Aphelion Issue 231, Volume 22
August 2018
 
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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 personality.

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 screening exam.

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 favor.

“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...”

“Mayhem?”

“Precisely.”

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 breasts.

“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 use.

“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 aviation.

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 investigating.

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 mind.

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 fireball.

It was Cody Forbin who would later conclude the fatal crash was caused by a highly improbable chain of events.



THE END


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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