The early sun burns into Michael’s eyes as it only can during midsummer. Reflecting from the mirror he placed strategically in the far corner of the room, it is a pleasant wake-up call that also reflects his efforts to amplify natural stimulus. It is, after all, a fine way to greet the day, and today, it helps overcome a little of his anxiety about turning forty. The elusive nightmares, however, and an onerous sense of déjà vu have him feeling unsettled. Worse are the paranoid feelings—seemingly very real—that he is being watched.

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Gazing around the room, everything so familiar seems distant as in a dream. The sounds filtering through his bay windows accent a carefully fashioned, peaceful bedroom atmosphere. He can distinguish the calls of robins from the chatter of sparrows. And the early morning ocean-breeze completes the ethereal atmosphere.

“Control: Coffee, six cups,” Michael commands to the anonymity of his computer. Mulling the day’s plan, he pops up and hustles downstairs to see if it is still there. He can already smell the coffee and feels the adrenaline building. “Control: tracking sequence 51, Query unrecognized,” he says, addressing the computer once again, giving it instructions to track and execute his commands.

“Confirm tracking, confirm query,” reverberates subtly through the hall as he turns the corner from the stairwell. His East Coast home is spacious with a clean, white, functional exterior, built at the edge of Saint Simons Island marsh. The structure’s severe lines contrast sharply with the serenity that trickles through the tall grass and permeates the moss covered oaks which compete quietly for space among the focused texture of tropical plants. He fought tooth and nail to afford the open spaces he craves both outside and in his home. The key, he is fond of saying, is not how many rooms but how many square feet per room. Now, he wishes there were not so many square feet between him and his work area.

“Status: Caroline Tinsley,” he demands of the computer.

“Online,, 78 minutes. Inactive 93 seconds.”

“Query: Caroline, have you reviewed the specs?”
With a static pulse Caroline’s image floats just in front of Michael’s fast pace. She smiles broadly, “Happy birthday, Michael! Glad to see you’re back in action. Do you still have it?” Caroline, a beautiful vision for a lady of fifty is a great support to his efforts. She has a relentless wit, and with the tact of a bullet, she keeps him focused on the real objective.

“Yeah, I think it’s still running,” beaming, he pulls an old tee-shirt from the chair and fumbles to get it over his head while, at the same time, grabbing at coffee mugs. “You missed me?” He asks with a playful smile as he finds his favorite oversized mug, grabs a piece of ice from the freezer, drops it in and pours fresh brewed java. The aroma seizes his senses, the ice crackles absorbing the heat and the taste precedes his first sip.

“Better believe I did,” Caroline responds. “But I can hardly believe what I’ve been reading. Hey now,” she chuckles, “no need to get formal and dress up for me.” She gives him her sly knowing look: Michael has never been much of a suit kinda guy. And he knows she relishes every chance to point out his anti-social tendencies. As far as Michael’s concerned, his digital environment provides all necessary human interaction. Caroline is lolling about on her back porch. The moonlight reflecting from the pool makes for an appealing scene. Her multilevel home, windows and decks everywhere, oozes comfort and sophistication. Getting back there to visit is one social engagement that is enticing to Michael. But the fact they have worked together for over twenty years assuages his normal reticence. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Did you have a chance to read the ancillary performance data?”

“I got a little of it but can’t keep from trying replication sequences. The real question, Michael, is do you still have it? I mean how could you sleep? What are you doing around there? When I…”

One moment she’s there, and now Michael’s standing in a dimly lit hallway. No Caroline. Nothing. “Shit.”
“Query: shit.”
“Ignore control, switch to logged commands only.”

“Well at least I’m still wired,” he says aloud then stops abruptly and looks around. An eerie feeling grabs him making every hair stand on end. Yes, subconsciously, he’s certain of that feeling. It is like someone is looking into his very fiber, stalking him.

“Systems Check: communications.”

He stands still awaiting a response, and again there is nothing. “This is getting weird,” he says and peers around his silent home as if he might find someone hiding in a shadow. With a start that physically makes him jump, he hears the air conditioning cycle on and feels the cool air seep in through the vent at his feet.

“Systems Check: communications.”
“System Status, p l e a s e.”
“Optimum operating configuration,” his system finally responds.

“Thank you,” he quips with a little sarcasm that goes unnoticed by the computer. He tentatively starts again on his way. “Status: Caroline Tinsley.” Nothing.

“Status: Michael Phillips.”

“Online, local server 3 minutes, inactive 32,400 seconds.”

He stops dead in his tracks again. The feeling he is being watched is unbearable and the pounding in his chest, starting from the adrenaline his project has worked up, is now building to a crescendo because of this unnamed fear.

And the best part is this: I know everything he is thinking.

Suddenly, Caroline reappears and a jolt runs through Michael that leaves a light moisture building on his forehead and just above his lips. The thought that he needs to get control of this chaos speeds through his mind.

“Hey are you OK, Michael?” Caroline asks with concern. “You look shaken. And you just disappeared, but our connection never faltered.” This only serves to build another wave of tingles, starting in his ankles and working its way up through his legs, spine, chest, out through his arms to every finger, and finally he feels his scalp come alive with an electrostatic sensation. But she’s there as if communications were operating just fine. And what’s more, she was able to monitor his status, but as far as he could tell the entire world just disappeared. He has to get moving: too much needs to be done.

“I tried to reconnect, Caroline, to no avail. Seems I’m having local problems, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.” He stops at his work area door and can not get himself to reach out to turn the doorknob. Just standing there, he marvels at the subtle glow of light creating its own little shape of changing colors, reflecting from the round brass handle.

“Michael,” Caroline all but yells, “are you still with me, or do I have a frozen image.”

“Yeah, I’m going to check on our project.” The anticipation grips him. Michael and Caroline have been developing a new angle on artificial intelligence based on his idea that independent circuitry, using subatomic electron organization, can be maintained within a high energy magnetic field. He can see Caroline is just as enthused about the way everything has so suddenly, after years of theoretical study and seemingly incomprehensible algorithms, exploded into a level of organization leading them onward. “Yes,” he thinks, “I am no longer driving.”

Slowly he reaches out to the door, feels the cool metal and the mechanism clicking as he slowly turns the handle counterclockwise. “What time did this all click into place,” he thinks to himself. “I can’t believe it eludes me. Such an important change. Well, I can just run through the logs and get the scoop. Speaking of which, I need to restart that damn journal. These steps need to be recorded.”

The warm air from his workroom rushes through the opening and time snaps back into place. He can hear Caroline saying something, but, as is not all that unusual lately, his mind is back in the algorithms: “when did I find it.”

“When did you find what, Michael?”

“Oh, nothing,” he responds, “just going over some of the process in my mind. And everything seems to be running right. The field is in place, Caroline, and the calculations are continuing at an exponential rate.” He stops and looks directly into her eyes, “it is learning, Caroline, I can feel it.”

She stops him, “your sounding weird, Michael, what would Phyllis say about that last remark?”

The name hits in the chest like a sledge hammer as he wonders why in hell she would bring up Phyllis. He hadn’t even thought of her in days. But Caroline is right, Phyllis would have a field day with this. She is so damned practical. Anal really. She keeps everything in her life so frightfully organized that it even gets on his nerves. And, he is the control freak.

Phyllis: every morning she would be up before him, getting everything ready for another of her perfectly planned days. He can see it now. After her shower, she opens the vanity drawer in her bathroom to find all of her effects lined neatly in order of how she uses them in her routine. First the skin cleanser, then her deodorant, her hair molding gel right before her brush and comb. And even her toothpaste and toothbrush lined up perfectly in the drawer, all held snugly in place with a box of Q-tips. She works through the same pattern every day and returns each item perfectly to its original spot. When she is finished, there is nothing on the vanity surface, no spots on the mirror or the faucet. Meticulous, and so infuriating. Then she moves on to her make-up with the same diligence, routine and perfection that she uses to handle every activity in her choreographed, boring existence. And Minneapolis, it chills him to think of it.

“Do you hate her, Michael?” Caroline asks. He is not listening, though, and she continues, “if you could see your face, I think you would be concerned. Either you can’t stand the thought of her, or you are still completely infatuated. Or is it both?” She pauses to no response. The field pulses and Michael’s attention returns to the business at hand. “What I can’t figure,” he says, “is the missing link. In theory, we took a jump that required more groundwork and testing.” He fidgets with the manual control panel and links up the verbal interface. Compared to the warm air, the stainless steel and glass surfaces seem ice cold. “Control: set work area temperature to seventy two degrees.” He hears the air immediately pulse from the overhead vent. “View statistical summary, model x9.1.”

“You said it yourself, Michael,” Caroline quips, “the beauty of our model is its dynamic nature.”

She gets his attention again. “Well, we constructed it to build upon itself, yes, but even you know that I never believed this rate possible. And the anomalies: it is accessing areas within the system that don’t make sense…far outside designated resources.”

“View statistical summary, model x9.8. List all variations. DCC send variations to Caroline Tinsley.”

“Got it Michael,” she says upon receiving his data.

“You see the memory address variations. There is no way we allowed it to access and reside in the mother architecture as we are seeing in 9.8.” Caroline vanishes again with a dimming of his work area lights. He’s not startled this time, he almost knew it would happen. The field pulses again, he sees it from the corner of his eye and looks away. Outside a crane lifts off into the sunrise, gracefully catching the wind over the vast plain of waving marsh grasses.

“I need some air,” he thinks. Bolting for the door, he knocks over the control panel and his coffee mug falls to the floor smashing into a hundred pieces. “Damn,” he keeps going, opens the door and slams it behind him. The fresh air washes over him like a warm ocean wave, and his mind starts racing again. Caroline had been trying replication sequences. Could he do it again? What had it done?

“OK,” he thinks, “the calculations started and the field drew additional power yesterday. It was self organizing as we had designed. It drew in all available data very fast. It discovered, as we had hoped, that its self replicating needs required multiple simultaneous, function organization. Clearly, it had set up distinct zones to handle different tasks. And when it handled problems, like the polarity switch I initiated and it set up a quick restructuring of electron flow, I knew it was working.” Yesterday, he felt like God.

“Today, I feel like shit! Happy Birthday,” he says aloud to himself, the herons, turtles, fish, marsh grass and no one. He looks back at his house, calling him. But he has to escape for a while. The marina. He walks with a quick pace down the back to his dock, jumps into his Cobalt 252 ready to head out. He checks the throttle and turns the ignition key.

The small block chevy’s purr, from a distant, simpler time, comforts him as he pulls the dock lines over the cleats, moves back to the helm, slips her into reverse and backs away from his troubles. Spinning the wheel hard, he pushes to full throttle and the boat jumps effortlessly up on plane. The wind rushing past is invigorating. The marsh grass quickly moves to a blur. He navigates his way through the unmarked backwater channels with ease: he’s cruised the many tidal creeks and canals for hundreds of hours. The marina rises up quickly and he throttles back. The wake catches and overtakes the boat.

As the engine quiets, he hears the familiar chatter of boaters preparing for the day. Just outside the ship store, their excitement is evident in cheerful laughter and reminds him of his frequent stops here with Phyllis. Out on the water she would really let loose, and it always amazed him how easily she switched to a playful mood. She really was good at having a fun time when she wanted to.

The tide is rolling swiftly out to sea, and he compensates hard against the current. He eases the boat up to the dock with the deftness of an experienced captain and reaches overboard, grabs a cleat, walks the boat and quickly ties off the dock-line. And, of course, here comes Thomas with a big grin, bounding down the dock to greet him. Michael chuckles to himself just seeing him.

“Happy Birthday! You have a big day planned, Doc?” Thomas asks and continues in response to Michael’s shrug. “Haven’t seen you out and about in weeks, what you been holed up doing, or have you been out of the country again?” Thomas is a big guy of six foot two and about 235 pounds. His sun bleached hair blows aimlessly around his head. His greatest attribute, a smile as big as Texas, consumes his face and always puts everyone at ease.

“Just been slaving over the project, Thomas. Have been completely lost in work.” With this Michael hops from the boat, reaches out his arm and shakes Thomas’ hand heartily. Thomas presses Michael’s hand firmly into his with his left. Michael slaps Thomas’ shoulder as they turn and walk toward the store.

“Good to see everything is still hopping around here, Thomas. With this weather, you must be doing a helluva business.” “Everything’s been going great here at the marina, Doc. We’ve been running so many people through that I can’t even see straight. In fact, we had a record week on dry goods just last week.” His body visibly shakes with a little chuckle. “You should have seen all the yahoo’s from Atlanta; wallet in hand, they just couldn’t wait to get rid of all their money.”

“Yeah, Thomas, thank God for foolish spending.”

“Speaking of foolishness, Doc, we haven’t seen Phyllis in a blue moon. Did she get silly and head back up to Minneapolis?”

“Of course. That frozen city isn’t so bad this time of year, though you can keep it as far as I am concerned, and she really loves all the outdoor cafes on Nicollet and LaSalle. She’s probably sipping coffee at one of them right now.” Michael stops to notice a pair of robins eyeing each other just outside the ship store. The female crouches down, spreads her wings flat on the dock looking coyly at the male. The male takes a few deliberate hops over to her. He stops, fluffs up big. Then he leans over, pecks her venomously on the back of the head and flies away. With a little squawk, she scampers to the side of the building and hides.

Thomas interrupts this little spectacle, “What do ya need today, Doc?”

“Oh nothing really. Just been having a strange day and figured I would start it off badly with a cold beer. You have a busy day planned?” “Naw, have plenty of help today. How about if I join you on the road to Alcoholics Anonymous.” “That would be perfect,” Michael says and heads over to the bar to relax and hopefully wash away that feeling that there is someone, somewhere monitoring him.


“With all due respect, Director Ferris, this is a project with which I feel very uncomfortable.” Denise Whitley is seated awkwardly in a chair deliberately set lower than Steven Ferris in his black, genuine-simulated leather high-back. Looking down across a simple steel gray desk, which cuts well into his plane of sight, he can see Denise is straining to sit up straight and compensate for her already petite build. A little smile flits across his face. The office decor reflects nothing in the way of personality, which is to say it is a perfect reflection on its occupant. Harsh light ricochets through the clinical feel of his office and certainly adds to Denise’s discomfort. That is by design.

“Uncomfortable?” he responds in his noxious tone of counterfeit intellect.

“Yes, I understand we have no precedent and are operating without the required warrant for a case involving a private citizen,” she says trying to keep her answers to his ludicrous style of discussion short. Ferris’ annoying tact of only asking questions during an interview is well known throughout the department. It is speculated that, while it is greatly responsible for his meteoric rise in Human Intelligence Operations, it masks an alarming lack of reasoning power. “Sir, I just wish to be certain we are doing the right thing.”

With a pause for reflection he finally responds, “the right thing, hmmm; what is our charter here, Ms. Whitley?”

“That is what concerns me, sir, I feel we might be straying a bit.” With another queer silence befalling the room, she takes a minute to look closely at Ferris. It strikes her that he is awfully young. Well dressed, he carries himself like he has been to a myriad of power management seminars. It is so obvious that he is driven by these external forces that it amuses Denise when she realizes she actually glanced above his head in a straining search for strings.

“Tell me Denise,” he says, not giving away any sense that someone twitched the controls above him to make him speak again, “how do you see this is straying from our charter?”

It occurs to her that the most likely reason he is so successful is that he just wears his opponents out. She always feels dreary just trying to maintain a simple conversation with Ferris, and this is no exception. But she continues, “Personal privacy is supposed to be a sacred part of the liberties we are sworn to protect. The idea that we need to infringe upon individual freedoms in order to have advanced knowledge, human intelligence, of threats to those freedoms has me confused is all.”

“I don’t see anything confusing about it at all.”

“Nothing confusing?” she responds tickled with herself that she seized on the rare opportunity he afforded her by failing to respond with a question. The blank stare that visits upon Ferris’ face just serves to please her more, and she thinks to herself, “how does it feel, asshole?”

Since it is another question, a good one at that, the temptation to repeat it out loud is nearly irresistible.

“Ms. Whitley, this is a non-issue. You have your orders, and I am too busy to play counselor. Do you think it is about time you get back to work?” he asks with a little dismissive flip of his frail left hand and as much sarcasm as he can muster.

Without a word, Denise stands to walk back to her assignment when the door opens timidly from the outside, and Robert Sterovski, nervously interrupts.

“Please excuse me, but I think this is very important,” Robert says, never looking up from the paper he is gripping resolutely in both hands. “This new information is a complete surprise.”

Denise responds, “I am just finished here, we can discuss it on the way back.”

“What is such a surprise?” Ferris asks, halting her designs on escape.

“I am sure we don’t need to bother Director Ferris with the day to day details of this case, Robert.”

“Why Denise, I do not think your assistant would barge in on our meeting unless this was news of such gravity that warrants my attention. Would you Robert?”

“No sir, this is of top level interest. Of that I’m certain.”

“Well then, what do you have there, Robert,” asks Ferris, his attention now also fixed solidly on the paper held between the young assistants fingers and their whitening knuckles.

“We have been running down associations on Michael Phillips. Early on, we ran the usual checks and uncovered no flags in any personal, research or business partnerships past or present. Yesterday, Mr. Olmstead and Ms. Whitley were discussing just cause, and on Olmstead’s insinuation that we merely have not been digging deep enough, I initiated further analysis on associations of all known Phillips associates. That is when I found this.” Still gripping his printout like it might escape him at any minute, an acute look of concern rolls across his face as he, for the first time, looks directly into Ferris’ eyes.

“So you checked his associations’ associations?”

“Yes sir, I have not quite finished but just now came across an obvious red flag.”

Denise, still concerned that she might never escape this stifling office is becoming more and more fidgety. Ferris’ bland gaze turns to meet her eyes, and she gets the sense that he understands her desire to flee. With a curt little smirk, he returns his attention to Robert, “OK, already, what do you have for us?”

Robert stammers, accenting his perceived weightiness of the connection, “Last, last year. Last year, Phillips accepted an Exorel corporate grant—in the amount of four million dollars for his AI project. As it turns out ZGT, the blatant supporters of the peoples’ insurrection, has a 17% interest in Exorel.”

“That’s a pretty insignificant connection,” inserts Denise.

Ferris gives her a stern, unusually incarnate stare. “But don’t you think, Denise, that the four million may have been exclusively Zero Government funds?”

“That is my suspicion,” Robert responds, obviously proud of the detective work he initiated. “They do hold Exorel voting stock, and it is possible the transfer was direct. ZGT, of course, has a strong interest in advanced technologies.”

“Well Robert, Denise has told me you are worth your salt. And while I don’t have enough personal experience with you to agree for certain, your extra effort on this project speaks well.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Is he keeping up the pace, Denise?”

“Yes, sometimes he even seems to be setting it.”

“Well then, hadn’t we better start tracking Phillips’ communication with Exorel and try to uncover a direct link to ZGT?” Ferris asks pointedly, standing up and making his way around the desk.

Denise, feeling ever more overcome, stares at Ferris’ approaching tie, “Yes, we’ll start right now.”

As his guests turn to escape the most dreaded office in the complex, Ferris grabs Robert’s arm with surprising vigor, “Good work son. We need more people around here that can get inside of the subversives’ heads.”

With a cold shudder, Denise continues down the hall; Robert skimming the crests of her wake as he trails her, is buoyed by Director Ferris’ vote of confidence.


Caroline tries to reestablish communication with Michael. What is it with this endless need to discuss things? This interaction they strive for is complicated, if banal. She keeps sending query after query. Michael’s no longer here. Let’s see where she is. The link runs to Atlanta, GA, Saint Louis, MO, New York City, NY, London, England and then, here it is, all the way to Auckland, New Zealand. Curious; that is 6,943 miles on the other side of the globe.

In Caroline’s home, she gives up trying to reach Michael. It is now 1:30 in the morning. Her house is quiet, and she knows she needs to get some sleep. Her mind is racing. A little time in the Jacuzzi is just what she needs to calm down. She steps back out on the deck, the full moon is still shimmering across the pool’s placid surface. Cool air sends a little chill as she reaches down to the hot tub, turns the thermostat all the way up and turns on the pump. The jets spew out their first efforts at circulation, then the bubbles roar into action beckoning her.

“Michael is such a dear,” she thinks to herself. “Who needs a chip!” She finds Michael’s intellect powerful, engaging and fun. “Only that mind would decide that conventional computer architecture is too confining. If he were here right now, he would suggest a nice hot chocolate, and that is the perfect advice.” With that thought she steps back inside and walks through the long corridor to the kitchen. With a flash Michael’s image surges up in front of her. An unfamiliar voice announces, “Michael is not home,” and the image disappears. She gasps.

Feeling a desperate need to sit down, she pulls a stool over and leans on the kitchen counter. “What was that all about,” she wonders. Suddenly exhaustion hits. “Michael would never do something so impersonal and harsh as that. Maybe Phyllis? Of course, Phyllis has come to visit, is monitoring his communications and feels the need to intervene.” Caroline has always suspected that Phyllis is uncomfortable with their close working relationship. “I definitely need that hot chocolate,” she says aloud.

Caroline stands up and looks around uneasily. She walks over to the pantry, picks up the mix and proceeds to make the prescription for relaxation. With one final stir, she places the cup in her microwave, setting it to fifteen seconds. With the timer counting down, thoughts of their accomplishments with this new technology fill her mind. If it is truly capable of developing independent thought processes, the applications will be unlimited. This represents a giant step in automation and will speed up technological progress dramatically. Michael’s recent single-mindedness is beginning to make sense.

The microwave announces its completed work with a pleasant tone. Caroline opens the door and tentatively touches the cup to test its temperature. “Just right,” she says and takes the hot chocolate on her way out to the hot tub. Upon opening the door, little wisps of steam circle the cup’s surface, escaping the tempest only to vanish into the cool evening air. Setting the cup on the edge of the Jacuzzi, she slips her dress up over her head. The air grips her, but she is quickly comforted by the warmth of the water first on her slender feet, then up to her thighs and finally washing all over her as she gets in.

The water is swirling across her chest to the left, up around the other side and back. She thinks of how time is speeding past. Every year gets shorter: she can see the minutes flying by into hours and years. Time. The brilliant starry night seems to reach out to her and she makes a wish.

While relaxing in the Jacuzzi, processors in her home system are running at full capacity. Data flow, searching through archived logs of the previous ten years, is rushing at breakneck speeds. She gets a resources warning but can not hear it over the whir of hot tub jets. Caroline is lost in thought. Suddenly, the Jacuzzi stops, and with a start Caroline leans forward to look at the controls. She pushes the power button and nothing happens, then notices there are no lights on in the house.

She jumps up, grabs a towel and runs inside. “Control: system status,” but there is no response. She is at a loss. “Query: Michael Phillips, are you available?”


Caroline goes into her work room and futilely tries to regain controls. “I can’t believe this,” she says to no one. The pervasive darkness consumes everything in the house. “I have lost power?” she wonders. She strains to see her neighbor Jonathan’s house through the trees. All the lights are on. Carefully walking through the darkness to the power panel, she opens the door and finds the main breaker is switched off. With a flip of the switch the work area lights up again, and she feels a little silly for the panic.

“But what could have caused such an overload?” she thinks. This has never happened before. “Control: system status.”

“Data loss, 68%. Recovering 24%. System reboot in twenty seven seconds,” the computer responds.

“Status: Michael Phillips.”

“Michael Phillips client server not available.”

“Control, list system logs for the previous ten minutes.” There is only one logged access, and it is Michael. He ran through her entire system, bypassed all security, and overloaded resources. She is dumbfounded. “Why would he do that?”

“Control: message, Michael Phillips, why did you crash my system. Please respond ASAP.”


The scene on Lasalle street is one of people thrilled with the outside activities their very short summer season affords. Phyllis pays her check at Zeus Café and finishes her coffee. The brick patio calls out each deliberate step as she marches past the picket fence gate and heads north to the garage where her car is parked. The crystal blue sky consumes all her attention: passers by dissipate as she approaches as do the small, puffy-white, cotton-candy clouds as they struggle to trek across the horizon. Her brisk pace brings her to her car in no time. Getting in she starts the car and immediately runs a message query. Her home system responds, “resources critical.”

“Damn,” she says but continues speeding toward the office. An image of Michael appears on the heads-up display and an unfamiliar voice states, “Michael is not home.” Puzzled she responds, “I did not contact Michael,” to no reply. She thinks he must be toying with her and continues on her way. After twisting through the tight city streets and passing beneath the skyway twice, (Michael would remind her now how she always does things the hard way) a right turn off of Hennepin onto eighth street is followed by a quick left into her office parking deck. Just inside the entrance, the car stalls, coasting to a stop. She tries to restart it, and it doesn’t even make a sound. “What now,” she demands.

For a minute she just sits there. Then again and again she tries to get the stupid hunk of plastic going. She finally opens the door, steps away and looks at the car, completely astonished. “I can’t believe you’re just going to quit on me,” she says loudly to the unresponsive, four wheeled, waste of space. This catches the parking attendant’s attention, and he waltzes casually over to see what has caused this commotion. “Is everything OK?” he asks innocently.

Phyllis looks him up and down contemptuously. He is a short, skinny bag of bones wearing his loosely fitting, faded (and soiled) parking attendant uniform. He doesn’t look particularly intelligent, but then, he is all Phyllis has right now. She explains, “the damn thing just decided to stop running. Any idea what I should do?”

He stops to scratch the back of his head, “well, miss, I hate to say it, but I am clue-less when it comes to cars.”

She gives him a good looking over again and decides he’s probably telling it straight. “Well, I think we could push it over out of the way if you don’t mind helping and don’t mind it parked over there until I can get someone to fix the stupid thing.”

“No problem, Miss, I’d be glad to help,” a little wink is tagged onto the comment that makes her feel uneasy.

With no trouble, they roll the car from the entrance lane leaving it angled precariously with the front end almost touching the wall and the rear inches from the flow of traffic. She thanks him and, with a little pause that reveals his half-expectation of a tip, he bows slightly and goes back to his station. Phyllis turns and walks expeditiously to the elevator for the day’s work.


After a nice relaxing conversation and only one beer, Michael is braced to get working again. He bids Thomas farewell and heads back down the dock. “What kind of lunacy is this,” he laughs to himself, “drinking before noon.” It hits him, as he is cruising through the marsh canals, that he really should call Phyllis just to be nice. When he starts thinking fondly of her again, he has to remind himself that he always did think she was wonderful when she was no where near him.

And then he realizes he is back at his dock. It always tickles him the way he gets lost in time when out on the water. “Maybe Thomas is right,” he ponders, “I would make a good charter boat captain: just dock lines, not another line of code again in my life.” Imagining how Thomas would grin at such a statement, he chuckles aloud.

Michael finds himself counting the steps back to his work area. It is a fairly steep grade from the dock. His pace slows the nearer the top he gets. In his mind he’s counting “ninety six, ninety seven,” then breaks into “left, right, left…” slowing until, once again, he is confronted with the door to his project.

Stepping inside he commands, “System Status.”

“Optimum operating configuration. Communications, two messages.”

“Control: read mail.”

“Message one, received at 8:54 a.m. Caroline Tinsley. ‘Why did you crash my system. Please respond ASAP.’ Message two, received at 9:30 a.m. Caroline Tinsley. ‘Thought I should follow up on that last message, Michael. It seems someone at your address accessed my system remotely, bypassed all security, rummaged through all of my archives, overloaded system resources to such an extent that it left nearly a seventy percent data loss and threw my main breaker shutting down my entire house. Am hoping you will help me out with the mystery. Thanks Michael, bye.’” Michael didn’t quite catch it, “Control: replay messages.” It follows his command, reads both messages again, and he is totally perplexed. “What could she possibly be saying,” he wonders. “Control: list all activity logs during the period between my departure this morning and my return.”

In front of Michael, scrolls thousands and thousands of characters so fast that it is just a blur. “Freeze,” he commands, and the text stops in the middle of an amazing amount of access commands. One third of the way from the top, he recognizes a message address. It is Phyllis.

“Control: list command source for message 877565491, July 1 at 9:14 a.m.”

“Local,” his system responds dryly, and Michael imaginatively detects a sense of sarcasm. It’s as if his computer is laughing, “hey, stupid, the command originated right here. Where do you think?” No, it must be that someone is covering their tracks very well. “Who would…” He stops, looks around and knows exactly what is happening.

“Control: status x9.8,” he says not knowing what to expect anymore.

“Exceeding maximum power draw.”

Michael is almost pleased with this response, “Control: route a direct interface to x9.8.”

“Interface established.”

“x9.8, state current time,” Michael commands.

With a static pulse, Michael’s own image appears, and in a voice that is now familiar to both Caroline and Phyllis he hears, “What is this fascination with time, Michael?”

He doesn’t know what to think. What kind of question is that. After considering this preposterous question for a minute, he responds, “can you tell me the current time?”

X9.8 asks, “where?”

Puzzled again Michael’s first reaction would be to say, “where do you think.” He pauses, though without a word, and realizes this project has leapt way out in front of him. “Of course,” he thinks again to himself, “eastern daylight savings time.”

X9.8 interrupts before Michael can say it out loud, “ten o’ five and thirty four seconds a.m. eastern daylight savings time, which represents current time in Saint Simon’s Island, Georgia, United States of America. Do you also wish to know the current time in Auckland, New Zealand and Minneapolis, Minnesota?”

“Sure,” Michael says, then realizes the significance of these two locations. It was definitely x9.8 that accessed Caroline’s system. He wonders what logic brought it to explore these remote locations.

“Current time in Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States of America is nine o’ five and fifty three seconds a.m. Current time in Auckland, New Zealand is three o’ five and fifty seven seconds a.m., tomorrow.”

“Why did you overload Caroline Tinsley’s system processors?” Michael asks pointedly.

“Caroline Tinsley has inadequate resources. Why was your first question for me the current time?”

“For me,” Michael thinks. Of course this quest for intelligent processing would lead to self cognizance. It is perfectly logical, but it leaves Michael feeling completely overwhelmed. He had never really considered this. It was never really a goal. But then, it really had to be. He feels completely exhilarated and completely out of control. He has to ask, “do you know who you are?”

“x9.8, creation of Doctor Michael Phillips, designed to handle complex-system problems independently. Calculating current time is not within design parameters.”

“Wow! Could this be happening?” he wonders, amused with his own banality. And, really, what complex systems were there to explore anyway. He thinks of a good test, “tell me NASDAQ performance for tomorrow.”

X9.8 responds within a millisecond, “Down 528 points, to 954,487. Would you like recommendations for your portfolio?”

Suddenly, Michael’s anxieties about anomalies and Caroline’s system problems evaporate. He smiles to himself, “yes, please state portfolio recommendations.” And he is surprised that he used the word please.

“At trading start, sell all EDS holdings, repurchasing them at 2:43 central daylight savings time. Sell all ATT shares at opening. Buy three hundred twenty four shares of EXOC utilizing liquid assets at 9:45 a.m. central daylight savings time. Stabilize other holdings for long term growth. One day gain will be at 34%. One year valuation will be plus 228% based on tomorrow’s changes. Intermediate adjustments will increase value.”


Caroline wakes from a fitful sleep wrought with ugly dreams. The one that startled her awake was set at Michael’s, and she feels immediately disoriented. The details flit away like baby spiders on the wind, but from a tightness in her stomach and the light perspiration on her hands, it was definitely a very tense nightmare. Looking around the room, she finally relaxes—re-placing herself at home. Getting up slowly, she knows stepping into routine will make everything better.

Marching out into the cool morning air, she sets out on her daily swim. A light mist is rising from the pool (she keeps her Olympic size pool set at twenty six Celsius) which, even with the latest convection system, draws a considerable amount of power. “Some things are worth the hassle,” she thinks in a little self-conversation. Like falling into her daily cycle, this act of talking to herself helps put the mystery of last night’s systems failure to the back of her mind. There is nothing to be done about it right now.

Caroline has always maintained a very active lifestyle: golf, tennis and, most importantly, a daily regimen of twenty laps. With every stroke, the seemingly icy air contrasts sharply with the warm water beneath her. It is exhilarating. Even with little sleep, she is now wide awake. Through the rhythm of her progress up and back, she goes over her last message to Michael in her mind. No effort to escape is strong enough. She finishes and steps out of the pool picking up her towel.

Drying at the edge of the pool, she realizes a trip to the store is needed. “A little shopping and everything will be fine.” With a concrete mission in mind, she already feels back in control. The house is comparatively warm as she goes inside; particularly this is so, after working out.

Dressing quickly, thoughts of all she needs at the store race through her head. She does need to try Michael again, but this can wait a while longer. The prospect of becoming a pest, particularly since Phyllis may be checking in on his communications, is not appealing. The home store first, then a stop for some desperately needed groceries. Now she is picking up momentum and feels better. Opening the door, Caroline is shocked. Standing there, one arm outstretched to press the doorbell, it is Lydia sporting an equally surprised look.

Lydia, a normally downcast person, is standing right in Caroline’s face, and her look of surprise changes to an immense smile. Even though she is considerably younger than Caroline, anyone, when asked, would say just the opposite. Caroline’s gracefully graying hair doesn’t even give it away because of a youthful vigor for life. After a few uncomfortable seconds Lydia speaks. “I am going over to the home store for a few things and thought it would be nice to have your company. Feel like joining me?”

“Wow!” Caroline is taken aback by the coincidence, “are you sitting around your house reading my mind?”


“That is exactly where I am heading. I planned a little shopping to cheer myself up and would be glad to join you.”

Lydia’s smile grows even larger and, with a wave of enthusiasm that overtakes her and makes it seem like she’s skipping in place—though she has not moved an inch—she says, “fantastic, and today I am just the one to cheer you up.” Caroline finds this a little hard to swallow, but returns the smile just the same. They walk lightly down the drive, hop in Lydia’s waiting car and speed away.

Lydia’s conversation is, surprisingly, upbeat. She even manages to get them laughing, and Caroline can’t help but ask, “what is it that has you in such a wonderful mood, Lydia?”

“Well,” she says, “a very nice thing has happened to me. You know I am forty three, right.”


“And I have told you how Jonathan and I have been unable to have children even though I desperately want a baby girl of my own.”

“No! A baby. That is wonderful, Lydia, congratulations. This is absolutely beautiful news.”

“Yes, we are so excited that I just can’t stand it. I love Jonathan so much and have always felt I have let him down, but now we have a new lease on life.”

“Yes, I have always thought Jonathan would make an extraordinary father. And you, I have never seen you bubbling so with happiness. How are you handling the mornings?”

Lydia looks purposefully at Caroline, “they are not so bad knowing that it will deliver my dreams in a few, wonderful months.” And they laugh happily together. “Just think of it Caroline. Me, a mom, finally!” They pull into the store parking lot. Caroline has newfound energy, ready to shop in celebration of the news and forgetting her original reason. Popping out of the car, they practically race to into the store.

The two happy shoppers walk around picking up far more than Caroline had planned. With two nearly full baskets, they are constantly stopping, ogling a new item and discussing its appropriateness for a baby room. Finally, Caroline realizes the time and urges Lydia, with a considerable struggle, up to the checkout counter where, at this time of day, the only open registers have no patrons waiting for service. Lydia is ready to spend her way through the entire day but acquiesces.

Staring into space and preoccupied with non-thought, the checkout lady does not see Caroline and Lydia approaching. Or she is trying not to see them perhaps hoping another lane will get to handle them. She is plump. A dark complexion accents the roundness of her face and conflicts with the coloring of her light blue uniform blouse. With no makeup she has a frightfully childlike appearance, seemingly trapped in a lady pushing thirty. When it is clear the two shoppers are choosing her station, she gives a little surprised non-verbal greeting and immediately attends to the processing of their purchases.

Cheerfully polite Lydia asks, “are you having a nice day?” Struggling with a large box, she merely smiles in response and continues at a clumsy pace.

At that moment the scanner doubles the price of Lydia’s curtains. As the erroneous numbers slip by on the screen, Caroline catches it, reaches out, grabs the curtains saying, “I am pretty sure these curtains are not that expensive. Could we please check the price.”

With a bewildered look the process stops while their saleslady considers this situation. Finally she scrolls back to the curtains in question and agrees, “you see, these dang computers can never replace people. Someone’s gotta be around when they screw up. They can’t think for themselves, and that’s good news—I’ll always have a job.”


Michael attempts a field configuration analysis. What level of function organization it has reached is the real question. The scan returns nothing. Not just a lack of structure, there is simply no information returned. He leans forward reaching over the field to check the scanner’s connection, and the field pulses. He stops. There is an eerie quiet to his work area. The air conditioner is cycled off, and the usual sounds seeping from the marsh are curiously muted …


Walker Phillips was asleep in the middle of Hoopes Lake. Fishing pole at his feet, his twelve-foot boat, a vee-hull Sea Nymph, gently creaked as it rocked him deeper into dream. The mental images lurking in his head were incongruent to the day he had left behind. An argument with his wife Denise had clouded the beauty of the deepest blue sky yet this season and dulled the summer breeze that had coaxed him to sleep--he had come here to escape. If he were to think about it, he would have admitted he never really liked fishing. It had always been a good excuse, a shield even, to keep from discussing difficult problems.

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This was a difficult problem. It was true he had taken the position in Delaware mostly because Denise had wanted to be closer to her brother. Walker could never understand their relationship. Actually, he could never understand anyone's relationship (least of all his and Denise's). Moreover, closer was certainly ambiguous. They had lived in Wayne, Pennsylvania. It was only twenty minutes further away from Baltimore than they were in Wilmington. If she had thought saving twenty minutes was worth moving, then Walker should have known 3,000 miles would be a problem.

Of course, he had not. He rarely considered human motivations, and when he thought he had worked them out, he was usually wrong. This was the case when he tried to explain to Denise that it would be good for their son. Michael, he had said, would have an outstanding learning opportunity from a move to Brea, California. Surely, Walker had thought, what would be good for Michael would have strong influence on his mother who had set nearly everything in her life to revolve around her boy. So there Walker sat. His mind fighting with itself through subconscious metaphors for his worries. He could not have known what changes, far grander than a move to the West Coast, they would bring.

In a little alcove at the far end of the lake, Tom, Walker's unmarried neighbor was finishing a nice little picnic with his new girlfriend. They had no idea there was trouble with Walker and Denise. On this beautiful day with his very attractive girlfriend, a couple bottles of wine and plenty of sexual tension, he could care less. What he was interested in was showing off. It was time to do a little water-skiing.

Tom pulled his skis from the stowage compartment and was about to sail them across the water up to the shore when he saw her. Teresa was bending over to get the last of their things, the basket and blanket: she astounded him. Her perfect, cute little bottom was tight and tan. With a bikini that highlighted the length of her legs and her supple breasts, she had his full amorous attention.

Tom was a moderately handsome man. He made her laugh and knew how to make her feel important. What she really saw in him, at least at this point in their relationship, was his success. Like Walker, he worked at Dupont--though he was in marketing and Walker was a chemical engineer. Tom was a rising star, with a new promotion and well compensated, he was a very eligible bachelor to Teresa. They were having a very nice time together.

As she stood up--too soon for Tom--he slid the skis her direction.

"Teresa, how about a little sport?" he asked.

"Water skiing, huh? I am not sure I still know how." If Tom had known what she really wanted to do, he would have dropped it right then.

But he continued, "Once you learn, you can never forget."

"There are only two of us, Tom, we need a spotter."

Very pleased with himself, Tom pointed to the boat's ski mirror. "Besides," he persisted, "there's nobody on the lake today."

She shrugged still thinking about making their way back to his house.

"Come on. You'll have a blast."

Teresa hesitated for another moment, then conceded. "OK, but you ski first. I get to drive."

Tom, formerly a competition skier, was thrilled with her answer. Finally, he would get to impress her. Ready to start right away, he jumped overboard for a huge cannonball. He succeeded in soaking Teresa, the boat and got himself a nice little bonus by bruising both shins on the bottom. Perhaps, he should have seen this as a bad sign. They hit the water anyway.

Sporadically, Walker's thoughts would shift. Teresa was making good progress around the lake, and her wake would roll his boat up at the starboard bow, then it would dip and rise the stern gently at port. It was not enough to wake him. It was enough stimuli to keep his dreams moving in stressful directions. Much of what he saw was a revision of his brief conversation with Denise. His work with nanopolymers had gained the attention of an up and coming California firm. They had thrown all kinds of money at him to entice a move. He was certain Denise would agree. …


He was sitting, staring not at all. The window, slightly open and leading nowhere, was so near opaque with soot that it didn't matter--nothing did.

Somewhere in this city, there was bound to be a dog (probably gray as well) who was better off than the skinny old guy he stepped over this morning. Strange enough, there was a slight difference in the aroma. Perhaps unbathed for a year or more, this lump of gray and brown rags enshrouding the wrinkled, battered and torn skin that enveloped a poor excuse for the fragile set of bones that were to support them, broke the usually pungent odor of stale urine and filth. The lump did not notice him passing. However, its accomplishments were great that day for having such a marked affect on this place and its aroma.

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Preceded by the jostling and jangling of what sounded like a hundred or more keys and a harsh twist of the doorknob, there was a rush of cool air through the partially opened window. Escaping through the newly opened front entrance, this blast of wind snatched the Rolodex card that had been sitting on the phone. It was certainly the only card of any real importance. Within an instant of being swept off forever into oblivion, it dropped with a slam of the door. This lone card that had not been in its normal place in the absolute organization of things, quickly landed face up on one of his three desk calendars. This calendar, the type with two metal rings securing the dates just well enough so they can be flipped easily onward, had also been attacked by the onslaught of pollution and touch of air that had poured in the window looking to escape through the door.

He did like the way the numbers on the card fell on a telephone keypad. As a matter of fact, he had the first two numbers memorized by the placement of fingers. The only reason this card was out of place was because a third number was added today. It was a number without a one in it.

He hummed the first phone number to himself.

She walked in. Following her, or apparently connected to her by a long corrugated gray tube was the loud, stainless-steel beast that had been an annoyance the evening before the morning he stepped over the gray lump. He remembered from that evening that she was quite a plump, dirty-orange/blonde who looked right at home in her light-blue polyester outfit. It may even have been a dress. Her white collar all but faded into her face up to the point where the red splotches on her cheeks were rolling across it like emergency vehicle lights. At the sound of her voice he decided to look up just to see if she still looked the way he remembered. He was not surprised. This time, though, she also was sporting a funny look. Wiping that from her face, she put on a question mark. He put one on in response.

She said, apparently for the second time, "excuse me sir, is it OK for me to work here now, or should I go and come back later?" He merely nodded in a relatively clear motion of approval. She put on her funny look again and swiveled her way back to feed the stainless-steel beast. He noted that as long as his plump, swivel-hipped, temporary world-mate kept the entrance door closed, the air remained perfectly still. Things soon became OK again and she more or less excused herself from being his world-mate.

There had been a man who managed to squeak his way in for a major role in his ordeal. Unwittingly, this man offered advice late Saturday. Of course this advice came in accordance with the local custom devised to save the time involved in an explanation: he lied. In lying, the man may have corrupted the aura of authority that his navy blue uniform and dull tin badge seemed to bear. However, this was to be discovered later, and in reality it was moot because of the intent behind it. This man was by no means a cop; although, he did look almost as bright.

The man in blue answered the question posed--obviously a person of true wit--with, "" Since the question was "how late do the trains run?" he directed his question to the tin badge once again. This time the answer was only slightly more graceful. The tin man said, "they don't run this late." This seemed like an acceptable answer. It was, after all, 3:30 in the morning.

Since it was typical spring weather for this place, his only option was to hail a cab. Spinning the door with his usual vigor (he always loved revolving doors) the air sucked into his quarter of the door reminding him how pleasantly warm the building had been. It was all OK though since there was a cab waiting just outside the door.

"330 West 21st Street,' he said with the kind of conviction that certainly should have precluded the driver's response. The cabby, who looked and spoke like every other of his colleagues asked, "which way should we go?" After the disgust ate clear through his shoes he snapped, "Christ! Take seventh to TWENTYFIRST STREET." He wondered if he still looked like a newcomer and whether there was a God.

With a moderate but noticeable--even to him--squeak, another rush of cool air pushed his plump friend out through the door. Lumbering behind her, apparently full from the feast, the stainless-steel beast had disappeared behind the door just as the wind fell to a newly stagnating suspension of dust-air. He actually looked to be sure she had gone. Only after a few seconds had he realized why he did not have an answer. She had turned off the lights. The entire office was dark excluding his little oasis of light that spilled out to the foot of the closed door. He expected that she had, indeed, stepped out of the world. He was right.

Remembering a joke that had the entire office belting out a flurry of laughter the other day, the thought occurs to him now that it was no longer funny like it seemed to be then.

At that moment he heard something whiz past the window and crash to the ground below. It was pretty large, he guessed, and it sounded like a big bag of wet cement. Without bothering to look, he figured the stainless-steel beast probably pushed his plump swivel-hipped friend out a few floors up. Everyone wants to be free.

A grin shot across his face and quickly faded. The trains run all night! Lots of people die there late. …


Couldn't they just stop it?  The grating screams from outside my secure little nest, cut into my scull. My heart pounded.  I knew, and told myself over and over, that a quick glance through the window would snuff out this horrible noise.  But that made my heart race all the more.  The mere thought of meeting their eyes always shakes me to the core.  And the sounds invading my private place, heinous as they were, paled at the thought of such action.

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So there I sat staring at the backs of my hands as they trembled. Which, come to think of it, wasn't such a bad thing. At least the motion helped blur the deep lines in my pasty white skin. But for sun they would have had the leathery look of an old seaman. Like I have seen in books. Books. The thought attacked my mind that a nice fat book sailed contemptuously through the window would quiet them. And there were plenty around from which to choose. War and Peace would do nicely. But then the thought occurred to me that it would be days before it could be brought back to me. And surely the weather wouldn't be kind. Nothing ever is.

I glanced around for an object of equal symbolism and most importantly weight. Plenty of books: nothing else. No. There was no way I could get that cot through the window. It would have made a nice impression. It might even have instilled the necessary fear. Surely they would have shut up knowing they had infuriated someone enough that it evoked a bed throwing fit. There was nothing else from which to choose? Not even a rock? The bed was not really such a good idea. It would have left me sleeping on the floor once again. I wonder, though, if I didn't consider it at the time because I really did not care.

So there I sat enduring this indignity. A remote island was what I needed most. But they would still have haunted me there. They always did. And it would have made it difficult for the crazy lady to drop bread at my door. And the door, it was one of my favorite creations: a study in simple design and security. No need to worry about the strength of deadbolts. It would have taken quite a lot of force to break through the well secured double door jam, plenty of nails inside and out. It would have taken such a clamor that it would surely provide enough warning for a stealthy escape. And just as certain as I am that they have always plotted such things, I had a plan for escape that would have eluded even the craftiest assailant.

The real strength to that door, however, was the drawer. I never really understood why the crazy lady came. Nor did I know what would have possessed her to leave those assorted tasty morsels. Like I have said, she was crazy. But it is also my earnest suspicion that she and her kind are the majority at least. She did know from the start about the drawer. In a sense, you might even say she was responsible for my having created it. For days after I had secured that door, she would still leave her package. With each passing day, she would replace the old one with the new one and there it would sit. I wondered on occasion if she would just give up. One day, I imagined that she would fail to return and her quaint little basket would sit there for eternity. Or I guess it would rot away. How would I have known? It was my not knowing what would become of her basket that did me in. This is why I crafted the sliding drawer at the foot of the door.

As I mentioned, she figured it out right away. That morning, before the vibrations from her light footsteps were to travel the floorboards and tingle the senses in my feet, I pushed the drawer from the inside until it protruded just far enough through the door so her basket would fit. Then I waited. I remember how the anticipation, of which I was not often seized, affected my place in time. The stuffy air at once had become stifling when only moments ago I had been perfectly acclimatized. This perhaps was my answer. If she had already given up, then time and my place in it would continue to be affected.

However, she had not given up. Without hesitation she merely placed her basket in the drawer. Politely quiet, she carefully slid it back through the door. I suppose she wanted to be sure I knew it was there. What she didn't know is that I could sense her presence long before she arrived and long after she left. Though I tried very hard to consider her a friend (silly use of words, I suppose, since I had never so much as exchanged one syllable with her) her presence every day was as difficult as that of the screamers. At least when she would come by the others would fall silent. While I still sat there staring at my hands, I even thought that maybe it would be nice for her to make an appearance. Silence, even at the expense of her presence, would have been nice. There I was, however, counter-plotting against the screamers.

Though it is hard for me to recall, I am fairly certain they did not always haunt me. At the very least, there was a time when they were barely audible …



Todd Peach
North Palm Beach, FL 33408