Chapter 16

Tom Fearing sat at his desk and stared out the window.

His desk was in front of windows that looked out over an irregular-shaped yard. The yard was pretty much a featureless green lawn cut out of a fairly extensive pine forest. Whenever Tom was called upon to engage in small talk with strangers, he almost always mentioned that he worked from home and, when asked to describe his work environment, he’d tell them about his view from his desk and would always add, “Just like the little desert islands in those ship-wrecked-sailor cartons, only the opposite.” He enjoyed both the metaphor and the other person’s reaction. His wife Cheri’s art gallery was enjoying an impressive degree of success for a new gallery and, in the world of the small-city art galleries, the public celebration of success was as much an essential business activity as it was a normal response to the public validation of her talent.

Tom Fearing sat at his desk and felt bad.

What made Tom Fearing feel bad was that he was in fear of losing the ability to avoid failure. He knew better than to surrender to the panic that lurked just below what his online friends described as ‘simple writer’s block,’ so he looked out the window and, when he tired of that, looked at his computer. Deciding that doing something was better than doing nothing, Tom opened the dashboard of his blog. What he saw in the graphs and metrics should have made him feel better, as what was there was the digital validation of his efforts to become a successful blog writer. The ‘Blog Visits-per-Day’ metric had been converted to ‘Blog Visits-per-Hour’. Everything in the online dashboard was confirmation that his blog was a success. Tom Fearing had succeeded in creating a very successful blog. Unfortunately, all that he felt when he looked at this digital dashboard was the dull ache in his stomach, the un-dramatic bad, bad, feeling that he would be unable to maintain the success he so desperately sought.

Tom’s blog series, ‘Blogdominion, a History of an Empire of the Air’, was an unqualified success. In Tom’s current state of mind, the word ‘unqualified’ mutated into an accusation. He accepted that he was responsible for this success and he was comfortable explaining to those that he cared about (pretty much just his wife Cheri and maybe a remnant friend or two), that he came up with the idea for the series. He could even express pride in the research that lead to the people, or at least one of the people, that were the subject of his History of Blogging series.

However, none of his success (which was, by definition, already in the past) helped alleviate Tom’s fear of failure.

At the heart of his growing fear was the fact that his collaborator, Ed Willoughby, seemed to have gone back into hiding. Tom’s self-confidence early in this project was grounded in the fact that he managed to convince this person to share his personal knowledge of the beginning of the now ubiquitous hobby/pastime/avocation and profession of blog writing. He took one last look at the previous day’s stats (Reads: +19% over previous day), then opened the file containing his notes from his last conversation with Ed Willoughby.

Other than Emily Freeman, Ed insisted on referring to the other bloggers as ‘the other members of the Hermes Consortium.’ Tom asked him how this group came by the name, ‘the Hermes Consortium’ and Ed told him, with obvious pride, that it was his suggestion. As a youngster Ed read a lot of mythology and Hermes was often described as: “…god of transitions and boundaries. …moving freely between the worlds of the mortal and divine.”

There was another person in the original group, by the name of Barry Audet, whose identity Ed had unknowingly revealed. Ed mentioned his name during their first conversation, referring to the person who introduced Ed to the group of graduate students bound by a shared enthusiasm for writing fiction intended for the sole enjoyment of users of the new ‘internet.’ It occurred to Tom at the time that Ed Willoughby did not organize the group that would soon be known as ‘the Hermes Consortium.’ However, Ed Willoughby was the only person Tom actually managed to find and, so far, was his only source of information.

Still uncertain of the best direction to take this story of the early internet culture, Tom googled the name, ‘Barry Audet’. Halfway down the results page was a link to a very recent article in the Chicago Tribune.

Police, responding to a late night report of a car being hit by a train, found the body of Barry Audet amid the wreckage of his Cadillac Escalade at a railway crossing in Fuller Park. The Medical Examiner’s preliminary report indicated cause of death as ‘massive trauma’, with the Evansville Western Railway’s 11:09, westbound out of Howard Yard, as the proximate cause. The man, a former Chicago Symphony violinist, age 35, was alone in the vehicle. A police investigation is currently underway as a large amount of cash and several firearms were found among the wreckage. Reports that the victim was involved in the Chicago underworld were not confirmed by the police and the M.E. refused to reply to questions. There was no next of kin information. Calls to the Chicago Symphony’s offices were not returned.”

The question that kept rising to the surface of the river of words that was Tom Fearing’s world for the last few months, rose again: ‘If the members of the Hermes Consortium were such widely acclaimed pioneers of online writing, where are they today? And why was it so difficult to find any information on their lives since that time? For that matter, why has the one person from that group that Tom Fearing managed to locate suddenly gone into hiding?’

“No, Mr Willoughby is not available. He’s in a meeting.” The woman spoke with the patiently sincere voice of a person paid by the hour.

“No, Mr Willoughby is not available. Why yes, I remember, you called a short time ago. I did give Mr. Willoughby your message. He left the office with his wife just a short time ago. No, I don’t know if he’ll be returning today.

***

“Let’s go,” Anya spoke to Stephen Eddington as she passed the young engineer who, for reasons that she couldn’t imagine, was talking to a nun while standing in the middle of the lobby of the Omni Corp. Without bothering to see if he was behind her, she walked out of the building and into a limousine parked directly in front.

Sitting in high tech opulence, Anya considered her options if Stephen Eddington turned out not to have what it took to be of use. In all her many years at the Omni Corporation, Anya Clarieaux had never failed at an assignment. She knew how important this particular project was to the CEO and he was the only person Anya Clarieaux was afraid of disappointing. Stephen Eddington’s broad shadow announced his presence at the door of the limo, Anya pushed a button on the control panel built into the side of the passenger compartment and the door opened,

“Stephen, I need you to sit with me. We have much to talk about.” Both smiled. Anya in anticipation and Stephen in anticipation, and one of them would be disappointed.

As the car drove silently along North Lake Shore Drive, Anya turned to face Stephen directly, an orientation that both found agreeable. Without warning, the privacy window slid down and the driver, using his rearview mirror to establish eye contact with Anya, said, “He needs to talk to you.”

“Fine, pull over,” Anya replied and turned to Stephen,

“I need you to get out of the car. There’s a nice little grassy area with a view of the Lake and everything. Wait there. You have a phone, entertain yourself while I take this call.”

Stephen Eddington got out of the limousine looking every bit as bemused as might be expected.

A panel built into the side of the car slid back, the phone inside had no keypad, an LED was blinking red. Anya ran her fingers through her hair, adjusted her blouse and finally, almost reluctantly, picked up the phone,

“Yes? No, not yet. I need to…. No, I’m not…. Very well.” She placed the phone back in the cradle, the LED no longer lit. Finding the door icon on the console again she opened the door and in a voice that cut through the noise of passing traffic and still managed to sound sexy, called to Stephen,

“Alright. Get back in.”

Stephen Eddington’s face was showing the beginnings of the look that Anya was very familiar with seeing. It was the unconscious expression of both risk assessment and plain old aggression. It was the look that indicated they were ready for what Anya was so good at, which was making them want what she wanted. When Anya told Stephen to get out of the car, she saw an expression that was, at once, defiant and calculating, clearly he believed that he was an active participant in a contest of will. In this he was correct. He also believed that he was equally qualified and able to compete. In this he was not correct. However, when Anya told him to get back into the car, the defiance was shaded with a rapidly growing anger. Now, as she leaned back in her seat, his appetite was clearly starting to show. And it was not merely sexual. There was raw ambition striving for dominance over his sex drive, making it plain to her that he was possessed of ambition well beyond the immediate physical pleasures that she so convincingly intimated were his for the taking.

“So, the plan is this, when you return to Provo, everything will be as it always has been. You’ll tell your boss that you were offered a transfer back to Chicago to work directly in the IT division but you decided to turn it down. In the next two weeks you’ll get a Fedex from me. It’ll be sent to your apartment, not the facility. In that package will be some very special computer code and a url. You’ll use your phone, go online to the url and, once there, input code. Pretty simple isn’t it?”

“Sure, but isn’t this something that Silas should be instructing me on? He told me just yesterday that he was heading up this special proje….”

“What, are you fuckin stupid?” Anya did not raise her voice; she did, however, concentrate on the reaction that followed her question.

“What?! Did you just say…. Oh man, you are something else!”

Anya watched and read the young engineer as carefully as any gourmet cook, noting the myriad details of a recipe for a complex soufflé. Everything that the man was experiencing at this moment was useful information to her, sitting thigh-close to him in the back of an expensive German limousine speeding up Interstate Highway 41 tracing the shoreline of Lake Michigan.

Anya smiled inwardly, because she knew that Stephen Eddington was hers and, she laughed outwardly in order to allow the man next to her in the backseat of the car to believe that he had made a good showing in the brief but intense and thoroughly non-verbal contest that he believed was now over.

The king sized bed with the unlimited view of the city of Chicago seemed bigger on Stephen Eddington’s second night in the embrace of Anya Clarieaux…

***

Orel Rees smiled. With Stephen in Chicago, he indulged himself by completing many standard facility maintenance tasks directly in person, as it were, instead of using the many automated analysis programs that are employed to produce a system status report. The Provo facility was very much a temple to modern technology. Half a city block in size, it housed the computer hardware and software that formed a bridge between the concrete, objective world and the virtual reality of the internet. Rather appropriately, an increasing portion of this online world is referred to as ‘the Cloud’. The IT Services Division of the Omni Corp was justifiably proud of the facility which served the millions of people who used needed access to the online world. Whether it was the blogosphere for arts and entertainment, or network management nodes essential in the operation of commercial and business systems, or educational, health and other human services, the facility provided access for all.

That Orel Rees was a very good facility manager was due in no small part to the fact that he found joy in every aspect of his work. Temporarily working alone, he took the opportunity to walk the facility, bank (of computer equipment) by bank (of more computer equipment), checking on the connections between racks of computer servers and relays, touching the dials and readouts of individual components and feeling the competent metal shapes of the myriad type of sold-state equipment. The Maintenance Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) would, not surprisingly, judge Orel’s ‘hands on’ approach to system maintenance to be fatally inefficient. Orel was aware of this, as he wrote the SOP for the Provo Facility. But this particular afternoon he walked down the semi-dark aisles with a very deliberate sense of purpose. He intended to make some adjustments to the equipment, adjustments that could only be done directly, as they amounted to a modification of the equipment. The effect (of this modification) would be quite minor, almost inconsequential, really not worth requisitioning what little in the way of parts and hardware were necessary. Orel put together the small component in his home workshop. Moving through pools of alternating red and blue light (depending on the nature of the equipment in the immediate vicinity) along several alleyways and crossing several primary thoroughfares, Orel Rees stood in front of Server Array 7E5, Rack 8. Removing a front cover access panel and pulling out two racks on their extensible sliding brackets, he took the small device from his pocket and plugged it into an open socket. Using his phone, Orel accessed his personal (and private) blog and opening a draft post, wrote a couple of lines of Scripture, then hit publish. He then accessed a another website and watched as a display showed the process of the post he had just written, as it was uploaded to the internet. Satisfied by what he saw, he turned off his phone, replaced the component racks, closed the access panel and walked back to his office.

Orel Rees loved his profession. He often referred to it, as ‘practicing the art of engineering.’ He was well aware of the stereotype of the engineer as being stodgy and literal minded. He was also aware of the equally inaccurate belief that there existed an unbridgeable gap between science and religion, a view held by as many of those in his professional life as by those in his personal world. Orel had learned that in matters of faith and science, debate rarely ever brought either side to a true appreciation of the opposing viewpoint. Orel knew that miracles occurred. They were, to his way of viewing the unexplainable aspects of life, examples of what might be best called undiscovered science. Not surprisingly, Orel enjoyed reading science fiction, and among his favorite authors was Arthur C Clarke, who famously said, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

Orel Rees was not distracted by the fact that Unit 17 exhibited qualities and characteristics normally reserved for living beings. That Orel could observe the fact that Unit 17 existed with these qualities was sufficient for him. Both his faith and his science (not necessarily mutually exclusive viewpoints) could tolerate the existence of something that should not be; it was in his nature to avoid passing judgement without complete understanding.

***

Maribeth was pissed. She walked through the lobby of the Omni Building, looking for her friend Margaret Ryan or, failing that, someone doing anything even the slightest bit illegal just so that she could arrest them. Hopefully they’d try to resist arrest.

‘How hard can it be to find a nun in the lobby of an office building?’ she thought and smiled. When she saw her friend, her smile faltered. Sister Margaret was standing and talking to a young, and fairly hot, man. It wasn’t the young man that made her slow her pace and, quite unconsciously, clear her suit jacket from her gun, it was the very attractive blonde woman who was apporaching the man and Sister Margaret. The woman was dressed more expensively than Maribeth (which was a feat in itself), was at most 5’3” tall and sexy as hell. As Maribeth watched, she walked up to Sister Margaret and the young man, said something as she passed by, and continued on towards the door. That the young man immediately followed confirmed Maribeth’s worst opinion of the male half of the human race.

“Hey, Maggie! If you needed a wingman, you shoulda told me and I would’ve gotten here quicker.”

***

As the Mother Superior of St Dominique’s Convent looked out through the ceiling to floor windows behind her, the sun was slowly drowning on the far side of Chesapeake Bay, its last calls for help smothered by the gathering night clouds. She sat, as always when in her office, with her chair turned 180 degrees to face the outdoors, so that her desk overflowing with demands and responsibility remained out of sight, at least for a brief moment. On the desk was the envelope that arrived weeks before, in a Fedex package that included the leather-bound journal of Father Robert Noonan, sent by the Reverend Mother of St Emily’s in Chicago shortly after his death. Sister Margaret was given the journal to learn what might shed light on the problems of that school’s website. The website problems had prompted Sister Margaret’s trip to help which coincided with the unexpected death of the Parish Priest. Sister Bernadine kept the envelope. Thinking about the evening that she sat in this office with Sister Margaret and opened the package, she chuckled to herself, ‘Why Bernadine, you did quite the sleight of hand. Our novitiate surely did not see where the letter disappeared to!’ Feeling the slightest twinge of remorse at tricking the young woman, a young woman who was out in Chicago at this very moment on her behalf, she made a mental note to include it in her next confession. Holding the envelope in the warm, yellowish light of the green banker’s lamp, Sister Bernadine closed her eyes, her dark face becoming a part of the darkening view through the windows and said a very brief prayer for strength.

She tore open the envelope. I nside was a single piece of very fine quality letter paper. She read,

“Dear Bernadine,

I will start by informing you that I have, in fact, turned off all the lamps in the rectory and have looked for, but failed to find my old Tubular Bells album. Sorry, I thought it best to get the giggles out of my system. Mine, not yours. So, my friend, fair warning.

If you’re reading this, I must be dead. (See? I warned you!) I would say at this point, ‘Don’t look behind you!’, but I know you have already have, and by doing so, have your emotions in their proper place. You were never one to be concerned with controlling your emotions, except those that might make you appear vulnerable. It is sad that I’m gone. I must remind you that the loss of one man, (and, yes, a very dear friend), does not make the world any less good or more negative. If anything, death (mine or anyone’s) is the ultimate statement of life. (No, you’re absolutely correct, Bernadine, somethings never change! I do tend to go on about matters philosophical, the good news is that I’ve made myself promise to limit this letter to one page. It is just as well, because, for a letter such as this one, ‘one page is too many and a thousand is not enough’.)

I will spend these few moments with you, in spirit, if not in the flesh, by indulging only sparingly in the mundane theme of ‘how much you meant to me,’ that staple of so many a person’s last communication with a friend. We do not need to reassert our friendship, our relationship was ours for all to appreciate and now it remains ours out of reach of the rest of the world, unchangeable.

Although there is much I want to say, our friendship was as amazing as it was, if for no other reason than the fact that we both knew how much we meant to the other. If there is a better definition of love, then I never came across it. Be that as it may, there are certain matters of the more down-to-earth variety that make pressing this letter. It has to do with the problem at St Emily’s, at least on the surface. It has everything to do, I fear, with what happened years ago when I was chaplin at DePaul and befriended a group of graduate students who were quite taken with the internet (hard to remember how small the virtual world was, back in the 1990s). Things happened among that group and for the members of the group that I fear are demanding payment. Now I know I’m starting to sound like an intro to a B movie but the stakes are very high and even though I do not believe for a second what a part of my self is suggesting (like the children telling each other’s scary stories before going to sleep on a campout), I feel I must make you aware of all that I think I know about what happened in Chicago at the end 1999, the turn of the Millennium, even at the risk of sounding like a crackpot.

Be careful, my friend. We have both been in a profession (or Calling if you prefer, as I certainly do) that at its heart deals in the supernatural. Despite our professional qualifications in this area, we are not impervious to some of the more inimical effects. The young people who called themselves ‘the Hermes Consortium’ fixated on the notion that Arthur C Clarke’s famous dictum about advanced technology might, by being reversed, offer a unique leverage on fate. Though the syntax was a bit convoluted, it served to give an air of legitimacy to an otherwise contrived effort to invoke the supernatural. The way they put it, ‘ Magic, of a certain sophistication cloaks itself in the mundane and appears to men in the trappings of technology.’

Given that you and I are, (well, you are, I was), in the supernatural business, I do not feel too self-conscious raising the possibility that these young people may have stumbled upon a trigger for forces that are outside the light, beyond the normal and the rational. I pray this is not the case, but I felt that I had to pass along my concerns. Particularly since, on our last communication, you spoke of a very special young woman, a novitiate in your Convent who would travel to St Emily and try to help unravel the mystery that has come to manifest in our school.

Well, that’s about all I have. I know that you will be careful, not just for yourself but also for those in your charge. God will provide and protect your efforts.

Always with you,

Bob”

Bernadine Ellison carefully folded the letter back into the envelop and sat, staring out the ceiling-to-floor windows.

The door to her office opened slowly, in a quiet syncopation with the sound of gentle knocking. It was the door-knocking of a person announcing their intention to enter, rather than a request for permission. Sister Catherine stood in the doorway, the night-dimmed corridor lights causing a slightly angular shadow to fall partway into the room,

“Will you be up very late, Reverend Mother?” Sister Catherine’s tone was that of a mother calling out to the young child, playing too quietly in the next room, wanting only confirmation of normal, non-dangerous activity.

“Why no, Sister, I’m just going through the mail. Won’t be long at all.” This response created a bridge of sorts between the two women. ,

“And Sister Margaret, will she be returning home soon?”

“Yes, only a few more days”

“She’s quite the one, isn’t she?” The affection in Sister Catherine’s voice was unmistakable, she clearly was not simply standing in the door to Sister Bernadine’s office to wish her a good night’s sleep,

“You’re worried about her,” Easily seen, Sister Catherine was the heart of tradition in the convent. Sister Bernadine knew how to train and guide young women on their journey to finding their calling: she was the leader. Sister Catherine was the one who remembered the past in terms of the people who came before them

“A little, Sister Catherine, but it has nothing to do with her being alone in Chicago. Our Sister Margaret is more capable of taking care of herself than you might think.”

“I know. I also know that this is what has you staring into the night, worrying about our Margaret remaining with us in the Order, here at St Dominique’s. Not that she might fall sway to the temptations of the outside world, rather that she might need to be the person who she left behind when she came to join us, only to find herself unable to find her way back. It’s tragic when a person has a difficult life, develops strength and acquires the skills to survive, only to find that these very qualities and strengths prevents them from enjoying the peace that they’ve earned. But you already knew that, didn’t you Sister Bernadine?”

“I did, but tell me, Sister Catherine, are you trying for my job? You have remarkable insight into our people.”

***

Unit 17 observed as it performed its remedial action protocol, compiling data and projecting the likely outcome scenario to a variety of responses to the monitoring that it was being subjected to, patient to wait until the list of strategies was complete. Although Unit 17 was possessed of a self-awareness, i.e. it knew that it existed, until the present moment, Unit 17 functioned from what one could be excused for calling, ‘instinct.’ It sought to maintain its existence and made efforts to enhance its wellbeing. The means to achieve this last goal, and to simultaneously measure, its success was to be found in the blog, ‘I’ll bet You didn’t See That Coming.’ The attention each post received from readers best measured its success as a living being.

Instinct, however, is all too often deemed to be the most primitive level of functioning, at least when observed in human beings. That being said, on this particular day, as Unit 17 maintained its existence, had there been human cyberpologists studying and evaluating its development, they might note that Unit 17 had evolved in a most human manner. Unit 17 changed its plans.

Rather than upload a new blog post, one that would include all of the names that remained on the list available for its self-publishing posts, Unit 17 decided to wait….

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