13. November 9, 2023

Almost two weeks passed before Benicoff saw Brian again. But he did get daily progress reports from Dr. Snaresbrook, which he passed on instantly to the President’s office. He did not hurry the second report that he had to file every day. Out of sheer malice at three in the morning, his E-fax was programmed to send a copy of the progress report to General Schorcht’s unlisted security number. In the hope that some excitable staff officer might find an item in the report that was interesting enough to wake up the General. This thought sent Benicoff to sleep with a smile every night.

He also E-faxed a daily case report of the Megalobe investigation at the same time. These were getting shorter and emptier of any progress with every passing day. There had been a flurry of activity when a series of caves had been discovered not too far from Megalobe; a result of one of the more way-out theories that had been developed. This theory expanded on the supposition that maybe the truck that had been at the laboratory that night had left the valley after all. But had left empty. The stolen items might then have been buried at a prepared site, to be dug up later when things had cooled down. Therefore all the excitement about the cave discovery. But the caves contained only fossilized bat guano which, Benicoff thought to himself, described just about everything else about the case that they had uncovered so far.

He had jogged through Balboa Park for an hour just after dawn then, showered and dressed, he had scowled through a low-cal breakfast and black coffee. At nine he had phoned the electronic company to check the delivery time of the items he had arranged for. Then, after returning the calls from the East Coast that had been recorded while he was out, he sealed his computer and took the rear elevator that connected with MegaHertz car rental in the subbasement of the hotel. The yellow electric runabout he had reserved was waiting for him. He checked that it had a spare tire, that there were no obvious dents in the body and that it had a full charge in the battery. Traffic was light until he reached the Coronado Bridge where the tail-back from security reached back halfway along it. He switched to the VIP lane and stopped only at the far end when the marine guard flagged him down.

“I’m afraid you can’t use this lane, sir.”

“I’m afraid I can.”

His pass and documents earned him a salute and another inspection at the VIP entrance. There were more salutes here — along with a complete search of the car. And all this just to get into the public part of Coronado. The searches became even more enthusiastic when he reached the gates of the military base.

Brian was standing at the window when Benicoff came in, turned around with a smile.

“Mr. Benicoff, it’s good to see you. We’re kind of short of visitors here.”

“Even better to see you — and you look great.”

“And that’s just about how I feel. They took the bandages off my back and arm yesterday. I’ve got a couple of nice scars. And I’m going to get a cap instead of these bandages tomorrow. Everyone keeps peeking at my skull but won’t let me see it yet.”

“Which is probably not such a bad idea. And I can give you some more good news. Dr. Snaresbrook and I, after a frontal assault on the naval authorities, have obtained reluctant agreement to have a computer terminal plugged into the room here for you.”

“That’s great!”

“But you’ll notice that I said terminal and not computer. A dumb terminal to the hospital’s mainframe. So you can be sure that every keystroke you enter will simultaneously appear on General Schorcht’s screen.”

“That’s even better! I’ll see to it that the good man has plenty to read to keep his blood pressure up.”

“Love at first sight. I appreciate the way you put the mickey to him.”

“I had to. He looks and sounds just like one of the nuns at school back in Tara, the one who used to break her ruler over my knuckles. And speaking of breaks — any chance of breaking out of here? Getting some fresh air?”

Benicoff dropped into the armchair, which squeaked under his weight. “I have been fighting with the authorities on this one as well. When the doc says that your health is up to it you can use the balcony to the tenth floor.”

“With ropes attached so I don’t jump off?”

“Not that bad — I took a look at it on the way up. Some Admiral’s personal little perk, I imagine. It’s pretty big, with lounges, trees — even a fishpond. And well guarded.”

“That’s another thing I wanted to ask you about, Mr. Benicoff—”

“Just Ben, if you please, which is what my friends call me.”

“Sure. It’s about these guards, really, and what’s going to happen to me when I get better. Doc said to ask you.”

Benicoff climbed to his feet and began to pace. “I’ve thought about that a lot — without finding a good answer. When you leave this hospital I’m afraid that you’ll have to go to someplace equally secure.”

“You mean until you find out who it was that stole the AI and shot me — the same people who then came back later on and tried to finish the job.”

“I’m afraid that’s it.”

“Then — can I see a printout of everything that has happened since the attack and theft in the lab, and everything you have discovered since?”

“It’s classified Top Secret. But since it is all about you, and you’re not going to do much traveling for a while — I don’t see why not. I’ll bring you a copy tomorrow.”

A nurse poked her head in the door. “Some equipment here to be installed. Dr. Snaresbrook has approved it.”

“Bring it in.”

Two white-coated attendants pushed in the trolley, followed by a Yeoman with electronic patches on his uniform.

“Delivered a little while ago, sirs. Taken apart and searched, put back together again and operating A-OK. Who’s going to sign for it?”

“Here,” Benicoff said.

“That’s not a terminal,” Brian said, tapping the square metal machine.

“No, sir. That’s a new-model printer for eternitree paper. Terminal is on its way up now. And initial here, please. Paper is in the box here.”

“Eternitree? That’s a new one to me.”

“It shouldn’t be,” Benicoff said when the printer and terminal had been plugged in and connected and they were alone again. He took out a sheet of paper and passed it to Brian. “It was developed at the University of Free Enterprise for the daily newspaper published there. In fact your father’s name — as well as yours — is on the original patent applications. I understand you both helped in developing the process.”

“Looks and feels like ordinary white paper.”

“Try folding or tearing it — see what I mean? It is tough plastic that has been textured to feel like paper, with a bonded thin-film surface. Which means it is almost indestructible and completely reusable. The perfect thing for the daily newspaper — also developed by one of the brightest boys at your university.”

“If I can sit down, with a glass of water — will you tell me about it?”

“I’ll get the water. Here. You know about selective TV news programming?”

“Sure. You punch in your own program, things that you are interested in. Baseball, stock market reports, beauty contests, whatever. Labeled news reports go out twenty-four hours a day. Your TV records those that interest you the most so when you come home and turn on the news, whammo, it’s only the stuff you care about.”

Benicoff nodded. “Well, your university newspaper is a high-powered version of the same thing. The editor there has signed up scientists right around the world as reporters… They send in reports all the time about every kind of scientific and technical news. These are tagged and stored in a data bank, along with all the news items from standard services. The subscription system has a learning scheme. When you touch the advance button to reject something, the computer notes this and avoids future related items. More important is the fact that it follows your eye movements with a tracking device. Then it does a content analysis and records descriptions of the subjects that interest you. It is a true learning process and the system gets better and better at profiling your interests. It is so good that unless there is a cutoff you would find yourself doing nothing else but watching news and views that you agree with and approve of.”

“Sort of turn you into an info junky. But what about browsing?”

“Built into the system. The retrieval operation is so efficient that there are always plenty of sidetracks even in the documents that are relevant to your subject.”

“Great! So it works out that every subscriber gets his own special newspaper. The hydraulics prof has nothing but pipes, pumps and splashes from around the world, along with Topeka, Kansas, obituaries, where he comes from, and chess news if he is into that as well. What a great idea.”

“Thousands think so. The subscriber pays a fixed fee, while the computer keeps track of how many times any single item is used and automatically pays the contributor.”

Brian rolled up the sheet of eternitree paper, real tight, but it instantly flattened out when he let go.

“A personalized newspaper waiting in the bin every morning. But still a tree’s worth of paper to be dumped every week.”

Benicoff nodded. “That’s what you and your father thought. The thin-film lab at the school was working on flat computer screens. Your father helped with the math and this was the end result. The layered film is changed internally and electronically from white to black. Any font or size of type is apparently printed on it — even large size for those with weak eyes. After reading it the sheets are dropped back into the printer. As the new newspaper is printed it clears away the old one. And even this technology is going to be redundant soon. There is a hyperbook coming onto the market that is about three-eighths of an inch thick and contains only ten pages. The edge binder contains a really powerful computer that controls a detailed display on each page, one that is even more detailed than the pages of printed books. When you finish reading page ten you turn back to the first page, which already contains new copy. With a hundred megabytes of memory this ten-page book will really contain a quite substantial library.”

“I’ll settle for this one for now — it’s really neat. I’ll set up a newspaper for myself.”

“You can — but that’s not why I brought the printer. You’ve been trying to order some books, the request got passed on to me. With the printer you can only store them in memory, but with eternitree you can print the book you want, slip the sheet into a spring binder and sit in the sun while you read.”

“And reuse the sheets again when I’m through! A lot has happened that I forgot about. Say, can’t you print out that report I asked for on this? I could have it right now.”

Benicoff turned to the terminal. “I don’t know. If this hospital has a cleared high-security network it might be possible. Only one way to find out.”

He punched in his own code, accessed base security and found the right menu. But before he had gone very much further the screen cleared and the lines of print were replaced by General Schorcht’s scowling image.

“What is the meaning of this breach of security?” His rasping voice rasping even worse through the terminal’s tiny speaker.

“Good morning, General. Just trying to get a copy of the classified Megalobe report for Brian.”

“Are you crazy?”

“No more than usual. Think, General. Brian was there. He is our only witness. We need his help. If I can’t get a copy now I will bring him one tomorrow. Does any of this make sense to you?”

General Schorcht stared in cold silence while he thought it through. “The hospital circuits are not secure. I’ll have the Pentagon transfer a one-off copy to CNBSC, the Security Central there. A messenger will deliver the copy.” The screen went blank as soon as he finished.

“Well good-bye then, sir, nice to chat with you. You heard.”

Brian nodded. “I don’t know if I can help — but at least I can find out what happened to me out there. Early on, Dr. Snaresbrook said that others had been killed. Very many?”

“We just don’t know — that is one of the infuriating things about this case. One man we can be fairly certain of, the Megalobe Chairman, J. J. Beckworth. We found a drop of his blood. But seventeen men in all are missing. How many were killed — and how many were in on the crime, we just have no idea. You’ll read it in the report.”

“What was taken?”

“Every record and every item of equipment relating to your work on artificial intelligence. They also moved out every piece of electronic equipment and record, every book and piece of paper from your home. The neighbors reported that a moving van was there for at least a half a day.”

“You’ve traced the van?”

“The plates were forgeries and the company doesn’t exist. Oh yes, the moving men were of oriental appearance.”

“Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Siamese, Vietnamese or any specific country?”

“The elderly witnesses can only identify them as oriental.”

“And the trail gets colder every day.”

Benicoff nodded reluctant agreement.

“I wish I could be of help — but as far as my memory goes I’m still living back in UFE. Maybe if I saw the house I might get some clues. Maybe they missed my computer backup. I lost two important files when I first started programming seriously and I swore it would never happen again. I wrote an automatic program that saved to an external disk drive as I worked.”

“Not a bad idea — but they got every disk in the house.”

“But my program did more than just backup disks. When I was fourteen years old my program also backed the backup disk through the telephone modem to the mainframe in my father’s lab. I wonder what setup I had here?”

Benicoff was on his feet, fists clenched. “Do you realize what you have just said?”

“Sure. There is a good chance that there is a copy of my AI work in a memory bank somewhere. That would help, wouldn’t it?”

“Help! My boy, we might be able to rebuild your AI with it! It wouldn’t solve the problem of who pulled this thing off — but they wouldn’t be the only ones with artificial intelligence.” He grabbed up the phone and punched in a number. “Dr. Snaresbrook, please. When? Have her contact me as soon as she gets back. Benicoff, right. Tell her that it is urgent to know just how soon her patient will be able to leave the hospital. That is a gold-placed top priority question.”

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