Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Novel Introduction

Howdy, QuillShakers! A little something different from me. Below is the first part of a novel I've been working on (and off) for a ... while.

If the urge strikes, comments/criticisms are welcome.

It began on a Monday.

I had awakened early, downloaded my mail and the day's weather forecast, as usual. The weather service said that strong thunderstorms were likely in the afternoon. My publisher, Dennis, was screaming for an outline, which I was supposed to have sent him a week ago. And still no reply from Janna. I fixed some breakfast and scanned the world headlines of the day. Only two terrorist bombings, one in Baghdad, at the occupation headquarters, and the other in Tokyo, at a bath house on the Ginza. Crude oil was lapping at the $125 mark again, and the stock market was on the downside of its manic depressive cycle.

All in all, the morning wasn't that unusual. Certainly, not with respect to the events that fate would unfold before me over the next... well, very long time.

Instead of working in the garden, which had been my nominal plan for the day, I decided to see if I couldn't fix the opening chapter of my new novel. I hadn't sent Dennis the outline because the story had veered sharply from where I had intended it, and the outline I had was no longer valid.

What started as political satire had somehow devolved into slapstick, and every time I tried to work on it, visions of Mel Brooks films would flash through my mind. Nevertheless, I sat down at the computer and got to work. I managed to snag a line of thought that I liked, and was soon engrossed in the story and oblivious to everything else around me. With much effort, I slowly steered the plot back onto the course I had intended.

Several hours later, I leaned back and stretched, and realized with surprise that there was rain falling on the roof of my cabin. I stood and walked to the front door, and was surprised to see how much rain had fallen while I was writing. Puddles of water stood in the small yard in front of the house, and even the leaves on the maples were plastered together, though only a soft shower was presently falling.

I stepped back inside and turned on the television to check the Weather Channel. After a story about skiing in Australia, two commercial breaks, and some strained banter between the co-anchors, the regional map of the Southeastern US came on the screen. The radar image showed several bands of heavy rain marching across the Appalachians, one of which was just about to reach the Toe River Valley of Western North Carolina, and my home.

I hurried back outside to double check that everything that needed to be was still covered, and got back on the porch just as the wind picked up and the rain began falling harder. Leaving the television tuned to the weather, I switched on the radio to see if any warnings had been issued. As I scanned the dial listening for weather statements, I began to hear thunder in the distance. Soon flashes of lightning began illuminating points across the valley, each one striking more quickly than the last. As a lover of electrical storms, I was out on the porch again, watching the lightning and the rain, driven almost horizontal by the wind, when a gust practically knocked me off my feet. At nearly the same instant, lightning struck two trees on opposite sides of the cabin. The hair on the back of my neck prickled as I felt the residual energies of the double strike. Then I remembered that the TV was on.

Cursing myself for an idiot, I ran inside and unplugged everything. Then I went back onto the porch and watched the rain fall.

When the storm had blown itself out, I plugged the power strips back in and turned everything back on. As the TV lit up, I saw nothing but static. I switched the signal splitter from satellite to antenna, tuned in the local channel, and the signal came in clear. At least the monitor and tuner were working. I switched back to the satellite and ... nothing. Okay, could it be anything besides lightning damage? I asked myself. Storm, rain, wind ... wind!

Snapping my fingers, I went outside and around the corner of the cabin so I could see the dish up on the roof. Sure enough, the wind had blown the dish out of line. I climbed up on the roof, reoriented the dish, and went inside to reboot the system. No change. There was still no signal.

That's just great, I thought to myself, Only a week after I figure out how to configure the software to pirate the signal, the fucking storm fries it! I opened the satellite descrambler program on my laptop to look at the code and everything looked okay. Then I checked the memory cache and immediately recognized that this was where the problem was. I had set up the program with a twenty second delay, to allow my decryption code to unscramble the signal, but there was several hours' worth of data in the memory buffer, and the translator algorithm was trying to squeeze it all into a 20-second file.

Pausing the program, I picked a chunk of data at random, to see if I could figure out what had gone wrong, and twenty seconds of Super Bowl VII played out on the monitor, followed by a radio broadcast in what sounded like Arabic, then a Swedish luggage infomercial. I repeated this with several different chunks of data and each time a seemingly random series of radio or TV segments played over my system. Some of the segments were current, but many were years or even decades out of date. I found this just a bit unusual, but was more interested in getting the TV to work again, so I saved all the data onto a USB stick, wiped the memory buffer, restarted the system and everything worked fine.

A couple of weeks later, I was again working on the satire. Needing to back up the text, by accident I picked up the memory stick containing the odd satellite data. I had experienced no further trouble with the system since the storm, but still hadn't figured out the source of the mysterious transmissions. Looking at the memory stick, I figured, what the hell. I was having trouble with the slapstick again, and needed to distract my mind with something else for a bit.

After saving the slapstick on an external hard drive, I plugged in the odd data. As when I first scanned it, I watched and listened to old broadcasts: I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Jack Benny Show, All in the Family, newscasts, World Series' and Super Bowls; I spent hours scanning through the data stored on the stick.

As I scanned, I sorted the data into separate TV and radio files, with English and non-English subheadings. While doing this, I found several news broadcasts. These broadcasts contained not only minor stories like "Farmer Jack's Mutant Two-headed Pig", but also major new items. The problem was, some of the most earth-shaking stories were news to me. I admit, I could sometimes get lost in my work, but it seemed to me that I would remember if the Canadian Prime minister had been assassinated. Likewise, a news feature about open warfare on the Korean Peninsula (not the UN 'police action' of the early 1950's, either).

I ran the sort program again, this time searching only the news broadcasts. As I scanned the results, I noted the ones that mentioned the date. Quite a few were in languages other than English, but of the ones I could understand, many were unfamiliar. Even stranger, of the ones that were dated, around forty percent were from the future.

I thought I was either losing my mind, or that this was some kind of hoax or scam. If it was, though, it was the most detailed I had ever seen. Like a lot of people, I had used PhotoShop or similar programs to create altered versions of recordings in the past, mainly as jokes for my friends, but what I was looking at now was as far from PhotoShop as the finger painting of a five year old was from a Renoir masterpiece.

So, either a very talented artist/hacker was behind this, or I had actually received broadcasts from out of time. As the former explanation was, by far, the most likely, I decided to check with some of my friends to see if they, or anyone they knew (or knew of) was capable of such beautiful work. I selected a few of the fluff stories (like farmer Jack's pig), copied them onto a memory stick, and called my friend Johann Meizher, who worked as a production manager for DigiFilms, Inc.

‘Johann Meizher’s office, this is Becky speaking,” the voice at the other end of the line announced.

“Good afternoon,” I replied. “My name is Will Lochrud. I’m a friend of Johann’s, and I was wondering if he was available to take my call."

“Please hold for a moment, Mr. Lochrud,” she answered. I was treated to twenty-five seconds of movie ads, then a familiar voice came on the line.

“Will! It’s great to hear from you! Are you in town?”

“Hey Johann. No, I’m in North Carolina, but I was thinking of flying out there for a couple of days. I thought I’d see if you had some free time coming up.”

“For you, Sugar? Always! Barry and I are both free next Tuesday and Wednesday. Will that work?”

I smiled into the phone and said, “I don’t know. I’ll have to check my calendar....”

Johann’s laughter came through the phone. We had known each other for over ten years, and he had produced a short of one of my stories that had garnered an honorable mention at Sundance. He was well aware of my predilection for solitude (some of my friends actually used the word "hermit"). He had visited my "camp" in the mountains of North Carolina many times over the years. “Let me know when your flight’s coming in and I’ll meet you at the airport.”

“Sounds good, Johann. I’ll give you a call back later this afternoon.”

The following Tuesday morning I drove to Asheville and caught the air shuttle to Atlanta, and thence to Seattle, where DigiFilms was located, and where Johann lived with his partner, Barry, who also worked at DigiFilms. They met me at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and we drove out to their house.

We spent some time catching up, then I explained why I had come out to see them. Rather, I explained the cover story I had come up with. I was reluctant to admit that I was actually considering the possibility that I had somehow received transmissions from the future, so I told them I had received the disk in the mail, with no return address and a Mexico City postmark. I also told them that I was sure it was a fake, and I just wanted to know who did it.

There was, of course, the possibility that they had dreamed up this whole thing - they were, after all, experts in the field of computer animation. What was not possible, though, was for either one of them to lie to me face to face - I could always tell - so, as I weaved my story of mysterious packages arriving in the mail I watched them for reactions.

“I’m guessing that neither of you had anything to do with this,” I said as Johann and Barry stared at the computer screen.

“I wish,” Johann said incredulously, as he looked over Barry’s shoulder. “It would take the entire production team around six months to produce any one of these segments.”

“I don’t see any telltales,” Barry added. He was referring to the various glitches (sometimes only a single pixel out of place) that often appeared in digital productions. “Do you mind if I play with the images some?”

I shook my head and said, “That’s why I came out here. To see if you guys could figure out who did this, and how. It’s impressive as hell, isn’t it?”

“Bloody right, Will,” Barry said.

“And then we’ll figure out how to hire him - or her,” Johann said as he booted up a second computer and the two of them began breaking down the stories into single frames and looking for telltales. By the time Johann dropped me off at the airport two days later, neither he nor Barry had found any glitches - and had both called in ‘sick’ for the rest of the week, so engrossed had they become in figuring out the mystery I had laid at their door.

With Johann and Barry, both of whom had much more experience in the field than I, working to solve the mystery, I returned home and to my work. The guys were keeping me updated on their progress, or rather their lack thereof, but my mind was once again on other things (satire was managing to hold back slapstick, but only just), and the potential significance of the mystery began to fade.

One late afternoon, about a month later, I returned from a day hike to find I had a voice mail waiting.

“Hey, Will. It’s Johann. Barry and I have examined every frame, pixel by pixel, and contacted everyone else we can think of who might have had anything to do with the creation of these recordings. We’ve found nothing, and no one, that we can point to and say, ‘Aha!’

"So, we surrender. You got us. Now, please call back and tell us how you managed this!”

I picked up the phone and soon I was saying, “I swear, Barry, I didn’t do it! I got the disk in the mail, just like I told you.” The first sentence was true, anyway.

“Fine, Will. I guess we’ll find out when you - or whoever - markets the software. In any case, it’s a helluva good job! I wish I could take credit for it.”

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