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Life Arts

Short Story: "Cascade"

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It had all come down to Irwin's own testimony. Five nightmarish months of a high-profile court case in which his life was laid bare like a laboratory exhibit and washed with stain that allowed only one interpretation: terrorist. And all because he'd suggested a use for some cash left over at the end of a tech conference.

He looked up from the bible beneath his hand, and then over at the judge. His throat was dry from sitting for so long beside his court-appointed lawyer, agape at the fabricated version of his life that had been reeled out by the prosecution. "I do."

"You may take the stand."

The state's attorney, a white-haired man named Ralph Glendon, who had the bearing of a general and the guile of a used car salesmen, rose and started towards him. "Mr. Forrester," he said calmly, "the court has heard a great many expert witnesses in this case. Some of them have spoken to your character... or lack of it."

Irwin's lawyer, a petite fireball named Susan Wright, rose partway out of her chair. "Objection. Conclusionary."

"Sustained." The judge cast a weary glance at Glendon.

"Others," he continued, unabated, "have described the horrendous result of your actions. They have laid out, clearly and unambiguously, the details of how the river surge that you caused to be set in motion was responsible for the destruction of a major coastal city, a shipping port that suffered damage which was measured, not just in dollars, but in lives. What we haven't heard, to this point, is why you did it."

Irwin pounced. In the scant pause, he came alert and said, "Thank you for asking."

Susan Wright might not have had the years of experience that informed the prosecutor's judgment, but she more than made up for it in her grasp of psychology, and in particular, the psychology of a certain high-profile prosecutor. When they'd discussed today's testimony, she told him to listen carefully to Glendon's phrasing, because he had a tendency to make sloppy linguistic mistakes. If Irwin could interpret a preparatory remark as a request for information, and immediately started replying, the prosecutor wouldn't get the chance to finish framing his question, and couldn't lay a trap. Judge Hu had allowed it before, and she was certain he'd do it again.

Glendon, who had just drawn breath to continue, closed his eyes in painful realization of the error. He wasn't likely to repeat the mistake any time soon.

"In order for me to explain why I made that suggestion," Irwin said, "you have to understand what the conference was really all about. The way your experts described it was completely wrong. We're not a bunch of hackers 'getting drunk and hatching violent schemes' as it was put recently. The purpose of the conference is to provide a venue, a context, for a group of technically educated analysts to look at the nation's infrastructure as if it were a machine. The piecemeal way that it was designed and constructed hides a great deal of the way it behaves as a whole. We prefer to call ourselves Civil Ecologists."

"Okay," the prosecutor said. "I'll accept that characterization. It's certainly a lot easier to grasp what a 'civil ecologist' is than the long-winded titles we have heard bandied about here. Go on."

Irwin glanced at his lawyer. Happily, she did not appear to be suppressing panic. "Well, sir, because we intentionally look at the infrastructure as a machine, we notice the interactions that are possible where they intersect with one another. In some cases, these interactions form what could be described as a cascade of events, much like the seemingly chaotic behavior of a Rube Goldberg device."

Glendon nodded. "Yes. I don't think we need to revisit the disastrous demonstration of how Healy dam shattered Constongo Gas's main pipeline when it failed. We're well aware of how that slow-motion train wreck proceeded. But you were a thousand miles north of there."

"I was. But when we are looking at the interactions among bits of the national infrastructure, distances can be deceiving. It's not as important where a thing is physically, as how they are connected through social structures, communications networks and so forth. It's really quite complex. We take it as a challenge to understand how these systems of systems behave. One way to describe such causal cascades is by sketching out a path of probable outcomes. Those sketches frequently look startlingly like the contraptions that Goldberg drew, or like the ones which students from all over the world spend their time either building for real, or in simulation."

"And these Rube Goldberg contraptions," Glendon said, "the ones designed by students... do they ever have destructive purposes?"

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Ever since I learned to speak binary on a DIGIAC 3080 training computer, I've been involved with tech in one way or another, but there was always another part of me off exploring ideas and writing about them. Halfway to a BS in Space Technology at (more...)
 

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an indictment of the system!... by Archie on Thursday, Dec 10, 2009 at 4:44:38 PM
This story was inspired by something that happened... by P. Orin Zack on Thursday, Dec 10, 2009 at 5:26:15 PM