The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

The room in which he found himself was dimly but adequately lit. To his left, a single holovit of open desert filled the entire wall. As he looked on, a three-dimensional Gila monster scuttled out from behind a woolly bear cactus to disappear behind a rock. Soaring from right to left, a Swainson’s hawk cried out, its screech muted. Looking to his right, the Inspector saw the outer room, with its empty workstations and the bathroom closet ramp beyond, clearly through the high-quality one-way glass.

In front of him was a small work area dominated by a single comfortable chair and an idling box tunnel. On the otherwise empty desk, a vorec sat waiting in its holder. There was no keyboard for optional manual input. Below the subdued tunnel that appeared to run to a softly glowing infinity, the impassive glass eye of a scanner poked out of the wall. Hefting the bathroom mirror, Cardenas once more held it out in front of him as he approached the station and sat down in the chair. Nothing jumped out at him, and the chair did not blow up beneath his butt. Gratified but still vigilant, he examined the vorec carefully before removing it from its holder. It was a Pelurinho Amado 24. Expensive, multilingual rated, but with relatively straightforward controls, it was intended for a user who wanted the best available voice recognition technology but was not particularly technologically sophisticated. Flicking it active, he brought it to his lips.

“Open,” he murmured softly into the discreetly padded pickup.

Words emerged from within the box tunnel as a dull inner light animated the scanner eye. “Access denied. Authorization required.”


“Yes,” the supple mechanical voice informed him.

Here was a simpler, and less lethal, problem to deal with than annulled lasers, Cardenas saw. Removing his service belt, he laid it out on the desk so he could more quickly and easily access its contents. While essential industrial mollys and boxes were usually defended by multiple layers of security, physically smaller and less significant ancillary devices—devices like vorecs—generally boasted less elaborate safeguards.

Removing his spinner from its pouch, he snapped his own vorec into the appropriate receptacle. From onboard storage, he punched up a vorec operations file. Delving into the National NFP tank in Washington in the course of doing research on The Mock, Cardenas had tracked down a voice file of a line tap that included a couple of innocuous sentences uttered by one Cleator Mockerkin in the course of his checking into the Four Seasons Havana some ten years ago. Using the tiny file as an aural template, police techs in Nogales had successfully generated a syntharym that perfectly mimicked the individual sonics.

As soon as the relevant file had been shunted, he placed the caster node of his own unit against that of the one he had removed from the holder on the desk. Some judicious juggling of the controls, and the syntharym was transferred to the resident vorec. Easing the spinner back into its pouch and returning his own vorec to its holder, he gripped the local and repeated his earlier command.

“Open,” he reiterated. If the syntharym was sufficiently precise, and had made a full transfer, the vorec he was holding should now convince the molly behind the wall and the box it connected to that it was being addressed by, if not Cleator Mockerkin himself, then someone with sufficiently similar speech patterns to satisfy the security gram. Of course, Mockerkin might never have been in this little room, much less utilized its box. It might simply be a protected facility utilized by, say, his chief financial officer. But where this level of carefully thought-out physical artifice and internal security was employed, it seemed reasonable to suppose that the individual at the top of the command chain ought to at least be able to check on the work of underlings.

Or not, he realized pessimistically as the box voice replied, “Access denied. Authorization required.”

He tried again, on the off chance that the syntharym had not been transmitted accurately the first time. The result was the same. Lips pursed, brow furrowed, he sought elucidation.

“Erroneous verbal command entered?”

The box responded without hesitation, the artificial voice emerging clearly from within the open tunnel. “Verbal command accepted. Visual authorization denied.”

He had suspected from the moment he sat down in the chair that this would not be easy. Muttering under his breath, he set to work yet again removing necessary gear and material from the service belt’s pouches. A quick glance showed that the entryway leading to the bathroom storage closet remained blessedly silent and deserted.

It had been a long time since he had been obliged to make use of a chameleon. Removing the flexible mask from its belt pocket, he unfolded it and spread it out flat on the desktop. When he thumbed the power switch woven into the back, the opaque epidermoid sprang to life. Carefully he slipped it into place over his face and snugged it tight. The familiar tickling sensation that ensued indicated the mask was working, busy molding itself to his features. Wearing the mask made breathing difficult but not impossible. When the chameleon felt it was set and ready, it so informed him by sounding a tiny beep.

Swiveling in the chair and turning back to face the scanner set in the wall, he addressed the vorec anew. “Open.”

The box replied without hesitation. “Verbal command accepted. Visual authorization denied.”

This time he was not disappointed. He had expected the response. Even the most efficacious chameleon needed time to work its morphing magic. After a moment’s pause to allow it to process the information it had received, he repeated the request. Again it was denied. And again.

Each time he voiced his request, the wall scanner played over his face in an attempt to identify him. And each time it did so, the sensors implanted in the chameleon tracked the scan, refracting the light from the pickup as it progressively built up a topology of the scanner’s own sought-after parameters. With each subsequent failed request, the epidermoid was able to build greater density into the constantly metamorphosing mask. Nanonic motors within the sensitive material carried out subtle adjustments to its shape, continuously folding and remolding features. The mutable lenses from behind which Cardenas regarded the obstinate wall flexed in response to information gleaned by the mask’s built-in analytical instrumentation as it tried to feed the box what it wanted to know.

It took nine attempts before the box finally answered, “Verbal command accepted. Visual command accepted. Retina scan accepted. Authorization complete. Welcome, approved visitor.”

He was in. The molly supporting the tunnel, and via it the box, was now amenable to access, though that did not mean everything within had suddenly become an open book. Tentatively, he called forth records and contents. As they appeared in the tunnel before him, shifting and steadying in response to his orders, he scanned them with a policeman’s eye, wishing he had the time to make detailed recordings. Further analysis of The Mock’s illicit little empire would have to await the attention of the NFP’s forensic accountants. Right now, he was only interested in information relating to the death of Surtsey Mockerkin and the concurrent attempts to abduct her daughter.

Unable to isolate anything directly relevant, he was eventually compelled to resort to a more straightforward variety of oral interrogation.

“Surtsey Mockerkin is dead,” he informed the box. “Were you aware of that fact?”

“I have already logged that information,” the molly told him, speaking from the escher depths of the tunnel. Cold and emotionless as a stony plain in central Greenland, it added, “That particular gram has been terminated.”

Cardenas found that he wanted to be rid of the chameleon and its claustrophobic, form-fitting, sensor-impregnated resilience as quickly as possible. It limited his vision and left him feeling edgy and uncomfortable. “What about the efforts to repossess Katla Mockerkin?”

“That operation is ongoing. As per relevant instructions, if the individual in question cannot be recovered, she is to be terminated, to prevent the possible dissemination of restricted internal data. The appropriate apposite instructions have been disseminated.”

A chill ran down Cardenas’s back. What a wonderful person was The Mock. The more he learned about the dead man, the more he came to understand how someone like Surtsey Mockerkin would risk death just to get away from him. Unfortunately for her, it had turned out to be a bad risk.

If the lepero couldn’t get his daughter back, he was going to have her killed, to keep the information stored in her mind out of the hands of competitors and the authorities. Swell way for a man to treat his own daughter. Like a storage chip. A disposable storage chip. The Inspector pondered a response. “I wish to terminate that undertaking, effective immediately.”

“The gram in question can only be canceled upon receipt of a specific command paradigm compiled by Mr. Cleator Mockerkin.”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster