by Russ Colson
Nothing like a new gadget to give one a sense of well-being. Jason decided that people fell into three groups, technophiles and those who weren't excited by much of anything. Oh, and then the folks who'd found the one thing better than technology. He kind of envied group number three, but friends were harder to come by, especially the girl kind.
At least gadgets were cool and did what you expected.
Holding his soup bowl with both hands, he cued his new computer implant to the thriller he uploaded yesterday, Horror at Lac Demond. The chip accessed his visual cortex as advertised, and the book appeared, open to the page where he left off.
He began to read, pausing every so often for a spoonful of soup. He had reached the part where the creature raised its muddy head from the dark waters of Lac Demond when a loud knocking came from the window not three feet from the couch where he lay. Several dollops of soup sloshed over
He flapped his wet shirt and checked the storm-darkened window. Deep eyes peered at him from a mottled face. Dark hair tangled in wet snarls around the creature's ears. The remainder of Jason's soup soaked into the carpet as he rolled off the couch to get away from the monster.
He heard the monster shouting after him.
“Wait, please. I need help."
Jason paused at the doorway into the kitchen.
Monsters didn’t usually need help. They didn't usually say please.
They didn't ever escape from books and chase after him. He noticed that the virtual novel hovered a couple of feet in front of his eyes. He laughed under his breath and signaled his implant to put the book away. Odd reaction. He looked with embarrassment back at the window.
Not surprisingly, a young woman--not a monster--peered back at him, her
“I need help!” she repeated, her shout barely audible through the glass. “Can I come in?”
Jason recognized her from the Zenopher Institute. He spoke with her when he had his chip implanted. He even flirted a bit. Remarkably, he remembered her name--Linda.
He smiled and spread his hands apologetically. “Just a minute, I’ll buzz
He winced. Of course she could see the small porch outside the main entrance to the eight-apartment building.
The woman nodded and disappeared.
By the time he buzzed her through and opened his door, she was outside his apartment. She stepped in without waiting for an invitation, glancing furtively over her shoulder as though some real monster pursued from the rain.
She shivered in her wet clothes. Jason waved her to one of the two plastic chairs by the kitchen table. “I’m having an early lunch. Would you like some soup?”
“That would be wonderful.” Her teeth chattered from the cold rain. “I’ve
Jason dipped from the pot on the stove and set a bowl and a spoon before her. Then he stepped from the kitchen to retrieve a light jacket from the closet and wrapped it around her shoulders. “I have some dry clothes, if you’d like them. Although, they're probably a bit large…”
“No, thank you.” She took a spoonful of soup. “I can’t stay.”
Her voice trembled, and she glanced through the doorway toward the
“Why are you…” He paused, unsure how much to pry, and sat down to his own fresh bowl.
"Great soup." Linda's smile smoothed the tension from her face and her appearance changed from plain to pretty.
"Sorry for my reaction to your knock at the window." Jason laughed awkwardly. "I'm not sure what happened. Usually my problem with women is that I don't show enough emotion."
She stopped eating and her smile vanished. "There shouldn't be a fear-feedback with me."
Jason's smile sagged. "What?"
Linda returned to her soup. She finished and pulled the jacket more tightly around her shoulders.
When she didn’t volunteer any reason for arriving at his apartment, Jason prompted, “I, uh, noticed that you were out in the rain.”
She brushed a wet lock of hair off her forehead. “Yes. I can’t go home, and by the time I thought to come here, it was already raining.”
Jason tipped his bowl to extract the last bit of soup. “Why can’t you go home?"
“Someone's trying to kill me."
Jason pushed back his bowl and suppressed an inappropriate urge to laugh. It wasn't often that an attractive young woman burst into his house in the midst of a thunderstorm and announced that someone was trying to kill her. He wondered whether he might still be reading his book by the window, caught up in the seeming reality of it. Perhaps he had spent too many late nights preparing for his Prelims.
“Trying to kill you?” His calm tone sounded surreal even to his own ears. “How do you know?”
She leaned her elbows on the table, allowing the jacket to slip a bit from her shoulders. “Three others were already murdered. Haven’t you heard?”
Jason had indeed heard about the murders on the news. Three murders in four days was a large number of killings for a town of two hundred thousand.
“So, why come here?”
She looked into his eyes, maybe hopeful. Or afraid. “Like me, you're part of the Community."
Jason could hear the capital “C” when she said "Community." He had no idea what she was talking about.
He began to suspect she might need a psychiatrist. He peered through the door between the living room and kitchen trying to spot his telephone, tossed somewhere in a pile of books and papers next to the couch.
“The Community,” she repeated, apparently thinking repetition would dispel his concerns. “Your implant is more than a simple computer. You must have wondered why it didn't cost anything and was available only to those with an IQ over 130.”
He ran his fingers through is short-cut curly hair. “Well, I guess I thought it was a special promotion.”
He'd taken advantage of the Zenopher offer because he wanted rapid access to calculating capacity and data storage for his Prelims. Speaking stuff into an external computer took too long and was rather
Jason started to ask what "more than a computer" meant, but a loud crash in the living room interrupted him. A black, metal football broke through his picture window, bounced a couple of times on the carpet, and came to rest outside the doorway into the kitchen.
A bomb. That would fit his weird morning. A bomb crashing through his window was about as likely as a pretty woman hiding from a killer in his apartment.
He rose from his chair, lifted Linda from hers, and propelled them both toward the back door, which opened onto a patio shared by the first floor renters. Linda was out the door and he was half way through when the bomb exploded.
The fireball wasn't large, not being designed to kill by heat but rather by the metal shards it threw in every direction. Fortunately, the refrigerator protected them from the shrapnel. Jason glanced back at the
So the woman’s belief that someone was trying to kill her wasn't paranoia. Given the tangible reality of the bomb, Jason also jettisoned the hypothesis that he was still lying on his couch reading a book.
Once outside, they leaped down the wooden steps to the stone patio. Fortunately, his judo lessons had kept him in reasonably good shape despite his time in the physics lab. Grabbing Linda's hand, Jason ran
The café bustled with Saturday morning customers driven in by the rain. Jason, whose cell phone lay somewhere in the mess of his apartment--what was left of his apartment--asked the proprietor at the counter for a phone to call the police, but Linda pulled him away, dragging him to the last open table at the back of the café.
They ordered coffee. Once they each had a steaming cup in front of them, Jason asked, "What's going on, and why can't I call the police?"
She leaned close and whispered. "The police might be involved. There are over two thousand people in the Community, and many of them hold positions of authority."
He barely caught her words. He revisited his suspicion that she was paranoid but remembered the bomb and decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. "What's the Community? And who decided I was part of it?"
"Your implant makes you part of it." She tapped her temple. "Like I said, it's more than a direct-access computer. It monitors your viewpoint on any number of issues and communicates that to the other implants. Collectively, the implants establish a potential, a voltage, that reflects the Community consensus."
Jason frowned. He didn't think about privacy issues very often. However, he had presumed the privacy of his own thoughts. "You mean, you people are monitoring my thinking? My opinions?"
Linda reached across the table and laid her hand on Jason's. "I'm not meaning to upset you. You did sign the contract."
He snatched his hand away.
"Nothing goes outside the Institute," Linda insisted. "In fact, except for research purposes, individual contributions needn't be known outside the implant chips of the Community itself. Even participants aren’t
Jason thought that last point was debatable, but now wasn't the time for it. "I don't like having my thoughts monitored, but I don't see why anyone cares what I think. If you're hoping for blackmail, you're going to be pretty disappointed, at least in my case."
"We don't care what you think at all." Seeing Jason's pained reaction, she corrected herself. "That is, we don't care about your individual thoughts so much as the collective thoughts of the Community. Many minds are better than one."
"What kind of viewpoints are you interested in?" Jason considered all the corporate and state secrets that might leak into unauthorized hands, and thought again that his own mind would be pretty slim pickings.
"All kinds of things.” Linda twirled her coffee cup and watched the whirlpool form inside. “What will the stock market do today? How much potential is there for successful development of fusion power? Will
Jason sipped coffee, and then set the cup down a bit hard. "But why this way? Why not simply ask people what they think? Isn't that what polls are for? Or committees?”
Linda shrugged. "Committees and elections reflect the inclination of a view but not how intensely that view is held. In fact, leaders often fake intensity to make their own objectives more likely to be realized.
Her eyes looked past Jason toward the entrance to the café. He felt a tingle at the back of his neck and turned, expecting some new threat. Everyone sat calmly, engaged in their own quiet conversations. No
"I don't want to stay in one place too long," Linda said.
Jason nodded. "Ok, we can go in a minute. I need to know what I'm dealing with first."
"The implants work more like a market than a committee," she continued. "Back at the turn of the millennium, the military experimented with markets--groups of self-interested buyers and sellers--as a means to assess and predict outcomes of political and military situations. They found that markets do a better job at predicting future events or present truths than individuals or committees, even scholarly committees. In a market, each person votes not only their general opinion, but their perception of risk, the potential reward, and their confidence in the outcome."
"So, the implants read enough of a person’s mind to weigh the strength of a belief?" Jason grimaced at the intrusion of privacy.
"The Community weighs each person's subconscious ideas and derives a composite inclination and intensity of view for the Community."
"Which you collect and sell without the knowledge of the participants." Jason rapped the table with his knuckles a few times.
"I had no part in selling the information," Linda said, her tone recoiling from his accusation. "My interest is in research, in the whole concept of group thinking and how it can be stronger than an individual's thinking."
"Aha. And so that makes you innocent."
Linda didn't answer for a moment. She started to reach her hand over to his again but gripped her coffee cup instead. "Well, innocent or not, if you don't help me, my participation may cost my life."
Jason frowned. "Well, okay. Let's forget for now whether secretly collecting and selling people's thoughts is right or wrong. What help do you need?"
Linda took a deep breath and the grip on her coffee cup relaxed. "You used to work for Aerus Security Agency, right?"
"Still do. My graduate fellowship doesn't quite cover all the bills."
"You installed the system at the Institute."
"Yeah, it's how I learned about the free implants. Thought it was a lucky break at the time." He snorted.
"Do you still have access? I mean to the video monitors."
"I suppose my installation code is still in the main computer. In case we need to do an upgrade." He noticed Linda watching the doorway again and glanced over his shoulder. Two men came in. One of them shook the water off an umbrella, spraying customers at a nearby table.
"Let's get out of here," Linda said, rising.
"And go where?" He rose, and, leaving his half-full cup reluctantly, tossed a few dollars on the table.
A news report was running behind the counter as they made their way toward the exit. The commentator reported the destruction of a neighborhood apartment by an anti-personnel bomb. They froze and watched for a moment. “No body was found in the apartment, and the police are searching for the occupant.” A small picture of Jason appeared in the corner of the screen. “A fourth murder victim has just been reported in the two thousand block on the south side of town. Police report no obvious link among the victims, and the murders seem to occur at random all over the city. It's likely that we have a serial killer.”
Four murders. Five days.
"I noticed a bus stop at the corner," Linda said. "Can you get Internet access at the University?"
"I can log you into the Institute computers from there. I hope you can access the security videos." She didn't seem to be asking a question, and Jason followed her out without answering.
It was raining hard again. They ran to the small shelter offered at the bus stop. It was packed, an indication that the bus might be due soon, and they pressed into opposite ends to wait. The bus arrived and they found a seat together.
"The security cameras are all on a forty-eight hour loop." Jason ran his fingers through his hair to stop the water dripping into his eyes.
Linda shrugged. "Maybe it's enough."
Jason had the window seat and watched the people outside scrambling to stay dry as they ran between cars and buildings or sloshed wet-footed under an umbrella. He wondered if any of them were murderers.
“Why would anyone want to kill you?" He noticed that she was watching the streets too. Probably wondering the same as him.
"A lot of money depends on what the Community decides." She leaned toward him, and he felt the warm pressure of her shoulder against his. "There are winners and losers of stock market bets. Nations and corporations may rise or sink because of actions spurred by some prediction made by the Community. This is big stuff. Sometimes, the Community has no strong leaning one way or another on some viewpoint. In those cases, the Community decision, the decision that we sell to governments and industry, can be tipped one way or another by changes in the viewpoints of only a few of the Community members. I think someone is getting rid of opposing viewpoints."
"I thought you said no one knows which views an individual holds." A thread of water tickled the back of his neck, but he ignored it, not wanting to disrupt the rather pleasant contact with Linda. "How could the murderer take action based on information he doesn’t have?”
She waved a hand, palm up, as puzzled as he. "No one but me is supposed to know. But all three of the murder victims held a majority viewpoint on a significant national security matter. Those killed held the view at the strongest intensity, making their deaths particularly significant. I'm in the majority on this too. I need to find out how someone other than me has gained access to this information."
"Explaining why you want to see the security videos."
He noticed the curve of her ear just inches way. A lock of black hair curled around it like a crescent Moon. “Do you suspect anyone in particular?”
She shook her head. “No. I've not had time. My first thought was to learn who I can trust.”
Jason looked out the window again, watching the red and green street lights playing on the wet pavement. He glanced back at Linda. "Why trust me?"
She laughed nervously and looked down at her hands. "I guess I liked you when we met at the Institute. And I knew your address."
Jason puzzled over that for a second. “How did you happen to know my address?”
Her face flushed. "It's in the database."
He decided not to press further on that question, feeling flattered. “How did you know I wasn’t the murderer?”
“I didn't…I don't. But, with two thousand members, the odds of you being the bad guy were small. I needed an ally, someone who could pick up on…" She fell silent rather suddenly as they came up to their
They entered the physics building where Jason had his office, and Linda put a hand on his arm. "So how do you feel about me choosing to trust you?"
"Well, good, I guess." He gave a short laugh. "I think if I were the bad guy I'd say the same thing though. How do you feel about it?"
Linda frowned and looked away, her hand slipping from his arm. "Feel? Not so good. But it thinks like the right thing. If you feel good, then that should be okay."
Her face work through whatever puzzle her words reflected. Clearly, she hadn't told him everything. He hoped she shared it soon. He wanted to trust her. He wanted to help.
It took Linda several minutes to log onto the Institute computers, and it took several more minutes for Jason to access the correct security camera footage. They scanned the security video together. During the forty eight hours covered by the loop, Linda had used the computer several times. No one else had.
"So, he didn't access it," Linda said under her breath, watching the screen over Jason's shoulder.
Jason felt a twinge of jealousy. Ridiculous. "You were married?"
"Boyfriend. He's the only one other than me who's supposed to see the member list. He has the other half of the code to give me full access to the data. I didn't want to try to get it from him until I knew…well, until I knew he wasn't the killer."
"Must have been a rough breakup."
Linda shrugged and straightened, taking the warmth of her breath from where it had been brushing against his cheek. "We were together two years, but I didn't really know him."
Jason shut down the monitor and stood. Another troubling thought occurred to him. "You know, if the data is private enough to require two passwords, it seems like it isn't supposed to be accessed. Why do you
Linda started walking toward the exit. "If I can get full access, I might be able to figure out if anyone inside the Community is involved."
“If the Community opinion is as influential as you say, then the killer could be anyone,” Jason observed, walking close on her right. “Why would you think it might be someone within the Community?”
“Whoever the killer is, he knows a lot about his victims." She gave him a nervous glance. "For example, how did he know that I went to your apartment? I think he must have access to the Community internal
"Well, where do we find your ex?" He pushed open the door and held it for her. The rain had diminished to a slow drip.
"Andy. He lives near the Institute. We'll have to take the bus again."
The wait at the bus stop was longer this time, but they had the shelter to themselves. The ride to Andy's apartment took twenty minutes. Linda led them up the stairs and knocked on the door.
"It's open." The voice was pitched rather high and impatient. They pushed open the door and stepped into a small but nicely decorated apartment.
Linda smiled faintly, almost shy. "Hi, Andy."
Andy was headed toward the door, apparently deciding at the last minute
Linda launched into their purpose without preamble. "Somebody's trying to change something with the Community. They're killing people. I need your half of the code so I can figure out who." Her words sounded weird and unlikely even to Jason's ears.
"Yeah, sure." Andy flopped down in a chair and cocked his head at her. "What're you wanting now, Linda?"
Her voice got tight and stern. "People are dying, Andy. Haven't you heard the news? The victims are part of the Community. All of them."
"Hmmm. Then why hasn't there been anything in the news about the Institute?" Andy steepled his fingers and gazed at her skeptically.
Linda spread her hands impatiently. "The police might not know, Andy. The Institute implants don't look much different from others. I've checked the victims against our list. They're all ours."
"Huh." Andy looked thoughtful for a moment, then stood. "Okay. I'll get it. But, it's your responsibility, not mine." He went into one of the back rooms, muttering.
Linda stepped into the small kitchen and ran her fingers over the checkered curtains covering the window over the sink. She smiled and spoke when Andy returned. "I see you still use the curtains I made."
He glanced over. "Oh, yeah. Haven't taken them down yet. Don't worry, I'll get 'em back to you."
Linda's smile faded. "No, that's okay. I didn't mean…"
"Here's the code. This better not be another one of your boondoggles or were both in trouble."
"It's not, Andy," she said flatly.
Andy sat back in his chair and clicked off the mute on his wall monitor. He was watching an old sitcom from a decade before. He seemed not to notice as they prepared to leave.
Linda turned back at the door. "You want to go with us?"
He didn't look over. "Nah. You're overreacting, as usual. Just don't get me in trouble."
They closed the door behind them.
"I think I see why you left him." Jason followed her down the stairs.
Linda reached the bottom before answering. She didn't bother to turn around. "I didn't leave. He kicked me out."
She stopped by a small fountain in the quadrangle between the apartments. Jason came up beside her and put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay. It's been almost a year." She forced a brief smile. Jason nodded. "Where now?"
"The Institute. We can walk from here."
She cut across the grass toward an office building rising above the trees to the south. The rain had stopped and spears of sunlight pierced the clouds here and there.
"You plan to access individual implant data files?" Jason asked.
Linda slowed and looked at him keenly. “Yes. How do you feel about that?”
Jason shrugged. “I think it’s the best we can do. We have to do something.”
Linda shook her head. “No. How do you feel?”
She emphasized the word “feel”. Jason wondered if this was one of those
She nodded and her pace quickened. “Then, let’s go."
"So, what happened?" he asked after they walked a ways in silence.
She kept her eyes ahead. "What happened when?"
"With you and Andy."
She walked faster. "I guess he got tired of me."
He watched her for a moment until she felt his gaze and glanced at him. "You seeing other people yet?" he asked.
She smiled faintly. "Been too busy."
Her smile seemed encouraging, but the moment passed and he answered with
She walked about twenty steps more and spoke again. "Despite what you think, I really believe in what we're doing at the Institute. We can fix this problem."
"It's a bit more than a problem, isn't it?"
She didn't answer.
The Zenopher building was closed for the weekend, but Linda’s card provided access. They took the stairs to the third floor where the secure computers were housed.
Several times Jason thought he heard footsteps pattering along the stairs below them. Once, he laid a hand on Linda's arm and stopped to listen, but the sound vanished. Remembering his anticipation of a killer at the cafe--who never appeared--Jason dismissed his concern as nervous
They exited the stairwell on the third floor and entered a long, unlit, hallway. Linda seemed to know her way, so Jason grabbed the back of her blouse for guidance and followed into the darkness.
The fire door behind them clicked open and shut, the sound echoing loudly through the otherwise silent hallway. They heard a male voice cursing softly, apparently angry at the noise. Jason whispered for Linda to go on ahead and find the lights. He ducked into one of the alcoves off the hallway and waited.
When he heard the soft steps of their pursuer outside the alcove, he threw himself outward, arms spread, knocking the guy across the hallway and into the far wall. Jason tried to throw him with a simple foot
The man lay under Jason's knees, his right arm firmly locked into Jason's chest. The guy was burly, and Jason felt glad he hadn't been able to see anything during the struggle. He would have realized how
"You know him?" Jason asked from his semi-seated position behind the prone man.
Linda shook her head.
"What are you doing here?" Jason asked.
"I ain't gotta tell you that."
"Who were you planning to kill?" Jason hoped to startle the man into a confession.
He gave a frightened look at Linda then peered at Jason around his leg. "I don't know nuthin'. I got a phone call and money. Said he wanted things made even."
"Things made even?" Jason looked at Linda. "You know what that means?"
Linda shrugged. "Maybe even up the viewpoint potentials?"
"But merely making things even wouldn't shift the consensus, would it?"
Focused on thinking, Jason got careless with his armlock. The man flexed his right arm, digging his elbow into Jason's chest. He threw Jason's leg off his neck. In a moment, he was standing, handgun alternating
The man watched them for a moment, then muttered, "Yer lucky you ain't the ones I come for. Maybe next time."
He ran to the fire door and clattered back down the stairs. Jason and Linda listened until the sound faded away.
As professional killers went, Jason felt glad they ran into this one and not one of those super-ninja types he'd seen in movies. Those never left witnesses.
"Should we follow?" Jason asked.
Linda shook her head. "We need to find out what's going on. Who's behind this."
Jason nodded, following her down the hall to the computer lab. Jason watched as she logged into the Community net through the secure computer.
Linda scanned through several billion individual inclinations and viewpoint intensities communicated among the implants before pointing out five people with unusual spikes in the last few days. "I think these spikes are important. Rapid changes in basic viewpoint are rare. Factual knowledge can change quickly, but deeper stuff, understandings and beliefs, are a lot more stable."
Jason peered at the columns of data over her shoulder. "So, who do we start with?"
She pointed to the record of one of the five. "The most recent spike occurred overnight to Mike Ven. He's a Colonel in the National Guard. He might have had access to military weapons."
"Yeah. Of the five, how do you feel about pursuing the Colonel first?” She turned her head slightly to look at him over her shoulder, bringing her face quite close to his.
“Well, I guess I feel good about it.” That he felt good about anything, given recent events, surprised him.
She nodded and stood. “Good. Let's speak to him. He’s at the First National Bank where he works. That’s only five blocks away.”
They left the building and turned south toward the bank, veering away from a crowd of people and emergency vehicles gathering outside the main entrance to the Institute.
They crossed the street and turned left toward a cluster of high buildings. Jason debated which he liked least, unanswered questions or possible tension with Linda. He decided the former. “What’s the deal
Linda continued walking at a brisk pace, not speaking for a moment. “There’s another component to the Community that I haven’t told you about.”
“Uh huh.” Unconsciously, he began tapping the side of his leg with his knuckles.
“It’s troubling that groups of people are only marginally smarter than individuals,” Linda continued. “That isn’t true for other societies, the bees, the ants, even the community of cells inside our own brains. The composite in each of those cases is much smarter than the individual.”
Her walking slowed as she talked. Jason checked behind to see if he needed to hurry her along. He didn't see anyone following, or any shadowy figures loitering along the street. He hoped that ants and bees
“Take the harvester ants." She cut to the right at an intersection, bumping into him briefly. “A few simple ant brain-sized rules result in colony dynamics and decisions that are more sophisticated and smarter than the brain of an individual ant can accommodate. For example, an individual ant might think ‘If I meet three successful returning foragers in the next thirty seconds then I should go out foraging too.’ Collectively, this simple rule allows the colony to influence the decisions of individual ants and to correctly allocate resources toward foraging, depending on the colony needs and the local availability of food.”
They were still two blocks from the bank. Jason waited for Linda to continue, but she fell silent. He spotted a young couple in a park across the street. They were laughing, watching their dogs play within the confines of an electric leash. Friendship and technology together, doing what it was supposed to do. Jason envied them.
“And this bears on the Community…how?”
“The implants can do more than communicate individual inclinations and
It took a couple of steps for the implications of her words to sink in. “You mean, you're brainwashing me?”
“It’s not brainwashing.” Linda snapped her head in irritation. “It’s simply a feedback that allows the Community to be linked into a single composite mind. When our views are aligned with a composite view of the
“That’s…sick,” Jason commented as they approached the bank.
“It's not sick,” she insisted. “If we can create a community, a nation, that's not limited by the intellect of individual leaders, not limited by an election system that counts all votes as equal regardless of how intensely the voter feels, then we can be a better, smarter people. The ants have no leaders at all, yet together they act more wisely than the thinking capacity of individual ants would seem to allow. We can do that too.”
"And what other games are you playing with people's brains you haven't told me yet?" He spoke more harshly than he intended.
She had tears in her eyes. "Look, I know it looks bad now, but good can come from my work too."
Jason felt guilty at his harshness. Who was to say what bad things might come from his own research? He put his arm around her shoulders. "Okay. We'll worry about that later. Right now, we need to stop any more killings."
They arrived at the bank and found Colonel Mike Ven in a third floor vice presidential office. Jason and Linda walked in past the secretary's attempted interception.
Mike’s frightened and furtive look confirmed his guilt. “I didn’t know how it would be used,” he said abruptly before either of them spoke. “I didn’t know.”
“What are you talking about?” Jason asked.
Mike stood up and then sat down again. He shifted some papers on his desk. “I recognize you from the news.” His voice shook. “I saw what the bomb did to your apartment. I didn’t know how they would use it. Someone called, asking for the grenade. I left it on the bridge over the river
“What did you think it might be used for?” Jason asked, angry and disbelieving. “What legal use could anyone have for it?”
“I…I didn’t think. The idea of not giving the caller what he asked for was too frightening. I had to do it. I only gave him one.”
Jason shook his head in disbelief. "How can you…why…" He ground to a halt.
Linda pressed her lips together in thought. She seemed more puzzled than frightened. “I don’t understand how anyone could interfere with the reward/suppression feedback. Although the Zenopher computers can read the potentials formed within the implants, they can’t influence them. The potentials are set entirely within the communication loop of the implants themselves, and nothing outside can have any effect…” Her voice faded away.
“What are you talking about?” asked Mike.
Jason waved him to silence. He looked at Linda, muscles of his jaw pulsing.
“Apparently, somebody found a way to do it. Have you asked yourself why you have so little emotional reaction? Maybe you're under the same influence. When you do stuff like this, and keep it secret, you can’t
Mike straightened the keyboard on his desk. “Five people,” he corrected. “A fifth murder was reported outside the Zenopher Institute. One of the directors.”
Linda’s face went ashen. “Who? Did they say?”
“Jacony, or something like that.”
“Dr. Jake Onay. But, that’s impossible.”
“Why impossible?” Jason asked.
“He’s not one of those in the majority view, not one of those at risk. It doesn’t make sense.”
A new idea stirred in Jason’s thoughts. He felt good about it. It must have the approval of the collective mind.
“It doesn’t make sense unless you had the wrong idea from the start,” he said. “Maybe this whole tipping-the-balance-of-the-Community-viewpoint thing was a smoke screen to make you think that some person had a vested interest in the murders. Maybe it isn’t a person behind the killings at all.”
“What do you mean?” Jason saw fear in her eyes. Glancing at Mike, he saw the same fear.
“Maybe it’s the implants themselves,” Jason answered, “The killer may be the Community itself. It explains the access to private data. It explains how fear could be used to bring Mike to act in a way
“But the Community is us," Linda said. “Not some machine. If there was an intellect arising from our interaction, we’d know about it.”
“Would we?” asked Jason. “Do you suppose that a cell in your brain is aware of your existence? Is an ant aware of the behavior of the swarm of which it's a part?”
Linda shook her head in disbelief. “It can’t be right. Our fear indicates this view is a minority one. The Community itself rejects it.”
Jason snorted. “That’s not what I’m getting. I’m getting a full-speed-ahead good feeling.”
“But, that’s impossible,” Linda repeated. “We can’t get different feedback from the same question.”
“Clearly, we can." Jason frowned, puzzled. "If you thought that our reactions had to be the same, why did you keep asking how I felt?"
Linda ran her fingers through her dark hair, still damp from the morning rain. "I knew something was wrong with my feedback loop. Some urges didn't make sense. I didn't know which I could trust."
"I'm glad you realized something was wrong." Jason glanced coldly at Mike. "The key issue now is, how can we shut down the Community before it does more harm?”
Linda shook her head. “There's no way to shut it down. Not without removing the implants one by one. We might cut off the satellite relay, but that would only affect those outside local transmission distance. A
“Then what can we do? Before we’re all dead?”
“We are the Community,” Linda said. “The Community mind can't differ from the sum of its parts. Maybe we can change the Community potentials if we tell everyone what went wrong. But we need to know what went wrong, why our composite consciousness, if that’s what this is, would
“Okay, how do we find that out?”
“I need to get back to the Institute.” She didn’t look at all happy about that prospect.
“Is there some problem?”
“I'm afraid. This can’t be the right choice.” She took a step closer to him and shuddered.
“It feels right to me.” Jason placed a hand on her back to help her get started. “Let’s go.”
Linda pointed a finger at Mike still seated at his desk. "Look. Don't do any more stupid stuff without thinking. The Community can make you afraid, but it can't make you do anything you don't want to do."
Mike grimaced and nodded, and Jason and Linda left.
Once she reached the Institute computers, it didn’t take Linda long to identify the problem in the Community.
"Look here." She pointed at a long column of numbers. "Five days ago, the number of contributors to the Community composite viewpoint dropped from 2100 to 1076. I didn't notice the discrepancy before because I didn't bother to count. I assumed the composite reflected the full Community."
Jason waited a moment for her to explain. When she didn't, he asked, "What happened to the other thousand and twenty-four?"
"I don't know yet." She panned down pages of numbers arranged in rows and columns which, without knowing the column headings or who each record represented, meant nothing to Jason.
"Look." She pointed again at a seemingly arbitrary subset of the columns of numbers. "There's a second composite report, with a thousand twenty-four contributors. And this one…" She leaned forward to look at
"What does that mean?"
"It means that since five days ago, one day before the first murder, there have been two Communities rather than one. The two Communities interact among their respective members on separate loops."
"Two Communities," Jason said. "The thing's reproducing."
"All the murders occurred in the larger of the two, the parent if you will. The smaller Community, the daughter, apparently hoped to decrease the population in the other. I bet that's what the hit man meant about evening things up.”
She looked at Jason. “Mike and I are part of a rogue Community. That explains why we were afraid of your ideas. They threatened the rogue, and it triggered a reaction.”
She paused. “This also suggests that I was not the target of the murder attempt at your apartment. You were. The rogue had no motive to kill me.”
The implications struck Jason a moment later. “So, if you hadn’t thought yourself in danger, and got me off the couch by coming to my apartment, I'd probably be dead."
"It might also explain my over-reaction to your appearance at the window this morning," Jason said. "My Community recognized you as part of the rogue."
"But later, you felt good about working with me," Linda observed.
Jason nodded. "Once I and the Community figured out that you were one of the good guys. So, how do we stop this thing?”
"The rogue is made up of its members. I think if we let everyone know what's going on, tell them to resist emotional urges that aren't consistent with logical ones, we can take away the rogue's power to act. If we refuse to act, it has no way to do any more harm. That's probably why it's worked indirectly, using susceptible members of its Community to contact criminals who do the real dirty work."
"Can you communicate from here?"
Linda bit her lip. "I could have. But the connection with the broadcast room has been sabotaged."
Jason laughed grimly. "Are we going to be able to outthink your rogue Community?"
"The broadcast room is on the top floor. I can link-in my pocket computer and reprogram a message into everyone's implant from there."
Linda typed something into the computer and then ran toward the door. Jason followed.
"What if the rogue anticipated this plan as well?"
"It can't do anything we don't do for it." Linda panted as she took the stairs up. "We don't have to out-think the rogue. We only have to convince people to stop doing its work."
The broadcast room was in shambles, key communication consoles destroyed. The young operator sat quietly in his chair, a large hammer in his hand. Linda stopped abruptly, her mouth sagging in dismay. "What have you done?"
He looked at her blankly. "I, uh, I felt someone was going to hurt the
Linda grabbed his face in both hands and forced him to look into her eyes. "Listen to me, Billy. Something's wrong with the Community. You can't trust feelings. Think! Does this make any sense?" She dropped his
Billy shook his head slowly. "No. But it felt right. I thought I had to."
Linda gave him an angry push and he spun around in his chair. She turned toward Jason. "I can still send the message from the antenna on the roof. It has its own power supply and computer to insure that Community links aren't lost during an outage."
"I've hired guards," Billy said, stopping Linda halfway to the door.
"Then call them off!" Jason snapped in exasperation.
"I don't think they'd listen. They aren't regular security people."
"Who are they?" Linda asked.
"I hired a local gang. They aren't going to let anyone up there. Even me."
"Why would you hire a gang to guard anything?" Jason's fist hammered against the side of his leg.
Billy looked more confused than sheepish. "It, uh, felt right."
"Did it think right?" Jason shouted.
Billy didn't answer.
"What about phones?" Linda asked. "Can we call the police?"
"Not from the building," Billy said. "We're broadcasting an interference signal."
"Billy, I want you to go wherever you have to and call the police, tell them to get here as soon as possible. And Billy, don't pay attention to feelings, okay?"
Billy nodded and left.
"You trust him to get the police?" Jason asked, feeling helpless. "Why don't we go?"
"We need to get the message out as soon as possible." She called up a schematic of the roof on her pocket computer and showed him the arrangement. "I think we can take out the guards."
Jason wasn't hopeful. "Sure we can--an armed group of thugs, and us with nothing but our bare hands and a hammer."
"Um. Yeah." She put her pocket computer away and picked up the hammer that Billy had dropped by the chair when he left.
Jason continued his protest as she headed for the door. "And neither of us has any military training or knowledge of police work."
She opened the door and turned to wait for him. "But some in the Community do."
He followed reluctantly. "How does that help?"
"The feedback. We can try out ideas and see what the Community thinks. How many are up there?"
"How would I…" A multitude of possibilities flashed through his mind. He felt good about some of them--feedback from the Community. Lag time was scarcely noticeable, and in moments he gained a feeling of confidence in certain answers. "Not more than three. Probably only one.
She grabbed his arm and pulled him through the door. "How armed?"
This time Jason waited a moment before attempting to answer. "Probably hand gun only."
"Best option?" Linda asked.
"How long will it take to send the message?"
"Two minutes. I'll tell everyone about the rogue and to not trust urges that don't make sense. That they should contact the police about any odd things they've already done."
"I think I can keep one guy busy for two minutes," Jason said. "Where's that hammer?"
Linda's card opened the door to the roof. Jason dove through, the hammer tucked close to his body, his eyes scanning for shelter. The antenna lay to his left beside a small building that probably housed the power supply and spare computer. The single guard, scarcely more than a kid, stood at the edge of the roof ahead, gazing over the city. To Jason's right lay a maze of air handlers and guy wires. He shouted to draw the guard's attention and ran into the partial shelter of the air handlers. The guard followed.
Jason ran through a narrow runway between two large air ducts, turned right, then left, and stopped, panting, just past a sharp bend in the ducts. Here, the guard couldn't shoot him without getting within distance of his hammer.
Or, so he thought. A shot rang out and gravel spattered up at his feet. Looking down, he realized that the air ducts were ten centimeters off the roof. The guard could see his feet.
Jason ran another twenty meters, turned left again, and leaped up on a narrow ledge formed where two ducts ran parallel at different levels. He was about two and a half meters above the roof, not easily visible to
In a few moments, he heard crunching gravel. When the steps were directly below, he rolled over and swung the hammer. The guard spotted him, but the hammer was a bit quicker than his gun. The guard fell
Jason jumped down and picked up the gun. He tucked it under his belt and dragged the man through the ducts toward the antenna. Linda was emerging from the small auxiliary building. She looked at the guard in surprise.
"Just knocked out. Did you get it sent?"
"How will we know if it's working?"
"I'm monitoring the Community potentials," Linda said, waving her pocket computer at him. "I set the computer downstairs to send a local signal to my pocket computer."
"How long will it take?"
She looked at the screen and keyed in a few commands. "I don't see any more of those spikes. If everyone got the message, there shouldn't be any more murders."
"Good." Jason dropped the guard who slumped to the gravel.
Linda punched in a few more commands. "There's another thing happening that I didn't expect."
She spoke distractedly, a researcher's curiosity in her voice. “I think the rogue is already merging back into the main Community. Composite potentials are re-converging. Our message, along with all the murders, must be causing the rogue Community loop to oppose its own existence. By tomorrow, there'll only be a single Community again.”
Jason breathed a sigh of relief. Neither of them spoke for a moment. They still had explanations to provide the police. They still had to inform the other members of the Community of everything that happened.
The police collected the gang member and confiscated data from the Community computers. Both Jason and Linda gave brief statements. The police let them go about five o'clock--with the understanding that they would provide additional information at a later time--and they headed for the exit on the first floor.
Jason felt he needed time to process. He didn't know any of the victims personally, but their link to the Community, his Community, made him feel a personal loss. What's more, he had to make sure this kind of thing didn't happen again. For him, that began with Linda.
“How about an ice cream cone?" He held the glass door open for her. "I saw an old fashioned ice cream place down the street. We could chat about whether I should get this chip out of my head.”
She smiled, and brushed past him. “I’d love to."
The storm had cleared, and the late afternoon sun lit the sidewalk, trees, and buildings in a sharp yellow glow. He thought about taking her hand, but felt that a bit too bold. “I think I understand better than I
"No, of course not." She took a breath and let it out in a long sigh. “But, it’s not a mistake to experiment. Our mistake was in keeping it secret. If Mike and the others had understood what was happening, none
“Can it?” Jason didn't catch her eye, but his doubt came out in his tone. "I share your optimism in science, but I’m not sure I share your faith in people. A rogue Community mind will arise again, and next time,
“It's a concern.” A faint frown revealed her resistance to the idea. “I wonder why the original Community mind chose to split itself into two parts to begin with? Surely it realized that, in becoming two entities,
Jason gave her a sidelong, thoughtful look.
"Maybe it was lonely."
Swarm Mentality, fiction, March 1, 2010
Russ Colson lives with his wife, Mary, on a farmstead in northern Minnesota, far enough from city lights to see the Milky Way and the aurora borealis. He teaches planetary science, meteorology, and geology at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Before coming to Minnesota, he worked at the Johnson Space Center in Texas and at Washington University in St. Louis where, among other things, he studied how a lunar colony might mine oxygen from the local rock. He writes a variety of speculative fiction and non-fiction pieces appearing in Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine, Clarkesworld Magazine, and others.
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