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  Chapter I

The Mission



       A sock cap, grubby shorts and a torn sweatshirt defined Amrit's place in San Francisco society, just as much as his self-medicating with drugs and rot-gut alcohol defined his state of mind. His world was bordered by his run-down room, a medical pot shop and his sporadic evening shifts, stocking shelves at the corner grocery store. His meager existence was made possible by the sympathetic store owner who paid him whenever he turned up, which, in turn, was dependent on whether he had managed to apply just the right measure of vodka to his marijuana intake.         

       It was a misty Friday evening when Amrit paused outside the doorway of ZEN Corporation's smart South Van Ness co-op conversion, to light up a spliff. As he took a deep intake of breath to feel the full effect of what had been not feeling so effective lately, the building's security guard, who had JAMES embroidered on his cap, and carried a scanner that was cloud-linked to the nation's criminal bio-metric database, appeared, and, in a soothing, but firm voice asked, “Sir, please stand quite still for the scan process, as I should warn you that any attempt to move or look away will result in my having to restrain you.”

       The unaware Amrit kept walking, until, releasing a primal scream, he fell to the sidewalk racked in pain, as if every nerve in his body felt exposed to the elements.

       James strode over and scanned the face of his now immobilized loiterer. “I'm sorry Dr. Kahn, but you, of all people, should have followed my instructions.” A brief pause was followed by just the right amount of concern. “Are you hurt? Would you like me to call someone?”

There was no response from Amrit who was still writhing in pain.

       “But why did you resist? You know that I'm authorized by ZEN to use immobilizing force. You don't look very well. I can have help here in minutes, if you need it?”

       "No, thank you, I must go,” replied a groggy Amrit and using the wall to steady himself, he stood and moved slowly along the sidewalk.

       As the fifty-thousand volt electrical charge drained mercilessly from Amrit's body, the chemical reactions in his brain parsed his last two years of existence, and he shuddered as he recalled this extended period of self-abuse, and a dim memory recalled why the security guard had addressed him personally. He had once been known as the co-founder of ZEN Software Corporation.

       Amrit drank less and lit up less in the days that followed his altercation with James, and, now, often awoke distraught and sweat-sodden from nightmares that terrorized his fitful sleep. His days were not much better; his cheap room and the walk to and from work, past the urine-soaked doorways, now deeply disturbed him, and the drunks that he had trouble remembering, but who offered him a share from their bottles made him uneasy. A deep feeling of shame gestated within him; had he really, when desperately lonely, and at other times simply needing to release animal passions, exchanged alcohol for sex with some of the sad and desperate prostitutes that he could no longer make eye contact with? Now aware of what he had become, he questioned, as to whether he had the mental resources to fight his way back to the life that he had lost years before. But, he would try. The oily knit cap discarded and now shaving daily, he purchased some better clothes at the Salvation Army, and took them to the launderette when they got dirty. When his budget allowed, he ate fresh fruit and avoided McDonald’s and Burger King, and, as days turned into weeks, he began to once again recognize the human being staring back at him, out of the cracked communal bathroom mirror.

       It did not take long for his employer, Mrs. Banerjee, to notice the change in his personality. A traditional woman, whose colorful saris further brightened her always cheerful demeanor, she had never before asked him where he came from and was surprised to find out that their families, although from different castes, were from the same region in India. He told her how his merchant-class family was able to afford to send him to an American university: her family, having scraped together the airfare, and outstaying their visitor's visas, had opened the corner store in the rundown Mission District. When he started to explain in detail about how he and a friend had, some years earlier, started a big data technology marketing company, she didn't pretend to understand, but did appreciate his suggesting better ways of stocking the shelves to get some of her more profitable items noticed. And, as he reorganized her store, week by week, her sales grew.

       One evening, as he worked, she could not resist any longer asking him the obvious question, “I am very grateful for your help, Amrit, but why are you working here?” You are an educated man."

       "I needed a job, and you were the only person who would hire me,” he admitted truthfully. “You are quite right to wonder, but things might just change,” and he tossed her a smile as he closed the door to walk home.


       Amrit had accepted that he hadn't ended up at Mrs. Banerjee's overnight, and he wasn’t going to get out overnight either, but as his body started to normalize, so did pieces of his memory. Jumbled at first, then clearer, then far clearer, elements of anger rose, as he recalled how his life had ended the day he'd trashed the ZEN wing at Stanford University. Not one of the directors had cared that his cocaine rage was rooted in his quest to work twenty-four hour work days. They could have, should have, quietly arranged for him to go to Santa Barbara, for the industry-standard addiction cure, but the IPO was imminent and the underwriters dictated that to safeguard the offer price, they needed to immediately dispose of their rogue Technical Director, to avoid negative publicity. So, invoking the 'morals' clause in his employment contract, his friend and co-founder, Adam Eisenberg simply fired him.  ZEN's Public Image Department erased him from Wikipedia and the Internet's digital history records, leaving him imprisoned solely on the no longer read pages of paper-published articles. Within days of American Express lowering his wife's spending limit, she moved out taking their 3-year old son with her. The next day he was evicted from the company's East Bay compound, and, moving into the Hyatt Regency, with what little he'd saved, he continued an OxyContin-cocaine cocktail habit that, having initially powered his creative juices, delivered him to San Francisco's Skid Row. What had once fueled his dusk-to-dawn programming sessions, and the success of ZEN, did to his life what it had already done to his nasal passages.


       With the extra money that Mrs. Banerjee had been paying him for turning up more often, Amrit bought a battered, but functioning laptop at Goodwill, and, over a coffee at Starbucks, he used their free WiFi to get on the internet. Things had changed. Celebrity news now ruled. Fake news stories, that even the National Enquirer would think twice about publishing, were everywhere; what had been fast was slowed down by ads and browser updates, which sometimes froze or restarted his laptop, before loading the web page that he wanted. Every web page he visited sent him a welcome email and then ads for days afterwards. His information highway of only a few years earlier was now nothing but a marketing environment, and, by his creating ZEN's original search engine, was he to blame? His internet had become a tangled mess. Did the search engine companies who had, by default, become the internet gate-keepers, and who reveled in their satellite-controlled yachts and license-plate-free cars, know or care, how flaky the infrastructure had become? Did they care that the information highway had been co-opted, as just a marketing web? Probably not, he thought, as it was unlikely to have happened accidentally. He found his newly realigned compass, from that of a drugged-out complacent, to an internet user frustrating, but it wasn't long before Mrs. Banerjee provided him with the final incentive to act.

       “Look at this, just look at this!“ Mrs. Banerjee said, as she waved a letter in his direction that had just arrived from her landlord. ”They are doubling my rent! I can't afford this. Your internet people are responsible. They have come into this poor area and bought all the run-down properties. I see their huge private company buses that block traffic, and I have been forced into the street by them taking over the sidewalks with their scooters. They are all just so greedy! My cousin's restaurant, The Bengal Palace, was forced to close when the landlord tripled their rent; it’s now an organic restaurant, and look at that ridiculous climbing wall in the park. I knew it was only a matter of time before my rent would be go up, and I would be forced out. Where can I go at my age?” she wailed, as she lowered herself onto her rickety stool to rest, after a burst of energy that Amrit had not witnessed from her before.

       “I am extremely sorry for this.” Amrit said, as apologetically as he could. “I will do something. I do not know what that something will be, but I promise I will do something."  He felt that he needed to help the woman who had taken him in, and the community who had done nothing to him, except leave him in peace. A not yet fully formed idea of how he could help what had become his local community began to permeate his subconscious.

       It was the morning of Valentine's Day, when Amrit signed up for a library card to access the internet, without having to buy a cup of coffee. Mrs. Banerjee's comments had made him curious as to how the technology companies, and especially ZEN, had become so wealthy, so fast. As he fondled the ergonomically contoured mouse, and his fingers glided gracefully over the full-size keyboard, he was not surprised to see how far Eisenberg's driven personality had taken the company. Two years earlier, they had just been a marketing data reseller, but since they launched his browser, they had become the global leader in data intelligence, with their subsidiaries influential in home control systems, robotics, satellites, ocean mapping, nuclear power stations and autonomous vehicles. There seemed to be no end to their infoweb and that was only what was openly known, although Wikileaks had suggested that one of ZEN's directors was a high ranking FBI official. Checking out the company officers, he was surprised to find Jon Djerk, the Valley's first-among-arrogant venture capitalists, still listed, as he was once reprimanded for using his Tesla registration plate, 'GotRich,' as his password.

       Moving to a terminal that couldn't be overlooked, he successfully logged on using 'GotRich' and delved into the program code that he had authored. With just a few keystrokes, he brought up his own design edit portal, no one had known to remove. His intellect had not slowed, despite the abuse that he had showered on it those last few months, and it was an easy task to locate the program parameters that set customers ATM cash-drawing rights. He then opened the image recognition software code that would recognize the area's shabby and homeless. He then linked the systems. Roaming around the network, before logging off, he noticed that the company intranet, which should never be online, was accessible. A directory named 'ENDGAME' caught his eye, and he sent it to his laptop. He then added two back doors, one which was easy-to-find, that suggested a clumsy hacker had been lucky to access the system, and logged off.

       Later that night, the internet, the radio and TV news channels reported how, starting at 8pm., ATM's in San Francisco's Mission District generously spat out $20 bills, until the machines were empty. Labeled by the media as the work of the Valentine's Day 'Robin Hood,' the reports failed to mention that the $20 bills had been debited to ZEN's operating account.

 End of Chapter 1



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