"Circuit Box" by Ehrad

 

Death on the Wire
by Graham Adair

 

Looking upwards from the rooftop into low, heavy clouds, Joseph watched the torrential rain descend in sparkling streams, reflecting the myriad of lights from the city streets below, refracting the spotlights that swept through the evening sky.

Beautiful, he thought.

Water spattered his face, making him blink. He returned his gaze to the scene before him: a desolate flat rooftop, drenched; a parked sky-taxi in the far corner; a black-suited stranger ten feet away, shouting; the barrel of a Colt 47 handgun pointed his way, wavering. Through the downpour the man's voice came to him between the roaring raindrops.

"One!"

Joseph considered. His heart was thumping loudly in his chest -- he could feel it but not hear it. Adrenaline surged through his veins. His life was at stake, he knew it. He heard himself speak to the man in black, but it felt like someone else was talking. The gun continued to waver, raindrops dripping from its muzzle.

"Two!" cried the stranger.

Joseph drew himself up to his full height, turned to face the stranger fully, and closed his eyes. Gathering all self-control, he chose his final words: "Then shoot me. I'd rather die here than put myself through that infernal deconstruction process!"

Before him the man in black tensed, his finger tightening on the trigger. A skyful of twinkling raindrops seemed to hang in the air for a moment.

There was a flash of light, then thunder roared…

* * *

The storm was an hour younger when Joseph Ballard emerged from plush downtown offices onto a street with throngs of drenched pedestrians. They elbowed their way through the crowds using umbrellas and hunched shoulders to full advantage. Joseph held onto the wall to steady himself momentarily before launching into the fray.


Everywhere people jostled him, nudged, pushed, clipped his elbows. He swore under his breath as he neatly side-stepped a crowd of giggling women who swept down the sidewalk in a mass of scarves and perfume, displacing all who stood before them. Neon advertisements glowed above his head; multicoloured light caught as specks in the falling raindrops, sparkling, creating a beautiful display that was entirely at odds with the noise and the chaos.

Through the mob he picked his way and, presently, he emerged at a taxi rank near a busy intersection. A quick glance showed he was in luck -- a single sky-taxi waited at the roadside.

It seemed he alone was inclined to travel by taxi rather than Ring. He alone opted to brave the crowds every night, to fight the hordes, for the sake of hailing a sky-taxi to "carry" him home. His colleagues ridiculed him for it. They thought he was afraid to flick; afraid of the Rings themselves.

They were, of course, quite right.

He clambered heavily into the taxi's back seat and sat down with a sigh. Water dripped from his hair and face, and his clothes were wet through. In the front seat a tall man sat facing ahead, regarding his passenger via the rear-view mirror. He wore jeans and a black jersey, and black leather gloves gripped the steering wheel.

"Where to?" he asked in a soft voice. The accent seemed odd to Joseph, being neither local nor anything recognisable. He ignored the thought, however, putting it down to culture blur, one of the many unpleasant phenomena the teleport Rings had brought with them.

"South Bannerside. Plewsham Gardens, please."

And they were off, soaring high above the crowds, between the skyscrapers. Joseph gazed out of the window, at the view of the buildings and the lights. Far below, the masses swirled, looking pained and uncomfortable in the rain. Persecuted, even. Was this another effect of the Rings? Were people becoming less tolerant of the elements, now that travel was near instantaneous and outdoor excursions were brief?

They flew for ten minutes, curving around the towers and between the office blocks, broadly following the layout of the streets below. There were few other vehicles in the sky tonight: one or two taxis, an occasional private car. Sky-taxis were prohibitively expensive, enjoyed mainly by the rich and flamboyant, and private sky-cars were a rarity.

On the back seat Joseph reclined, running a hand through his greying wet hair, eyes closed. He was a civil servant, a government man, and a senior one at that. The Ministry for New Technology was a hive of activity, and as First Minister Joseph steered it through the pitfalls of the modern world, answerable to a small committee of presidential executives – the real power-lords of the age. Never easy. Ah well, at least he'd made it to the end of another day.

His thoughts manifested themselves as a long, deep sigh.

"Bad day at the office?" asked the driver in his relaxed voice, without turning around.

Joseph regarded the man for a second. There was something about him that seemed a little odd, as if he was new to the job perhaps. More than once he'd taken an unnecessary detour, as if he wasn't sure of his way. His tendency to allow the vehicle to lurch as it turned a corner was unusual for a taxi driver too.

"Always," he replied.

The driver glanced into his rear view mirror and met Joseph's gaze for a second before hastily looking away.

"Wouldn't have your job for the world," he said.

"You know who I am?"

The driver chuckled. "I've seen you on holovision. Ballard, isn't it?"

Joseph just nodded.

The conversation lapsed again, and Joseph watched the rain as it lashed against the glass, the sky above a deep grey tinged with purple. Looking down, he began to pick out landmarks around the city to get his bearings. It didn't take long to realise that he wasn't where he thought he'd be. In fact, he was clear across town from South Bannerside.

"Hey!" he called to the driver, "Where the hell do you think you're taking me?"

The driver ignored him and instead put the taxi into a nosedive, falling sharply out of the sky towards the roof of a skyscraper. Joseph grabbed at the back of his seat to brace himself for impact whilst shouting obscenities at the driver. Pinned to the seat, he was unable to move. The engines whined and colours streamed past the window. A few seconds later the whining receded and the driver brought the vehicle to a slow, barely-controlled descent, touching down on the roof of the building.

"All right wise guy! What the hell -- " But before he could finish the driver spun around in his seat, and Joseph saw the barrel of a gun in his gloved hand. Confusion descended, driven by a rising panic, and he waited to recover his senses a little before asking, "What do you want?"

"In a nutshell, Minister Ballard, we need your help."

"Who are you?"

"Well, that's difficult to say. I'm acting on behalf of a group of people. Let's call them the Concerned Citizens."

Joseph fought to keep his nerves steady. "How did you know where to find me?"

"You're a creature of habit."

Which was true. "I suppose you think I can help you?"

"Well, it's about the Rings."

"Of course. Everything is these days."

"Really? I guess that's what they call progress, then."

"Get to the point."

The taxi's engines, still whining, began to power down. The driver waited until a near-silence had returned, until the steady drone of the rain on the windows was the only sound. "Well, we the Concerned Citizens feel that the global network is somewhat less than ideal."

"In what way?"

"It sucks, Joseph."

"You think so?"

"Oh indeed. Very much."

Joseph's mind was racing. He scrabbled frantically for a delaying tactic, something to keep the man talking while he worked out the best way to handle him.

The global network was the bane of Joseph's life. It was the massive infrastructure of cables and fibre optics that facilitated the teleport Rings. In the six years since the Rings' invention, their popularity had exploded, and now there was one at every street corner. People had been slow at first to leave the other forms of transportation in favour of the brave new world, but then the uptake had accelerated beyond all predictions, leaving the global network straining to cope with the traffic.

Over the years there had been scant investment in the infrastructure, and no strategy. High-bandwidth connections had been laid between all the major cities of the world, to cater for the masses and the rush hours, but the majority of the world's Rings accessed these main ‘backbones' via older, slower, and less reliable connections. Some of the backwater branches were notoriously unpredictable. With each passing month more and more people transmitted themselves along the wires as data patterns, Ring to Ring, and the sheer volume of data buzzing around the world was becoming overwhelming.

"So let me guess. You'd like me to improve it?"

"Ah, Minister. You demonstrate your intellectual prowess! How appropriate that you should occupy such a high position in government."

"It's not as easy as you think, changing things."

"Explain that."

"It isn't just up to me to make decisions about how money gets spent. There is a committee, and a working party, and several departments who all have to agree. Then there's my boss, who has the right to overrule me. You see, there isn't a lot I can actually do, in real terms."

"Is this your attempt to wriggle out of the situation, Minister?"

"It's true! Haven't you any understanding of how government works?"

"My impression is that it doesn't."

"Well, only a cynic, an anarchist would say such a thing!" His words were hostile and provocative.

"Oh, an anarchist you say! Is this how you define anarchy then? The desire to hold a government accountable for its actions? The desire to see a government do what its people ask it to? Anarchy, Minister? I think not!"

"Say what you like, I'm telling you the truth."

"I see. Well, it doesn't really matter, you know. In fact, it's really quite amazing how much power you hold without realising it."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Simply that in order to get things changed, to really make a difference, it won't be necessary for you to make any decisions at all."

Joseph stared at the man, trying to work out what he was saying. The driver continued, "Imagine the headlines tomorrow morning, Minister: ‘Senior Government Figure Killed in Tragic Teleportation Accident. Special Inquiry Into Teleport Safety Begins'."

Joseph drew in a sharp breath. "You're joking."

"Not really."

"You're going to kill me!"

"Not actually. You're going to kill yourself."

"What do you mean?"

"You see that Ring over there?" He waved the barrel of his gun at one of the windows. Joseph turned and looked out across the rooftop, to where a Ring stood in the far corner, light glistening from its wet surface. Even in the failing light it was easy to see how they'd got their name, the most prominent feature being a bulky girdle of trunking, black grooved rubber, that circled the device a metre above the base. The ring was broken by a small gap, large enough for a man to step through into the interior. Otherwise, the Ring looked similar to an old telephone booth.

"This is a hell of a place to put a Ring!"

"Yes. Seemingly it's a popular place to come and admire the view. The kind of place a stressed government worker might come to think, to get some peace and quiet, don't you think?"

He stared at the driver. His breathing was quickening and he could feel his heart beating loudly. He realised he was playing for his life now. "What is it to you, anyway? The state of the global network I mean."

"Did you realise that people are dying?"

Joseph said nothing. He knew it was true.

"Dying, and worse."

"Worse?" asked Joseph.

The driver looked him in the eye. "Minister, have you ever seen the mess that a faulty transmission can make of a human body?"

"Now hang on -– I may be a little out of touch but even I know that the Rings all have safety features. In fact if I remember correctly, a transmitting Ring will hold onto the data pattern of its passenger until the receiving Ring acknowledges receipt. If it doesn't, the person is reassembled where they started from."

This seemed to irk the driver, who now snapped: "Yes, but what happens if the transmission is corrupted? The receiving Ring thinks it's got all the data so it signals a successful transmission. The transmitting Ring deletes the passenger, destination Ring attempts reassembly, but the data is wrong! So the person becomes mutated. "Mutated", Minister! Do you understand?"

Joseph hesitated, "Well, I've heard occasional stories but..."

"Scores of people every month."

"What? Surely you are mistaken -"

"Every month! And dozens of deaths. And those are only the ones that get reported."

Genuinely shocked, Joseph whispered, "But how can it be so bad?"

"How? Because the technology isn't mature. The system needs a massive investment. The network needs to be made safe, and faster too. Your precious Ministry for New Technology has repeatedly ignored petitions and protests time and time again, and not just from my organisation. It seems the government is more interested in making money than saving lives."

"But... what can I do?"

The driver motioned again to the Ring on the rooftop, then continued. "You will have a clear choice, Ballard. You'll be standing in the Ring. I will be nearby. I will count to three. If you haven't dialled a number and transported by then, I will shoot you where you stand."

"And if I do dial?"

"The line is faulty. We've made sure of that. It works, of course, otherwise the safety system would kick in and it wouldn't send you anywhere. But we've made sure that the quality of the line is low enough to scramble your data pattern a little."

"And I will die as a result?"

"Actually, you might not. You might just lose a limb or something. Maybe nothing will happen at all. In which case, I hope I've impressed my point of view upon you sufficiently to spur you into action."

"I'm sure."

"Out of the car."

Joseph hesitated. He struggled to think of something to say, a question, anything to buy time. But in a swift and sudden movement the driver raised his gun arm and brought it down across Joseph's face in a sharp blow. Blood splashed from his forehead and he saw stars.

"I said move!"

With fumbling hands and a pounding heart, Joseph struggled out of the car and onto the rain-drenched roof of the skyscraper. A chill wind cut into him for a second, then dropped as suddenly as it had appeared. The air was clear and sweet, with little trace of the pollution that hung in the streets below. The driver stepped out of the car and waved his gun again, signalling the direction of the Ring. Joseph complied. Rain washed the blood from his cut forehead down into his eyes, and he winced from the pain as he walked.

When he'd reached the Ring he turned and regarded the stranger, who stood several paces behind him. Water dripped from his eyebrows, and for the first time Joseph got a good look at the man. Young, mid-thirties perhaps, slim build, quite tall. The face was unfamiliar though.

"Step into the Ring, Minister."

Joseph hesitated. The stranger raised the barrel of his gun a little and said, "You should be aware that I won't hesitate to shoot you. You have no idea what I've come through to get to this moment."

"If you shoot me your plan will fail!"

"No, it will only be postponed. The government will replace you with someone else, and I will track him down just like I tracked you down. Besides, shooting you cold might just achieve enough in itself. It would be a clear message to the government that enough is enough!" He spat the last words with genuine anger, and Joseph stepped backwards into the Ring. The stranger continued, "That's better. Now, you know the rest of the story. I'm going to count to three, and then I'm going to kill you."

"Now wait… Just hear me out --"

"One!"

"I can't dial! I can't! I don't know how! I don't know how to use this thing!"

"Two!"

Joseph drew himself up to his full height, turned to face the stranger fully, and closed his eyes. Gathering all self-control, he chose his final words: "Then shoot me. I'd rather die here than put myself through that infernal deconstruction process!"

The stranger hesitated, gun arm raised and wavering slightly in the downpour. Something seemed to have caught him off guard. He toyed with concluding his count and squeezing the trigger, but couldn't. Instead, he wiped the water away from his eyebrows with his free hand. There was a flash of light, then thunder roared.

He shouted, "Why won't you dial?"

Joseph, in a calm voice, replied "Because I refuse to use the Rings."

"You've never used them?"

"Never."

The stranger paused again. The sound of the rain was total. "Why not?"

"Never trusted them."

The stranger let out a short laugh, then continued. "So! Now we see why you've never allocated funds for improving the network."

Joseph was silent.

"You've always viewed it as a waste of money! Because your personal opinion of the Rings is one of contempt. Am I right?"

"Perhaps. There are so many other, more worthy projects that need funding, you know."

"I'm sure. But tell me, why don't you trust the Rings? Is it because you don't trust the state of the network? Now wouldn't that be ironic!"

"It has nothing to do with the network. I am a man of God, Mr. Concerned Citizen. I oppose the use of technology to create and destroy human beings at will. I happen to believe in a thing called the human soul, and when a Ring turns a man into a collection of numbers, the soul is omitted and, presumably, returns to God. What steps out of the other Ring is neither human nor natural."

Once again, the stranger fell silent. Long seconds elapsed before he spoke again. "You amaze me, Minister." And he lowered his gun arm to his side.

Joseph opened his eyes and regarded the man with suspicion. "Aren't you going to shoot me?"

"No."

"Why not?"

In a voice barely audible above the sound of the storm, he replied, "Because you're the same as me."

Joseph stepped out of the Ring and took a few paces towards the man. The stranger looked up at him and said, "This is crazy! You're responsible for the mess the network is in! You're supposed to pay for your actions!"

Joseph remained silent, curious.

The driver said, "You know, up until a few months ago I hadn't used the Rings either. Crazy, isn't it? That two grown men such as you and I should have such an irrational fear of doing what everyone else in the world takes for granted. For you it's a God thing. For me it's just plain, simple contempt."

"Contempt?" asked Joseph. "For what?"

"For the Rings. For everything they've done to the world. For changing the whole of civilisation, and bringing out the worst in us all. And for turning my job into a joke."

"Your job?"

"I... oh, just forget it."

"No, tell me."

"Well, once upon a time I was a travel agent, Joseph. That was before glorious teleportation came along and ripped the bottom out of the market. My company had to change to survive. Like most of the travel agencies, mine turned to route-planning."

Joseph looked puzzled, and the driver continued, "Route planning is the only function left for people in my industry. Mapping out the safest, fastest, or cheapest route between any two Rings."

"But I don't understand..."

"People still want holidays, Minister. They want privacy, secluded hideaways around the world where they can slip away from the humdrum of their daily lives. It's the job of the travel agent to know about these places. Problem is, most of them are well off the beaten track, where the network branches are slow and old, and usually unreliable. So, as supposed experts in the travel business, we offer to plan out the best route from Ring to Ring for our customers. The safest route. Away from faulty cables. As the death toll rises, Minister, people become more willing to pay for such information."

"So what's your problem?"

"My 'problem' is that I made a mistake." And he paused, casting a deep gaze into the night, and drew a long breath. "I sent a young family to their deaths. Routed them down a line between Mexico and Morocco. Turned out to be a temperamental line. None of them lived, not for more than a few minutes anyway." He turned and glared at Joseph with burning eyes. "I took a chance. And now four innocent people are dead because of it."

A long silence stretched between the two men.

"So you figure it's my fault that the network wasn't reliable," muttered Joseph. "My fault that not enough money has been spent on it. Well what about MY job? What do you expect me to do? I cannot condone this technology – it's nothing short of blasphemy! It is plain wrong!"


"Minister, you surprise me that such religious fervour can still exist in today's world. But you have to see that you are wrong! The people of the world have already spoken: they want the Rings. They need them! There's no going back now. And for as long as you allow your personal religious beliefs to stand in the way of progress, more innocent people are going to die on the wires."

Now it was Joseph's turn to be silent and contemplate. He waited several seconds before continuing. "In my heart of hearts, I know you're right about the Rings, they 'are' here to stay. But that doesn't make them all right."

"And what about the people who die trying to use them. The people who are only trying to get from A to B, and who become mangled data patterns as a result of your lack of funding. Children orphaned, Minister. Families wiped out. What's so Christian about that?"

"You can't expect me to sweep aside my faith on a whim!"

"A whim? The deaths of innocent people, a whim?"

"No! I mean... you don't understand!"

"Don't I? Explain it to me then!"

But Joseph ran out of words and fell silent.

"Listen," continued the stranger, "you don't need to change everything all at once. But you need to do 'something'. This situation can't be allowed to continue. Don't you realise there are groups like mine all over the world? People are rising up to speak their minds! Whole cities are organising themselves to do battle with the government, because they're fed up with having poor access to the world's Rings. It's a time bomb, Minister. It won't be long until someone more ruthless than I steps up and commits a horrible act of sabotage, just to make his point. Are you going to allow that to happen? Do your Christian beliefs prevent you from seeing simple sense?"

Joseph was staring at his feet, drips of water forming and dropping from his hair. He mumbled "But what can I do?"

"I'll tell you what. Just make a start. The global network needs to be organised, rationalised, managed, developed. Look at it logically. There are some network routes that are heavily used -- almost incessantly -- to ferry people back and forth. Those routes should be upgraded first. Find a way to make them safe and fast, and you'll immediately relieve the pressure on all the unstable network paths. It just needs one push. From you."

"Well. I can try, I suppose."

"Yes, you can!"

Joseph looked up at the man. "What is your name?"

"Allen."

"Well, Allen, I make you no promises. But I will try to make a difference."

"That's all I ask."

Joseph turned and faced the taxi, across the rooftop, turning his back to Allen. Over his shoulder he said, "And what of your group of ‘Concerned Citizens'? Will they be satisfied too?"

"I'm afraid that's unlikely. They're a little more radical than me."

"What will they say?"

"They wanted a death tonight, Minister. Nothing less will satisfy them. If I tell them I let you go on a promise – no, not even a promise – I doubt they'd see it my way."

"Can they not see progress? All things in good time, Allen. Moderation may be the key to finding a way forward: tiny steps, but steps nevertheless. Progress is made in such ways."

"I agree with you. Though I expect my associates will be less patient. They've been geared up for a media explosion tomorrow morning, in the wake of your death. They're planning to step forward and grab the limelight, use it to lay down their demands."

"Can't you just tell them you killed me?"

"They aren't stupid, Minister."

"So what will you say to them?"

"Well, I can try to convince them. Perhaps events will prove me right."

Joseph began walking towards the taxi. The rain bounced from his shoulders. He took a moment to savour it, to appreciate how good it felt to be alive. It occurred to him that it took a close call with death to really make one 'feel' alive. Perhaps, he mused, this was a way to feel closer with God, better than going to church and reading the Bible. The way he felt at this moment was nothing short of pure inspiration! The smell of the air, the breath of the wind, the twinkling lights, all of it drenched by the torrents falling from above. Such creation!

As he neared the taxi he turned and looked over his shoulder, calling: "Allen! Who taught you to fly this thing?"

But he was alone on the rooftop.

 

 

Story © 2003 by Graham Adair gmadair@yahoo.com


Illustration © 2003 by Ehrad ehrad@eraduoncomics.net




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