Freedom of Choice

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Chapter 8

Freedom of Choice . . .

Chapter Eight:

That's a relief, nothing blew up. I'm done with two hours and nine minutes to spare. Nester is just going to have to get over not having a reason to shot me.

I'm sure he'll be heartbroken. The lights in this room did flicker a couple times, though.

That's just the computer balancing the load. It will take a while, but it will eventually learn your schedule and power down rooms, equipment, and individual lights when its sensors detect they aren't needed. The electricity it saves the hospital on this floor should make up for the repair bill in two or three months. It's a great gizmo when not shot to pieces.

Finally some good news to tell my boss.

How about signing my work acceptance paperwork? I'm already late for my next call.

I have to get permission first. Major repairs are above my pay grade.

We don't have to go back to your office again, do we? I'm still queasy from our last trip.

Nope, while you were working my crew turned a storage room down on B2 into a temporary office. My phone should be connected by now. Leave your tools; I'll have one of my guys take them to departures.

What about, Tim?

Orderlies just left the sixth floor. They'll be here shortly to escort him to the cargo elevator at the end of the east corridor. I don't expect any problems. His hooves won't be touching planet Earth for hours yet. By the time that drug wears off, he'll be a mother and Timothy will have a stomach full of several gallons of fresh warm milk. And my cleaning crew will be complaining about having to shovel the cow pies he leaves behind.

Should we wait?

No need. Tim will follow anyone who pulls his nose ring. Let's go.

* * * * * * * *

Why did you push the stop button?

Before I open this door you have to understand something. B2 is not accessible to the general public. Most large hospitals have designated facilities like this. Government protocols insist we keep everything low key; think of this place as a cross between a medical laboratory and leprosy ward. You seem like a level headed guy, so I'm trusting you won't freak out down here. We'll only be here a couple minutes. Are you cool with all that?

Are we in danger?

Not really, but if someone catches you trying to start a conversation with a Mr. Coffee after you leave, you might spend some time on the ninth floor. That's where the hospital keeps the psychiatric holding cells.

Huh?

You'll understand soon enough. Here we go.

Kind of dim down here, more power problems? My boss is always looking for extra business.

Some of the . . . patients . . . on this floor don't like bright lights. No need to stress them out more than they already are. Quiet, let me do the talking! Hi, Oscar.

Long time no see, Larry. And who is . . . ?

Repair tech. He might be doing some work on B2.

Great idea. Lots of junk around here needs fixin'. Ahhh . . . Larry?

What is it?

How do I say this . . . ? I came back from sick leave this morning and I heard . . . I heard what happened on B1. I can't tell you how sorry I am. Vicky and Linda were good people. And sisters, too! They didn't deserve to . . . they didn't deserve to die like . . . damn it! I wish I could've done something!

Don't we all, you coming to the funerals this weekend?

Wouldn't miss 'em. I'm bringing the wife but leaving the kids with my brother. They don't need to hear about any of this. You got anything new about the security team? There's nothing but old rumors coming down.

The bodies haven't been released by the coroner's office. I'll let you know if I hear anything.

Thanks. I didn't really know any of 'em, but everyone down here wants to help. The union steward is getting a collection drive going. We should be able to scrap together a good pile of cash for their families. You want in?

Tell Lester to call me when he gets organized, I'll cut him a check. What's with all the boxes?

I'm doing a second-shift so I'll be free this weekend. Doctor Patterson wants me to double check everything in holding because his lab's HI DEF Kirlian scanner is on the fritz again. I'm going to be up half the night re-scanning critters before they're sent to final processing. James and Kelly are doing the bigger ones. I hope they're more careful than last time. Simon hasn't been down here since Kelly let that king cobra loose.

I heard about that. Did it hurt anyone?

No, they eventually corralled it under a storage cabinet. That's right, isn't that room your new office now?

Not for long if you're gonna let things like that roam around. Where's it now.

Back where it belongs, the zoo's herpetarium. An animal handler brought it in after one of their veterinarians collapsed next to its enclosure, and a field team's portable scanner couldn't get a good read. Kelly broke protocol by opening the red labeled specimen container without backup or securing the lab. Before he could blink, let alone grab it with the safety tongs, it was out of the box, off the table, and through an open door. Kelly is an okay lab tech but he sucks as a snake wrangler. The look on Simon's face when it scooted between his feet was worth all the screaming.

What about the vet?

He's doing fine, just a mini stroke. Word is he'll be out of intensive care tomorrow. Lucky guy, I wouldn't want to spend the rest of my life crawling on my belly, swallowing rats, and getting gawked at by school kids on a field trip to the zoo. Gotta go, see you this weekend.

You too, Larry. Let's go, John. My new office is right around the corner.

We're not going near any snakes, are we?

You scared of them?

No. No way. Not at all.

You're a terrible liar, John. I wouldn't worry, dangerous animals are a rarity down here; this hospital is surrounded by almost forty-seven square miles of concrete after all. The most common things from San Francisco they bring to B2 to check for Link-Swaps are household pests and pets. You'll have a hard time finding tigers, lions, and bears to Link with around here let alone sperm whales and elephants. Go to the coast or a zoo to see one of those. A city dweller is more likely to Link with a roach or rodent. My biggest threat is my mother in law . . . damn! I just gave myself goose bumps!

That bad, huh?

The worst. Best damned cook in the known universe, but she's got the chain-smoking manners and foul mouth of a Hell's Angel biker chick. Every other word is F-this and F-that. I'd rather have something from the Twilight Zone room visit the house when my daughter is home.

What room are you talking about?

he Twilight Zone . . . that's what they called my new office before they moved everything out. It's all still there just in a smaller space next door. You wanna see it? Once again, this stuff is no great secret, but it's not exactly something the people upstairs want blown out of proportion.

You sure we won't get in trouble?

Unlikely, they hardly ever grace us lowly peons with their majestic presence down here.

There's nothing really dangerous, is there?

Only if you pick up something heavy and drop it on your foot.

Okay, let's go. Just so you know. I'm still on the clock until I get a signature on my paperwork.

I thought as much. Here we are. What do you think?

And you're showing me your junk collection . . . why?

You know how to use this?

Sure. These still come into the shop for repairs every once in a while. Even stationary Kirlian scanners in general are notoriously fragile and quirky; these old clunker portable units are a thousand times worse. You can fry the power supply in these cheap Korean knock-offs just putting the batteries in backwards, and the moisture seals are next to worthless. The Austrian T1000 is well worth the extra bucks. They're the best on the market right now.

Turn it on and scan anything in the room.

Is there something living hiding here?

Not that I know of. Go ahead and scan that typewriter.

Okay . . . what? I'm getting a very weak signal. It's somewhere between Alpha 2 and 3.

Keep going. Pick anything else on that shelf. Try the microwave, the toilet seat, or the ink-jet printer.

Piece of garbage! Everything is giving me a positive reading.

They should, most of the stuff in here use to be living.

Are these . . . people?

Possibly, it's almost impossible to be one hundred percent sure either way. Inanimate Linkers rarely scan well, and a toaster's Kirlian signature is little different if the Link partner was a human or a house-cat. Some of this stuff was gathered during the riots, but a lot more has been collected since. With no real way to interact with the outside world, most inanimate Linker scans read either as dormant or decaying.

That's really messed up. I've had a few iffy readings in the past . . . almost? Why did you say that?

There's zero doubt the Linked owner of the mini-tower computer inside that locked cabinet is still kicking.

It talks?

Exactly the opposite. Somehow the Linker in there wipes the hard-drive and fries every memory chip whenever it powers up.

I got hit by a virus like that once. It was my own fault too, I should have known better. Opening an unsolicited email attachment is dumb.

There's no virus. In the two years since a recovery team left it here, techs on the sixth floor have reformatted the hard drive, stuck a new one in twice, completely erased and replaced the old operating system and replaced every ROM on the motherboard. They didn't leave a single byte of old data or programming behind. The screen still scrolls the same single line of text . . . Destroy me . . . 74621548 SF . . . Provision 23 paragraph 2a ... August 12, 2023 . . . Directive 23, and shuts down again. It never stays on more than nine seconds, but during those nine seconds its Kirlian signature jumps to level gamma.

Hot damn! That's human! Nothing but some of the higher primates and dolphins come close. What's with the nine seconds?

That's exactly how long the motherboard and CPU in this model computer takes to power up.

And what does all the rest mean?

The long number with the SF at the end is a San Francisco driver's license number. It was issued to a deceased real estate agent. The file says he bought the computer for home use five months before his death in June of 2028. Provision 23 paragraph 2a is the 'Freedom of Choice' law passed by Congress and signed by the president just after the last Linker riot. Commonly known as Directive 23.

Never heard of it, but I'm not much into politics.

Most people aren't and with good cause. The voters of this city would be better off if the current mayor Link-Swapped with a baboon. Sadly, the poor animal would be shortchanged. You got your driver's license handy?

It's right here in my shirt pocket, I haven't put it back in my wallet since I went through security check-in.

Look at the back. Is the little box with the number twenty-three next to it filled in?

No, but numbers twenty two and twenty-four are.

Did you sign up as an organ donor?

Sure did. It's the civic thing to do.

What about spending the rest of your life in a fish bowl?

Hell no! That's exactly the opposite of what I signed up for!

Your card is proof no one really listens to anything the people behind the glass at the DMV say. Box number twenty-two is the 'Take anything that's left after a tractor trailer runs me over' final good deed. Box number twenty-three indicates you're asserting your constitutional rights to an immediate termination if you Link with a non-human and are unable to make your wishes known. The Sierra club crowd hates number twenty-three. They're still trying to get it modified to exclude anything on the endangered species list.

Why would they do that?

Because they're bleeding hearts tree hugging hippie jerks. If they win their Supreme Court case, it means you're out of luck if you Link with an endangered slug. I hope you like leaving a slime trail and keeping and eye-stack peeled for a kid with a salt shaker.

What about number twenty-four?

If unchecked, that box is the reason behind this room. It's called the Kafka directive down here. You can ignore almost everything that comes before and after those three numbers. They're mostly just governmental busybody gobbledygook.

Kafka? That name sounds familiar. I remember someone taking about a book they read in High school.

It's an old pre- . . . THE THING . . . story about a guy who wakes up as a giant cockroach. Number 24 obligates the government to keep you alive until whatever you Linked with dies of old age, or is returned with protective restrictions to the prior owner, successfully sues for termination, or miraculously reverts to his or her human status. It's also the default setting. Number twenty-four goes into effect automatically unless a specific request for number 23 is presented when a driver's license, or adult ID, is issued and/or renewed.

Damn!

Bet you're going straight to the department of motor vehicles when you leave here?

You got that right! Wait, if the guy in the computer is asking for number twenty-three, why wasn't he been ground to dust and scattered to the winds long ago?

Because he's the wet dream of every Link Event and Artificial Intelligence researcher that checks him out for study. Not only does his mind still function within an inanimate object, namely that computer, his Kirlian field can interface with the machine's electronics the same way a human Linker controls the nervous system of another human or animal partner's body. That's unique among inanimate Linkers.

You are wrong, Mr. Koosed. He isn't.

Director Harris! Officer Nester. Ah . . . good afternoon, sir.

Expanding your hospital duties to include tour guide, are we?

No, sir! Just a small stop on the way to my office.

Don't bother, Doctor Janis changed her mind. She wants you on standby in the event Dr. Kellogg needs an assist in room 602.

I'm on it.

And who is . . . this?

John, Bakker, sir. He's the electrical tech A to Z Electrical sent to work on the power panel failure we had on B1.

Took long enough. Is it fixed?

All done, sir. The paperwork just need Mrs. Martin's signature in accounting.

Bring it to me, and a pen, too.

Back in a second. Here it is, sir.

Officer Nester?

Yes, sir?

Take this paperwork to Mrs. Martin in accounting. While you're up there, please find Mr. Jones. I want his crew here within the hour. He has until Monday morning to get B1 back into service. And let accounting know he has my authorization to purchase any materials, or hire whatever additional labor he needs to get the job done within that time frame. Return to me when you've completed this task.

Sir!

Why are you still here, Mr. Koosed? Didn't I say you're needed in 602?

On my way. It was nice meeting you, John.

Same here.

Mr. Koosed?

Ahhh . . . sir?

When you're finished, please make an appointment with my secretary. I think it's time we had a little chat about hospital visitor protocols in my office.

Yes, sir. Of course, sir.

That's my cue. I'll be leaving now.

Mr. Bakker is it? You're company does electrical repairs?

That's correct. We also sell, install, and maintain home and industrial lighting power relay systems. On occasion we service Kirlian scanners, commercial audio visual security consoles, and recording devices of all kinds.

Interesting. By any chance, are you familiar with aircraft transceivers?

I'm in the Air National Guard. I work on all kinds of electronic equipment on duty, but I'm not FAA certified to repair aircraft comm. gear. I did put several Ham radio model kits together growing up.

That's not what I meant, Mr. Bakker. Are you familiar with aircraft transceivers . . . as in working one?

Oh, sure. Nothing to it, they look far more complicated than they really are.

Excellent. I have another job for you.

I'm awfully late. I haven't spoken to my boss in hours; he's probably wondering where I am right now.

Do you have a business card handy? Please stay here, I need to use Mr. Koosed's office fax after I speak with your employer.

Don't call the office, use the warehouse number instead. Mr. Ines is usually doing inventory by now.

Very well . . . I'll be back shortly.


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