For the umpteenth time, Nate Deklen wondered if he had erred in dispatching Lehman and Youst to eliminate the state archivist. The person truly responsible for the wayward document leaving his office would likely never be discovered. Perhaps a clerk had thought to demonstrate his or her conscientious attention to detail by sending that extra sheet to Mr. White along with the deliberately mislabeled and rubber-banded packet of envelopes marked "Expenditure Records." Or a mail sorter might accidentally have picked them up from Nate's desk and included them in interoffice mail.
The annoying reality that he might have carelessly placed the packet in the wrong basket did not set well with Nate. He preferred not to entertain the unsettling possibility that he could have been so unconscionably sloppy. If Franklin learned of his potentially damaging faux pas, Nate knew he might well become another target for the inestimable Messieurs Lehman and Youst.
Almost, he reached for the phone. He could call White. Alert him to the delicate nature of the envelopes' contents without providing specifics. Tell him to seal and deliver them pronto.
The unknowable risk, however, was Vic White's reliability. What if he feigned ignorance and later used his illicitly obtained evidence to blackmail him...or worse, the lieutenant-governor?
What if White had already examined the packets' contents? Would he fall in line? Could he be bribed or threatened into silence? Would such actions have the opposite effect and set him off, a time bomb that might explode when they least expected -- or desired -- it?
Either path produced too many uncertainties.
Scanning White's personnel file, Nate hoped for some clue how to proceed. Vic White had only joined the staff a mere two years ago. A former part-time college history instructor, he was the first to occupy the newly created archivist position.
A passion of Franklin's, preserving a record of the lieutenant-governor's accomplishments had struck many in the legislature as, at best, odd behavior and, at worst, self-indulgent nonsense. In the endless trading and compromising that formed the essence of the governmental process, however, Franklin had prevailed in his quest to fund his coveted position. A modest salary for the archivist and his use of already paid-for support staff ensured that little opposition would be mounted.
Nate realized that if -- when -- Franklin achieved his goal of moving to the nation's political center, he would continue the practice of establishing a clear-cut record of his accomplishments. When he retired from that august office, all that backlog of information would wend its way to the presidential library that would chronicle his legacy.
The man did not lack in hubris...
Hmm. White had served two hitches in the Army Reserve. Had even survived a stint of active duty during one of the innumerable -- and interminable -- Middle Eastern confrontations.
Did that quasi-military background mean the fellow would continue to be a good soldier? Or did he adhere to some ancient and arcane "code of honor" that demanded he reveal potential malfeasance to his superiors? And if his bosses were the motivators behind that troublesome behavior...?
Nate ran fingers through his thinning brown hair. Franklin -- through Cross -- could call in some favors and have White recalled to active status. Yet doing so would merely provoke a plethora of unwanted questions. Why select a man of White's advancing age? Why so abrupt an action? What reason could justify such a pointless disruption in a civil servant's staid life...?
Boxed into a corner by a stupid mistake...
Things had been so much simpler before Franklin had taken his chief-of-staff into his confidence. How many had they been forced to eliminate already? How many remained on the original list? How many more "hazards" would be appended to those dozen names?
He did not know. The future did not stand revealed to him as it seemed to for Abe Franklin.
Gripping his gold pen, Nate punched in the code for Youst's pager.
He had only a passing acquaintance with Vic White. Only a hazy patch marked the man's face in his memory.
Such considerations could not be permitted to sway his judgment, however. The lieutenant-governor -- even more critically, his plans for the nation -- could not be jeopardized by the obstacle represented by a single, obscure state employee.
Vic White -- state archivist, former Army reservist -- had to be eliminated.
Wiggling his stockinged toes, Vic White stretched out on their fraying brown-and-white sofa. He and Lynn had spent many an intimate moment on that aging couch in the family room. Though they had purchased a new sofa for the living room after moving in, they had silently agreed to hold on to this valiant warrior. Solidly built, its frame still held strong despite the somewhat abused upholstery. The two cats they had owned -- one long-haired Maine coon named Georgia, the other a portly tiger called Ginny -- had, in the time-honored tradition of disobedient felines, preferred the sofa to their scratching posts for sharpening their claws. No matter how many times he yelled at them, they returned defiantly soon after to renew their assault on the fabric.
He wished now he still could yell at them.
Thin to anorexic-looking to begin with, Georgia had faded rapidly after her kidneys chugged to a halt. First, she had refused to eat hard food. Then, not even a smorgasbord of canned varieties tempted her. When at last, her fur ungroomed, her back and hips protruding like some tragic Holocaust survivor, she had turned away from water, they had known the time had come to act.
Mentally, Vic had resigned himself to her demise. He tromped down the stairs that sad Saturday, half-hoping Georgie had died in her sleep, passing peacefully from life. Instead, she still clung to the final tatters of her existence.
Grimly, he slipped her into the pet carrier she had always hated. All the way to Dr. Grant's, he stroked her bedraggled fur, trying not to dwell on what came next. Tightlipped, Lynn drove, saying little. Ice and snow covered the landscape in a frigid blanket. A fitting day for their ordeal.
Together, the three of them stepped into one of Dr. Grant's back rooms. Quietly, the vet went about his business. Gripping Georgia's legs, he injected the solution that would stop the heart of their fourteen-year-old companion.
Stroking Georgia's head the entire time, Vic stayed with her, talking to her, reassuring her even as he admired the struggle she put up to the very end, yowling and protesting the premature cessation of her life.
When Dr. Grant pronounced her dead, Vic closed Georgia's eyes. Tears founted to his eyes from some unknown source. The stoic acceptance of death's inevitability he had constructed flooded away in a cloudburst of emotion. Even as he bawled like a weeping child, he marveled at his response. All four of his grandparents had died. Not once had he shed a tear at the funerals.
This time, though...
Defiantly, determinedly, Vic dug a hole in the woods bordering their home. Shoving aside a half foot of snow, he attacked the leaf-covered dirt as though it were an enemy he had to vanquish. At last he had a space large enough to accept the box carrying their cat's remains. A healthy covering of garden lime protected the impromptu casket and grave from curious animals attracted to the stench of death and decay.
When Ginny had died barely six months later...
From time to time, they toyed with the notion of adopting two new kittens. Somehow they never quite got around to it...
A subterranean shudder shook Vic.
"Where the hell did that come from?" he muttered. No doubt the assault on the Bergmans had dredged up such pleasant memories.
Using the remote to turn down the television's sound, he sat up and stared into the huge, three-quart bowl of salsa he had made the day before. A sweating bottle of beer rested on a stone coaster beside it. Seconds passed.
He reached into the bag of tortilla chips, digging for one not broken into bits. Loading it with salsa, he shoved the whole thing between his lips. The crunch of the chip mingled with the more delicate texture of the tomatoes, peppers (both sweet and hot), and onions. Saliva poured into his mouth as he chewed. Balsamic vinegar, a trace of cumin, a few dashes of oregano, minced garlic, chopped cilantro and parsley, a dash of lime juice, a hint of salt, and finely cut carrots completed his blending of different recipes.
The complex tangle of flavors slid across his tongue and down his throat.
As the chemical heat blazed to life, he sucked in a breath of air. Hot. Not as hot as his last bite, though. He guessed the heat receptors faced overload and imminent shutdown. Still, his lips tingled from the aftershocks.
Under normal circumstances, that is, with Lynn present, he would have spooned some of the salsa into a cereal bowl. More refined, don't you know? Alone as he was, he asked himself, why dirty another dish? Lynn refused to partake of the salsa, anyway. With all due diligence, she avoided overly spicy food. Few of their friends, either, cared to dare the wonders of the hot pepper universe. They did not have the benefit of his firsthand experience gained in the small and authentic Mexican restaurants he had frequented in Tucson while an impecunious graduate student.
Of course, Lynn said his endurance grew solely out of the fact that he had long ago fried his taste buds...
Continuing to consume what constituted his Sunday dinner, Vic adjusted the floor lamp then picked up the top manila envelope from the pile of three stacked on the coffee table. How one administration could generate such prodigious numbers of "significant" achievements boggled his mind. Still, he told himself he shouldn't complain. Job security and all that. When he had resigned from his teaching job at Mt. Mary's College rather than be fired for failing to coddle the latest crop of mewling freshman, he had been lucky that Bob Guild had been in a position to recommend him for the newly created archivist post.
He supposed that he, too, had finally fallen into the depths of degradation by becoming a low-level bureaucrat. A government bureaucrat, no less. Ugh. Working on the fringes as he did mitigated the pain. Since his job had not been in existence long, he had yet to become overly ensnarled in the more intricate and stultifying rules of state employment. Most often, he labored independently, rarely stepping on toes by demanding secretarial assistance, keeping up as best he could without drawing attention to himself. He managed to pay his share of the bills -- even more so than as a college teacher -- placed as much as he could afford into high-yield investments, and spent the rest on travel with Lynn, electronic "toys," and on the expanding wood shop attached to the back of their two-stall garage.
Mostly, he just wanted to be left alone.
Vic glanced at the title typed neatly on a two-by-three-inch label affixed to the front of the envelope.
"Expenditure records." How terribly exciting. He'd scan them, note what programs, trips, and conferences the records traced, and gather more information when he went to work on Monday.
A single loose sheet rested atop what he assumed to be a spiral-bound copy of the "expenditure records."
A cursory scan of the sheet did little to enlighten him. The paper did not sport a letterhead. Indeed, no heading, explanatory paragraph, or other identifying sentences clarified the page's purpose. Merely a list of names, addresses, and phone numbers, triple-spaced, paraded down that white expanse. Thick, black checks from a felt-tip maker of some kind ticked off about over half of the...ten?...twelve?...names. Even more curious, despite last-name-listed-first, first-name-last, the names had not been alphabetized.
"What the hell...?"
Vic flipped the sheet. Blank. No help there.
Setting aside the mystery for the moment, Vic read the title on the report's cover. In large, twenty-four point, bold Times font, three words marched across the space:
The Guardian Project.
Reflexively, Vic glanced at the mumbling television. Mercifully, he had not been subjected to an ad for the Guardian Card in the past half hour.
A coincidence that this half-inch thick volume bore the name "Guardian"...and not "expenditure records"?
Intrigued, Vic thumbed through what at first blush appeared to be a proposal. A detailed outline comprised the table of contents. Colored graphs portraying the rise or fall of a plethora of parameters highlighted sections of text throughout the tome. Future "target" dates extended well into the next decade.
What did Franklin have in mind?
Skimming the bold-faced headings, Vic sought to gather a general impression of the project.
Street surveillance systems. Face-recognition scanners.
Nothing new there. Nearly every gathering place for humanity formed a nexus for those favorite tools of law enforcement. After the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings in New York City, cameras and scanners had popped up everywhere. Washington, D. C., practically bristled with them. Football stadiums, convention centers, malls... As in many major -- and not so major -- cities of the world, the omnipresent concern for terrorism paved the way for ever more finely detailed scrutiny of average citizens.
Smart cards. Photo IDs.
Anyone who desired and qualified for a credit card now received a smart card with his photo on the front. The chip buried within the rectangle of plastic contained your credit history, social security number, information on your credit limits, how much of your credit line remained available to you, different types of "biometric" information such as your thumb print or retinal image, and who knew what other facts. When using the card, you specified whether you wanted the charges deducted directly from your account as with the old "debit" cards; as a "credit" card that also automatically transferred funds from another account; or as a true credit card that provided you with the option of extended time payments.
If you hated the notion of credit but did not wish to be bothered carrying around large wads of cash, most merchants required a "check guarantee" card containing essentially the same information.
Vic blinked at that entry. What did a commercial venture have to do with a project proposal from the office of the lieutenant-governor?
A twinge nibbled at Vic's middle. The faint hollowness struck him like the first nip on your toes from the lead scout of a school of piranha...
He could hear the short ads and "infomercials" echoing in his brain.
The company hawking the Guardian Card proclaimed a "unique level of security and safety" for its product. The card offered all the financial "conveniences" of a normal smart card. In addition to those advantages, however, the Guardian chip stored in its dynamic memory a host of other "useful and essential" documentation.
For that dwindling minority of individuals who had yet to purchase a cell phone, the Guardian doubled as a phone card. "No more fumbling with coins or running out of cash before your call is complete." "Direct deduction or credit options," of course.
The Guardian also provided "ready access to and identification for" various government services. "No long, tedious" forms to fill out. Merely "swipe your card through the reader," and voila!, your request was ready for processing. Name, address, social security number, job history: all instantly available and primed for downloading. The folks sponsoring the Guardian Card assured you that "private organizations are rapidly signing on for this service," as well.
A final feature of the Guardian Card "promises to save your life!" Your "complete medical history available to any physician or hospital" should the "unthinkable happen." Whether you were sick or injured, no time delay for the location and transfer of medical records would endanger the "integrity of your treatment." Allergies, medical warnings, past surgeries and inoculations, when and where you had been hospitalized, prior conditions, doctors you had previously visited along with "your current primary physician" ensured that you received the proper care. Your case would be handled "without compromise and with your full confidence" in its appropriateness and timeliness.
Vic flipped to the section detailing "Future Applications and Extensions."
DNA identification. Satellite tracking (GPS) capabilities to be "sold as safety features. Special focus will be placed upon 'youth' versions of this service to help locate missing/kidnapped children. Persuasive campaigns will emphasize how 'good' parents ensure their children's safety and security via this 'common sense' procedure. Cf to safety helmets, knee and elbow pads. When sufficient time has passed, push for mandatory provisions similar to those already enacted for the use of bicycles, skates, and other such recreational devices."
His mouth suddenly dry, Vic grabbed his glass of iced tea from the coffee table. Gulping down half the drink, he replaced the insulated plastic glass and stared at the report.
"What the hell are they up to?" he murmured. Like a driver passing a particularly gruesome accident site, Vic read on, reluctant to view the truth but compelled to discover what else lay buried in those mundane looking lines of black and white.
"Collection of data can begin at birth, perhaps as a 'required condition' of discharge from the hospital since assignment of social security number for newborns is already SOP. For any children who fall outside the net, the database may be initiated with the commencement of out-of-home daycare, preschool, or kindergarten. Retroactive entries can provide a summary of facts missed during absence from the system. At these ages, minimal disruption will result from condensation of initial histories."
Access to employment. Identity theft. Driver's license.
"Compliance will be voluntary" at first. Current requirements "for a social security card, photo identification card, and third form of ID" in order to be "lawfully employed" will be met by use of the "enhanced Guardian Card." Tax incentives for "acquiescent employers will make this option attractive" to major companies. Eventually, this "convenience" will be "transformed into a legal stricture" with accompanying "fines and imprisonment for noncompliant entities."
Rising levels of "identity theft will be given major media coverage." Alarmed citizens will demand that "the government do something to correct this pervasive problem, thus providing a perfect rationale for combining the Guardian Card with photo ID/magnetic striped drivers' licenses." For "non-drivers, see comments under 'Smart Cards/Photo IDs.'"
The chill in Vic's stomach spread throughout his limbs. As though flames leaped from the pages, Vic tossed them onto the cushions. Agitated, he jumped to his feet, pacing in a short orbit near this incredible document.
Should he call someone? Who? Deklen? Governor Cross? The newspapers or television? An Internet news service?
Cautiously, Vic edged nearer the couch and stared at the innocent looking volume. Scrubbing his face with both hands, he glanced up, his eyes darting left and right as though the answer might be somehow be found glowing in the air around him.
Hands on hips, Vic pursed his lips.
Should he call Lynn? Alert her? Alert her to what, exactly?
Drawn to read on despite his concerns, Vic eased himself onto the couch and gripped the "Guardian Project" in his slightly-trembling fingers.
How far did the goals of this "project" extend?
The next major heading was labeled:
Cashless commerce. Drug War.
"Increased reliance upon Guardian or similar, other-named cards will diminish demand for cash. Consumers will conduct virtually all transactions via this network." Stories of "'high tech' counterfeiting will be increased. Confidence in paper currency and coins will be discouraged as these monetary media are deemed increasingly 'unsafe' and 'unreliable.' 'Electronic money' will be the newest trend." Online purchases will "accelerate this move. To facilitate progress towards our goal, sales tax on such transfers will be eliminated until such time as paper money is permanently withdrawn from circulation." Old-style money will be "branded as obsolete" and removed from the economy. Reports of widespread counterfeiting of paper bills will cause "a termination date for 'legal tender' status" on such currency."
This strategy will be "combined with further demonization of drug usage and the evils inherent in such practices." Since most illicit drug sales are accomplished via paper bills, a "switch to a cashless society will be touted as a primary weapon" in this struggle to "save our young people. Drug-related crimes, cultural deterioration, and other social burdens will be attributed to the easy availability of 'hard' drugs." Electronic transactions will prevent "anonymous sales" that hide the identities of both sellers and buyers and "enable instant tracing of such abusers." Given the centrality of their usage, "cannabis and certain other popular 'soft' drugs will be 'legalized' and thus removed as a barrier to implementing what some have termed 'cyber-cash.' With this usage given official sanction, opposition will be greatly blunted." The introduction of "embedded, unique product identifiers" that are subject to remote access will "enable tracing of product transfers from initial to subsequent purchasers."
Animal chips. Pet chips.
Vic knew that valuable animals such as breeding bulls and endangered or otherwise rare specimens had long been traced by tiny, subcutaneous electronic chips. Originally, handheld or walkthrough scanners enabled lost or stolen animals to be identified. With the first chips, power to run them came from muscular movement. Newer generation chips had sufficient energy for tracking by GPS satellites.
Favorable stories on television, the net, in newspapers, and magazines had popularized the advantages to be obtained from such advances.
Recent developments encouraged pet owners to "chip" their pets. Characterized as signs of "love and caring," pet chipping continued to spread. Each time a missing pet had a reunion with its family, the media swarmed in for interviews with the weeping children and beaming parents. Some municipalities made chipping a condition for pet ownership. Unlicensed/unchipped pets could cost skeptical owners five-hundred dollars for each violation.
"Human chips." Vic shook his head.
He had heard tales of such outlandish stunts. Usually, the recipients enjoyed too much fame or fortune for their own good. Bad experiences such as kidnapping or robbery had convinced these well-to-do fashion leaders to subject themselves to implantation.
The report suggested far wider applications.
"Saturation media coverage" will convey how "modern and progressive" chip implantation is. Various problems will be "discovered" in smart card usage: lost cards, forgotten passwords, inexplicable losses of data, i.e., electronic cash, computer errors, and fraud.
Meanwhile, the chipping of armed forces personnel, immigrants, criminals, and severely mentally ill or physically handicapped patients will "demonstrate the safety and reliability of implanted chips" and set the stage for the chipping of "children, again in the 'interests of safety.' As with pets, stories of happy reunions for kidnapped or missing youths will be encouraged."
Public fears will be "allayed with continuing anecdotes of those saved personal or financial harm by carrying a chip. Anyone making spurious comparisons to Nazi era 'tattooing' of Jews and other target populations will be ridiculed and denounced. Emphasis will be placed upon the compassionate and caring nature of present-day governments. We will solicit testimonials from sincere citizens who are more than willing to surrender a tiny bit of freedom for more safety. Repetition of calls for placing the 'common good above the selfish interests of individuals' will reinforce such stories."
The encryption available on implanted chips will prove "'superior to that of the old-fashioned Guardian Cards.' Reasonable explanations for this difference remain to be devised."
All the tactics and strategies "employed with the Guardian Card will readily transfer to the implantable chip: job, health, financial, and other information will be encoded; employers and government bodies will never 'force' citizens to be implanted but will simply 'deny jobs and services' to those marginalized protesters who fail to fall in line (non-chipped people will be relegated to menial jobs of little influence or import); gradual acceptance will occur to the point where not having a chip will be what feels like the 'unnatural' condition (cf to seat belt and helmet requirements); children will mature having known no other state of affairs and will chastise any recalcitrant parents or relatives for not 'doing your civic duty.' Cf recycling/environmental issues taught in schools. Social conditions post-9-11-01 have accelerated the acceptance of such measures as legitmate responses to external and internal threats to personal and national security."
"Jesus H. Christ on a shingle..." Vic felt a strong urge to fling the manuscript into the fireplace as he would a disease-carrying slab of meat.
Such plans made Orwell's or Huxley's fictional universes shine as utopias in comparison. Surely these grandiose visions could only be the hallucinations of madmen. No sane society would countenance the seductive tendrils of such monstrous goals.
Almost wincing, Vic slowly turned to the concluding section.
The Positive Society.
"Neuroscience suggests that soon we will possess the capacity to micromanage the very foundations of our emotional systems. Either via direct chip programming or remote direction, negative emotions such as depression, hatred, sadness, and fear can be smoothed and regulated. This desirable option will, in many instances, obviate the need for the cruder changes effected in the brain through pharmaceutical interventions. Side-effects should be minimal to nonexistent. Unpleasant feelings that disrupt life and induce unhappiness can be reversed or prevented. A growing source of strain upon our sagging medical system will be removed."
Monitoring of heart rate, blood pressure, oxygenation, insulin, and other bodily processes. Correction of biological imbalances. Creation of happiness, contentment, joy, and other positive emotions. Always feeling "up, confident, and productive." Any sources of external problems such as "war, poverty, political conflict will be ignored as citizens' focus turns inward." Eventual introduction of self-programming chips. Combinations with nano-technology.
Stunned, Vic fixated on the concluding sentence:
While 'Utopia' will never be realized in any literal sense, the steps outlined and projected in the Guardian Project suggest that this planned course of action and the consequences that result from it will be as close to that long-desired goal as is humanly possible to achieve.
The subdued creak of the door opening onto the screened-in porch did not register in Vic's awareness until it was too late.