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Future History

 

PART ZERO.

                                                    Chapter 0. Put

                                                                                                             [ Day 0.03.02 ]
        A man wearing a patterned shirt, combat vest, and a grim smile padded along a smoky hall gripping his .45 with both hands like they do in the movies. He’d been shot at least twice.
         Shafts of light played against sounds of a running fight. Shouts, cries  of anguish—and laughter—echoed with sizzling twangs, cracks, and bangs  as if a time warp had merged sci-fi battles, a gangster war, and a  gunfight at the OK corral.
        From behind came a muted gritty crunch. He whirled, raising his weapon.
        A security guard faced him—hand on holstered Taser, but no vest or laser gun.
       The man put up his hands to surrender, then gave the common signal for silence  by crossing pursed lips with the barrel of his plastic .45.
        The guard said, “Hi, Neil.”
        They exchanged smiles.
        Striding past, the guard whispered, “Watch your back.”
        The mistake was to think about it. By the time he turned to look, he’d been shot again.
        He shifted his gamer’s vest to a less irritating position.
         Advancing to the Atrium, his face betrayed surprise and fear as The  Machine materialized through the haze. It looked like a vaguely humanoid  robot driving a dishwasher, but still had a tablet screen for a face.  It rolled toward him aiming a plasma weapon.
        He raised his .45.
       The Machine's blaster winked before he could fire, and the shooter bleated, “Trust your feelings, Neil.”
        Neil fired anyway. His weapon gave a hollow click instead of the sick but reassuring blam.  He ducked past, heading toward the next stairwell as his .45 re-armed. A  peek behind showed the machine backing away with blaster pointed at him  for another shot. This time he managed to dodge, but as the machine  swiveled around the corner, someone else shot him. He dashed up the  stairs.
       At the top he studied a security camera aimed at the wrong door and disappeared into its usual field.
        Barely a minute later he slipped away switching his blaster to his other hand, and then stuffing an edge of shirttail under his belt.
                                                                         -
        The hall door to the shipping dock opened with a wham. Neil looked up from his desk. “What the…?” A man dashed past and disappeared out the Receiving door. “Hey, you!” Neil called. He looked at his own shirt.
        Seconds later, a company security team barged in. One officer planted himself between Neil and the Receiving door. The other demanded, “Where were you?”
        “I don’t understand.” Neil protested. “I’ve been here.”
        “Not all the time, though.”
        “No, I did hit the head.” [1]
        “Yeah, we checked,” said a third guard, coming in. “Nothing good in the restroom, Sarge.”
        “Where is your gaming equipment,” the sergeant demanded.
        “What equipment? I didn’t play.” Neil smiled nervously.
        “Don’t give me that. You were in the hall, dressed as a gamer. We have video.”
         “But I didn’t play.” Then he remembered. “I did see someone run past  that might have looked like me. He had a shirt like mine. And a gym  bag.”
        The first guard showed his cell phone and whispered,  “Sarge, this is Neil. The guy I saw earlier had to be an impostor. His  teeth were all the same.”
        The sergeant ordered the outside door locked and bared, then suggested strongly to Neil that he talk with The Man and The Machine. “I’ll show you the way.”
         “The way” included a half-hour wait at the company’s security desk  while Doctor Little digested his AI machine’s report of the laser tag  game. It was lively reading although Doc was the only human to read it  before the sergeant brought Neil to them.
        “Dr. Little? TM2?” the officer said, ushering Neil into the boss’s office.
         “I’ll be brief,” the boss began. He watched his employee’s face without  appearing to be careful about it. TM2 rolled to a better spot and  watched Neil’s face with obvious care. “…But I’ll need you to be open  with me. Okay?”
        “Okay.”
        “How could the intruder have known what clothes you were going to wear?”
        “What?” The clerk got flustered but did not appear to be inventing a story. “I don’t know… unless…”
         Man and machine waited for the rest of it, which Neil appeared  embarrassed to admit. “Well,” he mumbled, “… I don’t have a big  wardrobe…”
                                                                        -
         “Do we buy that, TM?” Doc asked when Neil had gone.
         “Yes,” said the machine. “I have just examined my Data Matrix and  scanned a few security videos. He wears the same sorts of things every day.  It appears that he has duplicates of some shirts and slacks. Anyone  familiar with his routine could assemble a matching collection. He may  wear different things in the evenings and on weekends. Do you want me to  check?”
        “No. It’s too late...
        “Nothing stolen?” Little said, fingering the machine’s report. “I find that hard to believe.”
         “An inventory of prototypes and other sensitive materials shows  correct, Doctor, and no sensitive files were accessed during the game.”
        “I’ll bet they did get something,” said Little. “Whatever it was, it  was small. Does IMINT[2] show what it could have been? Archive all  records of this day. We need to check it in detail.”
        “If they  did not get anything, Doctor, there is the other possibility. I shall  check that as well, but it naturally takes more time.”

[1] “Hit the head”: military slang for visiting the restroom, the loo, the W.C., etc.
[2] IMINT: Military jargon for Image Intelligence, i.e., the analysis of images for clues.