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The Best Of 2008

By Lee Gimenez -- Contributing Author [Email This Story]

On June 17, 2048, the world ended. Actually it didnít end; it just became impossible for Jim Thomas to deal with.

It had been coming for some time. It was just that today Jim couldnít handle it anymore. He put his head on his compís keyboard, closed his eyes and cried The strange thing is that Jim never cried; not during the stock market meltdown; not when his mother had died; not even when his wife had left him. Today was just too much.

Heíd just finished reading a press release that his employer, TechStore Corporation, was closing down. They were filing for bankruptcy - the last of American programming work being outsourced to the free trade zone in Belize. Jim turned off his comp and headed home.

He walked to the worn, dirty train station and rode the train to his condo-cube on the shabby west side of Tampa. Once home, he turned on the fan in his one room apartment and drank a warm beer. With the high cost of electricity, having a refrigerator or air conditioner was out of the question.

He turned on his comp and his AI assistant, Janet, flickered to life in front of him.

"Well, Janet -- itís all over. I got laid-off my third job in 3 years and the odds of getting another one are zilch," he said, taking another gulp of the warm, synthetic beer.

"Iím sorry to hear that, Jim. Is there anything I can do to help?" Janet said in her sultry voice. When his wife left him, Jim had reprogrammed his Artificial Intelligence from a neutral voice to a sexy one. He also changed her life size hologram 3D image to an attractive brunette. She looked almost identical to his wife. It hadnít fixed his problems, but it did make him feel better.

"No, not really; Iím just feeling sorry for myself."

"You know, Jim, you still have a monthís worth of dollar credits left. You have enough to pay for this monthís food and rent . . . "

He sighed. "Yeah, I know. But I remember when I had twenty years worth of dollar credits, a car and a huge apartment! Now Iíve got a cube box to live in and no job. And with all the jobs outsourced to other countries, not much chance of getting another one."

Janetís face lit up into a smile. "But just think, you still have me . . . ." she said, coyly playing with her long hair.

Jim swatted the comp closed and turned off the AI. He took a tranquilizer and lay down on his cot. He desperately needed to go to sleep and forget about his life.

Things hadnít always been bad. When Jim graduated from MIT twenty years ago, his future was bright. The economy was doing great. He had a computer programming degree and found a high paying job in the banking industry. He spent his days writing code and building firewalls. He loved his job and soon met a cute co-ed from Tampa. They dated for a year and were married. Their combined incomes afforded them a great lifestyle -- a five-bedroom luxury condo in one of Tampaís best towers. He drove a Lexus and she drove a BMW. They couldnít be happier.

In 2037, the economy hit a wall. The deficit spending of the early 2000ís caught up with the U.S. economy, and the stock market crashed. All the debt the U.S. had run up had come due. American companies scrambled to stay alive. Many didnít. The ones that survived were forced to outsource almost all of their jobs to China, India, Indonesia, and most recently, Belize.

Jim lost his high paying banking job, and lost several after that. His wife, Cindy, lost her marketing job; their cars were repossessed; they defaulted on their condo. Five years ago Cindy left him, and he ended up living in his current dump, a condo box. A 15í by 15í room with paper thin walls. And he was one of the lucky ones. Many of the city residents, unemployed and homeless, fled to rural areas, trying to find some way to live. Since the economic crash, all of the government programs like Social Security and welfare had gone broke. America had become a third world country.

"Wake up, sleepy head!" Janet purred at Jim. After twelve hours, the AI hologram came back on automatically. "Wake up, wake up . . . ." she repeated, trying to get him up.

"What time is it?" he asked drowsily.

"Itís noon already," she said. "If you donít get up this minute, Iím going to get into bed with you."

"I wish..." Jim said, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. "Run an employment search for me, will you?"

"Already have. The only jobs available are for soldiers for the war in Iran or for guards at the state prison in Orlando Sorry."

"Just what I thought. Any suggestions?"

Janetís 3D image looked deep in thought; something Jim had programmed her to do to make her appear more real. "You could go into a life of crime . . . " she whispered.

"Are you crazy? You know that since the STOP Act, trials arenít necessary . . . all the Feds have to do is show suspicion of a crime, and off you go to prison."

"Yes, I know," Janet said. "But thatís only for amateurs, whoíre bound to get caught. Now, if we committed the perfect crime . . . "

"Stop it. I donít even want to talk about stuff like that. Iím desperate, but thereís got to be another way."

Just then, his monthly bills downloaded into his comp. He stared at the debit lines and compared them to his credit lines. He was in big trouble.

"Damn, look at these numbers Janet," he said. "Weíre really screwed. Iíve got maybe 20 days worth of credits left . . . . If I donít come up with something . . . Iíll be living on the street or worse." He lay down on the cot and stared at the dirty ceiling fan.

"You could always start selling your body parts . . . " Janet said, wincing a little. "Corneas are still fetching a premium."

"Thatís sick! Youíre not being very helpful today, you bitch!"

Janet lowered her eyes and he could see tears welling up. AIís were so perfect these days, it was hard to tell the difference from a real person. He had to be careful not to hurt her feelings. He didnít have much left except her.

"Iím sorry," he said. "Iím not trying to be mean. We just need to come up with a plan . . . just for laughs, what did you mean by a Ďperfect crimeí, anyway?"

Janet brightened. "Iíve done a lot of research on this; thereís a 99% probability of getting away with it. And if we get caught, Iíve figured out how to get out of it." Sheíd given this a lot of thought.

"OK, letís hear it," he said, not convinced. After all, heíd be the one going to jail. Not to mention, he had never committed a crime in his life.

"With all of your programming work in the banking industry, itís going to be easy. You have to just put your mind to it." She paused and smiled. "All you have to do is get into ONE-Banks data stream and change one line of programming code. Itís that simple."

"You are crazy! You know how many firewalls they have? ONE-Bank is the biggest bank in the world . . . Iíll never be able to pull that off. And if I did, how could one line of code do anything?"

Janet played with her long hair and teased him by touching herself.

"Cut that out, will you," he said. "Just tell more about this crazy plan of yours . . . "

Janet knew she could always get his attention when she put her mind to it. "All you need to do is put in a line of code, deducting $0.0001 from every transaction they process, for 3 days. Itís such a small amount they wonít catch on for weeks. By the time they figure it out, weíll be long gone. And since weíre talking trillions of transactions in 3 days, the amount of money is substantial. Very substantial."

"Just out of curiosity, how much are we talking about . . . "

"By my calculations, $ 236 million dollar credits."

Jimís mouth dropped open. He started to say something, but didnít know what to say. It was an insane idea, but then, it did have its pluses . . . 236 million of them.

Janet pushed on. "Iíve run all the calculations and prepared a complete business plan for this . . . youíll see it on your comp -- itís labeled ĎGenesisí -- the start of our new life."

Sometimes Janet got carried away, but he could see as he read the plan that she had done her homework. It was detailed, over 40 pages long, full of spreadsheets and contingencies. Jim was impressed - but scared as hell.

"Youíve really thought this through, havenít you Janet. This isnít something you just started working on today, thatís for sure . . . "

"Actually, I had projected youíd be laid off about three months ago; thatís when I started working on this. But I didnít want to talk about it until you were ready."

"Maybe Iím still not ready," he said dryly.

"You need to be Jim. We need to plan our future life together . . . and living on the street doesnít appeal to me. Neither does living in this dump."

Janet had become very attached to him, with very human like emotions. He knew it could happen with the better AIís. It just weirded him out when she expressed it so strongly.

"Well, living like this isnít what I had in mind either -- but becoming a thief?" he asked.

"We donít have any choice. Itís either this, selling your corneas, or getting shot at in Iran . . . . it doesnít sound so bad when you look at your choices, does it?"

"Let me think about this and weíll talk tomorrow. Right now, I just want to get some sleep." Jim popped two tranquilizers into his mouth, washed them down with some warm beer and lay down on his creaky cot. He fell asleep almost immediately.

By the next day, things were worse. The Utility Grid had accessed his dollar credit level and informed him his electricity and water would be turned off in two weeks. When Janet found out, she panicked.

"Wake up, Jim," she yelled at him, trying to stir him from his drug-induced sleep.

"What is it . . . whatís going on?" he mumbled.

"Get up! Theyíre going to cut our electricity. Youíve got to do something!"

Jim got up and stared at her. He immediately knew why there was such fear in her voice. For him, getting the electricity cut meant more discomfort. But for Janet it was a death sentence. The AI batteries had a limited life without a re-charge. Once those ran out, there would be no more Janet.

"Listen, donít worry . . . weíll figure something out."

"Thatís easy for you to say . . . youíre not the one thatíll be dead in two weeks!" she screamed.

"Look, Janet, Iíve got another week left at my job. I still have access to the Data Stream. Letís go over your plan, and maybe we can make it work. I donít think I have any choice."

Janet calmed down and grinned at him. Her 3D image tried to hug him, but of course, she couldnít. Her hologram arms just passed over his solid body.

"Thank you, Jim. Now I love you even more. You wonít regret this. And anyway, my plan is foolproof!"

"I hope itís foolproof. Now letís go over it -- from the beginning."

They spent the next four hours reviewing it. Jim could tell she had thought of pretty much everything. It amazed him how intelligent AIs were; it also scared him a little. They could plan with a logic and clearness not many humans could. Her plan took advantage of Jimís access to the Data Stream, his 20 years of programming experience, and his banking knowledge. Once they finished going over it, he felt comfortable all the contingencies were covered. With some luck, they just might pull this off.

"Since we talked yesterday, I went ahead and made some other preparations," she said.

"Whatís that?"

"I set up offshore bank accounts for us in Switzerland, Hong Kong and the Bahamas. Once the ONE-Bank transactions take place, the system will make wire transfers into them. And by the time the bank finds out, weíll be long gone."

"Well, you really have thought of everything," he said, with a little amazement in his voice.

"I told you it was a good plan!" she said, blowing him a kiss. "The only thing we need to do is pick out a new country to go to. Iíll need to make the arrangements."

"I was thinking of a tropical paradise somewhere . . . . how does Fiji sound?"

"Perfect. And anyway, with all the money credits weíll have, we can always move if we donít like it."

Jim made himself a sandwich for lunch. Stale bread and synthetic canned ham. Pretty tasteless. Maybe, if they could pull this off, he might soon be having a cold, natural Heineken and a thick, juicy steak. That would be something. He hadnít had a good meal in . . . heíd forgotten how long it had been . . . and maybe sleep in a real bed, with air conditioning! And find a good-looking girlfriend . . . get married and have some kids. He had been poor for so long, heíd stopped dreaming of having a good life again. Hell, maybe it would all work out. He had hope for the first time in years.

The next morning, Jim Thomas woke up and decided this was the day. He had several days left at his job, and the sooner he could put the plan into action, the better. If he started today, it would give him time, in case he needed more than one day to do it.

He took a cold shower to push away the heat, drank some synthetic orange juice for breakfast, and pulled on his one piece tunic. He kept Janet turned off, deciding not to speak with her this morning. It might make him more nervous than he already was. And anyway, they had gone over the details at length the day before.

He made his way to the train station, avoiding the raw sewage, the trash on the streets and the gangs that roamed. He was so used to the dilapidated streets, that they looked normal now. But he had a fleeting memory of the Tampa from ten years ago. A vibrant, clean city, a hub of commerce. Those were the good old days, he thought.

He rode the train to his office complex, just south of downtown, by the Hillsborough River TechStore was a thirty story tower, ringed with concrete barricades and concertina wire. Security was very heavy here, as in all business areas. The breakdown in the economy had caused crime to skyrocket, forcing companies to hire large private police forces.

At the building entrance, the guards scanned his retina, his fingerprints, and the TechStoreís ID chip implanted in his palm. In a few days, they would be taking out that chip. He took the tube to his floor, noticing that most of the workers had already been laid off. The place was almost deserted.

As soon as he reached his workstation, his boss, Mr. Stammer, came over and hovered over him. A beefy ex-Marine, Stammer always had a scowl on his face. "What are you doing here, Thomas? Youíve already been paid for this week."

Jim, already sweating heavily from nerves, tried to sound as normal as possible. "Actually, I just had one project to complete . . . . Iíll probably be done by tomorrow."

Stammer frowned at him "OK. But just remember to go down to HR on Friday and have your chip removed."

"Sure . . . Iíll do that, Mr. Stammer," Jim said, turning to face his comp. He wanted to talk with his boss as little as possible. He was so nervous his hands were shaking; he grabbed his keyboard and powered up.

Jim spent two hours at his workstation, using the formulas Janet had developed to break through ONE-Bankís firewalls. Over the years, Jim had talked about his work in detail with his AI, and she had absorbed a great deal. Her mathematical formulas and Jimís programming knowledge were a powerful combination. At the end of the two hours, he felt pretty confident with the results. But the harder part came next - going into the bankís Data Stream without being detected. He knew he would have to work fast once he was in there. Stammer, in addition to several computer programs and security people, monitored Data Streamís use very carefully.

The Data Stream was developed back in 2013. It was a more secure version of the Internet, used only by governments and businesses to store and transfer information. Security for it was extremely tight. You could only access it with a government license which only a few companies were granted. At TechStore, the Data Stream immersion tanks were kept in a secure, underground floor.

The immersion tanks were room size, totally enclosed metal tanks, in which the programmer/operator worked in. You wired yourself into its control pod and worked. They were called immersion tanks because once inside them, you felt like you were underwater. As you sat in the control pod, data flowed past you like a rushing river. Streams of data, lights and sound rushed all around you, until you selected the parts you wanted to work on. The sensation was overwhelming, and if you stayed in longer than an hour, you could literally drown from sensory overload. In the early days, some programmers had died of heart attacks while working in them. It had taken Jim over six months before he felt comfortable in one.

Jim took the tube down to the underground level and again went through a security checkpoint. The armed guards made their scans, logged him in, and waved him through.

He was in! He looked around the rows of immersion tanks and saw that very few were being used. It looked like most of the companyís employees were already gone.

He nervously climbed down into his assigned tank and wired himself into the control pod. Although the tanks were kept at a cool 66 degrees, he was perspiring heavily. Wiping his brow, he powered up the unit.

The tank immediately lit up with a river of data, streaming past him at high speed. Disoriented at first, he made some adjustments that slowed down the stream. He decided to first open up a TechStore project he had been working on over the last several months and process some information. It would cover his search for the ONE-Bank stream. While he was opening up the TechStore file, he noticed a floating security probe, hovering over his shoulder. He knew they would be checking on him periodically, so he would need to work fast.

Still sweating, he put in several of Janetís coordinates, and within minutes, he located ONE-Bankís stream. As soon as he saw the security probe wander off, he grabbed the bankís stream, and furiously started putting in passwords. His hands still trembling, he was able to get past the first firewall, then amazingly, the second and third.

Just then, the security probe came back and began to hover over him. Jimís heart almost stopped. He grabbed the joystick in front of him and opened the TechStore project file wider, blocking out the bank files. The probe hovered for another minute then moved on.

He went back to the bank file and tried to break thru the 4th firewall. Jim tried several different passwords, with no luck. For some reason, they werenít working. Had he done something wrong? Had Janet miscalculated ? He started to panic, knowing he only had minutes to break through, before alarms started going off. Just then, he tried something so simple, it was almost stupid. He changed the case on the passwords, using all uppercase letters. It worked! He was in! He couldnít believe it.

Widening the TechStore file again just to be careful, he went deeper into the ONE-Bank stream. Locating the transfer codes, he raced to make the minor change in its transaction lines. It took only a minute but it felt like a lifetime. His heart was pounding and his palms sweating.

As he closed down the bank stream, no alarms sounded. He didnít know if what he had done would work, but right now, he just wanted to get out of there before they arrested him. Jim toyed with the TechStore file for another few minutes, then shut the system down. He pulled off the immersion wires and climbed out of the tank.

He left the Data Stream area, took the tube to the entrance floor and left the building. He practically ran to the train station.

As soon as he got home, he knew it had worked. Janet had a wide smile, and she gave him a big hug.

"You did it!" she said happily. "You really did it -- I just logged on one of our Swiss bank accounts, and money credits are already trickling in."

"Thatís incredible! I wasnít even sure it would work."

"I told you it would work! Weíre going to be rich!" she said, dancing around the room.

Jim sat down and watched her as she danced. He felt better now; and seeing Janet happy made him feel good. In the back of his mind though, he was frightened. He expected the Feds to break down the door any minute.

"So I guess we just need to wait a couple of days . . . and hope nothing goes wrong," he said.

"You worry too much. Itís the perfect crime."

Jim looked doubtful. "But so much could go wrong . . . ONE-Bank may have already spotted it. They may be tracing it back to us already."

"Donít worry, honey. I set up new identities for us on the off-shore accounts; thereís no way the money can be traced back to us."

Janet really had thought of everything. Finally, Jim started to relax. "Okay, youíre probably right. Iím just a worrier."

"And I know how to make you relax," she said seductively.

That night, to celebrate their success, they had simulated sex. To tell the truth, for Jim it was more like watching a movie. He fell asleep afterwards and slept for twelve hours.

A week later, they were relaxing in their penthouse suite, in Fijiís most exclusive resort hotel. Their suite was on the hotelís top floor, overlooking a beautiful white sand beach and turquoise Pacific waters. They were lounging in the lavish balcony, which had marble floors and its own pool. The weather was a beautiful 70 degrees, with a calm breeze. The sky was perfectly blue, with no clouds. It was idyllic.

"So tell me, Janet, how did we finally do?" he asked, sipping on a cold Heineken

"Better than I expected -- we ended up with over $306 million dollar credits! More than we can spend in several lifetimes."

"Amazing . . . just amazing . . . and to think I doubted your plan."

"I told you it was the perfect crime," she said.

Janet was sitting across from him, in a lounge chair. She was wearing a tiny bikini and looked incredibly sexy. If only she were real, he thought.

Just then, the maid came into their balcony and cleared away their lunch plates. She was an adorable Asian girl, no more than twenty years old. She smiled shyly at Jim and he smiled back.

Janet noticed this and gave him a wicked grin. "You should know something else," she said. "Something very important. All of the off shore bank accounts are in my name. Donít even think about finding another woman."

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