Barry had delightful stay with Franklin.
It was the first time he had met someone face-to-face who understood his connection to nature. Franklin wasn’t so intense as Barry, but sensed the same things on a lesser scale. They chatted about their shared experience as members of the Shepherd’s Household way late into the night.
The next morning, as he was packing his gear, Bess announced that the seals were blown on the right front shock. There was no way to repair it out there. It was ridable, but it meant sticking to the roads and moving slowly where the pavement was rough. Barry called his actual supervisor to report the situation, and was instructed to do pretty much what he had already decided.
It was a bit clumsy to Franklin, but Barry couldn’t resist hugging the elder sniper and thanking him again.
A thousand things went through his mind on the long ride back. But as he drew closer to the base, his thoughts were dominated by the presence of the VIPs. Most of all, it was the unsettling man who appeared nothing more than a personal assistant to Mister Big. To his relief, when he checked in at the base, he found the VIPs had taken a mini tour of the local sights. They had managed to find limos for rent locally — with complementary military security escorts, of course. A major feature of their tour included several archaeological monuments from the ancient past. Only in the past few months had it become safe enough for that kind of tourism, given the turmoil the country had been through. It would be a few days until they returned from their pampered stay in the most expensive hotels. During that time a fancy chopper arrived, apparently another accommodation owned by Mister Big. It was hauled out of the back of a cargo plane, then unfolded and tested.
Between fixing the bike and some lightweight errands, Barry was able to stay out the big boss’s way. The man was constantly keeping track of what the VIPs needed and it was clear he would be glad when this ordeal was over. But when Barry’s new phone arrive, the big boss gave him the third degree. Barry figured it was just a matter of venting at someone who couldn’t push back, so he took it in stride. He was assured the phone would not betray its nature to anyone Barry didn’t want to know about it. It remained dead when the boss looked it over. Barry said he would have to charge it overnight before he could use it. As he had hoped, the boss never mentioned it again.
Meanwhile, Barry went out to one of his quiet places out near one corner of the base fence-line. First he held up his old phone. Ned had told him to hold the new one next to the old for a minute or two and it would copy everything automatically. The new device’s screen lit up and was blank for a few moments. Then it said, Ready. He watched it a little longer as nothing seemed to happen.
Suddenly it spoke to him. “Hi, Barry. My name is Torrie.” It sounded just like some girl he knew back home, with that same southern twang.
He grinned, then started laughing out loud. “Girl, looks like you have me figured out already.”
“Well, not just yet, but I’m working on it,” Torrie assured him.
Barry never lost awareness that this was just a computer with AI. Still, it amused him to talk to it just like he did everything else in his world. Only, instead of sometimes a subtle response that might register deep in his soul, Torrie talked back audibly. This actually helped remind him that the phone was not a part of his mystical world, just a tool to get things done.
And what a tool it was! Torrie made herself at home in his world, scanning everything and telling him things he could not have known any other way. He wasn’t blind to the implications of this capability and made it a point to hang around the office a good bit so that, whatever it was Torrie’s AI did snooping on the company’s computers, it got a good chance to make the most of it.
That first evening, after most of the routine activity had shut down for the night, Barry walked out under a cluster of trees and sat on the ground. He pulled Torrie out and was about to engage in more of his inane chatter when she reported that the VIPs were not what they appeared. Mister Big was using a false name, which actually belonged to the frumpy assistant. Ned had assembled a slide-show with narrative she read off to him. The real Mister Big had become camera shy right before going to college. He managed to miss out on all the typical sittings and left no face. That he kept to himself and avoided most social events only made him more invisible at the university. However, his name did appear associated with at least two elite secret societies.
Those societies had been officially disbanded during the years of crisis that saw the international banking system come apart. It also saw several national governments change, and even some borders, and things were only now beginning to stabilize in Western countries. Of course, the big multi-national companies managed to survive, and partly in thanks to a group of investors that included Mister Big. By the time his face started showing again, it was the one everyone saw attached to that name today.
So obviously Mister Big was a fake who kept an assistant that followed him everywhere, the man who was the real Mister Big. The faker got all the fame and fun, while the real guy actually ran things from behind the scenes. The slide show didn’t go into too much background, but noted that this man had invested in all kinds of companies, and was rumored to pass out a lot of bribes through false front companies. Just for good measure, AI discovered that the ladies’ investment club was another front, and the trio in his entourage were actually relatives. The man was fake in every way. Over the past few days, Ned’s AI had dug deep and found that Mister Big had been tracking carefully the weakest links in the current alliance between Coalition governments and the big corporations that were involved in the pipeline. This whole thing must have seemed to him his one best chance to exploit instability.
This man was using leverage from stock ownership on the companies, and bribes in government, with an eye to grabbing some obscene amount of power. And in the process he had betrayed an utter contempt for human life — “life” by any definition. The unassuming old nerd was a demonic thug.
Barry was silent for awhile. Then he asked Torrie if this awful man was equally contemptuous about natural resources.
She didn’t respond right away, then said, “Looks like he would be just fine turning the whole world into a radioactive swamp, given his investments and things he has sponsored.”
That settled matters for Barry. At the cost of his own life, that man had go. He couldn’t bring himself to think of killing in that sense, but this had to be stopped. He phoned up Franklin and asked if he had seen the same information. Franklin had caught it earlier in the day, and agreed they should work together with Ned to do something. He asked Barry to keep him up to date with the VIPs movements, even if he had no idea yet what they could do.
Barry concluded with, “We got some serious praying to do.”
“Amen,” Franklin agreed.