A Short Story

by Andy Oram

Table of Contents

The assignment

The neighborhood

The conspiracy

The assignment

They don’t announce themselves before entering. They want to see the look on your face when they tell you why they’ve come. A meeting with a Validator is a rare event that could equally evoke awe or anger, joy or fear. You don’t know your reaction in advance, and this reaction tells the Validator more than your answers to the questions—usually few and simple—that follow.

When Delilah heard the visitor’s knock, she expected someone to repair the plumbing or deliver the week’s meals, and so she stood open-mouthed when the small, lithe man, thirty years of age or so, with a flat black mop of hair, asked, “What did the old woman Macklin look like when she collapsed outside in the hallway?”

It seemed like the craziest thing she had ever heard. Time seemed to be suspended as she looked him over, and suddenly she realized she had no idea how long they had been standing in her little apartment without saying anything. His first utterance had been so odd that she couldn’t even remember it. But the man, as if familiar with her reaction, spoke again: “Think back. What did your neighbor Macklin look like when she collapsed?”

“Who are you?” she choked out.

He stared and nodded, as if he were answering a question in his own mind rather than her own. Then he pulled out a lightscreen and held it an angle to his eyes so it displayed to her his Validator license. Although introductions to a Validator happen only two or three times during one’s life, everybody knows the routine. It is discussed over and over on Internet forums. Delilah, like others, had read of many, many meetings with a Validator, but still couldn’t control the shock when the moment came for her.

“So what do you want?” Delilah asked, and immediately felt silly; she was just wasting the Validator’s time. So now she remembered to hold his screen up to her signature checker to validate the seals, as she had been told by Internet articles to do. His screen displayed the seals of two Validator institutes in the Parington area, and—hovering over them like a nursemaid—a general seal denoting the central certificate authority. All the seals came up valid in her signature checker.

“Want?” he replied. “The reason for Macklin’s collapse. Did it happen the way her son reported it? Tell me what you saw.”

She sat down heavily in a chair with faded brown upholstery by the door. There was very little space in the apartment, and the man would have had trouble squeezing past her to get to the other chair. He stayed near the door, stationed between the bureau and the exercise machine she didn’t use often enough, gazing at her patiently while her defenses melted. He had a sharp nose and a thinly pursed mouth, with an expression that seemed to look everywhere around him. His clothing was non-descript, probably by design. No suit jacket denoting a businessman or professional, but no work clothes either—simply a dull green flannel shirt over chinos.

“Is it important?” she asked, still fogged by the encounter. It was beginning to occur to her that her answers to the Validator would be quoted, broadcast, scrutinized, held to account. She had never thought she’d be a reluctant witness. But here she was, childishly refusing to talk about the one thing she knew that seemed to matter to anyone: the scene she had witnessed three days ago in the hall of her ramshackle apartment building.

As the sun descended behind the roofs of the neighboring tenements and left the tiny, ill-furnished room looking washed out and dim, the Validator wormed her story out of her. She did not contradict herself or dissemble. He in turn won her trust with a composure that melded warmth and strength. She told of the coughing she heard and then the loud crash of the old woman’s door. Delilah couldn’t help be curious; she peeked out and saw Jenny Macklin veer across the hall in a long dress of faded fabric with blue roses. It seemed like the woman was blind. She coughed and heaved in the most awful fashion. How many coughs, at what intervals? At least six or seven before she collapsed, each several seconds long. Was she ever heard to cough like that? Not by Delilah.

“Why are you investigating?” she asked.

“It may be an indication that the ventilation company is not maintaining the ducts,” answered the Validator, whose name had come up on his lightscreen as Touranian.

Delilah snorted. “What do you expect in this neighborhood anyway?”

“The scandal may be bigger than that. Air Filtering Advisers has ties to institutions all over the state. Some of us are trying to figure out where the money paid by the landlords is going; it doesn’t seem to go into the duct maintenance they’re paying for.” All over the state, he had said—that would explain why this Validator was sent to Trowly from as far away as Parington.

“Can’t you just look at the ducts?” she asked.

“We have an expert out here to do that, but we suspect Air Filtering Advisors would try to clean up the evidence after the Macklin son made his first report.”

“Am I going to get in trouble just for telling you about this?”

Touranian showed a bit of disapproval. “You wouldn’t withhold important information that could improve public life, would you? A severe sickness has been reported. If it really happened, the son was brave to tell the world. Thousands of people are wondering what went on here last Wednesday, and they’ll never know without honest witnesses.”

“How do you know I’m honest?”

Touranian nodded again. “We talk to many people, we compare notes, we look for cues in how you behave. It’s an art. Do you get much work?”

“I spend three days a week arranging contracts between manufacturers and the product designers who summarize the patterns in consumer preferences.”

“So you don’t get out much,” he concluded. “Like most people. Almost everybody living in this building was home that Wednesday morning at 9:15 when Jennie collapsed. And luckily, although memories never align quite right, everyone on this floor offers reports that converge on a pretty coherent story.”

Delilah realized suddenly how odd it was that she hadn’t compared her experience with those of others living on her floor. She hardly ever talked to anyone. And here this stranger had managed to get stories from people who had lived for years all around her.

She looked again at him, and saw that the eyes were kind. “I’m glad you thought I was honest,” she said.

“Will you sign a statement?” he asked, holding out his screen. She knew what this meant. What she told him would traverse the entire Internet, weighed and filtered together with statements from people around her, with news about Macklin’s medical condition, with reports on the state of the ventilation system, and with a myriad of other information drawn from many sources. Landlords would call maintenance companies; banks would re-evaluate credit ratings; markets would rise or fall; and in rare cases magistrates might even issue orders. She signed, and Touranian shook her hand and clomped down the stairs.

Only then did tears well into her eyes. It was the most inspiring moment in her life. In just twenty minutes the Validator had extracted from her the stuff that preserved the social order. In a world that lacked shamans and prophets, and had few police and courts, it was the vast tissue of allegations, reports, interpretations, and musings of the populace that regulated intercourse and public action.

Touranian took the rear exit, glanced quickly down the alley in both directions, and headed off to the left, squeezing past rusted auto parts, bags of trash waiting for pickup, and other discarded obstacles. The street presented a normal late afternoon scene, nearly empty, so it was easy to keep track of all activity he encountered on the way to his car: an occasional serviceman or woman, a late delivery of food or repair parts, a family returning from the playground or a medic on her way to a patient. A lonely light brushed the dusty stoops and the shaded, unrevealing windows of the apartment buildings, three or four or five stories in height.

Once he was in the car, his lightscreen automatically displayed a scrollable list of alternate schedules and a map for his next interview. It was far across the city, and the day was getting late. But he knew the witness was waiting for him, and he felt that in a few minutes he could clear up the case, which was much smaller than Air Filtering Advisers. In addition, he didn’t particularly like Trowly and would prefer to get out of town as early as possible the next morning.

But in the end, it was his regard for the responsibilities of his job that spurred him on. He buckled himself in and pressed a button to call the schedule coordinator. “Calvin Touranian here,” he said. “I’m on my way to see Veronica Mallo.”

The witness was waiting for him. She looked younger than her thirty-two years, with a smooth, bronze face boasting classical contours, a mouth that curved sweetly down, and piercing eyes. She dressed in recalcitrant tans and browns, her blouse modestly robing a well-proportioned figure. Sitting forlorn at the fold-out kitchen table, she made him feel that she needed sheltering.

“You know why I’m here?” he asked.

“Yes. You are here to check my story,” she said.

He could have remained more intimidating by standing over her, but he decided today to eschew such crude tricks. So he sat across from her and took out his lightscreen, which was all prepared with a summary of the case. “A delivery man assaulting a woman in a corner of the room where no sensors can pick up the violent movements,” he read off the screen. “No police or medical report. The description of the woman doesn’t match any of the inhabitants of the building—it doesn’t add up, Veronica.”

“Many people don’t report those kinds of assaults,” she said. “But I could hear it.” The timbre of her voice didn’t back up the boldness of her claim.

“An assault that that left no audible record, but that lay behind two walls, one separating the apartments?” he retorted, allowing himself just a bit of a dismissive smile because both her accusation and his were so serious.

“Walls here are thin, and sensors fail.”

He leaned a little more toward her. “We recognize possible motives for lying, you know. You could be doing it to bring an action against the delivery company; blackmail has been tried in situations like these.”

A moment passed while she took in his challenge, then she too leaned forward and spoke. “Let me make this simple, then: the whole claim is bullshit.”

He gave a wisp of a nod, silently letting her go on to dig herself deeper. But then he felt a small, hard object poke his knee under the table.

“I’d like to give you a identity-clean disk with eighteen thousand dollars,” she said, her face never losing its heart-melting softness.

He remained totally still. “I’m afraid that’s an empty offer, even if I were interested. You could be wearing a microphone. There could be cameras in the room. There could even be a conspirator hiding in the closet.”

Veronica leapt catlike from her chair and opened the closet door. It was in fact so small and crammed with shelves that no one could have fit.

“There are no conspirators in the closet. I assure you there are no microphones or cameras.” And just as quickly she glided over next to him. Her hand was poised lightly on his shoulder. “I’m a desperate woman. I fell in with bad associates because I had no money—and they’re dangerous people; I beg you, don’t make things hard for either of us. I just want you to understand how much I’ve lost, what has lowered me to this.” Her hand pressed slightly more firmly on his shoulder.

Again he was still. “We’re required to stay celibate on an investigation. I get regular tests to detect sexual activity.”

Her face took on an endless grief, so near to tears that his own had to flow. She said, “What can that matter when I have nowhere else to turn…”

With a great trembling he got to his feet. He felt the room reeling, so overcome was he with her appeal. But in a combination of admiration and a last-ditch defense to preserve his professional manner, he forced out the words, “How did you get so expert at this?”

In a flash everything changed—she smiled brightly, clapped him on the shoulders, and looked on him beaming. “You’ve behaved in a most exemplary manner!” she exclaimed. “Now I can fill you in on what we need.” Something in the air snapped; he felt in control of himself again. She sat back primly at the table.

But he was still a bit stunned. “Who is ‘we’?” he asked. “You’ve put me through a lot trouble just to find out whether I can do my job.”

“Sit down, please,” Veronica said. Slowly, Touranian sank back into his seat in the small, near-empty corner of her apartment, next to a noisy refrigerator that covered the creaking of the jousts in the old apartment building.

Veronica leaned far over the table and fixed her eyes on him with grim intensity. “Not all Validators can be trusted any more,” she said. “I can’t tell you what group I’m with, but I’ve been trained as a Validator and the rest of us have too. Somehow, a few Validators have slipped through our monitors and defenses.”

“Well, sometimes they do,” he proffered with some skepticism. She still had her old charisma, but he found no reason to buy into her concern. “They’re always caught fairly quickly. How long do you think your quarry have been at it?”

“We don’t know,” she answered, “The quality that distinguishes these criminals is the difficulty of tracking what they’re doing. We needed the most sophisticated data mining to find patterns in the fraud. Look.” She ran her finger over a lightscreen. “A trucking company was falsely accused of embezzlement three months ago. Several Validators cleared their name, but the case was kept open for a long time by a certain Pho-Don Leung.” A narrow female face with a dour jaw came on the screen. “At the same time, a city official in Trough was found guilty of accepting kickbacks, but he had been protected for several months by two Validators, Pho-Don Leung and Len Garwaldsen.” A chunky, Nordic face appeared next to Leung’s.

Veronica continued. “Attempts to blame a policeman in the death of a cousin. Sustained by Garwaldsen along with a third suspect in our investigation, Rogerio Perez.” Now all three faces appeared. “An unexplained car bomb in Draton; Perez and Leung investigating. Claims of rape at a boarding school, Perez and Garwaldsen.”

Touranian interrupted. “There’s no rhyme or reason to these things. You’re tossing around totally unrelated incidents occurring all over the continent.”


“You find a pattern, though?”

“It’s extremely subtle,” she insisted. “We don’t know where they’re heading, and we just have to assume that the overall outlines of their plot are as complex as the patterns of misbehavior we’ve detected. We sense that they’re gradually introducing noise into the system—irregularities that weaken the integrity of our work as Validators. A compromised system will leave room for corruption and personal gain.”

“And to stop them, you need…?”

“Answers,” she replied vigorously, rising from her chair with urgency. “We need someone to find out what the plot is. We need to penetrate to the core.”

“They’re is no core,” he said in exasperation, throwing his body back and raising his hands. “I just told you the events are randomly scattered, and you acknowledged that.”

She beckoned him with her finger, but he refused to pull himself back to the table. He struggled to consider the premises of her argument.

No one needed to explain to him the importance of the Validators. With the decline of government and the imposition of travel restrictions to combat global warming, long-familiar mechanisms for setting social policy and tracking the behavior of businesses and government agencies had atrophied. Almost half the population was telecommuting, and the other half subsisted on pensions or welfare. They hardly left their homes. Instead they socialized, transacted business, and learned about the world almost entirely through the Internet. And while every anomalous incident became public knowledge instantly, nobody knew which report was correct and how each incident came about until a Validator under the seal of the central certificate authority checked into it.

“None of those schemes where those three guys lied ended up succeeding,” stated Touranian. “And if they had succeeded, the schemes wouldn’t have earned them chicken shit. What’s the big deal? If they tried something serious, they’d get caught, and someday they will get caught.”

“The previous plots failed because the sole guarantee of social order is the Validators,” explained Veronica, “and the system is still robust enough to block attacks. But any incorrect information inserted into the system distorts and eviscerates it. The deviations in each statistic spread slightly wider, year after year, and eventually admit some serious abuses.

“I think Leung, Perez, and Garwaldsen are trying to eat away bit by bit at the Validators’ accuracy,” she continued, “until they punch a hole where they can set up a back-room operation. All within the shelter of the larger system that people continue to trust.”

“You still need to prove they’re in cahoots,” he insisted. “What are their communication patterns?”

“Perfectly average,” she said. “Perfect enough that it took careful design for them to make them look average. No more or less traffic than any two Validators might exchange over the course of a year—it begs for further digging.”

“Nicely argued,” he said laconically, “But they can’t conspire without communicating.”

“Ah, but they can talk undetectably if they meet face to face in a neutral location.” She narrowed her eyes. “We’re not far from a place where all three tend to travel. We don’t have records of any meetings, but we know they frequent that neighborhood often enough to meet if they choose.”

“And so you’ve assigned a hidden army of spies to follow them.”

“Not an army. No army can be hidden.” She held up the same finger with which she had beckoned him to the table. “One investigator,” she continued. “One highly disciplined but creative Validator is needed to infiltrate them. We chose you.”

“Why? You could draw on many others with far more training and experience.”

“But none who approach validation as you do,” she answered with feeling. “You have an impressive constellation of all the necessary traits: you view each case as unique; you throw yourself fully into each encounter; you’re physically strong and have fine control over your reactions; and you’re good at interrogation, as you’ve shown with me just now. Your integrity was also demonstrated during our little melodrama. We knew you even before I put you to the test: the whole path of your career is lit by achievements bred of your concern and passion. But this will be the most demanding assignment of your life—do you think you can do it?”

“You clearly do,” he answered.

The neighborhood

The Aggersby neighborhood of Trowly was a step up from the neighborhood where Touranian had held his previous interrogations. Arches sagged over empty stoops, hiding doorways of faded elegance. A lone service center provided, like general stores of past centuries, a variety of modest personal items to the travelers and service people who passed, as well as a few rows of amenities such as diapers and aspirin for residents who made a rare trip outside their apartments rather than wait for deliveries. Only a few straggling signs of commerce, such as a safe deposit vault and a laundromat, interrupted the long lines of townhouses, all three to five doleful stories high.

Touranian started with the standard casing of the area, learning where all the buildings emptied into alleyways and the comings and goings of service people. He found a temporary apartment opposite the service center, which every visitor to the neighborhood was likely to enter at some point, and made note of everyone’s habits. A couple times he saw Perez and Leung, but he tried to avoid them so they did not get the sense he was a regular.

Georgina, the middle-aged clerk of the service center, who served up beer and chicken cutlets each afternoon and coffee throughout the day behind the counter, displayed the same dour expression as all the residents of Trowly on her flat-jowled face, but tempered her mood with a refreshingly flippant stream of commentary on the leadership and goings-on of the city. “Barios is going to lose his seat, I’ll tell you, ’cause he just wouldn’t repave the road in front of Croal’s house. He figured he’d just stick it to Croal, getting back at him because Croal stopped his building project in Aimesville, but Barios got it all wrong; that street’s used by three-quarters of the trucks going through the area, and those drivers make their gripes everybody’s business…” Touranian asked how often she got regular visitors from outside the neighborhood, but he carefully guarded his own reason for coming, and she in turn had little information to venture. Touranian had anticipated that the three Validators he was trailing would turn up in the store once in a while because it was the only place for buying odds and ends, but after a week he got the feeling they stayed out of public view and obtained whatever chicken cutlets they needed elsewhere.

He knew they were staying in two buildings within easy reach of each other, diagonally across the intersection of two small roads. The superintendent of 688 Grove Street was Hilde, a small woman with a friendly tilt to her lips and wrinkled eyes, and she gave him a summary of the deliveries to Leung. At 705 Grove Street, the superintendent Bob also let loose some insights about Perez’s and Garwaldsen’s stays. Neither superintendent realized they were filling in key slots of Touranian’s assessment, but simply responded to his earnest curiosity about the day-to-day life of Aggersby. He had found long ago that merely offering a cheerful aspect to those trapped in tedium and loneliness was enough to elicit any information he needed.

Mahmud, a maintenance man who lived around the block at 957 Jillie Street and served many buildings in the area, had the most comprehensive knowledge of the interiors of apartments. He spoke volubly of the odd assortment of fine objects in the room where Perez and Garwaldsen intermittently spent time. Exotic art pieces and fine electronic equipment made unexpected appearances, and then vanished on the repairman’s next visit; their purpose couldn’t seem to be justified in a room clearly occupied only sporadically by travelers. Touranian considered prodding Mahmud to peek in the closets for signs of expensive clothing, but decided the anecdotes he heard were enough to indicate some sort of illicit transactions, and that he should not risk revealing anything of his purpose.

The local network administrator, Ellen, rounded out the small circle of acquaintances Touranian cultivated in the neighborhood of Aggersby. Born and raised in the neighborhood, Ellen was self-taught and regarded her work as a cordial gift to the locals, from whom she expected no malice in return. Touranian had studied a good deal of network security as part of his Validator training, and discerned from a few offhand questions that Ellen’s networking hub included major gaps in security. His questions, he hoped, would leave the seed of an expectation that she install more monitoring and layers of security, which would place stumbling blocks in the way of whatever scheme Leung, Perez, and Garwaldsen had cooked up.

Soon he was used to the quiet rhythm of the neighborhood. Little children emerged in the early morning with their parents to enjoy the few parks and playgrounds of Aggersby; older children would come out for exercise later and rush back to the more enticing realms offered to them online. Neither the educational system nor the virtual environments ever shut down, so the children mimicked the adults and stayed mostly on the Net. Along with these families, a few delivery staff were regulars among the people he ran into on the street. Leung, Perez, and Garwaldsen casually entered and quit the neighborhood when others were out on the sidewalks as well; only Touranian seemed to notice their comings and goings.

Three weeks of painstaking observation, some of it spent at the counter of the service center with Georgina, punctuated by visits to Mahmud and his other new sources that he made to seem random and purposeless, gave Touranian as full a background as he could get. His knowledge of the scheme by Perez and the gang was frustratingly sparse. In fact, when it came to their ultimate goal, he pulled a complete blank. Still, he was ready to strike his first blow.

Never having been triggered during the thirty years since they had been installed, the alarms at the Midgeton Storage Company went off almost with merriment at four in the morning. Reactions flooded the Internet within minutes. Residents wondered about the vandalization that accompanied the theft of $450,000 worth of collateral from the building, and many dug up rumors that a storage room had been used to hide substandard parts used by one bank customer, Air Filtering Advisors, in local filtering system installations. The situation was perfect for public bafflement: the suspected culprits ranged from Air Filtering Advisors itself to opponents investigating the company, competitors trying to disrupt it, and disgruntled conspirators making a bid for larger bribes. A few asked whether triggering the alarm was unavoidable, or whether in fact the thief wanted to draw as much attention as possible to the deed. Most rumor-mongers agreed that the security staff had to be in on the heist.

In fact, Touranian had carried off the robbery himself, drawing on the results of the ongoing investigation into Air Filtering Advisors, calculations of the bank layout based on observations he made in public areas, and the key fact that security staff liked to leave the back door open for illicit transactions during a half hour on certain early mornings. Now he had the exacting task of determining the inevitable reaction Leung, Perez, and Garwaldsen would take toward this incident that he guessed would impinge directly on their conspiracy. The opportunity came about after two days.

The three criminals were scouring the neighborhood for signs of the missing valuables, assuming the thief wanted to turn them into cash. Touranian, of course, had no such notions, but watching his quarry enabled him to put together a mental map of their associates among local thugs and corrupt police. He wanted their frustration to reach a state of consternation, which came about two in the afternoon one Thursday. And at an unprecedented meeting of all three conspirators at 705 Grove Street, he seized the moment.

He waited just five minutes after the last of them, Perez, entered the apartment building, then crossed the street and boldly rang the superintendent. “Hilde,” he told her quietly, “I have to ask for a favor.”

Apprehension filled her roughened face upon hearing his tone, and she turned her pointed chin toward him. He wished the conspirators had chosen Bob’s or Mahmud’s turf instead of Hilde’s, for he knew she was a bit old for the superintendent’s job. She never liked extra responsibilities, and surprises worst of all. “You’ll have to trust that I’m honest,” he continued, “but some of the people I am forced to deal with are not. I just want you to be prepared for signs of a scuffle and to call the police at the first indication of trouble.”

As he could have predicted, his news alarmed her into a nasty and accusing reaction. “What’s going on in my building?” she seethed. “You’ve been chatting it up for weeks with me, but you had your eye on some stinky operation the whole time! You haven’t been honest—not with me, you haven’t. What did you have to do with that robbery at the Air Filtering Advisors?”

He pulled out the lightscreen and showed her the Validator certificates. “I’m doing an investigation. It sometimes goes better when Validators don’t announce themselves. I hope it won’t have to continue much longer—just keep a watch, won’t you?” He spoke so passionately that she softened a bit.

“Good-bye, Hilde. I’ll talk to you soon,” he said, and made the ponderous climb up to Perez and Garwaldsen’s room.

He called out the names of all three inhabitants, his mouth right up to the solid door of the room. “Listen, guys,” he said, “you’d better not make any more plans unless I’m part of it.”

He had shielded his lightscreen so they couldn’t ascertain his identity. But Garwaldsen shouted back, “Who’s that damn coward?”

“Call the police, Len,” a somewhat strained female voice said.

“Leave the police alone to rescue old ladies and shake down dealers,” he answered roughly. “I’ll fix this tramp so he doesn’t wander up any stairs for a while.”

“You’re the ones standing half inside a jail cell,” retorted Touranian confidently. “Why don’t you stop that posturing and let me in for a constructive talk?”

They opened the door. He saw a dingy living room ill-suited to the fine furnishings and accoutrements that decorated it. The range of styles and periods had not been chosen according to any policy but led an absurd co-existence in a long narrow space leading to a window and a fire escape. He calculated his modes of escape before stepping in.

“You’re smart,” he announced, “but there are too few of you. Spread the wealth a bit, and you’ll be less likely to be detected.”

“And what do you offer?” sneered Garwaldsen. Touranian pegged him as the action man, an impetuous type. Leung looked timorous and recalcitrant, while Perez possessed self-control and would hold back his intervention till the proper moment.

Touranian could see no way forward without revealing his identity. He held up his lightscreen. “I’m just the most respected Validator in the region. I’ll vacuum the crumbs you all have been leaving. Just let me know what’s up.”

“You mentioned plans at the door, but what do you know of plans?” said Perez, his disdain evident even though he hardly moved a muscle. “You think this is some small-time heist. Tell us what you know, and we’ll decide whether you deserve to find out more.”

They were calling his bluff. Touranian placed his knuckles on the table, resting his body on them, and tossed out the hints that Veronica Mallo had given him. “Amalgamated Trucking, the Trough corruption…” He said them in a firm voice with his eyes on Perez. He know Perez was the man he had to convince, but somehow he wasn’t getting through.

“This is a farce,” Perez said with a look of disgust that shot terror into Touranian. “Garwaldsen, we don’t have time for this crap.”

“Mel!” shouted Garwaldsen. A hulk of a man came through the door from the bedroom, but Touranian was already on the move. Leung interposed herself between him and the apartment door, but he evaded her and leapt down the stairs. He was fast; Mel and Garwaldsen were no match for him. Within seconds he was out of the building, made a turn to the left onto Jillie Street and headed one block before making a right. Into the service center he rushed. Georgina was at her post behind the counter.

“I’ve got to hide! Help me!” he shouted, and went behind the counter to the storage area. A short corridor led back the delivery entrance, where he paused and let his heartbeat cool down.

“He’s in the back corridor,” he heard Georgina say. Betrayed! The door was padlocked, but a large metal pole for removing grates lay next to it. A small man, Touranian found his advantage in speed rather than strength. Yet he swung the pole with precision at the padlock and snapped the chain while heavy footsteps rushed toward him. Now the door gave way before him and he was in the alley, but Mel was there too wielding a cudgel. Touranian felt like a tangle of arms and legs; the alley revolved around him as went down to the ground. He saw once more the contorted, ugly face of the thug above him.

The conspiracy

An explosive light reflecting off the shimmering waves hurt his eyes, especially at the left rear of his head. He wanted to move to the other side of the boat whose gunwale he grasped, jostled by the movement of the surf. But he could not turn around to avoid the painful light, and the deck of the boat was now a patio looking out under cloudless skies over an endless, empty field of shimmering greens and browns where a summer party was in progress, and he was holding a glass of wine instead of the gunwale, hoping to talk to his mother. But his uncle Boris was with them, wearing his Marine khaki pants, which were inappropriate for a garden party. Boris’s presence excited him because they had not talked in twenty years, but frightened him as well because Boris had died as a war casualty when Touranian was sixteen years old, and he had no idea what the dead man’s presence indicated. Boris accosted him reassuringly: “You’re fine, Cal. Take care of yourself, because you have more work to do…” He was sure there was more he could learn from his uncle, but the voice started to be drowned out and all he could hear was “Cal…Cal…Cal!” over and over, till his uncle and the green field and the party went away, and just the pain in his head remained. Bob’s face loomed in front of him in dim, subterranean light, steadily repeating his name.

Spontaneously Touranian raised his hand to his bandaged temple. He didn’t feel like he could speak, but he vaguely saw Hilde, Mahmud, and Ellen behind Bob and he could tell they were coming forward.

“He’s OK, give him space to breathe,” said Bob with his hand out behind him. “Cal, speak to us. Tell us what city you’re in.”

“The wrong city,” grunted Touranian. “When can I get the hell out?”

Another figure came forward from the murky back of the room; now he could make out Veronica’s steady face. “Just rest, Touranian. The medic said you’ll recover.” He nodded and closed his eyes.

“Were they trying to kill me?” he forced out of pursed lips.

“I’m sure they would’ve, if Hilde hadn’t gotten us down there,” said Bob. “Now rest up. We’re guarding the building, and we’re pretty sure they won’t find you.”

A week passed with Touranian tossing disconsolately on the cot that rested on clattering bedsprings in the basement. The friends took turns bringing him food and helping him to the bathroom. They barely spoke of his mission during that time, but the hints they dropped indicated that Veronica had entrusted them with some of the scope of his reason for being in the Aggersby neighborhood.

Finally he felt well enough to sit up for a few hours at a time, and the six of them held a meeting. As they sat about his bed, Touranian could sense the regard they all had for Veronica. He learned her background during this time. She had risen quickly in the esteem of the Validators, but in a very different way from the quietly tenacious Touranian. She drove projects through a superb inspiration, and could managed colleagues in multiple locations with the genius of a vision that seemed perched on a rung two or three above anyone else’s. While his friends in the neighborhood didn’t comprehend her particular contributions to the Validators, they responded to the executive manner with which she bore herself, just as he had done during their first meeting.

Touranian himself, while never resenting that she had sent him on such a dangerous task, was beginning to wonder about the abilities of the counterforce she had compiled. Who were they, anyway? How much did they really know about Perez, Leung, and Garwaldsen? Did Veronica’s colleagues grasp how deeply the conspiracy had penetrated into the country’s power structure, and what it would require to root it out?

“Touranian, you’re a brave man,” Veronica started out. “But you went in too fast. You needed more background.”

“To hell with background,” he said testily. “You admitted that you’ve done all you can with your fancy data mining. You needed direct contact with the perpetrators, and I did the best I could.”

“I’m not used to relying on a single investigator,” declared Veronica. “Maybe we have to pull back for a while.,”

“No,” he ejaculated with as much force as he could feebly muster. “There’s something really big going on. They totally dismissed everything with which I confronted them. Like it wasn’t even worth a minute’s attention. They’re on the move, and we’ve got to stop them.”

“You’re in no shape to take them on again,” said Hilde.

“But I don’t like this shady activity going on in Aggersby,” put in Mahmud, “and the neighbors I’ve been talking to say the same.”

“You’ve been talking to others about this?” exclaimed Veronica. “Don’t you know how dangerous that is?”

Mahmud, while momentarily cowed by Veronica’s admonition, found the strength to talk back. “I’m taking care of us.” he defended himself stoutly. “I’ve consulted with just a few people, people I’ve known for years. I know who I can trust.”

Veronica shook her head disapprovingly. But Ellen spoke up. “I like that idea. The next time Touranian takes action, he needs more support. Just like we saved him this time. Who’s better to rely on than the people we know, people who care what goes on around here?”

“I’m ready to move in another week,” declared Touranian. “Go ahead, gather your forces.” He was particularly impressed with Mahmud, who he had noticed accepting some responsibility for the goal they shared of fighting the conspirators during the week that Touranian was out of commission.

“As you said before, Cal, you did what you could,” Veronica reminded him. “You can’t try the same trick again.”

“On the contrary, I failed because I wasn’t bold enough. I’ve got to challenge them at the highest level.”

Veronica was not persuaded, but ultimately the argument had to stop so Touranian could rest. Days passed, and it became clear to all of them that he was fixated on continuing the investigation in his own manner.

The neighborhood seemed to return to normal. But on both sides, the level of activity covertly picked up. This time it was early morning. Touranian called his mother and father and talked to each for a long time. Free of bandages, he headed up once more to the room where Bob had told him Garwaldsen, Perez, and Leung were meeting. His face was calm but he was sick at heart, because never before had he questioned his confidence in the Validators. Despite the aid and protection they had given him, he had felt since the meeting where his friends challenged Veronica that he was on his own.

He put his fingers to his lightscreen and broadcast his identity while climbing the stairs. The door swung open and a scowling Garwaldsen let him in. Touranian sauntered to a chair between the table and the door to the bedroom where Mel had emerged last time. Deliberately putting himself in a position from which there was no escape, he plunked himself down in the fine antique chair as if sitting in state.

“You ended our last conversation pretty rudely,” he started, directing his words right at Perez, “so you didn’t give yourselves a chance to hear what I had to say.” Perez remained impassive. Touranian felt more empathy for the demonstrative Garwaldsen, brutal lug that he was, than for Perez in his calculated venality.

Finally Perez said, “You clearly have more support behind you than we gave you credit for. But you still have to make it worth our while to deal with you.”

Touranian was well aware of his low credibility with the conspirators, but he hoped to recoup it by playing a trump card. Veronica and Ellen, with the help of expert Validators, had uncovered some noteworthy new activities at the regional and local authorities that signed certificates for all manner of public and business entities, including the very authorities who had signed his own certificate, checked by Delilah not so long ago. The activities seemed characteristic of what the conspirators were up to, and he had a strong hunch that they thought they had a well-kept secret.

“My message was from the transition planner,” ventured Touranian. According to Hilde and Bob, the conspirators had dropped that term on occasion. “As you probably have learned from recent communications, 68 percent of the regional authorities and 41 percent of the local authorities have instituted new data fields and functions to manage budgeting and police functions. The transition planner says it’s time to move and finish the job.”

The gamble had its desired effect. Leung’s draw dropped, and Perez sat up straighter.

“This comes as a surprise,” Perez said. “Have they indicated that the central certificate authority is configured for the transition?”

Now it was Touranian’s turn to be shocked; his breath left him for a moment. The central certificate authority—how could a conspiracy go so high? He had to control himself from trembling as he thought how thoroughly the central certificate authority penetrated society. Although power had been deliberately distributed widely among politicians, businesses, and professional experts, each group united in their efforts through domain-specific certificates handled by a variety of authorities, all of them went back ultimately to the central certificate authority. Without this signature-stamping body, none of the separate authorities in society would know when to trust each other. On the other hand, a bias in this central authority would ultimately infect them all.

Luckily, Perez took his silence as assent. “We can’t safely contact the transition planner until later this evening,” he said. “But if the configuration is ready, we must start the transition.”

Touranian managed to find his voice. “We still have to deal with the Validators, which is why I have come.” Once again he was hazarding a complete guess at a statement they would find meaningful. It seemed reasonable to him, since Validators had been on their trail, that they would be concerned about this institution.

“We’re beyond that stage, luckily,” Perez said. “The central authority is opaque to the level on which the Validators operate.”

“Very apt,” nodded Touranian calmly, though his knees were knocking and he had no idea what to do.

Perez, luckily, liked to muse aloud, giving Touranian time. “Ironic, don’t you think?” Perez uttered lightly. “All those concerned citizens throw themselves into covering every trivial event that hits the Internet, but the central institutions and activities of our world go without oversight—simply because they have the means to hide the evidence. What does that tell you about the public’s ability to govern itself?”

Leung urged him on. “Did we find the right solution, Rogerio?” she asked Perez, her knobbed fingers gently rubbing his shoulders.

“Of course,” he affirmed. “This ridiculous system of distributed public power is proving less satisfactory day to day. Look at the living standards of our country. Look at the state of international trade. Everything is stagnating. Without firm leadership from the center, conditions will deteriorate until we have serious social problems on our hands.”

Leung was pacing, perturbed. Finally she told Touranian, “When we talked to your boss last month, she said the transition would require three months. We need those months to prepare connections on our end. How did they speed it up so much?”

“Some of the functions were moved to follow the transition,” answered Touranian, ready with a plausible-sounding invention. “The administrators of the central certificate authority have never done anything but approve applications for certificates, and they’re not ready for its major new role.”

“Damn! I get so angry when people talk that way about the transition,” seethed Perez. “This is a natural evolution for the authority. It’s been vested with all the elements of control, and begs to be extended to the economic and administrative spheres.” He faced Touranian angrily. “Haven’t you been part of the discussions over the past six months about the plans?” he asked. He stood. “What do you really know?”

Touranian groped for something to answer in return, but the others recognized his confusion and rushed at him. He struggled, he shouted, but Garwaldsen pinned him down. Perez raised a knife.

“Validators!” Touranian tried to cry out one more time. Then Perez coldly plunged the knife into his throat, and Garwaldsen let the body slump to the ground.

At that moment a stream of knocks shook the door of the apartment. “Where’s Touranian?” came Bob’s voice from outside, while grunts and expletives could be heard from others in the hall. “We heard him crying for help. Open the door or we’ll batter it down.”

Leung and Garwaldsen looked around in fear, but Perez just knit his eyebrows and gestured with his arm for them to sit. “Signal the police,” he said, “I’ve made sure they always have patrols near us.”

Distraught, Leung obediently pecked at her lightscreen. A voice emerged, “Sargent Piley here. We can’t get anybody out to you. The building is surrounded by a crowd.”

And indeed, the noise in the street had swelled tremendously, and many voices now could be heard in cries such as, “What have you done with Touranian? Come out, murderers!”

“Splendid. Now we have mob rule,” said Perez through gritted teeth. He grabbed Leung’s lightscreen from her shaking hand. She and Garwaldsen were pale.

“Look here,” said Perez to Sargent Piley. “This disturbance is totally unacceptable. Call out the army.”

“It will have to be an elite unit,” replied the Sargent, “and they aren’t anywhere nearby. An ordinary brigade isn’t going to fire on a crowd of citizens.”

Perez threw down the lightscreen and rose, heading toward the fire escape and the roar of angry voices in the street. “Watch out,” wailed Leung, “some of those people might have guns.” Perez paid her no heed.

He grasped the railing of the fire escape and, setting his jaw, surveyed the seething crowd as if about to address an assembly. They screamed at him, but it only aroused him further, and he shouted “You’re crazy!” to all sides. “You’re crazy! You are abrogating the power to plan, which brings only ruin.” They roared back in anger, and he cried out again. “You are fighting against a force of history! You crush our future in the egg!”

“Where is Touranian?” came back the taunts. “Come down, come down!” People were leaping up to grab at the fire escape, but the more significant assault came from the hallway outside the apartment. Axes and bats were aimed at the door, which Leung and Garwaldsen tried to barricade while Perez and the crowd continued to harangue each other. As the door finally split apart and pursuers started to force their way in, Perez cast one glance back into the apartment and then started to climb the fire escape. The tone of the crowd changed.

“He’s going to jump!” someone warned, and with even more urgency than before they yelled, “Come down!”

Perez rose to his full height on the roof, shouting, “Without authority we are lost!” When he jumped, people instinctively moved away and he came down heavily on the pavement.

Mahmud thrust himself forward toward the limp body. “Take it easy now,” he cried to the hundreds of assembled neighbors that filled the street. No one had ever witnessed a scene with so many people in one place. “What’s going on up there?” Mahmud shouted to the open window.

Ellen appeared on the balcony. “We’ve subdued the other two,” she answered.

“Are the police coming?”

“Powell here,” said a voice from the edge of the crowd; a hefty, middle-aged woman in a police uniform stepped up. “Look, sir, there are only two officers here, and the crowd is getting pretty excited. Do you think you might restore some calm so we can examine the bodies and the suspects?”

Her question, with its implication of responsibility, threw Mahmud into confusion. Trying to think what he could do, he turned toward the crowd and found, to his surprise, that they had broken into clumps of various sizes and were absorbed in boisterous debate, slapping their hands into their palms, gesticulating toward the windows of the apartment building and toward the body of Perez.

“You’ve got to decide what to do with the plotters,” Ellen shouted down to him. “We’re being watched. The world is going wild, hearing about several hundred people in the street.”

Hilde and Bob joined Mahmud. “We seem to be thrust into some sort of leadership position,” Mahmud said, perplexed.

Bob was edgy. “We’ve got to figure out what to do next. What do Validators mean now? What does the central certificate authority mean?”

“You’re asking me?” countered Mahmud.

“Somebody’s got to take the next step,” said Hilde. “We didn’t make plans for this.”

“Well, then,” said Mahmud. He turned to sweep his arm along the extent of the crowd. “We’ll make plans.”

“Who?” insisted Hilde.

“Everybody here!” declared Mahmud. “Who else?”

Bob nodded. He faced the crowd and said to them as much as to his friends, “Now it’s up to us.”

October 11, 2007

Disclaimer: The people, companies, and events in this story are completely fictional and are not meant to represent any real-life counterparts.

Copyright © 2007

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