The WhyFiles: A Secret Held in Plasticine
The situation aboard the Gateshead was tense. ‘R’ had promised that if the ship transported Wolf’s sister, Asthmantha, aboard, he would be so profoundly affected by the abduction, that he would dedicate his life to uncovering a late 20th Century alien conspiracy. Exposing the alien invasion would in turn prevent Macrosoft from dominating the Earth’s fledgling computer industry and result in a more logical evolution of computing and artificial intelligence. ‘R’ had also confided to the Captain that the invasion of Earth had been initiated by the ‘Gorb’ (A horrible race that were characterized by their rotund stomachs, balding pates, and a homely birthmark on the side of their face.) ‘R’ further explained that the sole purpose of the Gorb invasion was the eventual defeat of Starfleet.
Once Asthmantha was abducted, ‘R’ thought a chain of events would be set in motion and a temporal ripple released that would make this very intervention unnecessary. That is, the Gateshead would instantly reappear back on its original mission and the crew would have no knowledge of its role in changing history. The ‘corrected’ course of computer evolution would allow Starfleet systems to resist the onslaught of the Gorb.
Alas, nothing of the sort transpired. Mutter was obviously affected by the ‘alien’ abduction and dedicated his life to exposing it, but that apparently wasn’t enough. The Earth remained doomed—artificially plunged into the computer dark ages where one company dominated the market and retarded computer evolution for centuries.
Years in Earth orbit took its toll on the systems and the crew of the Gateshead. The interconnected computer networks on a ship of this class formed a sophisticated neural net, mimicking an organic central nervous system, with control over voluntary and involuntary ship services. Over time, several irretrievable system failures damaged the integrity of the neural process causing the loss of key functions. The two RESTWIN specialists had experienced a kind of virtual pneumonia that left them both paralyzed and blithering about inserting an original DVD. Without anyone on board capable of supporting Windows 2240, many of the backup systems ground to a halt.
Deteriorating living conditions coupled with continuing mission failure led to a serious morale crisis among the crew. There were even occasional whispers about the Captain’s fitness to lead and some of the crew appeared to form factions in support of various officers considered possible replacements.
The Captain, Jean Louis, took these setbacks gracefully and confidently, and had formed a number of committees to recommend and coordinate various courses of action. At first the committees dealt primarily with accomplishing the mission, but now, twenty-nine years later, it was becoming increasingly obvious that this would take considerable time and finesse. Shoring up the ship’s systems was now an important subtask.
Today’s meeting was likely to be a contentious one and so Jean Louis asked Commander Treanna Quatro, the ship’s counselor to be present. Also ordered to attend were Ensign Flusher, Commander Warp, Lt. Commander BOB (the ‘on again, off again’ android), Commander Striker, Commander Georgie LaFay from Engineering, and Dr. Heidi Gross, the ship’s medical officer. The Captain called the meeting to order.
“Ladies and gentlemen, may we get started?”
The participants sitting around the long conference table immediately gave the Captain their fullest attention.
Ripples in Time
“We appear to have two major problems,” explained the Captain, “accomplishing the mission in a timely fashion and restoring the Gateshead’s systems. During this meeting I’d like to focus on the mission. We’ll meet again soon to discuss engineering options to repair the ship’s systems.”
The whole business of modifying a 20th century event and predicting its impact on the future was imprecise at best and contrary to the prime directive. And, though it wasn’t a popular approach, Jean Louis continued to order extreme caution.
One committee led by Commander Warp had been formed to implement minor, consciousness-awakening changes that would help establish Mutter’s credibility. A shuttle was used to perform strategic ‘flyovers’ to show 20th Century observers that they might indeed be visited by extraterrestrial life forms. Engineering used the tractor beam to create weird geometric diagrams in crop fields. And some of Earth’s inhabitants were temporarily beamed to the Holideck where Warp set up an elaborate hoax designed to play on their worst fears. Alas, the local political constructs were so conservative that all of these signals were rejected as nonsense and anyone relating their experiences was generally ridiculed. Even the final, rather desperate measure of cutting the throats and mutilating farm animals had no discernable impact.
Another committee led by Treanna had recommended direct intervention with Mutter and Sulky, but this was rejected year after year as too dangerous. Mutter and Sulky were considered two of the ‘principals’ and changes to their present status could be magnified greatly resulting in further deterioration of the Gateshead’s situation. Jean Louis had often reminded the crew that the fabric of time was tightly wound and it was federation policy to avoid major intervention with ‘principals’ whenever possible.
A final committee was headed by ‘BOB’, the android, who suggested that the strongest way to influence events was to tie Mutter’s past to the present while pointing him in the direction of the conspiracy. BOB’s committee felt beaming up selected scrabble tiles, showing the pattern reappear in the future, and directing Mutter’s attention to the Dogcow was fairly successful. This train of events certainly had a profound effect on Mutter that had only dissipated over time with Sulky’s cynicism. Mutter’s failure to tie the Dogcow properly into the whole sordid chain of events was regrettable.
“Captain,” interrupted Treanna, “I sense an incredible frustration on the part of the crew about our whole approach to this mission. From our committee’s observations, it appears that we’re about to lose Sulky’s contributions to the investigation and without Sulky, we fear that Mutter will be impotent, so to speak.”
“Plus,” added Flusher, “we’re running out of time, sir. If we don’t do something more drastic, we run the risk of failure and all that entails.”
Warp added, “Our committees have been meeting together over the past few months and we think we’ve got a solid course of action that you may consider risky, but which is less risky than following the present course.”
The Captain, being a consummate politician sensed that there was more than a little electricity in the air. “Okay,” replied Jean Louis, “Let’s hear your suggestions.”
The End, My Friend
Hearings, schmearings. Mutter and Sulky had been through it all. Mutter was accused of failing to follow official protocol for his ‘freelance’ undercover investigation of Macrosoft, and Sulky was attacked for ‘bringing the agency into disrepute’ for her alleged involvement with a high administration official. The upshot was that the ‘Why Files’ section had been shut down and both agents were to be transferred to the bureau’s equivalents of Siberia: Mutter to Cleveland and Sulky to Syracuse.
Transfers, however, take time, and during the interim both were assigned to desk duty at the Washington field office. It was demeaning duty and the two agents were noticeably tired and testy. That week, hardly a word passed between them, and it was pure chance that they met in the parking lot after work on Friday.
Mutter tried to break the awkward silence.
“Mutter,” she acknowledged, but averted his eyes.
“Talk to me, Sulky,” implored Mutter, “We’ve been through too much together to let it end like this.”
Sulky paused, turned to Mutter, and self-consciously wiped a tear away with her sleeve.
“Mutter, I never wanted anything to end like this. My career is over and I blame no one but myself. I’m leaving town this weekend and I’m going to do some soul searching. I suggest you consider something similar.”
“Sulky, I have no intention of doing anything of the sort. I know who I am and I know who they are. They are not going to win by using the bureaucracy against me. I’m sorry if you think you need to do some soul searching. I intend to pursue another kind of search.
“Mutter, that’s just like you. You don’t know when you’re beat and you won’t accept defeat even if it means losing your job. Meanwhile, you don’t care who else goes down with you.”
“That’s not fair, Sulky, and you know it’s not.”
“Who are you to determine what’s fair and what’s not?”
“Okay, Sulky, go ahead and play your guilt game if that’s what makes you happy. While you’re away ‘finding yourself’ consider that this problem is a bit more important than the personal happiness and careers of two federal employees.” (The problems of two silly people don’t mount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.)
“You still don’t get it, Mutter. The ‘problem’ is mainly in your head and frankly, I don’t want to get into another tedious debate with you.”
Sulky turned away, slipped into her Mazda Miata convertible, and began to back out of her parking space, while Mutter just stood there, his head bowed as if fighting back a wave of depression. In first gear now, the Miata gently rolled toward the parking lot exit.
“Nada,” he called. Sulky stopped and glanced back. Mutter almost never called her by her first name.
“Nada,” he said, “promise me you’ll call me this weekend.”
“Okay, Mutter,” she almost automatically responded. Finding her reaction to Mutter’s vulnerability somewhat puzzling, she stepped on the gas and began pulling out of the parking lot.
Mutter’s depression was interrupted by a loud ‘Pop’ that sounded like something between a firecracker and a tire blowout. He ran towards the Miata and noticed Sulky had run over a pink flamingo statuette that must have been blown partly into the drive. She looked back, smiled briefly, and continued into the road.
Mutter picked up the remnants and tossed them in a trash can.
I Think, Therefore iMac
“Georgie, could you give us your assessment of the latest systems crisis and its impact on the ship?” asked the Captain.
“We have two main areas of concern,” explained Georgie, “the Ship’s Replicator has just about shut down and our heating systems on deck 8 have failed.”
“You can say that again,” added Commander Striker, “my room is freezing.”
“Commander Striker,” said the Captain, “We all have been inconvenienced in one way or another and if we just sit here and complain, we’ll never get anything accomplished.”
“Excuse me, sir. I didn’t mean to complain. I just wanted to confirm that there is indeed a problem.”
“Georgie, please continue.” ordered the Captain.
“Well, sir, those are the two main problems right now and I think we may have a handle on both of them.”
“How’s that, Georgie?” asked the Captain.
“Well, sir, we’ve beamed up a specific range of terrestrial computers and we’ve gotten them on line to replace our current mess. It was fairly easy determining which systems worked and which were a ‘macho’ hustle. By the way, I use ‘macho’ to describe an odd phenomena during this 20 year time span where technology was judged to be desirable if it required the user to get ‘down and dirty’ and insert boards, modify systems software, change hardware interrupts, and the like.
“Are you implying, Georgie, that some late 20th Century computers can adequately substitute for our systems?”
“Funny you should ask about that, Captain. To be honest, the systems we chose were low-priced consumer models that were so much more powerful than anything else on the planet that they seemed an obvious choice. They’re characterized by their translucent, 23rd century look and remarkable operating systems. In fact, we’ve had no problems since we installed them. Though they don’t pack the power of our on-board computers, they’ve gone some way towards resolving the replicator problem.”
“And what about the heating systems on Deck 8?” asked the Captain.
“We found a solution to that problem quite accidentally,” answered Georgie. The small standalone units weren’t robust enough to run the environmental control software that controls heating. And just on a whim, we tried a laptop version of the same computer that featured a much faster processor.”
“And that did the trick?” asked the Captain.
“Well, yes and no, Captain. You see the systems still weren’t quite powerful enough to completely restore heat to Deck 8, but Ensign Flusher noticed that the laptop itself gave off so much heat, that it could be used to supplement the control systems.
“I’m a little confused,” said the Captain, “if these systems are so powerful and easy to use, how could the planet have fallen for this conspiracy?”
“If we could answer that question Captain, we’d have a shot at preventing it from happening.”
It was one of those sticky summer nights and Mutter had a tough time sleeping. He would doze off only to awaken a few moments later with a start. The heat seemed to keep him restless while his mind focused on recent mistakes he’d made with both the bureau and Sulky. When he finally did nod off again, he’d repeat the entire cycle. There was a piece of information about the day that he couldn’t quite process and this added to his sense of frustration.
He suspected he had lost Sulky for good. She would now pursue her own career either with the Bureau or outside it, but she would never again investigate WhyFile cases. Perhaps, that was his biggest failure—not convincing Sulky of the conspiracy despite incontrovertible proof like the missing scrabble tiles. At times, her resistance seemed unnatural, as if she was part of the conspiracy, while at other times, she offered sound, logical counterarguments that certainly made him reconsider the evidence.
She also made him reexamine his feelings. It seemed that the closer they came to exposing the aliens, the closer they grew together personally. Mutter had always enjoyed working with Sulky, despite her obstinacy, but lately there was more to it than a working relationship. He noticed that Sulky had begun wearing makeup and he too had almost unconsciously begun to dress with more care. He had even allowed himself to fantasize in her presence—holding her in his arms and kissing her passionately. He wondered at times if she could read his fantasies in his eyes.
Of course, none of this mattered. It was all lost. They had approached the summit personally and professionally and had plummeted back to ground zero. Missed opportunities. Mutter got out of bed, slipped on a pair of shorts, walked to the bedroom window and noted that the streets were still quiet.
Even the street people were missing and that was very odd. Mutter went to the dresser, unholstered his blue steel, snub-nosed, Detective Special, 38-cal. revolver, and made sure it was loaded. He rushed to the phone only to find it was cut off, paused, and heard a commotion in the hallway downstairs.
Mutter looked frantically around the room. His cell phone was nowhere in sight. He must have left it in his car. Then he remembered… the cable modem. He rushed to his desk, turned on his bondi-blue, snub-sized, iMac, 233 MHz computer, and quickly logged onto the net.
Mutter considered sending the emergency distress signal to the bureau but then remembered the phone strike. He looked out the windows again and still observed no movement on the street. Then he saw the unmarked police car three quarters of the way down the block. Almost as if on signal, the car pulled away at speed.
Mutter opened his apartment door, listened intently down the stairwell, and convinced himself that his imagination was playing tricks. When he returned, he noticed the envelope that someone had slipped beneath the door. He read the note inside, rushed to the bathroom, and vomited in the toilet. He had now broken into a cold sweat. The note read:
Oh my gosh! Another pink flamingo
Cocks its beak to welcome thee.
Across the distant seas meandering,
It speaks of silence and says so softly
And birds galore it does espy.
No feathers these nor flight perceived
They sit or stand upon their gard
A secret held in plasticine
Mutter tossed the note on his desk, had a shot of Captain Jack, and went back to bed. The bourbon had a relaxing effect and helped him process and confront what was happening to him. The last time he had consciously thought about a ‘pink flamingo’ was the day Asty was abducted. Asty had a collection of tiny pink flamingos that had disappeared along with her and the Scrabble tiles. He had mentioned this to his mom who assumed that for some reason the police investigators had taken them. When she inquired, the police professed ignorance.
“So why now?” he wondered “and how does it relate to the flamingo in the field office parking lot this morning?”
The Silver Bard
Sulky’s idea of ‘getting out of town and doing some ‘soul searching’ was a flight to Syracuse, New York and a short drive to the charming port city of Oswego. After all, if Syracuse was to be her new assignment, she thought she’d look over the territory.
Sulky had just finished touring Old Fort Ontario, one of Oswego’s historic attractions, left the tour group, and walked over to a bench overlooking Lake Ontario. It was a perfect Saturday, bright and sunny with a velvety breeze coming off the lake. As she watched a gull navigate the steep bank and land on the rocky shoreline, her mind seemed clearer than it had in months. She felt an enormous burden lift and almost wanted to cry out in relief. She would give her new assignment a try and leave the muddled mess of the WhyFiles to masochists like Mutter.
After a satisfying thirty minutes of lake air and self-reflection, she left the bench and walked towards her rental car in the Fort’s parking lot. In the distance, a silver-bearded man appeared to be planting something very close to the side of the road. She could just barely make out a Yankees baseball cap and a large, awkward piece of plastic like a sign, but not a sign… He glanced up, saw her staring, and ran down the bank towards the lake. Sulky felt for her revolver and hurried towards the man’s original location.
Out of breath, Sulky stopped and examined a tacky plastic pink flamingo. Tied around its neck was a plane brown envelope. She quickly grabbed the envelope and ran to the bank’s edge but could find no trace of the stranger. The envelope contained one small notepad-sized piece of paper with a printed message:
Oh my gosh! Another pink flamingo
Imprisoned by its frozen blood
Sits and stares and wonders dryly:
‘The mission done, will life spurn me?
Will the bureau break and burn me?
Will a land dump then entomb me?
Forgotten by the silver bard.’
A secret held in plasticine.
“Very odd,” thought Sulky, as she placed the note in her purse.
For Someone Else But Not For Me
Sulky went back to her hotel, called Mutter, and related the whole experience. He insisted that she fly back to Washington immediately, but Sulky didn’t want any part of that. It all sounded like another ‘wild goose’ (or flamingo) chase and she was done with that nonsense. After she hung up the phone, Sulky decided to take a short afternoon nap.
She awoke before she opened her eyes and sensed something wrong immediately. She hoped it was a bad dream and when she opened her eyes, her world would be together again. But it wasn’t. She no longer was in her hotel room. Rather, she was laying on an air mattress on a beautiful sandy beach at sunset and she was wearing a bikini that she would never be bold enough to wear. Laying next to her on another air mattress was an extremely powerful looking male draped in a white kimono. At least he looked powerful from the back as he was lying on his side facing away from her.
“Where am I?” inquired Sulky in a half-choked voice.
The man next to her rolled over and asked “Where do you want to be, Sulky?”
Sulky now thought she had arrived on the edge of sanity and wondered if she had been drugged. The stranger was not a man at all. Rather, it appeared to be an alien male.
Beads of sweat glistened on his furrowed brow.
“Some sweat, some brow,” thought Sulky, “who had never seen a Klingon before.”
After the initial shock of seeing Warp’s face, Sulky noticed his kimono had opened when he turned over. She couldn’t help but glance down his body… and “Gee three! Oh my God. Oh my God” she thought. A two-buttoned joystick, combined with a Klingon love cry, made her melt into a sensual puddle.
Hours later, when she was transported back to her hotel room, she awoke on the bed only to find herself happier than she had ever been in her life. She found herself humming an old Monkees tune. “I’m a believer, I couldn’t leave him if I tried…”
She called Mutter and agreed to meet him Sunday afternoon at the FDR Memorial. She also perplexed Mutter by finishing the conversation with “By the way, you were right—about everything.” Mutter thought she sounded like an excited little girl.
Nothing to Fear
Mutter and Sulky sat on a bench overlooking one section of the new FDR exhibit in D.C. The spray from the fountain occasionally carried with the breeze and refreshingly caressed their faces. Mutter read one of many Roosevelt quotes etched into the side of the exhibit: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
“Fear distorts perspective,” thought Mutter, “and without perspective, we are all lost.”
“Tell me Mutter,” said Sulky, “what’s the significance of the flamingos?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe someone is trying to tell us something.”
“Either that or mislead us.”
“Sulky, we’ve been mislead all over the ball park, there’s no reason to add to our confusion. I think the flamingos are on our side.”
“I hope you’re right, Mutter,” said Sulky.
Mutter couldn’t help noticing that Sulky looked different and appeared at times to even think different. He hesitated to inquire about the stain on the neck of her dress.
They got up and walked around to the next section of the exhibit. Sulky reached over and took Mutter’s hand. “I wonder if FDR would have been disappointed with this,” said Sulky, “you know he asked for just a small memorial.”
“I doubt if he would be too disappointed,” said Mutter, “much of the memorial is dedicated to his ideals and the triumph of a generation over adversity rather than to him personally, and I think he would have approved.”
Mutter affectionately squeezed Sulky’s hand.
As they left the exhibit and walked towards the Jefferson Memorial, Sulky was the first to notice the stab of pink color on the shores of the Tidal Basin. They jogged over to see yet another pink flamingo, this time proud and erect. Mutter and Sulky’s eyes met and Sulky smiled. For the first time in a very long time, Mutter felt excited about a woman.
Opening the envelope revealed the following message:
Oh my gosh! Another pink flamingo
He wings his way across the ether
While other stuff of greater import
Is left unsaid by all the sayers.
Nods and smirks, and single layers,
A glance and yea a hollow prayer.
An agent left with just one recourse:
A secret held in plasticine.
Not Just Sugar Water
Over the next week, Mutter and Sulky grew closer personally, but made little progress in deciphering the message of the flamingos. There were apparent allusions to the FBI and some concern that the ‘message’ would not be properly deciphered. When Mutter explained his earlier encounter with his toy flamingos, even Sulky was convinced that there were greater powers involved in this process.
On Friday evening, Sulky went to Mutter’s apartment for a working dinner. After reviewing all the evidence that they had compiled over the past few years, they could make a few simple conclusions about the conspiracy. First, of course, there was a conspiracy and it appeared to involve top government and industry leaders. Second, two of the leading systems software companies in the nation were at least incidentally involved. Third, the conspiracy had an extraterrestrial dimension. (Sulky now seemed to embrace this conclusion where once she ridiculed it.) Fourth, the immediate impact of the conspiracy was to set back the course of computer evolution by influencing business and industry to opt for an inferior operating system still in beta form. Both agents now suspected that retarding technical progress on the Earth must be a pretext for eventual control.
Mutter tried unsuccessfully to search through the flamingo verses to find any kind of a match to one of these conclusions. Sulky suggested they give it a rest and do a further review in the morning. Mutter offered coffee and a nightcap, Sulky accepted, and they sat on his leather couch sipping a Black Russian and ostensibly watching CNN. They were also finely tuned into body language and Mutter was biding his time and waiting for some signal from Sulky that she wanted to get closer.
Entertainment Today was doing a special on Rock stars that had intentionally or unintentionally committed suicide, while in the background playing an old Peter, Paul, and Mary rendition of ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Sulky muttered something about really liking Janis Joplin and leaned her head on Mutter’s shoulder. Mutter closed his eyes momentarily, breathed in her perfume, and sensed her warm touch.
With a commercial, Mutter automatically switched to Headline News. A commentator was standing outside a mansion in Silicon Valley and next to him stood a large plastic pink flamingo.
Sulky practically jumped out of her seat, startling Mutter, and shouted ‘Quick, look— it’s a flamingo.’ Mutter stared at the screen in disbelief and saw why Sulky reacted the way she had.
The commentator went on, “Today, John Sulky, former marketing director of Pepsi Cola and CEO of Apple Computer, announced the formation of PF Inc.. The company will market a small hand held device featuring the Windows CE operating system. Industry observers believe Sulky will base the PF Flyer on the Knowledge Navigator, a concept developed during Sulky’s last years at Apple. The unit will be pink in color, made of durable plasticine, and connect to the world via a cellular satellite link. Sulky also announced the formation of PF Communications, a new Internet Service Provider specifically aimed at the Flyer market. The projected price of a fully configured Flyer is expected to be in the neighborhood of $99.95.”
It took a while for the significance of the announcement to sink in.
“At that price, they will sell millions,” said Sulky.
“No,” corrected Mutter, “at that price they will sell hundreds of millions and they will take a major step towards controlling terrestrial communications.”
“Mutter, we finally know who their front man is.”
“I’ll call the airport and book reservations.”
“Wait, Mutter. Let’s sleep on it,” Sulky suggested.
“I’ll take the couch and we’ll get an early start tomorrow morning.”
Sulky smiled lasciviously, walked towards the bedroom, turned and said “Wolf, forget the couch. We’ve got to start working as a real team.”
“Ah, Good point, Sulky.”
There and Back Again
The Jobshead had completed its mission exploring the Strata-9 Galactic Ring far ahead of schedule. Starfleet suggested the crew take a well-earned vacation on Queros-4 and sent a congratulatory email message to each member of the crew that was delivered by the Talking Moose, a legendary creature from the early days of terrestrial computing.
When the Captain arrived on the bridge, the officers of the day gave him a rousing ovation. Jean Louis blushed and asked Counselor Treanna if she could spare a few minutes in his ready room. She had already analyzed the situation and was on her way to his quarters. The Captain left Commander Striker the job of determining who wanted to take leave on Queros-4 and who preferred to stay aboard.
Most of the company preferred to stay aboard and take advantage of the ship’s systems and the hDeck. The ship’s neural net compiled individual profiles and created hDeck adventures particularly suited to each. These were physically and emotionally exhilarating and the only element in short supply on the Jobshead was time. Two weeks on the hDeck was too compelling an adventure to turn down.
“Flusher, lay in a course for Queros-4,” ordered Commander Striker.
“Aye, sir, course laid in,” replied Flusher.