Challenger Deep. Deepest point on the planet. In the Marianas Trench, twelve hundred miles east of the Philippine Islands and twelve hundred miles north of New Guinea. Almost seven miles beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean.
Julia Willis was studying for an exam.
Physically, she was sitting in her dorm room at the University of Nebraska, hooked up to an Ono-Sendai VR-Sport Head Mounted Display (HMD). Her body looked comical, sitting there in her wicker chair. The light-blocking goggles covered her eyes like a blindfold; her gloved hand reached out into the empty air in front of her. Her mouth gaped open. She looked like a blind woman begging for alms.
Her virtual presence, though, was on the ocean floor.
“Where is it, where is it?” She swiveled her head in Lincoln, and in the Marianas Trench her view spun around. “Okay, there’s that offshoot canyon. Not deep enough.” She tilted her head forward and plunged into the abyss.
Her Geophysical Phenomena mid-term was tomorrow, and she just knew Professor “Hang’em” Hier was going to ask about the fabled Challenger Deep. She thought she’d better have one more look at it.
When she arrived at the spot, all murky and dark, someone was already there. She didn’t see anyone, but that wasn’t odd. Not much light made it this far down. Further, in virtual reality every user had the option of choosing or refusing an on-screen persona. But Julia could sense another presence, all the same.
“Is that you, Robert?”
The voice came from her right. She spun around, but saw no one. Something about the voice seemed strange, but she couldn’t pinpoint it.
“Well, who are you? You studying for Hier’s GP exam?”
It sounded too close for a normal GlobeNet conversation — that’s what was strange. It seemed to come from inside her head now, or per-haps from all around her.
“How did you get such a clear connection?” she asked. “You are going through the library computer, aren’t you?”
“Look, Dr. No, either show yourself or amscray. I’m trying to study here. Wait a minute. I shouldn’t be on your screen. I didn’t choose a persona-thingy. How do you even know I’m here?”
“‘The best of seers,’ Euripedes wrote, ‘is he who guesses well.’”
“Yeah? Well, I can’t just guess on this test tomorrow. So, if you don’t mind, I’m going to get back to my studying.”
But Julia didn’t feel like studying anymore. This guy gave her the creeps. Better to leave and come back when he wasn’t around. Back in her dorm room, she raised her hands to take off the headset.
“Wait!” the voice said.
Julia hesitated. “What?”
“Very well. I shall show myself.”
Seven miles underwater, at the earth’s lowest point, Patriot emerged from perfect invisibility. He manifested himself as a tall man in a billowing black cloak, with a hood pulled over a shadowed face. He was upside down, above her, his feet pointing toward the surface. When he moved, it was with graceful inertia. It reminded Julia of a Zero-G plane she’d ridden in.
“There,” he said. “You see.”
“Well, what do you want?”
Patriot did a leisurely somersault, his black robes rippling in an unseen wind. “Actually, I wanted to ask you about your friend Kenji.”
“Of course you know him. Do not deny it.”
“I don’t—” She cut herself off.
Patriot nodded. “Thank you. While we are on the subject of denials, do you wish to deny that this very semester you destroyed the symbol of the United States of America?”
“The flag, my dear. Do you deny burning the American flag at a recent demonstration?”
Of course she wished to deny it. Unfortunately, she couldn’t. She was young and intelligent and in college. She wanted to feel a part of her world. Burning the flag was the most powerful thing she could think of to do. It had seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Now she wished she could take it back.
“Well, what about Kenji?” she asked.
The intruder chuckled. “Very well. You gave Kenji access to your father’s home computer, did you not?”
Oh, so that’s what this is about. “Are you some kind of lunchroom monitor for passwords or something?”
“Or something.” He circled around her, descending. “Why was it again that Kenji needed the security password to your father’s computer?”
“I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him?”
Black arms crossed. “I have. Unfortunately, your friend Kenji proved most uncommunicative. I would ask you to reprimand him if I thought you would be seeing him soon.” The intruder chuckled—an unsettling sound. “Of course, depending on your belief structures, you may be seeing him very soon indeed.”
“Who are you? And what do you want?”
“I want you to tell me why you gave—”
“Kenji wanted to send my dad a message, okay? They’re buds. What of it?”
“Yes, bosom buddies, no doubt. Your father was exceedingly foolish, you know, to maintain a link between his computers at the airbase and at home.”
“What is your problem, buster? This is the twenty-first century. People work from home, or haven’t you heard? Besides, my dad gets sick and can’t go in sometimes.”
“In that case I have good news for you. Your father, Major General Willis, has been miraculously cured of whatever ailed him.”
“What? How could you know?” Julia felt something like a trap door opening beneath her. She gaped at the intruder, knowing she should jack out right away.
“I understand why your father wanted to see his force deployment database from home,” the black-robed figure said. “I even understand why your friend Kenji would want access to that database—certain research in Japanese surveillance technology would make such knowledge indispensable. What I do not understand, Julia, is why you would knowingly give out the passwords to your father’s computer. Were you truly so ignorant of Kenji’s motives?”
Julia wanted to say she was. Kenji’s request had seemed benign enough—he said he just wanted to look for specs on the recently unclassified Stealth Bomber. In her heart, though, Julia had known there was something behind his innocent advances.
On the ocean floor, the black-hooded man raised something out of his robes. It looked like a golden box.
“You should like it,” Patriot said. “It will excuse you from your impending catechism.”
“Don’t ever burn another American flag.”
He pressed a button on top of the little box.
It took fifteen minutes for the custodians to come up with a key for Julia’s dorm room. It turned out that there was no need to rush. When they did get in, they weren’t even going to bother to call an ambulance, but they finally did. None of them could force themselves to pick up what was left of Julia’s charred body.
* * *
When Crowell’s Patriot Air Defense System team met for their monthly meeting, none of the project managers left his or her office. The Crowell host computer manufactured a conference room—this particular design featured a long table, windows overlooking a computer-generated forest, and a large display screen at the rear of the room. The project managers donned VR helmets, logged in, and took their places around the artificial table.
The man at the head of the table addressed the other four. “Hello again, everyone. I trust you’ve all had a productive January. Without further dilly-dally, let’s get to work. Alvin, why don’t you get us up to speed on the PAC-28 upgrades.”
“Yes, Mr. Vice President.”
Alvin’s persona rose from the table and moved to the presentation screen. The vice president and the other three project managers — two men and a woman—turned in their synthetic chairs. Alvin entered a code into the viewscreen’s keypad and the Crowell Electronics’s logo appeared on the screen.
“Since its introduction in the late 1980s,” Alvin said, “the makers of the Patriot missile—first Raytheon Electronic Systems and now Crowell—have endeavored to make it the best ballistic missile defense system in existence.”
Video of the Patriot missile in use from both the Persian Gulf and Latvian Wars played on the screen. Clip after clip showed the Patriot launch, close on an incoming missile, and detonate with great pyrotechnic display.
“Through its competitive upgrade program, Crowell has succeeded in positioning the Patriot Air Defense System at the forefront of anti-missile ordnance for over a quarter of a century. The Patriot Advanced Capability-28—or PAC-28—is the latest in a long line of scheduled improvements.”
A schematic of a Patriot missile appeared on the screen. The view zoomed in on the guidance system. “PAC-28 gives the Patriot a new gyromagnetic targeting device—a new brain, if you will—based on Motorola’s new CENTAUR technology. This upgrade more than compensates for the alleged new capabilities of the TS-1108, the so-called SuperSCUD VII.” The video screen cut to footage of the improved Patriot shooting down its improved adversary. Alvin returned to his chair.
“Most impressive, Alvin,” the vice president said. “When will the upgrade be in effect?”
“New units are already being built with the upgrade, of course. Kits will be available to preexisting customers by the end of the month.”
“Excellent. Now let’s hear from Launch Systems. Judy?”
“Not just yet, Judy.”
The project managers looked at each other. “Who said that?”
“I did. Out here.”
The man next to Judy stood up. “Look! Outside the glass.”
“Don’t be a fool, Jacobs,” the vice president said. “The glass is just an illu—”
A hooded, black-robed figure stepped through the glass into the conference room. “An illusion, Mr. Osborne? Perhaps. Be careful not to part with your illusions, however. For as Mark Twain reminds us, ‘When they are gone, you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.’”
“Alvin,” Vice President Osborne said, “I thought this was a secured site.”
“It is, sir. I mean,” Alvin said, looking up at the intruder, “I thought it was.”
“Get rid of him, will you, so we can get back to business.”
Alvin stood and faced the hooded figure. “This is a private meeting, sir. You’ll have to leave. If you’d like, I can get you in touch with our customer relations people. They’d be more than happy to—”
“I will leave, Alvin Kissler, when I have completed my purpose here.” He crossed to the video screen and called up Alvin’s presentation.
As the first Patriot missile impacted the incoming SCUD, he paused the playback.
“There is no more purely American defensive system than the Patriot missile. The name itself arouses images of George Washington, minutemen, and Paul Revere.” He pointed to the screen. “Rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air. Marvelous! The element of self-sacrifice inherent in its design makes one feel almost virtuous for using it. How wonderful to be an American, wouldn’t you say?”
The vice president was losing patience. “Look, kid—and I’m assuming you’re either a snot-nosed kid or a hacker bucking for a lawsuit— we all know how great the Patriot is. We build it! Now get out of here before we call your parents.”
“I loved the concept of the Patriot system so much, I even took it as my final appellation.”
The vice president stood up. “Okay, that’s it everybody. We’ll take a break then reconvene at another site in an hour.” The personas’ hands rose as, back in their offices, the project managers reached for their headsets.
“But then I began hearing rumors about the Patriot’s true effective-ness,” the intruder went on. “Rumors that perhaps it wasn’t as potent as we Americans had all been led to believe.” The five Crowell employees paused, leaving their headsets on. “Reports surfaced suggesting the missile had failed on many occasions, that the on-board radar/software package had trouble distinguishing between a SCUD’s warhead and its fuel tank. Thus an incoming missile might be intercepted, but its war-head would then fall upon whatever—or whomever—was underneath. I read one report that said there had never in the history of the Patriot program been a confirmed successful hit.”
The vice president spun around. “That’s a lie! We sued the writer of that article for ten million. He settled out of court and retracted his statements.”
“Yes, you bought him off. I understand. What else could you do— admit the truth? How would you explain that to the U.S. Army come reordering time? Oh, by the way, I understand congratulations are in order. Has Vice President Osborne not told the rest of you that Crowell’s just been awarded a $62.2 billion contract? You should all be proud; you’ll be helping to rearm one of America’s most bitter enemies, Japan.”
“Japan’s had Patriot missiles since the ’90s,” Judy said. “Sobering, is it not? Does it not alarm you the rate at which Japan’s military might has increased over the last five years?”
“That’s ridiculous,” the vice president said. “Japan’s constitution only lets them spend one percent of their GNP on defense.”
“So what is one percent of the highest GNP of any nation on the planet, Mr. Osborne? Anyone? Something on the order of fifty billion dollars annually. Japan’s defense spending exceeded that of France in 1992, the United Kingdom in 1994, and has been second only to the United States ever since.”
“Thank you for the economics lesson, Mr.…?”
“He said his ‘appellation’ was Patriot,” the fourth program manager said.
“Is that your real name or do you maybe think you’re a missile?” Alvin asked.
All at once, gravity seemed to lose its hold on Patriot. Gently he tumbled up to the synthetic ceiling, pushed off, and floated around the conference room. “Would it surprise you to learn that the Japanese know how to defeat your vaunted Patriot Air Defense System—that your Patriots would sail past their new line of ballistic missiles like so many butterflies?”
“Is this true, Jacobs?”
“We had one unconfirmed report, sir, but—”
“When were you going to let me in on it?”
“Don’t be so hard on him, Mr. Osborne,” Patriot said. “After all, you’ve known about those same weaknesses since the beginning.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Come on everybody, let’s go.”
“Yes, go. You would not want to hear that the company to which you give your livelihoods is responsible for purposely sabotaging the very thing you produce.”
“What is he talking about, sir?”
Patriot went on. “From the first day Crowell acquired Raytheon Electronic Systems to today, your Patriot missiles have been designed to fail. Haven’t they, Alvin? The missiles must work well, so as to impress the prospective buyer, but not too well, so as to allow for improved— more expensive—versions through the competitive upgrade program. What are you on now, upgrade twenty? Thirty?”
“That’s a lie, mister. Take your slander back or—”
“Or you’ll pay me ten million dollars? Nice try, Mr. Osborne. But I’m afraid the price for my silence is far more dear.”
“What do you want?”
“I want you to cancel the contract with the Japanese. They must not receive the PAC-28 upgrade. For now, at least, they cannot defeat it.”
“Cancel the contract?” the vice president said. “Kid, we’ve already spent the money.”
Patriot didn’t speak for a moment. “That is disheartening.”
“Look, Mr. Patriot, Japan is just a customer like any other. They have as much right to our product as the U.S. Army. If you’ve got a problem with that, then you’ve got a problem with every major company in America.”
“Well said, Mr. Osborne.” Patriot touched down lightly atop the simulated conference table. He drew a yellow orb from the folds of his cloak. “I do not begrudge the Japanese their economic success. Nor do I deny the pure capitalism in your upgrade program. I have only small grievances with you, actually. Almost two thousand of them. Granted, the number is only a rough estimate.”
“Estimate of what?” Alvin said.
“Of how many civilians have died as a direct result of your intentionally flawed Patriot missiles.”
“But we didn’t know!” Judy said.
“Yes, it is a shame that the innocent must die because of what the guilty have done. Isn’t that true, Mr. Osborne? Mr. Kissler?” He held the yellow orb aloft with both hands.
“Say hello to George Washington if you should happen to see him.”
The orb flared.
Crowell Electronics was suddenly hiring in five key positions.
* * *
The barbarian came down the staircase carefully. He was huge: bare-chested, blond hair flying, with only a trace of luminosity at the edges of his chiseled face. He held a battle-ax in both hands.
“Out, ye black villain,” he said. “Show thyself that I may remove thy foul head from thy body.” He reached the bottom of the stairs and looked around.
The gameworld he was exploring was sparse and dark. Surrealistic obstacles—colored platforms, school buses, burning hoops, World War I fighter aircraft—dotted the computer-generated landscape randomly.
The stairway behind him poked out of the ground, ascending into nowhere. As the objects receded into the distance, they became less distinct, until at last they lost all form and merged into a pixelated horizon.
His adversary was nowhere in sight.
“I knowest thou art here, foul knave. Show thy cowardly face to Rhatok, Barbarian Prince!”
He headed for a row of giant video screens. Each displayed a different moving image. He stopped to stare at one of the screens.
Behind him, a black-clad figure flitted from one simulated shadow to another.
The blond barbarian reached a hand out toward the screen. His hand passed right through. “I thought so,” he said in a most unbarbarous voice. He backed up a step, then walked forward, disappearing into the monitor. He soon reemerged, but continued to walk back and forth, in and out of the video screen.
Behind him, a black-gloved hand raised something at the barbarian’s back. A computer-rendered thumb hovered over a gold button.
“This needs to be fixed.” He headed for the exit.
“Not so fast, Rhatok,” the hooded man said.
The barbarian spun around. “There you are, thou fiend.” He hefted his battle-ax and took a step toward the black-hooded figure. “Well, I don’t know about your other victims, but you won’t get me without a fight.” He shouted a war-cry and charged toward his dark enemy.
The thumb came down. The virtual battlefield lit up in an all-white negative image. A tremendous bolt of energy sprang from the black hand. It struck the barbarian in the chest, landing with a sickening thump. He dropped his ax, fell, then faded out.
The black figure picked up the fallen ax and vanished.
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Ethan's cat, Wysiwyg, was modeled on my own cat by the same name.