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       Exponential, p.1

           JM Addison


  By JM Addison

  Copyright 2011 JM Addison

  Chapter 1

  It was one of those times you spent staring at something, but not really seeing it. While sitting there, not looking at that something, your eyes go out of focus and your mind goes free. It was one of those times for him. A time spent thinking hard, but feeling that the thoughts were no measure of progress, just time spent thinking.

  It was time to make a decision. He shook off the cobwebs of empty notions and stood up to pace. Here again, another ineffective method of putting forth effort. Who came up with this idea of pacing? But it did seem to somehow return his mind to crisp attention.

  Indeed, it was time to decide what to do. First he needed proof. That was going to be like surgery: a little terrifying, but essential. Especially when you’ve never broken into a vault before. Not really a vault, but it might as well be one. As an employee, he had the upper hand. That granted him certain access. It was just the breaking and entering part, the part that could hurl you straight to prison, that was the thing that put rats in his stomach.

  With a sense of uncertain resolve, he felt it was now late enough to perform. His subliminal ego must have somehow known that he would ultimately make this decision. Earlier, he spun that miserable little yarn about needing after-hours access in front of his boss, so he should be able to get most of the way in. What he really needed was to stop that annoying pandemonium of heartbeats.

  He wiggled into his jacket, grabbed his computer bag and exited his upper studio apartment. Descending the stairs, he felt the callous fingers of a cold November night slip around him bringing on an instinctive shiver. As he scanned the parked cars there was that brief feeling of vulnerability as he wondered what happened to his missing car. But soon he felt silly as he remembered finding no spot earlier and having to park in the lot for the hi-rise in the next block.

  The moments of time on the march to the car allowed space for doubts to drift back to the surface. Hunched inside his jacket like a queer two legged turtle, it seemed as if the chill and his own uncertainties were working together to force open his very essence and put a quiet end to this nonsense. What he needed was to eat. He was still at that stage in life where youthful vitality overcompensated for poor diet and he could eat whatever, whenever with no consequence.

  He began to realize that the foundation of his trepidation wasn’t the part where he made the trip to jail, but was rather much more serious. If his suspicions were true, what would they be willing to do to be sure the secret never escaped his lips? Certainly, going to jail was a much better alternative than ending up chained to a cement block at the bottom of the river. So, why not salvage his good healthy existence and turn around and go to bed. Again, the doubts were gathering reinforcements. He forced himself to keep moving along, knowing that he really had no choice. He simply must know if the truth was in fact, as ugly as it seemed. He could decide what to do about it later.

  Getting a bite to eat seemed like a good plan, but he realized, it was the safe, stable (albeit paranoid) part of him urging him to take pause so that he might convince the curiously reckless part of him to retreat for real. No, he must not give in to the fear. Keep moving.

  Glancing up to catch a glimpse of his car, the stark ugliness of the Northeast November seemed to add a layer of grief to his complex recipe of thoughts. What’s next? Self-Pity? He thought to himself. At least the drab canvas of lifeless sky made a pleasant contrast with the artistically random array of pinpoint lights scattered liberally across the broken urban horizon. Lights that likely indicated just how many others there were out there busily laboring away in their monotonous little office cubes like so many termites. But was he any different? How often had he been involved in some seemingly important project? Wasn’t he just another termite?

  He thought briefly of his sister’s message home on the machine: “Hey! Give me a call! It’s been awhile. Maybe we can do something this weekend… OK? Give me a call. Bye!”

  She was right. How long had it been? They both worked at the same company and yet, never saw each other. He needed to see her. Perhaps a dusting of her cheerful personality is just the mojo that could deliver him from the anxious dilemma he was facing. Thinking warmly of her, he strode the few remaining steps to his aging Volvo. He had to admit that the old car seemed shrouded in a cloud of “nerd.” Perhaps, it was time he spent some of his well won wealth and invested in something that agreed with his youth.

  Suddenly, there was that involuntary shiver. As if we were not alone. Was that a shadow of someone darting away between the cars? He paused to listen, but it was difficult to discern real sounds from the sound of his furious pulse inside his head. He warily made a brief inspection of the exterior and noticed nothing except more rust than he realized.

  As he fumbled with his keys, he noticed the alien tremor of his own fingers. Logic demanded that he change his attitude or he was going to let his own apprehension spoil an otherwise fun evening of sneaking around where he didn’t have business sneaking. Hardening his resolve he quickly got in the car, tossed his bag on the adjacent seat and got the car started.

  His recklessness began to take his apprehension down a degree. After all, what could go wrong? It was at night, few would still be there, he had permission so those that were still there would not see him as anything but another termite droning among the colony. Still, overall alarm prevailed and it kept him in a state of frenzied vigilance.

  He wanted to be invisible but knew that was unreasonable. In fact, he felt so obvious that he might as well be driving a pink Volvo. Was his paranoia teasing his sense of logic or was that a car following him? It didn’t help that the frosty air inside the car seemed to reach into his lungs with tentacles of pitiless claws.

  After making a couple of turns he was unconvinced that he really was being followed. He realized just how much he needed to get this episode over with.

  He reached the corporate office park and smiled at the familiar view of the parking lot next to the bleakly modern structure simply beloved by many as “the office.” Few cars remained at this hour and he slid casually into a well-lit spot. He locked up and made the short hike to the main employee entrance. Using his computerized ID badge he had no trouble convincing the door to unlock and permit his access. The corridor made its way past the reception area and at this late hour the vivacious receptionist was replaced with a lethargic rent-a-cop. Because of the unusual time, he had to follow corporate security policy and scribble his name at the guard’s log book.

  So far, no one paid unusual attention. He began to relax. His main goal was to get inside the computer data center of the main software development lab. The data-center was typically off-limits to all except those that were needed to perform operations tasks on the systems that lived inside. Employees that worked on software development projects gained the access they needed from their desktop computer workstations using the corporate network.

  But tonight, he could not risk breaking into the computer systems using his own networked workstation. There would be a forensic trail of electronic footprints that would betray him and he would be caught as sure as a blind mouse. He needed direct access to the systems themselves.

  For the first time, he noticed how the dead eyes of the security cameras that peppered the premise seemed to be examining him with grim, emotionless attention. It was important to act like he belonged, but his fear seemed to be flashing like a strobe of guilt. He kept moving purposely, although not sure the best route to take. He had to get to the fourth floor which was not as familiar as the floor he spent most of his time in.

  Stepping briskly from the elevator he noticed the typical rat’s maze of little identical glass prisons that people
fondly thought of as their workplace. He made the journey through the pathways arriving smoothly at his destination – the Systems Operations Center.

  He checked his watch and could not be more satisfied with the coincident nature of his achievement. Most of the work that was done to care for the greedy and lifeless needs of the computer systems was automated. This left a very light staff of operations personnel and at this moment, he anticipated that none would be working there at the moment.

  All he had to do now was breach the castle moat and get the door to open. In his case the door was a door of automated sliding glass held fast by a popular and effective “mag-lock.” He only needed to persuade this door that it should open for him.

  As he made his approach, he couldn’t help but feel the weight of the watchful lens of a camera mounted so that it had a clear view of all who passed over the threshold. He silently implored the unknown gods that governed the laws of Murphy that his temporary access would allow his passage beyond the brink.

  While trying not to face the meddlesome camera, he worked his computerized ID at the reader station adjacent to the door. There was a delightful sounding tone that announced success as the door smoothly slipped to the left. As he turned and marched through the door, he noticed that he apparently had stopped breathing in anticipation of a nervous breakdown. A pent up breath escaped leaving him gasping a moment as he scanned the room looking for the particular computer system he needed.

  As an MIT graduate specializing in computer science, he was an expert and knew what he was doing when it came to coaxing a computer to give up its darkest secrets. The room was well laid out with clusters of workstations placed strategically at the ends of columns of computer racks.

  As he moved among the comatose boxes of blowing fans and whirring disks, the dim lighting cast shadows of autonomous ogres which darted all around him. He located the system he was looking for and sank into a nearby wheeled chair. Gliding up to a keyboard his fingers began to carefully pry and interfere in the computer’s business.

  His mind became completely absorbed in the secrets he was learning and was shocked to discover that nearly an hour had expired since he began his probe. He had to tread lightly among the computer’s files so as not to set off any internal alarms or leave behind telltale traces of his visit. Suddenly, his suspicions become solid facts. Only in this case, the ramifications were more scandalous than he imagined. What he found was no an ordinary cover up. This was purposeful. Intentional. Planned.

  The race in his mind went out of control as thoughts of what to do began crashing about overwhelming him with indecision. This knowledge could not stay secret, but who could he tell? Who would believe it? What he needed was evidence. But wouldn’t the evidence belie his own criminal nature in attaining it? Now he fully understood the expression, “between a rock and a hard place.”

  He suddenly had that instinctive prickling sensation of alarm. Was this more paranoia? Just as he was smothering those feelings with logic and facts. He heard the delightful and terrifying tone that announced that someone successfully convinced the door to open indicating the end of his victory. How could he get the necessary evidence out of the data center? Better yet, how could he get himself out of the data center? He could not just abandon the workstation, his efforts would be revealed. Some work remained to cover his tracks. The frantic rush in his head began to smother the drone of machinery around him.

  His efforts at the keyboard became desperate. He soon noticed the same deathly shadows darting among the equipment at the approach of the intruder. There simply was no place to conceal himself – everything was made out of computers. But then, would it really matter if he was caught? After all? The temporary access did let him get to where he was. He knew these thoughts to be futile when compared to the value of his discovery. There was no way anyone was going to let him just walk out of here now.

  Soon, an idea began to form that offered a delicious glimmer of hope. Perhaps even a chance to legitimize his work tonight! He tried to clear his mind and focus on this new hope. However, his hopes were soon deflated as a man approached – a man that gave the uncaring appearance of someone about to take out the trash. Unfortunately, this man was not alone. These men were stereotypical thugs. One a bit shorter, the other wearing black gloves. Without speaking a word, the man with gloves pulled a small case from inside his jacket.

  A wave a nausea stuck as the man opened the case to reveal a syringe which he simply removed and filled from a vial of clear liquid.

  Flight instinct took control of his body. Struggling to maintain control of his bladder, he dove under the table supporting the workstation and scrambled out the other side. He glanced back to see the tall man actually smile at the feeble attempt at refuge. They simply walked either side of the workstation and stalked in for a final close. He was able to evade them for a moment and actually make his way back to the workstation. He frantically worked to attempt to work his final plan when he was brusquely lifted from behind by the taller one. At the same moment, the gloved one simply walked up and punched him in the breadbasket. They let him droop to the floor where he lay clutching his stomach trying to entice his lungs to work again.

  He labored to his knees and reached out to give a quick and final jab at the computer “Enter” key. Then the ice stab sensation of the needle. He stretched his hand up and back as if to slap a bug from the back of his neck, but his arm weighed too much to make the effort. His head landed on the work-surface and he could see the computer screen appearing sideways. Then he peacefully drifted away to sleep…

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