The Beta Testers

A HIGH-TECH APOCALYPTIC CHRISTIAN THRILLER, NOW AVAILABLE IN PRINT OR AS AN EBOOK

This is a true story, and it happened five years from now …

Joni McLean is 25, self-taught and one of the top five online security experts in the USA. She hooks on with ASPIS, an exciting new tech company that is eating Google’s lunch. ASPIS, specializing in high-security but user-friendly online services, was founded by charismatic genius Stefan Nicolaides, a pretty cool boss.

It sounds like a dream job. Joni’s using her best talents to do something that matters. She’s paid extremely well. She’s part of something innovative and exciting. She lives and works in a futuristic facility that takes the best features of the old Biosphere II project and creates a controlled environment for the ASPIS workers. It’s a world where everyone happily pulls together for the common good, nobody gets fired, and no one even has a desire to leave the facility.

Except she has a few questions. That’ll screw anything up.

Kevin Saganey, a militant half-Navajo ex-reporter working in the ASPIS office, has questions of his own. Like why do some independent thinkers in the company keep disappearing?

Joni becomes friends with cloud apps specialist Lorraine Hartman, a wild child who has trouble sitting still or controlling her emotions. Their own investigation draws them to Kevin.

In this story of friendship and faith, the three check on some facts and rumors linking the cult-like ASPIS to a bizarre plot that may affect the world’s geopolitical balance.

And they’re the beta testers for the whole thing.

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Excerpt from The Beta Testers

Tour

Joni McLean thought of that Arnold Schwarzenegger movie as she toured the campus at her new job. She gawked at the transparent dome covering the buildings and common area. At the groups of people her age milling in the corridor you’d swear was outdoors. At the plants growing wild along the outer edge of the corridor, partly screening the dome wall. The strong Arizona sun lit the area though it stayed a cool mid-70s inside.

When she pulled up to the facility an hour ago she couldn’t believe how big it was. A pair of domes covering more than 100 acres. By far this one was the smallest. Still, it reminded her of the Astrodome she’d seen pictures of. A very big Astrodome, probably three times its size. Never mind the Astrodome; from the inside this place reminded her of the Martian settlement in that old movie.

“This is so amazing,” she whispered.

“You likes?” her guide asked.

Kevin, she remembered. That’s her guide’s name. He interviewed her for the job a month ago, by teleconference. She liked him right away. Like in the interview was dressed office casual in back jeans, white shirt with sleeves rolled up and loosened tie.

“We’re really environmentally sensitive here,” Kevin said. “We’ve built a whole self-contained village.”

“I’ll say.” Joni held a leash and her miniature dachshund darted here and there. “This is fabulous.”

“Everything’s here,” he continued. “Computer labs, apartments, shopping, restaurants, recreation, everything. We even grow our own food here.”

Joni looked up at the clear roof and its unobtrusive framework. “That can’t be glass.”

“It’s a fairly new material. EFTE. A polymer, and it lets almost all the outdoor light in. Something like 95 percent.”

“I’ve heard of it. Europe, right?”

“That’s right. They use it for Project Eden in England. Same material makes the Minnesota Vikings stadium roof. Great stuff.”

From where she stood the framework looked no thicker than a spider’s web. “What holds it in place?”

“Itself. Air pressure, with some cables. That’s so it won’t collapse.” He sounded every bit as excited as she felt. “I’ll bet Google was never like this.”

“Not even.”

* * *

Google. Big G. Joni worked there since she was 20, one of the few without a college degree. She eventually caught the attention of the upstart ASPIS, and they wooed her for three months before she said yes. Just in time, too. In five years she watched Google hit the skids. Ad revenue dried up. Search engine traffic dwindled to a fraction of what it once was, and fewer were using its apps or cloud storage. ASPIS was eating Google’s lunch.

Five years ago ASPIS was just another of about a million who-cares startups, but from the gate it went after Google’s greatest weakness. Its whole suite of Web services was built around security and privacy, attacking Google’s ad-driven model. ASPIS started with an encoded email system, then moved on to equally tight cloud storage. A don’t-track-me search engine leveled the odds. Google users who were tired of getting those creepy targeted ads every time they clicked a mouse flocked to the new kid on the block. When Google shifted into a bunker mentality, Joni knew she had to be a part of this exciting new company. This futuristic campus was just icing.

* * *

“Want to see the labs?” Kevin asked.

“Sure.” Joni and her dog had no problem keeping up with Kevin, even with his long legs.

“Not much to see on this side. This is just the kiddie pool.”

“The what?”

“A joke. But you will live and work here for the next three months. You clear that, you go to the big dome. It’s a whole lot nicer.”

“Nicer than this?” There’s no way, she thought.

“Everybody in this building is what we call a prospect. A probationary employee. Well, except for some of the supervisors.”

“You told me about the probationary period.”

“It’s pretty tough. I think something like 25 percent clear it. But to even get this far you have to be about something. We try to get the best we can.”

“Okay.” Joni thought about this. For sure saying goodbye to Google was a roll of the dice, but for a chance to work at ASPIS you take the bet. Besides, she knew she could find work anywhere with her reputation in online security. One of the best, they told her. She closed her eyes and fired off a quick prayer. Whatever happens happens, and I’m okay with it.

ASPIS promised her $25,000 for the three-month probationary period. Less than what she was making at Google, but they would throw in an on-site apartment. Once she made permanent status her salary would double, making it $200,000 per year. Considering she lived a simple life and had no debts, the money wasn’t an issue.

“How was your trip out here?” Kevin asked. “South Carolina, wasn’t it?”

“Charleston,” Joni said. “The trip was fun. I’ve never been further than Atlanta.”

“I thought you sounded southern.”

“Does it stick out that much?” Joni thought of some of her friends who said they had to lose their southern accents if they wished to find work Up North. She never bothered.

“Some. So what do you think of Arizona?”

“It’s hot enough. I think I’m going to be indoors a lot.” The cross-country drive reminded her how easily redheads burn. No doubt the Arizona sun wouldn’t be too kind to her.

“I’m from out this way,” Kevin said. “Tuba City.”

“Tuba what?”

“Northern Arizona. It’s on two different time zones, depending on whether you’re on the Navajo reservation or the white man’s land. I’m from the Navajo side.”

“Is that what you are?” She thought he looked Native American with the black hair and eyes so dark you couldn’t tell iris from pupil. But rather than features that looked like they were carved by licks of a hatchet, his face was round and slightly flattish. Almost like a pie pan.

“Half.” He led her through an open doorway, like the kind you see at a shopping mall. “Here’s one of the labs.”

* * *

Joni liked what she saw. A well-lit open area, computer stations on high and low tables. Lots of conversation. No doubt they were hard at work, but the surroundings seemed relaxed.

“So this is where I’ll be working.”

“One of these labs for three months. We continue vetting and see if you’re a good fit.”

“You don’t sound like a human resources guy.”

“I help out. I mostly write technical documentation and handle media relations. Basically a well-paid flack that does everything.”

Joni laughed. “A generalist, huh?”

“Here, everybody is. Keeps us flexible. Besides, we don’t have a human resources department.”

“So that’s why you interviewed me.”

“Because I do it well. I used to be a newspaperman.”

“Really?”

“I’m here now, even though I don’t know beans about computers. Want to continue the tour?”

“Sure.”

They left the lab and almost bumped into a short, thick, goateed man hustling down the corridor. Joni recognized him right away.

“Mr. Nicolaides.”

***

Stefan

Joni couldn’t believe she was actually talking to Stefan Nicolaides himself. The visionary genius who founded ASPIS and built this wonderful dome. Right up there with Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Larry Page in the tech pantheon.

“Miss McLean?”

“You know me?”

He laughed. A good laugh; it sounded sincere. “I have followed your career for several years. Welcome to ASPIS.”

“Thank you, Mr. Nicolaides.”

“It’s Stefan. And you are Joni.” He took her hand, Old World style. Joni noticed his flawless English had traces of a Mediterranean accent. The black curly hair, goatee, and liquid brown eyes made her guess he was Greek.

“Thank you, Mr. Stefan. I’m honored.”

That laugh again, “I am told you are one of the top five online security experts in the country. Not the top five percent, the top five.

“I don’t know about that.” Joni heard that talk before and she tried not to let it go to her head.

“Let us go have some coffee.”

“Sure.”

* * *

Stefan led the way, bringing them to a stand-up Starbucks. He nodded toward a table and they sat down, Joni still clutching the dog’s leash.

“Sit, Taco. Good boy.”

“Taco,” Kevin said. “That’s funny.”

The three humans ordered the bold blend, and Joni added a blueberry muffin. Fuel food.

“Kevin said it’s only prospects under this dome,” she said when they started on their coffee. “Why is that?”

“An excellent question,” Stefan said. “It is mostly for security reasons. Permanents work on many high-priority projects. That is why we have such a stringent vetting process.”

“I’m told maybe 25 percent of prospects become permanents.”

“Much fewer than that. It is less than 10 percent. Twenty-five percent will make it through the vetting, but most will choose not to continue. We expect much from our permanents.”

“I guess fit is a factor too?”

“Very much so. We are quite meticulous, quite selective. But the system works. We have zero turnover.”

“Zero?”

“Believe it or not. Once someone starts as a permanent, he does not want to leave. By then we know how good he or she is, too. So tell me about your background.”

“Sure. You know about my record in online security. I studied it some years ago, and that became my specialty at Google.”

“What else do you know?”

Joni thought. “I know hardware pretty well. I built my first computer when I was 14, and got my A+ certification at 15.”

“Impressive. Where did you go to college?”

“Trident Technical in Charleston. I went there one year, then started at Google.”

“You do not have a degree?”

“No, sir. Google made an offer directly.”

That smile again, like he was sharing a secret. “I do not have a degree either. Like you, I find doing much more attractive than waiting for permission.”

Joni laughed. “I never thought of it this way.” His smile and those eyes made her feel all squooshy inside.

“So you know hardware. Have you experience with handhelds and tablets?”

“More on the programming side, sir.” Better to be honest.

“What do you know about ASPIS?”

“Quite a lot. I know you’re built around security, and it’s attracting a lot of users.”

“Security is a big part of what we do, yes. But also lightweight programs. Do you remember those old netbooks?”

“I had one. I hate to say it, but it was junk.”

He laughed again. “They were obsolete a decade ago, but you can still run an ASPIS system from one. Quite well, in fact.”

“I know you can run it from a flash drive.”

“Exactly. Our operating system and browser can run on anything that was built in the past 15 years.”

“Sir, I knew about your capabilities, and they’re exciting. That’s why I want to be part of this.”

“Joni, with your credentials, I think you will thrive here. What programming languages do you know?”

“Mostly C++ and Ruby, but also Python and Java. I’m best at C.”

“Excellent. We do not do much with Python or Java, though.”

“I reckon you wouldn’t.” Reckon? She said that to the boss? Just what she needed, to sound like some goober in front of this remarkable man. Think, girl. Think. “C is cleaner and lighter.”

That was pretty lame, she thought.

“Correct.” He seemed to ignore her inadvertent Southernism. Thank God. “Command shell or GUI?”

Good, Joni thought. The conversation is back on comfortable ground. “Command shell.”

“Why?”

“Simpler. Lighter. I don’t like to use more system resources than I have to.”

Stefan smiled. “Mouse or keyboard?”

“Keyboard” Joni was enjoying this now. “It is much faster than clicking on a mouse.”

“Vim or emacs?”

“Vim.” Joni smiled. “Lighter than emacs, and your fingers never have to leave the keyboard.”

Stefan turned serious for a moment. “You will spend most of your three months programming. Some hardware and some beta testing. Our real security work is done by the permanent employees.”

“I understand. Kevin calls this the kiddie pool.”

Stefan gave Kevin an amused look. “He is a character, is he not?”

“He seems to be.”

“I am sure you will have no difficulty making permanent status. Then you will have some fun and be part of something that will change the world.”

* * *

Joni watched Stefan speed-walk down the corridor after taking his leave. “He’s amazing.”

“That he is,” Kevin agreed. “He’s always got something going on. A million ideas.”

“I mean everybody talks about changing the world. But it looks like he’s really doing something.”

“Oh, you haven’t seen the best part of it. See all those buildings above the shops?”

“How could I miss them?”

“Those are the apartments. Fully furnished, and it’s part of your compensation.”

“Wow.”

“Trust me. They’re not big, but they’re pretty fancy.”

Joni looked up. Three floors of apartments, and each one had a balcony facing the outdoors through the dome wall.

“I’m curious. How are we paid?”

“Glad you asked. Do you have an ASPIS Cash account?”

“No sir.”

“You’ll get one when we process you. It’s all direct deposit. We’ll issue you a company ID that doubles as a debit card.”

“So I don’t need cash?”

“Not at all. We have ATMs here, but no one’s sure why. Psychological, I guess.”

“I can’t remember when I last used cash,” Joni said. “I still have a twenty from three months ago. Everything else is electronic.”

“You see?” Kevin paused, staring down the corridor. “Pretty amazing what our world has become.”

They finished their circuit around the Dome and approached the office door again. Kevin held it open for her. “Let’s get you processed.”

“Sure.”

“So what do you think?”

Joni thought for a minute. “I’m just so amazed. I mean, everything’s here.”

“Yes,” Kevin said. “Totally self-contained.”

“There’s almost no reason to leave here.”

***

New home

Joni had the whole weekend to finish moving, though she knew it wouldn’t take more than a couple of hours.

She let herself into her new company-issued and furnished apartment, using her company ID as a key.

She found a place for her stereo and set it up, put her kitchen gear away, and put her clothes in the closet.

That part was easy; she didn’t have a lot. Several pairs of jeans, some T-shirts, and one dress. She owned two pairs of shoes; the sometimes-worn sneakers she just took off, and one dressy pair she wore once or twice. She preferred flip-flops when not barefoot.

The built-in bookcase took the longest. She filled several shelves, arranging her books by subject. Tech manuals, biographies, and history went on one shelf. A decent collection of sci-fi went on another, and the third shelf went to her Bible and study materials.

Very workable, she thought. Bigger and fancier than the converted house she rented in South Carolina. Maybe a touch too corporate-looking, but how do you like the price?

A desk took up one corner of the living room, with her new company-issued ASPIS desktop computer already set up. She had to laugh at this. Desktops were supposed to be extinct, though she still preferred the big units. Laptops were all right, but give her a desktop every time.

She saw a 24-inch flat screen TV in the living room, and thought maybe she’ll turn it on some day. She didn’t even own a TV in South Carolina, but it was nice to have. Kind of like the unused twenty in her pocket.

Joni unpacked her own desktop computer and put it on the lowest bookcase shelf. She had that one for years, and she kept it running with her hacked-together mini operating system. The hard drive carried all her music, more than 5,000 songs ranging from bluegrass to country to classical to jazz. She connected it to her stereo, booted up, and selected her music player. Soon a Bill Monroe song filled the small living room through her Bose speakers.

This will work, she thought. She unfolded her camp chair and sat down on the balcony, facing east.

* * *

Back downstairs, Joni and Taco each had a burger and she was ready to explore. Several nice-looking restaurants. A couple of bars with live music. A Trader Joe’s. What a place.

A little further she found a doggie day care, and the sign said it was open all night. Excellent.

“I’m new here,” Joni told the woman at the counter. “I guess I can put Taco up while I’m working.”

“You sure can.”

“What do you charge by?”

The woman gave an hourly rate, a little higher than on the outside but not bad.

“I’m Joni.” She extended her hand. “I guess I can leave Taco here while I go shopping.”

“Sure. I’m Lysa.”

“You’re here just to work the day care?”

“No. I’m in coding. I volunteer here after work.”

“So you’re a prospect like me?”

“I’m a supervisor.”

“Wow.” What a place, she thought. “I won’t be but an hour. Is that okay?”

“Sure. Take your time.”

* * *

Joni happily spent the next hour shopping. The fresh vegetables looked great and she remembered they were grown here. She picked up a steak and a bag of dog food.

She took her company ID card from its lanyard to pay.

“You new?” the cashier asked.

“Just got here today. Coding. Not sure which lab yet.”

“Cool. I just might be working with you.”

“So I guess you volunteer at the store?”

“Everybody does. I mean we’re paid a stipend, but our main jobs are in the labs.”

“Interesting place.”

“It’s pretty amazing what we’ve done.” He handed Joni her card.

“Very. Can I borrow this buggy?”

“Sure. You’ll find an alcove by the elevators, ground floor. Leave it there and we’ll pick it up later.”

“Thank you.”

* * *

Joni felt better with a well-stocked fridge and pantry, and Taco was happy he had food. Now in the apartment for the night she untied her hair, stripped off her clothes, and put on a white button-down shirt she appropriated from Brandon, her old boyfriend from a year ago. Full relaxation mode. Then she sat out on the balcony with a book and a glass of sweet tea.

I’m really going to like this place, she thought.

***

Kevin goes to lunch

Kevin Saganey felt like lunch. He usually went out for something fast or raided the snack machine, but he wanted a sit-down meal. He put his desktop computer on idle and stood up.

“I’m going to lunch, Pam. See ya.”

This had to have been the strangest place he’d ever worked, Kevin thought as he strode through the corridor. Considering he worked in several newsrooms in the southwest, that’s saying a lot. But after two years he still had a hard time getting used to the ASPIS Dome. The surroundings were way different and the people ... well, they were different too. All were a decade younger than him and dressed in grubby casual. Cutoffs, holey jeans, and T-shirts made his own office-casual attire stand out.

Kevin wasn’t scary smart like the coworkers either. He knew his business and had lots of street smarts, but these kids might as well have been talking Klingon to him.

He walked in the big dome this time, the highly-secured facility where the permanent employees worked. More than triple the size of the prospect’s dome, this had much more of everything. The employees seemed a little complacent, and if they were more intelligent they didn’t show it much. Total job security will do that.

Hate having lunch alone, he thought. As out of place as he felt, there were a few workers he socialized with. His favorite was Derrick Bluford, an old buddy in online security. Derrick was a year younger than Kevin’s 36, and he went to a public high school in Riverside while Kevin went to boarding school not far away.

Yeah, right. Boarding school, like all those rich kids. Kevin went to Sherman Indian School, where they tried to teach him to be a good white man. He did learn some of the things all the bilagaana knew, but still held fast to his culture.

He stopped in front of the online security lab, debating whether to go in. He always felt in the way there. Everything about the labs totally overwhelmed him and he always had to take a walk to clear his head.

Kevin never claimed to be a computer expert. He could do a Web search or word processing, good enough for his line. He knew enough technical jargon to fake it, but his strength was in writing documentation a user could understand without an engineering degree. Some of the techies said his work was overly simplistic, but ASPIS appreciated his approach.

Like Kevin, Derrick was a good ol’ boy around here. A black man who took classes at a local college, he showed enough computer savvy to hook on here. No one from high school would have expected him to turn into such a geek. During Kevin’s rare trips away from school they would hang out together, try to pick up some girls, and pass the bottle. Derrick gave a good recommendation when ASPIS recruited Kevin.

Kevin finally poked his head inside the lab. “Is Derrick around?”

A smallish man answered him. “We need to go outside.”

Kevin knew the man pretty well. Jalal Rahimi, Derrick’s boss. Jalal was always good for conversation and liked long lunches while Kevin picked his brain. Iranian, Kevin remembered.

“So where’s Derrick?”

“Not here.”

“Taking time off again?”

“He is not here any more.”

“He transferred then?” Kevin knew the company liked to keep things flexible by cross-training the workers and deploying them as needed.

“Not here.”

“He didn’t quit then?” Stupid question. No one quit ASPIS.

“I know nothing more.”

“But he’s not here. Interesting.”

Kevin caught Jalal’s look and decided this was a good time to end it. “Catch ya later.”

Ooo-kayyy, he thought. This was like talking to a blank wall. He’d dealt with many uncooperative sources in the news business, but he always knew how to bypass one.

Kevin went to lunch alone.

***

Personnel

Back in the front office, Kevin slapped his hand twice on the front counter. Pam looked up at him from her desk.

“You’re back.”

“Yeah. Anything exciting?”

“Nothing. The phone didn’t even ring.”

No surprise. As big as ASPIS was, the front office was always quiet. Customer service calls went out to an army of phone reps working out of their homes; all independent contractors. Except for Kevin’s own work, the office only handled internal matters such as human resources and payroll. At most, the office had three workers trained for flexibility. Utility infielders.

Pam, in her mid-30s and slightly heavy under her loose-fitting 49ers T-shirt, ran the office. Even-tempered and gregarious, she took no crap from Kevin but seemed to enjoy it when he dished it out.

“I was wondering if you can do me a favor,” he said. “Derrick Bluford. Can you check him out for me, please?”

“Derrick Bluford?”

“Works online security. Old friend of mine. He was the one who recommended me for this job.”

“I hope they don’t hold that against him.”

“Funny. But I haven’t seen him in a while and I wanted to have lunch with him.”

“What’s it worth to you?”

He knew when she was flirting, and he always enjoyed it. “Dinner.”

“Hopefully not Mickey D’s.”

“A little better. I’m thinking of the steakhouse here.”

“Oooh! For the steakhouse, I’ll get right on this.”

“No rush.”

“I’ll have it for you today, and I’ll collect tonight.”

“You’re on.” He went back to his office, woke up his computer, and put his still-in-alpha cloud-based word processing program through its paces.

* * *

Kevin looked up when Pam tapped on the open door of his office. “May I come in?”

“Sure.” He removed the stack of papers from the visitors’ chair and dumped it on the credenza.

“Ever consider cleaning off your desk?”

“Why? I know where everything is.”

“Your home isn’t like this, is it?”

“Surprisingly, it’s pretty orderly.” He gestured toward the seat. “So what do you have?”

She frowned. “I need to ask where you know him from.”

“I understand. Security reasons, huh?”

“Yes.”

“We went to different schools together.”

“Come on.”

“Seriously. We were buds in high school, even though he went to one and I went to another.”

“Okay. Because what I found out is really strange.”

“I know his supervisor said he wasn’t working there any more, then wouldn’t answer any more questions. I got more cooperation from a stone post.”

Pam looked down at her printout. “He’s here.”

“Where?”

“Unassigned.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“He’s a free floater.”

“I’ll bite. What’s a free floater?”

“He’s here but he’s not.” She looked at her printout again. “Remember which apartment he’s in?”

“Yeah. Unit 2318.”

“I thought so. It’s been reassigned.”

“So where is he?”

“The records say he’s here, but that’s about all.”

“Wow. From the way Jalal was talking, I thought he was fired.”

Pam looked up at him. “But nobody gets fired here. Or quits. You know that.”

“So what happened to him? Reassigned to another facility?”

“We don’t have another facility. Just this campus here, and independent contractors all over. But no one from the Dome has ever moved to independent.”

“That’s crazy. So what happened to him?”

Another look at the printout. “Records show he’s still getting paid.”

“Wow. Can you get anything like transaction activity for me?”

“Honey, that’s way out of my pay range. I don’t have that information, and if I did it’d really cost you. At least a weekend in Vegas.”

“How about a weekend hiking around Flagstaff?”

“Come on. I’m a civilized kind of girl.”

“Okay. It’ll be worth it, because whatever’s going on, it’s getting deep.”