Lurlene dropped Chip back at this apartment without bruising his ego too much more. The car ride was a little more exhilarating than it had been on the way there, he suspected because he was a little less distracted than he had been. The difference in capabilities between Lurlene’s car and his own was vastly evident, even just cruising between stop lights. She dropped him off on the curb in front of his building and smoked the tires liberally as she pulled out, leading Chip to realized in this era of efficient and emasculated vehicles that the term “burn rubber” was descriptive rather than hyperbolic.
When he got upstairs to the loft, he couldn’t bear to look at the mess of wrappers he had left, nor the box of donuts that stubbornly continued to exist on the counter, so he took himself to bed for a nap, that solid refuge of the emotionally battered. Unfortunately, he couldn’t fall asleep. He just lay there turning over in his head all of the jagged puzzle pieces of his past week. Before he started hacking the city’s computers, he had been trying to figure out who was hacking Ellen Suffolk’s computer. Before he had gone to that fateful meeting, he had been trying to figure out what he was doing here, in this town, at this particular time. Now, he was able to delay having to complete that inquiry by substituting a different one. Rather than figuring out who he was going to be, he was going to figure out who killed Don Mockson instead.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t doing any better on that issue than he was on his own future. He had some kind of proof that Mockson didn’t die an accidental death, but he had nothing at all on what sort of death he did have. A red circle on someone’s chest was not a sign of anything that he knew of. He wasn’t even sure if what Mockson was planning was even a motive for B and C Mining to want to stop him. It sounded a bit pie in the sky when Rhonda described it and he didn’t see where the company would do something crazy like having a man killed as a way to try and stop the community rights ordinance from getting proposed.
Lying in bed tossing and turning wasn’t any respite at all from emotional fatigue, so Chip rolled himself out of bed and say down to compose a to do list. That subtle bulwark against creeping worry, Chip appreciated the power of a to-do list. If you put “Solve murder” on the list, then you just had to get it done and then you could cross it off. The to-do list was an epic mind hack where you set tasks for yourself and then your brain like a good golden retriever obediently sets off to complete them. To amplify the neural impact, Chip made his to do list with paper and a pencil. The tactile feedback did a great job of making the tasks at hand seem tangible and real.
Like most to-do lists, this one stretched on much longer than originally thought, onto the back of the piece of paper and around onto the margins, but when it was done, Chip felt a sense of relief that wasn’t only due to knowing what he should work on next, but a feeling of order and organization that wouldn’t vanish even if he were to lose the list under the refrigerator right now.
One of the things at the top of the list was to call Allison and deliver the news from last night’s escapade. Chip felt strangely like he had betrayed her by first telling Rhonda and Lurlene about what he had done.
When he texted her, she replied again suggesting another walk in the park. Chip bundled up and went to see her, downloading a few of the color-enhanced stills from the surveillance video onto his phone as props to explain the process.
She had beat him there again and took off at a brisk walk as soon as he got out of the car. Skipping a few times to catch up, Chip said, “Hello” and got down to business.
“Do you want to know what I found out last night?”
Allison looked sharply at him and then over her shoulder. Satisfied that there were no boom microphones pointed in their direction, she nodded.
“Don Mockson didn’t have a stroke just by accident.”
“I already know that. What makes you say it, though?”
“Wait, you know that already?”
“Yes, I know it, but I just can’t prove it.”
“But, then, how can you say that you know it?”
“Science major, right?”
Chip looked quizzically at her and she continued, “Just because you can’t prove something to a jury or a review board doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. Gödel should have taught you that.”
Chip had to shake his head yet again to clear his thoughts enough to get back on the track he had been trying to follow when he started this conversation.
“Okay then, I have some evidence that Mockson didn’t die a natural death.”
“Now you’re talking. What have you got?”
Chip sketched out his nighttime digital peregrinations and tracking down the surveillance video. He pulled out his phone to show her the false-color images of Mockson’s face and tried his best to explain how the analysis could detect subtle variations of color that correlated with pulse rate. He ended his story where he had left off last night, with the stark reality of 65 beats per minute.
She thought quietly about what he had told her for a few moments, playing out how his information could fit into the story that she wanted to write. Eventually, she asked “How sure are you about this? It doesn’t sound like you’ve ever done this before.”
“No, I’ve never done it, but I’m really sure that it’s right. I tested it out on myself and it was pretty accurate.”
She thought a bit more, “How can you show me what you discovered? Do you have a graph or something?” He explained that he didn’t, but he could probably put together something like that from the data the program generated.
“Okay, when you’ve got something, encrypt it with my public key and send it to my work email. That one’s set up to handle private exchanges with sources and starting now, you’re my best source on this case.”
“What does that mean?” Chip asked excitedly.
“According to the government, not very much. It used to be that I would have had some protection from being forced to reveal my sources, but over the past twenty years, almost all of those protections have been worn away in court cases alleging that the government needs to be able to subpoena reporters sources for national security reasons. I could resist a subpoena, but we wouldn’t be taking anymore brisk walks in the park because I’d be in jail for contempt of court.”
Chip shuddered to think that he could get her locked up, but he couldn’t very well take back what he had already told her, so he just shrugged. “Want to hear some more scoops from your number one source?”
“Sure, I’ll take whatever you can give me.”
“Don Mockson and his friends were going to propose this community rights ordinance banning frac sand mining when they were done chanting.”
“Ah” she said knowingly.
“What does ‘Ah’ mean in this case?”
“What do you know about community rights?”
“Well, Rhonda tried to explain it to me, but all I got was that she was going to propose a law that was illegal, which seems like a contradiction waiting to happen.”
“Not really, there’s laws and then there’s laws if you know what I mean.” He didn’t. “There are different levels of law making. There’s federal laws that derive their authority from the constitution, state laws that derive authority from their constitutions and then local laws that derive their authority from the municipal charter from the state.”
“Okay, so what does this have to do with your comment of ‘ah’?”
“That just explains how you can have laws that are illegal. If a city makes a law that is contrary to a state law, then we say that the city law is illegal. It’s called preemption, state preemption in this case.”
“But there’s no law that says frac sand mining is okay.”
“Not yet there isn’t. I guarantee that there are mining lobbyists in Des Moines right now proposing just such a thing.”
“But why would they make a law to prevent towns from making laws?”
“Because community rights is a viral law meme and must be stopped.”
Chip needed to stop too because nothing in that sentence had made any sense to him and he feared that perhaps he was having a stroke of his own. “What can you mean by all of that? What is a viral law meme? And what does that have to do with Don Mockson.”
“I’m getting there. First, you probably know what a meme is.”
“Sure, those pictures on the net with funny captions printed over a common image.” He felt pleased that at least he was on sound footing this early in the conversation.
“That’s only the most lowbrow example of a meme. A meme is an idea that can be transmitted and reproduced throughout a culture. It is the information equivalent of a gene. It reproduces itself, it can mutate, which basically means that it can evolve.”
“Okay, so a meme is an idea that can evolve.”
“And a meme reproduces itself into the next generation by spreading to another host, another individual who hears the idea and captures it in their own head.”
“But there are so many ways that ideas can get passed around.”
“Exactly. Any way of exchanging information can be a vector for passing around memes, not just the internet joke kind, but any sort of idea can be reproduced over a communication channel.”
“So now we have memes that are reproducing and being spread around.”
“And that’s where we can get a virus. A virus is a biological entity that reproduces by getting its host to make copies of the idea. A viral meme is the same idea. It has something about it that makes you want to share the idea with other people.”
“And then they want to share it with other people and so on. Just like germs spreading around a group of people.”
“Exactly. And it is equally hard to stop. You can’t very well stop a virus that is present in a group of people because even if you can stop the germ from getting from one person to another, then there are always going to be other sick people getting other people sick and if you can’t prevent all transmission, then the virus keeps spreading.”
“So, I understand what that looks like for the common cold and the flu, but what does it look like for memes.”
“Democracy is probably the best example of a viral meme we’ve ever seen in this world. Self-government was an idea made up by a bunch of people in the late 18th century. And the idea is incredibly compelling, if you heard abot it then you would be bound to share it. The power of the meme is that you don’t even have to believe what you are talking about. As long as you think enough of the idea that you tell other people about it, then the meme can reproduce itself. Over the course of 200 years, that is how we basically ended up with democracies in all of the Western nations.
“Some one came along and challenged the prevailing governmental meme of the time, that the right to govern others was divinely imposed on royalty and so they had it and no one else did. That idea, the divine right of kings was completely conquered by the idea of self-governance. Now everyone believes the idea that each person has a right to be involved in their own government. That meme spread like wildfire. Imagine if you are a landless serf and you hear that the serfs in a neighboring country are claiming that they have the right to govern themselves. Then you are darn well going to start thinking about and talking about that idea.”
“So you’re saying that the Declaration of Independence is what, some kind of a symptom?”
“Symptoms plural. The Declaration of Independence that you’re thinking of isn’t even the only declaration of independence. There were individual communities issuing similar statements declaring that they had the right to self-government and severing their governmental relationship with the King. The idea seems to have spread all over the 13 colonies in the course of a year or so and Jefferson’s fancy version is just the overall expression of what many people were already thinking and saying.”
Chip nodded, unprepared for an American History lesson, hoping that his brain could file this new information quickly enough that the resulting pause wouldn’t make him seem like a complete moron in Allison’s eyes. When he was nearly caught up with what she had said so far, Chip tried what he thought would be an easy question.
“So you think that community rights is like the Declaration of Independence?”
“Not really, that comparison has a glaring category error, but I do think that the community rights movement has the potential to be as revolutionary as the American colonists.”
“That doesn’t seem likely. It’s not like we are going to start a new country again.”
“Maybe so, maybe not. What if we had the same country but with a different legal and cultural structure. Would that count as a new country?”
“No,” Chip responded immediately.
“Why not?” Allison shot back. “That’s the power of memes. When the ideas behind the structure of things changes, then the structure has to change too. That’s what is so dangerous about the community rights movement.”
“Dangerous like ‘kill an old guy’ dangerous?”
“Maybe. Can you imagine would the Kind of England could have prevented if he had hung a few more of those pesky American traitors? The only way to stop a viral meme is to stop people talking about it, to stop it ever being born or being transmitted.” Allison paused slightly between two steps as if she thought of something new to her, which was even more impressive for someone as confident as she was.
Chip picked up the conversational break. “But you can’t eradicate a virus. Once it gets out into the population, then there is always someone who has it who can retransmit it.”
Allison seemed disappointingly surprised that Chip had realized the same thing that she had at the same time, but smugly pleased that he hadn’t worked out the logical conclusion yet.
“Have you ever heard the term ‘Patient Zero’?” she asked.
“No, but it sounds like a computer scientists joke about the first person who ever got sick.”
“Epidemiologist joke,” she corrected, “but yes. Patient zero is the first person who caught a virus and brought it into a population. The key to stopping the spread of the virus is to find patient zero and then work outwards to everyone that they might have infected. If you can stop the spread by eliminating infections coming from patient zero and everyone who got the virus from them and so on, then you actually can stop a virus in its tracks.”
Chip tried to follow the line of argument further. “So then Don Mockson would be like patient zero for infecting this town with the community rights viral meme. Then, if we wanted to prevent the spread of the meme we would just have to find all of the people who he had spread it to…” Chip trailed off with the particular squeak of fear for one’s personal safety as he realized that he and Allison were among the infected and whoever was trying to prevent this idea from spreading might already know that.