Sunday, March 24, 2013

Through the Looking Glasses

Jerry heard a drone pass overhead as he waited amid the bushes for the others to show. It probably belonged to the municipality or the county. The State Police drones flew mostly over highways, shorelines, and waterways. Its infrared sensors would be able to pick him out through the leaf cover, but his clothing selectively leaked heat in a patchwork that broke up the human form. Jerry had doubts when he placed the online order for them from the manufacturer in Pakistan, but they worked as advertised. The drone wouldn’t be able to distinguish him from other animals in the park, and the woods were full of deer and coyotes, as well as smaller animals.
Suburban coyotes were shy of people, but thinking about them made him uneasy. A snort from behind startled Jerry. He turned fearfully, expecting to see coyote teeth. He saw nothing. He turned up the infrared setting on his Virtiglasses. A doe’s image shone through a nearby bush. She snorted again and stamped a front hoof at him. Jerry ignored her. The doe decided not to pursue the confrontation. She withdrew.
A raccoon ran across the bicycle path a few meters in front of him. The bike path ran the length of a “linear park,” a leafy corridor for hikers and bicyclists that stretched across the county. It connected the upscale and suburban Shropshire Hills with Oxburg, which, despite the bovine quality of its name, was a large town and the county seat.
The others were late. It wasn’t “The Clique” to be late on “Game Night.” Jerry was one of The Clique, or so they told him, but he always felt they were humoring him by saying so. For all that, Game Night couldn’t happen without him. He was the one with the skills to overcome the electronic tracking and surveillance endemic in the modern world. In truth, they weren’t difficult skills to learn: revolutionary groups posted the techniques on their internet sites. Jerry didn’t mention this to the others, and they apparently were too lazy to research the matter on their own. Game Nights kept him close to Susan, so it would be foolish to let the others know he was dispensable.

It all had started as a bet. Carter and Susan had been playing World of Mayhem. In a dark room the graphics on Virtiglasses are utterly convincing, but, as in any VR game, the knowledge that it is a simulation limits the excitement and fear a player can experience. Susan remarked casually that it would be fun to experience real mayhem for once, but that nowadays every action was recorded by somebody. They would be sure to get caught. It is probable that Susan wasn’t really serious, but Carter bet her there was a way to beat the surveillance. Susan told him to prove it.
Jerry had been surprised when Carter spoke to him between classes the next day at Shropshire Hills HS. Carter was was tall, good-looking, arrogant, popular with the girls. In short, he was what Jerry was not. He didn’t normally interact with Jerry except sometimes to tell him to get out of the way in the hall.
“Dude!” Carter liked obsolete slang. Besides, Carter probly didn’t remember Jerry’s name. “You’re a techie. Answer me this. Purely hypothetically…” He posed the question to Jerry if a gang could go on repeated spree muggings and not be identified despite all the electronic traces people leave in the current day. He explained about the bet with Susan.
“So, you and Susan…?” Jerry asked. He always had been attracted to Susan, even though she often acted high.
“Her, me, maybe some others. Maybe you, too,” Carter said.
“No, I don’t mean who would be the hypothetical gang members. I mean are you and Susan together?”
“Together? Dude! Who thinks like that anymore? If you want to play with her, play with her,” Carter laughed. “Get your mind back on the bet.”
 “Let me look into it. I’ll get back.”
“You do that. And I’ll put in a good word for you with Susan.”
It was easier than Jerry had anticipated. He found most of the links he needed on the websites of subversive organizations. They connected him to sites where he learned how to rout connections through illegal overseas servers that would generate false GPS readings for Virtiglasses, block most digital signals from nearby transmitters, and even tap into police communications. Whatever couldn’t be done with Virtiglasses could be done with affordable handheld devices that would fit in a pocket. A simpleton could do it.
He met with Carter, Susan, Ryan, Jose, and Leila after school where Susan lived with her mother the gated community Shropshire Commons.
“Hey, Dude. This is The Clique,” said Carter.
The Clique?”
“Hey, if the police go looking for a badass gang, are they going to bother with a group called The Clique? It sounds like a sewing club.”
“I see your point.”
“So, what have you got?” Carter asked.
Leaving out any mention of simpletons Jerry explained that it was possible to turn electronic surveillance to their advantage by creating false readings. Infrared could be beaten with the right clothing. They could take the bike path to Oxburg, thereby avoiding street cameras and drones. They could go on a mugging spree near the edge of the park, and then get away clean. Their Virtiglass records would show them to have been home surfing entertainment websites.
“Great! I knew you could do it. Do whatever you need to do. Order whatever we need. I’ll transfer money to you to cover your expenses. Next Friday is Game Night. We do it,” Carter said.
“Um. Go out? It was just an imaginary exercise.”
“Oh, come on, Dude. It’s just a game. We’re not really going to hurt anybody. It’s just to see if we can do it. We’ll raise a little ruckus and come right home.”
“I’d like to go, Jerry,” said Susan.
Maybe Carter had put in a good word for him. Even though Carter called him nothing but “Dude,” she knew his real name. Despite having shared classes with her for three years, he hadn’t been sure she did.
“I can be very appreciative,” she added.
That did it. “OK,” said Jerry. “So long as we’re not actually going to mug people.”
But that is precisely what they did. The attack of The Clique on an Oxburg couple passing the park on a nighttime walk was brutal. It was done directly beneath a camera, but Jerry scrambled its signal with one of his devices. Jerry held back and watched until Susan pulled him forward into the action. By that time, both victims were on the ground, either unconscious or feigning to be so.
“You, too, so we know we can trust you,” Susan said. As Leila kicked the face of the woman. Jerry forced himself lightly to kick the side of the man lying in front of him.
“Again. Harder,” Susan prodded.
He kicked again harder. And again.
On the walk back to Shropshire Hills Jerry felt sick, less by the violence itself than by the fact that that by the end, he had been enjoying kicking the victim. Susan was elated. She jabbered incessantly about how awesome it all was. She was high on more than just the night’s events. Jerry didn’t know what, but he had seen her swallow pills of some kind. Susan went home with Jerry that night. It was the first time they “bounced” as Susan described it. It wasn’t the last. Jerry’s mom was out that night,  but might not have minded his overnight company. He never had brought a girl home before, so he didn’t know.
“The only thing as good as drugs is sex,” Susan said as they lay together, “and even that isn’t any good unless you’re high.”
Jerry didn’t agree, but he was not about to argue with anything that put Susan into his bed.
Game Nights put her there, too, so he did not object when the became a regular activity of The Clique. They changed targets and routes often enough to avoid being caught by an old-fashioned police stake-out of high crime location.

Jerry was getting concerned. How long was he supposed to sit in these bushes? The rules called for no phone calls.
An alert flashed on Jerry’s overseas e-mail account. The message was from Carter. “Tonight is off,” it read. “Get over to Susan’s pronto.”
He couldn’t call Carter to ask what was going on and there was no telling how long he would take to respond to a return e mail. Jerry brushed past the bushes and briskly walked along the bicycle path toward Willard Road and the main gate to the Shropshire Commons. He decided it was best to go through the gate risk anyone seeing him going over the wall – their usual route on a Game Night.
“Some trouble tonight, son,” said the guard when he reached the gate. The patch on the man’s shirt pocket read “Charley.” Charley was a puffy middle-aged man who always seemed mildly intoxicated.
“What trouble?” Jerry asked.
“Just stay out of everyone’s way.”
“OK.” Jerry figured that meant the guard didn’t know clearly what the trouble was either.
The guard had seen Jerry before and waved him through without asking him to sign in. The guardhouse camera and his Virtiglasses recorded the entry anyway. Jerry chose not to jam either.
The homes inside the gate were pricey but they all looked too much alike for Jerry’s taste. All had exteriors of grey stone and natural stained cedar, a conformity he assumed was demanded by the homeowners’ association. He saw Carter walking toward him on the sidewalk. He wasn’t wearing the anti-infrared clothing required for Game Night.
“Are you recording?” Carter asked when he reached him.
“Good. Don’t. The police will be coming soon. Head on over to Susan’s. I’m going home.”
“What’s going on?”
“Something happened to her mom.”
Jerry hacked into the police communications as he walked. He hadn’t mentioned this ability to Carter or even to Susan. He wasn’t sure why he held the information back, but he did. The state police had pretty good cyber-security and he never had cracked their signals, but the local Shropshire Hills PD had defenses so trivial a child could breach them. He scanned the com-links until he found the right one. Officer Rene Reis was on Willard Roadapproaching the Commons in her patrol car. He kept her Virtiglass perspective on heads-up display.

Officer Rene Reis’ Virtiglasses instructed her to turn left in 100 meters. She had patrolled the town of Shropshire Hills nearly every day for the past five years, so she didn’t really need the directions, but she kept the GPS function on out of habit. She turned into the entrance of the Commons.
“Hi Charley,” Reis said. She could see the flickering of old-fashioned LED monitors inside the guardhouse office. Charley raised the gate and waved her in.
She passed a teenage young man walking along the sidewalk from the sidewalk. He wore wearing peculiar dark clothing. Reis’ GPS directed her to 18 Roland Drive. A dozen people, most of them teens stood in the driveway. She parked in front of the property on the road.
Reis exited her car. “Excuse me. Is one of you Miss Riley?”
“I’m Susan Riley,” said a dark-haired, pretty, but unkempt young woman.
Even seen remotely through Reis’ glasses, Susan stirred Jerry’s teenage libido. He doubled his pace.
Susan’s driver’s license appeared in Reis’ heads-up display. Despite the obstruction of the girl’s tinted Virtiglasses, Susan was plainly the girl in the license picture. The 17-year-old’s rap sheet popped up. A few minor traffic violations appeared, but otherwise the girl was clean. A chemical analysis of the air near Susan’s breath, however, revealed a 70% probability of marijuana and a 50% probability of an opiate cognate, probably prescription painkillers. Courts did not allow these Virtiglass air samples as evidence – yet. Reis followed a link to additional data and found that Susan’s father, who in nearby Oxburg and worked at the Martinez Garage, was two months behind on his child support payments.
“You placed the 911?” Reis asked.
Susan nodded.
“Is anyone in the house?”
“Yeah, my mom” Susan answered with sarcasm.
“Anyone else?”
She shook her head no.
Reis entered the house and closed the door behind her. Inside the foyer, Ms. Fossert-Riley lay on the floor in her blue business suit. There was bruising on her throat. From the position of her head, her neck appeared broken. Reis looked back toward the door. The security control pad by the front door shone green.
Jerry was appalled by the images he was receiving. Susan’s mom was a bit stuffy, but always had been polite to him. Susan had argued with her in his presence more than once, but, as far as Jerry knew, their relationship was no rockier than that of most teenage girls with their mothers. Something about the green security pad bothered him. Had Susan calmly punched in the security code despite the scene in front of her? Or did someone else know the code?
Jerry arrived at 18 Roland. Susan saw him, but motioned to him to hang back. Two unmarked cars abruptly screeched to a halt in front of the house.
Kayla Mendez, Shropshire Hills police chief exited one, and two men in suits exited the other. Jerry guessed they were County Detectives. All strode to the front door. Jerry remotely watched the door fling open from Reis’ perspective.
“Is anyone in the house, Reis?” asked Mendez.
“I haven’t gone through it, but the girl, Susan, says no.”
“We’ll interview witnesses,” Mendez said officiously, apparently to emphasize her status to the County men.
“Yes, Chief.”
“Did anyone go in or out since you arrived?” Mendez asked.
“Then we’ll take over.”
Jerry waited until Reis was back in her car before approaching Susan.
“Susan, I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry. It’s horrible.”
“Not now!” she barked at him, loudly enough to turn some heads. Then she added quietly, “We’ll talk later.” Then she shoved him and said loudly, “Go!”
Confused, Jerry walked away. He returned his attention to Reis’ glasses.
“Did you see anything?” Reis asked the guard, ignoring her Chief’s instruction about witnesses.
“Nothing unusual. I already uploaded the gate vids for the detectives.”
“What about vids of 18 Roland?”
“There aren’t any. All the security cams are at the gate and on the perimeter walls. The Association voted to remove the ones inside the walls for privacy reasons, because lawyers kept demanding access to them in divorce cases – you know, trying to catch cheaters on camera.”
“I see. So, once inside the walls, someone could avoid being recorded?”
“Well, yes, in principle, if you are lucky. But with everyone Virtiglassed these days, there’s a big risk someone will record you,” Charley said
“Is there? If you look like you belong here, maybe no one would bother. Half the time when I come in here there is no one at all on the street or sidewalk. Charley, if you wanted to sneak in here, where would you do it?”
“Well, it’s a neighborhood, not a fortress. You can get over the wall almost anywhere. The south wall borders the park, so that’s the most logical place. I might not see you doing it if I’m not looking at the right monitor at the right moment, but there will be a record of you from the wall cameras.”
“You know, Charley, people place too much trust in technology. Maybe there are blind spots. Maintain a phone link with me while I check the walls.”
“Yes, OK.”
Reis drove out of the gate and parked next to the bike path at the point were it met Willard Road.
The Commons south wall was several meters from the path and paralleled it. She got out of the car and trudged along the south wall on foot, turning up her night vision for the dark. The cameras on the wall were clearly visible, presumably as a deterrent. She had traveled no more than a hundred meters when she pushed through some bushes and stumbled upon a stepladder. “M.G.” was painted on it.
Martinez Garage?” Jerry wondered aloud while remote-viewing. This was the place at the wall he, Susan, and the others would climb over, but he never had seen this stepladder before.
Reis tapped her glasses. “Charley, this is officer Reis,” she said.
“I hear you,” said the voice from her glasses.
“Do you see me on any of your monitors? I’m at the south wall.”
Almost a full minute passed before Charley answered. “No.”
“We’ve found our blind spot.”
Jerry broke his connection with Reis and headed home.
The house was empty when Jerry arrived. His mom was out with “the girls.” If she came home at all before morning she surely would be drunk. The odds were that she wouldn’t come home – not on a Friday. She’d find company at one of the clubs she and her friends haunted. He wondered how he had turned out so socially awkward with such an outgoing mother. His father lived on the West Coast, so he wasn’t much of an influence one way or the other.
Jerry lay in bed and awaited a phone call from Susan. When it came, it was not what he expected.
“They arrested my dad,” she said.
“Oh, sorry.”
Susan said she wanted to make a drug run without registering a withdrawal from an ATM. In other words, she wanted to borrow money from him.
“Do you really want to do this tonight?” he asked. “The police might be keeping an eye on you.”
“No, they already took the body away and they don’t think I did it,” she said. “I’m 18 so there are no social services involved. So tonight is a perfect night. You know what goes well with a good buzz?” she asked.
It was a clear hint that there would be lovemaking if he accommodated her. She was manipulating him heavy-handedly, but Jerry acceded anyway. “Yeah, OK.”
“Don’t worry, hon,” she added. “I’m going to inherit my mom’s estate soon, and I won’t have to bug you for money then.”
Twenty minutes later they were in Oxburg, with Jerry at the wheel of Susan’s car.
“Pull in there.” She pointed at a dark row of covered parking under an overhang of a run-down apartment building.   Susan knew all the blind spots from cameras and drones where the drug dealers conducted business. Jerry pulled into an open parking space. He felt way too vulnerable, but then he always did on these runs.
Jerry couldn’t mention the stepladder with the “M.S.” marking without revealing his police hacking. He simply asked, “Think he did it?”
She shrugged. “My dad? How should I know?”
A man approached in a hooded grey coat. Susan opened the window 30 centimeters and handed the man Jerry’s cash. The underground economy was probably the only reason physical cash still existed, Jerry reflected. Neither buyers nor sellers wanted to give up on it entirely and they had enough political clout to keep it in circulation. The dealer dropped something into her palm. She closed the window.
“OK, pull out of here and just drive around,” Susan instructed.
“What did you buy tonight?” Jerry asked.
“Why, do you want to try it?”
“It’s something new.”
Whatever it was, she smoked the same way as crack. She held a lighter to a tiny bronze pipe and inhaled. The air in the car suddenly smelled like burnt plastic.
“Whoo! You’re crazy not trying this,” she said.
She reached to the dashboard and turned up the air conditioner full blast.
“It’s sweltering in here!”
It wasn’t. Jerry hated these smoking drives of hers, but he knew that when she ran out (barring a demand for a second buy) they would end up in his bed.

It was Carter who had suggested that The Clique keep a low profile and cancel Game Night for a while after the murder. Jerry agreed readily, but an unanticipated side effect was that his nights with Susan were on hold, too. Since the night of her mom’s murder she hadn’t been with him once. It wasn’t for a lack of invitations from him.
Yet, despite the low profile, Officer Reis had asked to speak to him in the school library during regular school hours. He wondered if she had found out about his hacking somehow. As he hesitated outside the library door, he pinged Susan on her glasses.
Everyone wore glasses in school. The textbooks were downloaded onto them. Schools had given up on tests since answers to questions could be called up on the glasses almost instantly. Classes were no more than lectures and reading, which didn’t require a physical presence in school at all, but the teachers’ lobby was too powerful to allow their jobs to be undercut that way. Parents preferred physical schools, too, as someplace to dump their kids during the day.
Susan answered the ping, “What?”
“I thought you should know that a local cop wants to talk to me.”
“I know. She wants to talk to all of us,” Susan answered impatiently. “Wait for us.”
Almost immediately after she said this, she turned onto the hallway from a side corridor and approached Jerry.
 “What do you think she wants?” he asked. “If it’s about your mom, why does she want to speak to the rest of us here?”
“I really don’t know.” She nodded to the other members of The Clique who had entered the hallway. Two of them, Jose and Leila, were stoners and the walked as though high. They were having a public tiff because Jose had live-streamed Leila giving him a special favor. She posted on FaceGlass that she would have made herself up better had she known. Ryan Cruz was at Carter’s side, as usual. Ryan was beefy, silent, and menacing. Jerry sometimes wondered if there was anything physical between the two. If so, they never posted anything about it. Jerry couldn’t explain why Carter always was the leader. He just had charisma. He assumed command and others let him assume.
“You think it’s about… you know… Games?” Jerry asked.
“I don’t know,” said Carter. Expressing Jerry’s own fears, he flicked a finger on Jerry’s Virtiglasses and said, “Maybe you didn’t cover your tracks as well with those as you said you did. Let’s see what she wants.”
“Why are you smiling?” Jerry asked.
“I’m fascinated,” he said.
Carter opened the door and The Clique filed inside.
The library was an inspired location for privacy. No one went in here anymore unless their glasses were broken and they needed to use a computer. Officer Reis sat at a long table. No other chairs were on her side of the table but six were lined up opposite her. A metallic case lay on the table in front of her. She was un-spectacled. It was almost as disconcerting as if she hadn’t been wearing a shirt.
“Sit down,” Reis said. “Do me a favor, put all your glasses in this.” She slid forward a steel case wit a small blinking box attached. Her own Virtiglasses already were inside.
“Suppose I refuse,” Carter asked.
“Then you can leave and you won’t learn first-hand what this is about. I suspect you’ll stay if only to be certain what your compatriots say to me.”
“Are you recording this or transmitting?” Carter asked.
“How do I know you aren’t?”
“You mean, how do you know I’m not lying? You don’t, but I’m not. This case blocks the signal to and from the glasses. It is specifically designed to do it.”
“Are you sure it works?”
“If it doesn’t, you can complain to the manufacturer.”
Carter smirked and dropped his glasses in the case. The others followed. They sat down at the table. Reis snapped the lid shut.
Jerry felt oddly disconnected, and it seemed as though his senses were numbed. He wondered if the next generation, who wore Virtiglasses in preschool, would be able to function at all without the devices.
Reis addressed Carter. “Mr. Delacroix… may I call you Carter?”
“May I call you Rene?”
“Too bad. You can call me Carter anyway.”
“Carter, your Faceglass page links to an interesting manifesto.”
“I’m flattered. That is an obscure link in the ‘interests’ portion of the Profile. I wrote it a few years ago when I was a kid. I never took it down. Maybe I should, but I forgot all about it, to tell the truth. Did you enjoy it?”
“No, there is nothing new in it. It’s just warmed-over Nietzsche.”
“Well, like I said, I was a kid.”
“Do you still agree with it?”
“What part?”
“The part about morality being an arbitrary set of rules invented by rulers to keep the ruled in line and themselves in power. That free and superior people need not pay them any mind – except as a practical measure to avoid punishment.”
“Yes, don’t you?”
“So, what keeps you and your friends here from, oh, say, mugging and thieving and murdering?” Reis asked.
“Once again, you flatter me,” said Carter. “Your question implies that we are all superior people. Well, positing that we are just for the sake of argument, though it is debatable for some of us at least, we refrain from such things as a practical measure to avoid punishment. Also, superior people have better things to do.”
“Did the Oxburg muggings end because you found better things to do?”
“What are you suggesting?”
“I think you know.” 
Susan interrupted. “I thought this was about my mother.”
“Oh, it is.”
“What is happening with the charges against my father?” Susan asked.
“They’ve been dropped. He had a point when he argued that the evidence against him was so convenient he’d have to be an idiot to leave it behind. We couldn’t rule out the possibility that he is an idiot, of course, but the whole set-up gave us pause from the start. He has witnesses placing him in the garage at the critical time. It’s true that witnesses are often mistaken about times, but their depositions complicated our case. The GPS record of your father’s glasses were of no help because he doesn’t wear them in the garage and could have left them behind to record a false location. Besides… Carter, I’ll ask you this question. In what way is person with good hearing more vulnerable than a deaf person?”
“He can be distracted or even disabled by a loud noise,” Carter responded instantly.
“Precisely,” said Reis. “All of our new surveillance techniques are a new sense that makes us vulnerable to people who know how to disrupt them. For example, did you know that Virtiglasses can record false locations by routing them through special illegal foreign servers?”
“My dad is good with car engines, but not the IT stuff,” Susan said.
“No, he it appears that he isn’t.” said Reis while peering at Jerry. Jerry shifted in his seat.
“What’s more, you can buy clothes that will defeat the infrared sensors of drones – clothes rather like the attire worn by a young man I passed while en route to Miss Riley’s house the night of the murder. Those aren’t illegal to buy or wear, of course.”
“Do you have an accusation to make, Officer,” Carter asked, “or are you just here to make insinuations?”
 “Let me finish my insinuations. I believe that Susan’s father, Mr. Riley, had nothing whatsoever to do with the murder and that the stepladder was a plant. I believe the sociopathic Carter here has headed a gang of sweet suburban kids for whom video game violence just didn’t cut it any more. No, you all wanted to experience the real thing – and to experience getting away with it. Then, to experience the ultimate thrill, one of you strangled Susan’s mom because she was threatening to send Susan to rehab – yes, we know about that, Susan. I believe that not only did you frame Susan’s father, you gave motive and clues pointing to Jerry. That’s right, Jerry, your friends told us about your special relationship with Susan and how you her mother objected to you. I suspect that if things got too hot, you might have committed ‘suicide’ and left a detailed note blaming yourself for everything.”
“This is slander, Officer,” said Carter coolly.
“Sue me. We can discuss it in open court.”
“No need. We’re all friends here. They know the real truth.”
“My guess is that only three of you do, but maybe five.”
Leila and Jose, who had been silent through the meeting, glanced at each other and looked as though they really needed some weed.
“Here’s the part that really makes me sick,” said Reis. “I can’t prove any of this. The Chief and the detectives think the whole idea is far-fetched and that we never could get an indictment, much less a conviction.”
“Well, they’re talking sense. So why are you bothering talking to us?” Carter asked, genuinely curious.
“To prevent crime. It’s my job, and if I can’t arrest those responsible for past crimes I at least can stop them from committing new ones. Besides, it may save Jerry’s life, not that he deserves it. I’m watching all of you, and I’ve at least planted seeds of doubt about you in the Department. I hate it that you got away with murder, but I want to make it very clear you won’t get away with another one.”
“You are mistaken about all this, Officer,” said Carter. “I’m sorry for you. It must be horrible to have such delusions. I’m so sorry for you that I won’t even sue you. But, if it makes you feel better, muggings are kids’ stuff. If anyone in this school ever has done such a thing, I’m sure it was a passing phase. There are bigger and better opportunities.”
“Such as?”
“Well, such as one I’m presently pursuing. I’m anticipating a career in politics. I’m eligible to run for town council this year. Those elections have miniscule turnout, so with a little help from my friends, I’m pretty sure I’ll win in the fall. Just a first step, you understand.”
“I do indeed.”
Reis opened the box and let the students retrieve their glasses. As they filed out the door, she felt gratitude that there were 17 years before Carter was age-qualified for the land’s highest office.

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