Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Week 9 - The Connected Ones

Michael Salsbury
Rose Ledger breathed heavily as she sat down on the bus.  She'd almost missed it.  That might have cost her the job.  She couldn't risk that.  Practically no one wanted to hire a felon.

When she reached the store, Mr. Stephens looked at her and then tapped his watch.

"I know, sir.  I'm sorry.  The bus ran a little late today."

"There are earlier buses, you know," he said, walking back to his office.

Rose took her position behind the cash register.  It wasn't the career she'd dreamed about, but it was the best she could do for now.  In five years, she'd be allowed to program again.  She'd try for something better then.

The first customer she served was a young woman with two small children.  The kids had obviously gotten into the chocolate in the store. Their hands and faces were covered with it, and they left brown marks everywhere they touched.  Rose never understood why some parents think it's OK to let their children make messes other people will have to clean up.  Her mama wouldn't have let her do that.

Behind the woman and her chocolate-coated offspring was a thin, bony little man.  His eyes darted around the store, scanned the parking lot, then looked at Rose.  He put four rolls of aluminum foil on the counter.  As she rang them up, the man's eyes continued to scan everything he could see.

"That'll be $4.24, sir," Rose said.

"Wh-What?" He was looking at her again.

"Your total is $4.24, sir."

"Oh, yes... yes..."  he reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick wallet.  He slipped his fingers inside and came out with a five dollar bill.  He handed it to Rose.  "Keep the change."

He grabbed his tinfoil and ran out into the parking lot.

Rose heard many stories about paranoid people who put tinfoil hats on their heads to avoid government surveillance, but she'd never met one before.  She chuckled to herself as the man began trying to wrap sheets of foil over his head.  A customer standing next to her startled her.

"Someone must'a dropped this," she said, between chomps of chewing gum, and handed the book to Rose.  Rose took one look at the book and realized it must have been Mr. Tinfoil Hat out in the parking lot.  She pressed her hidden buzzer to the office.  Mr. Stephens peeked out.

Rose pointed to the man. "That customer dropped his book. I'm gonna run it out to him.  OK?"

Stephens sighed and started toward the register.  "Go on."

Rose stepped out the door of the store and into the parking lot, heading toward Mr. Tinfoil Hat, who seemed to be putting on a second layer.  She hadn't gotten far when a black sport utility vehicle screeched to a halt next to the man.  He started to run, but three men wearing black suits, sunglasses, white shirts, and black ties grabbed him.  Tinfoil Hat struggled, but they got him into the vehicle and drove away.

The scene brought a chill to Rose.  She remembered when the Feds grabbed her eleven years ago. She was on her way back from the grocery with food for her cat.  They grabbed her, snapped manacles on her, and tossed her in a very similar SUV.  A year later, she was in prison.

She looked down at the book in her hands.  Were they looking for the man, or this book?  Or both? She didn't know, and right now she didn't care.  She slipped the book into the pocket of her smock and ran back into the store before Mr. Stephens got upset.

"Well, did he at least thank you?" Stephens asked.

"He, uh, left before I could give it to him."

"Well, put it in the lost and found."

"Sure thing."

In the hectic activity of the afternoon, Rose forgot about the book in her pocket.


Rose opened a can of Value Vittles for her cat Zero, and dumped it into his dish.  He rubbed up against her, purring loudly, and began licking the juices off it.

For herself, Rose put a frozen dinner into the microwave and turned it on. As she took off her smock, she noticed it felt heavy.  She found Tinfoil Hat's book in the pocket.  She put it on the table next to her couch, beside her glass of water.

She watched television as she ate.  She hadn't even owned a television before her arrest, but she'd begun watching it in prison because it was something to do.  When she'd eaten the last bite of whatever the brown stuff was, she put the empty tray on the couch next to her and picked up the book Tinfoil Hat dropped.

The book was filled with strings of numbers, some in parentheses, some not.  Occasionally she found a picture hand-drawn on the page.  I'll say one thing for old Tinfoil Hat, he could really draw.  These pictures look almost like photographs.

The pictures showed buildings, people, electronic components, and other things.  None of it looked familiar to Rose until she was about two-thirds of the way through the book.  There she found a picture of an SUV surrounded by men wearing black suits.  The drawing reminded her of the one that took Tinfoil Hat away.  Was he some kind of psychic?  Did he predict his own abduction?

Rose kept flipping.  Further on, she found a drawing of Steve May, the CEO of Maple, Inc.  Maple was the largest corporation on the planet.  They'd made billions with cellphones, tablets, home computers, and a handful of other products.  She remembered buying one before she went to prison and wondering what all the fuss was.  It didn't connect well to the systems where she worked.  It was expensive, too.  She wound up selling it before her arrest.  It was a pretty little gadget, like all the stuff Maple made, but it wasn't for her.  What did May have to do with Tinfoil Hat?  Did Tinfoil Hat work for Maple?  And who were those men in black suits?  Rose had more questions than answers, and flipping through the rest of the book didn't improve things.

Cryptography wasn't Rose's strong suit.  She knew a guy who could probably figure out Tinfoil Hat's code, but she'd lost track of him.  She copied down some of the code and tried to make sense of it.  She fell asleep on the couch a few hours later.


Arriving at the strip mall the next morning, Rose saw two black SUVs in front of the store.  This can't be good news.   She debated turning around to run, but if this was the FBI, CIA, or NSA, she wouldn't get far before they had her.

When Rose entered the store, Stephens pointed at her.  "That's the one you're looking for," he said, "Not me."

Four men in black suits surrounded her. One of them flashed a picture of Tinfoil Hat.

"Do you know this man?"

Rose pretended to give the picture a detailed scrutiny.  "I think he was in the store yesterday.  Bought some tinfoil.  Why?  Are you the police."

The men looked at each other, then back at her.  "What did he say to you?"

"Nothing really.  He just bought four rolls of  tinfoil and left."

"Your boss says he dropped a book, and you tried to take it to him."

Rose rubbed her chin.  "Yes, I do remember that.  Mr. Stephens told me to put it in the Lost and Found box."

"Did you?"

If these guys are Feds, and I lie to them, I'm going back to prison.  I don't think they are, though.  Let's play this out and see what happens.

"I'm sure I did."

"Go get it for us."

"I can't do that, unless you care to show me a badge and a search warrant.  That book doesn't belong to you.  If you come back with it's owner--"

One of the men walked over to Stephens and whispered something to him.  Stephens went into his office and brought out the Lost and Found box.  The men in black searched the box thoroughly.

"It's not here."

Rose shrugged.  "I guess the man came back for it."

They seemed not to catch Rose's lie.

One of them handed her a card with a phone number, but no name, printed on it.  "If you see him again, or think of anything we should know, call that number."

Another one stepped close to Rose, almost nose to nose.  "It would be wise to cooperate with us," he said.  They left the store, got into their SUVs, and drove away.  Good riddance, Rose thought. Whoever those guys are, they're up to no good.  I can feel it.

"Show's over," Stephens said to the customers who had been watching the exchange.  One of them was even filming it on his MayPhone.  Hand some people a cellphone and suddenly they think they're journalists.  Rose shook her head and took her place behind the register.


That night at her apartment, Rose took another crack at Tinfoil Hat's journal.  The first symbol Tinfoil Hat drew in the book was the Greek letter Pi. That image was the only drawing in the book that wasn't a physical object of some sort.  The others were people, buildings, circuit diagrams, electronics, and that sort of thing.  It must have some significance.

Rose thought about the Pi symbol for a while.  Was the code in Greek?  She tried various ways of treating the text as ciphered Greek text, but online translations generated nothing but gibberish. Some of the numbers didn't match the Greek alphabet, either.

Rose wondered if the symbol referred the theoretical number Pi.  That seemed more likely.

She tried a few of the number combinations against the value of Pi, but they didn't make sense.

When she fell asleep that night, Rose had a dream about solving Pi to a billion digits.


As she stocked shelves with cheap plastic toys, oddly named cleaning products, and food items that looked kind of like name brand packages (but weren't), Rose daydreamed about the journal and the Pi reference.  She felt certain that she was on to something.

She started to think about how text in a computer is reduced to a series of numbers.  Given that Pi is a theoretically infinitely long number, you should be able to find every possible two-digit number within its length.  In fact, you could probably find every four-digit number there too.  What if you could find longer sequences of numbers?  You might find entire words represented in there.  What if that's what Tinfoil Hat was doing?  She wished she had the book with her, instead of hidden behind a piece of loose drywall in her closet back at the apartment.

When her shift was over, she was more excited than usual to go home.


Rose got the journal out, excited to see if she could decode it now.

There was a knock at the door.  In this neighborhood, Rose knew that it probably wasn't a girl scout selling cookies. She peered through the fish eye lens in the door and saw two men in black suits. Between them was a third man with a big smile on his face.  The image of a great white shark flashed through Rose's mind as she looked at him, just before she realized who it was.  The smiling shark man was Steve May, the CEO of Maple, Inc.

The knock repeated.

"Miss Ledger, this is Steve May, of Maple.  I'm taking a huge risk to be here, and my security team assures me that you're inside.  Please let me in."

Rose sighed.  "Just a minute."

She pulled back a loose section of drywall in the coat close and slid the journal behind it.  She hoped they wouldn't find it.  She didn't know what was in there, but if it brought the CEO of Maple to her front door, it must be important to him.  Before she gave it up, she wanted to know why.

She unlocked the deadbolt, removed the chain, then unlocked and opened the door.  May and his men started in, but she held up a hand to stop them.  "You can come in, May.  Your thugs can stay outside."

May exchanged a glance with the men.  They looked at her like pit bulls being pulled back with a choker chain, but stepped back and allowed May inside.

The shark smile returned to May's face as he closed the apartment door.  Rose reached out to lock it, but May put his hand on hers.

"I assure you, Miss Ledger, that the two men outside will ensure that we are not disturbed. I pay them a considerable amount of money for that very thing.  You don't need to lock the door."

Rose took her hand off the lock mechanism and gestured toward one of the chairs in her living room. May walked over to the chair, stared at it for moment as though he thought it might be covered with insects, then sat down.

"Charming home you have here, Miss Ledger."

"Cut the crap, May.  You didn't travel half way across the country to critique my apartment."

"No, of course not," he said, crossing his legs and resting his hands atop his knee.  "I'd have called, but you don't have a cellphone."

"No.  I'm not allowed to."

"Yes, the court order... Pity.  I'd have brought you one of ours.  The Maple Pro 7 is the best computer on the market right now."

"Says you.  Your stuff is pretty, but it's expensive and not that powerful.  You were something five years ago, but today--"

"As you said, Ms. Ledger... Let's cut the crap.  You have something I want.  I'm here to make you an offer for it."

"I'm listening."

"I have five hundred thousand dollars in the vehicle outside.  If you'll hand me the journal, I'll have the money brought in."  He reached for his cell phone.

Rose shook her head.  "No."

"Are you sure?  With that much money, you could live somewhere other than... here."

"Yes, but could I live with myself?"

May's right eyebrow raised.  "What do you mean?"

"I saw your goons haul away the man who wrote that journal.  I wonder if he's even still alive.  That journal might be the only thing keeping him that way if he is."

May made a tsk-tsk sound with this mouth.  "I am the most respected man in the business and technology fields.  There are millions who wait, wallets in hand, for the next product I announce.  They would welcome me into their homes with open arms. Why don't you trust me?  I've done nothing to you."

"I worked for a guy like you once.  He talked me into hacking his competitor's network, then got cold feet once we were inside.  He went State's Evidence on me.  I got ten years.  He got a fine.  So excuse me if I don't feel all warm and fuzzy around you.  You even dress like him.  The same lame-looking gray turtleneck and boat shoes."

May was silent for a moment.  He seemed to be lost in his own thoughts.  "Ah, yes.  The TransitCo hack.  That was you?"

Rose nodded.  "We'd have been in and out if it hadn't been for Barker chickening out, and turning me in."

May exhaled.  "I suppose he thought he was protecting his interests, as I'm doing now.  Tell me, what have you learned from the journal?"

"Nothing, really.  It's written in some kind of code.  All I can really do is look at the pictures and speculate."

"I see," May said, standing up.  "My offer stands, for the next 48 hours.  After that, the offer - and my patience - will end.  I suggest you make your decision soon."  He handed her a card.  "This is my private number.  Call it when you're ready to hand over the journal."

He walked out of the room, not looking back.  Rose quickly locked the door behind him.


Decoding the journal without the aid of a computer was proving to be incredibly time consuming. To get the work done without growing too old in the process, Rose befriended a librarian.  She explained that she believed a life (Tinfoil Hat's) was at stake, and decoding the person's journal was the only way to save him.  She would feed the librarian bits of the code, and the librarian would look them up for her.  To protect the librarian from repercussions, Rose worked somewhat randomly through the journal so that the librarian would not have much chance of memorizing anything they had looked up.

Only when the job was finished did Rose allow herself to begin reading the book.  It began:

"My name is Richard Bain.  I work as a product tester for Maple, Inc.  We are working on a revolutionary new brain implant for human use.  It gives the recipient the ability to access the Internet from virtually anywhere on Earth, with just a though.  It allows you to leverage computers in the cloud to help you improve your memory, perform complex analyses, and more.  It's intoxicating."

For the first month or so of entries, Bain talked about the implant and how it would revolutionize human endeavor.  Instead of sharing a photograph, you could share the image in your mind.  Want to calculate the odds of winning the lottery, just "think it" to a cloud computer and find the answer.  The implant could help you remember experiences in vivid detail, or remember things you couldn't consciously without the implant (like the license plates of all the cars you passed on your way home from work).

Then, the entries took a dark turn.  Bain grew concerned about experiencing detailed memories of advertisements he knew he had never seen.  He began recalling having the urge to buy products he'd never even heard of.

He brought those concerns to Maple CEO Steve May.  May dismissed his concerns as paranoid or delusional, and that Maple would never put thoughts into a customer's head - or an employee's.  Bain remained skeptical.  He began researching how the implant worked, begging coworkers to share information with him about it.

Bain learned that others who were testing the implant had done things that were out of character or against their religious beliefs.  Bain located some of those individuals and learned that they had all experienced the phenomenon of wanting something from an advertisement they couldn't remember ever seeing.  It became clear to Bain that Maple was inserting the memory of advertisements directly into the implant holders' brains.

The entry dated just prior to Bain's appearance at the store where Rose worked was the most disturbing.  Bain noticed that he kept experiencing thoughts to stop his investigation, to believe what Steve May told him, and to view getting the implant as the greatest experience of his life.

Bain realized that by surrounding his head with aluminum foil or a similar metal enclosure, he could render it unable to communicate.  His thoughts would be his own again, he hoped.

Rose wondered what to do with the information.  Could she even believe it?  If Bain had something foreign attached to his brain, could she trust that he even knew truth from fantasy?  If he was telling the truth, who would believe a convicted felon over a beloved CEO?  Would the journal be of any value to anyone without a live Richard Bain to confirm its contents?  Rose needed time to think.  She crawled into bed and closed her eyes.


Rose awoke with a headache.  She put her hands to the sides of her head to stop the room from spinning, and felt... what was it?... stitches?  Had she been in an accident?  She didn't remember that. She opened her eyes.

Rose found herself in a bright hospital room.

Standing next to the bed was Steve May.  Rose felt her body stiffen.  She opened her mouth to speak, but couldn't.

"You're perfectly safe, Miss Ledger.  Perfectly safe.  You're at County General Hospital.  My security team and I were visiting you to make another offer for that journal you have.  You were sleepwalking. We found you walking down a flight of stairs.  You fell and hit your head. Do you remember any of that?"

Rose looked at the doctor and nurse.  She wanted to tell them this was all a lie, but her mouth opened and said "Yes.  I've had a sleepwalking problem for years.  I'm lucky you were there to save me.  When can I go home?"

She looked back at May.  She wanted to burn him to ashes with her stare.  He just smiled that Great White grin of his.  "The doctor says you'll need supervision for a while.  I feel somehow responsible for what happened to you, so my people will take good care of you."

She wanted to say "Go to hell, May" but her mouth said, "Thank you so much.  Will I get to stay at the Maple headquarters?"

"Yes you will, Rose.  We can ensure you get the best care there."

Rose didn't know what was going on, but knew May was behind it. She felt like a spectator inside her own body.  Hours later, her traitorous mouth and body thanked the hospital staff for their help and told them how great it was that Steve May was there to help her, how she'd always loved Maple products, and time at their headquarters was a dream come true.

Inside May's SUV, he turned to Rose.  Suddenly she felt as though her body was hers again.  She tried to punch May, but her body went suddenly rigid.

May's shark grin returned.  "Miss Ledger, it's so kind of you to test Version 2.0 of Maple's newest product, the MayThink.  It's a state of the art wetware neural interface with full-time high-speed Internet access."

Rose's body relaxed.  "I read about this, in--"

"Richard Bain's journal, I know.  That was a terrible situation.  Just awful."

"You mean how you killed him?"

"What?  No.  I mean it's awful that the implant malfunctioned so badly.  It was supposed to enhance his mind and off occasional product suggestions.  Instead, it made him paranoid and delusional.  He actually thought I had plans of taking over the world."

"Just like you hijacked my mouth back there?"

May laughed.  The sound made Rose feel simultaneously nauseous and scared.

"I've given you a very special version of my little invention.  It makes my merest suggestion seem totally irresistible to you.  The ones we sell to the public will be more... subtle.  Well, unless I need them not to be.  It seems no matter how hard I try, I just can't convince some people to see the superiority of the Maple product experience."

"Well, some people aren't brainless sheeple who--" She felt something pressuring her mind, pressuring her to think differently.  She fought it, but her mouth opened and said "--of course are the free-thinking dreamers who flock to buy our products in droves."  Rose put her hand over her mouth.

"Ah, Miss Ledger.  You will be our best spokesperson ever... unable to even think a bad thought about Maple products, Maple the company, or me...  But for now, you'll sleep."

Rose felt the world go dark.  Soon she was dreaming of Tinfoil Hat guy, Richard Bain.


Resisting May's implanted thoughts had been a constant losing battle for Rose.  No matter how hard she tried to hold onto her true thoughts, somehow they slipped away and became May's.  She wondered if she would ever get him out of her head.  The thought "No, Miss Ledger." occurred to her in May's voice.  She wondered if it was her imagination or another of his implanted thoughts.

While May was off giving a press conference, Rose realized that his influence seemed to go away. Did he need to use conscious thought to manipulate her?  That might be it.

She had some time to think, and she did.  Rose decided to treat the problem as one of computer security.  May's thoughts were invading malware, out to infect the synapses of her mental computer network.  In the computer world, one way to keep out unwanted programs is to create a firewall. Could she convince her implant to erect a firewall around itself?  She'd certainly try.  She began envisioning what outside thoughts might look like, and used her cloud computing resources to identify and route them into a null device - where they would disappear forever.  She had no way to know if it worked until May's press conference as over.  She reached out through the Internet and realized she could watch the press conference live.

As she did this, she wondered if she could reach the other implants out there.  She thought about Richard Bain and his implant.  It didn't take long to make contact.  Bain apologized to her for dragging her into his problem.  She told him that she'd entered the situation for her own reasons.  She never liked powerful people who abuse their power.

"That's all very interesting, Miss Ledger, but totally irrelevant.  Soon you'll adore me, like the millions who buy every product I come up with, in every color and package I put it in."

"I don't think so, May."

This time, she could hear May's thoughts as they entered her head, but didn't feel the compulsion to make them her own.  This time, it was Rose who wore the shark smile.

"Something wrong, Mr. May?"  Rose asked.

He didn't answer.  She wanted to dance and sing, realizing she'd kept the great Steve May from taking control of her mind.  Suddenly, she fell asleep.


"Rise and shine, Ms. Ledger.  Welcome to MayThink version 3."

"Thank you Mr. May, I live to do as you ask."

The shark smile returned.  "I know you do.  From now on, no little 'firewall' stunts.  When I give you a thought, you'll accept it."

"Yes, Mr. May."

Rose was getting sick of May.  She tried to erect a new firewall, but the implant wouldn't cooperate.  May seemed to have a direct line to her mind.  I wonder if I have a direct line to HIS? That would be an interesting turn of events.

After seeing how quickly May reversed the situation when she erected her firewall, Rose knew that if she could put thoughts in May's head, she would only have one chance.  He'd put her asleep and put an even more powerful implant in her head.

She reached out to Bain.  "Are you there?"

"Yes, Rose.  What happened?  You went silent suddenly."

"I'd built a firewall in my implant to keep May out.  It worked until he knocked me out and put in a new implant."

"You kept May out of your head?  Wow."

"I think we can do one better, but I'll need your help.  I'll need everyone who has an implant to help.  Can you reach the others?"

"I'll try.  Give me a minute."

"No, wait.  May's asleep.  We need to move fast.  I want to try something.  I want to see if I can take control of you through your implant the way May does to all of us."

"You really think that's possible?"

"I don't know, but if I don't try, we'll never know."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Try not to resist, if you can.  I need time to figure out if this is even possible.  If you put up any resistance, I may not be able to do it at all, even if it is possible."

"I understand."

Rose reached out across the Internet, looking for May's implant.  When she found it, she sent it a thought that it should start singing a show tune.  Then she told it to stop.

"Anything, Bain?"

"Apart from the singing, you mean?"

"You started singing?"

"Yeah.  That was you?"


"You did it."

Rose explained her plan to Bain, and through him, to the five others who had a MayThink installed in their heads.  All of them had experienced some kind of unpleasant experience with May inside their brains, and they were all willing to help.


Two weeks had passed since Rose discovered how to control other implants.  She hoped that all the implants, including May's, worked the same way.  If so, she would solve the problem once and for all.


Steve May stepped onto the stage at MayCon, the annual Maple product conference.  He began his sales pitch for the new Maple Pro 8, the MayTab 4, the MayPhone 7, and the MayTV 4.  The audience cheered, oohed, and aahed at all the right spots.  The pride lighting May's face could have powered a continent of cities.

He started to walk off stage, as he'd often done, then turned and said, "Oh, but I almost forgot.  We've got a new product.  He pointed at the images of the latest Maple products on the screen behind him.  "It makes all of these obsolete. Introducing... the MayThink!"

The crowd cheered, and jumped to its feet.

"What is it, you ask?  The MayThink is a computation enhancement for your brain.  Ever wished you could remember the lyrics to a song?  The MayThink will look them up automatically.  Want to control the lights in your house, just a thought will turn them on or off.  Want to unlock your car?  That's right, just think it.  This, folks, is the game changer to end all game changers.  Don't believe me?  Ask me a question you think I can't know the answer to.  I'll find the answer with my MayThink."

The journalists in the audience tried stumping May with questions about rainfall in Alaska, the circumference of Pluto, and the spark plug type used in a '67 Mustang.  He dazzled them all with instant answers.

Then, suddenly, he raised his left hand to his temple and closed his eyes.

When he opened his eyes, he looked like a robot.  "Hello, folks.  I'm Rose Ledger.  Mr. May implanted one of his little gadgets in my brain a couple of months ago.  He wanted control over me, and he had it.  He could make me say or do anything he wanted.  He planted thoughts in my head that felt like they should be mine, but they weren't.  He kidnapped me, and another fellow named Richard Bain, whom you'll hear from in a moment.  I beg you, please stop buying this man's products... especially the MayThink... unless you like having your brain hacked over the Internet.  Now, here's Richard Bain."

Bain used May's body to tell his story, as Rose had told hers.  Then the other implantees got their turns as well.  The ones not actively controlling May were busy making sure he couldn't reassert control of his own body.

The press conference became the hottest topic on television, radio, and the Internet.    The government shut Maple down, sold off its assets, and paid down the national debt.  Maple was arrested and charged with a long list of crimes, many of which had to be added to the books just to prosecute him.  He spent the rest of his life in a maximum security prison cell.  He wanted to appeal, but his fortune was so tied up in Maple, Inc., that its destruction left him penniless.

The government wanted the implants removed from Rose, Bain, and the others.  Unfortunately, Maple had done its job so well that brain tissue had grown over the implants.  They had, for all intents and purposes, merged with their hosts' brains.  They became known as "The Connected Ones" both because of their connection to the Internet and to each other.

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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