The Stack Archive

Short story: The Newt Affair

Sat 19 Sep 2015

In the second of three weekend short science-fiction stories focusing on the possible consequences of current technological trends, local cops investigate a mysterious murder at a car factory…

Lieutenant Vinny picked up the call,  just when he was about to call it a day. “187, lieutenant,” said the officer on the scene. “At the car works factory in Newt.” Newt, a small adjoining town, was part of their jurisdiction at Nutack, a small and picturesque city at the intersection of the rivers Nutack and Nemick. The lieutenant said he would be there shortly with detective Jo, and gave the officer some instructions, since 187s were exceedingly rare in Newt while Bigfoot sightings by drunk hikers in the woods quite common. As they drove to Newt, Vinny asked Jo, “What do you know about this car factory, Jo?” Jo, from the newly formed digital division of the Nutack detective squad, replied — “Lieutenant, what I could gather quickly is that the company Janus was set up two years ago making parts for the auto industry and employs about 300.”

The car driven by Jo sped down the road along the river Nutack and they would cross the river at the Topeka bridge. In the angle formed by the rivers was a range of hills heavily wooded, the Wetuset. Jo had learned that the noisy stream Nutack cut a path through the hills to join the gentle river Nemick, after which they flowed together as the Nutack river (the noisier one’s name had prevailed and also given its name to the city downstream). The town of Newt lay at the foothills on the other side of the river.

They were a study in contrast, Vinny and Jo. Detective Jo, fully Josephine Millet, the newest recruit into the digital transformation of the police squad, came with a reputation for smartness. She was an attractive young woman who never gave much thought about her looks and a lot about science and technology. The lieutenant, with the given name of Vincent Viniateri — thus Vinny on both fronts, had a reputation for being a tenacious and skilled investigator. The digital initiative was his brainchild. In drawing these profiles, I might be giving the impression that Vinny sprang from a long line of police officers and that Jo was a police force newbie. But nothing could be further from the truth. The lieutenant came from a family of theoretical chemists. His parents, both professors, were surprised when their son decided to make a career in the police force. And Jo came from a long line of police officers (the Millets enjoyed this reputation in faraway Louisiana) and her family had been surprised when Jo decided to enter the police force, continuing a tradition, and her brother Maurice went off to study music, breaking with tradition. In a way Jo and her brother were trying to even the odds — there were currently more female pianists and male police officers in the Millet line.

At the factory, a tall, clean shaven man introduced himself as Mr. Claiborne, the factory manager, and led them to the crime scene, which the young officer from Newt had taken care to keep intact. “He was a visiting scientist — here this week — helping us test our automation modules,” said Claiborne. It was clear that the bearded scientist sitting in the chair, his head now twisted at a particularly odd angle, would not be able to participate in any more testing. It was a hexagonal room with video walls and screens and lots of control equipment. “What is this room for?” asked Jo. “We simulate car performance in different terrain,” replied Claiborne. “Urban, rural, racing strips, mountains, deserts and so on — for testing our units. Before cars hit the street they hit our systems first.” “Was he working late today?” continued Jo. “You know how scientists are, detective,” said Claiborne. “They work strange hours and he had the freedom to come and go as he pleased. Our assembly section where we put our modules together for testing maintains more regular hours and is highly automated.” The procedures got underway as the coroner arrived but they could not establish much more of significance. The victim has been surprised somehow, late in the evening, and the killer had left few physical traces. The security guard performing his late evening round has noticed the open door and discovered what had happened. Claiborne could offer no conceivable motive for the visiting scientist’s death.

On the way back from Newt, a beautiful moon peeping over the hills and reflected in the river followed them back to the city of Nutack.

From somewhere in the Quad, a call was placed. The man who picked up the call tried from force of habit to stub out the e-cigarette that he was smoking (or vaping) and heard a voice not unfamiliar to him say: “Huston, we have a problem!” “I know.” replied the man Huston.

Early next morning, Jo came over to Vinny. “Lieutenant, the video shows the victim park his car in the factory lot at 2 PM and enter the building. The parking lot was fairly empty even at that time. Don’t they have 300 people working for them? Is the company not doing well?” “Jo, find out what Claiborne says to that,” said Vinny. An hour later, Jo was back. “Apparently they have a lot of remote employees. And business is booming, according to Claiborne.”

From somewhere else in the Quad, another call was placed that morning. The man who picked up this call was the lieutenant. “Is this lieutenant Vincent Viniateri covering the Newt affair?” said a weary voice. “Yes,” said Vinny. “Lieutenant, you don’t know me but we have to talk soon,” said the weary voice again. “I’ll be in your neck of the woods after 2 PM. By the way, is there a parking garage in Newt?”

Taking Jo along with him, Vinny met with the stranger in an open parking lot. The stranger, a slender man with lots of grey hair, extended his hand to Vinny and Jo: “Call me ‘Stiff-Neck’ for now — after that flight, I have a bad one.” Stiff-Neck looked at Jo wondering who she was and why she was present. “Detective Jo, my lead investigator,” said Vinny. “What’s this about?” “Autonomy,” said Stiff-Neck cryptically. “Doesn’t this town have an underground parking garage? I feel exposed in this open lot. Bad for our business. By the way, I was trying idiom when I said I’ll be in your neck of the woods. This town’s literally there.” His weariness was palpable. “Let me buy you a late lunch in town, detectives. Do you know a quiet place where we won’t be noticed?”

Sitting in a comfortable booth with food and a cool beer, Stiff-Neck became more relaxed. “Where I work matters little to the affair, detectives. You can make your own inferences. Why is this town called Newt? Did the early settlers discover newts here in plenty?” It was rare that Stiff-Neck cared for facts like that but the beautiful view of the Wetuset hills from the window of the restaurant was having its effect. “Not the settlers you’re thinking about,” said the lieutenant. “But ones who came several thousands of years before them. Newt means “one” in one of the Algonquin tongues, probably dominant at that time. Why “one” is not clear — perhaps they found the one place that they were seeking or they were thankful to the one who led them here. Also Nutack means “to hear” and Nemick means “to see”. You can hear the roar of the hidden Nutack while the gently flowing Nemick is easily seen for miles. These are anglicized forms of course but they retain the beauty of the original.” “There are two types of people,” said Stiff-Neck, who had moved past the origins of Newt. “For example, people who want cars to drive and people who like cars that drive themselves. Drive, driven — human judgment in one case, machine in the other. The tide is in favor of the machines and there is no stopping that force that seeks to externalize our mind and action. I’m not trying to moralize. I just want us to think carefully of the human side. After decades of keeping secrets, it becomes a way with you and you sometimes forget why you do all that you do.” “What do autonomous cars have to do with the Newt affair?” asked Jo. “Detectives,” said Stiff-Neck, “listen.” And for the next fifteen minutes, Vinny and Jo listened. “Now you have to act fast,” said Stiff-Neck. “And here’s the magic potion. And you know the conditions for it to work.” He placed a small circular disk the size of a coin and only slightly thicker in Vinny’s hand. “You’ll never hear from me or see me again, I think, and I thank you.”

The lieutenant started to plan the course of action on the drive back from Newt, discussing it with Jo. When Vinny reached the station, he received a call from Liz Ascopo, his friend and reporter at the Nutack Gazette. “How are you, lieutenant?” asked Liz. “Care to tell me more about the Janus incident in Newt?” “You heard, Liz?” “Yes, from the Newt News. My editor’s furious that the local rag scooped us — she thinks I have a direct line to you. And I let her think that, so don’t ruin it. I can’t stand reporting any more Sasquatch sightings — two just today from drunks in the Wetuset. I heard enough stories growing up. My ancestors on my father’s side were great story tellers.” “Liz, I have to go now, just thought of something. But I’ll call you back.”

It was a few chaotic weeks later that the senate hearing about what the newspapers called “The Janus Incident” (first scooped by Elizabeth Ascopo of the Nutack Gazette) got underway. The Bible-quoting senator started things off thundering a verse from Isaiah: “They hatch cockatrice’ eggs, and weave the spider’s web: he that eateth of their eggs dieth, and that which is crushed breaketh out into a viper.” He sat down to muted applause because most people were on their smartphones trying to figure out what a cockatrice was. Not to be outdone, his neighbor in the seat to his right paraphrased Job: “Behold now behemoth, his bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron. Behold.” The applause this time was better since those present were more familiar with behemoths.

For most of the proceedings, Claiborne representing Janus Car Networks (JCN) took refuge in the fifth often, offering regrets that his lawyer sitting next to him had a one track mind. “What Mr. Claiborne can you say about the cause of this incident?” “In my opinion, senator, the discriminant function supplied by DarkMind was, er, not that discriminating. It was overfitting. We plan to purge DarkMind from our procedures going forward.” “Were there any other contributory factors, Mr. Claiborne?” “Senator, our mobile industrial units did not observe the ambulatory perimeter that we had established with multiple redundant safety procedures. It malfunctioned and was breached. We lost our finest scientist. In his honor, we plan to establish a robotics chair at the university in his hometown.” One senator punned: “Mr. Claiborne, don’t you think ‘To AI or No-AI’ is the existential question of our times?” His cleverness was lost to posterity. Claiborne interpreting it as “To Aye or Nay” pleaded the fifth just to play it safe. Almost everyone else missed that too. Not wanting to tackle existential questions, the senate proceedings wound down.

Liz, Jo and Vinny sat in the same booth in the same restaurant with that beautiful view of the Wetuset. It was empty at this time, which suited them fine. I’ll give you snippets of their conversation.

“Work’s fine, lieutenant. I’m spending a lot of time leaning in and trying not to tip over.”

“Your call got me thinking — Jo’s analysis was showing an unusual number of Bigfoot sightings in the woods and we are not that much more drunk than any other place. Sasquatch was cover for the tests. We found him there and we had the magic potion to subdue him.”

“They came back every weekend, to get recharged, offload their experiences, and get tuned. Much like what our sleep does.”

“He arrives at the factory for his weekly restorative sooner than usual — his timing was off, which indicates problems — but this time he spots a face that he recognizes in the parking lot and puts his lethal plan into action.”

“The victim had used his image for recognition testing early on. Low on energy, the thing snapped. The way we do sometimes.”

The sun dipped toward the hills and the shadows grew longer. It was a beautiful sight from that window.

From somewhere in the Quad, a call was placed. The vaping man picked up the call — he was expecting this one. “Huston, things are back on track.” “Yes,” said Huston, “Jason and the Argonauts are on the move again.” His thoughts were now on Yeti.

sureshWriter’s note

“The Newt Affair” was inspired by the recent concerns expressed by Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak and many others about artificial intelligence. Elon Musk termed AI the biggest existential threat.

Hope you enjoy the story.


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