2006 ARWZ Fiction Contest Winner
What Is Is
by James R. Manton
In the long scope of history the way it began for us is the way all half-baked revolutions begin, I suppose, caught up in the belief of gadgets and in the end the only thing remaining for us is the technology that gets us here. But, it was a very bad revolution conducted by very bad revolutionaries. The only clue we had in the beginning was that we were firmly on the cutting edge of technology.
"Once you comprehend that the basic principle of science and technology is not to make life better for human beings but only to create more science and technology. Once I got it, Harris," Anson said in his casual sardonic habit of instruction, "all the secrets of the universe were exposed. Except of course they never really are; they just evolve onto something more complex. And the next batch of revolutionaries aren't nearly so romantic. That's the real Ponzi scheme of science and technology, always to concoct a better version."
That afternoon we were headed west in a red convertible with our hair blowing in the warm spring breeze. As usual, I simply let his words wash over like the slipstream above the top of my head, nodding absentmindedly. West—where it all began for the three of us seemingly a millennium ago, out in the desert where no dinosaur had tread for so many eons. Their terrible fate seemed, now, only the logical extension of time.
But to get there in the twenty-first century, where the dinosaurs once supremely strolled, to get to the Owl Café in present day New Mexico, we took highway 380 west from Dallas—through the great central region of Texas once occupied by a benevolent sea, through Roswell to the dusty community of San Antonio, New Mexico. And that was the way we went riding with the MicroMan virus count just cresting four million across the pages of the internet.
"The entire thing started off as one colossal joke, one giant publicity stunt to get back at those know-it-all bastards." Anson drove on with one hand held lazily over the steering wheel. Miles of solitude stretched behind like one lone unwinding refrain.
"You mean your brother?"
"I mean science. No, precisely, I mean scientist. That's who really got us here, you know?"
"And you, the big artist. You have something to complain about? GlobalNet broke a billion in sales years ago."
The Cold War—that was the war of technology that Anson was referring to. That was our war. The one we grew up in front of television fighting; or, at least, once remote control came along, we could bounce around from Vietnam napalming in color to find more pleasant images faster. Then we could battle technology with more updated technology: our own introduction to the world of gadgetry.
He drove on in silence with the sun just settling to the hills in front of us.
"A billion in this market means something today?" he said under the wind. "And cut the artist crap. Everybody has dreams when they're kids. You were going to be an airplane pilot."
"Everybody is flying high enough in this market."
"That artist bullshit was all a long time ago."
"Like the dinosaur?"
Anson didn't appreciate the analogy. That was my own way of needling him, to short-circuit his monolog and get him unstuck from his own head. I held that position by pure rights of privilege, the kind that history gives us, not just as CFO at GlobalNet.com. Not that I'm some kind of lofty genius, mind you. In another lifetime I might have been one of those drivers of the eighteen wheelers headed west down this road to the Owl, or a biker making a regular stopover for the Green Chile Cheeseburgers on my way to somewhere.
One day, way back in high school, I didn't like playing dodge ball in PE and I signed up for the tennis team. That was where I first met the two brothers, number one and number two in competition. Twenty-two years later, I'm this hotshot dotcom CFO in a red-hot convertible with the CEO of the company headed west with the sun just about to sink below our visors. Nightfall would come before we reached the Owl.
As our own little history goes, the history of the three of us, the Owl Café had long been dishing out Green Chile Cheeseburgers by the time we came drifting along with our Cold War fervor. That was the growing up toxic radiation of our youth, and the Owl stretched all the way back in time to that original gadget—'The Gadget'—what Los Alamos scientists of that era referred to the fruits of nuclear technology. Even scientists igniting mathematical theories out on the high road to the desert to keep up with the competition couldn't resist a concoction like a Green Chile Cheeseburger with all the fixings on the side. Their signed dollar bills and pictures lined the walls same as the bikers, and the truck drivers, and all the other human paraphernalia that came drifting along through the doors of the Owl to escape the heat of intense noonday sun. The Trinity test site, the first nuclear bomb detonation site, tittered over the brink of the dusty plains to the southeast. A Green Chile Cheeseburger and a frosty foaming beer mug just seemed to hit the spot.
And down the road unwinding behind us back toward the east, Roswell, with its ever-present extraterrestrials that could be neither proved nor disproved. The Owl wait-staff had heard just about every theory imaginable and were never too particular about searing details.
Everything that wasn't tied down became some version of government conspiracy, all of which the serving staff at the Owl took wholly in stride, on a cash-revolving basis—what with the smacking surcharge on all major plastic. Anson had all the wealth he ever needed; by my estimation plastic wasn't nearly half the thrill associated with punching the gas pedal to the floor when we went zooming around eighteen-wheelers. Riches hadn't made Anson was any wiser, mind, but for my benefit he still had to prove that he was quite capable of risking everything in a split second on a back road in the middle of nowhere, to distance himself from the stuff he called back in our college days "the refuse of human history."
"History is written for people because that's who reads books, but history of people is never what technology is about," Anson had declared in our college chapter of debating society.
"What else can history be but about people?" I had stood defiantly at the opposing podium to counter him.
"If history of people is so vital then what is the name of the person who invented the fork? The saddle? Spear? Surely we would know the name of the individual who concocted the first earring? Why is it that names fade while the gadgets themselves, not only remain, but continue to evolve? Nobody need be reminded of the purpose of an Egyptian pyramid when each group piled rocks higher and higher—to outdo what came before. Over time, pyramids evolved. That is the legacy we're left with; so tell me, where are those glorified rock stackers now?"
That was Anson at his best, selling the debating society a bill of goods that we just didn't want to buy. That would be Anson, the artist, escaping the wrath of history by hurtling himself into this plaything, this computer toy, the PC, to prove that he was right about everything, selling the world a bill of goods they didn't want to buy. But, who ever wanted to build pyramids anymore? Those rocks had long ago been piled high enough.
"The past is for me to beat," Anson had assured me. That came later; we were standing on the fringe of a dirt-filled basin watching the cranes hauling mortar on the first GlobalNet.com campus site in Dallas. "The PC is the Cold War by other means."
"I suppose history has some people in mind." I had tried to make a joke, a reference back to those college society debating days.
That wasn't the history Anson was interested in anymore, at least not the way he wanted to write it, not back when GlobalNet was riding high on the pressure wave of the PC revolution. And each building block that went up on the GlobalNet.com campus had confirmed that maybe, just maybe, history had gotten those facts twisted and backward and it was up to him to set the record straight. Like I said, there was a certain amount of radiation exposed in our youth, the growing up radiation in New Mexico with the Trinity test sight just over the brow of the plains stretching all the way back into our imaginations.
And, it would seem, our imaginations stretched back pretty far if recent events, namely the MicroMan virus, turned out not to be the random concoction internet bloggers tried to make it. I had my own mounting suspicions.
I kept my mouth shut, though. For one thing, heading west in a red convertible he was the wild haired Anson of college days lore, when we'd spent our summers down at the Guadalupe River, Texas south of Austin—not the Dallas Anson businessman of the PC revolution, laying siege that was more about laying waste, wielding the hammer blow of technology like brandishing a sword to cleave a broad swath ahead of us. There were apologists on both sides of the spectrum, to be sure. For years now, a rift had been opening between us; we had fallen by default into a pattern of comfortable memories. As long as our lives played out according to the roles we had assigned ourselves, with the benevolent umbrella of GlobalNet to shield us from unpleasantness, then smiling and waving in the hallways with small talk at the big Christmas bash to round out and re-enforce our highly approved myths seemed perfectly acceptable.
Maybe it was age or discretion or both, but neither one of those attributes played very well to the PC world of perpetual revolution, and a cautious Anson was not the Anson of old. The more he set about solidifying his stature within the comfort of GlobalNet, its walls surrounding him like an invisible cocoon, the more treacherous the PC slope became, shaking us forward into uncharted territory. Perhaps that was the real reason we were ripping west in a red convertible, to dredge up some of the glory days, the days when we had everything to look forward to and nothing of real consequence behind. The power of a Green Chile Cheeseburger was compelling enough, and that was Anson's call to make these days. Like always, I was happy enough to be along for the ride. I was the one always left around to work through the delicate angles. That went way back, too.
"We have things to talk about," Anson said, throttling back to cruise control mode.
It sounded good enough that day riding west with the MicroMan virus count just cresting a positive four million, but we both knew his words to be an outright lie. He tried to make his tone sound upbeat, casual, like nothing had changed in the intervening years, and we were going to be whatever we had been before; for the course of a few hours, a drive in the country in a red-hot convertible, at any rate.
"Yeah." I nodded, the big corporate team player.
The MicroMan virus was an absolute marvel of electronic evolution, working like mad to clog the very systems that it depended upon for survival. Once unleashed out into electricity, to exist, the fundamental compulsion of the MicroMan virus was to proliferate. The virus was something of a hybrid between that of a throttled vampire worm and a Trojan horse. Where a worm virus could proactively burrow through electricity to infect systems, a Trojan horse could spread and exist patiently on the host system biding its time until contacted by an outside IP source that then had access to the host computer. One other ingredient critical for the survival of all computer systems allowed MicroMan to flourish—human fortitude in believing that intelligence, the human kind of intelligence, could outwit electricity every time. The greater the intelligence, the greater the virus required to exploit the vulnerability of the host and spread the MicroMan virus like wildfire.
After the initial, benign infestation, no harm to the host system could be detected. No files were destroyed. No passwords were compromised. No internet cookies were read. RAM was not trashed. The virus created a binary file then moved along, depositing her seeds. The binary file had no consistent name that could be searched by virus scanning software. The extension of the deposited file was .txt. The virus portion then attached itself to e-mails, and all e-mail addresses were scanned to e-mail out to every address, sent out like a radiating pulse wave of energy to bounce off every other wave of e-mails radiating back. The initial stage of the virus was simple enough to purge off web servers, but the binary text file remained, buried in the midst of each infected hard drive. Within twenty-seven hours of its release, the electronic grids of forty-three nations were infected. By the time the MicroMan.vir web page first appeared, every web server had become a host to the MicroMan web page. The idea was simple enough, really. A person clicked a button on a web page that called an IP address to display a new page much as a person would call another on a cell phone. The two locations of cell phone users remained fixed while the movement between broadcasting towers to each fixed cell location remained in a constant state of flux. Every web server with the MicroMan virus became a transmitting location so that the signal lost from one hub simply had to be picked up from another. The more hubs, the broader the signal.
Then the first web page appeared and the count commenced.
That was the three-stage delivery system of the electronic virus—the virus spreading to accept the web page host, the appearance of the web page to jump the virus across electrical grids, then the actual count. When clicked upon, either button on the web site became an instant initiator of the virus. The web page made the virus into an entirely new species—from a larva to a pupa to a butterfly. Any one butterfly could be smashed. Any one frog could be squashed. Any bacteria could be snuffed out, at any given moment. But, it was all circuits working in conjunction where electricity truly excelled. The virus needed a host to survive, and humans were more than apt to click internet buttons. Either button on the web site that was pressed, YES or NO, sent the MicroMan virus across grids and through firewalls, starting the larval stage anew, seeding itself in as many new hosts as there were people to click. The MicroMan.vir web page shifted TCP/IP locations according to the next person on the web site who clicked on the radio button for the capacity, YES—in answer to the question of whether they wanted to control a thermonuclear device. Vote NO on the web page, and the total count decreased by one. When the count reached ten million, through the internet, with a press of a single button, every person on the planet would then control a thermonuclear device. When clicked upon, the pop-up floating help icon with a rotating twirly question mark confirmed as much. "With all people on the planet equal, how safe a world can the Earth actually be?" The question was posed in bold italics at the bottom of the web page. "Military commanders from around the globe sit in conference halls looking at graphs evaluating the consequences of becoming totally automated." That was the MicroMan line, at any rate.
MicroMan was a computer virus and all computer viruses are containable—that was the line of our system personnel working overtime to delete the damn thing off our servers to keep the infection in check. The count persisted, however, and in persisting the very thing that our system personnel discounted was the exact thing that drove the virus forward—the count kept ticking away. Everybody had their own line, to be sure, and Anson's line was to the point and quite succinct, in a company-wide email: "This MicroMan virus is opiate for the PC masses." That little bit of wordy wisdom only served to increase the attacks across our company servers. Everybody had their own suspicions about who was punching which internet button.
My stuff with Anson went all the way back, though, further than the glossed over GlobalNet.com veneer that we had come to maintain, looking so neat and shiny on the surface. Anson showed up at my house to escort me to the StarShare conference in this red convertible, and we beat it like crazy around DFW airport to plow our way west passing eighteen wheelers. There was plenty of suspicion to go all around, like I said, but I just let the dry west Texas country wash over me like the intervening years had never taken place, and we were a low flying UFO once again like the days of old with Roswell in our sights and the inhabitants of this grossly mismanaged planet in need of our kind, malevolent instruction. There was a lot of hack science fiction, in between flipping channels to Vietnam napalming that kept our attention firmly focused in front of the television set in those early New Mexico years. We needed a whole lot of encouragement to get by back then and these days, with the China factor looming large, I still needed all the encouragement I could get.
The New Mexico desert in the springtime was one excellent place to disappear, too. Swallowed alive. The endless isolation. The flowing sea of liquid land between mountain ranges. They jutted up through brilliant white clouds like the islands they once were in the ancient seas eons before. Tiny sprigs of wildflower clustered, tossed along the road as random splotches of paint splatter, and the unwinding roll of magic tar and asphalt peeling off in a long unwinding sheet behind. There was no wonderment in the desert, only silence, a broadcast silence of such incredible overwhelming magnitude I couldn't help but strain to listen; and everywhere through the silence there was a sound, but a note, an individual refrain, like a framed picture contemplated for its simplicity and untarnished beauty. One note in time, one weathered vein. Then the music of the land gradually opened; the parting of the curtains, a hidden orchestra, the lowering of house lights, and the sudden startled realization of a Yucca plant in full blossom that looked like it simply had to have arrived from some other distant planet. Not this earth by a long shot. Surely the life support system had malfunctioned in some peculiar way and we were actually deposited in a red convertible probe sent off to some wild world orbiting Jupiter? Could this be Earth, not our Earth? Not the stuff we had lived, the radiation of our youth. Surely this was different? This had to be pure.
Towns intervened, though, cutting us back down to size. We paused, not much more than an idle, through Lincoln and past the courthouse that Billy The Kid terrorized but a mere blurb in time scarcely more than a hundred years before. He still was terrorizing at bargain basement discounts on headbands and cutoff halter tops for the tourists, casually lining up photo opportunities, as we glided passed. We punched it back to the country, where the bubble had always been for us, the cocoon wrapping us in our invisible shield. There was always the other stuff, the stuff we escaped, driving into the benevolent desert. So much of us had grown away, but the desert remained the same, startling so. That was our benchmark; we had been away a lot of years.
Anson tried his best to make like it was nothing, only a blurb in time, but we kept sinking back into the reverie of the country, silently scanning the hills and working through all the delicate angles. The angles were always the thing about us; I can see that much fairly clearly, now. Everything could be worked out if only the proper angle was found to go by. That was what made us different from the land. There were no angles out in the desert. Hiking around and observing nature, even that goes under the direct heading of somebody's philosophy. Hawks aren't nailing rabbits out in the hills to get back in touch with their inner child. Deer don't jump fences trying to "find themselves". All that was built up brain matter stuff; the kind of stuff that strings electrical wires around the globe tight like a ceiling fan motor. And everybody's got some angle, some way of obliquely looking at things. Yeah, I guess something had gone on in between all right. Things grow slowly, like a glacier moving along, then, bang-pow, you're back driving in the desert in the springtime and you suddenly have this peculiar sensation of what it was all like before, those kid years and long ago forgotten dreams. You don't get this perspective sitting around on some back porch swing watching the hills, either. All that chrome and glass we left behind back east in Dallas—now, there's our real perspective.
We pulled into the Owl parking lot just after the sun had last beat our squinting eyes, had gone down below the mountaintops. The Owl had been around so long that they legitimately held no perspective on anything, except themselves. That's the real reason I figured that we were making the journey back, not the StarShare conference diversionary tactic that Anson hawked at the beginning of our ride. We might just as well have gone back to the Guadalupe River, to dig up something of that hotdog serving shack with the tin roof affair that he called home back in that day and era. But, the great flood had ripped all those illustrious illusions away.
We were here getting back to something, something fundamental, not like the rabbits and the deer hopping about out in the desert, not by a long shot. They were using the desert for base survival. We were humans, after all. It was all the built up brain matter in our heads that made us stroll around with that supreme logic in our step.
Everything was held on a cash-revolving basis, real simple, at the Owl. Even the front door looked like it should open onto some side alley, with its big metal strap slung across to a bolt and padlock on the other side—a real class touch. We were sucked inward, into something going through that door, not the places we knew by heart, not to find safety on the other side—that was not the pact we shared with each other at the Owl. Anson and I knew the drill. It had been this way plenty of times for us before. Probably Anson would never admit it outright, but in that parallel universe that we both might be living we could just as easily be slipping out of the cab of a big haul rig on the weekly West Coast run with ripening bananas or automotive parts, Milk Duds, or whatever.
One day back at the Guadalupe River, his brother showed up from college with this toy, this plaything, the PC, and Anson wasn't about to be pestered with that kind of childish malarkey. Those were Anson's artist days with the only technology he had wanted to be bothered with aside from oil paints was his Mark IV red and white kayak. His brother back then was all into Anson making something of himself, and when he left, he left without taking that PC dinosaur. At the time, Anson was living in the old converted hotdog stand left over from the Boy Scout days with a tin roof ceiling and one questionable electrical connection. He would plug in the monitor, the CPU, and with an electrical adapter, a hundred-year-old looking oscillating fan with a bad vibration and the sudden spiking amperage to bring down the entire Camp Huaco office electrical system.
That was where I lived, at the roadhouse office, with James and Doug running the camp and keeping the dope dealers placated. That was another approved myth at our Christmas parties—Anson the big river rat bringing down the power grid of mighty Camp Huaco. After the fall flood that year, the camp pretty much disintegrated, laid out to waste, and going back was always a bit of a disappointment. Camp Huaco just seemed like a ghost town these days.
But the Owl—that door with the strapping iron padlock gismo was the same door that we had come through a hundred times before. And maybe in ten thousand years scientists would be digging to unearth a long ago forgotten civilization, and after they got past lining up the North Star with the cooking equipment and figuring out that the dimensions of the pool table divided by pi must have some ritual relevance, then they'd get around to the Green Chile Cheeseburgers.
"They constructed atomic bombs just over the hills over there and drove what they called automobiles over here to eat hot beef patties between two pieces of specialized bread. That proves beyond all doubt that these creatures were carnivores. Look, you can still make out portions of cheese."
"Life was so uncluttered, so uncomplicated back in that era. A really romantic civilization—what did they call themselves—those 'human beings'."
"It was definitely only a calculation of the size of their brains. You can see that they were already well into the process of de-evolving. Back then when they first started realizing it they termed it dumbing-down."
That was my own mind wandering about in the hills of the desert, a little head exercise in proving nothing. De-evolution of the species—now there's a phrase I hadn't contemplated for some years, for all the good it had done us. Just after Vietnam, Anson had given the Octopus Papers a good run for his money all right. People after the war were in some mood for a simple diversion back then, disco dancing stretched our minds out only so far; after Vietnam we were willing to suck up just about anything the media could dish out.
Anson's brother Nick certainly hadn't appreciated the effort. In those years Nick was all into the better side of science, the stuff on the good side of the coin, the stuff in the future that was all going to work out and be perfected, people flying around in cars, going to the moon for holidays, you know, big ticket movie items like that. Nick was the one to get enthusiastic about the gadgets. Once a year the Trinity test site was opened up to the general public, and the three of us one day in high school on a wild hair hauled down there to wander about on the glass ten million degrees of heat had fused the ocean of liquid sand, radiating for miles in sheets from ground zero. It was quiet out there on that hot glass, real funny feeling beneath the soles of our tennis shoes. Like something was going to pop out to devour us. Ground zero was like one concaved magnifying glass all shattered into a billion pieces. There were ants crawling around and I kept looking at the ants, counting their individual legs.
"Maybe those ants will be piecing our enormous bones together in a museum someday, wondering what we might have done to deserve such a terrible fate?" Anson's voice had been just above a whisper, though the other tourists had trailed off to the opposite side of the shallow depression. "It takes something to spark intelligence, right? Maybe this was just the catalyst that got their little brains percolating along, to start evolving?"
That had not sat well with Nick.
"I think you always got the thing backward." Then he had spread his arms wide, as if to encompass the nuclear test site between his fingers. "You'll not be seeing any Nazi armbands on those ants, either."
"I never thought for one minute that they ever needed them. It's not for ants that lines are drawn on pieces of paper, you know?"
Of course, the 'thing' Nick had been talking about back then, walking around on the fused landscape, was de-evolution of the species.
Anson and I walked into the Owl through the metal strapping door that wasn't invented for ants, either. It wasn't quite a High Noon scene. I mean the juke box in the corner did keep playing, but a couple of guys sitting at the bar turned in their swivel stools. With their cigarettes, they marked us at a glance for what we appeared to be—tourists in search of the big country adventure to bring back interesting anecdotes for the big company Christmas party. I felt naked without a camera slung around my neck like a noose. We came in and stood around, forgetting Owl protocol. The bearded guy behind the bar waved his hand, encouraging us patiently.
"Anywhere." He motioned haphazardly around.
We sat down at a vinyl booth, patched with matching red plastic upholstery. On the concrete block walls were signed dollar bills and pictures, old movie stars, new movie stars, scientists, scientists with a communist's persuasion—whenever that deal had seemed particularly feasible—rock-n-roll bands, generals, capitalists, Air Force pilots who'd broken Mach-whatever with a sly depreciating grin, country singers tipping cowboy hats, governors, Senators, Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders going all the way back, a Congressmen in a felt hat. Anson was looking for that one particular picture, though; the signed picture of his brother. He stood up and went around, eyeing the rough concrete. Locals had already forgotten about us, tourists on the big wall hunt.
"He's not here anymore." Anson sat back down after awhile. The waitress came up with two mugs of foaming beer.
Getting on the wall at the Owl didn't necessarily guarantee immortality, not by a long shot. There was only so much surface area, this wasn't Home Depot. At one point Anson's brother had pulled some weight in the mainframe industry with a virus purging software company by the name of Vault, Inc. To the mainframe industry, the real story behind Nick Talco was much more than mere legend. He was a myth beyond all proportion to the man whose real name few people could ever now recall. Even the ones who did know his real name were often bewildered at the sight of this nervous tweedy man with a hacking cigarette cough. He had single handedly destroyed one competitor after another in a blitzkrieg frontal assault on the stock market just to prove that he was not only correct in his every assumption about technology but also that he would smash anyone who so much as raised an opposing ideal to counter his ever widening threat. That was, until the pinnacle of his consummate powers, one drowsy afternoon, when he stumbled with the advent of the PC. It was when he decided that he alone, Nick Talco, could dictate just where the virus purging industry should go. He never again found a decent chance to recover his composure on Wall Street. Overnight, his company was worth two pennies on the dollar.
Nick Talco had grown into an empire builder whose own empire had suddenly collapsed into one titanic heap. When the disaster cleared, Nick had stood in the ruins of his Silicon Valley empire with one semi-truck after another hauling the auctioned off gutted remains of his once glorious conglomeration. The message was simple enough. In fact, whenever he thought back far enough he could just imagine Adolf Hitler peering out from the concrete walls of his Berlin bunker, how he must have seen the burnt out remnants of the Third Reich falling to pieces about his ears, one updated version after another of spanking new, turbocharged USA fighter craft whizzing by overhead. The message was simply this: once the gate is unlatched, don't think that technology will stay neatly penned inside just because you got the world there first.
"Hitler was the strain and the Nazis were the virus." He had pursued this line of hopeless reasoning one afternoon on the cell phone, too late in his company affairs to make any difference. "This could have all started out so differently."
Ever since that pivotal day in college, when he'd had a burst of inspiration, he'd seen that a mainframe terminal in every house could only trigger one inevitable response—unimaginable computer viruses sweeping the world to stifle the very systems that made them plausible.
"Back in that era viruses were relatively new." He had advised me of this later, after I had flown out to Silicon Valley to look over the books, Vault hanging onto the stock market by a single thread. "In fact, a lot of viruses started out just like regular programs, but with a tweak here and just a touch there... Like this programmer over in Memphis who wrote a simple process that monitored the employee database for his social security number. Pretty simple query, barely took a quiver of CPU cycle, nothing that anybody would ever detect. When his social security number disappeared on the list of active employees at midnight, the program launched a sequence that wiped everything clean, formatting sixty-two hundred storage disks of every piece of data they had ever collected two weeks after his firing. Like the Cold War domino effect, it took just three hours to wipe out the entire company."
By that time everything had been over at Vault except for the crying. Nick had taken things rather calmly, though, and why the hell not? His company was slaughtered, but when it came to collecting that golden parachute every executive with half a brain had already baled out over friendly territory before some arcane notion, like company performance, got in the way of a bungalow beach house off in a Caribbean Island retreat.
"He still down there?" I asked as casually as possible. I sipped through the foamy beer head on my iced mug and used my thumb to wipe the frost on the glass like a sideways windshield wiper. The cold radiated from the beer, slicing through me, piercing all the way down to my toes. I wiggled them around in those dorky corporate matching socks. It was a good evening, good to be back at the Owl. Beers were served on tap at a zillion places. Why did they only taste like they did back in your youth at the Owl?
"Before he falls off the edge of the universe?" Anson was still scanning the walls. Elvis was up on that wall, too. It was a tough row of concrete block all right.
"Bonaire isn't that far off. A plane can easily get you there in a day."
"A plane can easily get you anywhere in the world in a day. What's Bonaire got—coral reefs and fish?"
"The Guadalupe River had fish in that ice cold spring water. That was pretty good kayaking stuff."
"Yeah." Anson brought his beer mug up. "Ice cold fish."
The waitress brought our Green Chile Cheeseburgers in a red plastic weave basket. There was a pool table in the corner and a guy was racking balls up. The woman with him had a top that arched down whenever she leaned forward to engineer a break. Another guy was sitting at a table watching the action, sipping a beer. There were iron bars on each of the windows. San Antonio, New Mexico was one of those dusty back-road communities where a big highway goes plowing through one afternoon and everything about the new world was supposed to change—only nobody ever hints to change for what, or for whom? San Antonio, New Mexico was a destination by default, not by privilege, and by default the people going through were only scooting around to get to someplace else. Along with those nuclear bombs perfected just over the hills, so, too, were the automobiles that drove around faster and faster over the years, that kept bringing people through San Antonio more and more, the better the stereo reception the better the rock-n-roll music, to the Owl Café and the signed pictures on the walls of framed people on their way long since passed by.
Not everybody made the wall of concrete block, and not all those that did make the wall were hung with any staying power, but $50 cash did buy the hopeful a frame, one ancient Polaroid quickie, and one photo static image at immortality. With the drawing power of the Green Chiles, immortality was a pretty dicey deal on the walls of the Owl. There was one framed photograph of a dog sitting in a truck bed looking over the tailgate to something off camera: no signature, no date. Nothing colorful written on the back. Nobody knew just whose dog it was, where the truck came from, or what version of rifle was mounted in the window behind the driver's seat. The dog was a German shepherd with good winter fur bristling in anticipation for whatever seemed to be occurring just beyond the range of the viewer. This dog picture was mounted in the midst of the World War II nuclear scientists. Nobody at the Owl had a line on the old dog photograph, and nobody knew just how the rumor got started, but the way it went, this story about the German shepherd, some kind of urban legend, I guess, was that the day the dog picture disappeared from the wall, the Owl would go out of business.
There were even UFO pictures framed up on the walls, signed by aliens with felt tipped markers no less, written in English if such a miracle can ever be denied; what with the number of planets and solar systems orbiting around distant galaxies, anybody with half a brain could do the math himself. Down the road was Roswell, and back down over yonder, the Trinity test site, lots of dust in the desert with helicopters and secret stuff with people puffing frantically on cigarettes, nuclear radiation, you get the drift? Of course, the trick was juggling around all the loose tidbits, the loose stuff like one gigantic jigsaw puzzle. Dogs, UFOs, nuclear scientists, electricity, napalm, color television, Vietnam, The Octopus Papers, disco music, and naturally—Elvis the Pelvis. Elvis was on the wall, too, springing through the early '50s long before he had ever achieved absolute Elvis icon status, a kid with a guitar, snapped in time on a black and white photo with his forehead tilted down and away, smiling innocently.
"That Elvis boy was a shy one back in them days." The bartender would indicate the picture of the young man before he became the Elvis of icon status. "He ate a Green Chile then went over to Memphis to become plum famous." Every bartender at the Owl told roughly an equivalent version. Like fine china, the pictures on the walls were passed down with their approved myths from generation to generation, particularly the accent on critical southern syllables. Once entrenched in Memphis, Elvis and four of his crew drove two nights straight for a Green Chile, but by that time Elvis was no longer the shy boy doing the country jamboree circuit. "His shirt glistened up like a Christmas tree, all shiny and sparkling like a strobe light wherever he walked. That was during that Vietnam War ordeal, though. I think everybody changed during that war, I really do. He could still put away two of those Green Chiles though."
That new shot went up as a color photograph on the other end of the wall opposite the young Elvis, the shy Elvis, the Elvis he could no longer be, like two bookends with everybody else of consequence in between. Elvis, the legend Elvis, has his arms around the shoulders of two waitresses, smiles all around. Elvis wore sunshades and never paid a nickel for the privilege of hanging on the wall—the ones with the real staying power never did. By then, to hear the usual bartender tourist spiel, Elvis wanted to be taken seriously as an artist in Hollywood. He passed out cigars in cellophane wrappers. Two cigars still survive behind the bar in a glass jar. The context of things, that's what you were constantly maneuvering around at the Owl. The dog and UFOs and Elvis pictures were just up there. You were the one left to deal with it, the history of the thing, the best that you could piece it together.
We sank our teeth into the Green Chile's, waiting for the Elvis spiel to be cast out like fishing nets to us gawking tourists with our smug city faces. There was nothing personal at the Owl, transactions on a cash-revolving basis as it were, and we were certainly dressed the part with a red convertible sitting out front big as a billboard. The Owl didn't need a whole lot of clues to get by on. Vault Inc. had been a happening deal in its own day, but the wall had fried up some pretty big fish, ones that came and went, to be sure. The ones who made it, they could almost be Nick, they could almost be any of us; they just weren't anymore.
"It made a difference to him once," Anson finally said and gave a sigh of resignation. I knew what he was saying, though. I knew we'd driven a long way for something, out of reach of PDAs and cell phones, offshoring strategies with China going south.
"They don't keep the pictures up forever." I tossed back the easy observations. "Vault was a long time ago, another era. The mainframe shot its wad."
"Remember the three of us walking around at the Trinity test site?"
"Ancient history." I was still in reverence of the Green Chile. The meat really was good too; solid crunching charcoal flavor on the front teeth with just a hint of garlic and cheese melted and warm on the tongue. It felt good to be a carnivore again. Too much salad eating and silverware back in Dallas.
"Ancient history has a way of catching up with you."
We looked at each other across the table.
Controlling nuclear bombs through a button over the internet, while interesting to contemplate on some theoretical plateau, didn't achieve much balance in the real world. Then again, the MicroMan virus didn't need to exist in the real world so long as electricity kept slinging out the juice, and fiber optic lines held up to their end of the bargain, pumping data in tiny packets of light. As long as all those microwave beams kept hitting satellites in outer space at just the right angle of attack to shower invisible data back down to earth to be scooped up by dish antennas. Only in the imagination did the MicroMan virus really proliferate, but where else was anything generated?
Back in Roswell, the Roswell of our youth, we were the aliens walking around with our faces spray painted in silver, waiting for the mother ship to beam us aboard. "No intelligent life on this planet. Beam us up, Scotty." That kind of kid stuff, joking around. Was it just us or the thousand hours in front of the television set, but we just knew that if any laser beam of light broke through those clouds we'd be the first ones to beam up. The aliens never did make the trip, and we were left to our own devices, our own gadgets. No, a PC computer virus controlling all the nuclear weapons on earth would never be allowed to persist. Putting words to it, that's just what each and every one of us in the industry feared the most and never wanted to voice our suspicions out loud.
"You think MicroMan is him?" I made the obvious overture.
"I think MicroMan is the Hydra virus updated to the internet."
"All versions of the Hydra virus were destroyed. After Vault what was the point? We each smashed our own copy."
"We each smashed a disk, yeah."
"Hydra was Cold War mainframe intrigue. All that silliness is long over. Capitalism, communism—it's a globalized world we're living now with all the trimmings. Hydra was pretty puny compared to the outright punch of MicroMan."
"Yeah, well, as you say, things tend to evolve."
"Not de-evolve?" I tried to lighten the mood and get us back to the aroma of the hamburgers. They were quickly disappearing. "If you're not going up you're going out"—the GlobalNet.com web page slogan. I was needling again. I really did want to savor the hamburgers for what they were so many eons ago. Another lifetime.
Anson chewed on unhurriedly in silence.
"He's got plenty of money," I said. "What's the point?"
"What was ever about money between us?"
"No." I chose my words carefully. "We each had a disk."
He looked across the booth at me sharply. "I guess each of us can only answer for ourselves?"
"In the end, I suppose so," I said. "What good is some damn Cold War virus to me? We've all got plenty of dough, as you say."
"It's not like I have a lot of time to tinker about myself."
"Not with the golden parachute that we maintain," I offered magnanimously. Sooner or later I figured we'd have to make the distinction between the truck drivers and ourselves. "So, we're out here driving around in a red convertible to check up on Nick's picture at the Owl? Two old buddies out for a drive in the springtime in the desert. The wildflowers are in bloom. There's no history here."
"Not the way we wanted to write it, Ron. This could have started out so differently."
Vault, Inc. was long gone and Nick had already expressed the same sentiment. Why was I always the one stuck with refereeing? "That's why they call it history, I suppose. That's why we're stuck with it. That's all you've ever really got in the end. The history of the thing."
"The Octopus Papers and de-evolution of the species stuff got way out of hand."
"Sheer kid nonsense."
"I think he's always resented it."
"Resentment is one thing. That's a long jump from unleashing a computer virus that goes around clogging up PC systems on a global scale. Maybe he just might go around like everybody else, resenting things but keeping his mouth shut. You're the creative one, he's the logical one; I'm the arbitrator of all things. That's how it always worked between us, didn't it? You just relied on his instinct to carry the logic through."
"It could be a theory, though?"
"Yeah, based on utter nonsense, but a theory nonetheless. Everything could be a theory. We spray painted our faces and went around in Roswell talking gibberish, but that didn't mean we ever proved intelligent life exists, not even for us. We just wanted to be something we weren't. And what is MicroMan? Controlling nuclear bombs through the internet?"
"You get people worked up enough and they'll cling to just about anything."
"Funny, that kind of talk sounds suspiciously like a MicroMan endorsement."
"With enough fear, anything takes on the appearance of plausible, that's all I'm saying."
"And the more the fear the more that people depend upon our software to protect them from the damage that the virus creates. What a wonderful vicious cycle for sales to exploit. Fear thriving upon more fear to generate sales. 'The PC is the Cold War by other means'—as I recall, your quote."
"The electronic world, it's a competitive environment. Software companies are fighting for any kind of advantage. You have to stay on top of the competition to survive."
"And what better device than a virus to divert the competition into endless survival strategies? Your brother took Vault down that path, right? The Cold War was as much about distraction as it was invention."
"If enough people go along, the Octopus Papers is a workable enough theory then?"
He completely ignored my swipe at his brother altogether. "I guess that all depends upon who you're trying to distract?"
"Or, why?" Anson said. The bartender came with the second round of beers.
I could sense the big Elvis spiel wasn't that far behind, either.
"Which credit cards do you take?" I said, playing our tourist role appropriately.
The Owl still took only cash, Elvis was a shy boy back then, those early years, and we had to beat it to Albuquerque by midnight. We put up the top and lit out of town to the interstate heading north. The floodlight of the Owl was like a beacon disappearing into infinity behind us. I watched the dot of light in the passenger side mirror until it merged with all the other stars on a deepening purple pallet of the night sky. We could almost reach out and touch it, like dazzling fireworks twisting over our heads in a glorious slow motion dance.
James R. Manton lives in Dallas and is a software developer for an internet
company. His first novel was a finalist in the 2002 Santa Fe WritersProject. His short story collection, Guadalupe River, Texas: Collusions of Electricity was an honorable mention in The Paper Journey Press, 2005. Several of these stories have appeared throughout the years in Ascent Aspirations Magazine. Widely traveled, James spent several winters working with a seismic crew in Alaska, and more recent computer projects landed him in England with bike riding ventures to New Zealand.