Superliminal chapter 3: Showing the case fantastic
“I’m leaving this message because I have to warn someone. Anyone. Everyone.”
I sat behind a wide table with Detective Lee. Lieutenant Martin stood over both of us. An antiquated TV set watched us all from the front of the room. A battered laptop leaned against it, a mess of cables between the two. It was playing a digital copy of the VHS video recovered from James Dunning’s post office box.
The third playback fascinated me as much as the first. Martin seemed to have the same opinion about watching me. Facing away from the TV, she watched my every move like a cat tracking a laser pointer. To keep up appearances, I projected my usual defense when I had no idea what was going on: a look of aloof bemusement.
Right now, I was very, very bemused.
The video played again and I sensed an uneasiness in the room. Martin and Lee both wanted me to say something. Martin was expectation personified. Her perfect posture was marred by one clenched fist and there was a twist in the angle of her head that I didn’t particularly like.
I’ll talk when I have something interesting to say, thank you very much. Right then,I had nothing to offer.
I kept watching the video.
The recording looked abused. No, more than abused – it was grizzled. On both audio and video tracks it was as if someone had intentionally abused the tape to distort the final product. The result was an audio/video Heimlich Maneuver – right when you got comfortable with the format, it would jerk and twist and nauseate your viewing experience.
The rest of the recording was clearly low-budget. No Hollywood CGI here. A layman would call this a junky home video starring a crazy guy in close-up. Come to think of it, that’s what I thought, too.
“It’s a disease!”
James Dunning was the star of the video. He was an odd-looking fella. Passing him on the street, you’d think maybe he was a little too intense, a little too focused. Nothing wrong with that, of course. A smart guy like this – an award-winning, research-furthering, high-salary-justifying math genius – should be allowed all the eccentricities he wanted.
With the recording’s unstable tracking, random face-crumpling video distortions and tin can audio, James Dunning was a man transformed. His longish black hair had, at some point, been combed. His angled face was too skeletal, drawn and sunken. Either lack of sleep, the lighting or both seemed to recess his eyes just a half-inch too deep in their sockets. The only normality was his teeth: perfect, little, white tombstones, a result of expensive dental work and careful maintenance. But they looked out of place in his bone-thin face. Crowded, as if they remained only for old time’s sake.
His words matched his appearance.
“I tell you, it’s a disease,” Dunning said again. “I tried to control it and study it. I couldn’t. I let it loose. It broke loose. It broke me. Now I’m stuck. I had to destroy all my equipment. I want this evil stopped. Stopped!”
Dunning panted for a moment, then snapped his attention back to the lens.
“I’m not talking a few people getting sick. We’re beyond a city or statewide epidemic. Beyond pandemic. Forget about measuring infection rates or blocking ingress vectors. You don’t have to believe me. You’ll see it happen! It imposes itself. It’s no accident. This isn’t subliminal, below the level of conscious thought. You are aware when it infects you and it terrifies. It is superliminal.”
Detective Lee gave an amused snort. I agreed.
“I haven’t found a way to kill it. I’ve only found out how to delay it. Being tired decreases the infection time. Some psychoactive drugs prevent it, but others help it.”
Maybe it was because it was my third time through, but I was starting to recognize a theme here. Yeah, ‘crazy’ was a front-runner, but there was something else.
“I know the right thing to do is to kill myself-”
Here he paused, and swallowed.
“To… to destroy the carrier. I can’t. Not when there might be a cure. So help me while I try to find a way to stop it. It must not spread. I can’t show anyone what I created. That’ll just infect them, too. I destroyed my research so no one can recreate it. I’d like to think I’m safe. That the world is safe.”
Dunning’s lips trembled and tears welled up in his eyes. One spilled out and carved a slow, gleaming track down his cheek.
“It’s not, though. The world is not safe. This thing… it’s in me. I can feel it. It’s growing and it wants to get out.”
Martin gestured with a remote and the screen went blank. She walked in front of the TV and faced us.
“Talk to me. Comments?”
She addressed the words to both of us, but her intense stare pointed only in my direction. Non-verbal communication can be brutal if you were good enough. Martin had a PhD.
“I think I know what he did,” I said. “I just don’t know how seriously we should take this.”
“I’ve called the Feds. They may assist, depending on what we find.”
“Wow. The big leagues.”
I sensed Lee freeze up next to me. Martin’s eyes flashed.
“Mr. Manny, I don’t appreciate you comparing the ability of my precinct to the entire federal government. I also don’t appreciate you treating this lightly. Yes, Dunning is clearly deranged and has admitted to experimental drug use. But he’s threatening something big. For all we know, his ‘superlimial virus’ is some stolen anthrax or flu strain. We will take it seriously until we figure out what’s really going on. If you can help, help. If you can’t, leave.”
That was enough. My turn.
“I can tell you what Dunning is threatening. What he thinks he has. It’s way out there, though.”
“First, there’s Dunning himself. He’s not a chemist. He wouldn’t use his spare time to juggle anthrax or some other poison. Detective showed me Dunning’s profile. His field is math. His tools are computers.”
“Being a mathematician computer programmer isn’t against the law.”
I paused. She was right, of course, but a new law would be handy for some people I knew.
“Dunning didn’t mention anyone else. Whatever he thinks he has, he developed it alone. ”
“I’m getting to it. One of the last things Dunning said was that he couldn’t show this thing to anyone. Did you hear him? He used the word ‘show’.”
Lieutenant Martin rolled her eyes and raised her hands. It would’ve looked like pleading if she hadn’t been looming over my spot at the table.
“What difference does that make?”
“A mathematician is precise. Logical, careful. A computer programmer is analytical and detail-oriented. Dunning is all of these to an extreme. If he gave himself an injection or caught some sort of disease, he wouldn’t talk about showing it. You don’t show a disease. But you can show computer code.”
“What,” Martin said, leaning close, “does that tell you, Mr. Manny?”
“He talked about this thing like it had desire. A directive. He destroyed his equipment to try and stop it. Put it all together: James Dunning isn’t talking about a disease. He’s talking about a computer virus. One that he programmed. And now it’s inside him.”
Martin leaned back as if I’d made to punch her. She blinked.
“You’re kidding me.”
“I’m not saying it’s possible. I’m just telling you what Dunning thinks.”
Detective Lee spoke.
“That doesn’t make any sense. How can digital information affect biology? How can something like that be transmitted?”
I wanted to agree and say that I had no idea, but I kept silent. A lack of knowledge was best kept hidden in front of clients.
Lee stared at the blank TV. He scrunched up his nose and slowly shook his head.
“I just don’t get it.”
“Again, I’m only telling you what he thinks. I don’t think we should worry about infection if you find the guy, but I do think Dunning is crazy. Because of that, I don’t want to get anywhere near him.”
I stood, and continued, “Now that you’re this far, I’ll let you take it from here. I’m sure I’ve had dozens of clients try to reach me these last few hours.”
Yeah, right. Even if it was a wrong number, I’d be lucky if I had one voicemail waiting.
“No!” Martin shouted.
I decided to follow Lee’s lead. I froze.
“You don’t want to be exposed to a dangerous person?” With a new quiet threat in her voice, I preferred her yelling. It also occured to me that she could be a dangerous person.
“What is it you want, Mr. Manny? You really want to go back to your shabby, little office? How can you even consider leaving when this is waiting? Fixing generic computer problems, versus using your skill to track down a deranged person who might hurt a lot of people. One is a slow decline into boredom. The other is opportunity! They’re not the same!”
She started to turn away with what was clearly disgust. My next words stopped her.
“Dinner has something to do with it. I like to be able to eat.”
She threw her hands up in the air. “Oh, we’ll buy you dinner, Mr. Manny. Every night for a year. Is that really all you care about?”
“No, it’s not all I care about. I do care about eating food and paying rent. I care about keeping myself alive and safe. I care about helping other people, whether it’s one person or many. But it’s in that order. Call it survival instinct, but I want my basic needs met first. So double my usual rate. That’ll cover the other work I’m losing by taking on this case.”
“Fine.” She didn’t even blink. I should’ve asked for more.
“You’re right, by the way,” I said. “Between boredom and an opportunity, I can treat them the same. Whether it’s a ‘superliminal’ human virus or some lame scriptkiddie PC macro. The interfaces are different, but all you need to do is to find the right removal tool.”
“And that, Mr. Manny,” Martin snapped, her face moving in towards mine, “That bull-headed, black-and-white, cold, unfeeling perspective…”
She bared her teeth. Expecting to get bitten, I tried not to flinch.
“That is exactly why we need you.”
For those interested, here’s a tip about information technology private investigating: your paycheck is a lot better when the client really, really wants you there.
Like what you’ve read so far? Read the rest of Dev Manny #1: Superliminal.