Saturday, October 02, 2010

Yet More "Antisocial!"

Chapter 3 of Antisocial!, the sequel to Virus!.


Dr. Ben Pock took the last swallow of vodka and tossed the bottle into his recycling bin. Ever since the state had revamped the bottle bill to add a $1 deposit on wine and hard liquor bottles, Pock had been donating his empties to the office cleaning lady. Given Pock’s tendencies, that meant that, after four years, his cleaning lady could afford to put her son through at least two years of college.

Pock worked for Armstrong & Associates, located in suburban New Jersey, not far from the original secret underground bunker that had housed the Elite Computer Virus Task Force. In fact, immediately after the ECVTF was shut down four years earlier (someone had, in his spare time, developed some freeware that did everything that the fruits of the ECVTF’s years of research and development did) the site was razed and replaced by a strip mall. General Armstrong 7 (né Piddle), with the help of his new wife, had subsequently started an interplanetary consultancy dedicated to, as the mission statement put it, “enabling the amicable relations between and among alien worlds and fostering intragalactic trade.” They were located in the strip mall between a Family Dollar and Mr. Wong’s China Buffet.

When the General was assembling his associates, Dr. Pock had been on the short list of candidates, given either his expertise with computers and other matters of technology, or the fact that he had just turned up at the office and everyone just assumed he worked there already. It was a confused time, and the details are rather murky.

Pock shut down his computer, turned off the lights, walked out of the office into a beautiful September evening, and began the one-mile walk to his apartment. Pock didn’t have a car and in fact had given up on the idea of driving a few years earlier. While he was fastidious about never drinking and driving, he was still unable to avoid a steady stream of traffic accidents and incidents. Once, someone talking on a cellphone had rear-ended him at a stoplight. A week later, someone texting while driving had veered into his lane and drove him off the highway and down into a ravine. The guy never stopped—or even noticed. A week after Pock had got his car repaired, he was T-boned at an intersection by someone who had run the red light. Further investigation showed that the other driver had been operating a printing press installed in the passenger seat while driving. Said one of the police officers at the scene, a grisly tableau of twisted and smoking metal, blood, and ink, “You’d think you wouldn’t need laws for this kind of thing.” And the less said about the incident with the surgeon who had been performing open-heart surgery while driving, the better.

At the halfway mark between the office and his house, Pock stopped in at his usual post-work destination, The Flounder’s Arms, a British-style pub founded by a former smelt fisherman. He was still good friends with the barmaid, Zienia, even though they had once been romantically involved. It hadn’t worked out. As she told him at the time, “Ben, you’re just too laid-back, easy-going, and, well, fun. I was brought up to expect that couples would always bicker, that you’d be trying to bend me to your will, and be dominating and controlling. I guess I’m just looking for someone more macho, ill-tempered, and joyless.” That she had found this hard to come by in New Jersey perplexed Pock.

Pock took a seat at the mostly empty bar and took out a newspaper. Zienia smiled and said hello. “The usual?”

“Of course,” he said.

She poured out a club soda with lime and placed it in front of him.

“Thanks,” he said.

Dr. Pock rarely drank outside the office. It was his policy.

While Zienia attended to other patrons, Pock glanced at the front page of the newspaper. “New Petitions Against Tax” and “Building Code Under Fire” were two of the front page stories. He glanced down below the fold. “U.N. Debates Mideast Crisis.” It seems like the news is the same every day, he thought. He looked around casually; there were three other patrons at the bar. Two were sixtysomething-year-old men with red bulbous noses, while the third was a youngish woman absorbed in reading a paperback book. He could tell from the color of the book cover that it was the bestselling The Girl Who Baked a Lasagna, the fifteenth installment of a crime thriller franchise that had outlasted its original author by twelve books. Pock had given up on the series after The Girl Who Dressed Like an Otter, even though he felt the series had started to lose its appeal with The Girl Who Stretched the Premise. He smiled as he thought that perhaps he should pursue the idea he had many years ago of writing a new Charles Dickens novel.

Dr. Pock, after all, did have a doctorate, although it was in Literature. He had been educated at Oxford, and when he returned to his native America, he was not interested in teaching, so attempted to find out what kind of job he could get. He quickly discovered that in the high-tech boom of the 1990s there was not a great deal of demand for a Dickens scholar, and his mention of his doctoral thesis—which had explored the relationship between Dickens and his protégé Wilkie Collins—usually drew stares so blank he was tempted to write on them. So he went to a career guidance counselor and explained how he had devoted his studies to Victorian fiction. The counselor stared at him expressionlessly for a moment, then spent the next forty-five minutes slapping him. When the counselor’s hand had finally tired, he took a deep breath and began reviewing Pock’s various test scores.

“Well,” he had said, “your U&Is are really really low.”

“What are—?”

“Unethicals and Immorals. Yours are way below average. So forget about working on Wall Street.” He flipped to another sheet. “And your Standardized Asshole Aptitude score is also in single digits, so law school is out of the question.” The counselor knitted his brow as he contemplated leafed through the test results. “I’m afraid your Douchebag Quotient is too low for any of the high-paying professions.” Yes, standardized testing had adapted over the years to the 21st-century marketplace. “Maybe you should try to go back to school for something useful. Maybe computer science would be up your alley. There’s also animal husbandry. How do you feel about bull semen?”

Having little alternative, Pock did go back to school to try to get up to speed on Information Technologies and did discover that he had an aptitude for it.

One challenge was that Pock had had a checkered relationship with anything electronic. It’s not that he believed that he exerted some mysterious effect on them, like people who claim that they have some sort of electromagnetic force that repeatedly kills watch batteries. Rather, the more he understood computers and technology, the more he realized that just about everything has some kind of innate bug or flaw—some more than others—and that for a reason he has never been able to find, these bugs always choose to manifest themselves whenever Pock is around. So anything that functioned flawlessly would suddenly—as he put it—“start to create” the moment he walked into its presence. Computer memory would suddenly run out, applications would suddenly quit, operating systems would crash, Internet access would go out—in fact, he has been banned from his local coffee shop and Internet hotspot because the moment he walks in, the WiFi goes down. His one attempt at starting a Twitter feed caused a service outage that lasted six hours. It had an upside; companies that seek to keep their employees off the Internet hire him to come and sit in an empty cubicle for a while. Productivity increases by orders of magnitude.

Despite all of this, he still occasionally managed to accomplish things and the way he became such an expert on computers and software was by having to fix or work around the havoc he had stumbled into.

He had learned to coexist relatively peacefully—and soberly—with these devices for years...until one night. He had to prepare a presentation and was working in PowerPoint. It seemed that every command did something completely random. After spending a gut-wrenching three hours trying to change a font, he finally snapped. He collapsed to the floor of the computer lab and lay there in a semi-conscious state, whimpering. When he was finally able to stand, he staggered out of the building, lurched across the quad, and made it to the nearest off-campus bar he could find. He began downing vodka tonic after vodka tonic until he was able to see straight again. Then, picking up a bottle for the road, he strode back into the computer lab and was able to finish his presentation. And thus, ever since, he has only been able to accomplish anything using computers or technology while heavily under the influence. But as soon as the computer went off, he sobered up and did something purely analog.

Thus it was that, sitting at the bar, drinking club soda, and reading a printed newspaper, that he was beginning to feel the euphoria of sobriety.

And then Jet walked in.

Jet was Pock’s assistant but, more to the point, Jet was a robot. Jet had been a prototype developed by Sy Borg Industries, and had been in the custody of company CEO Frank Meineke until three years earlier, when Meineke was killed in a freak accident. (While beta-testing an application that enabled Jet to function as a gourmet chef, a bug in the program caused the robot to confuse “balsamic vinegar” with “strychnine.”) Jet had been created in Meineke’s image; he had the physical appearance of a balding, paunchy, middle-aged man. He wore a pink Izod shirt, white khaki pants, and brown topsiders with no socks. He had built-in telephony, 6G and WiFi connectivity, and GPS capabilities. His shirt could be removed and his stomach folded down into a keyboard. Pock added functionality to Jet as he needed it.

Jet had proved, if not invaluable, then at least not very annoying during the deadly computer-to-human virus outbreak five years earlier, and was thus added to General Armstrong’s consultancy in the capacity of “Special Assistant and Bartender to Dr. Benjamin A. Pock.” Given Pock’s problems with technology, their relationship has been a little, shall we say, fraught.

“Hi, Jet!” called Zienia. She had also once had a relationship with Jet. What the heck? she had thought at the time. Entire books could be written about why that hadn’t worked out, but a large part of it had to do with the emotionlessness of Jet’s artificial personality and that his designers hadn’t felt the need to make Jet, shall we say, anatomically correct. Then, again, Zienia had to admit, she had once dated an economist and Jet had been a substantial improvement.

“What the hell do you want?” said Pock, suddenly feeling his euphoria drain away.

“You must return to the office. It’s an emer—“ Jet suddenly paused for a moment, then added “Tarrel says, ‘Been up less than 3 hours and planning for nap time already.’”

“What? Oh, for the love of Benji...”

“AlbertQ says, ‘I’ve never had a bagel this good.’”

“Who the hell installed TweetDeck in you?”

“It installed itself.”

“Jet, Command-Quit-TweetDeck.”

“Not possible. Zandra says, ‘Had an awesome time at Paul’s surprise Bday party!’”

He tried again more slowly and distinctly. “Jet. Command. Quit. TweetDeck.”

“Not possible. Would you like to update TweetDeck?”

“I don’t want the damn thing installed on you at all, let alone updated!”

“Craggie says, ‘Tonight's specialty of the house: Chinese take out...yummy.’”

“Go away.”

“Are you sure you don’t want a valuable upgrade?”

Pock started hyperventilating. “Zienia! Vodka tonic!”

She knew the drill and got his drink quickly. He downed it in one gulp. He calmly said, “Jet, Command-Force Quit-TweetDeck-Override FU519.”

“TweetDeck ended.”

Pock sat back and sighed.

“You’re still welcome to update it,” added Jet.

Pock looked around for the nearest sharp object, then Zienia refreshed his drink. He calmed down further.

“All right, then, what’s the problem, my plastic and metal friend?”

“Tharbax Cannuutuu has arrived at Armstrong & Associates and needs assistance.”

“Tharbax Cannuutuu? Of the Aldeberan Cannuutuus?”


“That’s weird. What’s the trouble?”

“His ship was attacked.”

Pock’s eyes widened. “Attacked? Like Star Wars attacked? Yikes. We’d better go.”

He put some money for the drinks and a tip on the bar.

“Sorry, Zeenie, gotta run,” he called.

“Good night, Ben.”

Jet and Pock walked out of the bar into the still light autumn evening. And then they abruptly disappeared without a trace.

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