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A deliberately staged IT catastrophe leaves the world sunk into depression and the US government ineffectual. The secretive and powerful Domain, using organized crime to spread its technology, seeks to take humankind to the next level of evolution through artificial intelligence. The fanatical Army of God battles to stop them. Dan Ronco’s fast-paced techno-thriller depicts a world of violent extremes, where religious terrorists and visionaries of technology fight for supreme power.
It’s 2022, a decade after a devastating computer virus was unleashed upon America and the world. Civilization has crumbled in an economic collapse that rivals the Great Depression of the previous century. During this harsh decade, the schism between those who think technology will save the world and those who believe it to be the tool of Lucifer has reached a boiling point. The Church of Natural Humans, led by the charismatic ADAM JORDAN, is determined to roll civilization back to a pre-computer era. His beautiful African-American lover, MOESHA JEFFERSON, leads the Army of God, a cult of fanatics within the Church, in a series of murders of anyone they consider a technologist.
DAVID BROWN, the gifted but troubled son of one of the most hated of criminals, receives a delayed email from his long dead father, the software genius RAY BROWN. The world believes that David’s father unleashed the computer virus that caused the death of more than a million people and led to the global depression, but the email suggests that his father was on the trail of the real criminals. David has grown up in a hostile atmosphere due to his father’s crimes, so he resolves to discover who his father was, and if he really was to blame for the virus. His only memories are of a man made erratic by too much alcohol and driven by his passion for technology.
DIANNE MORGAN is a ruthless woman. She leads the Domain, a secret society of technologists developing Sentinel, an artificial intelligence with the ability to seize control of the Internet and all other computers. Needing money and muscle to achieve her obsession for power, Dianne enters into a partnership with organized crime, led by MARIA VITULLO. Vitullo, it is rumored, seized power within the Families by murdering her uncle, the former Don. Vitullo controls the technology black market for the Domain, as well as providing soldiers in the war against the Army of God.
As David tracks through his father’s startling history, he stumbles into this hidden war. Fearing that he will expose the Domain, Dianne orders Vitullo to kill him. However, Moesha has her own plan: to keep David alive so she can follow his trail to the Domain and then eliminate all the technologists. Hunted by killers from both organizations, David unravels his father’s secrets, comes to terms with his own life, and then falls in love with a woman from his father’s past.
Dan Ronco ©2006
The Great Depression of 2020 fostered a revival of organized crime. The black market in technology surpassed drugs and prostitution to become the primary source of revenue for these criminals.
Dr. Jessica Owen-Wells, The Great Depression of 2020, copyright 2041, American Historical Society
In creating the thinking machine, man has made the last step in submission to mechanization; and his final abdication before this product of his own ingenuity has given him a new object of worship: a cybernetic god.
Lewis Mumford, The Transformations of Man, 7.3, 1956
Saturday evening, January 29, 2022
Moesha Jefferson lay hidden in the darkness of the condemned office park, waiting for the infidels to arrive. Across the street was a nearly empty parking garage attached to a glass-and-steel, ten-story office building. Once a manicured commercial park, weeds now choked the land.
Perfect for tonight.
Her spies had reported the Technos would meet in that building. Something big. She glanced past the office building at a lonely train about half a mile away pulling a long line of boxcars, then decided to move closer to the street. As she crept cautiously through tangled bushes in her black, form-fitting body suit, the grounds around her appeared deserted, but her enemies were clever.
The First Minister had asked her to slay the infidels, and she would give her life if necessary. This life on earth was unimportant, just a short prelude to everlasting happiness with the Savior.
Peering through the underbrush, she watched two pinpricks of light flickering in the distance. The pinpricks became headlights, then a long, dark sedan. A silver and black ghost, it silently cruised up the entry ramp of the parking garage. The sedan stopped at the first level, and its headlights flicked off. The garage’s overhead lights revealed the hazy silhouettes of four men in the car.
Moesha’s fingers stroked the silver amulet dangling from her neck. The coin-shaped charm was engraved with the familiar image of a bolt-action rifle above a jagged flame, the symbol of the Church of Natural Humans.
The sedan’s rear windows slid down, and muzzles of what looked like two shotguns poked out, followed by a series of dull pops. The low whoosh of tiny projectiles scattering across the garage reminded her of a mild breeze.
The projectiles floated in the air, drifting whichever way the currents pushed them, shimmering in the yellow beams of the garage lights. A moment later, the muzzles disappeared, pulled back into the car.
“They’re here,” she whispered into the communicator attached to her collar.
“We’re ready, Commander,” came the muffled reply.
The dark sedan crept through the garage, turned up the ramp, entered the top level and paused, the powerful engine idling quietly. Muzzles poked out of the side windows, and the dull light again shimmered with tiny projectiles. The muzzles retracted and the car glided to the center of the garage.
It was time. She crept toward the garage.
The Lord willing, the infidels will taste our vengeance tonight.
Sam Armenta looked out the front passenger-side window, searching for hidden enemies in the garage. Through night-vision goggles, he scanned for the religious terrorists who hunted them. The black market in technology was very profitable, but the Army of God made it dangerous. He could not allow anyone to steal his “luggage”—not if he wanted to continue breathing.
Turning to the driver, Sam said, “Give me a quick circle.”
As the car traveled in a broad loop, Sam peered through his goggles, searching for a sign of the enemy. The garage appeared deserted.
Sam asked his driver, “Anybody breathing out there?”
Pete eyed a computer display attached to the window visor. The trillions of nanotechnology sensors they’d shot into the garage monitored air composition and transmitted the results back to the computer. The sensors detected carbon dioxide and other products of human respiration.
Like tiny mechanical gnats, the sensors would home in on a concentration of these gases and surround the unlucky individual. Once the sensors detected someone, the gunmen in the back seat would finish him off.
“Garage is clear,” Pete murmured, eyes focused on the display.
“Okay,” Sam replied, scanning the garage one last time. “Pull up to the door.”
Pete guided the sedan forward and stopped near the entrance of the office building adjoining the garage. With the engine turned off, the chugging of a freight train resonated in the distance.
Sam pressed his fingers against his chest, feeling the supple webbed surface of his bulletproof vest. It would stop a slug from a pistol or a sniper’s attempt from long range, even a high-powered rifle up close. Our enemies weren’t stupid, however, they had learned where to aim.
Sam and the two soldiers in the back pushed open the doors and slipped out. Armed with Beretta laser pistols, they vanished into the darkness, methodically searching the parking garage. Sam had been brought up in the old ways; he never completely relied on technology.
While they searched the garage, Pete placed the computer on the car’s hood and reviewed graph after graph of dancing, multi-colored patterns. He keyed a series of commands into the computer, checked the display and entered additional commands.
When satisfied no enemies were present, Sam returned to the car. The other two soldiers waited next to the driver-side door. In hushed tones, they told him the garage was clear.
“Time to get the luggage,” Sam ordered.
The two gunmen followed Sam to the rear of the car and stood guard as he opened the trunk. Grunting, Sam lifted out a large brown case and placed it on the cement. Flanked by the gunmen, Sam pulled the case on its wheels to the building entrance.
One of his soldiers pushed open the glass door, and Sam cautiously entered the well-lit lobby. All three men removed their goggles and donned hoods with cutouts for the eyes, nose and mouth.
His two gunmen searched the lobby. Sam glanced nervously back through the door to the garage, where Pete had remained to monitor the computer system. Things were proceeding smoothly, but he’d be happy when this job was over.
Once his soldiers finished searching the lobby, they met Sam at the elevator.
“Floor, please,” the elevator’s computer asked.
“Nine,” Sam replied.
“Coming down immediately.”
Seconds later, the elevator doors slid open and the men stepped inside. As they ascended, the men assumed defensive positions, with Sam crouched behind the luggage and the other two kneeling at the sides of the elevator. Sam aimed his laser pistol at the opening doors, but a dimly lit corridor revealed no enemies. They stepped out and walked quietly down the corridor, Sam pulling the luggage between the two gunmen.
Their steps echoed from the cement floor across the stillness of the empty building. They passed row after row of deserted cubicles, then turned a corner and headed toward a brightly lit conference room. As they approached, Sam detected three hooded men in dark suits just like his crew, seated at the far end of a long table.
He led the way into the conference room, pulling the luggage. Sam watched the masked men cautiously as he placed the brown case on the oak conference table. Everyone held their weapons on the ready as they sized each other up.
“I’m glad to see you’re on time,” Sam said to the men seated at the table.
One of them stood up, scraping his chair along the floor. “This is our sixth meeting.”
The tension drained away. Both sides had spoken the code words properly, so they could now transact their business. Everyone removed their masks, put their weapons on the table, and greeted their counterparts.
Smiling at the man who had spoken the code words, Sam smoothed back his thick, dyed-black hair and said, “It’s good to see you again, Vinnie. I trust business continues to be profitable among the families.”
Vinnie shrugged, deep lines etched in his face.
“Not bad, Sam. We could sell much more technology than you provide.” He gestured with his palms up. “Is the Domain so fucking rich money doesn’t interest you anymore?”
Sam chuckled. “Let’s do our business before the Feds catch on.” He patted Vinnie on the shoulder. “You’re going to like this.”
All six men took their seats along the length of the conference table, three on a side. Sam pulled a small helmet-shaped computer from his pocket and placed it in the center of the table.
The surface of the computer was a smooth gray, except for two buttons—one green, one red. He pressed the green button, which turned light blue, indicating that its visual and auditory sensors had been activated.
Sam raised his wristwatch to his mouth.
“Let’s get this show on the road, Pete.”
Two people flashed into view, seated at each end of the conference table. These were not flesh and blood people, but life-sized holograms, a man and a woman. The visitors might be thousands of miles away, or they might be down the hall.
Sam had seen holograms before, but he was still mesmerized by the three-dimensional images shimmering in the air, their appearance so realistic, their movements so natural.
James Murphy, Sam’s boss, appeared on one end of the table. Murphy was Chief of Security for the Domain, the clandestine organization creating most of the world’s illegal technology. A middle-aged man of medium build, Murphy was devoid of distinguishing features. He could blend into any crowd.
Sam had never seen Murphy in the flesh, only as a hologram. He didn’t know if this was Murphy’s true appearance, or a facade shielding his identity. He suspected few knew the real Murphy.
Sam also guessed Murphy’s voice was electronically distorted, although its tone was always calm and pleasing. He chose his words carefully, each selected to provide total clarity. Sam had learned to listen to this complex man. Murphy rarely gave his word, but he always kept it. He treated his men fairly, but without compassion. If you performed well, Murphy would reward you generously. If you didn’t, you disappeared. In his own way, Sam trusted Murphy.
“Hello, Maria,” Murphy said. “Are you ready to complete our business?”
Sam had seen the petite leader of the New Jersey Technology Syndicate on television, but this was the first time Maria Vitullo had appeared at one of these meetings. Her image showed a hawk-nosed young woman with intense brown eyes. A revealing black dress drew attention to her generous cleavage, but failed to camouflage short, thick legs.
I’d stick it in her anyway, Sam was surprised to find himself thinking.
The oldest child of New Jersey’s Vitullo crime family, she had broken through tradition to become the boss of the male-dominated organization.
The story was—Sam didn’t know if it was true—she had executed her uncle in order to gain unchallenged power.
“Good to see you, Murphy,” Vitullo replied, glancing at the case. Her voice was respectful, a business executive greeting her main supplier. “If your new product is as good as you claim, we are ready to distribute it at maximum capacity.”
Sam knew Vitullo was both vicious and intelligent, a dangerous woman to deal with under any circumstances. Vitullo had been the first person to recognize the wealth and power inherent in creating a technology black market.
When the government began stalling the development of legal technology ten years earlier, she had rapidly built a huge criminal organization to sell illegal technology. In addition, she had funded scientists fed up with the government’s Luddite policies.
The mob had become a venture capitalist in this strange, new world.
Vitullo respected Murphy, but she didn’t trust him. Or anyone else. She had been working with him for five years, ever since Murphy had selected her to be the Domain’s distributor for the northeast market. The man was an enigma, just like his organization.
She had searched for years, but had failed to penetrate the Domain’s secrecy. She didn’t know Murphy’s identity or that of any other Domain leader.
She watched Murphy stroke his chin, a habit she found irritating.
Her investigators had searched the net, but every bit of information about the Domain had been removed. She had bribed and then threatened public officials, but they knew nothing, or they were too frightened to talk. She had even bribed an informer to search the FBI’s files, but they contained nothing useful. The Domain remained a shadow organization, invisible and deadly.
People who investigated the Domain disappeared. Sometimes they vanished during the investigation, sometimes months afterward. She had been forced to use outside contractors once her people discovered the pattern, but nothing worked.
She hated being dependent on something she didn’t control.
Sensing the Domain was more interested in the broad distribution of their technology than the money, she suspected a mission far beyond criminal profiteering. Whatever Murphy’s game, she planned to get a piece of it.
Then she would take it all.
She had never met him in the flesh. He always insisted on virtual meetings, although she had suggested a quiet rendezvous anywhere on his terms.
I’d like to get him in my bed. Then we’d see if he could maintain his composure.
She saw Murphy nod to that fat pig Sam Armenta, who could barely take his eyes off her breasts. He reminded her of Ralph Aprillo, the new Senator from New York. Aprillo had tried to cop a feel at a fundraiser at her compound in Saddle Brook. Someday she’d get even for that one.
Armenta opened the luggage and lifted out a young girl. Vitullo didn’t let her expression waver in spite of her surprise. It had to be a robot, but she couldn’t tell for sure. Vitullo leaned forward to get a closer look as Sam placed the sleeping girl on the table.
She appeared to be about nine years old, with dark brown hair, cut short. A pretty face, but not perfect; the nose was slightly too long and the lips thin. A few minor facial blemishes spotted her skin.
The robot wore a short-sleeved blue and white dress. Its arms and legs were slender, but well formed for its design age.
“Sarah, wake up,” Sam said.
The robot opened its eyes and smiled. “Hello, Sam.”
Vitullo experienced a sudden chill. The facial expression was almost perfect, no longer the wooden dummy.
“Sit up, please,” Sam said.
“Okay,” it replied, sitting up smoothly.
More grace than a human child.
“You’re very pretty, Sarah,” Vitullo said.
“Thanks, Sam.” Sarah turned in Vitullo’s direction and smiled sweetly. “I don’t know you. What’s your name?”
“Why doesn’t it recognize me?” Vitullo asked Murphy.
“This model doesn’t have an interface to the net. Sarah has to learn. Just like a human child.”
Vitullo nodded and turned back to Sarah.
“You may call me Ms. Moravec.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Moravec.”
“Sarah, I haven’t seen you for several days,” Sam said. “Can you give me a hug?”
Sarah smiled coyly at Sam then crawled across the table and threw its arms around his neck. Sam returned the hug.
“Thank you, Sarah. Please tell Ms., uh, Moravec, about your capabilities.”
“Sure.” Facing Vitullo again, the robot said, “I’m able to speak at any age level from toddler to adult. In order to describe my capabilities better, I’m switching to adult.” Sarah paused, and then continued, “Technically, I am classified as the CLD-13F robotic system. I have been designed to simulate many, but not all, the abilities of a typical girl of nine years.”
Vitullo noticed Sarah’s voice had lost the high-pitched squeak of childhood and now spoke with the modulation of a well-educated young woman.
Sarah walked gracefully around the table and stopped in front of Vitullo’s hologram.
“I am configured with a comprehensive package of adaptive learning software. Each robot has thirty-eight characteristics the customer may modify. I just gave you an example—language capability. Although the initial language level is set at nine years, the owner may reset it to any age desired.”
Vitullo had become vaguely uneasy as she studied the robot.
How far this alien intelligence has come. What if the Domain could take control of this robot from its owner? Could the robots be an army in waiting, scattered in the homes of ordinary citizens?
In a matter-of-fact voice, Vitullo said, “Safety code, included in all previous robots, prohibits any action that might harm a human. Do you obey the entire robot safety code?”
Sarah smiled. “Yes, I do.”
Vitullo returned the smile.
“Very good. Can the safety code be overridden in any way? Could you harm a human or allow a human to be harmed?”
Before Sarah could answer, Murphy chuckled. “Come on, Maria. You know we would never develop a robot that doesn’t obey the safety code. The world learned a harsh lesson—PeaceMaker—from that lunatic Ray Brown.”
“As you say,” Vitullo replied.
“You sound skeptical.”
Vitullo’s lips formed a smile. “You’ll say whatever is in the Domain’s interest. I say that out of respect for your intelligence. Please respect me as well.”
Murphy shook his head, apparently bemused. “Very well, but I can assure you this model obeys the safety code in every way.”
“Let’s say it were possible to override the safety code,” Vitullo said, watching Murphy intently. “Suppose a person knew how to bypass a section of code.” Before Murphy could interrupt, Vitullo said, “Bear with me, please.”
Murphy shrugged and placed his palms on the table. Vitullo noticed the Domain soldiers were sitting straight up, ready for action. Tension seeped back into the conference room.
“Suppose the safety code could be overridden,” Vitullo insisted, deciding to press hard for a reaction. “Robots all over the world would rise up as an army, attacking people according to the commands of their master.”
She paused, but Murphy’s face revealed nothing. Had she gone too far?
“But of course the Domain would never create a robot containing such dangerous code. Would you, my friend?”
His eyes never leaving Vitullo, Murphy ignored the question. “Sarah, please continue with your presentation,” he said.
As Sarah continued, Vitullo could see endless possibilities. Each customer could configure Sarah according to his own needs. Even more important, before selling them to customers, Vitullo’s people might be able to teach the robots to obey hidden commands.
Murphy would never give me a robot that could override the safety code, would he?
She scrutinized Murphy for any hints, but he maintained a pleasant friendliness throughout the presentation, revealing nothing. She decided to have her engineers take the robot apart and see what made it tick.
Outside the building, Pete continued to monitor his computer. He followed the meeting through the display, pleased to see everything going so well. His computer acted as the server for the conference, transmitting data between Murphy and Vitullo and the helmet computer.
Suddenly, the conference room disappeared and the display flashed a blinking message in large, yellow letters: POTENTIAL INTRUDER. In addition to being a hologram server, the computer continued to monitor signals from the billions of sensors scattered throughout the garage. The yellow signal warned him the sensors had detected an intruder near the entrance of the garage.
Pete pulled his Beretta laser pistol, ducked behind the car hood, and located the intruder on the computer display. A map of the nearby area identified someone on the sidewalk hurrying past the garage. The person then crossed the street and appeared to get into a car and drive away. Pete relaxed slightly.
Probably someone from the office complex who had worked late.
It was the last thought he ever had.
Moesha felt the familiar recoil of the Armalite rifle against her shoulder. The weapon’s ping was followed by the thump of a high-powered bullet crashing through a human skull; the driver’s head blew apart, blood scattering across the blacktop. The man’s body slid down the side of the car and flopped to the garage floor.
Moesha lowered her weapon and stepped out of the shadows. She crept across the garage to examine the decapitated body.
Assured the gangster was dead, she pulled off her gas mask and portable tank, which had captured her breath, leaving nothing for the sensors to detect. She quickly scanned the garage and then spoke into her communicator, “The driver has been eliminated. You may approach.”
Moesha looked at the driver’s computer, which now showed thousands of sensors moving toward her. The display had turned red.
Vitullo thought about the possibilities this technology offered as Sarah continued with the presentation. Sarah was a breakthrough technology; the robot was almost human in many ways.
We can sell millions, all secretly trained to obey me.
Vitullo knew Murphy was watching her. Although the robot would be very profitable, she sensed a deeper purpose. Still trying to see what Murphy would reveal, she turned to him.
“Of course, you realize how dangerous it will be to distribute Sarah. The robot’s humanness will anger many, especially the fanatics in the Army of God. They will regard Sarah as a tool of the Devil, and become even more determined to eliminate the Technos, as they call us.”
Murphy said nothing, so Vitullo asked, “Why did you make the robot so human?”
Everyone kept their eyes on Murphy, even Sarah. Murphy stared at Vitullo for a long moment, making her uncomfortable.
“Sarah is one step along the path, Maria. The path was always there, we are just the first to walk along it.”
Vitullo pondered his words and forced a smile.
“I don’t understand, but I will do my job. How many robots am I to sell?”
“Four million over the next three months.”
“I can’t sell that many so quickly. What’s the robot’s price?”
Stroking his chin, Murphy smiled thinly. “That will be your decision.”
“How much will you charge me for each robot?”
Murphy’s eyes darkened, losing their veneer of partnership. It was the first time he had allowed his feelings to surface, and she felt tension gouge her chest. “There will be no charge,” he said, still wearing his thin smile.
What the hell?
The Domain had built a robot that was almost human, with capacity to learn and adapt. Millions would be sold, but they weren’t charging her a cent for it? In addition, Sarah would infuriate their enemies.
What is that madman planning?
A barrage of bullets shattered the conference room windows, killing many of the Technos before they could pull their laser pistols. Coming through the door spraying automatic fire, Moesha finished off the last of the enemies. Weapons ready, her men followed her into the room.
Only a single infidel—the one named Sam—remained alive, lying on the floor with blood trickling from the wound in his forehead. The two holograms had disappeared, but not before she memorized their faces. She swore to the Lord she would hunt them down.
Her soldiers surrounded the table, pinning down the arms and legs of the struggling Sarah-Devil. Moesha stood over Sam and kicked him hard in the side. He groaned and then looked up at her. She would have liked to shatter his skull with a kick, but she needed information before he died.
She pointed her Armalite at his head.
“Tell me who you are, and I won’t kill you.”
Sam coughed. “Go to hell.”
The Techno’s blasphemy angered her, and the rifle sputtered.
She turned to the Sarah-Devil to examine it more carefully. The robot had stopped struggling and was eyeing her curiously. Moesha shuddered as she recognized the intelligence gleaming through its eyes.
Just as the First Minister had prophesized.
The creature said to Moesha, “Hello. I don’t recognize you. Please tell me your name.”
Moesha grasped the amulet hanging from her neck and kissed it. She turned to her men and hissed, “Abomination.”
Attacking the distributors of these robots wasn’t enough; she had to destroy the laboratories where the Technos created the creatures. The next assault would hit the infidels’ core.
She would bring the inferno to their universities.
END OF CHAPTER ONE