Docked

Title: Docked

Author: Martin Ross

Spoilers: Kill Switch

Summary: A senator is targeted by a would-be assassin with

more powerful connections than the politician’s and,

possibly, an accomplice from Mulder and Scully’s past.

Written for Virtual Season 12 with exclusive rights for two

weeks.

Category: Casefile

Rating: PG-13 — adult language

Disclaimer: Mr. Carter and the gang own it; I just visit.

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National Cybernetics and Informatics Laboratory

Arlington, Va.

1984

Dr. Witthauer leaned back in the plush swivel chair her

director recently had had installed in her clean room, an

uncharacteristic smile imbuing her face with the modest

beauty she had worked years to suppress.

Felicia Witthauer wasn’t given to mirth: She once had been

induced to watch some inane television farce dubbed

“Three’s Company” with her husband — himself no font of

good cheer — and as a result had banished the set to the

basement rec room. She did not appreciate movies: The

logical holes distracted her beyond comprehension or

enjoyment. Novels were an unnecessary abstraction, a

distortion of real life where the dice of fortune and

reason were loaded in favor of improbable heroes.

The object of Dr. Witthauer’s warm sense of triumph was an

algorithm — quite possibly, the algorithm. Dry palms

resting on her abdomen, she regarded the equation on her

computer screen with an almost maternal love. People were

unstable; code and mathematics, always reliable. Perhaps

only God could make a tree, although her colleagues in the

biotechnology field were challenging the premise, but only

science could make something this perfect, this true, and

this momentous.

She grasped the arm of her chair as her smile curled with

another spasm in her temple. Proof of the essential bugs

hardwired into organic life, Dr. Witthauer reflected.

Nearly daily nausea and migraines periodically interrupted

her crucial work, although she tuned out her husband’s

urgings to consult their family physician, a competent

enough applied scientist who nonetheless insisted on

injecting an annoying note of pathos into her visits.

Witthauer placed her hand on the case of her PC, sighing

inaudibly as its muted electronic vibrations tingled

through her fingers. She surveyed the supercomputers

flanking her — a cybernetic Stonehenge, holding the

secrets of a more perfect world only she could unlock.

The room gave her comfort, or what others might think of as

comfort. Here, there was precision unmarred by human

foibles and emotional excesses.

Now content, she turned back to her perfect algorithm,

ignoring the restless vibration in her own swollen abdomen…

Avalon Hydro-Components

Baltimore

11:20 a.m.

As much thought had gone into Sen. Clark Farriman’s

wardrobe as had been put into his remarks to the assembled

management and crew of Avalon Hydro-Components

and the metro, regional, and Washington press corps

recording the campaign event.

A suit was out: This was East Coast, hard-core union

territory, and fine tailoring tended to boil the red,

white, and blue-collared blood of this group. The labor

crowd also was wary of candidates who pretended toward the

proletariat, and a Chambray work shirt, jeans, a Carhartt

jacket would more likely generate snickers and snorts than

fervent feelings of kinship or admiration.

Sports shirt and khakis seemed the best bet. Nothing pastel

— Clark prided himself on as manly an image as anyone on

Capitol Hill could muster without pissing off the Left. No

polo players or animals embroidered onto his chest, no

effete designer labels stitched on his ass — labels

(except on beer) bred class hatred, and half this shit

probably was made in China or Honduras, anyway.

Clark thus entered the plant in a campaign uniform closer

to Eddie Bauer than K-Mart. Plausable but not elitist — he

was dressed like most of the foremen and mid-level execs

now applauding his entrance. And it was reasonably

unprompted applause: Clark’s Senate district included plant

workers, dockworkers, and other patriotic types who might

follow union voting mandates but who brooked little

bullshit when it came to the type of apple pie issues Clark

dealt in and, most of the time, believed in.

“Aw, c’mon,” the senator “protested,” waving off the whoops

and cheers. “You’re just happy to get an extra break

today!”

Self-effacement — that was the key. Let the rank-and-file

know you have a sense of humor, that you know that they

know politicians essentially amount to little more than a

warm bucket of spit in the scheme of their blood-and-sweat

lives. Clark beamed as he joined the plant manager and an

ethnically diverse, carefully selected delegation of line

workers. He could afford to be nonchalant — after the last

two mishaps, the staff had beefed up security, and the

factory’s workers had been subjected to discreet background

checks.

“I know you want to get back to work,” he winked, drawing a

gentle ripple of mock derision from the coveralled crew

and, hopefully, a warm moment on the six o’clock

broadcasts. “But I wanted to come out today and ask you to

join me in helping keep plants like this at full production

and jobs like yours here in America.”

A wild burst of applause followed his carefully formulated

remarks. Clark ducked his head as if he had no idea his

humble thoughts could spark such emotion.

“That’s why, this summer, I voted to give hard-working

families like yours’ a break on their taxes and companies

like yours’ the ability to build the best facilities and

capitalize the best equipment right here in the U.S.”

This was potentially delicate ground: Blue-collar America

remained somewhat wary of automation and robotics and the

other high-tech trappings that had made many manufacturing

jobs obsolete. But Clark’s people had done their homework.

“I continue to push for not only free trade, but also fair

trade. And I’ve supported technology research and

development that can help workers work more productively

and more safely. We buy your services, not your souls.”

Another explosion of applause. It was a guaranteed

CNN/FOX/MSNBC byte, one that identified Clark as a

compassionate conservative deeply concerned about labor

issues.

“I only regret that some in the Senate do not share my

vision,” Clark lamented. “My attempts at returning more of

your tax dollars to your pockets were torpedoed on the

floor, and my opponents have tried to frighten good people

with wild speculation and innuendo about trade and the

economy. I’m here to ask you to allow me another six years

to persuade my colleagues that government is indeed for the

people, not for the chosen few on Capitol Hill. Thank you!”

Clark greeted the thundering applause with a one-handed

wave. Early in his second campaign, one of the political

wonks noted the two-handed salute he’d cultivated as a

state representative stirred echoes of Nixon.

“Sen. Farriman,” the plant foreman finally announced, voice

cracking over the popular adulation. “Sen. Farriman, we’d

like to thank you for taking the time to speak with us

today, and we’d like you to see some of the state-of-the-

art technology you helped make possible through the

American Investment and Development Act. This robotic

assembly system has helped boost productivity an estimated

12 percent over the last six months alone, while

significantly reducing workplace injuries.”

The huge, articulated monstrosity that towered above Sen.

Farriman came to life as if on cue — one robotic arm

seemed to wave to the crowd. Clark jumped, and joined with

the media and laborers in nervous laughter. The foreman

glanced sharply at a lab-coated man at a computer console a

few yards away. The operator shrugged, a surprised look on

his face, and the foreman pasted his grin back on.

“Without the tax incentives the AID bill provided, Avalon

might have been forced to downsize as part of its retooling

program,” he continued. Both robotic arms rose and fell, as

if performing The Wave, and the crowd cracked up.

“Hey, I thought this was my show,” Clark ad-libbed as the

foreman and the operator exchanged confused looks.

As if in response, the arms mimed applause. Then they rose

like wings, freezing in mid-air.

“Senator,” the operator began, nervously eyeing the press

corps.

And the arms swooped in a downward arc. The assembled

network, affiliate, cable, and print media gasped as well,

in unison with the workers. Clark froze, paralyzed by

terror, as the two mechanical appendages closed in on him.

And stopping precisely 11 inches from his skull. A group

exclamation of relief broke through Clark’s shroud of

impending death, and he removed his hands from his face,

opened his eyes slowly, and tried not to look down at the

spreading dampness that would spur numerous digs on the

talk radio circuit…

**

When the judge ordered me to sever all ties with

cyberspace, I’d very seriously considered having him offed.

It was as if he’d condemned me to some rock in the middle

of the ocean, with neither decent human company nor

diversion.

My very ‘crime’ was testament of my devotion to the one

world where I was accepted and understood, and I could see

the smug satisfaction plastered on His Honor’s face as he

looked down at me and banished me to a life with the

Undocked. He’d done this in other cases, and the media had

applauded his “creative sentencing.” A creative man would

have recognized the grandness of what I’d managed to

accomplish, found a way to channel and apply my abilities.

Instead, I was dubbed some kind of sociopathic misfit, a

dangerous outcast, a threat to all the Undocked.

After analyzing the situation, my rage gave way to

rationalism. He was a federal judge, and his murder, even

by cleverly arranged accident, would simply draw too much

high-powered attention. I knew enough of the system he

perverted to recognize I’d be on the short list of

suspects. Hiring his death was equally impractical: I

didn’t hang in that company, and I doubted I could raise

the funds necessary to employ someone competent, loyal, and

honest.

So I tried living with the Undocked. But after a few weeks

of non-stop face-time, listening to droning, endless

dialogues of interminable detail and insipid emotion,

breathing in waves of dragon breath and microbes, I was

ready to off the rest of humanity – at least this race of

prohominid knuckle-draggers. I now understood some measure

of the fiery agony of those crackheads down in Southeast

who were cut off from their suppliers by poverty or the

law. Each evening was an eternity: TV was 125 channels of

contrived “reality” and cultural sludge; books were

cumbersome tools of a primitive society, spending pages to

convey what a few well-chosen emoticons could communicate

with significantly less energy and exploring the boring and

repulsive “psyche” of Undocked.

So I tried to cheat. But because of my past record, I

already was living on a short leash, and I found it

increasingly more difficult to slip the leash for a few

moments at an Internet café or for a chat at the Public

Library. Out among the Others, on public machines, I lacked

the tools to go where I needed, and chatting exposed this

way, with potentially dozens of eyes watching me, was

almost a form of reverse masturbation, without any of the

satisfaction. Not that I’d ever found sex to be such hot

shit, anyway. Now, hacking past a half-dozen firewalls and

taking down a bank or an agency, that was a multiple orgasm

smothered in Belgian chocolate.

In the end, I had considered offing myself. But then, I

started listening to the voices in my skull. Not voices,

precisely – it was like undecrypted code that had hummed

somewhere beneath my conscious thoughts since I had been 12

or 13. As I perfected my abilities, learned intuitively how

to troubleshoot and write my own code, the meandering

whisperings in my head began to make sense. But only in the

way isolated foreign phrases emerge from the unsubtitled

chatter in an arthouse movie. Bits of data familiar and

alien ebbed and flowed through my brain. But I couldn’t

defrag any of it, and I wondered from time to time if I

might not be just slightly insane.

My salvation came one late afternoon at the Starbucks in

Union Station. I’d scratched together enough for a latte

and was sitting a few tables away from some suit – probably

a federal peon or somebody with one of the D.C. law or

consulting firms. His back was to the wall, his Thinkpad

open close to the edge of the table, screen slightly

inclined. I watched him with growing hunger and frank envy.

And then the whispering began. Evil, depraved whispers. And

images – nightmarish images of innocence defiled and

innocents degraded. Like a Powerpoint from Hell, the images

flashed through my mind and I knocked by Grand Latte to the

floor. The guy glanced up from the Thinkpad, and his eyes

met mine. For a moment he froze, and I realized what I was

seeing, hearing. As a busboy hustled to my table with a

towel, time froze between us – I staring in shock at him,

the perv paralyzed in shame and dread and disbelief.

The busboy offered me a fresh latte, and the spell was

broken. The man in the corner slammed his laptop shut,

jammed it in his canvas case, and flung the bag over his

shoulder. His eyes were locked on me as he fled,

questioning, pleading. The images of violation and

defilement – some blurred, some grainy, some crystalline in

their sick clarity – faded off as he rushed into the

crowded mall beyond, and I slumped back in my seat.

I thought about giving chase, siccing Security or DCPD on

the perv. But what would I tell the cops? They couldn’t

very well search his hard drive, especially not on the say-

so of somebody like me.

Then it hit me, and all at once, everything made sense.

My almost supernatural grasp of code, my affinity for

programming and apps, the increasingly risky and alluring

hacking expeditions that had led to my exile.

I spent the rest of the day at the Starbucks honing my

craft, capturing megabytes of dry bureaucratese and

business-speak, awkward and badly punctuated professions of

love and anger, some really shitty fanfic and amateur

poetry (LOFL), and some diverse and occasionally

stimulating sexual perversions. This time, I was more low-

key, surfing from laptop to laptop as I sipped my cooling

coffee.

WHO R U?

I jumped, nearly upsetting my latte again. Unlike the

third-person data I’d scanned that afternoon, this was

direct, demanding, sexless and ageless but somehow human. I

glanced anxiously around for the source of the

transmission. It had come either from the Dell in front of

the fat guy who looked like Penn Gillette or the sticker-

plastered Apple wired to the young, heavily pierced woman

at the table beyond him. The coffee shop had gone wireless

a few months ago, like a lot of the more yuppified D.C.

joints, and I could see her portable was WI-FI’ed.

R U ONLINE?

Heart pounding, I thought, No? Are YOU online?, I asked,

mentally. Nada. Helloooo….?

The cybervoice faded off, leaving me with the pathetic

Buffy the Vampire slash the fat guy was composing and the

anime chat the perforated girl was now into. I scanned the

room for any other machines, and caught the curious eye of

the busboy, who’d been refilling the nutmeg at the

condiment bar. He glanced at the fat loser and the pierced

woman and then back at me, one half of his black unibrow

arched.

I shoved my chair back and grabbed my stuff. I could feel

his eyes on my back all the way to the street. But by the

time I reached my Metro stop, my heart had slowed down to

an excited roar as I contemplated my first move…

Office of Sen. Clark J. Farriman

Longworth Building, Capitol Hill

Washington, D.C.

9:23 a.m.

“How long do you believe this ‘plot’ has been underway,

Senator?” Special Agent Fox Mulder asked with a serious

expression meant to conceal his amusement.

Despite his expensively razor-cut hair and his expansively

telegenic public persona, Clark Farriman was far from a

stupid man. He intercepted the irony in Mulder’s voice, and

frowned at his legislative director, who was seated to his

right next to Mulder’s partner, the attractive redhead.

Farriman had nearly been dragged into a mess with an intern

the summer before, and he had scrupulously “ignored” the

female agent.

“I know it sounds kind of ludicrous, Agent,” the L.D.

shrugged with a consciously self-effacing grin. “But the

senator has had three near-fatal encounters on campaign

stops over the last month. And, to be frank, Sen. Matheson

told us you and Agent Scully sort of specialize in, well,

the ludicrous.”

Mulder smiled, wondering how he’d gotten back on Sen.

Matheson’s referral list after their last, rather terse

encounter. The legislator had been one of Mulder’s few

official patrons, spurring him to investigate the Truth

with the promise of unlimited federal resources, but Mulder

had distanced himself after an incident involving A.D.

Skinner had revealed Matheson’s complicity in some shadowy

doings he couldn’t condone.

“I wasn’t aware you and Sen. Matheson had such a healthy

rapport,” Mulder said, turning back to Farriman. “I thought

you two were going to come to blows last week on C-SPAN

over that health care amendment.”

Farriman replaced the Capitol Hill paperwork with which

he’d been fidgeting. “We may sit on opposite sides of the

aisle, and we may occasionally become zealous in pursuit of

our disparate ideologies, but the senator and I remain good

personal friends from our days together on the House

Intelligence Committee. He assured me that while your

methods are unconventional, you function in an objective

and unbiased manner.”

“Senator, I don’t care whether you’re a leftie, a rightie,

or a tightie whitey,” Mulder said. “I don’t know what Sen.

Matheson said about my love of conspiracies, but even for

me, this is reaching. An equipment malfunction at a plant

in Baltimore, a car crash in Bethesda, and a hotel fire in

Cincinnati. The agents you ‘requested’ investigated all

three incidents thoroughly, and could find no connection

between them.

“The Baltimore factory worker on the robotic arm was a

Persian Gulf veteran who’s campaigned for you your last

three races. Your driver in Bethesda tested negative for

alcohol or criminal connections, and a forensics crew ruled

your Lexus had had a simple mechanical failure. As for the

hotel fire, well, the Des Moines arson unit’s still

investigating. But offhand, I’d say you’ve just had a

string of bad luck. Unless you have some specific idea who

might want to harm you.”

“Here’s a start,” the L.D. said, pulling a thick folder

from the corner of Farriman’s desk. “These are more than 50

threats the senator has received since before the Baltimore

incident. And they’re just the serious ones. The whacko

environmentalists who don’t care for the senator’s stance

on clear-cutting. The whacko supremacists who were pissed

off by Farriman’s support for a black female Cabinet

secretary. Radical liberals who think he’s Hitler. Radical

neo-conservatives who think he’s Castro. Iraqi and Qumari

nationals who think he’s the Great Satan. Atheists who feel

he’s playing God with the Constitution. Folks all the way

from rural Arkansas and Harlem to Idaho and Brooklyn.”

“You must’ve taken the Carnegie course,” Mulder marveled.

Farriman shrugged, it seemed to Mulder with a trace of

pride. “I stand on my values, even if those around me are

falling right and left, and I don’t back the party line if

it goes off track. I’m hard on criminals and terrorists,

both foreign and domestic. And I don’t care if they blow up

a logging crew or bomb an abortion clinic, regardless of my

personal or legislative feelings toward abortion.”

Mulder held up a hand. “Whoa, Senator – this isn’t New

Hampshire.”

“Sorry,” Farriman smiled sheepishly. “Force of habit these

days. Look, who would’ve predicted Al Quaeda could’ve

brought down the Twin Towers with a couple of airliners or

that crazie a few years ago could almost have killed a few

hundred people with a shoe bomb? I remember working out of

a hotel room downtown after 9-11, while they swept the Hill

for anthrax. We live in insane times, and the more insane

they become, the more insanely brilliant these crazies

become. I was told you’re open to any possibility, Agent

Mulder, no matter how strange. I’m asking you, personally,

if you’ll just look into this possibility.”

“Assistant Director Skinner already authorized us to fly to

Cincinnati,” Agent Scully informed him, speaking for the

first time since the introductions in the senator’s

reception area. Mulder glanced over at her; Scully stared

straight ahead.

“Excellent,” Farriman said, planting his hands on his

blotter and looking to the L.D. His aide rose, signaling

the agents to do likewise.

“Are we independently wealthy, Mulder?” Scully asked as

they reached the Longworth steps. It was a warm spring day,

and the scent of cherry blossoms wafted over the bustle of

laws being made, futures being forged, and staffers

hustling coffee and legislation. “Since when are you so

picky about the cases we accept. Note my use of pronouns.

You don’t like Farriman’s politics?”

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Mulder glanced across the street at the Capitol Dome. “Ah,

he’s no different than any of the rest of them – just a

different flavor. Snaps his fingers, and there we are.”

“Mulder, I know you have a basic issue with authority, but

you’re not usually so petulant about it. I didn’t hear the

man snapping too many fingers in there. And, I might remind

you, if someone somehow is attempting to harm a U.S.

senator, that does fall within our purview.”

“C’mon, Scully; you read the file. The security for each of

Farriman’s campaign stops has been airtight. I wouldn’t be

surprised if this wasn’t some kind of media ploy. You saw

that stack of hate mail Farriman’s lackey had – maybe the

good senator’s developing a paranoid streak.”

Scully snorted as she dodged a fast-moving lobbyist. “And

you would be the authority in that area, wouldn’t you?” She

held up a hand. “Sorry. Let’s put it this way: For once,

I’m willing to go along with one of these longshot wild

goose chases. You have me in a vulnerable position – take

advantage of my moment of weakness.”

“You put it that way,” Mulder replied dryly, “you in the

mood for a long, very Atkins-friendly lunch?”

“Now, that’s the Mulder I know. And, by the way, in your

dreams.”

Arson Investigation Unit, Cincinnati Fire Department

Cincinnati, Ohio

8:12 p.m.

“Who decorated your office?” Mulder asked Lt. Yancy

Cleland, glancing at the blankened knick-knacks, toys, and

unrecognizable lumps that lined the shelves and wall.

“Martha Sterno?”

“Have to remember that one,” the stocky black arson

investigator murmured in a way that assured Mulder it would

be thoroughly and gratefully forgotten by the end of shift.

“Few little accessories I’ve collected over the years.

Reminds me and maybe some of the rookies what we’re up

against on a daily basis, what it can do. Maybe it helps me

connect with the folks who owned these things, remember

whose asses we’re protecting.” Cleland sank into his

antiquated office chair, which protested loudly. “Now,

whose ass are you two looking out for today?”

Scully replaced a scorched, deformed doll she’d been

inspecting. “Sen. Farriman is concerned there may have been

some possibility of foul play in the fire at the Omni Queen

City.”

Cleland picked up a mug with the common post-911 acronym

F.D.N.Y stenciled across its glazed surface. He peered at

the cold black liquid inside it, and shoved it away. “You

wasted a trip, Agents. You can tell your boy none of the

tree-huggers tried to barbecue his ass.”

Mulder perked. “You found the source of the fire.”

“Electrical,” Cleland grunted. “Well, electronic, I suppose

I oughtta say.” He opened a drawer, withdrew a manila

folder, and extended it to Mulder.

The agent examined a black-and-white closeup of a flat,

charred box that had begun to melt and run at the edges.

The casing had warped from the heat, and Mulder instantly

recognized the motherboard.

“This the senator’s PC?” he asked. Cleland nodded. “What

was it – a short or something?”

“Our guess. Though…”

“Yes?” Scully prompted.

“Just kinda curious is all,” the investigator said. “Look

at that other shot – the one of the hotel desk.”

Mulder squinted at the stark department photo of the

blackened desk and the damaged computer on it. The wall

beside the desk had been licked by flames, but a nearby

plug-in appeared untouched.

“It wasn’t even plugged in?” he challenged.

“Found the adapter cord in the senator’s computer bag, in

the suite’s foyer. This ain’t exactly my area of expertise,

but I’m thinking maybe the battery might’ve leaked, caused

some kind of electrochemical reaction or something.

Checking with some of the cybergeeks down at the CPD lab.”

Mulder lined up the photos. “We get copies of these,

please? I know a few cybergeeks of my own. By the way, if

this was deliberate, who would you look at?”

Cleland shrugged. “Man’s a congressman — suspect we might

have a few candidates, pardon the pun. Myself, I don’t care

for the man’s views on affirmative action, but he did get

us a few million more in fire grant money. Well, him and a

few dozen others, I guess, causa the 911. I don’t know,

this’d be such a freaky way of torching the place, but

given the security around that room, I would say inside

job. But you want my opinion, I’d say have a bowl of chili,

take a riverboat tour, and take a morning jet home. Less

you can prove Bill Gates had a hard-on for your senator.”

Avalon Hydro-Components

Baltimore, Md.

1:08 a.m.

“You guys are barkin’ up the wrong tree,” Jack Kreevich

said loudly, striding purposefully between two lines of

workers. “Hey, get that headgear on, FBI – your girlfriends

at OSHA’d have our asses for breakfast.”

“That’d be an all-you-can-eat,” Mulder murmured to Scully

as the troll-like shop foreman barked a hello to some

laborers. He wedged the hardhat onto his head. “Scully,

you’re going to have a case of hat hair Paul Michel

couldn’t repair.”

His partner said something, but it was drowned out by the

clamor of hydraulic wrenches and welding equipment, and

Mulder was forced to read her lips.

“Same to you,” he responded.

“Here she is,” Kreevich announced, halting before a large

computer monitor and keyboard dwarfed by the mechanism next

to it. The “robot” arms looked like they’d been ripped from

the shoulder sockets of some alien monstrosity, with cables

and tubes replacing the tendons and ligaments. “Totally

computerized.” Kreevich tapped a few buttons, and the

robotic arms deftly swooped, grasped an engine assembly on

the belt below, and turned it 180 degrees. “Every safeguard

some pencil-necked engineer at the home office could dream

up.”

“So what do you think happened with Sen. Farriman? Computer

malfunction? Pilot error.”

“No, sir.” Kreevich’s voice was tense and firm. “Albert –

Albert Weller – could operate this thing in his sleep.

Always sober; always on his game. He’d’ve never let

anything like what happened that day happen. Hell, this is

a union shop – Al’s the only one in the plant with a

Farriman bumper sticker on his pickup. I don’t give a red

rat’s ass what the safety guys say – it was some kind of

computer screwup. These things are the second coming until

something goes wrong.”

**

Albert Weller may have been intimidated by the two FBI

agents across the table, but he didn’t let it dampen his

appetite. The sallow, rail-thin man put away a bag of

Fritos and a BLT while Mulder was introducing himself, and

continued to silently chew his apple as the agent asked his

questions. The lunch crowd had thinned, and the few

stragglers in the Avalon cafeteria glanced with impassive

curiosity at the suits grilling their coworker.

“Never had a second’s trouble with the thing ’til that day,

and they haven’t been able to find anything either in the

mechanics or the brain – the computer,” Weller said, wiping

juice from his chin. “I ain’t had any computer training

outside the job, but I had to say, I’d guess it was all

that TV shit. CNN, FOX, everybody but the Food Network was

here to cover the senator’s visit. All those cameras,

microphones, and shit must’ve caused some kinda

electromagnetic interference, or some such shit.”

“Your foreman says you’re a big Farriman backer,” Mulder

inquired casually.

“Yeah, he’s a good man, don’t take shit from the terrorists

or the gays. Even more reason I wouldn’t try to rip him a

new one the hard way.”

Mulder grinned. “I dunno – love hath no fury like a

taxpayer scorned. Your boss said there’s been some talk of

moving your unit to Malaysia. Farriman’s not exactly a big

man with organized labor.”

Weller’s jaws stopped chewing. “Wait a minute, man. You

don’t think I’d try to waste the man? In front of God and

everybody like that? That’s freakin’ crazy!”

“You could say it was an accident,” Scully suggested,

picking up Mulder’s rhythm. “Like you are right now.”

“No, man, no, no,” the worker murmured, his fingers tearing

nervously through his thinning hair. He glanced nervously

at the two agents, and leaned forward. “Look, I don’t

expect you to believe me, but can I tell you something?”

Mulder looked to Scully, who shrugged.

“Reason I didn’t tell the cops before was cause I was

scared they’d think I was a whack job. But when the senator

was looking over the equipment up close, well, it was like

the computer took over. All of a sudden, it just started

chunking out commands, like it was thinking for itself. For

a minute or so there, it was like I couldn’t control the

damned thing.”

Scully gave Mulder a second, genuine look of puzzlement.

Mulder’s eyes lit with curiosity.

“Swear to God,” Weller pled. “I didn’t override the thing,

Farriman’d be Kibbles and Bits right now. Hell, I saved his

life.” He paused. “I need a lawyer or something?”

“Not right now,” Mulder smiled. “Just make yourself

available in case we need a few more answers.”

“Sure, man.” Weller frantically wiped crumbs and an apple

seed from his mustache, and scurried from the cafeteria.

Scully sat back, crossing her arms. “You think he’s telling

the truth?”

“It should be no surprise to you,” Mulder said, “but I do.”

“That the computer just commandeered the robot and tried to

kill Sen. Farriman? Mulder, I will agree it’s unlikely

Weller would’ve tried to murder the senator, but it makes

far more sense that he hit the wrong keys at the wrong

time, slipped, something like that. He was probably nervous

– he was 20 feet from his hero, and surrounded by cameras.

Or maybe there’s something to what he said, about all the

electronics in the vicinity somehow interfering with the

computer.”

Mulder shook his head. “It makes as much sense to say your

blow dryer could cause your toaster to go on the fritz. No,

I think any interference was internal.”

“Within the computer? Remote control? You mean someone else

took over the controls to kill Farriman?”

“The forensics people virtually took that computer apart.

It was a self-contained system – no network connection, no

modem, and the BPD found no software apps that would allow

for remote operation. And besides, Farriman’s toadie said

the plant tour was spontaneous – the senator was there to

talk to a group of workers , but he saw a good photo op

with the robot. Probably got it from Dave, you know, Kevin

Kline? No way anyone could have anticipated he’d be up

close and personal with Weller and his boy toy.”

Scully braced herself. “OK. Give.”

Mulder rose with a half-grin. “Not yet, not ’til we visit

Frohike and the gang. Fella’s got to have a few secrets.

Hey, look – he left a Rice Krispie Treat behind.”

“C’mon,” Scully breathed, grabbing his elbow. “And by the

way, I don’t happen to use a blow-dryer.”

Office of The Lone Gunman

Washington, D.C.

5:47 p.m.

“Mulder,” Byers beamed, swinging open the warehouse’s

steel-reinforced door.

“Scully,” Frohike exclaimed, his face materializing behind

his co-editor’s elbow.

“Do I have to spray Bitter Apple on my partner, Frohike?”

Mulder sighed, brushing past the gnomish conspiracy

theorist. “Any good dish lately, boys?”

“Source in the Democrat National Committee told us John

Kerry had been replaced with a robot,” Byers reported

earnestly, “but it was impossible to verify.”

“Closet neocon,” Frohike grumbled, moving into the

cluttered “newsroom”/data collection center. “Coffee,

agents? I think we still have some from yesterday.”

“Tuesday,” his suited compatriot corrected. “I can scrape

the skin off.”

“No, thank you,” Scully sighed. “Mulder, maybe now you can

remove the shroud from your mysterious theory?”

“Where’s Langly?” Mulder asked, peering into the murk of

the warehouse The Lone Gunmen called home. “I need a

cybergeek, and I need him now.”

“Cybergeek at your service, dude.” A long-haired,

spectacled refugee from a 1978 Metallica concert emerged

from beneath a wobbly workstation. “What’s up?”

Mulder extended the envelope from the Cincinnati PD. “Want

you should look at some photos and tell me how this laptop

might’ve spontaneously combusted.”

“Jeez, you think I’m the Amazing Maleeni or something?”

Langly moaned, leafing through photos of an incinerated

PC. “I can tell you a few ways this might’ve happened,

mainly with lighter fluid, but unless I can commune mano-a-

machine…”

“That’s only part of the equation. I’d also like to know

how somebody could tinker with the on-board computer of a

tightly guarded limo and sabotage the computer controls for

an assembly line robot.”

“We’re not the Pep Boys, so you’ll have to ask Mr.

Goodwrench about the limo. But it would be too tough to

fool with the hard drive on that robot, if you had the

opportunity.”

“They didn’t. The hard drive was inspected immediately

after the accident, and there was no modem or external

connection to the robot PC, so I can’t see how anybody

would’ve been able to establish a remote link. And nobody

knew the almost-victim was going to use the robot the day

it went kerflooey. Same with the limo – the rental company

suddenly had to switch the victim’s limo for one that had

just been driven a few hundred miles. Even if somebody

could’ve switched mother boards while they cleaned the car

up for the victim, we couldn’t find any evidence of

tampering. Lemme me hit you with a concept, and you tell me

what you think. Cyberkinesis.”

The Gunmen glanced at each other. “You just make that up?”

Frohike grunted.

Mulder smiled. “What’s the possibility a person could forge

a mental link with a computer hard drive? A telepathic

link.”

“Mulder,” Scully sighed.

“C’mon, Scully – we have ample documented evidence of human

telepathy and telekinesis. If brainwaves, thoughts, are

merely bioelectrical impulses, and psychic transference is

merely the transmission or reception of those signals, then

why is it impossible to believe we could psychically read

the electronic information stored in a computer?”

“Well, first of all,” Scully drawled, “I’m not aware of

such definitive documentation of psychic phenomena, but

even so, to make the leap that a human and a machine could

become psychically linked…”

Mulder nodded eagerly. “And think of the advances that have

been made in bringing human and cybernetic thought

processes into line. MS Word intuitively corrects

misspellings and suggests grammatical changes as you type.

True artificial intelligence is probably only a few years

away, if it’s not already here.”

“NASA’s looking at software that would enable computers to

understand words that haven’t yet been spoken,” Langly

noted. “The software would analyze nerve commands to the

throat – lots of times, a person thinks of phrases and

talks to himself so quietly they can’t be heard, but the

tongue and vocal cords nonetheless receive speech signals

from the brain. It’s the first step toward truly telepathic

computing, Scully.”

Scully crossed her arms in a familiar and unyielding

stance. “Those are technological changes based on training

computers to anticipate common individual thoughts or

activities or to read sub-vocal but nonetheless palpable

signals.”

Mulder threw an arm around her shoulder. “And you wonder

why I love this gal, boys.”

Scully’s elbow dug into his intercostals ribs. “Mulder,

would you like a non-telepathic signal that I assure you

will resonate throughout your inner being?”

The arm retreated.

“Why isn’t it possible, Agent Scully?” Byers murmured. “Man

has adapted – in some cases, mutated — to environmental,

climatic, and even social stimuli over the eons. Maybe, as

our civilization becomes more dependent on digital

information and less dependent on human interaction,

psychic capabilities are evolving into cyberspace. There’s

an entire agoraphobic generation out there that has trouble

interrelating without cell phones, emoticons, or a chat

room.”

“Sandra Bullock, The Net,” Frohike cited.

“Dude,” Langley snorted. “Angelina Jolie, Hackers. Cooler

flick, hotter chick.”

“Siskel, Ebert,” Mulder sighed. “Let me hit you with

something – it may be totally off the rails, but this whole

AI thing kind of brought it back to me. Esther Nairn?”

Langley’s pointed jaw fell, and Byers’ already somber brow

furrowed. “Hoochie mama,” Frohike simply murmured.

“Esther Nairn?” Scully mouthed. Then, awareness dawned in

her eyes. “Mulder, are you suggesting there’s any validity

to that cybernerd urban legend?”

“Hey,” the Lone Gunmen protested in unison. They had been

the recipient of the programmer extraordinaire’s purported

first contact from beyond the digital divide, more than six

years ago. Esther Nairn had been the companion of a

missing software pioneer, whose shell had been found

hardwired into a complex computer network in a heavily

fortified mobile home. He – it had tried to make Mulder a

similar human server, and in rescuing the agent, Esther had

misguidedly tried to become one with the World Wide Web.

The disincorporated soul of Esther Nairn was said by

hackers and crackers worldwide to be surfing the depths of

the Internet, occasionally making her presence known

through some fabulously complex virus or worm or a

mischievous e-mail left inside an “impenetrable” corporate

or government firewall.

“Present company excepted,” Scully relented. “Esther Nairn

died when that trailer blew, Mulder. She didn’t uplink, she

didn’t digitize, she didn’t metamorphasize – she just

vaporized. The Internet community has tried to keep her

alive in spirit – very likely wish-fulfillment by a group

of undersexed, hardwired geeks. Present company excepted.”

The Gunmen shrugged graciously.

“And besides, Mulder,” Scully added, “if you had

successfully linked to the world’s most extensive

informational entity, recreating yourself as a new life

form, why would you want to off some two-bit politician.”

“Was Esther particularly political, guys?” Mulder asked.

Byers shook her head. “Except for a hatred of digital

capitalism, she never seemed especially interested in

social causes. The only thing is…”

“Yeah?”

“Well, I assume you’re talking about these attacks on Clark

Farriman?” Byers shrugged humbly. “A computerized robot, a

luxury rental car I assume to be equipped with a

sophisticated on-board computer, and a hotel fire linked to

a laptop.”

Scully’s brow rose. “How did you know about the fire?

That’s still under investi-”

“The discussion boards have been all lit up about it,”

Langley provided. “What I heard, the hotel maid who

reported the fire leaked. I’m a love-and-peace guy myself,

but there are those in our little community who wouldn’t

mind seeing Farriman fricasseed.”

“Why?”

“The Internet Security and Decency Act of 2004,” Frohike

pronounced gravely. “Introduced in the Senate three weeks

ago. Harsher criminal penalties for hackers and spammers,

mandatory firewall and filter systems for all U.S. service

providers, an FCC-style agency to enforce new decency

standards. Sponsor, Clark Farriman.”

Mulder laughed, disbelievingly. “That’s ridiculous. There’s

no conceivable way to regulate an interstate, international

system with millions of cyberspace on- and off-ramps.”

“Like I said, I hold no animus toward the man, other than

that he’s a neocon clown. People want to protect the kids

from predators and crack down on the spammers – Farriman’s

just giving the folks what they want. The bill won’t go

anywhere. Even if she took an interest, Esther would

understand that.”

Scully nodded, and grabbed Mulder’s sleeve. “There. See?

The goth ghost lady didn’t do it. You’ll have to get your

hard drive off some other way.”

“Hoochie mama,” Frohike breathed.

Gessner Institute for Neuromuscular Research

Washington, D.C.

8:34 a.m.

The girl at the monitor studiously ignored Mulder and

Scully as Dr. Karin Lenz escorted them into the lab. She

could have been anywhere from 10 to 18 – disease had

twisted her arms and legs into uselessness, and her

expression beneath the elaborate headband was slack and

asymmetrical, beyond some flitting eye movement. The

Gessner Institute’s hallways and workrooms were populated

by victims of cerebral palsy, final stage MS, and a host of

nervous disorders that had locked them into a life of

immobility.

But the screen before the girl continued to fill with

characters, the cursor stopping occasionally to delete a

word or phrase. Mulder leaned in to get a look, and the

cursor froze.

“Heather’s rather shy about strangers reading her work,

Agent,” Dr. Lenz chided.

“Sorry,” Mulder murmured, backing away. The girl resumed

“writing,” and Lenz ushered her guests toward the far end

of the lab.

“We discovered Heather had an astounding aptitude for

writing after her parents brought her here,” the scientist

told Mulder and Scully, glancing proudly at the girl.

“We’ve been able to unlock that marvelous mind of hers, and

I have every hope we can integrate her into an advanced

classroom environment.”

“The headband,” Mulder said. “That’s a Cyberlink device?”

Lens looked up with a surprised smile. “Yes, Andrew Junker

over at Brain Actuated Technologies developed the Cyberlink

Interface, and we’ve added some refinements that enable

even severely impaired individuals like Heather to clearly

communicate hands-free via PC.

“The system combines eye and facial muscle movement and

brainwave bio-potentials to generate computer inputs – the

signals detected by plastic sensors in the headband are

sent to a Cyberlink interface box that contains a bio-

amplifier and signal processor, and the interface box

connects to the PC computer’s serial port. The forehead

signals then are amplified, digitized, and translated by a

decoding algorithm into multiple command signals, creating

an intuitive and, we’ve found, easily learned hands-free

control interface.”

“So the computer ‘reads’ Heather’s thoughts?” Scully

inquired.

“Essentially. The signals gather by the headband receiver

are translated into three basic types of control signals.

The first relates primarily to eye movements, and can be

mapped to left and right cursor motion or on/off switch

control, like a TV remote. The second reflects internal

brainwave and subtle facial muscle activity: Users can

control their environment through subtle tensing and

relaxing of various muscles including the forehead, eye,

and jaw muscles. Typically, that’s used for vertical or

horizontal cursor movement. The third type of control is

primarily facial muscle activity, and it’s typically used

for on/off control program commands, switch closures,

keyboard commands, and the functions of the left and right

mouse buttons.

“We’ve just landed a federal grant to expand our system to

accommodate a living environment equipped with a highly

sensitized infrared/radio monitoring system. Instead of

being encumbered with the headband and accompanying

apparatus, Heather could feed eye and muscular signals into

the monitoring system to turn on lights and appliances and

perform a variety of other functions. We’re aiming toward

helping people like Heather gain both professional and

personal self-sufficiency.”

“Is Heather one of your more advanced subjects, Dr. Lenz?”

Mulder asked.

The scientist crossed her arms and regarded the agent.

“Could I ask what your interest is here, Agent Mulder? You

weren’t very precise on the phone this morning.”

“Nothing to do with the institute, doctor,” he assured her.

“Just a little deep background on AI and assistive

technologies. We’re working a case where someone appears to

have established some kind of remote link with random

computer systems. Hands-free, modem-free, cross-platform.”

Lenz frowned. “Well, as you can see, as far as we’ve come

with Heather, we still have to rely on a battery of

interface devices and receiving systems. What you’re

describing, well, that’s decades beyond any development

I’ve heard of. It sounds more like some kind of military or

intelligence application.”

“God help us,” Mulder grinned grimly.

**

Deep down, The Judge was a relic of his generation – in

affect, the cyberspace equivalent of a playuh hater. He

viewed the Information Age as some kind of Decline and Fall

of the Global Empire and the Internet as the domain of the

perverted and the pierced.

“Someday, you will realize the tremendous favor I am doing

you,” he’d said before he’d undocked me. He always talked

that way, no contractions, like a white James Earl Jones

without the kickass modulation. “If I have an addict before

my bench, I make every attempt to sever him from his

dealer, even if that means prison. In your case, less

extreme but no less stringent measures appear necessary.”

I had accepted the “measures” without whining. The Judge

was immune to human emotion, and I was certain someone of

my unique technical abilities could find a backdoor out.

So far, I hadn’t. He was killing me slowly — I should have

had him offed before sentencing. However, with that out of

the question, I could at least keep him from undocking all

of us, which appeared to be his long-term goal.

But even that was proving more difficult than I had

imagined: Farriman was still among the living, and it was

only a matter of time before he went public. The accidents,

the fire had been lame-ass failures. I had to figure out

something bigger, more surefire. Maybe create a little

collateral damage if I had to. I actually kind of liked

that idea – it would confuse the cops, divert attention.

Everybody would assume it was a little post-9/11 havoc.

I’d undock both of them – Farriman permanently.

J. Edgar Hoover Building

Washington, D.C.

10:23 a.m.

“You interested in something mundane and non-

preternatural?” Scully inquired as Mulder returned from

Skinner’s office. “Granted, we’re unlikely to solve this

case using rational earthly logic, but–”

“Scully, please – your sarcasm sucks. What’ve you got?”

His partner spread a sheaf of photos on the desk before

her. “I got some photos from the Post and the Cincinnati

and Baltimore papers and vidcaps from Farriman’s near-fatal

campaign stops. If some kind of serial stalker is at work

here, he or she might well want to be around for the

fireworks. Aside from the senator’s staff, I’ve IDed two

people who were at the scenes of the limo and robot

accidents and at the hotel at the time of the laptop fire.

They’re both reporters – one for Farriman’s hometown paper,

the other for his state’s major daily.”

“What do we know about this hometown guy?”

“Squeaky. More interesting from the standpoint of your

crackpot theory was who was near the scenes of the crime.

As you’ve pointed out repeatedly, Sen. Farriman is a

controversially figure. There were dozens of protestors at

each of his appearances – anti-war and pro-choice groups in

Bethesda, anti-trade protestors outside the Baltimore

plant, and gay rights marchers in Ohio. Another group was

in attendance at all three locations. FREENET ring a bell?”

Mulder’s eyes lit up. “FREENET – the voice of Free

Cyberspace. They started up a few years back, about the

time Congress started pushing to tax Internet sales and

clamp down on cyberfraud. They’re the PETA of the Web – let

no man abridge the rights of hackers, crackers, spammers,

or porno slackers. The group’s mostly a bunch of media-

grabbers – the most violent they ever get is crashing The

Man’s hard drive.”

Scully leaned back. “Well, maybe they’ve graduated. Most of

the FREENET protestors at the Farriman stops were local

chapter people, except for Raymond Kelch.”

“Rabid Ray Kelch,” Mulder sighed. “The living

personification of the Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy, without

the sparkling personality. Larry Flynt’s a more lovable

press bunny.” He picked up a photo and smiled at Ray, a

350-pound, thirtysomething man with a sharp goatee and an

elevated right middle finger. “Suppose it does fit – Ray

was a reputed repeat cyberterrorist until he got caught six

months ago trying to break into Bill Gates’ home PC.

Federal judge slapped a boot on him.”

“Boot?”

Mulder flopped into a chair. “Best way to describe it. It’s

like one of those electronic anklets they put on paroled

molesters to keep tabs on them, except this one goes off

like a Brinks alarm if the offender gets within two feet of

a computer. Some enterprising company came out with them a

while back to capitalize on the growing cybercrime

industry. If our friend Ray even reached for a mouse, some

guy at a console sends the dogs after him.

“So Ray not only would be one of a handful of people with

the technical expertise to pull this off in a – yawn –

plausible way: He would have had to work out a way to get

into those computers without physical contact. Which,

according to the Dynamic Trio, is probably impossible.”

Scully blinked, once. “Probably. So, anyway, this Kelch

lives here in D.C. – runs FREENET out of his apartment.”

“Rabid Ray,” Mulder murmured. “To the Fedmobile, my

skeptical friend.”

Residence of Raymond Kelch/FREENET headquarters

Washington, D.C.

11:43 a.m.

“Shit,” Raymond Kelch grunted, beefy fingers wrapped around

his scabby second-floor door. “Thought you were the kung pao

chicken.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Mulder said cheerfully. “You

know, there is a Chinese restaurant downstairs.”

“They don’t deliver,” Kelch stated.

“They’re downstairs,” Scully repeated.

“Yeah? You said that,” the obese cyberspace radical

drawled.

“I’m Special Agent Scully, this is Special Agent Mulder,”

she breathed, badging Kelch.

“Ja, mein herr,” Kelch sighed. “Mi casa your casa, unless I

wanna get hauled downtown, right?” He moved aside, but his

huge belly, draped in a T-shirt depicting a boy urinating

on an IBM, still encompassed half the doorway. Scully edged

past, and Mulder gestured their host inside.

Kelch’s apartment was a clutter of pizza boxes, Chinese

food cartons, and boxes of pamphlets. Mulder pulled one

from a stack and read the blaring headline. “‘Fight the

police stat?’ Police STAT?”

“Yeah, our printer sucks,” Kelch said sourly, dropping onto

an abused couch. “I’d’ve done it myself, but you storm

troopers undocked me.”

“Undocked?” Scully inquired, standing over the shaggy

activist.

“Yeah, you want to undock us from our ideas, from our

planet, from your comfortable little society. We’ve got

something important to say, and it scares you.”

Mulder grinned. “If I remember right, what you had to say

was, ‘Gates blows,’ and you’d planned to send him three

million anonymous e-mails telling him so, along with the

muthah of all Trojan horses. Guess it doesn’t sound like

much now…”

“Yeah,” Kelch glowered. He held up his wrist, which bore a

snug, thick bracelet with a small LCD display. Mulder eyed

the UnBoot alarm device. “My point is, historical relics

like that judge who had me fitted for this charming piece

of jewelry, like those Moral Majority jokers up on the

Hill, are terrified of the potential of cyberspace, of a

universe no petty despot can control…”

“Speaking of which, Clark Farriman says hi.”

“Farriman? The Goebbels of the Great Undocked? That what

you’re here about? That accident at the widget plant down

in Maryland?”

“And the auto mishap in Bethesda and the Cincinnati hotel

fire,” Scully prompted.

Kelch emitted a single chortle, a sort of still-born belch

of derision. “God, you got a higher opinion of me than I

do, and that ain’t easy. You don’t really believe Farriman

is the target of some hacker hitsquad, do you? You don’t

think I hacked into an on-board automotive computer? LOFL,

man. My personal theory is that this is some kind of

cyberspace karma coming home to roost.”

“Maybe Esther Nairn?” Mulder ventured.

The hacker extraordinaire looked to Scully. “Your partner’s

hard drive needs a little defragging, I think.”

Scully didn’t comment. Mulder glared at her.

Kelch sighed. “Look, even if I had the expertise to do what

you said, I wouldn’t waste a nanosecond on Clark Farriman.

He’s just some right-wing jerkwad who’s trying to trade on

the public’s fear of technology to score a few votes.

Farriman’s no threat, man – Congress’ll never pass that

manifesto of his. The courts, man – that’s where the real

danger is. The guys in dresses who think they’re gods.

That’s who we have to worry about shutting us down.

Farriman’s just a trained monkey. You gotta watch out for

the judges, The Man.”

“All right,” Mulder nodded. “If not you, then who? Who’d

want to yank the senator’s ticket?”

The Che Guevera of Cyberspace nestled back in his cushion

and considered. “Maybe some hot, nubile little

congressional intern could suck the graphics card out of a

CPU. Maybe Farriman kissed off some sweet little poli-sci

android with a nice rack.”

“Really miss that computer, huh?” Mulder sympathized.

Rauxton Technologies

Georgetown

2 p.m.

“You can’t beat the boot,” Paul Trangh stated, shaking his

head vigorously. “You like that? We go consumer, that’s

what I’m going to suggest to Marketing. You can’t beat the

boot.”

“Wouldn’t it be the ‘You can’t beat the UnBoot?'” Scully

asked the engineer. Trangh and Mulder exchanged the

universal geek’s eyeroll. “So in your opinion, it would be

impossible for Mr. Kelch to have overridden this device?”

“Well, impossible,” Trangh breathed. “Nothing’s absolutely

foolproof, especially with a guy like Rabid Ray. But we

built this baby precisely for a guy like Ray, for the

criminal justice system. Once secured, you can’t open the

wrist piece without breaking it, and once you break it, it

sends an impulse to our system administrator, kinds like

how OnStar can tell if your engine’s going to blow. The

UnBoot has a satellite-controlled tracker that records the

user’s movements anywhere on the planet. Just in case

somebody was clever enough to slip the boot, the user’s

biometric signal is carried on the tracking impulse. Also

works nice as a medical alert signal, ‘case the user ODs on

one too many Big Macs.”

“So you’ve met Ray,” Mulder mused.

Trangh’s bespectacled eyes lit up. “He’s like my

underground hero, dude. Power to the System. Kind of hate

to think we’re responsible for clipping Ray’s wings.”

“How many of these things you guys got out there right

now?”

“Four,” Trangh responded automatically. He blinked. “Three,

I mean. Sorry, dude, must need a Dew. Yeah, three. See, we

got some Justice Department funds to try the UnBoot out in

Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. Let’s see – Ray’s got one, and

some kiddie porn collector in Arlington got another, part

of a plea bargain along with the other members of his e-

mail file-swapping buddies. And the third one got clapped

on some junior high kid in Southeast was using the school

lab computer to cook up some virus code.”

“Sounds like it’s catching on,” Scully said.

“Cybercrime’s ‘way up – you can look at the DOJ stats.

‘Sides, all three boots were ordered by the same judge.

Hardass with the D.C. district court, got a thing about

hackers and crackers. Messimore, yeah – Judge Wesley

Messimore. Guy’s single-handedly keeping our grant funding

alive. Dude, what’s wrong?”

It was Mulder’s turn to blink. He smiled at the tech.

“Sorry. I could do a Dew myself.”

**

“Now what?”

Mulder hung in the driver’s doorway as he pulled the

Rauxton Technologies visitor’s pass from the dashboard

inside. “The tone of mutual reverence and regard for the

exchange of ideas is inspiring, Scully. I mean, if you want

to drive, I’ll get the booster seat out of the trunk.”

His partner looked over the top of her shades. “You went

off into cyberspace when Trangh mentioned the judge. What

are you thinking?”

He slid in behind the wheel, and Scully bent into the car’s

interior. “OK. Rabid Ray doesn’t seem to have a real

problem with Clark Farriman, right? He’s just a mosquito, a

political pest. The courts are the real threat to a free

and open Internet.”

“Yeahh…”

“So what if all of this is aimed at Wesley Messimore

instead of the congressman?”

“Rather convoluted route, don’t you think? What’s the

connection?”

Mulder leaned back in his seat. “I’ve read some stuff about

this Messimore. He’s a real hardcore, right-wing Cotton

Mather type. If he’d been around at the Salem Witch Trials,

he’d have been considered one ba-a-a-ad muthah.”

“Shut your mouth,” Scully sighed, playing along with her

partner’s pop culture reference to expedite things.

“Well, ever since Justice Mason keeled over last fall, the

administration’s been looking for a new Supreme Court

justice the Senate would be willing to confirm without a

public circus or a filibuster. Messimore’s tough on

criminal justice issues and some First Amendment stuff, but

he tends to be hard on corporate defendants in pollution

cases. He’s an old-style Audubon Society guy, kind of

grassroots enviro the libs could get behind, maybe given

the right support on a few strategic bills.”

Scully frowned for a second, and then it dawned. “You think

Farriman’s thinking of nominating Messimore for that seat?

And, what, Ray is trying to kill Farriman before he can put

Cyberspace’s Most Wanted on the high court?”

Mulder beamed. “Now, that’s the Scully I enjoy playing IRS

auditor-and-white collar felon with.”

“I wonder if they make an UnBoot for horny UFO nuts,”

Scully grumbled. “One in a special size.”

“Youch,” Mulder gasped with horror and just a trace of

interest.

Wesley Messimore residence

Georgetown

4:53 p.m.

“Wow,” the ponytailed girl breathed, her large blue eyes

popping. “You guys are like really FBI agents? That is so

cool.”

Mulder smiled at the flawless young blonde poised in the

colonial-style doorway, and pocketed his ID. The

neighborhood was all sprawling, flawlessly green lawns

flourishing despite an ongoing drought, flawlessly white

columns and flawlessly constructed masonry, and flawless

avenues free of the gulches and crevasses of most of D.C.’s

streets. The agent had begun to feel he’d stepped into

Stepford, and the fresh-scrubbed debutante before him

seemed to confirm it. “Your dad home, uh…?”

“Oh, Syd, sir – Sydney,” she bubbled, beaming, eager to

please. Mulder beamed back

“Syd,” Scully inquired patiently, “is Judge Messimore home

right now.”

“Oh, Jeez,” the tall, athletically built girl laughed.

“Duh. Sure, come on in. DADDY?”

Mulder and Scully jumped, but followed her into the marble

foyer of Judge Wesley Messimore’s Tudor-style Georgetown

home. His daughter disappeared into a hallway beyond the

entry.

“Nice place,” Mulder finally commented, studying an old oil

of New England sailing ships. “Can’t wait to see the

embalming room.”

“Yeah,” Scully responded, drily. “Where’s the Bigmouth

Billy Bass?”

“Hey, it went with the décor.”

Syd reappeared, pulling a rubber band from her ponytail and

swishing her shiny hair free. “C’mon, guys – he’s in the

library. Y’know, I think maybe we’ve still got some

lemonade Sandra – the housekeeper – made this morning. You

want some? It’s really yummy.”

“Sounds yummy,” Mulder said.

“No thanks,” Scully answered for both of them.

“You go to Georgetown, Syd?” Mulder asked as they moved

down a wainscoted corridor lined with more vintage nautical

paintings. He was beginning to feel the need for some

Dramamine.

Syd stopped and turned, confusion lining her brow. Then the

perfect white teeth re-emerged, and she plucked at her T-

shirt. “Cause of this? Oh, no – I’m at Wellesington, it’s a

private college in Maryland. I, uh, was dating some guy

from G.U. last year, and, oh, you don’t want to hear it.”

Scully suppressed a sigh of relief. Syd stopped at the last

doorway, and the trio peeked inside to see a sturdy man

with salt-and-pepper hair and a long Roman nose setting a

thick volume on an antique end table next to his wine-

colored leather wing chair. He was dressed as though he’d

just closeted his judicial robe, in a white pinpoint oxford

shirt, gray flannel slacks, and oxblood oxfords. Judge

Messimore was surrounded by clusters of uniform volumes of

varying color – the accumulated statutes, codes, acts, and

codicils of a nation.

“Here they are, Daddy,” Syd announced, rubbing her neck

anxiously.

“Yes,” he answered drily, eyes growing narrow seemingly not

at the agents but at his daughter. Syd beamed expectantly.

“Sydney, why don’t you see what’s keeping dinner, eh? You

two, please, have a seat. Thank you, dear.”

The judge leaned back and steepled his fingers over his

stomach. “Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Your

father was William Scully, am I right, Agent? Impressive

man – met him at a White House function, Reagan White

House,” he added as if the point were somehow crucial. “I

understand you two are investigating some matter for Clark

Farriman.”

“A matter involving Sen. Farriman,” Mulder said with a calm

smile.

The judge nodded approvingly. “I stand corrected. “Clark

has been a good friend, and if there’s anything I can do to

assist him, well, I’m at your disposal. My guess is you

have reason to suspect Clark’s recent series of

‘accidents.'”

“You seem to know a lot, sir,” Scully murmured.

Judge Messimore shrugged. “I knew Jerry Ford very well –

well before his presidency — and even he couldn’t rack up

the record of mishaps Clark’s managed to compile in the

past month or so. No public servant who does his job

adequately escapes office without a solid list of enemies.

Clark and I frequently compare lists, and lately it’s been

heavy with computer-literate, societally inept individuals

who take exception to our efforts to curb the excesses of

the technology. I assume you’ve called on Raymond Kelch, or

is he next on the agenda?”

Now, Mulder nodded approvingly. “No wonder the senator

wants you as power-forward for O’Connor and Scalia.”

The judge’s expression froze, and he regarded the bemused

agent neutrally. “May I ask where you heard this piece of

intelligence? We’ve managed to keep the Post and CNN in the

dark about my pending nomination – and I do emphasize

‘pending.’ Either there’s a leak somewhere, or you’re both

very good at your jobs.”

“Your taxpayer dollars at work. Don’t worry – it was just

conjecture on our part. So, have you had any threats from

Mr. Kelch or any other cyberactivists?”

“Cyberterrorists, Agent Mulder,” Judge Messimore amended

pointedly. “Activism implies civil disobedience in the name

of some greater good. These people are thugs who’ve

conspired to exploit an essentially lawless system. The

Internet is one of the greatest achievements of our

military R&D effort, but in opening an international,

public on-ramp to the Information Superhighway, we’ve also

opened a Pandora’s box. Criminals, pornographers, and

conmen have found a lawless new territory in which to prey

on the innocent, and any disgruntled or disenfranchised

soul with a detailed knowledge of program code could bring

down a major corporation or a federal agency.

“Don’t get me wrong: We live in a land of protected speech

and expression, and I wouldn’t presume to change that. But

just as we’re prohibited from shouting fire in a crowded

theater or instigating a riot through our unfettered

political or religious expression, I believe we have to

draw a line somewhere. That’s what the courts are for, and

I’ll unapologetically bring the full force of the law down

on anyone who’d use technology to victimize society or

corrupt the young. New technology creates new law.”

“So, in other words, the answer is yes,” Mulder concluded.

The judge’s smile was steely, but the heat drained from his

face. “Yes. Mr. Kelch is too practiced to openly threaten

violence against a federal judge, but even after his

conviction, he’s continued to regale me with strident – and

badly phrased, I might add – invective against my ‘Gestapo

tactics.’ With the media coverage of my ‘creative

sentencing,’ I’ve received at least 50 more far less

genteel communications.

“Any mention Sen. Farriman, as well?” Scully inquired.

“None, as I recall, or I’d have notified Clark. My clerk

will give you complete access to every piece of

correspondence. In exchange, I’ll trust in your discretion

about my nomination. I don’t mind a little media heat, but

this is an election year, and during what we call the silly

season, timing is everything.”

“We’ll do our best,” Scully murmured, rising.

Judge Messimore didn’t appear pleased, but he nodded

curtly. “Very good. You remember your way out?”

“Your Honor, you mind if I use your, uh…” Mulder grinned

sheepishly.

“Certainly. Guest lavatory’s off the foyer.”

“Thanks.” The agent disappeared, and Scully coughed in a

pre-farewell gesture.

“Agent Scully,” the judge rumbled thoughtfully. “When your

partner called me, I asked around a bit about you two and

this obscure little branch of the Bureau you work out of. I

understand Agent Mulder is inclined toward taking the most

circuitous route to solving a case. Does he have some

rational reason to believe Clark and myself are the targets

of some mad ‘cyberactivist’?”

Scully stared at him for a second while formulating a

response. None came.

“Ah,” Messimore said, reaching for his book.

**

“Thanks for coming, guys!” Syd sang from an Adirondack

chair on the wide porch, as if the pair had delivered a

casserole. “Hope you solve your case!”

“Nancy Drew needs to kick it down a notch,” Scully

muttered, beaming a return greeting.

“Or perhaps someone could kick their dosage up a notch,”

Mulder suggested, waving to the judge’s daughter. “I

thought she was nice – kind of a sororitized Darryl

Hannah.”

Scully’s eyes rolled toward the cloudless sky. “Mulder, I

hope you’re not working up to some kind of kinky

roleplaying game. Law and Order’s on tonight.”

“Too bad, young lady, ’cause your mid-terms are right on

the edge between a D and an F. Seriously, though, Barbie

back there did give me an idea. On the case, that is.”

Scully stopped before the passenger door of their sedan.

“Mulder, if that girl ever had an idea of her own, I’d urge

her to hold onto it like grim death.”

She was interrupted by the trill of Mulder’s cell phone.

“Yeah,” her partner responded. “Sen. Farriman? Yeah, we can

talk. C’mon…No shit?” He looked up at Scully. “Wow, and

they’re sure? No shit? You got it right now? Scully and I

will be right over to take a look, OK? Thanks – owe you.”

Mulder folded the cell phone and slipped it back into his

pocket with a frown spreading across his face. He leaned

back against the car.

“What?” Scully demanded.

“It looks like our Sen. Farriman may be in some deep do-do.

Couple of the guys in Cybercrimes got a tip and paid a

routine visit to Capitol Hill. Farriman voluntarily

surrendered his private laptop and guess what they found?”

Scully leaned over the hood. “Mulder…”

“Roughly 500 megabytes of porn. Teen porn. Junior high,

high school stuff. Apparently, a female aide came in with a

file while the senator was out on a vote and saw a

particularly graphic sample.”

“My God,” Scully breathed, shaking her head. “Well, Mulder,

I guess our work here is done – the senator should be safe

in federal custody.”

Mulder nodded slowly. “I don’t know, Scully. We have good

circumstantial evidence of computer tampering in this case

– maybe remote tampering. Farriman might not be a lot of my

favorite things, but wouldn’t you like to know we got the

right guy?”

University of Maryland Imaging Lab

10:12 a.m.

“Extraordinary,” Chuck Burks murmured, eyes aglow with

scientific excitement. He turned from his PC. “Mulder, this

is sheer genius.”

Scully bent down and peered at the single window the

imaging specialist had opened in Photoshop. The girl in the

.jpg was pleasuring herself with an appliance the

sporadically devout Catholic had never before seen.

“Disgusting, appalling, yeah. Genius is one term I wouldn’t

have come up with.”

Chuck blushed. “No, Agent. Geez. No, I meant the quality of

the manipulation here.”

Mulder, who had began to fade during his friend’s discourse

on digital imaging, now perked. He jumped from his lab

stool. “They’re fakes.”

clip_image005

“Not in the standard sense,” the doughy scientist murmured,

zooming in until the nude teen degenerated into a mosaic of

multicolored pixels. “Every sample you brought me from the

senator’s hard drive had almost identical sharpness,

curves, and levels – uh, lightness, contrast, and the like.

That in itself was unusual enough, if these files were

supposed to be from a variety of sources. And the uh,

girls, in the hundred or so photos I examined, well, they

were strangely similar.”

“Probably a lot of them feature the same girls,” Scully

suggested sadly.

Burks shook his head. “They were different girls, but they

all shared many of the same facial features. One girl’s

slightly crooked nose pops up with another’s hairstyle and

a third girl’s triangular chin, and the chin turns up on 15

other girls. It’s like Mr. Potatohead – it’s like parts of

10 or 12 girls have been mixed or matched. But there aren’t

any artifacts – the mattes, mismatched light patterns, or

other digital blemishes you’d see if these photos had been

even professionally manipulated.”

Scully looked at Mulder, who shrugged. “What are you

telling us, Chuck?”

“That these images — what did you say, 500 megabytes of

them? – weren’t shot or scanned or downloaded from

anywhere. They were created.”

“Created?” Scully gasped. “That’s incredible.”

Burks nodded almost cheerfully, having gained his

audience’s attention. “And I don’t mean they were drawn,

colored, and scanned. I mean they were assembled, pixel by

pixel, with photo-like precision. You’d have to be an

expert to spot it. But I’d testify to it, if you need me

to.”

Scully glanced at the pornographic mosaic on Burks’

monitor. “We’ll need you to.”

**

As part of my sentence, the judge had ordered me into

counseling “to help develop sane and healthy outlets for

your pathological rage.” I almost preferred the UnBoot: The

court-ordered shrink was a condescending bitch who believed

she’d gained some handle on my psychosis from the moment my

ass hit her bomber leather couch. We’d sparred a few dozen

rounds over a half-dozen sessions before she threw in the

towel.

The only things of merit Dr. Welkin was able to contribute

to me were a few stress relief exercises, which I now

employed.

After the Dynamic Duo from the FBI showed up (LOFL), I’d

decided a more rational, subtle approach was needed with

“Clark.” I remembered the job the media had done on that

Illinois guy just because he’d suggested a few kinky moves

to his Star Trek babe wife. If I’ve learned anything about

the hypocrisy of public life, it’s that sex kills, at least

in politics. If I couldn’t off Farriman physically, I could

bury his career.

When CNN reported the porn on Clark’s hard drive was phony

and probably planted, I nearly shit a brick. I thought I’d

done an artful job, but somebody – maybe the FBI geek and

his redheaded girlfriend – had seen right through it. I’d

have to watch my ass from now on.

MULDER AND SCULLY.

E’s sexless, ageless voice had popped into my brain like a

telepathic IM pop-up. What?, I thought. You know them or

something?

THE GEEK AND HIS GIRLFRIEND. DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THEM.

At first, I was terrified I’d gone schizo or something, or

worse, that “God” had started talking to me like that Joan

of Arcadia nerd. But then I connected it up with my

recently acquired cyberskills – I’d made first contact with

some kind of artificial intelligence, maybe some

Supercomputer at the Pentagon or somebody’s mutant virus

that had grown an attitude.

They’ll never figure it out, I assured E. They’re a couple

of bureaucratic dweebs.

THEY KNOW.

Yeah, right.

THEY KNOW.

So what do I do, O Great AI?

SOMETHING BIG.

I already tried to waste the guy. What’s bigger than that?

CRASH THE SYSTEM.

Speak English, dude…whatever you are.

A knock at the door interrupted E’s reply. Come on, what do

you mean?, I demanded.

The knock turned into closed-fisted pounding. I sighed

loudly, and went to answer it.

Wesley Messimore residence

11:23 p.m.

“Clear case of self-defense,” Lt. Stewart Hedger grunted,

displaying a Ziploc evidence bag sagging under the weight

of a .38 revolver. “Homeowner went to investigate a

suspicious sound about the time Capitol Security received

an alert the house security system had been breached. The

deceased came at him with a hunting knife, and Judge

Messimore dropped him with a single shot. Clean shoot, far

as I’m concerned.”

“Charlton Heston’d be proud,” Mulder mumbled, regarding the

sweat-suited corpse crumpled against the upstairs hallway

wall. “You got an ID yet?”

“Got a couple guys out scouting any suspicious vehicles in

a five- or six-block radius. Nothing on the block here –

would’ve stood out like a sore thumb. Look, I called you

guys cause the judge said you’d been by today asking all

kinds of questions. You got anything can help me, I’d

appreciate it, but otherwise, you know where the door is.”

Scully kneeled beside the intruder’s body, prodding gently

at his sweats and examining his hands. “Lieutenant, have

you taken a close look at this man yet?”

“Leave that to the M.E.”

“Well, he doesn’t exactly fit the profile of your typical

burglar,” she murmured, turning the waistband of his

sweatpants inside out. “Designer jogging wear, and these

cross-trainers he’s wearing must cost at least $300. And

look at his hands – the only heavy work he’s ever done is

draft a quarterly statement. Your perp’s even had a high-

end manicure.”

“Stalker by Ralph Lauren,” Mulder suggested. “Why would a

guy like this go housebreaking in the middle of the night?

Not a thief, obviously – no bag, and that sweatsuit

wouldn’t hold much more than the judge’s weekend green

fees. Think he was targeting Messimore, Scully?”

“Whoa, whoa,” Hedger breathed exasperatedly. “We got

jurisdiction here, unless this guy turns out to be Jimmy

Hoffa. Why don’t you two cool your jets, and I’ll meet you

downstairs, maybe let you have a peek. That’s not an

invitation to tea, either, by the way.”

“Where’s the love, Scully?” Mulder posed, taking the stairs

two at a time.

Scully shrugged. “At the risk of encouraging your boyish

fervor, Messimore is a federal judge – you could have

pushed it. Why didn’t you?”

“All in good time.” Mulder halted near the doorway of the

Messimore living room, waving Scully back. The judge, deep

in discourse with a young detective, bore his pajamas and

robe like judicial trappings. Sydney Messimore, showcasing

a Dave Matthews T-shirt, boxers, and a cable-knit cardigan

sweater, was more rumpled and contemplative on the sofa

across from her father. Mulder quietly sidled over and

lowered himself onto the cushion beside her.

“Well, hey, Agent Muller, right?” Sydney brightened,

tugging distractedly at her right sweater sleeve. “Boy, I’m

glad you’re here. These cops are so grim, you know?”

“Harshed my mellow, that’s for sure. You OK?”

“God, it’s like some kind of bad TV movie. My dad wasting

some guy. Too weird. I mean, it was a burglar, but still…”

“I know,” Mulder assured her. “So you think this guy was a

prowler or something?”

Sydney glanced at her father, worrying her sweater cuff.

“Well, sure. I mean, I don’t know the guy and I’m sure the

judge – Dad, I mean — doesn’t.”

“You think maybe this guy could have been here to hurt your

dad?”

She frowned, then began to nod vigorously. “God, I bet

you’re right. Dad pisses people off all the time. I mean,

he’s sent a lot of people to jail and like that.”

Mulder looked toward Judge Messimore, who was staring at

the agent even as he continued to talk to the detective.

Mulder nodded, and the judge returned to the cop.

“Well, the important thing is you two are OK,” Mulder said,

smiling, pushing off the couch. “Oh, hey, you know what

time it is?”

Sydney’s eyes widened as she reached for her sweater cuff.

She scratched her wrist and grinned. “Sorry. There’s a

grandfather clock in the hall.”

“Cool enough.”

“And what, may I ask, was that all about?” inquired Scully,

leaning against the corridor wall.

“I’ll save that for pillow talk, later,” her partner

murmured. He perked as the front door opened and a uniform

materialized. Mulder approached the cop rapidly, peeking

into the living room to ensure the detective was still

occupied with Judge Messimore.

“You find that vehicle yet?” he demanded, flashing his FBI

ID. “Hedger’s getting antsy.”

The patrolman composed himself. “Two blocks away – I told

the lab guys already. 2003 Lexus – not exactly your typical

lowlife ride. But we found a wallet tucked under the front

driver’s seat. Driver’s license photo matches the perp.”

Mulder arched an eyebrow, Scullylike. “And?”

“Oh, yeah,” the cop stammered. “Carl Phelan, D.C., Capitol

Hill address. Probably a townhouse, given the sweet ride.”

“Assume nothing, Mister,” Mulder scowled. “You gonna let

Hedger know all this by FAX, officer?”

“Oh, yeah.” The cop started to salute, caught himself, and

scurried past Scully and up the stairs.

Scully was shaking her head as she strode into the foyer.

“You’re a real bastard sometimes, you know.”

“Tell your friends, Babe. C’mon, gotta see a man about a

hard drive.”

Carl Phelan residence

Washington, D.C.

1:09 a.m.

“Sweet mother of Peewee Herman,” Langly gasped, shoving

back from the laptop with an expression of utter shock.

“This is some effed-up shit, Mulder.”

Mulder emerged from Carl Phelan’s bedroom, Scully from the

deceased’s kitchen, converging behind the Gunman’s bony

shoulders. Scully inhaled sharply. “Oh, my God,” she

whispered, fingering the cross around her neck.

Langly punched a key, and the .jpg vanished. “Dudes, there

are hundreds of these files on this cockroach’s drive.”

“Probably part of some kind of ring,” Mulder said. “We’ll

want to get this machine to Sex Crimes.”

Scully lowered herself into Phelan’s expensive recliner.

“But what’s the connection between a pedophile and the

Messimores? From the high-rent digs, I’m going to assume

Phelan never came before Messimore’s bench.”

Mulder turned from the laptop. “I don’t think it was the

judge Phelan was after.”

J. Edgar Hoover Building

Washington, D.C.

9:02 a.m.

FBI Special Agent Phil Creighton looked up from the Compaq

he’d confiscated from a suspected ID theft wizard as

“Spooky” Mulder peeked into the Computer Crimes’ analysis

lab. Ordinarily, he was somewhat wary of the oddball agent,

as if his eccentrically destructive manner or weird ideas

about aliens and the supernatural might be contagious.

But today, Creighton was feeling magnanimous. Mulder and

Scully had delivered a key linkage in a man-boy love ring

that extended from Washington to Portland, Ore. He loved

taking down short-eyes, molesters, and other child

exploiters, and, more than that, getting Bureau accolades

and maybe a leg up for doing it.

“Hey, Fox, thanks again for the lead,” Creighton said with

false camraderie, swiveling around to greet the ghost-

chasing geek. “The Phelan guy’s gonna lead us to a whole

nest of scumbags. It’s amazing how safe these guys think

they are on a laptop.”

Mulder smiled. “Probably didn’t count on getting blown away

by a homeowner.”

“Yeah,” Creighton chuckled, turning quickly back to the

monitor. “Some big-time law-and-order judge or something

with an NRA card, right? Dirty Harry in a robe.”

“Aw, c’mon, Phil. You remember Judge Messimore, don’t you?

It’s only been six months or so.”

“Messimore…”

“You know,” Mulder prodded, holding up a manila folder.

“You investigated a case at his daughter’s school,

Wellesington. Somebody erased the college’s student records

for the previous five years, sent a worm through the staff

mail system that scorched every faculty member’s home PC,

and broadcast the Pam and Tommy Lee video on the school’s

website. My understanding is you and your partner even

interviewed Judge Messimore.”

Creighton placed his palms on his desk to either side of

the confiscated keyboard. “Oh, yeah. Case went nowhere.

Some of these hackers are like phantoms, you know?”

“You spent three days on the case, and then suddenly tossed

it into the unsolved file. Why? Because Messimore asked you

to?”

Creighton didn’t move.

“Let me help you here, Phil,” Mulder continued, opening the

file. “Sydney Messimore was a computer prodigy at age 13 –

won a national science prize for some standardized student

testing software she developed. High school Computer Club

president and webpage developer, 4.0 GPA, until she started

hanging with the wrong crowd. After she was suspended for

drinking and assault at a mixer, the high school’s system

crashed.

“Syd managed to squirm out of at least two DUIs and a pot

charge during her first year at Yale, before she was

expelled. At Wellesington, she’s proved a brilliant student

with a bad temper. Who’d she piss off at the school, Phil?”

Creighton sighed, and turned, palms out in a plea for

forbearance. “Look, Mulder. The judge, he’s had his hands

full with the girl, and he’s one of the good guys. We can

always count on him to work with us, come through with a

warrant when we need one. You know how it is with some of

these pussy ACLU judges, always more concerned about the

rights of hackers and molesters than their victims.”

“So you fixed things for him.”

“Wasn’t like that, Mulder, Fox. I told him he had to sit on

the girl, get her into counseling, away from the

temptation. He said he knew a way to control her.”

Mulder nodded with satisfaction.

“So,” Creighton started awkwardly. “You gonna squeal? I was

just cutting the guy and his kid a break. She seemed like a

basically good kid.”

“Oh, yeah,” Mulder said. “Reese Witherspoon Meets

Frankenstein.”

Creighton sighed. “All right, so maybe I was watching my

ass. You think I’m gonna tangle with some high-powered

judge and his buddy, the senator…”

“Senator,” Mulder said, his blood dropping a few degrees.

**

“A Senate intern?” Scully squeaked, nearly upending her

office chair. “Clark Farriman’s intern, yet? And I didn’t

think this could get any worse.”

Mulder leaned on a file cabinet stuffed with EBEs,

lycanthropes, and poltergeists. “What the good judge failed

to mention was that Clark Farriman is Sydney’s godfather,

and that she’s been working in his office part-time for

about a year. She helps out with campaign PR, and I’m

guessing with school out, she’s been on the road with the

senator’s entourage. I’ll call Farriman’s L.D., check it

out.”

“But why, Mulder? Why sabotage her father’s nomination? Why

try to kill Farriman? And what’s the connection with

Phelan?”

“Taking your questions in order, I’m guessing her

motivation for screwing over dear old Dad is mired in

adolescent complexities,” Mulder suggested, slipping on his

profiler’s cap. “Just the judge and Sydney — the mother

died of brain cancer when Syd was five – and the judge is a

very busy and, if I may observe, frosty sumbitch. All of

her acting out in school, with her friends? I wouldn’t be

surprised if it were a bid for Daddy’s attention.

“Then, Daddy announces he’s up for Supreme Court, or worse

yet, Sydney finds out through one of Farriman’s staffers.

Suddenly, her whole life, her father’s life, are about to

irrevocably change. Then add in the Oedipal love-hate

element – Judge Messimore’s an avowed enemy of the

Internet; his daughter’s become an accomplished hacker. The

one’s fed off the other probably for years. And that

probably gives her a motive to target Farriman, as well.

When she failed three times, Syd realized she could more

effectively take out her father’s partner in cyberspace

censorship and benefactor by killing his political career.”

Scully inhaled sharply. “Farriman’s computer. It was

printed. If Sydney was in the office that day, we might be

able to prove…”

“That she tampered with it, Scully?” Mulder shook his head.

“My guess is we won’t find any tell-tale prints, that she

either never went into Farriman’s office or called in sick

the day the porno popped up.”

“Are you still sticking to this cyber-telepathy theory? You

said she was a computer prodigy…”

“I don’t think Sydney could even have gotten near the

senator’s laptop. You notice anything strange about our

little judicial princess last night or when we first met

her?”

“The teeth were a little too straight,” Scully mumbled.

“And I’ll bet she had those boobs-”

“Scully,” Mulder admonished. “It’s the middle of summer – a

particularly hot summer even by Washington standards – and

she dresses like a frumpy housewife. Sweatshirts around the

house on a blistering July day and cardigans for evening

wear with her pajamas.”

“So she has questionable fashion taste,” Scully shrugged.

Then she caught Mulder’s eye, and a gleam of realization

formed in hers’. “The way she tugged at her sleeve last

night…”

“You learn quickly, grasshopper,” Mulder murmured.

Office of Sen. Clark J. Farriman

Washington, D.C.

11:27 a.m.

Scully knew something was up as soon as she asked the

legislative director about Sydney.

“What about her?” the aide asked, smiling a bit too

brightly. He’d held up his 1 p.m. for the agent out of

gratitude for her role in clearing his boss of the teen

porn charges, but it had been clear to her her visit was no

cause for celebration.

When Scully didn’t speak, he chuckled unnecessarily. “I

mean, it’s not an uncommon practice on the Hill to offer a

helping hand to promising young people. In this case, the

senator thought he could also help a friend. Sydney

Messimore’s an exceptionally bright young woman, but her

father felt she could use some focus, some direction. Hell,

we’ve had her running around so much, we hardly notice

she’s around any more.”

Scully decided to remain silent.

“Look,” the L.D. said, leaning over his blotter. “Why don’t

you just tell me what you’re getting at?”

“Well, my partner and I have been curious about Ms.

Messimore’s presence at all three of the recent incidents

involving Sen. Farriman,” she finally murmured. “Is it

common practice for congressional interns to go on the

campaign trail? I thought she worked on legislative

issues.”

“Other work as assigned,” the aide explained coolly. “Clark

wanted the judge’s daughter to get as rounded an education

in the process as possible.”

Scully artfully arched an eyebrow, improvising. Hell, it

wasn’t as if she could be demoted any further than the X-

Files. “And then there’s the specificity of the accusations

our alleged computer hacker leveled at the senator. That he

had an unhealthy interest in under aged women. Why not

boys, children? It’s almost as if he or she was trying to

tell us something.”

The L.D.’s palms gripped the blotter. He hastily jumped up,

closed the door onto the senator’s staff work area, and

took the guest chair next to Scully’s. “What did she say?

Because I swear to you, it was only the once, and the

senator promised it would never happen again.”

Jackpot, Scully thought glumly.

**

“Hey, Syd!” Mulder called from his side of the Longworth

Building metal detectors.

Sydney Messimore looked up, juggling her armful of reports.

Mulder thought he saw frost form around the edges of her

abrupt grin, and her eyes quickly became vacant. “Mr.

Mulder! Wow. I mean Agent.”

“Hold up,” he directed, dumping his keys and coins into a

plastic bowl as he passed through the electronic gate.

Mulder repocketed his effects and joined the girl at the

elevator bank. “So, you holding up OK?”

“Ye-e-e-a-eah,” Sydney sighed uncertainly. “Sweet of you to

ask.”

“Well, that’s our motto at the FBI,” Mulder beamed.

“Sweetness and justice.”

Syd blinked, then grinned reprovingly. “You are sooo full

of shit, aren’t you. Gee, I wish I had time to grab a Coke

or something with you, but I gotta get these up to the

chairman.”

“What’ve you got there, anyway?” Mulder inquired, reaching

for the precariously balanced top folder. It slipped, and

Sydney dipped to save it. She came up with a faintly

irritated smile, but not before the agent caught a gleam of

jewelry.

“That’s an unusual piece,” Mulder remarked.

Sydney’s eyes widened.

“Of jewelry,” he added, hastily. “What is that, some kind

of tennis bracelet.”

The judge’s daughter had tugged her sleeve down, as she had

the night before, but now she raised it reluctantly. “Just

a gift,” she mumbled.

“No, I’ve seen one like that before. Hey, I remember. You

know a Ray Kelch?” If Mulder’s theory was correct, Syd

would worship Kelch like her peers probably worshipped

Ashton Kutcher.

Her face was by Mattel, locked in a plastic smile. “Gosh,

no.”

Mulder leaned in, eyes now serious. “It must be hell for

you. Better than a federal record, though, huh?”

Sydney clutched her reports as if she were strangling a kitten.

Her eyes sharpened into focus, and her candied lips

hardened into steel. “You know, they’ve got an Unboot chip

now – they can inject it wherever you want, and nobody

knows you’ve got it. When you’ve served your time, they

deactivate it and it eventually biodegrades. Harmless, and

impossible to get rid of.

“They offered the Judge the option — the chip or the

bracelet. They thought it might be less embarrassing for

him. And me. But no, he wanted me to wear this out in the

open, like some kind of badge of shame. Wanted me to see it

every morning when I got up, think about what I’d done.”

“That why you went after Farriman? To screw up your dad’s

shot at the bench? To get back at him for shackling you

with that thing?” Mulder paused. “Couldn’t have hurt that

Farriman took advantage of you. Or was it even more basic

than that? All this hacking, this acting out of yours’, it

was to get the judge’s attention, wasn’t it? Then, just as

you got it, he gets the nod for the Supreme Court

nomination. This is nothing more than a high-tech teenage

tantrum, isn’t it?”

It was the right button to push – Syd’s eyes turned to

fire, and she started to lash out at the agent. Then she

caught herself, glaring silently, jaw tight.

Mulder forged ahead. “The intruder in your home. He was an

Internet pedophile. Somehow, you got a peek inside his hard

drive, and he sensed it somehow. He came after you, but

fortunately, your dad and his .38 intervened.”

“He’s real big on gun rights,” Syd grunted. “You know you

sound seriously demented, don’t you?”

Mulder nodded in acknowledgement. “Tell a friend. You know,

I used to be a profiler with the FBI, used to chase some of

the most frighteningly intelligent, violent sociopaths

you’d ever dream of.”

“So you’re not scared of some little Yuppie chick, right?”

“No, you scare me plenty, Sydney. My point is, I never met

one of these geniuses who didn’t leave behind some trace,

some clue. A lot of times, I think they do it on purpose:

They need to prove how brilliant they are, to take credit.

I think you were just sloppy.”

Syd waited, forearms tensing.

“The teen porn they found on Congressman Farriman’s laptop,

the manufactured teen porn, well, our digital expert

figured out all the ‘models’ were essentially permutations

of five girls. Switch a nose here, transpose a mole there.

But it’s awfully difficult to paint a subject from

imagination. Our artist had to have drawn on memory. I got

to thinking, who would’ve been able to recreate these girls

in the, ah, clinical detail we found in those files. Who

would’ve had such prolonged exposure to these girls in

their natural state?”

“Put a lot of thought into this, didn’t you?” Syd leered,

accusingly.

“On a hunch, my partner, Agent Scully, located your

freshman yearbook and subpoenaed the records for your dorm

floor. Bingo, five perfect matches. The girls you shared a

shower with every day of your second semester.”

“You ever hear of diminished capacity, Agent Mulder?” she

asked angelically.

“Yeah, I know. I don’t have anything I could take to a

prosecutor, without winding up in a cushioned room.” Mulder

leaned forward. “But you’ve already slipped up, and it’s

only a matter of time ’til you drop some physical evidence.

Big brains and adolescent hormones – a dangerous

combination. And I’m willing to bet your dad might just

take me more seriously than the police would.”

Syd’s eyes narrowed to a rodential slit, her breathing

accelerating as she stared murderously at Mulder. He

jumped, along with everyone in the corridor, as the twin

metal detectors in the lobby suddenly began to drone

without provocation. A dozen cell phones trilled, sang, and

shrieked. Beeps and buzzes sounded from within a dozen

computer cases.

A swarm of guards descended on the lobby, barking orders

and ushering lawmakers, aides, lobbyists, and tourists away

from the elevator bank. Mulder stood transfixed, gawking at

the chaos erupting around him. Then he glanced at Syd

Messimore.

Who no longer was there.

It wasn’t until he was back behind the driver’s seat,

checking for Judge Messimore’s work phone, that he

discovered his PDA’s memory had been wiped clean.

J. Edgar Hoover Building

“So what’s our next move?” Skinner demanded. Mulder and

Scully’s story had silenced the assistant director, but

he’d long since quit wasting time trying to debunk Mulder’s

theories. “We’ve got nothing on the girl, and she knows it.

You think she’ll take another run at Farriman?”

Mulder shrugged. “Or her father. Her motive’s out of the

bag, so there isn’t much to gain from killing or

discrediting the congressman except personal revenge. She

may just back off now, hope things go away.”

“Or she could kick things up another notch,” Scully

murmured beside him. “Sydney Messimore’s a very angry girl

who’s been subjugated in two very different ways by two

male authority figures. She’s also smart and arrogant, and

doesn’t necessarily have the emotional maturity to act in

her own best interests.”

“Which also makes predicting her next move nearly

impossible,” Skinner moaned. “We could ask DCPD to put a

unit outside the judge’s house, maybe put a couple of guys

in Farriman’s office. But we can’t put a wealthy teenaged

girl with a 4.0 GPA and a judge for a father under

permanent surveillance without cause.”

Mulder chewed his bottom lip, tapping the arm of his chair.

Scully and Skinner waited.

“Well?” Scully finally asked.

He frowned. “Trying to remember if I had any of that mu shu

pork left in the fridge.”

Chambers of Judge Wesley Messimore

Federal Court of the District of Columbia

5 p.m.

“You’re both insane,” Judge Messimore concluded, his robes

underlining the hanging judge expression on his

distinguished countenance.

After a particularly frenzied day’s docket, he had allowed

the agents into his chambers on the assumption they had

fresh information on Carl Phelan and his attempted home

invasion. The judge then listened silently and neutrally as

Mulder outlined the steps and reasoning that had led him to

Sydney as a potential political assassin, Clark Farriman’s

ex-paramour/victim, and sociopathic cyberspace manipulator.

Scully took a breath. “I realize how far-fetched this must

sound, your honor. But at the least, your daughter is

somehow implicated in the attempts on Sen. Farriman and the

break-in at your home. And Agent Mulder and I have some

reason to believe your own life could be in danger.”

Messimore’s eyes darkened. “Agents, it hasn’t been easy

raising an intelligent and willful daughter alone — God

knows, I recognize my failures as a father. But what you’re

telling me is not only ludicrous — it’s monstrous.

“And to believe Clark Farriman would betray a friendship

that goes back 20 years just to, what, satisfy some mid-

life yearning? Well, I’m tempted to alert both his office

and your superiors about your defamatory allegations.”

“I saw it myself,” Mulder said, leaning forward. “I saw

what she can do.”

“You saw what?” Messimore laughed mirthlessly. He looked

up, irritated, as his door opened and his clerk, a

fiftysomething matron, popped in.

“The tuxedo’s here,” she said, ignoring Messimore’s

annoyance, Mulder, and Scully. “The car’s coming around at

6 on the dot.”

“Yes, yes,” the judge growled, and she slipped out the

door. He turned back to his guests. “I know the Director

well, and I intend to have a talk with him Monday. Now, I’d

suggest you be on your way.”

Mulder opened his mouth, but Scully shook her head, and the

pair rose reluctantly.

“Look,” Mulder said, turning at the judge’s elaborately

carved door. “Let me give you my number, in case anything

happens. Or give me your cell number.”

Messimore turned back to his desk. “I don’t have a cell

phone. I can’t. Now, good day.”

Fox Mulder/Dana Scully Apartment

6:47 p.m.

“Mulder,” Scully said. “You aren’t inhaling your pizza.”

She looked down at the table. “And, and you appear to have

eaten your salad. Look, we did our best. Syd’s not going to

make a move now that she knows we’re onto her.”

Mulder leaned back in his chair. “It’s a game, Scully.

She’s an intelligent girl who’s been exploited and

effectively muzzled. Now, she feels empowered for maybe the

first time in her life. You had to have seen her at the

Capitol today. Sydney made a public presentation of her

abilities – she was challenging me.”

“So, what do you think? Is she going to go after her

father or the senator?”

“I don’t-” Mulder stopped dead, and his chair tipped back

on all fours.

Scully followed his gaze to the muted TV in the living

room. And to Judge Messimore being surrounded by reporters

outside the federal court building. Mulder leapt from the

table and cranked up the volume.

“…disclosed today that Messimore has been on the

president’s short list to fill the retiring judge’s slot.

It’s expected Sen. Clark Farriman, a member of the

Judiciary Committee, may publicly endorse the Georgetown

jurist’s nomination at tonight’s fundraising banquet at the

Hayes Plaza ballroom. Meanwhile, Messimore was surprisingly

reticent about the potential post, and some Senate

Democrats questioned the judge’s conservative stance on

free speech issues and noted his serious cardiac episode

only three years ago…”

Mulder turned from the set, anxiety etched onto his face.

“Farriman and Messimore together in a public place. Of

course, Sydney would know about it. It’s too good, Scully –

she can’t pass it up.”

Scully frowned. “But if remote control attacks are her

M.O., how’s she going to pull this off in a public venue

like the Hayes. Remember that security detail we worked

there a few months ago? It’s a historic landmark, and all

the systems are outdated – no automated controls, no

computerized systems. Unless Sydney has a rocket launcher,

I can’t see how she could pull it off.”

Mulder stared at her.

“Mulder,” she sighed. His face remained impassive, and

Scully flopped the pizza box shut. “Guess I can dust off my

little black dress and holster ensemble.”

The Hayes Plaza

Washington, D.C.

8:01 p.m.

“If you’ve finished stuffing your face with pigs-in-a-

blanket, why don’t we say our adieus and blow this joint?”

Scully suggested, yanking again at the hem of the little

black dress. Across the banquet hall, she spotted Clark

Farriman’s L.D. studying her. Scully knew it wasn’t because

of the diminutive outfit.

Mulder scanned the tables loaded with peach melba and

Washington’s political and social elite. “I just feel like

we’re in the right place at the right time. Syd wants

visibility, and with both of her targets here at the same

time…”

clip_image007

“People,” Clark Farriman’s voice echoed across the lavish

space. “I don’t want to spoil this lovely evening with

political rhetoric and backslapping, but, well, that’s my

job.”

Polite tittering, none of the raucous caterwauling the

senator had encountered at Avalon Hydro-Components.

“First of all, I want to thank you all from the bottom of

my heart for supporting me in what I deem a campaign to

reshape America. We’ve lost jobs, we’ve lost global

prestige, and, worst, folks, we’ve lost the essential

American character. We sacrifice moral substance for

liberal tolerance. We compromise ethics for the

satisfaction of the moment. We pervert science and

technology to accommodate our personal comfort and

pleasure. Well, not on my watch, people. Not on my watch.

“But a strong legislative branch is only as effective as a

resolute executive branch. And as we sadly have come to

acknowledge, in today’s society, laws are only as effective

as the courts that enforce them. That’s part of why I come

here tonight, besides the money, of course. The White House

has given me the green light to announce tonight what I

believe many of you have been eagerly anticipating. Monday,

a great and good friend of the Farriman family and a

supporter of my campaign to reshape America, His Honor

Judge Wesley Messimore, will be placed into nomination to

fill the currently vacant seat on the nation’s high court.

And I will be standing at his side in the Senate to help

ensure the confirmation of this great American. Your

Honor?”

Three hundred chairs squeaked on marble as Washington’s

finest rose to applaud the judge. Messimore, a thoughtful

frown on his face, finally rose, crossed the banquet room

floor, and ascended the podium. Clark clapped him on the

shoulder; Messimore appeared to Mulder to flinch.

“Well, I’ll be–” Mulder murmured.

“Please,” Judge Messimore requested over the enthusiastic

ovation. “Sit down, please. Thank you.

“First of all, I’d like you all to know I’m heartened

deeply by the obvious vote of faith and confidence you all

have shown me. The Supreme Court is the final arbiter of

law in America. The buck stops at its bench, without

prejudice or partisanship. It has long been my dream to sit

with those scions of justice and democracy.

“But tonight, I hear a greater calling, one that resonates

with me as a father, as an interpreter of laws, as an

American deeply concerned about that essential American

character. Predation has become the dark theme of our

society. It exists on street corners and projects in

Southeast, in corporate boardrooms across this nation, and

even in the once-hallowed halls of government. And the most

insidious predation practiced at all economic and social

strata today is the corruption of the young.”

Clark Farriman lost his vivid smile, this time forgetting

to recapture it. The senator began to step forward, but his

eye caught the CNN camera positioned between the lead

tables.

“I recognize, perhaps belatedly, that I and my colleagues

are what stand between prey and predator. And so, with

regret, I must decline the president’s kind invitation. I’m

needed out here in the jungle. Ah, thank you.”

Messimore unceremoniously left the microphone without

acknowledging his old friend and started back for his

table. Before Clark could regroup, a few tables erupted in

wild applause. Others, taken unaware by Messimore’s

remarks, glanced nervously around, then leapt to their

feet. The judge returned to his seat amid an ovation that

persisted by Mulder’s count for two minutes.

“I will be damned,” Mulder breathed as the thunder died.

Scully, smiling, squeezed his arm. “Perhaps not. Looks like

you got through.”

That was when he heard it – a cacophonous symphony of

warblings, chimes, and electronic music. Several guests

hastily unholstered their whining cell phones, pagers, and

Blackberries. Others who obviously had set their appliances

on vibrate reached inside handbags and suit jackets.

“Mulder,” Scully whispered. “What’s going on?”

Her partner glanced anxiously around as more cell phones

came out. The room now sounded like a telemarketer’s loft

during peak activity. And, Mulder noticed, there seemed to

be no staunching the noise: People were punching buttons,

even banging phones against the tables.

“Oh, God,” Mulder gasped. “Scully, we have to get Messimore

out of here. Now!”

“What?”

“Remember, this afternoon, the judge said he couldn’t have

a cell phone. Not just that he didn’t want one or disdained

the technology, but that he couldn’t have one. Scully, who

can’t have a cell phone? The woman on the news said

Messimore had had a heart attack a few years ago.”

Scully frowned, then looked sharply up at her partner, who

was already moving toward Messimore. “But Mulder, the link

between pacemakers and cell phones is far from

established.”

“Yeah, but what if someone could concentrate digital cell

signals, maybe even amplify them? It could be like putting

Messimore inside an operating microwave.” Mulder elbowed

his way past alarmed diners to the judge, who was breathing

heavily, face ashen. “Your Honor, do you have a pacemaker?”

Messimore’s face contorted as he flexed his left hand. “Y-

yes.” His eyes widened in a dawning horror. “Did she…?

Sydney…?”

“C’mon, quickly,” Scully urged, seizing his arm.

Their exit went virtually unnoticed as the banquet guests

attacked their high-tech toys. Then, the chirps and warbles

and themes were overridden by an ear-numbing bell.

“The fire alarm!” Mulder shouted as a large woman tried to

scramble from her chair. Other chairs fell, and the agents

and Messimore were buffeted by shoulders, elbows, hips.

“She set it off somehow. Hey! Stop! It’s a false alarm!”

“They can’t hear you, Mulder!” Scully cried. She threw her

purse onto a table, drew out her Glock, and took aim at an

isolated corner of the ceiling.

An explosion rocked the room, and suddenly, time froze. The

panicked herd stopped dead in its tracks, and only the echo

of Scully’s weapon and dozens of cell phones could be

heard.

“FBI!” she shouted. “This man could die if we can’t get him

out of this room now! Everyone else, leave this room

through the fire exits in an orderly and calm fashion. Or,

I guarantee, I will not be responsible for the

consequences.”

The crowd, wide-eyed and chastened, parted like the Red

Sea, clearing a path for Mulder, Scully, and Messimore

before flowing in the opposite direction. Mulder tried to

call 911 on his own cell, but it was dead. When they

reached the lobby, well away from the banquet room, Scully

cleared the area while Mulder ordered the desk clerks to

summon assistance.

As they waited for an ambulance for the judge, who was

beginning to regain color, Mulder used the pay phone to put

out an APB for Syd Messimore.

“You really think they’ll find her?” Scully asked her

partner as the EMTs rolled the jurist off. “You said she

wanted to be caught.”

Mulder watched Messimore, broken and hanging onto what life

he might have left after the revelations of the evening.

“No, Scully. She wanted to be discovered.”

Mission, Ohio

Three days later

What the hell?, Sydney thought, rechecking the detailed e-

mailed directions E. had transmitted. The numbers on the

mailbox matched the note, but she was vaguely disappointed

by the battered silver trailer and its rusting chainlink

fence. A dozen scuffed baseballs and discolored Frisbees

littered the scabby grass inside the tall fence.

“What an effing dump,” Syd sneered. She had expected

something more sinister, more macabre from E. After she’d

looted everything the Judge had left loose around the

house, she’d cabbed it down to that rest home/hotel, done

her thing, and, according to instructions, hit 20 ATMs

within the greater D.C. metro area.

She’d been astonished to find her stringently regulated

checking account had been enriched to the tune of $300,000

(secreted in her knapsack, minus the $400 she’d spent on

the rental car E. had reserved for her under the name

Tetris Pacman. She’d switched off to a Greyhound in Albany,

after rinsing her hair to a totally gross walnut brown in

the bus station john.

She still hoped E. wasn’t a dyke or something, even though

Syd had sexually experimented a little at Wellesington.

After the experience with Clark, she wasn’t currently big

on relationships.

The Judge had survived, probably out of sheer evil, Syd

supposed. At least Clark was toast – the teen porn charge

was dismissed but not forgotten, and the press had taken a

hard look at him after Dad’s rejection speech and

discovered he’d screwed a couple of other female staffers.

As for Fox and his bitch, she was sure E.’s little plan had

bought her ample time for their next move. She glanced

around – a redneck down the block was under the hood of a

souped-up pickup, an old lady was walking a graying weiner

dog. Syd pulled out the bolt-cutters she’d purchased at the

local Ace, crept up to the gate and, with an effort that

had broken a nail.

The trailer door was unlocked, as E. had said. Syd pushed

in, and gasped/

It looked like the dumpster at Best Buy. Wires and cables

and big metal boxes whirring and clicking and flashing red

and green. It was frigid within the aluminum box – Syd’s

breath formed clouds before her face. She hugged herself

and peered through the darkness.

“Hey, E.!” Syd called, growing increasingly pissed. “Where

the F are you?”

She jumped as she heard the familiar Windows signature

theme. Then she spotted the monitor at the far end of the

trailer. Lines of text filled the DOS screen, and Syd

yawned as she edged through the Bill Gates yard sale toward

the machine.

The screen went blank.

“What the hell?” Syd repeated.

The message suddenly popped up on the screen. TOOK YOU LONG

ENOUGH.

“Oh, my God,” Syd laughed. “Hey, quit screwing around!”

WELCOME TO MY WORLD.

Syd looked around. Where was E.? This was like that stupid

old goody movie the Judge had made her watch as a kid, with

the scarecrow and the dweeb with the red shoes and the old

fart hiding behind the screen trying to freak everybody

out.

She felt something brush her calf, and jumped back.

Freaking rats, of course. “Hey, Martha Stewart, buy some

mousetraps,” Syd muttered.

I’VE ALREADY SNARED MY LITTLE PET.

“What the-” Syd got out before a hundred snaking wires

seized her, penetrating skin, muscle, nerves, and, as she

tried to scream, the soft spot at the base of her skull…

North Carolina State Police Post

Ketcham, N.C.

Four months later

“Found her catching some Zs at a roadside park on I-95,”

the North Carolina trooper drawled, a corner of his mouth

quirking most likely at the terminal stupidity and hubris

of civilians. “Had an APB out on the Chevy — GTA, after

she screwed the owner’s brains out at some hotsheets motel

near Fayetteville. District manager for some dollar store

chain, wife, three kids. Took his clothes and the car while

he was basking in the afterburn.”

“Afterglow,” Mulder murmured, peering through the two-way

glass at the lanky blonde seated serenely at one end of the

NCSP interview table. Sydney Messimore was smiling

seraphically, hands clasped before her — the model Sunday

school student. The angelic image was sullied, however, by

the flame-red midi tank top, the micro jersey skirt, and

the glitter of metal affixed to her right nostril, left

eyebrow, and navel. And the trained behaviorist and horndog

in Mulder tuned in on the glint of lascivious mischief in

the former Washington deb’s eye as she glanced at the

transparently opaque window.

“What the fella told me, I think ‘afterburn’s more

accurate,” the smokey murmured, a grin wriggling under his

State Police-mandated brush.

Sydney had cut quite a swath along the Eastern Seaboard in

the four months since her abortive assassination attempt.

She had managed somehow to evade police in five states, the

FBI, and Homeland Security, while financing her adventures

on the road with a series of computer piracies, cheap

scams, and post-coital pilferages similar to the one in

Fayetteville. In fact, Syd had made Heidi Fleiss seem like

a novitiate with The Benevolent Sisters of St. Mary’s,

although she appeared to display little discretion or

aesthetic judgment in her sexual exploits.

Almost as if… Mulder shook his head, banishing the

impossible hypothesis.

He wished Scully were along. But his partner was tied up in

the autopsies of five NSA agents discovered in a locked

armored car, riddled with each others’ bullets.

“Shoulda seen the backseat of the stolen Chevy,” the

trooper mused. “Two pizza boxes, three Hardees bags, and

enough Hershey wrappers to get her elected the governor of

Pennsylvania. Look at her — girl must have the metabolism

of a thoroughbred. Though from the reports, I can imagine

she burns off quite a few of them carbs, know what I mean?”

“Down, Trigger,” Mulder murmured, opening the door to the

interrogation room.

“Agent Mulder!” Sydney breathed ecstatically, as if she’d

encountered him outside the Gap during a post-Christmas

clearance orgy. “God, it’s like so great to see you.”

“As if,” Mulder grinned, dropping into the chair at the

opposite end of the scarred table. “Somebody’s been a very

naughty girl.”

Syd arched an eyebrow in a very unScullylike manner. “I

probably deserve a good spanking. Go ahead, Agent Mulder —

I brought the cuffs.” She held up her manacled wrists.

“What’d they think, 130-pound chick’s gonna pull a Hannibal

Lecter in the middle of a state police barracks?”

“You have shown an unusual level of sociopathic

resourcefulness,” Mulder noted.

“Yeow, speak English,” Syd gasped, eyes suddenly free of

guile.

The FBI agent leaned back, smiling. “You know, that little

electronic diversion of funds you pulled in Maryland

surprised even me. No one would ever have been able to

track that money back to you if we didn’t know you were

probably the only person in the world who could’ve pulled

it off. You got any idea how you came by these very special

abilities of yours?”

“Clean living?” she suggested, licking her lower lip.

Mulder slid a manila folder toward the girl. Syd caught it

with black-painted talons and flipped it open.

“Witthau–” the girl began. “Mom.”

Mulder leaned forward, curiously, but continued. “Felicia

Witthauer, your mother, was one of the nation’s top

computer researchers — helped refine the National

Supercomputer Project, was on the short list for the Nobel

science prize three years running. If she hadn’t died of

brain cancer a few years after you were born, the guys at

the Pentagon believe she would’ve found the key to true

artificial intelligence.

“The judge, your dad, said she spent nearly every waking

moment of her last few years in the computer lab,

constantly searching for the right algorithm, the right

code that would unlock the secrets. Felicia was surrounded

14 to 18 hours a day by supercomputers and electromagnetic

impulses — some of the doctors believe that’s what may

have killed her.”

Something flashed across Syd’s cerulean blue eyes. Or

someone, Mulder contemplated. Then the navel-pierced party

girl was back.

“Genetics versus environment, the eternal debate,” he

murmured. “What makes a Bush twin or a Kennedy cousin truly

tick – beautiful people and trust funds, or a chromosome

looking for trouble? But every once in a while, genetics

and environment come together. Adaptation and mutation. I

think you fall into the latter category, X-Girl. Your

mother was bombarded all day by intense electromagnetic

impulses, like living under a high-power line in an X-ray

machine. In her, it caused the cellular mutation we call

cancer. You were a developing fetus at the time, and I

think, somehow, your neurological impulses fell into rhythm

with the electromagnetic pulses around you. Your brain fell

into synch with the machines. You could represent the next

step in human evolution.”

“You’re more cut than Bill Nye the Science Guy, but you’re

also a little more boring,” Syd yawned.

“Sorry – I’m sure none of this is new information to you.

Tell me: You were never after Judge Messimore or Sen.

Farriman, were you? It was all about a little girl-on-girl

action, wasn’t it?”

For the first time, Mulder saw a familiar set of eyes

behind Syd’s glittering ultraviolet lids. She smiled

warily. “I’m not into the babes, Agent Mulder. Want me to

prove it?”

Mulder smiled back. “I don’t mean anything sexual, Esther.”

The smile widened into a predatory invitation. “Who?”

“It must have been like a voice in the wilderness out there

in cyberspace, when you picked up on Sydney’s vibe. Being

one with the cosmos, possessing all the secrets of the

human race, isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be if

you can’t scarf the occasional Quarter Pounder or enjoy the

sweaty company of others every once in a while, is it? You

got tired of living in virtual Alcatraz, and you realized

Syd Messimore was your off-ramp on the Information

Superhighway. That’s the reason for the current Courtney

Lovefest.”

“You keep a souvenir from your last meth raid?” she

sneered.

“You’ve become intimately familiar with Internet predation

out there in the ether, Esther. Syd was a lonely, troubled

girl under her father’s thumb and under the influence of a

powerful older man. It probably wasn’t hard to gain her

confidence and trust. Then, all you had to do was use her

alienation from her father and her hatred for Farrimore to

push her into a corner where she’d have nowhere to escape.

Except you. You talked her into making her grand play, then

pulled the plug. You couldn’t physically snag her in your

web, so you made her come to you. To your ‘server,’ or

whatever you call it. You hardwired her – I remember my

own little close encounter with your ex – and uploaded

yourself into her memory. Overwrote her programming, as it

were. She is gone, isn’t she?”

“Sydney Messimore” hooked an arm over the back of her chair

and recrossed her legs in a Sharon Stone recreation. “Yeah,

I’m guessing meth. You honestly got the co-hones to take

this into court? That I tried to kill Clark by remote

control? That the body snatchers performed a mind meld on

me? You go, boy.”

Mulder sighed and pushed his chair back. “She was a

vulnerable, emotionally battered kid, Esther. You stalked,

used, and destroyed Syd Messimore like a pedophile in a

chatroom. Congratulations – you may represent the next step

in human evolution. The first true cyber-parasite.”

The girl across the table grasped the arms of her wooden

chair, eyes blazing. “She was a blank disk, a brainless

little slut who’d never accomplish anything greater than

servicing some buff Ivy League lawyer. Now, Syd Messimore

is in the upper 1 percentile of human intelligence, ‘Fox.'”

“And what do you plan to accomplish with that intelligence,

‘Syd’?” Mulder asked. “Teach the lifers in Cell Block B to

get their GEDs online? Hey, gotta run. Keep it real,

Esther. ‘Cause that’s all you’ve got now.”

He heard her screamed obscenities all the way to the

parking lot.

“So this is what they learn on the Internet?” Mulder

muttered, sliding his key into the ignition.

THE END

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