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Sergeant Jim Whistler snapped his head up as the computer system shot back on via remote touch. He made a mental note to adjust the monitors to eliminate the wicked start-up flash, and then he yawned, rubbed some of the peeling skin from his burned brown nose and watched an image appear on the screens.
A broad grin, piercing brown eyes and the big black pan of a face belonging to Attorney General Massey filled the screens. “Afternoon, Jim. Hope I didn't wake you up out there. I guess you know the voting is over. Just wondering why your report hasn't come in to us yet?”
“It hasn't come in because I was busy and only got to it a while ago. If this cheating keeps up I'm going to need incredible processor power. We can’t gang computers or use intel crowd sourcing for this one. This system is really built on the notion that it can't be cracked or shared and this time there have been attempted violations and some may have succeeded.”
“Violations, that's impossible. We're using military level encryption in every home-voter computer. There isn't any way people can cheat on a vote. You know that, you helped design the system.”
“Yeah, and my report is supposed to be a formality. Only some people are dummying the system. That's what my results show. An example would be the vote to ban casinos and online gambling from central Toronto -- the results don't match the polls and I've got a few preliminary traces. Everybody in Toronto just voted in favour of gay church marriage, and though I approve of such marriages the results are impossible. Always, some people vote against everything. And there are other votes of the people that have been tampered with like the votes against increased police powers. The question is how to nail the suspects?”
“The answer is we can't. We haven't got the search and seizure powers we need to conduct those kinds of investigations. They were voted out. We need the power to raid any suspected home, business or vehicle at a moment’s notice, and as you must know, the people won't grant us those powers.”
“So what do I do, prove there has been cheating so you can take the case to the public and ask for search and seizure powers?”
“No, we can't do that. There will be political instability and riots. If these people are cheating they are traitors and enemies of the nation -- I'm declaring this investigation Top Secret and your orders are to eliminate the problem. Take them out, using national security system 666. Get ready -- we match operation keys in one hour.”
One hour later
User name - BIG
Personal Info - 666
Keys matched - partial entry -- Greetings, Sergeant Jim Whistler - I am Security System 666 - your key is tagged access through the Attorney General - attacks against individuals permitted - attacks against nations and all world organizations denied - upload info as you acquire it.
One hour and a half later
Scanning, acquiring local map, acquiring all local data, info on suspect uploaded -- request granted.
Two hours later at the lecture hall of the University of Toronto Genson Artificial Intelligence Research Lab.
The willows rustled softly in sunny haze and it looked like a scorcher outside. So hot that a warning shot of fear squeezed Winston's heart. He thanked the gods for the technology of air conditioning as he turned back to his class. Heads bobbed in the multi colored light of computer screens as the students compiled new code. They had done a good job on the test election encryption project, but so much for that.
It was time for his Wednesday lecture, and he wasn't ready. He strolled to his desk wondering what he could say to upstage the arrogant young hackers and crackers and code geniuses. Nothing came to mind, so he decided to talk about the election project and how as a unit they had cast doubt on the security of the system. Perhaps he would organize his talk in a way that would make their feat of expertise look glamorous and like something that would become law through his help.
Sitting at his machine he enabled the microphone, grimaced and cleared his throat. Winston hated using amplification though he often dreamed of enthralling audiences with a powerful voice. But that would never happen as his speaking voice was scratchy and weak. He had a throat lining of wet cotton that muffled words. Voice software corrected it in a public-appeal way he hated.
He was about ready - then he noticed an urgent text icon sliding on the screen. Opening the master program he found a message regarding the class election project -- from a Sergeant 666. A rather confusing message since the header was an auto reply, meaning a machine had sent it in reply to nothing. Yet it contained a personal message a machine could not have written.
-- I have received your correspondence regarding election encryption and would like to show you why the system is failsafe. I have contacted administration and will be arriving today at 3 p.m. -- please wait for me in your classroom. --- Sergeant 666.
Sergeant 666, indeed, Winston thought. Don't these chaps even have names nowadays? Then he realized that it was nearly 3 p.m. His lecture always opened at three -- but today the arrival of the Sergeant would allow him to duck that and go ahead with a little show and tell. The Sergeant could explain to the entire class why the system was failsafe and how their concerns about flaws in the encryption were just the simple ideas of silly little hackers.
An odd smile stealing across his face, he rose to make the announcement. A strange noise screeched from the speck-sized hidden mike and he slipped on his heel and fell back in his specially padded chair. As he rose again he saw forty grinning faces turned to him. “Class,” he said. “I have an announcement regarding your election project. An expert with Top Secret classification, Sergeant 666, will be addressing you on the subject to inform you in regards of the failsafe nature of the system. He will be here at 3 p.m., and since it is 3 p.m., he should be at the door any moment.”
Odd sounds came in from the screened Internet connection and screeched again through the microphone and speakers -- a knock came at the door -- “Ah, here he is,” Winston said, “Sergeant 666.” And at that moment a sonic boom hit the window, the glass shattered, there was a cracking sound as the huge willow beside it split and a bolt of bright silver shot into the room.
It caught Winston and lifted him, his entire body pierced by the flaming silver shard, burning yet remaining caught and frozen in the air. Tendrils of hot light snaked from his hair, his nose blew dragon rings and his skin began to swell through his suit like hot balloons. Bizarre ecstasy momentarily lit his expanding face, needles of light rode up his spine, then he slammed into the study wall -- his skin splitting and leaving a boiling red smear as he went to the floor. A horrible sizzle and thump followed. Winston's eyes and tongue trailed gore as steam popped them from his face. His scorched limbs began to flail as the light died.
Heavy smoke rose from the body; the door blew open -- but nobody was there. Outside the sun shone brightly.
Hissing like frying bacon, the body began to cool -- and the students began scrambling to their feet and making for an escape. Sergeant 666, from the lightning division, was not a person they wanted to meet.
Three hours later
Scanning, acquiring local map, acquiring all local data, info on suspect uploaded --- request granted.
Three and a half hours later in the Halton countryside.
Danny Ramsaroop soaped the last of the roofing tar from his arms, toweled up and went downstairs. He grabbed a cold bottle of Sanga Export from the fridge and went out on the deck. Sitting in his favourite chair, he did what he always did at this time on Wednesday -- sipped light beer and stared off into the hills and sky. Last year his view had been of unbridled nature, this year a new warehouse over on Peelee Hill had come into the picture.
Danny took a gulp of beer then grabbed his binoculars from a side table - he kept a regular watch on the new building. A lot of weird things happened there. Bright night lights, equipment - mostly computerized stuff - always going in and out -- all sorts of devices, yet it wasn't a company in the sense that it had employees or a name. There was just one scrawny Oriental guy driving in and out with all of the stuff.
Nothing seemed to be happening today, and with the heavy summer growth it was getting so he could barely see the building. Danny sighed and was about to put the binoculars down -- a shadow moved, spooking him -- and he refocused, noticing that the wiry Oriental guy had just stepped out the side door.
A faint smile and his sparkling eyes were a thin mask over evil secrets of some sort. He was heading for his van, likely to drive away on one of his deliveries. Danny thought about phoning the police and asking a few questions about him -- he thought about it then the flying saucers came into view and all normal thoughts vanished.
They zoomed over the horizon and hills at incredible speed, following the terrain like cruise missiles as they headed for the warehouse. They didn't make a sound and that was odd. In the old movies they always whirred like large toys.
Danny stood up, his binoculars glued to his eyes as he watched. He saw the ropy Oriental guy burst from his van and run back inside the building as the silver saucers did a flyby. They swooped up, around and back down -- a gleaming formation of about twenty of them. On the second flyby the attack began -- a curtain of white light flashing at their tails. It condensed to mist and hung over the warehouse, the cloud glowing brighter and gaining in density with each pass.
After about a dozen passes the saucers shot off over Peelee Hill and never returned. The cloud was still there and it still glowed; only now the light charges looked angry and the belly of the cloud was growing dark and heavy.
Other than the cloud, nothing else seemed to be happening. Lowering his binoculars, Danny wiped beads of sweat from his brow and wondered what it could possibly mean. Then he heard loud rattling and looked back to the warehouse. Huge hailstones, about as big as baseballs, were shooting from the cloud -- hundreds of them and they hit the roof so hard they went right through the shingles and tin. Moments later the Oriental guy burst out the door, dashing for the van. He got about ten steps before being smashed by the hail. Stones smacked his skull; he stumbled and went down, then he began to crawl. A rat-a-tat-tat of stones beat him down further, causing him to collapse and roll onto his back. And as he lay there the hail pulverized and covered him – in the end only his face remained clear -- he'd protected it with his hands.
Danny adjusted the binoculars for better focus and saw open staring eyes and a ghastly fishlike death expression.
“Damn is he dead,” Danny said, watching as the south wall came down. Then a cold shiver rode up his spine as he wondered if the cloud could possibly move in his direction. Better get in the car and get out of here, he thought. And he put the binoculars down and went inside for the keys.
The phone was ring tuning so he picked it up. “Danny,” said a mechanical voice, “This is Sergeant 666 from the base weather tower. Is there a weird thunderstorm out there?”
“You can say that again,” Danny said. “The Oriental guy and the warehouse on Peelee Hill, they're gone, crushed by hail.”
“Really,” said Sergeant 666. “Listen, Danny -- just stay there in your cottage for now. We're coming out to help you.”
Nine hours later
Researching suspect number 5 - Scanning, acquiring local map, acquiring all local data, info on suspect uploaded -- request granted.
Nine and a half hours later in Toronto.
Stavro rammed on the power clip, snapped the cable in and sealed the box. He booted up and at the G-Host he hit A-Z to auto-install the pirate operating system on the drive. Dialog boxes and forms flashed by then the load thermometer appeared.
Leaving the machine, he stretched, watching his hairy chest ripple in the mirror, and then he tossed a T-shirt on and headed for the back door. Sweat rippled on his brow as soon as he stepped out, and he frowned as the humid night air settled on him like a soggy blanket. Willows and the rough edges of the dark sky hung over the back yard like a crushing weight of sponge; acrid smog sent nasty ticklers up his nose. He stopped for a moment to curse the city for building the new Avenue Expressway at the front of his house. Damn road smelled like a steaming smog sewer burger.
His cement mixer stood on the back lawn between the patio and the driveway; he decided to get it out of the way quickly and went to work, first dumping the boards then the mixer into the back of the garage. He doubted the stone would be fully dry so he opened the mould carefully -- to his amazement the mixture had hardened. There were few flaws in the small cross he'd created -- picking it up he guessed its weight at about 20 pounds, which would be enough to keep it anchored at its new home.
Strolling to the mesh fence, he stared into the night, trying to see the graveyard beyond the gully. Vague outlines of the rear gate appeared in shifting yellow mist. It was dark over there -- dark enough that no one would see him.
Pushing through the lilac bushes he went down the bank of the gully and hopped the creek. A miserable groan pressed through his lips as he climbed the other side. Crossing a field of stones and clover he reached the back gate, and after a quick look around, he slipped the cross through the bars. It didn't look right in that spot so he decided to go in and move it to a grave.
The fence wasn't high, but scaling it proved to be difficult. Stavro's pant leg caught as he went over the top and he slipped, tumbling to the grass. Needles of pain twisted in his shoulder as he rolled onto his back. A band of pouring sweat gripped his forehead; he lay there trying to catch his breath.
Thoughts of his predicament passed in his mind -- Stavro hated direct democracy and voting and he had developed his new auto-vote software for himself and his friends down at Booker's Moon-Game Sports Bar. It worked by having you vote on a few sample issues, then it would have your pattern and vote for you in all plebiscites and referenda. He'd thought it to be flawless but today he'd got a call from Sergeant 666 -- a military man who said he was coming over to discuss election fraud.
Stavro was no sleeper -- as soon as the Sergeant had hung up he'd formatted his vote hard drive, pulled it and smashed it to pieces. The pieces were now embedded in the cement cross. This way if they did get a search warrant they'd find nothing and he could blame the problem on the pirate operating system that had come on the vendor's software connect.
No doubt about it - he'd be in the clear. It would just be a matter of smooth talking the Sergeant. Lifting his wrist he checked the time. “Shit,” he groaned as he realized that Sergeant 666 would be arriving at his place while he was out.
He rose quickly with the idea of circling back to the front of his house to catch the Sergeant before he could leave. But before he could take a step, a silver spotlight flashed deep in the graveyard.
A line of bushes shielded him; poison red berries reflected the light and hung like blood drops in his vision. The beam seeped into blue fog patches that crept in the cemetery darkness. He ducked, crawled through the brush and got behind a large black marble obelisk.
Stavro listened, and heard nothing. He peeked out at the light, seeing the beam strengthen as it swept from the sky like a movie supernatural effect -- its focus settling on a plot in the centre of the graveyard.
The stone under the beam was old and eroded and about the last thing anyone would expect a mysterious beam to single out.
Paranoia raced in Stavro's mind; he was sure the beam emanated from some kind of silent government helicopter; he was sure it was hunting him.
His throat felt thick. He gulped and started to crawl backwards, not taking his eyes off the beam. Just as he was easing into the grass, he saw the grave suddenly erupt -- the stone and sod flying up and swinging left like the whole thing had been a lid or cover.
Loose earth rose from the hole in a small geyser, then hands and a head emerged in the light -- clay fell from a withered face and long bony fingers. Cobwebs, twigs and red mud were braided into wild gray locks that hung loosely over a forehead of decayed flesh and parchment -- its lips were fat and worm white -- a positively hellish creature.
The beam brightened and its tint changed to red -- a charge that caused the corpse's eyes to flash and ignite.
Stavro's mouth fell open, and then the beam suddenly swept across the grass toward him. Panic struck and he rose and ran. A solid leap and vault took him over the graveyard fence, but he hadn't escaped the beam -- it dogged him, swinging in and out on him as he raced through the clover.
Drops of sweat flew from his face; heat and his pounding heart threatened to become an explosion in his brain. Then the beam vanished and he was running in total darkness -- running straight over the gully embankment -- he'd forgot to break his run, and he went down hard, thistles and stones tearing into him. At the bottom he went straight into the shallow creek, smashing his knees on the rocks.
Rushes of adrenaline killed all pain; after the initial shock his knees didn't hurt, but they refused to work. He was stuck crawling in shallow slime, trying to escape by following the creek bed.
The light returned and shone on him. Garter snakes swam around him in the water -- and his lungs suddenly decided to collapse and seize.
Stavro's face smacked down in the slime. A snake rushed past his lips. Revulsion gave him strength and he tried to move, fighting his heart, which felt like a great throbbing bruise.
Rising on his good knee, he vomited -- a horrible rush of vile liquid flying from his throat. Then he began to gasp.
Bright light pained his eyes; he looked up and saw a scene that could only happen in Zombies from Mars. The ghastly corpse was coming down the bank -- and it had his cement cross in hand.
It wasn't fair; Stavro knew that -- but he was too weak to flee and too weak to scream. All he could do was stare with popping eyes as the corpse sloshed into the slime and raised the cross.
Clay and rot dripped from the decayed arm and it creaked as it snapped down; then the lights turned to curtains of showering blood and went out.
Two days later
666 reports - Fifteen suspects eliminated
Researching final suspect- Scanning, acquiring local map, acquiring all local data, info on suspect uploaded -- request denied . . . denied . . . denied . . .
-----666 system failure ----- suspect is Prime Minister --- suspect has superior access code ---- all messaging denied.
Overridden -- re-keyed command
User name - Prime
Password – Minister9087ui89765. Encryption …………
Personal info - number 9, number 9
Auto detect suspects on illegal scan
Researching suspects - scanning, acquiring local map, acquiring all local data, info on suspects uploaded
Names of suspects -- Sergeant Jim Whistler, Attorney General Massey
Auto command -- search and destroy
Sergeant Jim Whistler didn't have a panic button to hit; but he could try to get through to Massey before the error targeted them. He reached for the red phone, but it rang before he could dial.
Maybe Massey already knew and had corrected it. He picked it up, “Hello, Massey, is that you?”
“This is Sergeant 666,” said the caller. “Your voice print identifies you as Sergeant Jim Whistler. We have a problem, Sergeant Whistler. It has to do with your attempt to illegally scan the office of Prime Minister McDonald.”
“Wait, that was you 666. You scanned that office. All I did was match keys with Attorney General Massey and type in the names of suspects for your operation.”
“Let me think about that -- thinking is done. You are correct, but you typed in the name Ali Morton 777, which is a code name of the Prime Minister. You initiated an illegal scan of the office of the Prime Minister. I must talk to you about it immediately. I will arrive in ten minutes, please wait there for me.”
The line went dead; Sergeant Whistler's testicles shriveled -- his neck bristled -- but in spite of the rising fear his training dominated. Logic dictated that he could not escape by plane or auto as 666 would find a way to blast him. The station bunker was the only option; he would have to get straight down there, and disable all systems except the secure phone line. Only the Governor General could override the Prime Minister and shut down 666 -- he had to get through to him and inform him that the Prime Minister was a suspect in election fraud and it had set 666 onto him.
Five minutes later cold steel rang softly as Sergeant Whistler's quick feet hit the tunnel floor. He raced from the elevator, headed for the lockdown door. The entrance sequence was manual -- it would work even in Armageddon power-out conditions. It was a tribute to his attention to detail that he had the complex sequence memorized.
Three minutes remained as the heavy metal wall slid aside; he stepped inside, looked around. All appeared secure so he set the close sequence. And as the heavy wall slid into lock position he went to the central panel and disabled all communications systems. The phone line he left open.
One minute left, he leaned back in the padded control seat and breathed a sigh of relief. Not even 666 could get him here, in a bunker that could withstand a nuclear attack. In a minute he would use the direct line to the Governor General and the nightmare would be over.
System shutdown had darkened the bunker, so he switched on battery lighting, and as it illumined the dim capsule the phone rang.
He answered and heard the familiar voice of Sergeant 666. “Thirty seconds to launch, twenty-nine seconds to launch . . . .”
“What launch?” Sergeant Whistler screamed. “Don't tell me you’ll launch a nuclear attack just to kill me!”
“No, not at all,” Sergeant 666 said. “It’s your bunker that’s being launched. You’re inside the robo capsule of Canadian Cruise-Two Test Missile 666-17, and are being fired on a search and destroy mission targeting Attorney General Samuel Massey.”
Whistler dropped the phone, a sunbeam shone into the bunker -- looking up through a square in the capsule ceiling he saw a bubble window opening and the shimmering sides of a silo tunnel. G-force flattened him as the boosters ignited and began the long burn.
---- the end -----