The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

Dead end. He tried an oblique approach. “I will provide it in a moment. Meanwhile, please take the necessary preliminary steps to terminate the recovery effort.”

The box was adamant—albeit in the polite, detached AI manner of its kind. “The gram in question can only be canceled upon receipt of a specific command paradigm compiled by Mr. Cleator Mockerkin.”

He was stuck. If he used vorec and spinner to instigate a penetration probe, he was likely to trigger the hidden and probably armored mollysphere’s built-in defensive mechanisms. He did not know what those might be, but given the character of the man in whose chair he was currently sitting, they were likely to be unpleasant. If he continued to press the demand verbally without providing the called-for paradigm, a hitech box like this one was likely to grow suspicious and either cut off his access cold or request some additional form of identification. When he failed to provide it, other alarms might be raised, other defense devices besides the alcove lasers activated.

He could vape the incog he had adopted, call in, and have the power to the box shut down, or for that matter, secure an order for shutdown or even demolition of the entire West Padre #3 industrial complex. That was what police insurance was for. But a suitably advanced box designed to juggle secure national, much less international, information and data would be in constant touch with several, perhaps dozens of backup mollys scattered all over the planet. If he had this one destroyed, the rest of the system might continue to function unobserved and undetected for an indeterminate length of time. That would include continuing to process the gram demanding Katla Mockerkin’s capture or destruction.

On the other hand, any command accepted here would promulgate instantly throughout the entire network—including one to terminate that order. In addition to which, if he called in a demolition team, all the rest of the valuable information currently residing on the box, threads that could lead to the arrest and prosecution of dozens, maybe hundreds of wanted individuals and enterprises, would be lost. Now, more than ever, he had to proceed with discretion.

There was one more thing he could try. It might set off a flurry of unwelcome responses, but he was determined to chance it. If it worked, at worst it might shut down the entire system without providing a response to his request, but might do so without damaging any permanent files. Those were, and had to remain, secondary to securing the health and safety of a certain twelve-year-old girl waiting back in Nogales. Grim-faced behind the chameleon, he once again addressed the machine.

“Cleator Mockerkin is dead. Therefore all ongoing grams requiring his input should immediately be suspended.”

He waited breathlessly, uncertain of what to expect. Depending on their level of AI sophistication, different mollys responded in different ways to directives that offered the prospect of internal conflict. He expected one this advanced to ignore him, or to reject the input as unprocessable, or possibly to demand elaboration.

He did not expect it to say, without wavering or hesitation, “I know. Mr. Cleator Mockerkin was struck and killed by an out-of-control bus going north on Houston Street, outside the Brazos Mall, in the inside lane, temperature thirty-eight degrees Celsius, relative humidity sixty-four percent, at three fifty-four P.M. on the afternoon of September seventeenth.”

Cardenas swallowed. “If the gram relating to the recovery or… termination … of Katla Mockerkin can only be canceled by a command paradigm compiled by Cleator Mockerkin, and Cleator Mockerkin has been dead for going on more than three months, then how is the gram to be canceled?”

“Under the scenario you describe, it cannot be canceled.” The box exuded a chilling assurance that was maddening. “However, the gram will lapse when its parameters have been fulfilled.”

“But there’s no one left who’d want it fulfilled!” Easy, Cardenas told himself. Calm, collected, composed. Be like the box. Be a molly. Spin, but not off your axis. “The individual who entered the original gram, Cleator Mockerkin, is deceased. Therefore there is no one left to see the gram fulfilled.”

“There is,” the box replied, with utmost seriousness.

Cardenas sat back in the chair as if he had been slapped, and gaped at the tunnel that glowed with restricted lists and stats and images. There was a face somewhere back there, and it was not the face of a person. Impartial, unsympathetic, unmoved, and efficient, it was interested in only one thing: carrying out its programming. Scattered among the already unfathomable labyrinth of information that bound the world together, it could not be effectively neutralized except from this central source, and then only by expert operatives with ample time to ferret out its secrets and avoid the traps that must lie buried within.

Cardenas would see to it that they were put on the job as soon as it was safe to do so. But first he had to secure Katla Mockerkin’s safety. If specialists were set on The Mock’s box, that might be enough to cause it to shut down this main terminal in alarm and automatically decentralize its operations. The effect would be the same as blowing the place up. Conversely, if it remained in operation despite the probing, there was no guarantee even the most skilled specialists would be able to get into the guts of the main molly in time to save Katla Mockerkin.

In the absence of Cleator Mockerkin, and the instructions only that one now-unreachable man could provide, The Mock’s box was determined to carry to fruition every extant gram that had been written to its widely scattered but tightly interlinked mollys. Mockerkin had been dead for months. It was the box that continued to issue orders to underlings to recover or kill Katla Mockerkin. It was the box that continued to run The Mock’s far-flung businesses and dealings, no doubt in the face of Mockerkin’s less than sophisticated subordinates. After all, as the old custodian had pointed out, nobody cared who was doing the paying as long as they continued to get paid. And as he had suggested, the process was indeed automated. To a degree no one could have imagined.

Ruthless kidnappers and mataros with unimaginative one-track minds could be paid in exactly the same efficient, wordless, depersonalized fashion as a janitor, Cardenas realized.

It was the box, he saw with sudden clarity, that was responsible for the death of Surtsey Mockerkin. Gruesome postmortem revenge for her deceased husband. Even in death, he was a murdering feleon.

The local molly sitting somewhere behind the wall and generating the access tunnel could not be destroyed, or the connection to The Mock’s wider box would be lost, along with any chance of getting the system to stand down the order to capture or kill Katla Mockerkin. When the amiable Yogesh Chanay had mused openly about imagining that the subsurface operation he had never visited must be largely automated, the innocent warehouse supervisor could have had no idea how appropriate his vision would turn out to be.

The only way to ensure Katla Mockerkin’s safety in the future was to neutralize the gram containing the order for her abduction or murder. And the only person who could do that was dead. The only person.


The box had not said that Cleator Mockerkin had to personally input the requisite command paradigm to terminate the relevant gram. What it had said was that “the gram in question can only be canceled upon receipt of a specific command paradigm compiled by Mr. Cleator Mockerkin.” There was, just possibly, one other person who might be familiar with the requisite paradigm, and therefore able to input it.

“Close,” Cardenas snapped brusquely. The tunnel obediently, and without comment, went dark. Reaching up and back, he gratefully peeled the chameleon off his head, ran a hand through his hair and fluffed it out as he breathed deeply of air he no longer had to sip through a permeable membrane. Shaking out the mask to dry it, he refolded it and slipped it back into the empty storage pocket on his belt. Rising, he wrapped the service belt around his waist and secured it.

For the second time that morning he hunched down behind the borrowed mirror as he inched his way back through the entry alcove. Once safely clear of the lethal antechamber and back in the outer office, he set the mirror aside and stretched. Not wishing to upset the kindly, helpful old custodian, he fully intended to affix the mirror back in place, using one of the industrial-strength adhesives that were included among the many odds and ends in his belt.

Unfortunately, one of the belt’s alarms chose that moment to start beeping. Loudly. Either he had finally done something to arouse the suspicions of whatever automated security system monitored the room, or he had manually tripped some concealed defense mechanism.

He saw no indication of the gas, nor smelled it, but the sensors built into the belt did. Anyone caught in the room without such protection would doubtless crumple to the floor without ever knowing what had hit them, to awaken later. Or never. Leaving the mirror where he’d set it down and placing one palm over his mouth and nose, he ran for the exit as fast as he could. Only when he had scrambled back up the entryway ramp and out through the storage closet into the bathroom beyond did the beeping subside.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster