Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Fault Lines

A familiar meow made Zach cringe. It was pitched like fresh chalk on a chalkboard. Zach had read somewhere that wildcats don’t meow. It’s a technique used by domestic cats to annoy humans.

“Is that you, Arpie?”

As Zach headed for the kitchen, he imagined for moment getting an articulate reply, “Of course it’s me, dumbass!” Instead, Arpie wailed again. It meant the same thing. The grey tabby stood in front of her dish and looked up at him expectantly. Arpie was wet and dirty, but appeared to be unharmed. She had been AWOL for three days.

The name “Arpie” came from the initials “RP” for Royal Pain. Her voice had earned her the moniker. The cat had shown up in the kitchen on the day he moved into the house two years earlier. He assumed she had belonged to the former owners. They were a married couple who had been killed when a fight with a neighbor over politics escalated out of control. Without the big price discount on account of the murder, Zach never could have afforded the property. Enough buyers are superstitious about such things to make most crime scenes bargains. So, it all worked out well for him, though Zach resolved not to get to know any of his neighbors. The house was only four years old, and boasted a SecurePlan, the most fortified of the four home models in the development. The house was modest in size, but was the next best thing to a bunker

The two cat doors, apparently custom-ordered, were chinks in the home’s armor. One was installed in the steel door between the kitchen and the garage; the second was built into the far concrete wall where it exited behind bushes. A grenade or Molotov cocktail easily could be tossed through the outer cat door. However, the garage contained an excellent fire control system, so the risk of serious damage to the rest of the house was minimal. If he planned on keeping the cat, he figured the risk of the keeping doors unblocked was lower than that of opening a full size door to let the animal in or out. He had second thoughts about this the night a rabid raccoon entered the house through the doors, but he had dealt with the crisis quickly with a 9mm. It was possible the animal had been pushed into the garage deliberately, but he couldn’t be sure. He hadn’t had the exterior cameras turned on at the time. He kept them turned on permanently after the incident, but none was currently working. He didn’t know if they had been shot out or if the back-up batteries simply had worn down.

Zach opened a cabinet and withdrew a can of something promising “Seafood Flavor.” The can didn’t specifically promise seafood itself. He emptied it into the cat’s bowl. Arpie ate unfussily. She then marched off to the dining room, jumped on a padded chair, and curled up to nap. She left much needed grooming for later. Zach opened the pantry where he kept most of his own food, and looked at the sparse contents on the shelves. He needed to go grocery shopping very soon, or he would be sharing cat food with Arpie.

Zach hadn’t heard gunfire for two days, and Arpie’s presence was additional evidence the streets were quiet. Her survival instincts were excellent. She knew when to hole up and when to travel safely.

Zack decided to look. He opened the sash window above the kitchen sink, reached through the steel bars, and unlocked the steel and Kevlar shutters. He moved to one side and cautiously pushed them open. He intended just a quick glimpse, but the pretty view held his attention. Light snow covered his back lawn and bushes though it was no more than two centimeters deep. He went to the living room, opened a front window, and bravely pushed open the shutters. The scene out front was peaceful, too. Snow made everything look clean.  There were no tire tracks on the road. Zach shut the sash and walked around the house opening more shutters.

With more hope than expectation, Zach retrieved his VirtiGlasses from the coffee table. For the past 48 hours he had been cut off from the outside world. His fiber optic connection went dark the day after the riots started, and no wireless signals had gotten through for the past 48 hours. He was as isolated as though he were living in the 20th century. His grid electric power was out, too, but the solar panels on the roof at least kept his overhead LED lights on. Zach tentatively slipped on the glasses. He sighed relief as the internet booted up. He was catching a signal so weak that it was no wonder it had failed to penetrate his brick walls, metallic roof, and armored shutters. A heads-up notice appeared from his internet provider: “The loss of a microwave tower on the West end of Cordialville may cause some gaps in coverage.” The lost tower was barely a kilometer from Zach’s house.

He called up the local news on heads-up display. In a live feed the mayor was taking credit for the restoration of peace while blaming her political opponents for the violence: “Thanks to the hard work of city administrators and our first-responders, security has been restored to our citizens. We want to thank the National Guard for their additional help. Opponents of our fine administration in this election year need to take responsibility for their inflammatory rhetoric that has incited so much violence, property damage, and death. I’ve instructed the district attorney to look into the possibility of criminal charges on that basis!”

As far as Zach knew, the riots had nothing to do with city electoral politics. He doubted the mayor rightfully could take credit for the current calm either. Weather always was more effective than law enforcement in these situations. The rioters – or activists, as nearly all preferred to be called – of all the various stripes had been willing to face rivals and police, but not an unseasonable chill.

A message from the city Violations Bureau flashed on his glasses. It was an e-Ticket. Zach had been fined $200 for not sweeping the sidewalk in front of his house within 24 hours of the snowfall as required by city ordinance. He looked out the window at his neighbors’ properties. None of the other sidewalks was clear. The city would be recouping some of the riot-control costs.

Zach connected to his employer’s website and signed in. Zach expected a termination notice for failure to show up to work at the Forty Winks Hotel where he serviced the hotel’s computers and electronics. Clerks had been replaced long ago by digital desks, so the only employees in the hotel usually were himself, a security guard, and one or two maids, who did little more than supervise the cleaning robots. A notice popped up, but it was not a pink slip. It was a temporary suspension without pay “pending reconstruction.”  Zach did a news search for Forty Winks and learned that the hotel had been closed for a week; it had been targeted in separate attacks by radical conservatives, anarcho-feminists, neo-Marxists, and four different ethnic gangs. Each had objected to different activities or biases “tolerated” at the hotel. The hotel had been damaged by rifle fire, RPGs, and fire bombs. Several of the guests had been dragged out of their rooms and executed. The security guard was missing, and had failed to return home. Zach was relieved. He didn’t want to go on some database as a possible disgruntled former employee.

Food was the only pressing issue for Zach. The latest models of affordable 3D home printers had replaced the need to shop for almost anything else. Online retailers and delivery services had seen sales and business plummet in the past year. Even complex products such as TVs simply could be printed. The new printers could accrete products from any mix of materials, fusing metal powders with lasers – and Zach had one of the newest. He also had a plentiful supply of all the necessary powders, and, if need be, his home Kem-Kit device could make more. The Kem-Kit, among other useful capabilities, could recycle trash, separating it and converting it into various compounds – or all the way down to powdered elements, if so desired. Together, the two machines turned every home into an omni-purpose factory. As much of a boon to consumers as they were, however, they had a dark side: the spread of truly dangerous weapons. In addition to churning out radios and laundry soup, they just as easily could make rocket launchers and nerve gasses. Software for producing such weaponry was illegal to distribute, of course, it was simple enough to find and download on the internet from safely encrypted sites.

The clock on the wall thermostat caught his eye. It was blinking 12:00. Utility grid power had been restored. This meant his printer and Kem-Kit were functional. Zach decided to check on them before leaving the house. He light-footedly descended the stairs to the basement. His basement was a walkout in one corner, but this was not a security weakness: the heavy steel double doors, held shut by a hefty steel cross bar, were safe against anything less than armor piercing 20mm fire. He re-checked his printer supplies. He reassured himself that the quantities were ample.

Just inside the double-doors was his pride and joy, and he was happy to hear it humming again. It needed grid power – the home photovoltaics were not enough to power it – so it had shut down when the power went out. He couldn’t believe how lucky he had been for having been selected to “market test” the device for free. Called Philosopher’s Stone, it was a radical home assembly that went a leap beyond 3D printing. Manufactured by FinalWord Enterprises, a non-public company, Philosopher’s Stone could transmute elements using miniaturized lasers and particle accelerators. Only a dozen other lucky people around the world had been selected to test the device. Internet searches turned up nothing about the manufacturer – not even a company address – but Zach understood the need for secrecy. A machine such as this surely was worth millions per unit. FinalWord had contacted him online and made absolute secrecy part of the deal; Zach agreed readily, not least because his possession of the device, were it known, would make him a target for thieves. The machine had arrived in an unmarked van; men wearing masks set it up in his basement. It seemed unnecessarily melodramatic, but, at the same time, exciting. Zach tested the machine at once on a platinum ring. The process took days to complete, but the machine little by little vaporized the ring and re-deposited it as gold. True to the machine’s name, and the claims of the manufacturer, Philosopher’s Stone could indeed transmute elements. Many transmutations were possible, but some transitions were simpler than others. The process wasn’t fast and it was energy intensive (Zach’s energy bills soared through the roof), but it worked. Zach placed his hand on the humming device, smiled, and walked back upstairs.

Zach perused his social network pages. They were filled with rants from his NetFriends, all of whom vented their offense at the rants of other NetFriends. They rudely raged about each other’s discourtesy. Zach was glad for the impersonality of the internet. He hadn’t socialized with a friend in the flesh in six months, and these postings were a reason why. He had no wish to argue like this over politics while within the reach of an interlocutor’s fist – and his friends seemed to want to discuss little else. He’d even given up on dating except for the love-bot he kept in the closet, if that counted. When turned on and connected to the VirtiLife gaming site on the net, the robot displayed the AI personality he had selected for her. Her simulated personality suited him quite well, and he thereby escaped the hassles of the real thing.

Zach scanned the local headlines. He learned the nearby microwave tower had been destroyed by the radical eco-group 3RockFirst, who objected that the tower was powered by electricity derived from fracked natural gas. A statement on the group’s website said the company was to blame for inciting the attack with its violence against the Earth. The power company website in turn announced it had authorized the use of deadly force against future incursions by 3rdRockFirst, and said the group had only itself to blame.

Zach zipped quickly through the headlines, briefly opening the occasional article. It seemed every nut-job with a cause had joined in the riots, and the blame always lay with whomever they had harmed. Some of the assaults had been serious. A sarin gas attack had been unleashed on a street where tax objectors battled tax fairness protestors, killing scores of each. Each side blamed the other for the attack and promised retaliation. A video zoomed on a man of ununclear affiliation beating an already senseless and bloody prone body with a baseball bat: “What are you making me doing this?!” the man shouted. Politicians in DC joined the blame game. Congressman Geneen Offmyer of the Social Equity Party denounced “the depravity of right-wing extremist pundits, who must take responsibility for the violence.” Senator Loophorn of the New Federalist Party blamed “the hate speech of the loony Left which deliberately incited the violence against our nation’s wealth creators.” The bulk of the rioters, though, had agendas that went beyond the traditional left/right divide. A local Men’s Rights group blamed “femo-fascists” for bombing their local offices while the President of Cordialville Community College blamed “troglodyte” patriarchalists for burning down the Women’s Studies building. The actual perpetrators remained unknown in both cases. Then there were the racial gangs. Radicals from various religious groups fought with each other and with the atheists. There even was a melee of vegetarians and carnivores.

Among all the rioting factions, there was one constant assertion: it was always the other side’s fault. No one yet had totaled the casualties. It was known that IEDs killed hundreds. Gas attacks had killed thousands, but no more exact numbers than that were available. Zach sighed and turned off the news. He remembered fondly the simple days when a “polarized electorate” meant two sides misrepresenting each other’s opinion with a level of sarcasm that by comparison was polite. Current politics were multi-polar with (literally) a vengeance – the sitting President had won with only 27% of the vote in a six-way race, and retained little confidence even from that 27%. She was a unifying force only to the extent that a large majority of Americans hated her.

Zach called up a view from a traffic drone and zoomed in on his route. The roadways to the mall looked clear. Zach decided to risk it. He went to the bedroom and donned his Kevlar travel suit.

Zach climbed into his natural gas hybrid sedan, remotely opened the garage door, and backed into Amity Road, his neighborhood’s cul-de-sac street. A low-flying drone circled overhead. He hoped it was a police drone, and not one owned by some radical group – or even some loner. Drones, too, could be home printed from plans off the internet, complete with air-to-ground missiles. He turned onto Elm Street. Zach once again wondered about the name, given that there were no elms on either side of the street. There was a copse of buckthorn, though, and it was from there that the two rounds that pinged off his bullet-resistant windshield were fired. The gunfire might have been simple playfulness, but it also could have been in retaliation for the negative votes on school bond funding that came from his neighborhood, where few children resided. Zach felt naked without his own guns, but mall policy expressly forbad them and the mall’s security devices could detect them.

There were no other incidents during the drive, but burnt cars and charred buildings lined both sides of the road. He passed a small strip mall with smashed windows. It was an older structure that hadn’t been fortified to modern standards. The stores had been trashed and looted. He approached the razor-wire topped wall surrounding the Cordiality Mall. Just outside the gate were demonstrators carrying signs: “Zero tolerance for intolerance!” “Hate the haters!” “Behead Extremists!” He wasn’t sure what faction they represented or why they were here, but they seemed peaceful enough. He pulled up to the security gate. Cameras and other devices scanned his vehicle. The gate swung open. He drove through. Inside the wall, guards patrolled with submachine guns. The central mall structure looked unscathed. Far to his right he noticed the gate open at the service entrance. A Carbo-Bake delivery truck entered. Given the recent emotional political battles over food legislation, which restricted the sale of pastries of the type made by Carbo-Bake by banning their sale to minors and imposing heavy taxes, he thought it took some bravery for the driver to wheel the honestly marked truck on the streets. The truck drove around to the back of the mall to the loading docks.

Zach parked near the mall’s main entrance. The parking lot was less than a quarter full. He entered the building. The interior had the generic pleasantness of most large malls. A fountain gurgled in the center of a domed atrium from which aisles radiated. Four teenagers sat by the water seemingly staring into space, but more probably playing videogames on their VirtiGlasses. Zach felt some of the tension go out of him as he took in the normality of the scene. He walked past the fountain to the interior entrance of the U-Name-It-Mart. He grabbed hold of a push-cart just inside the entrance and rolled it to the grocery section. He had expected the shelves to be empty, but the store was well-supplied except for baked goods and dairy. Zach wanted canned goods anyway. In case violence had a second spurt, it was better to avoid perishables.

He loaded his cart quickly, and pushed it to the check-out counter. As he self-scanned his choices, a pretty browned-haired girl no more than 17 with the name “Nicole” on her nametag smiled at him as she oversaw the checkouts, keeping the shoppers honest. The woman in back of Zach asked Nicole “When do you expect fresh bread?”

“Probably tomorrow,” she answered, once again with a smile.

“I saw a Carbo-Bake truck enter the lot,” said Zach, “if that counts as fresh.”

“It’s not here for us,” Nicole said. “Our delivery is tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” said the woman.”

As Zach put his last bag in his cart, Nicole said “Have super awesome day.”

The explosion erupted from the back of the store. Zach guessed instantly that the blast had come from the unscheduled Carbo-Bake truck. Someone had hijacked it and filled it with explosives. The shockwave threw him down next to the counter. The counter helped protected him as the roof came down. When the roar of the collapse subsided, Zach took stock of himself. To his own surprise, he was unhurt. He pushed away debris from over his head and stood up. The sounds of survivors’ moans grew steadily louder. Not from Nicole, however. An aluminum rod protruded from her chest. She would have no more super awesome days. Zach picked up as many food cans as he could find in the rubble and stuffed them into bags. He carried them back to his car. Shoppers from other parts of the mall, not knowing if there would be other bombs, were fleeing in a panic.

As Zach drove home, he was more than ever convinced that this cycle of hate had to end. He was uniquely positioned to make a contribution to that end. He could prove that they needed to find a way to get along. What folks needed was an overwhelming demonstration of force. They were making him do it. They had brought it on themselves.

Back at home, Zach put away his food and then checked on the Philosopher’s Stone. Getting hold of depleted uranium had been easier than he had expected. It was scattered here and there around the world in expended ammunition, and was easily obtainable on the net. The Philosopher’s Stone was busily converting it to plutonium 239. The 3D printer already had finished manufacturing the suitcase bomb, using plans downloaded from the internet. It lacked only the plutonium sphere the Philosopher’s Stone was accreting. The website predicted a 30 kiloton explosion. He briefly wondered if similar spheres were taking shape in any of the other dozen basements with Philosopher’s Stones. He shook the thought aside. Regardless, it was for the greater good. All those people who refused to take responsibility for their own actions had brought it on themselves. It was their fault, not his.

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