Short Story: “Vocal Threat”

How closely do you scrutinize the purpose of the job you’ve been tasked with? (This is part of a series related to my novel, “Burnout Fever”, which is available for the Nook reader and app. Catch up from the links listed here or here.”)

“Vocal Threat”
Part 10 of a series
by P. Orin Zack

Searching for patterns in the ocean of Internet traffic flowing through the agency’s peering point snooper wasn’t Craig’s idea of a good time, but at least it was better than sitting through yet another of Mr. Kulya’s endless lectures. The life of a spook trainee, he mused, was much like that of a newbie in many other fields. The fact that his drudgery involved violating the privacy of unsuspecting citizens, rather than simply being responsible for their lives, as a medical intern would be, or their livelihood, had he been a law clerk, left a sour taste in his soul. Still, there were compensations.

“You okay, Craig?” a woman’s voice said close to his left ear. “You’ve been staring at that IP registration for about three minutes now.”

He blinked self-consciously and roused himself. “Oh. Hi, Kelly. I guess I was daydreaming.”

She pulled up a chair. “About what?” After glancing at the screen, she added, “Did you just catch Congressman Fox in something?”

“I don’t know. Kulya tasked me with tracking patterns in public webcam hookups, so I was sorting through the geocode mappings to isolate videoconferences with an offshore partner.”

“To peg people at Internet cafes getting virtual face-time with foreigners,” she translated. “What did you turn up?”

“I’m not sure. A few weeks ago, there was a bump in conferences with targets in countries we’re at odds with over the current political situation. I dereferenced the businesses that had the IP addresses at each end of the hookups, and then checked the social networks for mention of those places prior to the time of each conference.”

Kelly nodded. “Kulya’s ‘cell check’ scheme. And?”

“Well, if you accept the premise that any group of people organizing an event of some sort is potentially a terror cell, then you’d have to arrest just about everyone on suspicion. That’s so ambiguous. I mean, does he think the only reason people get together any more is to plot an insurrection?”

“He is paid to be paranoid, Craig. So are we.”

“Yeah. I know. But you have to draw the line somewhere.”

“And if you draw it in the wrong place, and miss something important? Better to be safe than sorry.”

He frowned at the name on the screen. “Even if you hurt an innocent?”

“Innocent?” she laughed. “For crying out loud, that’s a congressman. What could he possibly be innocent of?”

“It’s not Arthur Fox I’m worried about. It’s his daughter.”

Kelly sat back. “What? Maybe you’d better back off a few steps and catch me up. What does his daughter have to do with anything, and why in the name of all that is holy would you be worried about some privileged kid?”

“She’s not exactly a kid.”

“What? Do you know her?”

“Sort of,” he admitted sheepishly.

“Okay, okay. Forget about that for a minute. What led you to him?” She pointed at the screen. “You were supposed to be IDing suspicious public watering holes.”

“Yeah,” he said, nodding, “but I was trying to filter out the noise, the innocuous business meetings and family chat-fests. That’s why I was looking at the social sites, to see if there was a nexus, some person associated with too many of them to be an accident.”

“You mean the ringleader.”

“Uh-huh. What I found was that the instigation for a lot of these meetings came from a single IP address. Congressman Fox’s. Those gatherings were set up from his townhouse in Georgetown.”

“Meaning anyone with access to his computers.”

“Or,” he added, “someone spoofing the IP to incriminate him. Paranoia, remember?”

“Of course. So why do you think it’s his daughter?”

Craig hesitated. Could he trust her? “Do you remember the group I infiltrated for our first field practice? The one that wanted to remodel the constitution?”

“Yeah. Wasn’t their leader some kind of snake?”

“Boa. His name’s Derek Boa. Anyway, Fox’s daughter is a member of Constitutional Evolution. In fact, she’s the one that tagged the mainstream media as the C.C.C.P. – corporate controlled complicit press.”

“And you think she’s been facilitating conferences for her group?”

“I did at first. But when I crosschecked the people attending the meetings, there weren’t any CE members involved. Some of the ideas they’ve been toying with turn up in their emails, but that’s as far as it goes.”

She put up her hand. “Hold on. I’m confused. Are you saying that her group is behind those meetings or not?”

“That’s what I want to find out. But I don’t think I can do it from here.”

Kelly leaned close and spoke quietly. “You want to go talk with her? Are you nuts? You’ve been spying on her! If she figures that out, you’re not the only person around here that’s going to get reamed. That feed you’re using doesn’t even exist officially. It’s not something that you can just apologize for. There’d be a firestorm. This whole agency could get cooked.”

“I know. So do you want to come with, or stay and cover for me?”

“You have to ask? I’m joining you. When do we go?”

“Now. She takes a walk to her local barista every afternoon. We ought to get there just before she does.”

* * *

As an artist, Melissa Fox believed in the importance of white space, not only on the printed page, but in the hours of her life as well. She’d found that to be truly fresh when she switched gears from one kind of work to another, it helped to take a break, and to move her body in preparation for moving her mind to a new space. That was why, when she was finished with her self-imposed mid-day time for freely associated sketching, and before she turned her attention to the for-pay projects she’d lined up, she went out for a walk and a tall mocha.

The afternoon was brisk, which made the day’s outward trek especially pleasant. She smiled as she passed a string of ethnic restaurants along the way, slowing now and again to sample the shifting canvas of smells wafting out their doors, ending with the intoxicating scent of slow-roasted coffee. But she came up short just after opening the door, greeted by a familiar face with an unfamiliar escort.

“Ron?” she said, walking up to him. “Good to see you!”

“Hi Melissa.”

The woman tapped his shoulder. “Who’s ‘Ron’?”

Melissa considered her briefly, and then turned back to Ron. “Or would you prefer ‘Craig’ today?”

“I’m sorry,” he said suddenly. “I should introduce you two. Melissa, this is Kelly. We work together.”

She held his gaze briefly. On his second visit with Constitutional Evolution, he’d tacitly admitted to working for an unnamed intelligence agency, and to his real name. He also told them that he wanted to help, to watch their back. “I… see. So are you two here on business?”

“In a way. Come on, let’s get something to drink.”

Once they were settled, Craig studied Melissa for long enough to make her self-consciously withdraw before speaking. “There’s something I have to ask you.”

“Considering that you somehow figured out when I come down here, I’m guessing this isn’t something you can learn from your, um, usual methods.”

“You’re right. It’s about a series of video conferences you’ve been instigating from your father’s townhouse.”

It took her a few sips to processes the implications. The mélange of uncomfortable thoughts abruptly coalesced into a mental image of high-contrast footprints on the beach, and she made a mental note to use cash more often. “Why those? I’d have thought you’d be more interested in my dad’s doings than mine. What do they have you looking for, anyway?”

Kelly looked a question at him.

“Possible terror cells. People with overseas contacts.”

She peered at him. “Overseas… Oh, I get it. You picked up on the ping fa.”

“The what?”

“Ping fa. Peacefare. Those conferences are an exercise in guerilla peacefare.”

Kelly sat back. She looked first at Craig, and then at Melissa. “I think you’d better explain. What’s peacefare, the opposite of warfare?”

“In a way. Look, everyone knows what warfare looks like. Schools teach history by recounting wars, and glorifying the generals whose armies fought in them. They not only name the wars, they even name the battles. People go to extremes to recreate the darn things with historical accuracy. Businesses not only get rich from the wars themselves, but from selling things about wars. Think of all the books, movies, games, toys, and songs about war. Heck, there are whole colleges devoted to teaching war.”

“But not for peace?”

“Exactly. I mean, think about it. What does peace look like? Do they have names? Sure, there are anti-war songs, pacifist books and movies, but it’s all really about the absence of war, not the presence of peace. There was this guy named Benjamin Whorf who said that if you don’t have words for something, you can’t think or talk about it. And we seem to have this gaping hole in our cultural vocabulary. So anyway, one day a few months ago, Derek challenged me to do something about it, to show him what peacefare looks like.”

“And your answer,” Craig asked, “was a series of video conferences? I don’t see the connection.”

“This may sound trite, but our line of reasoning started with the aphorism, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. It struck us that if the sword is emblematic of the tools of war, then the pen ought to represent the tools of peace.”


“What kind of analyst are you?” Kelly asked him. “Communication. The pen is symbolic of all forms of communication.” She looked at Melissa. “Isn’t it?”

“That was our translation. Yes. But we figured there was more to it than that, probably a particular kind of communication. Following the metaphor, if the sword is a tool used by one party to affect another in the interests of war, then the matching use of the pen would be for communicating with your erstwhile adversary.”

“A teleconference,” Craig said.

“Specifically, one with people you might otherwise be at war with. A spacebridge. Like the ones that Phil Donahue and Vladamir Posner facilitated in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Conversations between two communities separated by political and social tension, where the individuals involved could directly address one another.”

“And that’s what you’ve been doing? No wonder the administration is so paranoid about people communicating with citizens in countries we’re at odds with. If what you say is true, that’s the single most potent weapon for waging peace. They’re not worried about possible terror cells, they’re worried about having their entire cocoon of fear unraveled by a bunch of guerilla peaceniks.”

Kelly snorted in agitation. “And we’re the dupes they’re using to cement their control. Well, I for one, am not about to sabotage the most potent force for peace ever developed.”

“What are you going to do?”

“As long as they don’t kick me out of the agency, I’ll do my damnedest to watch your back, to give you cover.” She turned to Craig, “And you?”

He laughed. “I’ve already started. By the way, on this mission, my name is Ron.”

Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack


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