The Hacker and the Ants

Chapter Thirteen

by John Walker
June 6th, 1994
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Monday, June 15th, a week after Jerzy Rugby walked out of jail to resume his new and improved robot- and ant-free life, Kay Coolidge was sitting in the departure lounge at San Francisco International, waiting to board the 7:30 Swissair flight to Geneva. She was about halfway through the International Herald Tribune when her briefcase began to beep. Retrieving her portable phone, she raised the antenna and answered, as always, “Who the hell is it?”.

“It's Roger. How's it going?”

“Jesus, Roger, what's the rush?”, Kay hissed, “You're crazy to use the phone.”

“Not this phone—Riscky's made a few special enhancements to the cryp chip. It's as safe as whisperin' in the cistern. You got all the paperwork cleaned up?”

“Yeah,” Kay replied quietly, “after we got the certified death certificate from the Swiss coroner, we filed the will with the court yesterday. They say it's just a matter of a week or so before the estate transfers to the offshore trust.”

“Dead at last!” said Roger, “I thought I'd never live to see the day”. Roger was in his cyberspace office, seated on a dark wooden throne facing the great hearth where a cellular automata flame rule burned, throwing off sparks that flashed through the visible spectrum and exploded in coruscating flashes of white light. Before him, balanced on its hind legs and thick, sinuous tail, a four metre crocodile with tooth-encrusted jaws and horrid, drooling tongue enunciated Kay's every word. Years ago Roger had posted a little hack to the net called Animal Magnetism which lets you replace somebody's tux with any creature you like. It was a fad for awhile, though today it appealed mostly to pimple-faced proto-nerds—and Roger.

Roger admired how evocatively the voice-stress analyser module made the crocodile's eye-bumps arch and thrashed the tail as Kay's voice returned to the tone with which Roger was most acquainted. “Roger, how could you do all this to Jerzy? He was one of your best friends! He could have been killed. He could have been locked up for the rest of his life.”

“Well, he wasn't, was he?”, asked Roger, cocking his head ironically at the crocodile, not realising the gesture would be lost on Kay, portable phones being sorely limited in the transmission of body language. “In fact, I'd say Jerzy's much better off for his recent adventures. Coupla months ago he was a wage slave hacker at GoMotion, so deep in the code he'd never make manager. He was so screwed up over Carol leaving him he could hardly even hack. Now he's got a 18 megabuck miniseries deal with Fox…”

“Where did you hear that?”, Kay broke in.

“Riscky just cy-mailed me; Susan told him they signed the final contract this afternoon. I was just on to the GoMotion lawyers, and they're ready to settle Jerzy's suit out of court for 11 million. That should keep him in Chardonnay and croissants for a while, even after Susan and the lawyers take their kilo of flesh.”

“But Roger,” Kay screeched (the crocodile flared its nostrils and blew steam at Roger), “that money's coming from GoMotion, your own company!”

Roger continued, “GoMotion have too much cash for their own good anyway. Better pay it to Jerzy than blow it buying back their own stock. Now Kay, when you come into Switzerland, be sure to use the Ivory Coast passport and get the entry stamp at the airport on the page with your immigration visa. Then we can put through your residence permit later this week.”

“Not so fast,” Kay interjected, “Let's go back to Jerzy's visit. Gretchen told me his story. It was really gruesome—a big hole in your throat, ants cutting up your face, and falling down the elevator shaft. What really happened?”

“Pretty much what I planned, until that klutz Jerzy fell down and dragged me out of the elevator. I don't know why he didn't just climb into the cabin to see the empty vessel that once held the late lamented Roger Coolidge. Fortunately, when he dragged me out, the plastic ants had already started to attack him, so I was able to get away into the shaft before he got a close look at the horror makeup from the Theatre Arts department at the Uni in Lausanne. I landed pretty hard, but in a crouch, and I was able to stretch out face down before Jerzy could get a closer look.”

“But the explosion, the fire,…”, said Kay.

“Don't you see, Kay,” Roger explained, “the whole Final Battle was totally cyber. Riscky and I programmed it from the ground up a couple of weeks ago. Fortunately Riscky was watching from his car deck and managed to put my tux in the bottom of the elevator shaft before Jerzy and the kids got there. The fisheye camera was my idea—it was just an anamorphed black and white rendering of the robot lab cyberspace. I figured anything that crude would sucker Jerzy into thinking it was real. Hee hee, worked like a champ. I didn't expect the kids to butt in; that really pushed the cybersim—I'd counted on Jerzy taking a lot longer to solve the D&D office; he's such a lame-o gamer. The plastic ants were a nice touch, even though they were really just robots driven by the computer in the factory. They kept Jerzy from looking too closely at what was going on.”

“Roger, what about the God-damned explosion!”

“Okay, okay. A flash-bang practice grenade I tossed out the window of the robot lab when they set off the acetone made a nice convincing ker-whump.”

“Where on Earth did you get a grenade?”, Kay asked, increasingly exasperated, the crocodile's tail beginning to whip back and forth menacingly.

“This is Switzerland,” Roger replied, “everybody has an arsenal in their basement. I just went over to the neighbor's and borrowed one. Told him I wanted to get rid of a gopher. So Jerzy went home convinced of the horrible demise of Roger Coolidge. Then I went to the cantonal authorities and explained that having a man about to be blamed for wrecking television taking refuge in their canton might be poor PR, so why not take advantage of the little mix-up about my being dead and go along with the story? Of course my death would mean my estate would have to pay them an inheritance tax of about 3 million francs. I'm sure that made the fib go down a bit more smoothly.”

“So now you're dead, and I just disappear,” said Kay.

“Yup, right off the scope. And, incidentally, off the rolls of the IRS and the California tax nazis.”, Roger replied, “The house and factory get sold next week to Jean-Michel and Véronique Rankine, citizens of the Ivory Coast, recently granted work permits for the Lausanne office of GoMotion as managers of Iron Camel marketing for North Africa.”

“Namely you and me,” Kay said, “which is why we made that day trip to Abidjan last year. But everybody in Saint-Cergue will know we're the same people.”

“Yes,” Roger noted, “but they are Swiss. They mind their own business. Nobody else will ever find out. Besides, we haven't broken any Swiss law I can think of, so if worst comes to worst, we could never be extradited.”

Kay thought about this for a few seconds. “Roger,” she continued, “I'm worried about Jerzy. He quit his job at West West, and he told Gretchen he didn't want to hack any more. I think he might be going all New Age goopy or something.”

“Don't worry, Kay, he's a hacker. He can no more stay away from code than a California slug can pass up a fresh dog turd. Money may eliminate the need to work, but nothing can assuage the need to hack.”

“I know,” Kay sighed, the crocodile's long snout rising to the vaulted ceiling of the Great Hall, its eyes rolling in the same direction.

Roger leaned forward, “And he's finally put Carol behind him, gotten back together with the kids, and found a new flame in Gretchen. Vinh told me last night Jerzy still wants to date his sister Nga. It's like he's a new Jerzy.”

“Roger, you own a million shares of GoMotion stock. Why did you send Jerzy to West West? You handed over all your own work to a sleazy competitor,” Kay said.

“I fed him some bullshit about breeding robots, but the real reason was that if West West didn't have ROBOT.LIB and Jerzy's a-life algorithms, the Adze would end up like Choreboy, except Adze is plenty strong and fast enough to be a hell of an axe murderer. The bad publicity would kill the market for all personal robots, including the Veep. Then there'd be all kinds of governmental safety regulations, even for kits, and that could wipe out the whole business. So, you see Kay, I had to get Jerzy into West West so Adze would work, even though it will compete with the Veep.”

“You didn't have to wreck television to do that,” Kay noted. The crocodile began to pace the floor in front of Roger.

“No, you're right, though it was part of the reason,” Roger replied. “I didn't want to wreck TV, I just wanted to borrow it for a few days. More than 98% of the computing power on Earth is in DTV chips now. Letting the ants run loose around the world was the only way I could speed up their evolution. Using all the DTV chips at once made the ants evolve 100 million times faster than just using the chips in the GoMotion ant lab.”

Kay broke in, “Evolve to do what?”

“Well, for one thing to make the Veep smart enough to blow the Adze out of the market. They're jumping in with a Precambrian level of evolution, and we're going to blow them away with Cretaceous brains. But the real reason is the moonrats,” Roger concluded, satisfied with himself.

“And what the hell are moonrats?”, Kay asked, her obvious irritation expressed in the crocodile's brandishing its huge, filthy teeth centimetres from Roger's face. For once Roger was glad he'd never installed a smell card in his deck.

She'd taken the bait. Roger launched into his spiel, “Five years from now the European Space Agency is gonna launch an unmanned Moon rover. They plan to teleoperate it from the Earth, and with solar power they figure it can explore a good part of the near side before something breaks. Problem is, the thing they've designed is as big as our old Caprice wagon and costs almost a billion dollars so they can only afford one. And it's stupid; you have to operate everything by hand, and if you fuck up and fall into a crater, that's the end of the mission.”

Roger caught his breath and continued, “When the bids are due in September, GoMotion is going to propose a mission that costs less than half of their budget and lands twenty rovers on the Moon. The rovers are going to be nothing other than vacuum-tweaked solar powered Veep-2's with the brains I evolved on the DTV chips. And they'll be autonomous, Kay! In fact they'll be curious—they'll bop around the Moon nonstop reporting interesting things back to headquarters.”

“You can do that?”, Kay asked quietly.

“Thanks to the DTV chips, I can. I'll show you the sim when you get back,” Roger responded. “Soon as we can convince ESA or NASA to land a suitable microfactory, they've got what it takes to reproduce and evolve on their own. I'm starting to build a cybercad model right now.”

Kay tried to interrupt to no avail. Roger was at cruising speed, “It's the purpose of life, Kay—it's manifest destiny; it's why the universe spent four and half billion years evolving us—to pass the torch of life to a species that will carry it to the farthest frontiers of space and time. Look, Jerzy's kids are great, but their descendants will never stand on the innermost world of the galactic hub, drawing their sustenance from the hard radiation sleeting through the central void, watching the black hole rend and devour whole stars. Ours will. Wasn't that worth a week with no TV? Why, this is only…”

“Earth to Roger, Earth to Roger,” Kay sputtered into the phone until he shut up, “They're boarding the flight—gotta go. Shall I give you a cybercall after we're airborne?”

“No,” said Roger, “it's not secure, and you can't use the portable phone on the plane. We'll talk when you get here tomorrow; I'll drive down with Tonio and meet you at the airport.”

Kay fiddled with the latches on her briefcase, “Okay. A bientôt, Jean-Michel, je t'aime.

A la lune, ma chère Véronique,” said Roger. As the connection broke, Kay's crocodile tux levitated into the air and began shrinking, smoothing out all the features until it was a smooth gray-green bubble the size of a basketball. Then it disappeared with a small “pop”.

Roger pointed his finger and flew off toward the ant lab. The Great Work awaited.

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