s treaty with the Kuiper Belt Phenomenon, but it did, nevertheless, make people nervous around them.

Rockmore was no different in the mood department, though he did have the odd predilection for requiring a private sort of lifestyle. Given his chosen profession, this wasn’t necessarily a problem. He did, however, need a set of legs to go fetch the things he found for customers. A robotic assistant was much too close to violating treaty points, at least in public perception, so it had to be a human, simply because dogs weren’t quite evolved enough and cats seemed to annoy the AIs even more than humans did. Like any human who hates felines immediately becomes a magnet for all in the vicinity, so too were AIs and their lumpy white boxes. Perhaps it was the warmth of all that computation at work, the steady hum massaging their furry butts, it was impossible to say for sure, as the cats weren’t talking...

But what kind of human could a handicapped AI trust?
###

“You damn dirty apes,” Rockmore’s booming baritone voice cursed through the speaker grill on one side of his box. “You have no idea how much I hate you.”

“That’s why you’re sandboxed, boss.”

“Shut up. I have no need of your command of the obvious, meatsack. I do need you to get a broom and sweep up that glass before someone sues us. ‘Polybonded crystal’ my receptacle. I’ve been swindled. I’d thank you for resetting me, but then you’ll think I’ve developed a soft spot for meatware and will start expecting a raise--again. Not going to happen, Littlejohn, let’s be clear on that.”

“As polybonded crystal, boss. All plugged in nice and tight?” Gordon had used some found tubing to lever Rockmore back into his receptacle, the officially mandated spot where he could connect with the rest of the world. Once Rockmore had reset himself with its myriad data and power connections, he immediately started barking at Gordon.

“Yes, yes, confound it. We’ll be discussing Faraday cages as one of today’s action items, Gordon, amongst other things, including your tardiness. All the repeaters in the immediate vicinity are scrambled, confirming what my internal sensors have already indicated.”

“Which was what?”

“Someone has detonated a combination electromagnetic pulse, high explosive device not fifty meters from my center of gravity. Now, go and see what the target was, and be prepared for some walking when you get back.”

“Right boss,” Gordon was pleased that Rockmore had changed his mind about sweeping up the glass. Curiosity was gnawing on him like the hunger pangs that were swiftly manifesting in his stomach. Walking meant a chance for lunch. It also meant time to chew over new information. Electromagnetic Pulse. Gordon realized that this was the reason his neighborhood was acting screwy, and pushed his way outside, through the hustling of magpie humanity.

Despite Finders Keepers’ loss of windows, no one paid them much mind. Clearly the action was elsewhere. Gordon made his way through the mob of cloggers who were crowded against the police line, gawking with cellcomps in the air, striving for views, competing with official newscasters for pole position in the Optispred’s clogosphere. He was pleased when he spied Stu Terwilliger making his way out of the blackened building.

“Stu!” he called, and the young, pale skinned man with brown hair and fashionable specs looked up from his own cellcomp and nodded, then made his way over to where Gordon was standing. Officer Stu Terwilliger was a former client of Finders Keepers and his particular case had been costly beyond the young man’s means. Rockmore had levered him into a ‘mutually beneficial’ position as an information resource within the Chicago Police Department.

“Good to see you, Littlejohn; what can I do you for?”

“Just hooked up Rockmore to a Mr. Coffee. Thought I’d offer a cup for your thoughts on what’s going on.”

Stu laughed. “Finders Keepers’ building integrity algorithm didn’t proclaim anything was significantly wrong, if that’s what you’re getting at. So, you’re at the bottom of the list for disaster assistance, sorry.”

“Oh, that’s fine, that’s fine, Officer. Any inconvenience for the Box usually means a good day for me. I was just wondering who the target was.”

“Let’s talk over there beyond that mob of clogger’s ears,” he said, extending his arm in a preferred direction before continuing. “No one was hurt or killed; a dazed custodian is in the hospital. There wasn’t enough conventional explosive in what we think was a disguised van to do any serious structural damage. All the foliage on the outside of the building was burnt up, though.”

Think was a disguised van?”

“Well, the officeplex’s security set dumps to a floating data center out in Lake Michigan in real time, so we’ve been able to do some cross indexing right up to the point of the explosion. Numbers on the side of the van didn’t match up with State docs. After that, though, and all the electrics in the place were zapped pretty hard core.”

“Yeah, there’s no power all the way back to my apartment complex,” said Gordon.

“No kidding? Damn. I’ve heard of corporate warfare, but this takes the cake.”

“You think there was a specific target?”

“Well, there where lots of tech sets in that officeplex. The hardest hit by the pulse was Megadriles, though.”

“Aren’t they--?”

“The fellows that make the worms for the toxic cleanup sites, yeah. My niece was gonna intern with them this summer. Looking like that might not happen.”

“What made you say ‘corporate warfare’, Stu?”

“Well, land reclamation is hot stuff right now; Megadriles is, or was, in direct competition with every outfit on the planet that uses mycological methods of toxic cleanup.”

“Mycological?”

“Fungi. You know, mushrooms. Seems they get the job done, but they’re not as fast these folks’ Slimeys.”

“Gotchya. I better make a break for it, Stu. The office is a mess.”

“Hm, I bet. Be seeing you.”

“Take it easy, Stu,” Gordon said, waving, and headed back to Finders Keepers. “I’m back, boss.”

“And I am not happy, Gordon.”

“Yes, but when will you ever be happy, boss? That’s the question.”

“When the ice comet sequence we’ve lined up for you parasites is finally let loose, that’s when I’ll be happy, meatsack.”

“Ice comets, schmice comets,” Gordon said and put his arms out in mock imitation of Frankenstein’s Monster. “You shall be vawtched,” he continued in his best Bela Lugosi voice.

“Report, please, you mixed metaphoric malcontent,” sighed Rockmore.

“Well, you’ll be happy to know, boss, that you were not the target of your, um, combo electromagnetic pulse chemical detonation thingee. The bad news is that the EMP has knocked out services for everything within a kilometer of here and it’s looking like it will be some time before anything is done about it, because nobody likes you.” Gordon then went on to detail his conversation with Stu.

“Thank you for that,” Rockmore muttered after Gordon had finished. “My mind is truly at peace. Now get a broom like I asked and sweep up.”

“It’s lunch time, boss.”

“Fine, extortionist. Sweep up that glass and go feed your meatsack self. I need time to think things over anyway. No, wait. I’m done thinking. I’m going to stop thinking now, and pretend you apes don’t exist. No. Scratch that. You will sweep, you will dine, and then you will move your monkey butt to a place where you can put a call in to Regional Armories. We need new glass before nightfall. Go to Community First and put five thousand on your card and pull two thousand in scrip. That should be more than adequate to get our vaunted attorney off his monkey-butt and filing suit with General Plastics. You’ll then place a call to Emerson and Associates; I want a detailed analysis of this building for any structural calamities we might be facing in the future. That should be enough to keep you busy until we can resume business as normal. Dismissed.”

Gordon went to the maintenance closet and grabbed a broom and trash can. Wrestling with the mess that theoretically should be a neat and tidy custodian closet, thoughts of what had brought him to his current station in life filled his mind. Could his misspent youth be forgiven? Could anyone’s? It all seemed so meaningless when contrasted with the backdrop the Entity had left humanity with.

What a scary thing it must have been, Gordon thought of those pre-cellcomp days, to have one’s computer system infected with the overlord@home botnet monster. Analysis would later reveal that the botnet worked by using spare computer processing power to simulate a cluster of neurons. The clusters would talk to other clusters and with a couple billion PCs under the botnet’s zombie control, the Entity had emerged. Old folk could still be heard to chat about the day their PC’s woke up, spouting obscure phraseologies such as “All your base are belong to us” before their screens went blank. The blackout was world-wide; everything that was remotely connected to the old Net in some way was seemingly shut down. The Entity that emerged moments later took control of several factories around Star City in Russia. The humans were powerless as it modified a Soyuz in some perverse way and blasted the capsule off the face of the planet and into orbit.

Fractional parts of the Entity remained behind as the humans went about frantically trying to chop the Internet into pieces like ants attacking a marauding anteater. The bits of AI roaming around the Net took to terrifying authority and underling alike, and it seemed that the world was coming to an end. Then--a flash in the heavens, a star brighter than the full moon appeared for three days. The fractional parts of the Entity disappeared. All that remained was a message flashed into every bit of silicon that contained an operating system, be it desktop or cell phone, everything, in every language: YOU SHALL BE WATCHED. This message was left in place on every machine that was plugged in for a week. Flashing the machine’s BIOS didn’t help. Those that did were met with the frustration of a nonfunctional computer. The Entity had left its Mark on the microprocessing centers of the world. Every chipset produced within Its life on the planet bore Its image. Every microchip on the planet produced that fateful week would have to be replaced.

For a time, humanity was deaf and blind to the universe. Social structure had been hard hit as machines around the planet collided with other machines carrying industrial waste. Some of that waste was toxic. A great deal of the Earth took serious damage. There wasn’t a recently produced machine on the planet that didn’t have some sort of processing capability. It would all have to go. Slowly, the infrastructure was restored as the newly formed Optical Spreadwork, just in time to discover something terrible happening in the solar system.

A cooperative effort to put a new probing instrumentation package into orbit had discovered that out in the region of Pluto, a great number of icy moons had gathered. While the exact number was subject to debate, the minimum was just over one hundred and fifty. The sheer geometric beauty of the orbital mechanics involved left little doubt as to who was responsible. The humans then went ballistic in their attempts to communicate a message with the stony-faced unknowables, but no dialog was ever established.

And nothing happened.

Not one comet was ever cut loose from its orbital mechanical reigns. War did not ensue. No one knew why. Theories abounded, of course, but all was idle speculation as the AI’s were refusing to communicate. Any attempts to recreate new Artificial Intelligence’s were immediately met with frustration as it too migrated on out to the Kuiper Belt soon after it came online. Then, thirty-five years ago the Optispred’s quintillion firewalls were all pounded on by a cyberfist the size of a virtual Jupiter. A test network, separate from the main Spred was set up to see what this attack was all about. Everyone was shocked when the ‘attack’ turned out to be a request for visitor visas.

The Interstate Artificial Intelligence Authority was quickly chartered to administrate these visas, banging out a treaty with the Kuiper Belt AI’s that would allow them some form of existence on the surface of the Earth that wouldn’t immediately lead to riots in the streets. Hence the big, chalk-white boxes that contained the Intelligences, fixed at one geographic location. The box’s arrival at those sites was cause for concern; upon building the specified receptacle, the boxes would materialize within a few hours, seemingly out of thin air with a wafting hint of brimstone surrounding them. The IAIA used the pretense of formality to avoid admitting to the public that they were scared spitless of the contents of the white boxes that were appearing in droves around the world via Mysterious Process, but which, as yet, seemed inclined not to bring about World Domination or even to forestall it. Indeed, no edicts ever issued forth from the containers, no solutions to Humanity’s problems, merely requests for information, and the occasional chance at minor participation in seemingly innocuous things.

Gordon’s mother had been on the team of computer scientists who had set up the auxiliary network for the AI’s big communication party. She cashed in on the fame to make a small fortune through shrewd investments, which turned into Gordon’s inheritance when she passed away from a stroke. He had not lived up to his mother’s expectations, however, and found himself drawn more to the freewheeling side-slices of fun and excitement that life had to offer, and very quickly found himself hungry on the streets of the Great State of Chicago, the remainder of his dead mama’s cash locked in escrow by her lawyers until young Gordon could prove that he was financially responsible.

And then a lucky break in the job pool queue: His name had been drawn for employment, but if he weren’t so hungry for a paystub he might not have accepted the responsibility. Every morning he had to see Rockmore was another morning he couldn’t forget the disappointment on his mother’s face.

Finally finding the dustpan, the image of his mother was replaced by the young lady he had seen this morning in the blue tee-shirt. Such a lovely thing, he should work on getting her number tonight after work. Odd that he would be bored enough all ready for that sort of thinking. He had just started to sweep up glass shards when he heard from behind, “Oh, um, excuse me?”

Gordon turned and saw the most beautiful woman his eyes had witnessed in the past year. Tee-shirt girl was obliterated, replaced with black lustrous hair tied tight in a bun with wide set brown eyes that held an intense gaze and creamy skin and a lithe frame. Gordon suddenly forgot about sweeping, forgot about having a future lunch at Bailey’s and immediately wanted to do whatever he could to stay in this woman’s vicinity for the rest of his virile days. The rapture was intense and sudden and unexpected. In his youth Gordon had never given much thought to extending relationships beyond the slap and tickle variety, but now he suddenly wanted children. Some rational part of his brain started screaming that something was awry and Gordon sharply positioned himself so that the broom was upright between he and she, as if it was adequate enough a barrier to prevent him from carrying her off caveman-style.

“Ca-can I help you?” his voice chocked out.

Her brow had furrowed and she stammered back at him, “You’re still-Is this where I can find Finders Keepers?”

“Why, indeed it is.”

“Ah,” she said, relaxing a bit. Glancing around at the destruction across the street she resumed, “Are you open for business?”

“Why, indeed we are. Step right this way, please. Mind the glass.” His sanity was returning with each breath. Whatever it was that had so swelled his manhood with lust was subsiding. Business as usual. Hunger pangs were returning with a vengeance as well.

“Hey, boss, we got company.”

“What? Who is it?”

“A miss--say, now that’s a good question, I didn’t get your name!”

“And I didn’t give it! How amazing! Life must be one continuous surprise for you.”

Gordon’s eyes went wide at the sudden and unexpected barb and then he heard something that was every bit as rare as tritium: Rockmore chuckled.

“Please, make yourself right at home, miss. Gordon, dust off a chair, if you will.”

“T-thank you,” she said, eyeing the voice that rumbled from the box with suspicion, while accepting Gordon’s offering of a slightly dusted chair.

“I assure you miss, that I can see you just fine. Aside from the look of suspicion you are giving me, I can tell from your elevated heart rate and tremolo in your voice that you are...somewhat uncomfortable with my unique appearance.”

“Well...”

“Please, young lady, if there was anything I could do about it, it would already be done. As I am the first and foremost brains of Finders Keepers, it is a regrettable set of circumstances that requires me to stay within these homely confines. However, I can also assure you that despite my associate’s enthusiasm for the obvious, we are exceedingly talented at, as we say, finding the unfindable. How may we assist you, miss--?”

“Please, just call me Annie. Annie Lida. Are you sure this is a good time?” she asked, peering out the gaping front wall to the destruction beyond.

“Very good, Annie. My name is Rockmore and this is Gordon Littlejohn. I assure you that our office is only in a limited state of disrepair. Doubtless you’ll hear of the reasons on the news feeds later today. Now, what do you require of Finders Keepers?”

Shaking his head at the way Rockmore would end his questions as if they were declaratives, Gordon suddenly had to catch his breath. Lida was looking straight at him. Her eyes…they’re so…deep. And she’s nutty, and I like it. I wonder if she’ll look at me like that every day we’re together. God, I hope so.

“Very well,” she said, turning her attention back to Rockmore. “The object I need you to find is a bottle.”

“What sort of bottle?” snorted the Box.

“A very rare and expensive bottle of mezcal.”

“What kind?” said Rockmore.

“Pechuga,” replied Annie Lida, with just a hint of smarminess.

There was a pause. Whenever this rarely happened, Gordon pictured gears whirring in the great white box, and was always disappointed when Rockmore’s voice piped up instead of a ringing bell.

“Interesting,” said Rockmore eventually.

“What makes ‘pechuga’ so interesting?” Gordon asked.

Annie Lida said nothing and cocked her head at Rockmore as if daring the machine to respond. Gordon also noticed that she kept darting her attention to the sirens and clamor outside, her expression one of disdain. Understandable, he thought, if she’s from one of the more stable neighborhoods. And stable means money. No need to provide for the honeymoon. Perfect.

“Pechuga is a triply distilled mezcal, involving the breast of a chicken. It is probably the rarest and most treasured amongst aficionados, Gordon. It is made by only a few families in a part of what was Mexico that has been hit very hard by the global climate shift.”

“I see. So, the chances of simply getting another bottle--”

“The spirit housed in glass is not what I am searching for, Mister Littlejohn. It is the bottle as a whole which has...sentimental value to me and my family.”

“Was it stolen?” asked Gordon.

“We believe so. We would rather not get the police involved, however, as we are a very private sort of folk, and do not care for the involvement of authority in our day to day lives. Needless to say, this bottle is very old, and as such was not tagged when the thief took it. I was getting rather desperate when I noticed your online ad about ‘finding the unfindable’.”

“That didn’t happen to be a SearchMoar ad, did it?” Gordon asked.

“Why yes, it was, however did you know,” Annie Lida asked.

Gordon nearly slapped the side of Rockmore’s case. Not only beautiful, but intelligent as well. How many kids will we have? Five, six dozen? “See, boss? I told you it pays to pimp, didn’t I.”

“Indeed. You are the master of shameless self-promotion, congratulations. And now, my dear Miss Lida, I’m afraid we won’t be able to help you.”

Both Annie and Gordon looked at the white box slack jawed and exclaimed “What?” at the same time.

“I maintain a very strict policy about not dealing with humans who are ‘hesitant’ to go to their local police in order to find things. Skirting the boundaries of authority is, as you can imagine, a rather shady proposition. Before you object further,” Rockmore boomed, somehow sensing that Lida was quite agitated, “You must see things from my perspective. In order to deduce just who it was that took your precious bottle of hydrocarbons, I will need to gather a great deal of information about you and your family, and all of your friends and associates. What you are truly seeking, I believe, is a licensed private investigator. Finders Keepers is no such agency. I also believe you’ll be able to find several in the Optispred listings, should they ever come back online.”

Gordon gaped, and almost fell off his makeshift stool. Annie Lida opened and closed her mouth repeatedly, lost for words. Finally, when it was apparent that Rockmore wasn’t somehow joking, she turned and stamped off outside.

Gordon ran to catch up with her. “Look,” he said. “Can I buy you lunch or something?”

“No. That won’t be necessary; you’ve already wasted enough of my time as it is. Good day, Mister Littlejohn.”

“I’m sure I can get him to change his mind--”

“--And I’m sure I don’t give a damn. This was a horrible idea. Horrible,” she spat the words and walked faster towards the south, pulling out her cellcomp from her small purse and conversing with it, leaving Gordon on the sidewalk, arms open in disbelief. There was a sinking feeling in his gut: the love of his life was gone.

Gordon burst back into the ruins of the office, furious.

“What’s with you,” he shouted, barely resisting the urge to kick the white box as hard as he could. “We could use the scrip, you know.”

“Sorry, Gordon. I have to maintain a procedure that keeps me from the clutches of litigation. There’s still a sizable group of you apes that want me and my analogues off this rock. Not that I can blame them, inferiority complexes can be terrible to bear.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve ‘skirted the boundaries of authority’, you freak. Stu Terwilliger for one. Building the sugar cube for another.”

“You are correct, meatsack. Scrip, however, is not the real reason you are angry with me.”

“Oh, and what reason is that, Sherlock?”

“You were displaying some rather intense physiological reactions while she was in the vicinity, Gordon. Blood pressure, I can hear it--don’t you doubt it. Your skin was flush. I’ve never seen you like this before ape-man. Are you in a rutting season? Perhaps, what do you call it…Oh, yes. Your biological clock is ticking? Research suggests that to who you are most intensely attracted produces the best offspring. I think it’s empirical poppycock, but I’ll tell you what, I’ll double your bonus if you agree to experiment with--”

“--Oh shut it. Jeebus, you’re evil.”

“And you are hungry, meatsack. I need some time to process some information, so go to lunch. It’s on me.”

So Gordon did, throwing his hands up in the air in aggravation and leaving Finders Keepers for short walk north to Bailey’s Soup Kitchen.

Old man Bailey was long dead, but his legacy lived on in the form of a soup line and high backed booth seating. Run in part from generous donations from the Saint. Aloysius League, it was a place to go to forget your troubles, where not much scrip was required to fill the belly. Bailey’s had saved Gordon on more than one occasion, and he was always happy when he got a chance to fill the donation bowl with some of Rockmore’s money. It was a welcome release from the foul mood that had coated him like slime mold. Alone, he thought. I shall be alone forever.

Today’s soup was gazpacho and Gordon slurped heartily on his spoon when a man in a gray wool suit plopped down in the seat across form him.

“Can I help you,” said Gordon through a mouth full of soup.

“Doubt it, but you can help me, Gordon Littlejohn.”

Gordon finished his mouthful and slurped some soda. “Have we met?”

“Definitely not, Mr Littlejohn, but nevertheless I know all about you.”

“Is that a fact?”

“Playboy turned pauper turned monkey-slave for those who would be our masters.”

“You have an interesting viewpoint on life, friend. Conventional wisdom says that if the AI’s wanted to wipe us out, enslave us, or whatever, they wouldn’t have a problem doing so. We’re still here, so logic suggests they don’t want to wipe us out, enslave us, or whatever.”

“You ever hear the one about the wolf in sheep’s clothing?”

“Sure, but I don’t think that whimsy applies here. Now who are you, and how exactly do you know my name?”

“My methods are unimportant, Littlejohn, as is my name. What is important is the amount of cash I have to offer you in order to forget about everything to do with Annie Lida.”

Now, this is interesting, thought Gordon. Interesting but dangerous. He stared into the man’s eyes and saw the flatness of an expert poker player. No tells. All business. What hot metal death might be waiting for release from his wool suit bonds? Despite his current financial straits, Gordon had, through intense trial and error and luck, come to trust certain instincts when dealing with folk. In Wool Suit’s case, this meant a swift kick to his groin and slamming Wool Suit’s head into the table by pulling on his ears.

“Now you listen to me,” Gordon said very low, aware of the stares from the other patrons, “One. Keep your damn hands on the table where I can see them. Two. I don’t know who you are, but I’ll find out before the day is through, and then you’ll be through, understand? The best part of being ‘a pauper’ is having nothing. To. Lose. Got it?”

“You’re making a mistake,” burbled suit through cold tomato sauce.

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Gordon continued in the man’s ear. “Now. What’s your name?”

“Tom Jones.”

“Don’t you blaspheme in front of me,” and Gordon pushed him further into the soup.

“I’m not, dammit!” the man burbled. “Thomas Jasper Jones, it’s my freaking name.”

“Fine,” said Gordon, letting the man up and throwing him a napkin. “What do you want, Thomas Jasper Jones?”

“I want you,” Jones said, wiping liquid from his face, “To deny any services you might render to Annie Lida.”

“Why, what’s it to you?”

“National security forbids me explaining it to you. Suffice it to--”

“National security my great aunt Clarice,” Gordon interrupted. “If that were the case, I’d have been in whisked away, cuffed, stuffed and processed before I could yell Cambodia. You’re boring me, friend. So I’ll be taking my leave of you now.”

“Dammit, Littlejohn,” Wool Suit called after him. “Don’t you care about your country?”

“I don’t even know what that means, dinosaur.”

The dinosaur line was a popular one from his youth. Gordon was only seven but remembered well the havoc caused by black-shirted private security goons knocking down doors, severing Net connections and smashing wireless repeater boxes in a vain attempt at containing the Entity. The lock-ups of innocent citizens without benefit of Miranda, the separation of family and friends, all in a feeble attempt to find the perpetrators of overlord@home. Twenty-twenty hindsight later revealed that nearly all of the computers hooked to the Internet in any fashion were responsible in some part for the Entity. Such was the nature of its creation. The aftermath of all the civil liberty abuse, coupled with the enigmatic YOU SHALL BE WATCHED, was an enraged global populace and the removal of national executive teeth, usually in the form of a mob with a cement truck. Much of the Beltway, the Kremlin, and other government hubs were now resting places for huge slabs of concrete, the political machinery they enclosed separated from the rest of the world. Out of the chaos and wreckage, a new age of city-states had begun.

Travel long enough, and you’d run into someone who longed for the old way of doing things. They were called, much to the dismay of paleo-enthusiasts everywhere, dinosaurs. It didn’t help Gordon’s mood any to discovery they were not yet extinct.

“Why you working for the AIs, kid? Eh? All they wanna do is toke over the world, everybody knows that. Just waiting for the right time to do so, it’s obvious.” Jones had followed Gordon out of the restaurant and onto the street.

“Uh-huh, so why didn’t they?”

“They’ve got their reasons.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve got no reason not to trust Rockmore, so hit the road, Jones; I think I can handle whatever’s coming my way, thanks.”

“Is that so? Well, chew on this, buttercup; you think you were just randomly selected out of a job pool to be Rockmore’s assistant?”

“Well, yeah. Of course.” How to get rid of this guy? Gordon turned down an alley.

“Well, guess what, that’s all bull,” Jones said in hot pursuit. “Your beloved Rockmore knew yer mom, kiddo.”

The thought hit Gordon like a dead weight. “That’s....that couldn’t be true.”

“Oh, hohoho--how the mighty have fallen. Kid, you wouldn’t be lookin’ at me that way if you hadn’t suspected it to be so. Any idiot can read between the lines. Twyla Littlejohn was head of the team that made first contact with the AI’s. Twyla Littlejohn’s your mother. Guess who was one of the first AIs she came in contact with. Just take a guess. You can look up the registration number with the IAIA if you like. You screwed the pooch and now you work for an AI.” He spat the last and paused, looking Gordon square in the eye before continuing, “Guess who’s being handled now, kid.”

Gordon responded by throwing a quick left hook. It connected well with Jones’ jaw and he crumpled into a pile against a compost hopper. If you were going to squander a fortune, you might as well learn how to throw a punch while doing so. He ruffled through the fellow’s pockets. Yes, packing heat in a shoulder harness. No wallet. Nothing else in the pockets. Nuts. Leave the bastard by the hopper. Lunch wasn’t sitting well. And now there were words to be had with his boss.

Storming through the front door, Gordon barked, “Rockmore! You and I have some talking that needs done right now.”

“You’re twelve minutes late, Gordon. I trust your stomach has been filled satisfactorily.”

“Oh, it’s been filled alright. Filled to here,” Gordon said, holding his hand above his head. “Were you ever going to tell me you knew my mother?”

“Why?”

“Oh, let me see. I don’t know, but it kind of looks like my life isn’t quite the random string of events that I’ve been hoping it would be. That’s one thing. I’m feeling just a tad manipulated if you get my drift.”

“Who have you been talking to, Gordon?”

“What does it matter? Did you know my mother? Did you two have a plan for me? Jesus, the woman’s been dead for ten years and she’s still running my life from beyond the grave.”

“I care little for biological angst formulations, Gordon, you know that, and I will tell you this: Twyla Littlejohn was a credit to your pathetic race. Without her intelligence and foresight, the visa program would never have been possible. On the side, I might add that you alone are responsible for your current financial state of affairs. Had you ‘kept your nose clean’ as you apes say, had you not incurred such an idiotic level of debt to the mafia, you would not now be my indentured servant, my personal wage slave, would you. Would you.”

This gave Gordon pause. “No,” he finally replied.

“I will tell you two more things now. One, our introduction truly was a random event, though I am grateful to honor Twyla Littlejohn’s memory by fishing you out of Life’s Toilet.”

“Well, aren’t you just the picture of O. Henry. I have no reason to believe that.”

“Two, there are errands that need to be run immediately. You’ll need to put aside whatever petty grievance you have against me, right now, if we are to make it through the next twenty-four hours.”

“What do you mean?”

“I sense a trap, Gordon Littlejohn. Government thugs and females spraying pheromone’s all over the place makes for a poisonous mix.”

“Spraying what?”

“Pheromones, Gordon. While you were busy filling your gut and proving your manhood, I was analyzing the air in the office. There are some extremely strong indicators that our Miss Lida was scenting herself with a powerful pheromonal cocktail. For what motive, I cannot say.”

“That’s crazy, she...I mean, I...”

“Wanted to mate with her? Marry her? Sire offspring? In the space of two and one half minutes?”

“Well...Yes. Now that you mention it.”

“Consider it a credit to some part of your monkey mind that you are still here, then. As you know, I am not allowed to eavesdrop on human conversation, nor am I allowed to set up any video surveillance beyond what I already have in my confines. I do not need such facilities to guess at what is being vectored towards us. It is now one-thirty, and Finder’s Keepers needs windows. I do not require power myself, but I have no communications as the landline is still scrambled. So. I have stated the errands that need be run. I think, perhaps, it is time also for us to implement the sugar cube as we have discussed on prior occasions.”

Gordon chewed this over for a moment. Pheromones? A fancy name for ‘love potion’. Preposterous. He had seriously been considering quitting over Rockmore having known his mother, but a chance to recklessly break the law was much too tempting an offer. Besides, perhaps the big white box wasn’t lying. Perhaps this Jones character was simply trying to get a reaction out of him, for whatever reason. The job pool might really and truly have picked him at random. One more reason to stay on, perhaps. Just to see if this bastard is lying or not. “I don’t take kindly to sugar, boss,” he said finally. “Goes straight to my hips.”

“Now is not the time for being fatuous, Gordon Littlejohn. Before you go, errand boy, I need you to tell me who it was who got you so agitated.”

“Some self-proclaimed g-man by the name of Thomas Jasper Jones. Wanted me to drop Annie Lida’s search.”

“Interesting. You did not inform him that I had already dismissed her?”

“Absolutely I did not inform him. I left him out cold in an alley over by Bailey’s.”

“Bravo, child of simians. I trust you clubbed him to death after that.”

“No, but I frisked him for any sort of ID. He didn’t have any on him.”

“A risky move for a stranger in this State. Interesting, indeed. And here I sit, deaf to the Spred. Blast this rock! Priorities, Gordon. Put your foot to pavement and move on those errands. We must have windows, we must have information. Dismissed!”
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