Chapter 1 Art.JPG

Here‘s the opening scene of One Finger on the World…

  Chapter 1 – Bad Moon Rising

(as performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival)

The steering wheel jerked roughly in his hands as the left front tire blew. Snarling a curse, Mark Malone pulled onto the rutted shoulder of the deserted country road and cut his engine.

 “Crap,” he muttered aloud as he got out to inspect the damage.

The shortcut he sometimes took to shave a few minutes off his trip to the University of Virginia Computing Center (the “lab”) was pockmarked with potholes that finally put an end to one of his tread-bare tires. He checked the time on his phone. At this rate, he was sure to be late for his part-time, afternoon job at the Lab. He’d been lucky to score it last year. To reach out to the community, the university had awarded a single, coveted internship at its computing center to a local high school student who showed “exceptional promise.” Mark wasn’t sure how exceptional his promise was, but he’d charmed his way through the interview and easily passed the programming test. His reward had been a cubicle situated among the most motivated coders and computer geeks at the university. Providentially, it provided him with direct access to some of the fastest, most sophisticated computing power in the Commonwealth. His boss surely would cut him some slack because and he’d never been late before and he really needed this job.

He looked around forlornly, but what he saw wasn’t promising. He hadn’t passed another car since turning off onto this road. His phone teased him with an unhelpful display of the time while offering up an infuriatingly intermittent service signal. As a result, his futile attempts to call his best friend, Danny, dropped before they connected. So much for Plan B, he sighed. He wasn’t desperate enough to try his mother (Plan Z); the less he depended on her, the better. Consequently, he ended up sending a quick text to Danny, hoping it would get through when the signal briefly reappeared, but the annoying error message kept instructing him to try again. Kicking some loose dirt along the shoulder, he cursed between clenched teeth. Damned Virginia backwoods.

Mark rounded the front of the car and squatted down, shading his eyes with his hand. The car’s weight was awkwardly resting on the rim of the left front wheel, while deflated rubber pleated around it like so much exhausted fabric. He had no spare; he couldn’t afford one. Crap. This is just too perfect.

Mark swatted at a curious fly circling lazily around his head. Despite the deepening dusk, the air hung heavy and hot, typical of late-summer Virginia days as they sweated into early September. The only sounds were the low humming of insects and the scratching of an unseen squirrel scurrying through the forest floor litter. Crooked shadows stretched across the road like arthritic fingers reaching towards the tops of the trees. Soon it would be dark.

Mark found a jack buried in the trunk beneath his smelly hockey gear, still damp from a practice earlier that afternoon. He skated as a seasoned defenseman on the high school varsity team, a tough position that rewarded both his hard work and controlled aggression. Hockey was something that made him feel good, a positive focus in an otherwise disjointed life. Nevertheless, the satisfaction that accompanied a good workout was fading along with the sunlight. The jack dropped next to the wheel with a dull thud, raising a small dust cloud. Not only was he going to be late for work, but he would be filthy, as well.

In vain, he again checked his phone to see if his text to Danny had gone through. Actually, his first instinct had been to call his girlfriend, Emma, but he knew she couldn’t give him a ride because she would still be at swim practice. Mark knelt down in the dirt, absently retrieving the jack handle. He couldn’t keep his thoughts from drifting to images of the girl who’d become such a large part of his life.

Emma Gartner—one day, the haze of his own ego had obscured her, and the next, she’d become the center of his universe. He’d loved the very thought of her, even before a full sentence had passed between them. Their relationship hadn’t gone through the typical friendship phase; it had shot straight to hormonal insanity. The next thing he knew, conversation had to be wedged between breathless kisses.

Emma was tall for a girl, only a few inches shorter than Mark himself. She had the lithe body of a competitive swimmer, and could knock the stuffing out of a baseball, a skill that Mark found inexplicably beguiling. Most of the time, she wore her blonde hair in silky waves that framed a pair of clear blue eyes set in a flawless face—flawless except for the interesting little scar above her left eyebrow, made all the more intriguing because she wouldn’t tell him how she got it. There was a warm softness to her body, and she had plenty of enticing curves exactly where they were meant to be. Emma would be the first to admit that she wasn’t a classic beauty—not like her older sister, Kara, anyway. Mark figured she was just being hard on herself, because it clearly wasn’t only her beautiful mind that had initially attracted him.

Knowing Emma almost compensated for the double curse of being stuck in high school and living in Charlottesville. Even though two American presidents had found the pastoral nature of the town charming enough to make it their permanent homes, Mark felt its grip slowly tightening around his throat. He was disconsolate at being able to catch only an occasional glimpse of a larger world from this tiny, insignificant speck of Virginia, much like a speeding train that wouldn’t let him off. He knew that there was a more exciting life out there, and he was missing it.

He knew he should be more content with his circumstances. However reluctantly, Mark had to admit that he possessed the inherent equipment to succeed in life, primarily the result of good genes rather than anything for which he could claim credit. He possessed a head of unruly black hair that he wore just below his collar in a proud display of youthful defiance. Standing just under six feet, he was sure he had one more growth spurt in him that would produce the inch or so he needed to break that height barrier. In his mind, it was no coincidence that tall people held an unspoken advantage, even if undeserved. His orthodontist was responsible for his perfect smile, one people told him brightened his entire face and made him look receptive and certainly more optimistic than he usually felt.

Mark was strong and coordinated enough to excel on the battlefield of high school athletics, and his intelligent face, illuminated by luminescent green eyes, frequently drew admiring looks from complete strangers. With considerable bitterness, his mother complained frequently that he was just like his father—physical perfection marred by an unhealthy attraction to risk, treacherous affections, and an untrustworthy temper. Was that really how she saw him? After all, how evil could he have become in seventeen short years?

Mark sometimes mused about the classic attributes of physical strength and beauty—coveted in high school, valued by society at large, and timelessly saluted by playwrights and poets. These twin qualities could be disparaged easily enough by someone who already possessed them, Mark was the first to admit, and he tried his best simply to appreciate his good fortune. But he knew it would be his intellect, not physical traits, that would eventually save him from the ordinary life he dreaded. To this end, he cultivated a love of both math and history—one feeding his need for order and logic, and the other profoundly messy and glorious—although he knew that his true calling was neither math nor history, but computers. His outward appearance and inner jock were offset by some pretty serious nerd qualities.

He found peace in a virtual world where he could be completely anonymous, could easily distinguish between unambiguous computer game villains and heroes, and could become utterly lost in the immeasurable depths of cyberspace. To feed his digital compulsion, he had joined a local users’ group where he’d learned about the internship at UVA. Now, glaring at his disabled car, he’d better quickly find a way to get to work or he wouldn’t have an internship left to worry about.

His damp T-shirt clung unpleasantly to his back as he knelt beside the wheel. He carefully positioned the jack in the frame and pumped the handle. The car groaned in protest as its weight slowly shifted. He then used the lug wrench to remove the first nut, but was met only with oxidized resistance. Repositioning the wrench for better leverage, he applied all of his weight in a second attempt. A rusty screech temporarily silenced the woods. He wiped his damp hands on his jeans to get a better grip and tried again. With a final, unconvincing growl of protest, the nut dropped into the dirt and nonchalantly rolled to a stop beside his knee. Mark sat back on his haunches and blew out his breath. Damn, this is gonna take all friggin’ night.

As he worked on the remaining nuts, Mark tried to distract himself by thinking about a minor but bothersome programming glitch that had been plaguing him at the lab and for which he’d sought help from a fellow programmer, Leroy Geller, one of the graduate students assigned to supervise him. As Mark had dumped his backpack on his desk the previous afternoon, Leroy had greeted him with a cup of coffee.

“It’s about time you showed up, Malone. What happened? Recess running a little late today?”

Mark accepted the coffee with a grin. “What’s up, Leroy?”

Leroy was majoring in applied mathematics and electronic communications, and Mark thought him fairly bright even though he looked like a throwback to an earlier decade, or century. He was a rangy student with skin the color of polished walnut and a ubiquitous expression of fretfulness etched on his face. He wore oversized pants low on his hips, and every abrupt movement threatened to expose whatever lay beneath. Leroy often smelled of musty tobacco or weed and wore a ubiquitous look of hunger; his ceaseless scouting in the kitchen for leftovers was legendary. His head was a tangle of brown dreads that probably hadn’t been visited by a comb since his undergraduate days. Nevertheless, Leroy was a hell of a programmer who understood the big picture, so he was able to guide Mark through the maze of specifications, design requirements, validation procedures, and testing to keep him on track.

The two of them were part of a UVA Computing Center team working on a contract the lab had won during the winter of Mark’s sophomore year. The work was for MedStat Pharmaceuticals Inc., a small but prosperous drug firm out of Boston. The contract called for the completion of a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) application for some new drug called AKL-436. The task was not as straightforward as the team originally hoped, and for the last several months Mark had been deeply engrossed in modifying and testing an open source code to help organize and analyze the massive data set generated from endless clinical trials, one aspect of the large, multifaceted program. UVA’s relatively inexpensive proposal to use open sources rather than starting from scratch had been MedStat’s salvation, the perfect answer to their rapidly dwindling budget. A November submittal date for the application to the FDA made the deadline to finish and test their work tight, but the project team had made good progress over the summer by employing a vast array of impoverished summer students and had been able to maintain the schedule.

“You still getting run-time errors?” Leroy asked as he took a seat on the adjacent desk and lit a cigarette, intentionally ignoring the fact that it was a nonsmoking building.

“Yeah.” Mark sighed. “I haven’t been able to isolate the problem yet.”

“That sucks,” Leroy intoned as he leaned closer. “Lemme see.”

Although the glitch had temporarily sidetracked his progress, it was only a minor distraction from Mark’s larger assignment, which was to help develop an algorithm to analyze statistical differences in the human-trials data. The background material he’d read purported that this new Alzheimer’s drug, whimsically nicknamed Superspeed by the otherwise dour research team, increased both the rapidity and frequency of neurotransmissions in the brain by bathing inactive areas of the synaptic landscape in a proprietary, drug-laced, serotonin-rich soup. Although the details of the drug’s pharmacology were lost on Mark, he could imagine the potential of Superspeed if such claims were true—increased brainpower and superior concentration, all in a simple daily injection. This thing could be epic and worth billions.

“Get up for a sec.” Leroy shouldered Mark out of his chair and took over his keyboard, but after only a few minutes, he was scratching his head in frustration. “You try the debugger that I put in the editing folder?”

“Yeah, totally useless.” Mark shrugged apologetically as he absently sipped his coffee. “You know, like, maybe it’s not my function at all. Maybe it’s some new data server vulnerability, or some crap that was inserted into the source code before we modified it.” All good programmers knew that open sources sometimes behaved erratically or might be corrupted (unintentionally or maliciously) while passing through countless hands on their journey across the Internet.

Leroy pursed his lips. “Well, if all else fails, get an earlier version before it turned to shit and do a line-by-line comparison.” Leroy shoved away from the desk with a small, better-you-than-me smile. “Good luck with that, dude.” He’d retreated to his office, flicking ashes onto the floor as he went.

Yet here Mark was, stuck in the middle of nowhere when he should already be at his desk, wrestling with his code. Yesterday he’d spent an exhausting night at the Lab, trying to pinpoint the programming problem, to no avail. After all, there were limits to what he could do as one of the more junior programmers with limited access to the majority of project data. He’d heard rumors that MedStat had dumped a staggering amount of unstructured information, including digital scans of hand-written notes, onto the lab’s servers after the contract was awarded. Mark couldn’t understand how research could be conducted so chaotically, but this programming experience would look great on his college applications, so he’d willingly put in long hours. Besides, he could use the extra money, especially now that he needed to replace this damn tire.

As Mark was about to loosen the final nut, something caused him to look up. Had he heard something? The trees stood limp and unmoving in the windless air. The sun hovered noncommittally at the horizon. Mark was just beginning to stand up when he felt an arm squeeze around his neck from behind, causing the sky and woods to shimmer. He could only make a gurgling sound before he passed out.


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