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The book centers on the evil leaders of Megasoft Corp. in Woodside, Wash. Chairman Jack Malcolm, known tocompany employees by his e-mail handle, JackM, and his second-in-command, ex-military man Peter Constanza. Malcolm fancies himself the countrys first electronic monarch hes running for president, no less and is intent on using OneWire, Megasofts new software, to spy on the world.
The story opens with an assassination attempt on Malcolm by the New Society of Cincinnatus, a sinister anarchist group. Malcolm then moves into the background for the rest of the tale, replaced as protagonist by Jonathan Goodman, a hardworking program manager who witnesses a murder in Megasofts parking garage. The day after the crime, Goodman discovers that records of the murder victim have been erased from Megasofts employee database; in classic X-Files fashion, Goodman launches his own investigation.
First-time author Daniel Oran, a former Microsoft product manager and the creator of Windows Start button and taskbar, assured us via e-mail that while the thrillers setting draws inspiration from his time at the software monolith, the plot is pure fiction.
Oran manages to do for the software industry what best-selling author John Grisham has done for the legal profession turn a cerebral and potentially dull culture into an inspiration for racy potboiler prose.
The writing is a bit uneven in places and some of the dialogue is stilted. And while details lifted from Microsofts corporate culture do lend authenticity to the fictional Megasoft, readers who are less techie might get lost a few times along the way.
Overall, though, Ulterior Motive does what a good thriller is designed to do: It delivers clever plot twists and keeps those pages turning.
Nancy Weil, IDG News Service
Tuesday, October 10
He'd been doing talk shows for nearly a year now, but Jack Malcolm was still a little nervous just before the red light went on.
All the political consultants he'd hired were full of hints for looking good on TV. Really helpful hints like, "Smile!" Or, "Just be yourself!" What morons.
But Malcolm couldn't blame them. He was raw meat. A billionaire and his money are soon parted, he'd taken to saying in stump speeches. Especially when that billionaire is running for president. It was a great applause line, but the truth of it made him wince.
The makeup made Malcolm wince, too. Gritty, powdery stuff in some weird shade of brownish orange. At first, he'd resisted wearing makeup on TV. As far as he was concerned, he looked pretty damned good for 59. Sure, his face had some lines, and his red hair wasn't very red anymore, but he knew that the younger guys at Megasoft still had trouble keeping up with him.
Every year, he led a company expedition to the summit of Mount Rainier. At some ungodly hour of the morning, a whole busload of eager beavers would start out from the corporate campus in Woodside, across the lake from Seattle. On the way south to Rainier, Malcolm would hold court, regaling them with stories from Megasoft's early days. He'd even wax nostalgic about his first career, as a physics professor at the University of Colorado.
The kids ate it up. More stories to swap about their legendary chairman, JackM. In the Megasoft jargon, he was always JackM, which was his address for electronic mail. Walk by any conference room in any of the twenty-odd Megasoft buildings, and you'd hear someone invoking JackM's name. Well,JackM was pretty clear about this point, someone would say. No, would come the reply, I was at the last JackM project review meeting, and he was totally against that.
Marathon project reviews with JackM were a rite of passage for Megasoft managers. A dozen people would file into his office mid-morning, usually after staying up the night before trying to get the software demos to work properly. Nobody wanted to crash and burn at a JackM review.
Malcolm would sit behind his empty desk, which was just a long expanse of plate glass balanced on four metal poles, and fire questions at the crowd. Half of them had to sit on the floor. There was never enough room. Working without notes, he'd mercilessly drill them on the fine points, by turns prosecutor, teacher, and preacher. JackM knew his audience.
But tonight was different. Yes, there was a crowd in his office--television technicians, campaign staff, security people--but they weren't his real audience. They were off-camera. They were only distractions.
Sitting behind his desk, staring into the TV camera, Malcolm felt as if he was on the wrong side of a one-way mirror. Millions of people were watching him, but he couldn't see a single one of them. Even his interviewer, Lou Silver, was present only as a disembodied voice in his earpiece.
Malcolm tried to focus completely on the camera. He tried to imagine that he was talking to a person, not a lens.
But that didn't make him feel any less nervous.
Ten minutes into the talk show, after a call from a viewer in Texas who wanted to know the specifics of Malcolm's policy on water conservation, Lou Silver finally brought up what was on everyone's mind.
"So, tell me, Mr. Malcolm, do the death threats scare you?"
Damn, the Cincinnatus question again, Malcolm thought. The whole freaking campaign was being overwhelmed by this thing. A band of homegrown American terrorists holding the country hostage. Not to mention the campaign. First, there were the bombings. Nearly a hundred passengers killed on a rush-hour New York City subway car. A 747 blown up on the runway in Chicago, with 83 people on board. Two oil refineries in Houston demolished. And now these lunatics had him in their crosshairs.
They called themselves the New Society of Cincinnatus, some kind of twisted reference to George Washington's original Society of the Cincinnati. Well, old George must be turning over in his grave, because these guys were anarchists, pure and simple. They weren't interested in less government, or in limited government. From the rambling treatises they mailed to newspapers every few weeks, it was quite clear that only the complete absence of government would make them happy. Their credo, lifted straight from Henry David Thoreau, was simple: "That government is best which governs not at all."
Malcolm had become their target in the campaign, if only because his two opponents had so little to say about Cincinnatus. They were scared. It was just that simple. President Boyden had barely survived a primary election challenge, finally collecting the delegates he needed for renomination at the Democratic convention in Nashville. Since the New Society of Cincinnatus had begun its reign of terror two years before, the Administration had tried a series of totally ineffective measures. They'd blown it, big-time. So Boyden wanted to ignore the issue at all costs.
When Bob Duncan, the Republican governor of New Hampshire, had announced his candidacy eighteen months earlier, he'd taken a strong stand against domestic terrorism. "The American people will not be pushed around by a band of thugs," he said. Then, a week after his speech, his security people discovered a bomb in a limousine the governor was to ride in during a campaign stop in Iowa. No one was hurt, but Duncan was clearly shaken by the incident. Rumor had it that he'd received threats from Cincinnatus against his family. When he returned to the campaign trail two weeks later, his speeches included only passing references to domestic terrorism.
At first, Malcolm had focused his campaign almost exclusively on futurist themes. How technology was changing society. The role of government in the Information Age. For a few months, he was the news media's darling, with his picture on the covers of the newsweeklies and long, respectful pieces on the inside pages. President Boyden was too busy fending off a primary challenge to pay any attention to Malcolm. Duncan and his Republican brethren kept their distance from Malcolm, uncertain of his intentions--and even his party affiliation. But when it became clear to the Republicans that Malcolm had no intention of seeking their nomination, all bets were off. They baited him with attacks on his business dealings and his character. Gradually, reluctantly, with visible irritation, Malcolm was drawn into a political firefight.
Grasping for ammunition, he turned to the Cincinnatus issue as a glaring emblem of the entrenched parties' ineptitude. "They may not like what I have done," he said in response to Republican criticism of his business record, "but the fact is that I do get things done." In the same speech, he outlined an aggressive plan to contain and to crush the New Society of Cincinnatus. The death threats against him began soon after. Cincinnatus was brazen enough to place a $1 million bounty on his head. Malcolm tried hard to detach himself from the terror issue, to return to his initial themes, but the toothpaste was out of the tube. There was no going back.
"No, I'm not scared." Malcolm paused. He wanted to get this right. "Let me just say I'm concerned. And my personal safety is the very least of it. What concerns me most is that we're allowing ourselves to be intimidated. The times demand courage, but all I see is cowardice. Since I made that speech about this whole issue back in February, my opponents have had ten words to say about it combined. Frankly, I think that's pathetic. The American people deserve better than that. And when folks stand in the voting booth next month, well, I think they're going to choose the candidate who's confronted this very serious issue head-on."
It was a good answer. Out of the corner of his eye, in the back of his office behind the camera, Malcolm saw a campaign staffer give him a thumbs-up. Maybe Lou Silver would go to some viewer calls now.
No such luck. Silver had another question.
"Sir, why has your running mate, General Constanza, not spoken out more forcefully on the Cincinnatus issue? Wouldn't you say that, as a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he has some unique insight into the terrorism issue?"
Malcolm hated answering questions about Constanza. The general had been a disappointment as a campaigner, no doubt about it. When Malcolm first asked Constanza to join the ticket back in June, the pundits called them the Dynamic Duo. Peter Constanza, the first Hispanic chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was a genuine hero. The son of Puerto Rican immigrants, he had fought his way out of the barrio to West Point, to a Medal of Honor in Vietnam, to the Pentagon. After stepping down as chairman, Constanza accepted Malcolm's invitation to lead the Center for Technology Policy, a Megasoft-supported think tank headquartered on the corporate campus. Less than a year later, he was Malcolm's choice for VP.
But the general was out of his element. Despite all of the coaching, he never got the hang of the ten-second sound bite. Instead of telling the time, he would laboriously build the listener a watch. Where simple words would do, he found arcane acronyms. And he antagonized members of the press, treating them like dim-witted recruits in basic training.
"Lou, I would disagree with the whole premise there. Pete Constanza is 100 percent behind the proposals I've made. I think he's made that very clear in his speeches. If you're asking, are we going to see the general making a whole bunch of flashy speeches, full of flowery rhetoric, then the answer is no, we're not. I think Pete acknowledges that's not his great strength. And frankly, that's not why I asked him to be my running mate. As most Americans know, Pete is a born leader. He led in Vietnam, he led at the Pentagon, and if, God forbid, something should happen to me as president, I can't think of anyone I'd rather have a heartbeat away from the presidency."
"As you know, Mr. Malcolm, some of the polls seem to be indicating that General Constanza has been a negative for your ticket, particularly among women. Any regrets now on choosing him?"
Malcolm forced a smile. Yeah, like I'd really tell you, he thought. "Oh, no, nothing of the kind, Lou. Nothing of the kind. The general is going to be the most extraordinary vice president this country has ever seen. I'm certain of it."
"The latest polls haven't had much in the way of good news for you, Mr. Malcolm, isn't that right? You're ahead of the president, but Governor Duncan seems to be pulling away from you. Is there enough time left in this race for you to catch him?"
"Lou, I don't pay any attention to the polls. Never have, never will."
"But you must be concerned by the trend."
"No," Malcolm said curtly. He peeked at his watch. The minute hand had barely made any progress.
"Okay, we have to take a break here. Back in a moment with Jack Malcolm and your questions. The number is 1-800-555-CALL. That's 1-800-555-2255. Stay with us."
The red light was off. Malcolm exhaled slowly and surveyed the scene in his office. A few years back, he'd let his wife, Ruth, redecorate the place. He didn't much like the modern chrome-and-leather furniture she'd picked out, but he didn't want to hurt her feelings either. So he said nothing, and grimaced every time he banged his shin on the glass coffee table.
Tonight, they'd moved the coffee table to make room for the TV camera. There was a maze of cables on the carpet. Soft-drink cans and fast-food wrappers on the bookcase. What a mess. Malcolm liked things neat, orderly. He hated clutter. Rarely did a sheet of paper survive on his desk for more than a few hours. At the end of the day, papers went into his briefcase or into the trash can.
Malcolm squinted past the bright lights. It was Herb Abernathy, the campaign press secretary.
"Just wanted to remind you that we've got you booked on another talk show in the morning. We need you back here at seven-thirty."
"Maybe I'll just sleep right here at my desk, Herb."
He turned to look out the long picture window on his right. Beyond his own reflection in the glass, he could make out the meandering peaks of the Cascades in the moonlight. It was a clear night, unusual for Seattle in October. Ruth Malcolm was probably already in bed, curled up with a book.
Waiting for the red light on the TV camera, Malcolm shifted uncomfortably in his dark blue suit, which had been selected by a consultant for its "presidential" appearance. He hated the suits almost as much as the makeup. Until the consultants had intervened, Malcolm had bought his suits off the rack at a local big-and-tall men's outlet. He usually wore jeans. Dressed-up for him meant wearing an old tweed jacket from his academic days.
"Mr. Malcolm?" It was a voice from behind the camera. A technician.
"I'm all set here," he said, sitting up straight. He felt a familiar tension in his chest.
"Ten seconds, sir."
Lou Silver cleared his throat. "We're talking with Jack Malcolm, independent candidate for president. He joins us from his office in Woodside, Washington. Jennifer from Camden, New Jersey, what's your question for Mr. Malcolm tonight?"
"Hi, Lou," Jennifer said with a little giggle.
"Hi, Jennifer. What's on your mind?"
"Hi, Mr. Malcolm."
"How are you?"
"Fine, fine, thanks." Malcolm wanted to roll his eyes, but resisted the impulse. People watch ten thousand hours of call-in shows, and they still don't know what to do.
"So what's your question, Jennifer?" Silver flashed a toothy smile.
"Mr. Malcolm, every year thousands of innocent animals are subjected to horrendous experiments, just to satisfy some sadistic scientists' curiosity. I mean, even the cosmetic companies--"
"Let's get to the question, Jennifer." Silver smiled again, but less enthusiastically.
"Okay, so, Mr. Malcolm, what's your position on this?"
For a long second, Malcolm couldn't think of anything to say. He suddenly felt exhausted, and he really didn't want to answer any more questions. Not now. Not tonight. What if he just stopped it all here, he wondered. Got up and walked out and went back to being just JackM, king of his own little mountain. But it was too late for that now, he thought. So he switched on the old autopilot.
"Interesting question, Jennifer. You raise an important point. There definitely needs to be a sensitivity here on this. There's no need to abuse the laboratory animals. No one wants that, I'm sure. So we have to make sure that the proper controls are in place, that all the regulations are followed."
"So you're in favor of animal testing, then?" Her voice had a harsh edge.
Malcolm stopped. There was some kind of commotion behind the camera.
"What the--" In the dim field beyond the lights, he saw the glint of a gun being drawn from beneath a suit jacket. One of his security guys, he thought. Then it all happened so quickly. It sounded like firecrackers, like the Fourth of July. There were small bright flashes. Malcolm saw the security man with the gun snap backward and crumple to the floor.
"Oh my God."
A set of the bright TV lights toppled forward, smashing in front of Malcolm's desk. When he looked up, the scene was clear. Three dark figures with black ski masks and submachine guns advanced toward him.
Malcolm heard Lou Silver's voice in his ear.
"Mr. Malcolm, what's happening there?"
But there was no time to answer. One of the figures in black stepped to the very edge of his desk, where so many Megasoft projects had lived or died, and pushed his gun toward Malcolm's torso. His eyes met Malcolm's for a brief instant. Then he pulled the trigger.
Malcolm and his chair tumbled backward to the carpet.