Chapter 6:


Grime in the Gears: Create, Read, Update, Delete

The visit with the detectives had been both confusing and exhausting. Conor decided that he needed to stop over at home before heading back to the office. He walked down the sidewalk, unsure about the financial future of the company, unwilling even to pay for transportation. As he walked, his head swam, and amid the late morning hubbub of smart glass adverts on every shop he walked past, he struggled to put words together as to how to break the news to his wife.

His feet ached by the time he got to his apartment building. This made him think of Frank, and his constant obsession with getting in his steps, and all his other attempts to keep fit and stave off an early death. Conor would have laughed if it wasn't so fresh. Maybe years from now he could appreciate the irony, but for right now, it was still raw and rubbed him the wrong way.

He waited in the lobby for the next elevator. When it arrived, he climbed in with a few other people and rode up, oblivious to the cheery music and adverts that played during the ascent. He stepped into the hallway of his floor and without remembering much about his journey, stood before his door. He pressed his palm against the doorplate, and the door slid open.

Cat was in the kitchen making a snack for Barry, their youngest. Barry was sitting on the floor, clutching his favorite toy, a limp threadbare toy rabbit named Rabbit (pronounced "Robert") Springforth. Though it could still talk, the servos in its body no longer functioned, and Rabbit just dangled from Barry's arms or lay like a ragdoll wherever Barry set him down. The two of them watched some show on the television screen, where a cartoon raccoon was counting apples in both English and Japanese.

Cat looked up from the counter where she was slicing some vegetables. "Conor?" she said. "What's going on?" She stepped away from the kitchen and came up to her husband.

Conor took a breath. Though he had practiced every single possible iteration of what he had to tell her, his words failed him. "It's Frank," he was finally able to say. "I just heard from the police. He's..."

Cat's eyes grew wide. She stepped back, one hand over her mouth, the other over her chest. "No," she said, trying to hold back the sobs that were trying to work their way through her body. "No," she repeated. "It can't be."

Conor nodded. He stepped up to her and wrapped her up in his arms. "It is," he said. "He's dead."

Cat collapsed in his arms. She buried her face into his shoulder and began to cry.

Barry looked up from the television. "What's the matter, Mommy?" he asked.

Cat looked up from Conor's shoulder. She wiped the tears from her red eyes. She tried to compose herself. "Mommy's sad," she said to her son. "Your uncle went away," she managed to get out before starting to cry again.

"Uncle Jeremy?" said Barry. "I thought he went away a while ago."

Conor squeezed Cat. "No," he said, his own voice starting to crack. "It was Uncle Frank this time."

Barry looked over at the wall of the apartment. There, a bulletin board sat with pictures and notes and pins and yarn connecting everything. In the middle was a picture of Jeremy. "He's lost too?" He pointed at the board. "Will Mommy need another board?"

Cat got a tissue and wiped her eyes and blew her nose. "No," she said. She walked over to the living room and sat on the couch. She patted the cushion next to her and Barry climbed up and sat beside her. "Mommy knows where Uncle Frank went," she says. "We don't need to try to find him."

Conor sat on the other side of Barry. Barry gave Cat a hug. "Don't worry, Mommy," he said. "I'm not going anywhere."

"Neither am I," said Rabbit, lying prone on the couch next to Barry.

Cat smiled down at her boy. She gave him a kiss on the top of the head. After that, she picked up rabbit and gave him a kiss between mottled ears before handing him to Barry.

"I have to call Mom," she said to Conor. "And Gloria. Does she know?"

Conor shrugged. "I'm not sure who the police are contacting."

Cat shook her head. "She can't find out that way. I'll let her know." She took a breath. "How did it happen?"

Conor eyed Barry. Cat nodded.

"Barry," she said. "Daddy and I are going to talk in the other room."

"Okay," he said. He slid off the couch, dragging Rabbit back down to the floor with him. The show he was watching was taking a commercial break, and a PSA from the Church of the Lost Eye was just wrapping up its Moment of Wisdom.

Cat and Conor went into their bedroom and closed the door. She slumped on the bed while Conor stood by the dresser. He was fiddling with an earring she had left there.

"It was some kind of poison gas," he said. "Rick, one of the detectives, called it Mary Jade. It's some sort of poison that needs to be made specially to affect a specific person. They don't have any suspects yet."

"Who would want to kill Frank?" Cat said. She flopped back onto the mattress and stared at the ceiling. "I mean, he's nothing but wonderful to everybody he meets. I don't even think he even gripes about bad drivers when he's in a car." She sat up. "Griped, I guess I should say." Another tear rolled down her cheek.

"When are you going to tell Gloria?" Conor asked, looking at her reflection from the vanity.

"I'll give her a call and meet up with her to tell her in person." She picked up a bolster off the bed and ran her fingers through the fringe on its edge. "What are you going to do?"

"I've got to head back to the office and get some things sorted out. Before he died, Frank did something to refund all of our customers. I need to figure out why, and what we can do about it." He left their unsure financial future unsaid, but she heard it anyway.

"I'm sure you can figure it out," she said. She stood from the bed and walked over to him. She wrapped her arms around him and nestled her head against his back. "You be careful out there," she said.

"I will," he said.

When they got back out into the main area of the apartment, Barry was still sitting, watching television. He had managed to grab a few sliced vegetables off the plate on the counter and was sitting there eating them, Rabbit sitting on the top of his head.

"I'm going to go back to work," Conor said to him. "You make sure to give your mom plenty of hugs. But let her be the one to tell your brother and sister what happened. Okay?"

"Okay," said Barry.

"Stay safe," Cat said.

"You got it," Conor said. "I love you."

"I love you too."

Cat set the rest of the plate of vegetables down on the coffee table before walking over to her board. She stood there, looking at the picture of Jeremy. Conor stepped out into the hallway. While riding in the elevator he sent a message to Syd. "Any update?"

After a moment, Syd wrote back. "Got something strange for you to see when you get back."

"I'll be right there."

He walked to the Geomys office. As he walked, he focused on the sights and sounds around him. "Who would want to kill Frank?" Cat's voice echoed through his head.

When he got back to the office he went directly to Syd.

"I had to work with Boxter," said Syd. "But here's what we found out." He tapped some keys and pulled up a graph on his screen. "Here's the sales for the past 24 hours. Notice the spike," he said this as he pointed to a very discernable spike in the graph. The previous night Conor had seen this same spike. At the time he thought this would mean that he could retire early and buy his own beach, albeit an artificial one, to live out the remainder of his life.

"Yeah," said Conor.

"Well," said Syd, "if you dig deeper, there's something a bit unusual about it."

"Show me," said Conor.

Syd typed a few keys and the graph expanded into a table. It showed the order history for the drones during the time leading up to the spike. "Even though all of the transactions are from different customers and different payment methods: check, money order, credit, debit, whuffie, crypto," he said this last one with a snort, "well, it's weird, because they're all exactly the same amount of time apart."

"What does that mean?"

"At first, I thought it was the order handler queueing up the orders and taking the same time to process each order, but that doesn't make sense, as depending on the type of payment, there are different verifications that must be processed, leading to millisecond differences." He pointed to a different column on the table. "Here's the timestamp for the completion of the payment process. It has no discernable pattern. It's perfectly normal." He pointed back at the order initialization timestamp. "It's the perfection here that's weird. Almost as if it was a single system making all these orders, but not human-ing hard enough."

Conor squinted his eyes at the data. "So, it was a Distributed Purchase of Service?"

"DPoS?" said Syd with a snort. "I like it. But, yeah. It looks like the orders were being made by a single third party that didn't math-dot-random an artificial lag between orders."

"That doesn't make sense," said Conor. "Why would somebody go to such trouble to orchestrate such a complex system but forget something simple like that."

Syd shrugged. "Sometimes clever people like to show other clever people how clever they are. In this case, someone wanted to make sure there were exactly 0.0139020831 seconds between orders."

Conor looked at the table. "That's a lot of orders," he said. "Who would have enough capital to even begin to do something like that?"

"Medium- to large-sized nations, certain religions, any of the megas, you name it."

"But why would Frank hit the Button?"

Syd shrugged. "I'll see if I can figure that one out." He started typing on his keyboard again. "Boxter wanted to talk financials with you when you were done here."

"Okay," said Conor. "Thanks." He left Syd's office and went into the back office. Boxter sat there on the table whirring away. Though he could have talked to him through the orb on his desk, he felt this was more appropriate. "Syd said you wanted to talk to me?"

The panel on the side of Boxter lit up. A cartoon face looked back at Conor. "Good morning and welcome back, Mr. Rayl," Boxter said. "Yes, we need to discuss financials." On another screen, it projected the same graph that Syd had shown him, only with plenty more color. It also had two more graphs superimposed upon it. One showed a line that rose with the first graph, but at a rate that seemed to grow smaller as the first one grew larger. The other showed a steep jump just after the giant peak of the first graph.

"As you may already be aware, the first graph shows our sales in the past 24 hours. Between the two of us, after seeing that spike, I thought I could cash in and retire to a beach sim."

"Yeah," said Conor. "I know the feeling."

"The second graph shows our expenses. Since we're using scalable fabs, we get better pricing the more we generate. As you can see, we have sufficient markup to more than cover the cost no matter the demand, expertly calculated to continually keep us in the black. However, the third graph shows our refunds. Once Mr. Conchobhar pressed the Big Bad Button, our agreement entitled all of our affected customers to a refund or replacement. As you can likely guess, a disproportionate number of our customers opted for the refund. Taking into consideration the payment processing fees, this isn't an ideal situation."

"Where does this leave us, financially?" asked Conor.

The graph zoomed in on a tiny sliver of the original graph. "About that much, if we liquidate some unessential assets," said Boxter. "To be honest, I'll be surprised if we make it through the week, considering the hit we've taken to consumer confidence."

"What are our options?" asked Conor.

"We could do a marketing drive," suggested Boxter. "Maybe give the customers asking for refunds an option to get a free upgrade, or extended service and support if they instead opt for a replacement. We can dip into that markup price and still pay the bills at the end of the month, even if it means tightening our belts for a little while. Alternately..." a little icon appeared on the screen while he crunched some numbers.

"What?" asked Conor. He stepped over toward Boxter.

"Alternately, we could sell the company. If we found the right price, we could all be reasonably comfortable until we could find new jobs. And of course, that's taking into consideration a chunk for Frank's fiancé." 

"I don't like that last idea," said Conor. "But send me the specs on any reasonable speculation, including forecasts."

"It will be on your desk in under an hour," Boxter said.


"It's what I do," said Boxter. "Quite literally."

Conor smiled before leaving the back office. He slumped down at his desk and tried to find somewhere to start with his day. Everything lay in his mind like a scattered jigsaw puzzle with no reference image. 

"Mr. Rayl," said Jeannie. "Someone to see you."

He looked down at the orb. "Who is it?"

"A Mr. Taito and his assistant."

"Why does that name sound familiar?" asked Conor.

"Mr. Taito left a message for you earlier today. He's from Araiguma Enterprises."

Conor brushed his hair back. He didn't know if he had the energy for this, but Boxter's suggestion came to mind. "If we found the right price," he muttered to himself.

"What was that, sir?" asked Jeannie.

"Send them in," he said.

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