Echo, Part 5

The car pulled into a dark parking lot somewhere near the edge of town.  He’d driven passed the parking lot before but couldn’t place exactly where it was.  Not that it mattered, the car had made so many turns he couldn’t have gotten back to where he had just been anyway.  He sat up in his seat a little bit and considered asking the mobile unit where they were but the car parked next to another vehicle and the mobile unit started talking before he could ask his question.

“Please take a few minutes to go through your car and remove any identifying things from it.  Please be thorough and remove anything with even the slightest tie to you.  Even a sweatshirt in a gym bag in the truck that you paid cash for ten years ago could get traced back to you, either from DNA left on it, or through an extensive search through purchase histories and video archives.  The FBI are very thorough so you need to be as well.

“Once you have cleared your belongings from the vehicle you can take them to the car you are parked next to.  The trunk is unlatched and the keys are inside.  Stow your gear and then link your handheld device to the car’s system and you will receive further information on what to do then.  Is that all clear?”

“Yes,” he responded but he didn’t immediately move.

“Is there something wrong?”

He wasn’t sure how to answer.  His whole world had just come crashing down around him, of course something was wrong.  Lots of things were wrong.  In the moment, though, he was loath to get out of the car.  It had been a safe space for him for these couple hours and abandoning it felt odd.  He understood why he needed to divest himself of it but that didn’t help him want to.  After a moment he replied, “I just need a minute to say goodbye to one more piece of my formal life.”

The voice picked up a hint of exasperation when it responded, “While we understand the loss you are experiencing today, we would like to remind you that very soon the FBI will be swarming all over this parking lot and this car.  We have gone to great lengths to keep you from them but all of that will be for nothing if you do not move with haste.  As you know, cameras are everywhere.  Despite our best efforts, your car will have been seen at some point on the drive over here and it is only a matter of time before the FBI spots it.”

“Fine.”  He pushed open the door to the car, popped the trunk and quickly pulled out everything that didn’t come stock with the car.  He wasn’t sure why that mattered.  The car was registered to him and once they found it and ran the plates they would know he had been there.  Removing things he wouldn’t need going forward anyway seemed like a waste of time, especially if he needed to be hurrying.  He complied anyway, though.  He was too afraid of not understanding the full scope of what was going on and getting captured because he didn’t follow the instructions to the letter.  Based on what they had told him previously, there could be a lot riding on his staying free.

Then again, there could be nothing, he thought as he located the keys while shoving his stuff inside.  He slammed the trunk closed and pulled open the driver’s door, settled into the seat and slammed the door shut.  He felt funny for reacting that way but he was angry and had every right to be so.  He started the car and then took a minute to link his handheld.

The green linked light flashed on the dash and the voice returned, “Are you sure you took everything that could be linked to you?”

“Yes.”

“Good.  Do you want to drive or should we take control of the car?”

“Since I don’t know where I’m going…”

“We understand you are angry but there is no need for you to take it out on us.  We are trying to help you, remember.  It is the FBI you should be mad at.  It is the government that allowed them, has encouraged them, to overstep their directives and abuse their power.”

He tried to see the logic in what they were saying and calm down but now that he was mad, he found it difficult to do so.  It was likely when he had been in such a state before that the chip had recorded a thought that eventually put him on the FBI’s radar in the first place.  He was usually a relaxed person but he definitely had a temper.  After a couple deep breaths, he didn’t apologize but said, “Go ahead and take control.”  He tried to say it without a snarl but mostly failed.

As the car backed out of its parking space, he secured himself into his seat and frowned at his car while it was swallowed by the darkness of the night.  He knew he would never see it again and he knew that being angry about that was juvenile at best.  It was just a thing.  Things could be replaced.  If he was taken into custody by the FBI that would likely be a loss of all his things and a loss of freedom, which would be irreplaceable.

After a minute he mumbled, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” came the short reply.

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Echo, Part 4

“Hello?  Are you still there?”

If he had been on a call with a friend, he would have given them more time to answer but the mobile unit had never failed to respond immediately to a question.  The pause was upsetting.  Had the connection been lost or had the system been so caught off by the question that it couldn’t even provide the automated “Sorry, I can’t answer that.”?  Or, was he completely removed from the automated system now and dealing only with whoever was helping him behind the scenes?  That seemed most likely and he wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

“Hello?”

“Yes, sorry.  We weren’t prepared to answer your question.  It was rude of us to delay answering.  We will try to do better going forward.”

“What do you want from me then?”  The mobile unit continuing to not answer the question was troubling him.  He was beginning to imagine that he was being pulled into some sort of scheme and things were about to get even worse for him than having the FBI show up at his door.

“For the time being, nothing.  Based on this experience, however, there may come a time when you will be valuable in our fight against this sort of governmental overreach.”

He gave a slight shake of his head and sighed.  So the legal battle they had just rescued him from was still on the horizon, just temporarily delayed.  “Okay, what am I supposed to do now?”

“This location is not secure long term and we may have need of it again for others in the area the FBI go after.  So, we will move you to another location while we work on securing a new identity for you.”

“That can’t be easy or cheap.”

“No and no.  We understand, as previously stated that your resources are limited, so we will cover the costs associated with giving you a new life.”

“But,” he guessed, “you’ll be working that out of me later when my ‘experience’ becomes useful to your long term goals.”

“Yes, that is a likely scenario.”

He felt like he should apologize.  They had just kept him from FBI custody and their motives, as stated, seemed to have the good of humanity at their core.  Still, he couldn’t help feeling like a pawn.  He had never liked that feeling.  It made him feel dirty.  It left him with a bad taste in his mouth.

“When you are ready, we will take control of the car again and drive you to the new location.  Can we proceed?”

It was his turn to pause.  He knew had no other real options.  He hadn’t gotten great answers to some of his questions but he had gotten some useful information.  He had no doubt of the veracity of any of it.  The situation had unfolded so quickly and his home unit and mobile units had responded in such a coordinated effort that he had no reason to suspect this was some sort of elaborate setup.  Those sorts of things didn’t happen in the real world.  No, he had to take everything at face value which meant he was in a lot of trouble for something he had thought, daydreamed about, and for some reason some powers behind the home unit systems were saving him.  These had to be truths.

So, he could decline their assistance and go face the Feds on his own, at which point he assumed he would no longer be backed by the systems high-powered lawyer team, and face the consequences of the thought police taking exception to something he’d logged in the system or he could continue along for the ride and see how it all played out.  If things went wrong from here he would probably be in even more trouble than he already was.  However, if things went well maybe he could eventually get his old life back.  Admittedly, it wasn’t much of a life but it was his and he had liked it.  The loss of it, only hours old, was already bothering him.

“I’m ready.”

“Very good.  Your car is still being actively sought, so we apologize for any extreme maneuvers we are forced to do to keep you from being spotted.  We are monitoring all frequencies, though, so we will do our best to stay away from active units.  And, it is only a short drive to where you are going to abandon this car.  From then on we will communicate with you through your handheld device.  As with the home unit, don’t worry, all links and records from the mobile device in your vehicle will be cleaned long before the authorities find it.

“Would you like some music on again?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

The car started, the garage door opened, another of his favorite songs came through the speakers, and the car pulled back onto the street beyond the alley.  He looked around, hoping to see a landmark, to get an idea of where he had been but he didn’t see anything he recognized.  The car made one turn after another until he lost all sense of direction and still it kept on.  His idea of a short drive seemed very different from whoever was in control.

Echo, Part 3

The current song concluded, a lovely acoustic rendition of one of his favorite songs from late in the previous century, and rather than fading into a new song the music clicked off and the mobile unit asked, “What would you like to do first?  Your location is secure here for now and we have gathered most of the intel you might require so we can answer some of your questions or we can move you to another location and then answer your questions?”

“Is there a benefit to one over the other?”

“Not from our perspective.”

He wasn’t sure if it mattered to him one way or the other either.  He still didn’t know where he was, why the FBI were after him, or any of the answers to a dozen other questions but he was getting tired of sitting in the dark garage.  The mobile unit had done a nice job shuffling songs for him and he had calmed down while he’d waited, however.  Despite his desire to be out of the dark, literally, he was leaning more towards the informational illumination.  “Okay, I’d like to know why the FBI is after me.”

“Of course.  The warrant mentioned a perceived threat against domestic targets.  The FBI used a hacked feed of our systems to spy on our users without our knowledge.  You are not the only person they found to launch an investigation against.  We have found and terminated their hacked streams but we have no way to erase the information they have already transferred to their own servers.”

He thought for a moment and then asked, “And based on what they were able to take, do they have a case against me?”

“In this environment they would have had a strong case.  We would have provided you with a lawyer who would have argued several different ways to have the case thrown out but in the end you probably would have been advised to take a plea deal.  The public would have turned against the FBI for spying on them but at the same time the public, in general, cannot see the complex issues at play here.  Do you have the right to think dangerous thoughts?  Does the government have the right to detain you based on those thoughts?  How does one person’s dark day, bad day differ from another’s?  What is the greater good: keeping personal freedoms or the potential to save lives?  These battles have already been waged in courts to mixed outcomes.  With your limited resources, we would have advised a plea because you would have spent less time in jail than waiting to see if we could get you a favorable ruling.”

“Who are you?  And why are you helping me?”

“For our safety, and yours and those in a similar situation as yours – there were five other warrants served with the same pretenses at the same time as yours – we cannot divulge who we are.  We are helping you because from the time the home units were launched we were concerned that quote unquote ‘thought police’ would find a way to monitor what people were thinking and use that against them.  We firmly believe that thoughts do not always make way to action and that it is in the very nature of humans to allow their thoughts to wander into uncharted, dangerous areas.  Humans are imaginative creatures, after all, and that runs the whole gambit, from butterflies and rainbows and unicorns to darker places than deepest levels of hell.”

He blew out a breath and frowned.  Without knowing who he was receiving help from it was hard to know if they could be trusted.  He could guess that it was someone within the system, someone working behind the scenes of the home unit, but that didn’t have to be true.  And even if that were true it didn’t really explain why they were helping him.  “Wouldn’t it have been better in the long run to fight the court battles?  To get public opinion swaying against the governmental overreach into personal freedoms, even if it meant I spent more time in jail?  Why would you prioritize my freedom over the greater good of everyone else hooked into the system?”

“Because in the current environment there is no guarantee that you going to jail would actually make things better for anyone else.  The home units are very prevalent and the FBI only launched six investigations… the percentage is barely a blip.  The public at large could very well shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Those crazies got what they deserved.’”

“That didn’t really answer my question.”

“Correct.  We helped you because we chose to do the right thing for you, and the other five impacted.  We agree it doesn’t make sense beyond that.”

His frown deepened.  He wasn’t used to altruism.  It was counter to pretty much all societal interactions.  Nobody did anything without expecting something in return.  He found it hard to believe that wasn’t also the case here.  “What do I do now?  What do you want from me?”

Uncharacteristically, the mobile unit didn’t answer immediately.

Echo, Part 2

His car tore down unfamiliar streets until a garage opened off an alley.  The brakes brought the car to a stop and then the car reversed into the garage and the door shut him into darkness.  A map light came on and the mobile unit in his car said, “You should be okay here but please don’t exit the vehicle yet.  We are monitoring the scanners for chatter about you and once we are certain they weren’t able to track you here we will let you know.”

He had too many questions to get a single one out.  They all jumbled together and his mouth hung open uselessly.  What had happened?  Who was chasing him?  Why?  Who are the “we” that were helping him?  Where was he now?  And on and on.  He half expected the mobile unit in his car to begin answering his questions but then remembered that the chip in his head was only directly linked to the home unit.  The mobile unit wouldn’t know what he was thinking unless he verbalized it.

Finally finding his voice, he asked, “Who were they?”

He didn’t know why he started with that question but he did.  Perhaps he figured he might know why he was in trouble if he knew who was after him.  Or, perhaps, it was just the easiest of the questions to ask, with the answer likely being the most straightforward.

“FBI.”

He hadn’t actually seen any of them with a badge or other sort of identifying crests but the FBI made the most sense.  None of his darkest thoughts would have brought Homeland Security or the CIA to his door and the local police likely didn’t have access to any of his records.  That sort of only left the FBI.  He hadn’t heard any news about them increasing scrutiny of personal records but perhaps they found him while researching something else.

Realizing the mobile unit had continued talking while he’d been thinking, something he wasn’t used to as he so rarely spoke with the mobile unit and the home unit knew when to pause based on his thoughts, he said, “Wait.  Repeat.  I missed all of that after ‘FBI.’”

“Of course, apologies.  There isn’t much information available as the FBI systems are very secure but the team that came to your house had a warrant for your arrest and seemed to be attached to the Social Crimes division of the Bureau.  As soon as we can find a copy of the warrant we will let you know what the allegations are related to.  They have finished sweeping your home and have discovered that the home unit wiped itself.  They still uninstalled it, though, and will send it to Langley for further analysis.  We can assure you nothing will be gained from that.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.  Additionally, it doesn’t appear that they were able to trace your exit.  This car is registered though and you won’t be able to keep it much longer.  We are working on a solution for that as well.  We are sorry for the inconvenience but if you could continue to be patient and wait here that will work out best for you.”

He couldn’t think of anything else to say so he said again, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.  Would you like some music while you wait?”

“No, thank you.  I’m okay to just sit here for a bit and try and to collect my thoughts.”

“Okay.  As always, if you need something you have only to ask.”

He wanted to ask why they were helping him and who “they” were but wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer to that.  If the system behind his home unit was helping him autonomously that would be far beyond the capability he had imaged when he had first signed on.  If there were powers behind the system helping him, he would let them stay in the dark for now, until he learned why the FBI was after him and what his options were.  Though, as he worked his mind around the predicament there was one thing he wanted to know immediately.  “You aren’t synced to the home unit, how are you getting live updates?”

“We have linked with the home unit at this location, temporarily, to monitor the situation.”

“Is this someone’s home?  You’ve hacked into their account?”

“Not exactly.  All of your questions will be answered in time.  Are you sure we can’t play some relaxing music to help pass the time?”

He didn’t really want to listen to music but he figured the distraction might be good for him all the same, “Okay, yes, thank you.”

Soft music began to play through the car’s speakers and the mobile unit replied, “You’re welcome.”