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Sunday, 23 August 2015

Where it all started - episode 4

Here's Episode 4 - chapter 3 of The Eden Paradox - where Micah is trying to work out what is going on with the Ulysses. Micah is a bit of a geek in the beginning of the book; but he's stumbled across something, and rather than bury it, he takes risks to bring it out into the open. Episodes 1-3 in previous blogs.


Chapter 3

Lighthouse

Micah paced the Telemetry Analysis Room – the tar-pit as he and Rudi called it, since they tended to get stuck there. There wasn’t much ground to pace over – the white-tiled lab was filled with dark, glass-fronted computer cupboards, almost no visible wall-space. Myriad beads of light twinkled silently as the computers sifted the Ulysses information streams from cosmic noise. Two beige metal desks with angled fluidic touch-screens flanked the lab centre-piece, the Optron: a gleaming chrome artifice marrying together a dentist’s chair and what looked like a laser cannon on an articulated boom, aimed straight toward the head-rest where Rudi’s head lay immobile. High tension cables around the Optron made the floor resemble a snake pit, reinforced by numerous skull-and-crossbones signs plastered on the main struts and solid parts of the device. This was no toy or cheap holo-sex device.

He glanced at his wristcom. Seven minutes left. Rudi was still hooked in, two titanium optrodes at his temples winking green every three seconds. His eyes were closed, but the facial muscles were taut, and the REMs behind his eyelids showed he was very much awake, simply… elsewhere.

Rudi was thirty minutes overdue. If Micah missed this slot, he’d have to wait another two weeks to check the third and final marker. He wanted to find an excuse to break into Rudi’s session, but that would arouse suspicion, especially with Rudi. He’d been aware of a change in Rudi lately – seeming to be laid back, but always observing. Recently, when Micah came out of an Optron session, he’d find Rudi sitting watching him, or double-checking Micah’s data searches, seeing where he’d been. Micah knew his father would have confronted Rudi about it. But he wasn’t his father.

He paced some more and went over the problem again. One of the markers had disappeared two weeks ago. That could easily have been a system fault, especially with something as complex and covert as a lighthouse sleeper code. But then, yesterday, he’d searched for the second hidden marker from the Ulysses’ third module. It should have flashed orange in the data landscape, but it never showed up, even though he’d waited an hour. He’d hardly slept. If the third marker was gone, the key one from the cockpit, well… A double-click announced Rudi disconnecting, accompanied by a slow descending whirr as the machine wound down. Micah pretended to read a print-out.

            "Oh, Mikey, hi there. Sorry man, over-shot again."

He ignored the nickname and turned with fake nonchalance to see Rudi rubbing his eyes. All Optron Readers did that, even though the optrodes hooked straight into the visual cortex, bypassing the eyes completely. But after all, the eyes carried on moving even if they weren’t actually seeing anything.

            He cleared his throat. "No worries. But I should probably get started." He walked over to the recliner.

Rudi paused mid-yawn, and then gave him a sideways look. "In a hurry?" he said, with an easy smile Micah knew relaxed most people onto the treacherous slope of honesty.

            "No," he lied, making sure to return the eye contact and not look away, remembering the tricks his Mom had taught him throughout the brief Occupation, during the daily random interrogations. "Just – you know – I promised Mom I’d watch an old vid with her later, and there’s still a lot to finish up here."

            Rudi nodded thoughtfully, but didn’t budge. Micah waited, fighting an urge to check the time. He wondered if Rudi somehow knew about the lighthouse markers, but then dismissed it. They only showed up periodically, and Rudi hadn’t been checking Micah’s searches long enough.

Seconds drizzled away. He’d need three minutes to find the file – if he was quick.

            "What’s the vid? Your Mom’s into the really old stuff, isn’t she?"

            Shit! This could be a ten minute conversation. What the hell was on tonight that he could use, because Rudi might just check? Then he remembered. Perfect! "There’s one on the Asian Campaign. You know, that’s where Dad…" He stared at the floor.

            "Oh. Look, sorry, man, didn’t mean to…" Rudi levered himself out of the recliner.

            "Its okay," Micah said, and began climbing in.

            "Wait, let me wipe it down, you know, we all sweat a little on this baby." He went over to his desk.

Micah saw the tell-tale imprint of Rudi’s back on the fake leather upholstery.

            "Don’t want the Med girls getting upset, do we?" Rudi brought back a couple of strips of tissue paper and wiped the chair methodically.

Micah sneaked a glance at his wristcom when he was sure Rudi couldn’t see, even from reflections in the Optron slave screens. Four minutes. He tried to appear blasé, forcing his hands to relax.

            Rudi finished rubbing it down. "There, that’s better, all yours. And say "hi" to your Mom for me, eh? And listen – sorry if I’ve been… well, you know, a bit of a jerk lately, work’s kinda getting on top." He half-smiled.

            "Yeah, sure, I’ll tell her. And it’s no problem, I’m a bit tense too," he added. He slotted into the seat, slapping his optrodes to his temples, and flicked three switches. Rudi seemed in no hurry to leave, even though he’d already passed his duty hours for the day, but Micah had no time left to wait. He closed his eyes. A silky female voice whispered the automated countdown: 3 – 2 – 1… His mind surged forward out of his body, surfing over a mutant sea of dimly fluorescent data streams: writhing, multi-coloured eels of digitised information swirling amongst frothy uncertainty riptides. The entry process was like being tossed into a moonlit stormy ocean – the untrained usually threw up in the first thirty seconds. He flew toward solid "land", soaring over a still, twilight desert, and began searching. In his visual field to the left he saw the transparent aquamarine rectangle upon which key parameters glowed red.

Although the Optron was immersive, he could still sense a little of what was going on outside – if he concentrated, if he peeled his mind back. He sensed Rudi was standing there, watching the slave screen, able to see a much simpler, digital version of what Micah saw, in particular the data streams he was about to access. Too bad, a risk I’m going to have to take.

            He ran a few random files first, then selected file kappa-237. The hidden marker which should have been inside was gone. He waited a few more seconds then changed to a new file. It was hard to carry on doing random tests on parameter accuracy and system health, knowing what he had just found: the Ulysses’ telemetry was being corrupted in some way, which meant the astronauts could be in trouble.

            It meant he could be in trouble, too: the insertion of his own health markers hadn’t been sanctioned. Ever since Prometheus and Heracles missions had failed, security at the Eden Mission had intensified. He’d have to face some questions, but hopefully any disciplinary action would be waived in the light of his evidence that someone was tampering with Ulysses data.

He hoped the Chorazin didn’t get wind of it, though; they’d like nothing more than to take over Eden Mission’s security, and wouldn’t hesitate to interrogate him to see if he was an Alician spy. The thought of the Chorazin chilled him – a necessary evil, an Interpol with unlimited powers and jurisdiction, supposedly accountable to governments, but he had his doubts. They were the logical counterpoint to the Alician global terrorist threat which had sprung up a year after the War, apparently the dark heart of the Fundie movement, religious zealots who never accepted the armistice and its tolerance pact. It was a miracle Kane had kept the Chorazin at bay this long. The thought resonated: Kane – he’s the one I have to go to.

He continued for another twenty minutes checking a further forty files, hoping it would throw Rudi off the scent. Then he turned to the rectangle on his left and focused sharply on the red square, the Exit symbol.

            When he disconnected, Rudi was lounging at his desk, idly juggling a couple of data holo-cubes while staring at his desktop display. He snapped his fingers and the cubes vanished. He gestured for Micah to come over, without looking in his direction. Micah took his time – he was still groggy. A light vertigo lingered, and he had no desire to keel over.

            "Hey, buddy, what’s the interest with that kappa-237 file? Third time you’ve accessed it in a month. We’re supposed to do random but comprehensive searches, not go over the same files. There are thousands to check, you know."

            Micah rubbed his eyes a little longer than usual, faking drowsiness. He had to think fast. "Kappa file?" He walked over and saw the dense, time-indexed matrix of digitised records, K237 highlighted in red. His eyes grew wide; Rudi had been surreptitiously checking his access of that file over the past two months. He recalled his Aunt, who’d been in the underground during the War. She’d lied successfully for most of the occupation, pretending to be a housewife, till someone finally betrayed her. "A complete lie can be undone by counter-evidence," she’d said. "Then you are caught, like a lobster into the pot. No way out. The best lie is half-true."  

"Oh, the kappa file," he said, hands massaging his temples. "I know we’re supposed to do random, but I sometimes do a re-run, in case of hysteresis-based faults, you know, ones that come and go. I just pick a file at random, check it again a few weeks later. I guess three times in a month is a bit excessive, though. Hadn’t realised, to be honest." He tried to look gullible, goofy even. It came easier than he liked.

Rudi studied him. Then he flashed one of those smiles where the lips spread wide but the corners of his eyes didn’t move. "Probably a good idea. Maybe I should try it." He tapped his nose with an index finger. "Don’t worry, I won’t tell," he whispered. He stood up, stretched his back, picked up his jacket and walked to the door. "Hey, wait a minute – Sphericon Five is on the net tonight – you’ll miss it if you watch the vid with your Mom."

            Micah pulled a face, but at least this was safer territory.

            "Come on, Sphericon really kick alien butt!"

            He’d wanted Rudi to leave, but couldn’t let this one go. "I just don’t buy it. You do remember Fermi’s Paradox, don’t you?"

            Rudi rolled his eyes and waggled a finger at Micah. "Don’t even go there."

"Okay, putting aside the fact we’ve never seen any aliens or sign of them, why is it, in all our Sci-fi vids, we’re the smartest kids on the block? And it’s always about aliens trying to plunder our resources, right?" Micah gestured to the window.

            Rudi affected a yawn. "Yeah, yeah, Earth is pretty much toxic, I got it already. Well maybe their idea of resources is different from ours." He slung his jacket over his shoulder. "Whatever. The babes in S-5 are hot, Micah. Even your Mom would agree." He opened the door.  "It’s your life, such as it is. As for me, Debra from Tech-Support is coming over to my place to watch it on my new holoplayer." He winked. "So long, buddy, enjoy the War vid."

Micah let out a long breath and surrendered to the chair. He kicked aside the image of Rudi and Debra locked together in a passionate embrace, and stared at the Ulysses poster, wondering what was really happening onboard. He drummed his fingers and glanced at his wristcom. Five pm. He checked the intranet and found Kane’s agenda – he was in a meeting for another twenty minutes.

Gazing through frosted windows to the milky light outside, he wondered if he should take his weekly ten minute sun-dose. Instead, he visited the washroom, splashed cool recycled water on his face, and changed into a new shirt.  

*      *      *

He’d never been inside the Director’s office suite before: real teak, late 20th century. It fit Kane, the Ulysses Project Manager, perfectly. The one man Micah knew he could trust. But he reckoned Sandy wasn’t pleased to see anyone arrive at 5.29, one minute before the official work-day ended.

He shifted his weight from one foot to the other in front of her desk, until she raised her head from her holopad, eyes kestrel-sharp. He read her mind by following her eye movements – she glanced at his temples just under the hairline where two tiny red dots marked him as an Optron Reader. She looked down his body – he’d only just tucked his shirt in, and had hastily put on a tie – from the way her nose pinched, he wished he hadn’t bothered, though it hadn’t been for her benefit. At least she couldn’t see his sneakers from where she sat. She probably thought him some low level nerd, but it didn’t matter. She glanced at his badge.

"Yes, Mr… Sanderson? May I help you?" she said, but to Micah’s ears it sounded like a barbed wire fence had just been erected in front of him – any help she offered would require drawing his blood first. 

"I need to see Mr. Kane, the Director."

"I know who Mr Kane is." She let the words dissipate, and it appeared she was going to say nothing more, least of all take his request seriously.

"It’s urgent."

She sat back. "I see. And what is it about?"

Micah tried not to squirm. "I can’t say. It’s, uh, sensitive."

She propped a finger to the corner of her mouth and cocked her head to one side, raising her eyebrows. "And I don’t suppose you would have something like an appointment?" She looked to her screen, beamed back at him, and said, "Ah – no, I would know that, wouldn’t I?"

Micah frowned. He hadn’t thought it through – why would Kane see him, an analyst way down in the hierarchy? But it was important; he had to break through this bureaucratic wall guarded by Kane’s assistant. He switched into analysis mode. It took only a second, his mind flickering in saccades while his eyes remained fixed on hers: highlighted hair in a bob; expensive make-up making the best of an almost-pretty face, a blemish under her right eye; taut body; professional but slightly revealing suit accentuating her assets up top and drawing the eye away from her legs for some reason; hazel eyes, alluring and open, flints of bitterness in the background. He made his assessment.

 "Look, Miss Mindel. I know you probably think I’m just a nerd, but this is very important. I need to see him – please." He gestured to the double doors at the other end of her office.

"Why don’t you come back tomorrow? Better still, I’ll talk to Mr. Kane and see if he can speak to your manager later in the week, okay?" She reached for the off-switch on her console. He swallowed, took a deep breath, and leaned forward over her desk.

"No. I need to see him now." He held his ground. The air temperature between them freefell. She stood up.

"Listen very carefully," she said. "In five seconds my foot is going to activate the security button, and you’ll be in big trouble, little man, unless you’re gone." They stood, locked onto each other’s gaze, the only sound his breathing. He took a few steps back, towards the entrance. She sat down, and began shutting down her console.

Nothing to lose. He hoped to God the rumours were true. He tried his best to sound confident, worldly – like his father, dammit.

"Of course it would be in your interest for me to see him."

She didn’t look up, but paused. "Excuse me?"

"I mean, if he hears me out, he’ll need to work late. Very late."

Her face darkened. Her eyes flared, and what he’d sensed earlier came into the foreground. It wasn’t pretty. She trod hard on something, picked up a silver-handled paper knife, and skirted round the desk towards him, much faster than he’d anticipated. She stopped very close, her breathing laboured. He tried to ignore the paper knife in her right hand, level with his groin.

"Look, you little piece of shit. I don’t know who you think you are, or what you think you know, but you’d better cut this crap right now, or so help me –"

The double doors opened with a sharp click and a swish. Kane, elegantly tall with a shock of white hair, around fifty yet still exuding the strength of an ox, stood framed in the doorway, the shaded early evening sun behind him.

"What’s going on, Sandy? What does this gentleman want?" His voice was as commanding as it was reassuring.

"He was just leaving, Sir," she said, facing off Micah.

Micah knew it was now or never. The next few words counted more than anything. He turned to Kane. "Sir – Ulysses is in trouble. There’s been a security breach." He held back the rest. Nothing else could be said here.

Kane met his eyes head on. "Then why haven’t you taken it to Mr. Vernt, our Head of Security?" he asked.

Micah had no choice but to confess. "Because… because I inserted my own security check into the Ulysses’ telemetry systems. It’s unofficial."

Sandy raised a disbelieving eyebrow, shook her head and walked back to her desk.

"A moment, Sandy," Kane said, holding up a hand.

She levelled the paper knife at Micah. "Sir, he said something to me, of a personal nature, so I de-activated the recorders. But now he’s confessed to a misdemeanour, probably a sackable offence. We should record it. Even if he’s right, Vernt will want to see it."

Micah looked from her to him. He was, as his aunt would have said, in the boiling pot, or at best dangling above it. At least the cameras and recorders were off. He remembered his aunt had also said that in times like these, words were just so much extra rope. He stayed quiet.

"All in good time, Sandy. First, I’d like to hear what this young man has to say. And if I have any trouble, clearly you are ready to defend me." He nodded to the paper knife, still in her right hand. She replaced the knife on the desk, and folded her arms.

"Now, please do come in, and sit down. You’d better tell me about it." He gestured to the open door into his executive suite.

"Oh, and Sandy, you’d better call my wife. I’ll be home late tonight. She should understand – it has been a while since I had to work late. And… I might need you here later on, would that be possible?"

"Of course, you know I’m always…" Her voice trailed off. "Yes, Sir. And I’ll switch the cameras back on in here."

Micah walked into Kane’s office, feeling Sandy’s eyes burrow into his back.

Kane closed the doors behind them, gesturing to an antique leather chair.

"Alright, Mr. Sanderson – Micah, isn’t it? You’d better start from the beginning. And don’t worry, there are no cameras or recorders in here."

 

Kane spread his hands flat across his varnished desk. "So, let me see if I’ve got it straight. Four months ago, you inserted your own covert security program into the telemetry software for Ulysses, because you’d been worried on account of the Heracles and Prometheus. I applaud your motive, even if I cannot condone your method." He cast Micah a stern look, then continued. "The program is called a lighthouse, because it only shows up periodically, meaning it’s hard for our system’s anti-virus security systems to detect and clean it. Essentially it says the telemetry hasn’t been tampered with. If the signal disappears, it means that we’re not receiving valid data. Is that a reasonable summary?"

He nodded. His faith in Kane had intensified in the past hour. In any case, he had to trust someone – he couldn’t figure this out alone.

"So," Kane continued, "we’re receiving telemetry that says everything is okay, and in fact it is not, or may not be."

"It could be used to mask something happening on the ship."

"But we don’t actually know what the real telemetry should be?"

"No, just that we’re receiving false telemetry, module four being the longest one having disguised readings."

"And the parameters affected are?"

"Environmental and visual."

Kane planted his hands on the desk to stand up. Micah followed suit.

"This is very serious. And you did the right thing to bring it to my attention. Well, it will take us a couple of days to communicate this to the Ulysses crew. I’ll need one of my people to check all this out of course. Tonight, before you and your colleague return to work tomorrow morning."

"But Sir, I could stay – "

"No, go home young man, we’ll take it from here. We’ll talk again, very soon. And say nothing, not a word, to anyone, understood?" He nodded to Micah and to the doors.

Micah hesitated at first – he’d imagined himself being involved in the investigation, playing a key part. But Kane’s statesman-like smile continued to indicate the way out. Micah got up and walked to the double doors, Kane following him, as they swung open automatically. They shook hands in full view of Sandy. Micah nodded briefly to Kane, threw a sideways glance at Sandy, whose eyes were glued to her screen, and made a quick exit.

*          *          *

Kane waited until Micah was gone, then walked over and handed a piece of paper to his assistant.

"Please call these people for a conference at nine o’clock this evening in my office, and get Vernt on the vidphone right away." He headed back to his office and closed the doors.

She made the calls. When she saw the line between Kane and Vernt disconnect, she transferred all incoming lines to the answering system, switched off the surveillance cameras, and input her leaving time into the system as 19:00.

She opened her drawer and inspected her reflection in the small mirror inside. She sighed. She’d looked far better – and worse. She rose, adjusted her skirt, made sure the lace stocking top covered the fencing scar on her right thigh, undid another button on her blouse, went over to the entrance door and locked it. She walked to Kane’s suite, knocked gently three times, and then entered, closing the doors behind her.   

*          *          *

Micah took one of the tubes heading below ground to the Bubble station. He thought about his dead father and the psych assessment. You see? I can act when required. My way – not yours.

But as he sardined his way home amongst other commuters, his thoughts turned to the mechanics of telemetry manipulation. It had to be someone inside the Eden Mission. His first thought was Rudi, but he didn’t fit the profile – he had everything he wanted, and was too laid-back to get involved in espionage. Drawing a blank, he switched to thinking about Ulysses. The false telemetry was environmental and visual. Something was happening to their environment. He wondered if they were aware of it. He shivered, despite the balmy temperature.

As he crossed one of the myriad pedestrian bridges in underground Sylmar, he felt his neck prickling. He spun around, sure someone was behind him in the shadows, watching him. It wasn’t that late, and usually there were more people around, but not tonight. The lights were dim, and all he saw was a stray cat; but the cat was looking in the same direction as Micah, towards a closed street booth that sold coffee and snacks in the daytime. Micah waited half a minute to see if anyone emerged. No one did. He carried on, quickening his pace till he arrived at his door. Some distance behind him, a cat shrieked as if in pain. He had the prickling feeling again, but didn’t turn around. He fumbled with the lock, slipped inside his apartment, and double-locked the door.

 

 


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