The Technicians of Mayhem
by Glenn Diamond
Alton Trent was a fortunate man. He held an elite scientific job in
Washington which he savored immensely during those dwindling packets of
time he could spend performing it. As Chief Investigator for the
Federal Department of Mayhem he was paid obscenely well for little more
than guesswork and rarely faced the slightest scrutiny of his results.
This wasn’t surprising considering only a handful of people in the
country understood what he did--and they all worked for him.
Despite this comfortable position during the waning years of his
career, Trent still found the cases darkly fascinating and worked
enthusiastically on each one. In essence he was an accident
investigator, albeit a highly obscure one. His days were spent hunting
digital bread crumbs in a dubious attempt to reconstruct freak events
preceding deadly encounters between man and machine.
Trent’s own face hinted at technology gone wrong; his left cheek bore
the ghostly image, faded after several corrective procedures, of the
corporate logo of a firm who designed robotic surgical lasers used for
treating skin cancer. One of them had malfunctioned and Trent’s face
became its permanent output.
With the future of humanity held precariously between the trip-wires of
automation, artificial intelligence and staggering over-complexity,
there was a sharp need to deconstruct baffling events no 19th century
sleuth could have dreamed possible.
When a self-driving bus swerves to avoid a self-driving car which
swerved to avoid a gaggle of geese walking across the road--killing
five pedestrians at the street corner--who is responsible? Finding such
answers was far beyond the police, so these cases were promptly
referred to the Department of Mayhem who held the sole legal authority
to make an official determination. Its decisions were final and its
small team of experts enjoyed great prestige.
Nevertheless, even the best of jobs carried some irritating aspect and
Trent’s was no exception. While some might suffer with an incompetent
boss, departmental in-fighting or anemic budgets, Trent’s frustration
came from hiring new investigators. The growing caseload of bizarre
disasters created a desperate need for more people, but finding them
was nearly impossible since the key job qualifications were simply too
contradictory to all be found within the same person.
Ideal candidates combined the analytical reasoning of an engineer with
the unhinged creativity of a high-functioning mental patient or savant.
Buffeted between the forces of genius and irrationality they tended to
be stormy and unpredictable types who might have been called ‘mad
scientists’ a century ago. Trent knew such people were vital to
unraveling the mysteries created, not surprisingly, by people like them.
Investigators were given the modest title of technician out of
respect for the generation of hackers and lab assistants who pioneered
the tools and tactics used in the Department. In reality, a Mayhem
technician was usually a graduate-level systems engineer with a rogue
Trent badly needed new people but only the smartest and craziest ones would do.
The weight of his management duties had begun wearing on Trent, leaving
him at times anxious and at others, sardonic. While the very nature of
his craft involved advanced probability, he didn’t believe in luck.
Luck, he’d say, was merely a web of probabilistic determinism masked by
a thin veneer of superstition.
But on this sultry midsummer morning in the nation’s capital, Alton
Trent waited impatiently in his office and silently hoped for good
luck, for he would soon interview a Mr. Cody Forbin who held a master’s
degree from MIT and scored highly on the notoriously convoluted Mayhem
Presently there was a knock on the frame of the open doorway and Trent
looked up to see the towering 6 foot 4 inch Forbin looming on the
threshold, smiling politely through a thick brown beard while appearing
uncomfortable in an ill-fitting black suit. The man resembled a grizzly
bear at the opera.
Trent, who at fifty-three was twice Forbin’s age and almost a foot
shorter, greeted him warmly. The two men exchanged mild pleasantries
before Trent began to detect the telltale eye-shift of someone
discretely observing his left cheek; it happened frequently.
“No need to wonder about this,” Trent offered while pointing to the
faded mark. “Go ahead and take a closer look. Care to speculate?”
Forbin confidently studied the mark.
“Some sort of laser surgery gone wrong? Probably a calibration signal
or test pattern used by mistake. Hope you got a good settlement.”
“Yeah not bad,” Trent confirmed. “Enough for plastic surgery and a twenty-two foot RV.”
They continued talking and within 20 minutes it was obvious Forbin had the technical skill, so Trent asked a fuzzier question.
“What do you do for fun?”
Forbin maintained direct eye contact while deconstructing this
deceptively simple question. He assumed Trent wasn’t asking about his
sex life and probably didn’t care if he enjoyed fly fishing. Forbin
relaxed a bit and blinked boyish hazel eyes as the right answer came to
him. He’d done his homework and knew edgy responses could work in his
“I hunt drones, Mr. Trent.”
Trent had heard strange things in interviews, but not such a blatant
confession as this one. Although intrigued, he was still an employee of
the federal government and dutifully balked.
“Really? You must realize that hacking drones is a felony.”
“Yes sir I do. But I said hunt, not hack.”
“Huh? Oh right. I’m pretty sure that’s illegal too.”
“True, but court precedent has established that drones used for the purposes of malicious photographic voyeurism are not protected under the statute. So my friends and I...”
Trent was quick to guess where this was leading. “Peeper drones? Hmmm,
yes... a nasty abuse of technology. So then you must--what, bait them
somehow? Maybe a cooperative wife or girlfriend is involved?”
Forbin chuckled softly while leaning forward in a gesture of
discretion. “Neither. She’s a first generation girlbot we call Delilah,
naked as the day she was injection-molded. Our group gets tipped off on
Blabbit when peepers are active. We set up Delilah, usually in a yard
or field, and then post a few anonymous Blabbs with the location. You’d
be amazed how fast they buzz to the spot, live streaming all the way.”
“Amazing. What do you use to take them down? Radio jammers? Lasers? Micropulsers?”
“Crossbows--with net-deploying arrows,” he replied casually as if
describing a new type of toothpaste. “We make sure they drop right
where they are so they can’t fly off and cause...”
Trent smiled broadly before offering his hand to Forbin. “When can you start?”
On his first day of work, Forbin waited for Trent to meet him in the
lobby where he was to be escorted through security and given an ID
badge. The rest of the day would be devoted to orientation and initial
training. Although a security clearance was still weeks off, he’d
signed a non-disclosure agreement and now the basics of the operation
could be revealed to him.
When Trent came in through the lobby’s large revolving door centered in
the impressive architectural glass facade, Forbin noticed him holding a
curious object that resembled a retracted umbrella but with a
copper-colored rigid mesh surface and several small lights illuminated
on the handle. Forbin rose to greet his new boss.
“I didn’t think it was supposed to rain today.”
“Oh... this isn’t for rain, unless it starts raining microdrones or maybe high energy radio bursts. It’s a Personal Electro-Dome; trust me, after a month in this job you’ll want one also.”
The two men sat in a large softly lit room that reminded Forbin of the
luxurious home theatres constructed for the wealthy. A semicircular row
of sleek chrome and leather chairs faced a similarly curved
smoked-glass work surface and beyond that the ceiling angled upwards to
the far wall which held a huge composite display currently glowing with
a deep blue background overlaid with the Department of Mayhem logo.
It boldly depicted a golden eagle whose wings were made from puzzle
pieces and whose talons gripped a lightning bolt on one side and a pair
of dice on the other. Underneath was the Latin phrase:
In improbabile est solum initium est
Trent watched Forbin studying it. “It’s our motto: The improbable is only the beginning,”
he offered. “We’ll start with an easy one, the Angela Lambert case;
forty-two years old and in perfect health.” Trent’s tablet rested in
his lap and he tapped it gently. “The entire thing is only seven
seconds, so pay attention.”
Forbin watched as a piece of surveillance video began to play. It was
shot from atop a traffic signal at a major intersection in Chicago.
Around 15 pedestrians were crossing the street in accordance with the
“Walk” signal. One of them, a well-dressed businesswoman, appeared to
jerk sideways then crumble horribly to the ground.
“She was killed instantly,” Trent remarked.
Forbin was shaken. “Good God. From what?”
Trent played it again and again, in slower and slower speed, and in
closer and closer zoom, until it became clear that the woman’s purse
had a smoking hole in the side nearest her chest.
“Analysis?” Trent asked crisply.
Forbin barely hesitated. “Certainly. Hot day, overcharged phone
battery, flaw in the molding of the battery case--bang. Probably a tiny
piece of shrapnel with an improbable trajectory penetrated her heart.”
“Reasonable, but incorrect. Ms. Lambert’s heart was stopped by a massively focused electrical surge.”
“From the phone?”
Trent shook his head while advancing the presentation to show a
disturbing image of the dead woman’s nude torso on an autopsy table.
Around her neck was a coiled silver necklace holding a heart-shaped
locket; a small black spot was visible between her gray and lifeless
“The locket had a magnetic clasp and the whole thing became a crude
transformer. It amplified the signal and gave her about 40,000 volts.
“Signal? From what?” Forbin pleaded.
“She walked through a HOT spot.”
Forbin stiffened in reaction to Trent’s apparent callousness at this
poor woman and could only venture a glib reply. “It must have been a
REALLY hot spot.”
Trent realized his blunder and quickly apologized. “Damn, I’m sorry.
I’ve seen this dozens of times and have gotten hardened to it. No, in
this case, HOT stands for ‘Hyper Overlapping Transmissions’. Think
about it. We live in a roiling sea of broad spectrum electromagnetic
energy; radio waves, microwaves, analog and digital signals from cell
towers and office networks all the way down to RFID readers and smart
toasters. Thousands of random signals per cubic meter can line up in
such a way and at such a time to create one massive spike. It happens
in the ocean; rogue waves assemble from nothing and swallow a small
vessel in otherwise calm seas.
“We determined such a spike did cause the battery to explode, but it
was the necklace that killed her. She was just in the wrong place at
the wrong time.”
“Wearing the wrong jewelry,” Forbin added soberly.
Over the following days Forbin was introduced to more of these bizarre
cases. Trent and some of the other technicians presented reports of
industrial accidents, car crashes, train disasters and even a backyard
gardening calamity involving an autonomous lawn mower.
He took notes, asked questions and viewed a wide range of forensic
evidence--everything from binary computer logs to gruesome photos of
the bloody outcomes. He quickly grasped the absurdly random danger the
public faced everywhere they went, either around the world or across
the kitchen, and began to see why the bulk of this work was classified.
During this period he also began to feel a nagging lack of closure; a
keen awareness of something missing from these cases. What was the
point? The work seemed overly academic and didn’t produce any useful
recommendations or solutions, at least none that he knew of. Where were
the tidy accumulations of ‘lessons learned’, the sage wisdom that could
inform the design of a safer world?
At the beginning of his third week he was in his cubicle reviewing the
daily list of new cases and hoping to see his name finally assigned to
one of them. It was mid-morning when Trent appeared, ancient coffee cup
in aging hand.
“Briefing room, Cody. There’s someone you need to meet.”
Forbin arrived a few minutes later to find Trent in jovial banter with
another man, mid-thirties, military-style light brown hair, athletic
build, with the crisp appearance of a jet pilot.
Trent waved him over. “Cody Forbin, meet Lex Spanner.”
The two men shook hands as Forbin realized this was a department legend
that Trent often spoke of. Spanner had solved more cases than anyone
except Trent himself.
“Good to know you, Lex. Alton said you’ve been in Tampa--for an unusually odd case?”
Spanner smiled pleasantly yet glanced sideways at Trent with slightly raised eyebrows.
“Go ahead Lex. His clearance is still cooking, but this is mainly an ICE case, right?”
Forbin knew that “Improbable Chain of Events” cases rarely touched on
sensitive areas like critical infrastructure or sabotage. They were
just tragically weird.
Spanner nodded, then grabbed several colored pens and began sketching
on a nearby marker board. “That’s right, chief. The Crackers Case.
Frankly it’d be hilarious if two old women hadn’t been killed.” As he
spoke, an elaborate multi-colored diagram took shape depicting a
residential cul-de-sac. Spanner seemed consumed with minor details and
simmered with the eager energy of an ice sculptor.
In the finished rendering, the street entered from the bottom, which
was south. Three homes occupied the west, north and east positions
which he labeled A, B and C respectively. Spanner grabbed a remote
control for the main wall display.
“Haven Circle; a quiet street in an upscale neighborhood. Well, it was quiet until a few Tuesdays ago.”
Spanner clicked the remote and the display came to life with a grim
clarity. The first image showed two charcoal gray body bags, apparently
occupied, lying on the front lawn of an attractive ranch home
incongruous with the happy look of the place which was meticulously
landscaped with dozens of flowering plants.
“The terminal event was the death of twin sisters--Nora and Donna
Hanley--on the east side of house B from a high speed, low-flying drone
impact, but of course that’s only the end of the story.” Spanner paused
to look at Forbin.
Forbin nodded and recited the basic methodology. “So now we work backwards to the beginning.”
What followed was a series of images starting in early morning when a
home security camera near the front door of house C captured the
arrival of a small van bearing the name of a grocery delivery service.
Almost immediately it was obvious something wasn’t right; the delivery
driver was using a two-wheeled dolly to bring large crates containing
gallons of milk to the front porch of house C.
“Nobody answered the bell,” offered Spanner, “so the driver just stacked the crates near the door.”
Forbin was already fascinated. “How much?”
“Forty-eight gallons on this first delivery,” Spanner replied as new
images revealed more delivery trucks and ultimately the ad-hoc
construction of a veritable wall of milk crates. “84 minutes later the
camera was finally blocked off. My main witness is Alan Otero, a 14
year-old boy from house A who told me that by ten a.m. he estimated 700
gallons of milk had been delivered from five different groceries.”
Forbin was dubious, looking at the other two men with a vague
suspicion. “Wait a minute. This actually happened? You’re not just
playing a joke on the new guy?”
Spanner shook his head slowly, showing Forbin he was completely in earnest.
“What about the homeowner?” Forbin asked.
“Mr. Gordon Wagner, the recently-divorced sole resident, was in Hong Kong on business.”
Trent sat with a thin smile and arms crossed against his chest as Forbin just shook his head and eased back in his chair.
The next half-dozen photos were taken from several vantage points,
first showing the front of house C which now looked more like an
open-air warehouse than a residence.
“I got these from Alan. Bright kid; might make a good technician
someday. He told me the last of the milk came in around noon and he
thought the insanity might be over. You can imagine his surprise when this happened.”
The siege of Haven Circle escalated with the arrival of a 53 foot long semi rig. It bore the cryptic silver dragon logo of Shadowland Logistics,
a murky former defense contractor who was no longer welcome in North
Africa or the Middle East and had redeployed their assets for domestic
“What... more milk?” Forbin ventured.
Spanner smiled at Trent, who already knew the answer.
“Not milk, Cody. Refrigerators.”
Spanner resumed the slide show. A few appliance crates had been
off-loaded from the first truck when another semi and three service
vans arrived. At some point, Haven Circle and the several nearby
streets were effectively gridlocked.
“At around 3 p.m.,” Spanner explained, “the spectacle had triggered the
dispatching of a news helicopter. The Hanley sisters were standing on
the strip of land between their house B and Alan’s house A. Behind them
was open air.
“Unfortunately for them, a Tampa PD autonomous police surveillance
drone was already on-station, hovering at 20 feet. When the turbojet
copter arrived, the drone’s flight computer sensed the powerful
rotor-wash and took evasive action--heading for the gap between houses
A and B but losing altitude and virtually decapitating both sisters in
its full throttle retreat. They died almost instantly, which was
tragically ironic considering they were born minutes apart.
“Now about all that damn milk. The investigation began once the police
got a warrant to enter house C. We quickly found that Mr. Wagner had
recently purchased a Model DX-9 Home Replenishment System with Voice
Activation. He never configured the device, which was shipped with
unlimited ordering as the default setting. Soon it calculated the cold
storage needs of the combined orders and began ordering refrigerators.
Of course, none of this made any sense... until we met Crackers.”
“As in... The Crackers Case?” Forbin asked.
“Exactly. I was in the kitchen impounding the DX-9 when a strange
androgynous voice from the next room blurted “Order milk!” followed by
a garbled squawking noise, then “Order milk!” again. It was Wagner’s
mynah bird, Crackers. The ex-Ms. Wagner had been bird-sitting during
his absence and taught the bird that fateful phrase, mostly out of
spite as it turned out. I questioned her later and she was reluctant to
admit it, but finally confessed she was tired of Gordon drinking the
last of the milk and forgetting to put it on her shopping list.”
The following week, Trent found himself nervously boarding the shuttle
to Boston to attend the technical conference Risk Mitigation of
Autonomous Systems. The trip had been assigned to a subordinate but she
had taken ill at the last minute. Trent hated to fly, especially
through crowded air traffic corridors. He knew the statistics better
than anyone and despite planes being equipped with a multitude of
defensive capabilities, drone collisions were becoming a real threat to
During the flight he sought to ease his anxiety by thinking about his
bright new technician. He liked Cody Forbin and was pleased at his
progress, reflecting on how Spanner’s presentation had given him a
needed dose of reality. Up until that point, Forbin didn’t grasp the
real mission of Mayhem. Trent had left that part out intentionally
because he first wanted Forbin to understand the types of cases he’d be
After Spanner explained the Crackers case, Forbin was clearly
struggling. He needed answers but wanted to be respectful. There was
one simple way to proceed, and he handled it tactfully.
“Lex, if you don’t mind, I’d like to read your final report on this case.”
Surprisingly, Spanner simply clicked to the last slide in the
presentation and welcomed him to read it. It was a short list of names
and numbers that occupied less than half a page. At the top of the list
was AutoHome AI and the number “38”. Below that, both Gordon and
Maryanne Wagner were listed at 11 each. Shadowland Logistics and
several grocery retailers were included, plus a few names Forbin
recognized as software firms.
“What is this? I don’t understand. What about technical data, recommendations...”
Trent cut him off. “This is a Mayhem Responsibility Table,” Trent
explained. “The percentage of blame assigned to each party. It’s
largely an estimate of course, but this is what the lawyers and the
insurance companies need. Cody, this is our only product.”
Forbin was aghast. “Our job is to divvy up the blame? But... what about
product recalls? How about regulatory changes? Don’t we want to learn
something from these disasters?”
Trent knew it was difficult to accept. The cases were not considered
preventable nor did they rise to the level of actionable policy; they
just happened. The technicians simply kept score, thereby oiling the
gears of economic pragmatism as they meshed with the rising torque of
an increasingly automated society.
Alton Trent was a fortunate man despite his rising caseload and
laser-scarred cheek. When his luck finally ran out, it happened so
quickly that he never had time to tabulate all the ironies. Perhaps
this is another type of luck we might all aspire to.
On final approach to Logan Airport, Trent looked out the window at an
absurd visual non-sequitur. Roughly 20 feet above the starboard wing
was a high-speed package delivery drone, trapped in some sort of
spastic dance with the large commercial passenger jet below it. Trent
was slack-jawed with disbelief as he gauged the drone’s proximity to
the number two engine intake.
He briefly thought about screaming and running wildly to the cockpit
but couldn’t take his eyes off the drone--or rather the package it was
carrying. He could see it clearly, suspended from the bottom of the
dancing and jerking aerial robot. The wrapping of the package was being
torn away and the attachment seemed to be weakening. Trent wondered
about the shabby methods employed in packaging aerial loads and
cynically constructed a very short Mayhem Responsibility Table in his
It was a bundle of old-school hardcover books, about ten of them. He
recognized the cover at once; a popular non-fiction bestseller decrying
the dangers of aerial drones. The book was entitled “Demons of the Air”.
For a second or two, Trent thought the aircraft’s countermeasures had
saved the day. Several powerful laser beams from different pods on the
fuselage concentrated on the drone and cut its main power. But before
it fell harmlessly into the slipstream behind the plane, the package of
books ripped loose and was instantly drawn into the hungry maw of the
engine which exploded, along with the plane, into a massive tumbling
It was Cody Forbin who would later conclude the fatal crash was caused by a highly improbable chain of events.
© 2018 Glenn Diamond
Bio: Glenn Diamond is an electrical engineer working in the
aerospace industry in Colorado. His first published short story "The
Cleansing" appeared in The Huffington Post in 2014. His last Aphelion
appearance was “AfterBook” in our July 2017 issue.
Email: Glenn Diamond
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