The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

In a way that no other officer could, Cardenas knew that it was not an insult. Fourhorses was watching him closely. “How are you doing, Katla?”

She glanced longingly back at the muted, softly glowing tunnel. “All right, I guess.” A hint of the subtle slyness he had come to associate with her crept back into her voice. “But you’d know that anyway, wouldn’t you? You’re just making polite conversation.”

He grinned. “When I was your age, the other kids used to tell me I was too smart for my own good.” She looked back at him sharply. “So I know what it’s like to feel different from everybody else. From all your friends. No more small talk, then.” He leaned slightly toward her. “I have some news for you. Your father, The Mock, is dead.”

Her expression did not change. But he observed the slight tensing of the muscles in her neck and forearms, detected a heightened rate of respiration. She did not show it—at least not to anyone else— but she was reacting.

“He was hit by a bus while crossing a street.”

By way of acknowledgment, she nodded once, almost emotionless. “I’m glad to hear it.” Then, somewhat to his surprise, as well as that of the watchfully observant Fourhorses, she snickered mockingly.

“I heard him talk about dying, once. He said that the federales would never capture him. That if he didn’t die of old age, he would go down in a storm of fire. He was hit by a bus?” Cardenas nodded. “That’s great! Real ordinary. That’s just what he deserved—to die like anybody else, unnoticed and overlooked, without having his nasty, mean, lepero face spread all over the vit. I’m glad it happened that way!” As her anger subsided, her exceptional intelligence took over. Cardenas waited patiently, knowing that it would.

“But,” she began anew, stammering slightly, “if Daddy died months ago, then who ordered that my mom be killed only weeks ago?” Lowering her eyes, she sank into profound contemplation. “Mr. Brummel couldn’t have done it, because he was already dead, too. Mr. Vanderberg doesn’t like violence, and Ms. Beryl wouldn’t know how to compile the necessary instructions.” Her confusion and puzzlement was plain to see as she looked back up at Cardenas. “Do you know who ordered it?”

He nodded bleakly. “They come from the same source that is still trying to have you abducted or killed. A source you probably know better than anyone. Your father’s company box, the one that’s headquartered in Southeast Texas.”

Her mouth opened in a little O of surprise. “It’s that stupid molly at Padre! Daddy had it grammed so it would run everything when he wasn’t there to supervise it personally. But I don’t know anything about the kind of gram you’re talking about. He must have entered it into the box after Mom and I ran away with Mr. Brummel.”

Fourhorses couldn’t take it any longer. The conversation between her charge and the federale was leaving her further and further behind. “I don’t understand. Who is trying to kidnap or kill Katla?”

“A program.” Cardenas looked back in her direction. “One implanted by her father. He was, by all accounts, an unforgiving, merciless son of a bitch.” He nodded in the girl’s direction. “The molly containing the gram stays in touch with every element of her father’s illegitimate domain. It promulgated directives to subordinates ordering the killing of Wayne Brummel, who was Katla’s mother’s consort and partner in a pretty large-scale embezzlement of funds. It expanded that order to include the recent slaying of her mother. Now it’s trying to capture or kill Katla because she’s a tecant who, among other things, has much if not all of her father’s business dealings committed to memory.” Turning back to the girl, he favored her with renewed sympathy. “She’s a walking mollysphere.”

Fourhorses’s tone showed that she still did not entirely understand. “But if her father is dead, why is this monstrous gram of his still interested in her?”

“Because it hasn’t been formally canceled,” he explained tersely. “Until it is, it will continue to issue what it deems to be applicable directives to elements of her father s domain that still respond to commands from the central hub. They will try their best to comply with these commands, because they believe them to be coming from her father, or from her father’s second-in-command—whomever they assume that might be.

“Eventually, word will trickle down to the lowest ranks to ignore any and all such directives as coming only from a molly. That’s fine. The only problem is, we can’t wait for that to happen, for nature to take its course. Because by then it may be too late for Katla.”

Fourhorses started toward him, arms spread imploringly. “Well then, expiate this damn molly that’s spinning these orders! Shut it down, turn it off—blow it up!”

Cardenas shook his head slowly. “Can’t. That is, we can, but if we destroy the molly, there’s no guarantee that built-in backups won’t kick in throughout the box. Without knowing where all the wishwire is located, we can’t be certain of shutting down the gram completely. And we can’t risk allowing it to spread to secondary hubs whose location we don’t know, because then we’d never get the gram vaped. It’s like a snake. You can cut off its head, but the body will keep on twitching for hours.”

Her unhappy expression showed that she understood. “Then there’s nobody who can order this gram to terminate itself?”

“I was there. I spoke to it. It insists that termination of the gram can only be accomplished by input of ‘a command paradigm compiled by Cleator Mockerkin’—her father.”

“But—her father’s dead,” Fourhorses exclaimed. The Inspector nodded. “Then, there’s no one left to bring closure to the program.”

“Maybe one.” Cardenas turned back to face Katla Mockerkin. So did Minerva Fourhorses.

His spirits sank at her reply to his unasked question.

“I can’t do it.”

“Why not?” His heart went out to her; to this poor, abused, brilliant girl who had had no real childhood. She deserved better. Anyone her age deserved better.

“Because I don’t know the paradigm. Just like the order to kill, my lepero of a father must have compiled and inputted it after Mom and I ran away with Mr. Brummel.”

They were left with no choice, he saw. He would have to give the order to disable the molly still spinning away in the bowels of the underwater redoubt in Texas. If they were lucky, the gram would not propagate throughout The Mock’s surviving box. If they were unlucky…

She was gesturing shyly at him, interrupted his sad reverie. “What is it, Katla?” he asked as gently as he could.

“I can’t input the paradigm, because I don’t know it. But there is something else I think I might be able to do.”

“What’s that, Katla?” Forgetting that she was supposed to keep to the background for the duration of Cardenas’s visit, Fourhorses had come up to stand alongside the federale.

Young but far from innocent eyes stared back at them both. “I might be able to wipe the entire system. That’s an entirely different paradigm. It’s problematical—there’s a lot of steps—but it’s a doable thing. I think.”

Cardenas’s thoughts whirled. Wiping The Mock’s box would surely eliminate the gram that persisted in ordering her abduction or assassination, but it would also result in the loss of information of incalculable value to the NFP’s central office. Names, figures, statistics, locations, histories of crimes committed, plans for crimes expected: all would be lost. He said as much, and in so doing, drew a dirty look from Minerva Fourhorses.

Katla Mockerkin begged to disagree. “You won’t lose any of that, Mr. Cardenas. The Federal Police can have it all. I’m only going to try and wipe the box.” Meaningfully, she put the tips of her fingers to one side of her head. “The rest of it, all the other muy malo stuff— it’s still up here.”

In his immediate concern for her safety, he had forgotten about her capabilities, and why The Mock had valued her so highly in the first place. He vowed he would not do so again.

“Tell me what kind of facilities you need.”

She gestured at the wall unit. “It can be done from here, I think. As long as I have uninterrupted access to a megaspeed connection and enough crunch. I just”—this time she didn’t meet his gaze—”I just don’t know . . . if I can do it.”

Reaching out, he put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Why not, Katla?”

She continued to avoid his eyes. “My mom’s dead. I don’t have any brothers or sisters. If I have any cousins, I don’t know who they are or where they are. Now my father’s dead, too. I didn’t like him very much. He did bad stuff to a lot of people. But—he was my dad. The stuff in the box is all that’s left of him. Wiping it—it’d be kind of like killing him myself.”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster