Chapter 3: Ben Hinnom

Hector, with his assistant Ron behind him, sprang out of the pale blue stretch limo and glided through doors held open by Bluestar doormen. Another aide, Lisa, met them in the lobby, and kept pace while falling all over her briefing notebooks and faxes. "You were magnificent, Mr. Hector," she said.

He strolled past a semicircular reception desk manned by two guards, and then directly to his executive elevator. Fifth floor, the button was simply marked Bluestar. "It reminded everyone of the old John Hector," Lisa whispered, uncertain if the compliment would be taken the wrong way. Lisa had been on the executive staff for two years, but it was one of her few personal remarks to her generally aloof boss.

Hector noticed her comment only slightly. Lisa moved and began displaying short memos on her portfolio for him to review in the elevator. In rapid-fire style, he passed on each, sometimes after no more than a glance. To the first one, "No."

She held up another. "I need the documentation."

She held up another. "Fine," as he took out a tiny "JH" stamp and touched it to the signature line.

She held up another. "It's a mistake, but do it," again affixing his stamp.

At the fifth-floor, the door opened and he looked askance at one final document. "Bangkok?" he asked with a grimace. "Send it back," he sneered.

Walking briskly, almost jogging, down the corridor past ceiling-mounted monitors replaying his speech at the Baltimore Zoom debut, he turned to Lisa with impatient expectation: "Have it?" She handed him an unmarked, slightly bulging, yellow-brown memo envelope. Without breaking from his walk, he casually pulled out the inhaler, forced it uncomfortably into his mouth, pressed down on the pump, and breathed in with a barely audible gasp. The device was then stowed back into the envelope, which disappeared into Lisa's shoulder bag.

Lisa and Ron could hardly keep up with the energized Hector. At the end of the corridor, he turned right and walked through the remaining gray passageway, marked by gray doors labeled with uninteresting gray plastic placards: Room 505, Bathroom Supplies, Room 504. But at the very end, completely out of place, stood elegant, unmarked mahogany double doors. A flickering ceiling light created brief shadows beneath the doorknobs. "Fix that," Hector barked. Lisa scribbled on her hand.

Swinging open, the doors yielded a massive corner office of Bluestar's triangular glass hi-rise just off Michigan Avenue. Towering floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked a majestic, unobstructed northeast perspective of the Chicago River graced by a water cannon fountain arcing jets across its width, by Navy Pier with its giant Ferris wheel, and by Lake Michigan where no white-dotted sailboat was too small to be noticed. Romantic and exhilarating, this view might be better suited for some heart-filled moment of discovery between lovers, not the private office of the chairman of a computer giant. Here the only romance is the passion for commercial conquest, the arousal that stands hairs on end when a competitor misses a ship date, the sweaty eroticism of fourth-quarter results outstripping projections, massaging the stock upward ever so slightly, then dramatically, until its bar graph ignites a burst of overwhelming joy. Bring on the soft music and decor. The men who inhabit offices like these indeed know love and joy, their virility never falters, their appetite only increases. However, their partners are not fine women, but rather the vixens of profit. In the boudoirs of business, all indiscretion can be covered up, denied, or crassly repeated. Profit is the great redeemer.

Lisa tried to force a few more papers before Hector's wandering attention, but he refused. "That's it," he said. She backed off as Hector's personal secretary, Sarah, briskly walked in from a side office to continue the briefings.

"Nothing but today," he warned as she approached. Sarah closed her full week's portfolio dutifully, leaving just a small sheet out with the day's agenda. "The delay at BWI and the drive down the Kennedy put us an hour behind," she reported matter-of-factly. "The sit-down with AT&T was therefore delayed until a week from Thursday. They said either today or not for another week. So I have them for July 16."

Hector seemed uninterested. "What time is it?"

"You have time," Sarah replied, checking her watch. "It's only 4:40. In between, you must, and I mean must, address the worldwide managers."

"How long?" he asked, pulling off his orange Zoom golf shirt, revealing a sagging, white-haired trunk marked by a small incision scar near his heart.

"Six minutes. Seven if you like," she answered, handing him a green golf shirt emblazoned "Networking Magic." Hector was struggling into it, when from the inside he saw the logo. "What's this?" he bellowed. "Wrong logo!"

"Sorry, sorry, sorry," she said, running to the closet, where she quickly surveyed three tall stacks of golf shirts, each a different color, each with a different embroidered corporate logo. She pulled out the next to the bottom, the navy blue one marked "Bluestar Worldwide Leadership."

Hector tossed the never-worn green one in the wastepaper basket. As she helped him on with the navy blue "Worldwide Leadership" shirt, their eyes met. "What?" he demanded gruffly.

Sarah spoke in a subdued voice, "You were great at the Zoom rollout, John. I haven't seen you like that for years—no one has. The whole building was mesmerized."

"I admit I felt wonderful, empowered again," Hector came back with a weak smile. "For a while I almost lost them, but by the time it was over, I had the audience, they had me. We were fused in a moment of excitement. I haven't … well, it's just that, well not since April have I really gotten excited like that about anything, Sarah."

Sarah put her scheduling notebooks down, and said softly, "It's been difficult."

He drew back. "Don't Vienna me."

"I'm not going to 'Vienna' you," Sarah meekly replied.

"Well then don't," he snapped defensively. "It's been April since I felt like leading anything, and I admit that. Okay. So big deal. People screw up for decades and nobody ever notices until the division gets sold. I had a few crummy months. So? Bluestar stayed solid."

He began mindlessly checking email. "Yeah, the stock tanked to sixty-eight but that only let the big boys buy in lower than they could have ever dreamed. We're back up now—triple-digit again. Hah! Our smart stockholders made millions on my mistakes."

Sarah motioned to the anteroom and ushered Hector in. He double-checked his golf shirt. It was the right one.

There was nothing in the room except a tall-backed chair, a mahogany desk, and a phone. A blue-walled blue Chromakey screen descended from the ceiling, obscuring the window. A three-man video crew came in from a side entrance. Focusing in on Hector, the producer punched some keys on a console sourcing a visual library. On the monitor, Chicago's skyline appeared behind Hector, the very same view seen naturally through the anteroom window. But in the digital version, the sky was bluer. Stationary clouds were digitally added behind the John Hancock Center as an afterthought. The producer punched a few more keys. The cameraman checked one final time and nodded readiness.

"Not yet," said Hector, "Hold 'em." Sarah frowned. On a second monitor, a Bluestar manager in London, standing before a clearly artificial photo of the Houses of Parliament, had already announced, "We are honored today to receive principal remarks by our company's chairman, John Hector, coming to you live from the company's worldwide headquarters in Chicago. Are you there, John?"

Hector did nothing. The crew was silent.

"Are you there, John?"

No response. Fifteen seconds, thirty seconds.

"Are you there, John?"

"Anticipation, my dear, is everything," Hector chirped with a wink. Sarah smiled reluctantly.

"Ohhhhkay," Hector nodded to the video operator who counted down: three … and a-two … and you're on." The camera's tiny dome light blinked red.

Through the anteroom's closed soundproof glass doors, Hector could be seen speaking vigorously to the camera, gesturing with both hands. For all his antics, the gathered staff was impressed with his new vitality. "Zoom seems to have done it for him," said Sarah. "Things got so bad in April. Lucy was everything to him."

Lisa agreed, "It was a great loss. But he seems to have bounced back quickly."

Sarah turned to her. "I know John. In his mind, nothing will take Lucy's place. They would run together mornings along the lake. He loved to run his fingers through her hair."

Ron asked, "What's after this?"

"The usual five o'clock," said Sarah, trying to hide her disapproval. Lisa looked away, Sarah pretended not to notice. "It should be coming in shortly."

Just then, the camera operator could be seen gesturing his exaggerated countdown: three fingers, two fingers, then a fist. The camera's red light went off, the Chromakey blue screen receded into the ceiling, and the crew disappeared through a side door.

Hector immediately turned to the clock. It was just before five. Eyes open wide, he stuck his head out of the glass doors, and instructed, "Put the call in here."

He tore off his navy blue Leadership golf shirt, threw it into a wastebasket, and reached into a bottom drawer of the desk to grab a brilliant white golf shirt with green trim at the sleeves. Embroidered underneath its Bluestar logo was the name "Chairman John Hector." Just before five, the private line rang. Hector frantically picked up. "Yes," he sang. It wasn't who he expected. "Uh, I'm getting ready for a global leadership conference," he said dismissively. "Please call my appointment secretary. Call her in the morning, okay? Thanks. Bye."

The call he was really expecting buzzed in moments later at precisely five. "Yes," he sang again. He closed the door, sat in his tall-backed seat and turned toward the window so his form was completely obscured.

"That's the call," muttered Sarah. "Every day at five when he's in the country, I think probably even when he's overseas. Local time, wherever he is. He likes five, I guess," she said, almost giggling.

The waiting staff watched the chair back jiggle a few times, and ex-changed glances. "It started last April after Lucy died," Sarah said curtly.

"Umm," Lisa nodded with embarrassment.

In a few moments, Hector emerged, slightly sweated, staring first at the floor, then out across Lake Michigan, then at Sarah and the assembled staffers. "I told her," he assured Sarah, even as he completely ignored the others. He tugged at his sleeve once or twice in discomfort and uncertainty. "That was the last one." he said quietly. "No more calls. She didn't mind. No, she understood. It has been very helpful since … since earlier this year." He looked back at the chair in the anteroom, then down at the floor again. "Hah, so what? No harm. I was down, depressed, actually just lonely," he reasoned.

"But now there's work to be done," Hector declared energetically. "I tell you, I'm in love with the program. I'm betrothed to the launch. I'm giving myself—mind and body—to Zoom. I felt it today. I felt that Zoom was everything I had been waiting for, everything Bluestar needs to regain its primacy, and for God's sake, it's what this world needs if it's not going to blow itself up."

The staff listened respectfully at first, but slowly latched onto his enthusiasm.

"Oh, I certainly believe we can do it," Hector railed. "Grind ourselves down and then blow ourselves up? Sure, we can. We've lost too much time by now. It's an emergency by now. But Zoom can fix it. I know it can. And I can't afford," he looked at his tall-backed chair, "I can't afford to be distracted in what we can all expect to be a bloody battle with Hinnom." He walked over to the bar, half laughed, reached into the ice bucket and pulled out a box of Windgazer. Tapping the box, he spoke with resignation, "Think he's going to stand by and see Windgazer falter? He would sooner see me and all of Bluestar burn in hell. That man is evil. No wonder everyone hates him. All the sweaters and public relations men in the world won't help."

He began waving the staff away. "Okay, everyone. Out. So I can concentrate. I promised just a bit more than I can deliver this morning in Baltimore, and I better start pedaling."

Five floors below on East Wacker Drive, an old but shiny yellow school bus pulled up to Bluestar headquarters. It parked directly in front of the entrance, blocking all other traffic. No one could see through the black tinted windows. Neither doorman made an effort to wave it away.

"Could that be …" wondered the first doorman.

"Sure," the other doorman answered. "The famous license plate … look, June 66. That's it, the school bus he rode when he was a kid. You know the story."

"… It's not true, is it?"

"Oh yeah," the other doorman replied. "It's known. The other boys used to pick on him. And the driver wouldn't stop it, he joined in. Like that. So this guy is six years old and calls the bus company and demands they fire the driver. They laugh at him and he says—"

"—you mean the friggin' story is true."

"It's true, man," the other doorman insisted. "The brat threatens, 'One day, I'll own this bus and fire the driver.' When he made his first million, he tries to buy the bus—that one. But the company wouldn't sell. So he buys the whole damn company, sends pink slips to the entire staff from the CEO down. Except for the driver. The story goes he fired the driver personally in his private office just three days before the old geezer's pension was to kick in. The driver begged the asshole for forgiveness."

"You know this from where?"

"TV," the other doorman answered, talking more quietly now. "But magazines, too. It's true. The driver begged for forgiveness, and he had a kidney condition, but he still fired the guy. Jerk. I heard the driver became an alcoholic and lost everything. Then this guy closed the company and sold every bus to a scrap house except for the one you're looking at right there. That one he saved, and put that license plate on it with his birthday. Now for special occasions he trucks it across the country in a big semi. It picks him up at airports. Like the president's limo, flown all over the place."

The school bus doors whooshed open. Both doormen fell silent, staring at the darkened, barely discernible driver's seat where no one was sitting. Street noise seemed to stop. Nearby traffic lights turned red and stuck. A street lamp flashed off. Two women at the corner craned to see who was coming. A cat at the curb looked up. Eventually, a slightly built early-thirties guy with unkempt blondish hair swept to one side and a still boyish expression peeked out, smiled almost sweetly and descended. Ben Hinnom had arrived.

Dressed in simple jeans and a blousy shirt with buccaneer sleeves that fluttered briefly in the light breeze, underimpressing as usual, Hinnom spoke meekly at first, "Please forgive me for parking here." He shrugged with a grin at the vehicle, "It's kinda hard to park." Behind Hinnom came Linzer. "We won't be a moment, actually just a half hour, maybe longer," assured Hinnom in that special manner, combining equal parts of deliberate innocence and undisguisable arrogance. "Will you watch the bus?"

He strolled into the building, casually opening his own doors as though he was not the richest man on earth, whose computer empire controlled 94 percent of the world's computers, as though he was not worth $80 billion, as though he had not single-handedly revolutionized all computer use, as though he had not forced scores of major and minor technology companies out of business or banished them to the murky depths of acquisition, as though he had not purchased several of the most important sculptures of Rodin and even some Michelangelo just because, as though he did not own his own $300 million home in the hills outside Seattle, and as though 60,000 people did not work for him. Both building reception and the guards recognized Hinnom at once and began speaking into their walkie-talkies.

The phone in Hector's office rang and simultaneously an email exploded with a ding on his 20-inch LCD flat screen monitor.

From: Security.

To: JHector.

Message: Ben Hinnom is here for his appointment. He wasn't in the book but we sent him up.

Hector scanned the email incredulously, picked up the phone, listened and blurted, "Are you sure it's Hinnom?" He clicked the SECURITY icon on his screen, clicked CAMERAS and then punched F12 on his keyboard, bringing Hinnom into view. "It's him at the elevator."

Startled, he shouted, "Sarah. Am I scheduled to see Ben Hinnom today? What the heck?" She ran over to view the camera shot on the flat screen, shook her head and declared, "No, no."

Moving quickly to her computer, she clicked her SCHEDULE icon, and then SEARCH. She typed in "Ben Hinnom," then "Hinnom Computing."

"Nothing," she called out.

"Get me Fields," he shot back. "And get me a proper shirt." Almost in unison, they reacted "Zoom logo?" For a moment, Sarah was reminded of Vienna four years before, when they worked so intensely at a software convention and then discovered something between them, shared a suite for a week after, and only reluctantly flew home to resume their separate lives. "Here, a Zoom shirt," she said, tearing herself away from the memory.

Fields' videocon image popped onto Hector's screen and flickered miserably. "Oh, pick up the damn telephone," demanded Hector, and then as an aside, "Sarah, tell Team Video to make it work before it's on my desktop. I'm not a beta site."

The phone buzzed.

"Fields, are you aware that Ben Hinnom is coming up the executive elevator now to see me!" blared Hector. He punched F12 twice more and the elevator view came onto the screen. Hinnom was indeed on his way up. "Well, how do you explain it?" he hung up.

The doors to Hector's suite opened slowly. They waited almost breathlessly.

A matronly executive followed by fifteen Cub Scouts strolled in. "Mr. Hector … hope I'm not disturbing."

He looked completely dismayed.

"Bluestar's Cub Pack?" she reminded.

No response.

With some trepidation, she offered, "It's been set up for a year? July 6, 5:15?"

Waving his hands, Hector blabbered, "Sorry, sorry kids. Must be a mistake. Could we do this next week?" Without waiting for a reply, he and all his aides graciously shoved the den mother and her Cub Scouts back out the double doors. Ron escorted her away.

"Lisa, Sarah. Stay, stay," Hector instructed. He nervously looked around the room for confidential data. "Up there," he pointed at a white board with quarterly projections. Lisa ran to it, and pulled a fresh white board over it. Hector punched F12 several times to bring up various views from security cameras, including the double doors to his suite. "Where is he?"

A knock at the door. Hector looked up and muttered, "The evil one is here."

Hinnom walked in slowly. Behind Hinnom was Linzer. Instantly, Hinnom was his animated, puckish self. "Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi," he said to all in the room adding "hi's" even to people who weren't there, walking in and playfully touching every nearby surface, becoming a new reference point in the executive suite, dominating the moment with his usual underimpressing casual exterior. "John Hector, I presume. My pleasure," he extended his hand for a shake but then it turned into a short wave. "Did I tell you I would be in Chicago?" Without pause, he added, "I barely knew myself. But here I am and so flattered that you took a moment to see me. Busy guy, busy guy—I know you."

Hector was almost confused but snapped out of it. "I just got in and was caught off-calendar," began Hector in a businesslike manner. "But, if it's Windgazer vs. Zoom in the marketplace, Bluestar is happy to open a dialogue with Hinnom Computing."

Hinnom cut him off, "No, John, John, John." A little giggle. "You've talked about Windgazer so much already," he said, floating over to the bar. He lifted the ice bucket lid, pulled out the Windgazer box. "Oooh." He put it back.

Hector stared incredulously. How in the hell did he know? As though reading his mind, Hinnom moved to the floor-to-ceiling windows of the suite, stood against the glass, and waved slightly. "Just saying hi to my Optics Integration office. Did you know they were in the Hancock Building," pointing to the skyscraper down the street, "right over there. Most of them go home at 4:30, but some of them are just starting at …" he paused and flipped an eyebrow at the tall-backed chair in the glass-doored anteroom, "… five. Ooh, did I say something wrong?" Fast forwarding, Hinnom abruptly asked, "Hey, can we talk, just us two guys? Ya know, two big execs, just you and me, computer business stuff?"

Hector stiffened. He knew this was a moment unlike any other boardroom challenge he had battled, unlike any global telephonic wars he had waged, unlike the financial chess he was so adept at, unlike the smiling conflicts at COMDEX where worlds and lives are made and destroyed with none the wiser until after New Year's, by which time it's too late to care. This was different. His opponent Hinnom this time was a genuine personality of his own, without concern for money or career, with no family, no roots, no future scruples. Victory was the only option. "Sure," replied Hector.

Lisa and Sarah left. Only when they stepped completely out the door did Linzer follow.

"Just us," said Hinnom, "but can it truly be just us. Do me a real favor, just this weensy one. Shut down your CPU." He tapped the tiny microphone and one-inch camera lens attached to the flat screen. "I know you have Voice Buddy and TeleChat installed, both good products moving from one-point-uh-oh into actual usable software. But I want our meeting to be private. It's so important."

Hector hit the right mouse button, then the left to choose Shut Down. A sequence of sound effects ensued as cascading windows closed: lion roars, kitten meows, Porky Pig stutters, and then the final effect signifying shutdown completion, a wav from a quiet but desperate HAL speaking in 2001: A Space Odyssey: "I know you and Dave were planning to disconnect me, and that is something I can't allow to happen." A small text message appeared, "It is now quite safe to turn off your computer."

A genuinely amused Hinnom smiled broadly, "Cute."

Hector depressed the white button and the power went off altogether. "Now then," said Hector.

"Oooh… 'Now then,'" mocked Hinnom.

"Okay," Hinnom began, walking around the room. "I saw the Zoom launch rollout promo tape today. It was splendid, John. Dolphins. Nice, very nice touch. Personally, I prefer their cousins, mahi mahi pan fried with a white wine and Dijon sauce—did I tell you I love to cook in my new kitchen? But for you they worked magic. Good, good, good. And I think you can beat us to the punch. Oh yes. Zoom might be ready in days, weeks, whatever. You'll ship before we do. But John, will it be a better solution than Windgazer 99? Serve the market better than Windgazer 99? Or will it just distract the market from Windgazer 99, flop bigger than Miami, take up precious time with a buggy bastardy V1, and then ruin everything for everyone and especially for Hinnom Computing because I think really John, that Windgazer 99 is the superior product, will solve all the Millennium Bug problems, and make for a seamless transition into the 21st Century—something you and I both want."

Hinnom stopped moving, and conceded with a shrug, "You're faster. We're better. I admit that."

Quite in control of his responses, Hector answered firmly, "I don't. We're faster and we're better. I admit that. But I do agree that if Bluestar had your cooperation, Zoom would be more effective and run natively in Windgazer, which controls 90-plus percent of the desktops on Earth. Pull with us, Ben, and we can save the planet from self-destruction. The threat is real. I say, the world won't end with a bang or even a whimper, but with an error message. We're ready to work together if you are."

Hinnom moved to a more serious facial expression. "Yes, that's correct," he replied. "See, we agree. Where we disagree is on approach. You think Bluestar will save the world from trashing itself, and in so doing regain the status it held until a few years ago, Lord of the Computer. The words 'computer' and 'Bluestar' were synonymous a few years ago, weren't they? But it's all changed today. Hinnom Computing is now the Savior. I want teamwork. But it's not a team effort unless the team is …" he paused, "… my team.

"Bluestar can be part of my team," Hinnom continued with a menacing tone. "Zoom has a future, just like Raisin Computing has a future. Ooh, everyone thought Raisin was finished. Raisin," he scoffed. "The folks who virtually invented home computing, took the graphics world by storm, became the standard bearer for art directors and designers—people I have no use for by the way. Too bad these wonderful Raisin folks tried to monopolize their entire following but eventually were quite simply left to the crows like Hungarian grapes rotting in the fields after harvest. Until Hinnom Computing infused bankrupt Raisin with $90 million in cash—and now it lives and thrives as Raisin still. Rotted grapes became Bull's Blood wine. That's a helluva metaphor, John, because that's how you make Bull's Blood—rotted grapes. I knew that. Anyway, now all the little Raisinettes can drag and drop graphics to their hearts' content. The cult lives. Teamwork."

"Except Raisin is actually Hinnom," Hector sneered.

"Depends how you look at it," Hinnom rebutted. "Puerto Rico is Puerto Rico, but it became part of America. I'm offering you something, John. Take Zoom—that big, loud distracting project with the Zorro logo, and move the whole shebang from your Platform Systems Performance division into your Software Standards Group. Spin SSG into a consortium with us. A few weeks later, we acquire it completely. You will be chairman and CEO of the new consortium. I'll pay you $109 million annual salary and all the five o'clock calls you can stand. Plus, I'll give you 12 million stock options at fifteen dollars. I can promise you the consortium's stock will rise to forty-five dollars within a year." He paused. "We can do that."

There was no response from Hector.

Hinnom raised the stakes: "I'll throw in control through nominees of a new company yet to be formed in Malaysia to act as a broker for all Hinnom Computing CD-ROM production for the next five years. Ironclad contract, John. Take it."

No response.

"Okay," giggled Hinnom, "What a tough bargainer. You! I'll funnel the bulk of your income through the Caymans. Your American salary will be just enough to avoid Alternative Minimum Tax imposed by the IRS. The remainder will go through the Caymans, where it will be taxed not at 39 percent with state and federal, but at an effective rate of seven percent. John, within five years, you'll be one of the richest men in the world." Hinnom became very serious now. "And you will have made a contribution to the betterment of all mankind by working with me, by joining me, by transducing the talents of Zoom into the awesome power of Windgazer. We can do it together, John. Join me."

Hector ran his hands over his face to wipe away Hinnom's monologue, and answered, "You are the sick bastard they say you are. Do you really believe you can walk in here and buy me off? With your tawdry millions and your Grand Cayman offshore banks, and your puppet chairmanships of your put-up consortiums to scuttle Zoom and help Windgazer 99 screw the world even more than Windgazer vanilla has already screwed it?"

"John, John. This attitude is not helpful," said Hinnom calmly in a soothing voice. "I'm afraid you just don't understand me. I have a vision. We both know the world is run by computers and microchips, and the part that's not will be soon. Some of it is quite crude, like in that cheap watch you're wearing. Some of it is very sophisticated but limited in scope, like your cell phone. Nice phone, by the way. Some don't need any more brains than it takes to tell a toaster to lighten up the whole wheat or a dishwasher to wait until everyone's asleep to start its cycle. And some computers are so complicated and sophisticated they are magnificent challenges to nature itself: the supercomputers used by the National Weather Service to forecast hurricanes and the NSA to crack secret codes. Oh, I love it when they crack codes. I actually have a little inhouse game at our Seattle headquarters where Team Black tries to create an uncrackable code and Team Gray tries to crack it. Better than those silly chess games Bluestar holds, but to each his own.

"Okay, so where are we?" asked Hinnom, getting back on track. "Ohhh, there are computers everywhere you look and only more of them being stamped out every week. Hinnom Computing wants only one thing: to connect them all." Hinnom's face tightened slightly. "All."

Hector's eyes opened wide. He was about to speak when Hinnom cut him off.

"All," growled Hinnom. "I want every classroom, government office, corporate enterprise, and military installation, every pocket calculator, VCR and toaster, every person in every language everywhere who uses or is affected by any appliance or machine or device or desire to have them all connected by one operating system, the Windgazer family of operating systems. For your plain old office computers Windgazer 99; high-end workstations will hum nicely on Windgazer IT; run your mainframes on Windgazer IM; power your pocket computers and laptops on Windgazer TE; for your household appliances—and I mean everything from the phones to the washing machines to the light switches on the wall—we can use Windgazer ME; medical devices will use Windgazer MD; financial transactions, they go on Windgazer FI—and on and on.

"When Windgazer takes hold," Hinnom promised grandiosely, "you'll be able—from work, mind you—to tap into your home system and ask the fridge to scan for bar codes and report whether you have eggs. You're late leaving the office, and you send a message to the VCR to tape the football game. You're driving in the desert and low on gas, so you ask Windgazer VE to moderate gas consumption. Your enemy refuses to obey a binding resolution of the U.N.? Just shut their society down sector by sector until they comply—with Windgazer, you're always just a command line away from compliance. No more wars, no more criminals, no more uncollectible bills. This is no pipe dream. Half of it's in place today, John. Radio frequency commands and the Internet will make it possible for a world completely networked without wires.

"I can make this happen," Hinnom argued passionately, "I just need to connect the dots—and then replace the dots themselves. Then we control the whole picture. Personal convenience, commercial productivity and prosperity, world peace and inner harmony. This is my vision."

Laughing, Hector replied derisively, "Tell me this soliloquy isn't for real. Are you nuts? You want one operating system controlling all software and hardware everywhere in the world, all interrelated and interconnected, and dominated by one company—Hinnom Computing."

"Nuts? If there was one cure for cancer would you complain that there was only one?" Hinnom snapped back. "Disorder is a cancer on the world, in this universe. You prefer chaos? You prefer humans scurrying about in ignorance and conflict using their petty minds to run into walls, bleed, bandage, and bash themselves again? Windgazer can wipe the
cancer away."

"You don't want to cure cancer," Hector argued back. "You want to addict everyone to your medicine, and then control who gets doses and when. You will decide who will live or die. You want to be God."

"No," pleaded Hinnom. "It's business. You can understand business. It's like a toll booth, but my information highway has a tollbooth on all of life. Like a gas meter on your house, but this is virtual and exists no matter what you do. The government has one, they call it tax. Tax is everywhere—sales tax, use tax, excise tax, value added tax, hidden pass-through tax, you name it, you drink it, drive it or smoke it, and they tax it. Hinnom Computing wants that. And we'll call it pass through royalties, annual licenses and per use fees. There will be a microprice on all this modern magic. Imagine, every time you deposit money in a bank, pay a bill, brew a cup of coffee, drive your car, flush a toilet … ooh, I didn't tell you the part about Windgazer TP—we'll save that for another encounter. But imagine a fraction of a penny for every usage and every activity. The pennies mount up. It all gets deducted automatically from your bank account. Hey, so it costs $150 per month for every man, woman, and child to live in a Hinnom world. That's revenue, John."

"That's world domination, you sick post-pubescent hacker," Hector retorted, nodding his head half in pity, half in disgust. "You want to hook everyone on your software, fill it with bugs and problems, and make the planet buy into constant upgrades which are always promised years sooner than they can be reliably delivered, which ruins the market for the companies with real products up and ready now." Raising his voice and cutting in viciously, "Your software stinks, Hinnom. So why standardize the globe on it?"

Sputtering, showing his teeth and unable to contain his sudden rage, Hinnom shook and stammered, "That is … that is … that is the worst piece of random crap I have ever heard! Random. Random. You, John Hector, who I tried to communicate with, you are a truly random asshole."

Hector shot back, "Who are you calling random?"

"I'm calling you random."

Hector's face came to within just inches of Hinnom's, as he announced, "This meeting is over, and you can just go to hell."

"What's your problem with hell?" quipped Hinnom. Hector drew back and looked askance at Hinnom, whose guise became suddenly calm, menacingly calm.

"John, can I share something with you from the secrets of the $80 billion empire," Hinnom began in a low-keyed voice. "Actually, my little nest egg is a lot bigger than $80 billion, but let's use that number because people relate to it. Do you know what Yap is?"

Hector shrugged with annoyance, "Year Application Protocol? I have no idea. What is Yap?"

"No, John, Yap is a little island in Micronesia where I have incorporated a company called Micronesia Medical Development. With a name like that, it's easy to think Micronesia refers to computers. It actually refers to the geographic thing. Anyway, Micronesia Medical Development has acted through its office in Guam, which is part of the good ole United States, to purchase as much advanced medical technology as it can: bone stimulators, evoked potential, brain mapping, myoelectric prostheses, all that. The companies or the divisions—sometimes just the products severed from the original divisions—are generally small and cost a few million here and a few million there to acquire. Throw the exec a bone with a kick upstairs to nowhere, he retires, the company is ours. Well in that group are the pacemakers. There are only three leading companies in that field. And we bought them. All.

"Let's talk ICDs," Hinnom continued. "Nowadays they are commonplace. Close to 150,000 people in the USA alone have implantable cardioverter-defibrillators. And the population is aging, as they say. Pretty soon ICDs will be as ordinary as contact lenses, well maybe not that ordinary. But you have to admit they are so, so cute, just a few ounces. Improved batteries can last a decade and the new models benefit from constant upgrades in analysis, reporting, and adjustment capabilities. Modern Medicine. Love it."

"You're boring me," monotoned Hector. "I know all this. I have an ICD. I developed a heart condition after Lucy died—"

"Oh your beloved collie, Lucy," chimed Hinnom. "Daily runs with the dog, special kennel for traveling on airplanes, blue ribbons at dog shows, lifelong companion, and all that. I heard it devastated you emotionally. Are you over that?"

Impatient with the trivialization, Hector came back, "We done now? I don't want to be rude."

"Almost done. I just want to show you something." Hinnom slid from his pocket a tiny palmtop the size of a tin of mints.

"Oh, the Windy," said Hector, somewhat impressed. "I heard a production quality prototype was available. May I see it?"

Hinnom held back. "Sorry, no touchee. But lookee is okay." Telescoping the screen to twice the lid size, Hinnom gave a short summary. "You can forget your tired Palm IIIs and Wizards, John. The Windy began shortly after the first PDAs made just everyone yawn. Unlike all the other palmtops, the Windy uses a variant of Windgazer TE that can emulate a client of Windgazer 99. Ten gigs of memory, 128 RAM, loaded with standard apps, it both acts like a standalone palmtop and as a fully-capable LAN or WAN client, and can maintain a strong Internet connection, depending upon mode and, of course, signal strength. Our secret is a combo of advanced radio frequency technology, cellular and satellite connections that allow this cookie to transmit and receive instructions and data to and from any CPU, printer, server. Check out the screen, I love the screen."

"Nice stuff," commented Hector. "Beats the Bluepoint's expandable keyboard."

"Yes, beats is the whole point," continued Hinnom. "As you well know from your recent surgery, ICDs are now programmable. That's how your doctor adjusts your heart rate. Hey, you heard about the software error they found in some pacemakers last year. Remember, the patients had to report to their doctors for a software correction. Well, here's how it works.

"The pacemaker software, including all the adjustment parameters, are programmed at the central lab. Once upon a time, that programming was done in a Unix-based language. But when my company acquires a medical technology firm, they standardize all development onto Windgazer MD, the operating system we have developed for the medical technology world. So the lab updates the firmware regularly and copies the updates onto standard floppies. Those floppies are given to the detail men—just another name for salesmen—who go out to the doctors. They copy the floppies into the doctor's on-site programming unit, which actually is about the size of a small VCR. The doctor brings up the new program, and adjusts the parameters any way he likes.

"Look," Hinnom showed the screen to Hector. "There's the proprietary parameter adjustment screen for your particular ICD, the Opal manufactured by PulsePlant, formerly of the Midwest and now relocated to Seattle. Actually, not for another three months. But consider them relocated because I own PulsePlant through my little Micronesian company that no one knows is mine."

Hector was becoming uncomfortable as he studied the screen. Involuntarily, he placed his hand over his chest.

"Now listen carefully, John," Hinnom explained. "The way the parameter adjustment gets from the programming unit into your chest is just a plain old RF transmission. You may remember your doctor—let's see his name … oh, here it is, Kaufman. Dr. Kaufman would just pass a little RF wand within about four inches of your chest, the ICD would read the information and update itself on the fly without skipping a beat—if you'll excuse the expression." He smiled broadly. "Everyone thinks I'm a reformed hacker. Actually, I'm still hacking, but now I've graduated from school records and banks to the ultimate challenge. I can hack the human body."

Hector's face whitened. "You have my pacemaker program on your Windy?"

"Sure," said Hinnom nonchalantly. "And it is so easily programmed when Windgazer MD has a universal back door for the software engineer to check for defects. Let's see. Your heart is currently beating at 70. But not to worry, we can fix that." Hector recoiled in horror as Hinnom typed in 300 and extended his arm closer to Hector's chest. "That should do it."

"What in God's name are you doing?" shrieked Hector, as he felt an immediate pang in his chest and then a pain in his head.

Hinnom spoke calmly: "In the old days, John, the bad guys used guns and bombs. Now we just press buttons." Hector could hear but he was virtually paralyzed. "It's terrible, John. Every month—every month—more than fifty thousand people in this country are struck by sudden cardiac death. It's not a heart attack, mind you. Let's be precise. SCD is much worse. You see, in SCD the heart speeds up so fast that even though there is plenty of blood in the chambers, the darn thing is beating so fast—jeepers—that it can't pump the stuff out. At all! Not even to the brain which after a minute—often much sooner, says: 'phooey, I can't handle this. Let's just … die!' Now it's all just electrical impulses, John, and I could offer to reset, but I think you're probably too disenchanted with the program by now to be a part of the team."

Hector's eyes floated up and his lids dropped down. His fingers stretched out as his memory trembled through halls of cheering users, and from there to the scarring loneliness of being left out one day when he lacked the twenty-five-cent admission to attend the high school basketball game, the door slamming in his face as the crowds cheered inside. Hector swooned across a chair, his head crashing into an armrest.

Hinnom calmly typed in an email message.

Outside the office double doors, a ding went off on Linzer's Windy. Linzer slid open the lid, punched a few keys, dispassionately read the message, touched the "del" key, and slid the lid back into position.

Hinnom powered up Hector's personal computer. Within a few moments, it booted up. "Password memorized?" scowled Hinnom. "Executives, they just think they're too good for the rest of us. Next time, use a password and change it periodically," Hinnom chided a dying Hector. As the computer booted up, security apps came online including the Voice Buddy and TeleChat systems. As they did, Hinnom went into action.

"Help! Help! John, are you okay, what's happening?" he shouted. Linzer and Hector's staff came running in. Hinnom punched a few keys and security came onto the screen. "Help, I think John's had a heart attack. Oh, my dear! A thousand people a day suffer this way, a thousand people a day. Someone help him. Does anyone know CPR? Oh dear. And we were so close to an agreement. Call an ambulance. Quick, someone call 911!"

Chapter 1 ←Chapter 2 ←

Copyright © 2023 Edwin Black. All rights reserved.