Page 97 of Overload



Teresa Van Buren objected, "I don't see what good it would do you. How would you know where it came from? Even if Archam-3bault was dumb enough to answer, you can be sure he wouldn't give his address."

O'Brien shrugged. "I already admitted it was a half-baked notion, Tess."

"Wait a minute," London said. “There is one way a thing like that could be traceable. Invisible ink."

Nim told him, "Explain that."

"Invisible ink isn't just a trick for kids; it's used more often than you'd think," the Property Protection chief said. "Here's the way it works: On every questionnaire would be a number, but it wouldn't be visible. You print it with a luminescent powder dissolved in glycol; the liquid's absorbed into the paper so there's no trace of it in view. But when you find the questionnaire you want, you hold it under a black light scanner and the number shows up clearly. Take it away from the scanner, the number disappears."


Van Buren exclaimed, "I'll be damned!"

Harry London told her, "It's done often. On lottery tickets is one example; it proves a lottery ticket is genuine and not a fake which some crook printed. Also, half the so-called anonymous questionnaires floating around are done that way. Never trust any piece of paper which says you can't be identified."

"This begins to get interesting," O'Brien said.

“The big problem, though," Nim cautioned, "is how to distribute those questionnaires widely, yet keep a record of where each one went. I don't see how you'd do it."

Van Buren sat up straight. "I do. The answer is under our noses. Our own Billing Department."

The others stared at her.

"Look at it this way," the PR director said. "Every house, every building, in that seven-square-mile area is a customer of GSP & L, and all that information is stored in our billing computers."

"I get it," Nim said; he was thinking aloud. "You'd program the computer to print out the addresses in that area, and no more."

"We could do even better," O'Brien put in; he sounded excited. “The computer could produce the questionnaires ready for mailing the portion with a customer's name and address could be detached so only the non-identifiable part would be sent back."

"Apparently non-identifiable," Harry London reminded him. "But while the regular printing was being done, that invisible ink number would be added. Don't forget that."

O'Brien slapped a thigh enthusiastically. "By Jupiter, we're onto something!"

"It's a good idea," Nim said, "and worth trying, But let's be realistic about two things. First, even if the questionnaire reaches Archambault, he might be smart and throw it away, so what we're backing is a long shot."

O'Brien nodded. "I agree."

“The other thing," Nim continued, "is that Archambault-under whatever name he's using in his hideaway-may not be on our direct billing system. He could be renting a room. In that case someone else would get the electricity and gas bills-and the questionnaire."

"That's a possibility," Van Buren conceded, "though I don't believe it's likely. Think of it from Archambault's point of view. For any hideaway to be effective, it has to be self-contained and private. A rented room wouldn't be. Therefore chances are, he has a house or apartment, the way he did before. Which means separate metering with separate billing. So he would get the questionnaire."

O'Brien nodded again. "Makes sense."

They continued talking for another hour, refining their idea, their interest and eagerness growing.

10

GSP & L's Computer Center, Nim thought, bore a striking resemblance to a movie set of Star Wars.

Everything on the three floors of the company's headquarters building which the center occupied was futuristic, ciinic and functional.

Aesthetic frills which appeared in other departments-decorative furniture, carpets, paintings, draperies-were forbidden here. There were no windows; all light was artificial. Even the air was special, with hilmid1tv controlled and temperature at an even seventy degrees. All who worked in the Computer Center were subject to closed-circuit TV surveillance and no one knew when lie or she was being watched by the utility's equivalent of Big Brother.

Movement of individuals in and out of the center was rigidly controlled. Security guards, operating inside bulletproof glass cubicles, and speaking through microphones, scrutinized every arrival and departure. Their orders allowed them to assume nothing. Not even a known, friendly face which they saw each working day was permitted to pass without an inspection of credentials.

Each person moving through the security area (always singly; more than one at a time was not allowed) was enclosed in an "air lock"-in effect, a small prison, also of bulletproof glass. After entry, a heavy door at the rear clanged shut and was bolted electronically. Another door in front, equally formidable, was opened when a guard was satisfied that all was well. If suspicions were aroused, as sometimes happened, both doors remained closed and locked until reinforcements, or proof of identity, arrived.

No exceptions were made. Even the company's chairman, J. Eric Humphrey, never got in without a temporary visitor's badge and careful scrutiny.

The reason for ultra-precautions was simple. The center housed a priceless treasure trove: A computerized record of eight and a half million GSP&L customers, with their meter readings, billings, and payments-all going back years-plus details of shareholders, employees, company equipment, inventories, technical data, and a multitude of other intelligence. One strategically placed hand grenade in the Computer Center could have wreaked more havoc to the giant utility's system than a wheelbarrow load of high explosive employed against high voltage lines or substations. The center's information was stored on hundreds of magnetic disc packs. There were twenty discs to a pack, and each disc-twice the size of a normal LP recording-contained the records of one hundred thousand customers.

Value of the computers was about thirty million dollars. Value of the recorded information was incalculable.

Nim had come to the Computer Center with Oscar O'Brien, their purpose to observe the dispatch of what was officially a "Consumer Survey" mailing but what, in fact, was the baited trap in which it was hoped to snare the Friends of Freedom leader, Georgos Archambault.

It was Thursday, four days after the Sunday "think group" session in the general counsel's home.

Many hours had been spent since then, working on the questionnaire scheme. Nim and O'Brien had decided eight questions would be posed. The first few were simple. For example:

Does Golden State Power & Light provide you with satisfactory service? Please answer yes or no.

Further on, there was room for more expansive answers.

In what ways do you believe that Golden State Power & Light service could be improved?

And:

Do you have trouble understanding the details on your Golden State Power & Light bills? If so, please tell us your problem.

Finally:

Golden State Power & Light apologizes to its customers for inconeniences as a result of cowardly attacks on company installations by small-time, would-be terrorists who act in ignorance. If there are ways in which you think such attacks could be ended, please give us your views.

As Oscar O'Brien observed, "If that doesn't make Archambault hopping mad, and tempt him into replying, nothing will."

Law enforcement authorities-the city police, FBI, and the District Attorney's office-when informed of GSP&L's idea, had reacted favorably. The D.A.'s office offered help in examining the thousands of questionnaires when they began coming back.

Sharlett Underhill, executive vice president of finance, whose responsibilities included the Computer Center, met Nim and O'Brien after they were checked through Security. Mrs. Underhill, dressed smartly in a light blue tailored suit, told them, "We are running your Consumer Survey now.

All twelve thousand copies should be out of here and in the mail tonight."

"Eleven thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine of the damn things," O'Brien said, "we don't care about. There's just one we're hoping to get back."

"It would cost us a lot less money," the finance chief said tartly, "if you knew which it was."

"If we knew that, my dear Sharlett, we wouldn't be here."

The trio walked deeper into computer country, past rows of softly bumming metal and glass cabinets, stopping beside an IBM 3800 laser printer which was spitting out questionnaires, ready for mailing in window envelopes.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com