At 03:00 EST, on 2 October, 2084, the lights came on in Wimp’s bedroom. Wimp did not waken.
Although the room was large, there was barely space to move in it. “Dump” failed to describe its overall squalor. Two whole walls were flanked by tables laden with complicated tangles of computer equipment, piles of books, empty drink cans, and old fast-food boxes, all of which had overflowed onto the floor, the washing machine, the water heater, and under the bed. Some even perched precariously atop the gas metre. Everywhere was coated with spider webs, dead insects, mouse pellets, and dust like grey snow.
Alongside the inoperative washing machine towered a small mountain of all the clothes that Wimp owned, which might dream of someday being washed but were fated to be endlessly recycled instead. On the rare occasions when his work required him to go uptown and visit his employers’ office, his supervisor always warned him to take a shower and wear clean clothes. In practice it was easier for Wimp to buy new clothes on the way there. His salary was automatically deposited in his bank, where he had a credit balance approaching a million UNITs.
This dismal lair underlay what had originally been the home of his parents, who had died some years ago, so that the whole of the upstairs was available for his use, but to move his electronic equipment had always seemed too great an imposition, a distraction from his work and other diversions he considered more urgent.
After the lights came on, a vision appeared beside the bed. It was only a projection, but that could not have been determined by eye, for every stitch of its uniform was perfectly defined, as was every detail of its physique, down to the little hairs on the backs of its hands. Only an attempt to touch it would have revealed its true nature. It represented a tall, burly man in the uniform of a Generalleutnant in the Luftwaffe of the German Democratic Republic, except that its head was that of a black bear. It wrinkled its nose realistically, as if it could smell the rank odours of the room, the bed, and its occupant; then it bent over and uttered a sound stereophonically coordinated to originate a few centimetres above Wimp’s visible ear.
It said,”WAKE UP!” at eighty-five decibels in a Swedish accent.
Wimp screamed and sat up.
He did have a proper name, but he had been known as Wimp for so long that he had almost forgotten it. He was in his early thirties, and emaciated, although his junk-food diet was starting to give him a pot belly. His hair and beard were long overdue for trimming. He looked like a derelict from the wrong end of Skid Row, but was in fact one of the top dozen or so computer programmers in the world.
He said, “Fuck it. What do you want?” He had met the generalleutnant bear before. Who or what was behind the illusion he neither knew nor much cared, but he did care that they had managed to break into his system yet again, for he had truly believed that this time he had made it tamper-proof. They had not only gained access, they were using his hardware to project that image. He also knew that they, whoever they were, knew enough about him to destroy him, so that ultimately, no matter how much he might argue, he would do whatever they told him.
“We need you to drop one for us,” the bear said in its Swedish accent.
Wimp said, “Drop one what?” Then he yelled “No! Never!”
“Yes. And now, because you have very little time.”
“A real plane? That would be murder, mass murder.”
The bear yawned. “Murder bothers you? Then let’s look at some of the pictures again.”
“No! No! No!” Wimp said, burrowing under the yellowed sheets.
“Yes,” said the bear.
At the far end of the room, a child screamed.
Wimp threw off the sheet and sat up to look.
“Yes,” the bear said again. “It’s Robby. Dear Robby. You remember how you loved Robby? And how he hated this?”
A monster appeared right beside the child. It stood almost man-size, with brown body plumage, scarlet head and neck topped by a crest of green feathers. Its enormous parrot beak was as big as a bucket, and its eyes shone a fierce gold. It was Wimp’s own three-dimensional representation of a Gastornis maximus, a ferocious flightless carnivore that prowled around Eocene Station. Its likeness had been one of the first photos sent back uptime when the station was being established a few years ago, and it had caught the world’s imagination. For a while it had almost displaced dinosaurs in small boys’ nightmares. Terrible as it seemed, this projection was only half-scale. A full-sized one would not have fitted under the ceiling.
It was looking down at Robby, who was about six, curly-haired, heart-stoppingly beautiful, and terrified out of his wits by the monster. He fled in chubby legs across the floor into the arms of... another Wimp, another projection, slightly younger than the real one was now. The projected Wimp was kneeling on the floor of this same room, seen from another angle, with the same bed—and possibly the same sheets—in the background. The projection held out his arms and the child ran to him to be comforted. Man and boy were both naked.
“Look at the monster, Robby,” the projected Wimp said. “It’s a very dangerous monster. It wants to eat you. No, screaming won’t help. You remember what you have to do to make the monster go away, don’t you, Robby?”
“Wimp, why aren’t you watching?” the bear asked the whimpering heap on the bed, for Wimp had disappeared again. “You enjoyed it while you were spooling it, didn’t you? Shall we switch over to Johnny? You did love Johnny.”
Shrieks from under the bedclothes confirmed that Wimp was regretting his folly in spooling these scenes of his own indulgence and even worse stupidity in retaining the records in a computer that could somehow be hacked by someone with greater skills than his own. Undoubtedly the bear must represent a national government, but whether German, Russian, Chinese, or domestic, Wimp had no idea.
“Come on, Wimp! We can upload these files to the police in microseconds, and we can tell them exactly where you buried the bodies. You know what happens to paedophiles in federal prisons, don’t you, Wimp?”
Wimp screamed, “Stop!” He threw off the covers and lurched across to the computers, heedless of his nudity. With tears running down into his beard, he sobbed, “Tell me what I have to do.” Three of the four projections vanished—one small boy and two monsters. Only the bear remained, and Wimp.
“There is a man presently crossing the Atlantic in a continental-grade air car.”
“Just one man?” Wimp said as if only one murder would be better than many. “I can’t dump an air car!”
“I know you can’t.” The bear flashed across the room to stand just behind him. A row of numbers appeared on one of the monitors. “This is his destination, a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains. He will arrive there in approximately three hours and will probably not stay there very long. Drop a big one on it, right in the bull’s eye.”
Wimp shuddered. Some years ago, he had been one of a team that had designed electronics for the Suborbital 818 superliner. His part had been to build in a secret override that would be fitted in every plane sold to a foreign buyer—or so he had been told. It was to be an anti-hijacking precaution, or so he had been told. Even at the time he had suspected that it would go in every plane produced because, as 9-11 had shown, domestically owned machines could be hijacked also.
“I can’t do that either,” he said, “because I don’t know the passwords! Every plane has its own password.”
“But there is an overriding universal password, as you well know, and I can tell you what that is. Get busy.”
“What plane?” he demanded. “I still can’t do it without the plane’s serial number.”
“I don’t give a shit what plane you use,” the bear said. “He’ll arrive shortly before dawn. Find one that’ll be in that area just after that, say 07:00 EDT.”
Whimpering, Wimp began pawing a keyboard and snapping commands into a microphone. He cursed and wept and dribbled sweat as he searched flight schedules near the eastern seaboard. The bear stood tirelessly behind him. It seemed to be watching but, since it did not truly exist, its principals must be draining whatever information they wanted directly out of Wimp’s system.
At last Wimp muttered, “Air New Zealand 1558, inbound from Auckland. Suborbital 818. Serial number...” More finger-dancing as he dug through Air New Zealand’s records, breaking in with tools he had invented himself for his own amusement.
“Got it,” Wimp cried in triumph. “Password?”
“It’s ‘Than into the hands of Spain,’” the bear said, “with digits instead of spaces. All lower case, ‘t-h-a-n-1-i-n-t-o-2...”
Wimp’s own digits continued to dance, until eventually he sat back with a gasp and said. “Done!”
“Yes, fuck you! Locked in. Twelve hundred plus tonnes, God knows how many people.”
“Certainly. It’ll never pull out of the dive. Its heat shield will still be incandescent.” He typed again. “About 4.0 on the Richter Scale.”
“Excellent,” said the bear. “Estimated time of disaster?”
“06:52 EST. Now go away!”
“Then we have time to kill too. Which adventure shall we watch while we wait? Aaron? William? How about Jordan and the soldering iron? That’s one of your favourites, I know.”
“I don’t want to watch any of them. Just go away!”
“No, Wimp, I am going to stay with you until the news reports come through. I hate to think of you changing your mind at the last minute. The Jordan barbecue it shall be, then. Make yourself comfortable. Feel free to jerk off.”