You Can't Fight City Hall

Wayne Christopher

Myra Feinberg left her house on Thursday morning at 8:30, like any other work day. It was a pleasant Spring morning, and she enjoyed the short walk to her car, at least until she saw the tell-tale bright green of the parking ticket. She always tried to think of parking tickets as just one of those inevitable things that happened to you, like a cold every few months - there was no point in raising one's blood pressure by taking mortal offense at the insult of being fined. Still, she could have sworn that this morning was a perfectly legal time to park in front of her own house.

"Darn", she said in a perfunctory way as she pulled off the ticket and took a look at the charges as she got into the car. "Street sweeping", it said. She glanced at the sign by the side of the road which warned that street sweeping was the second Thursday of the month. She usually remembered to mark her calendar but she had made such mistakes before. It was the second part of the printout that really attracted her attention, though: "Outstanding violations: 7. Vehicle will be impounded at next violation unless all fees are paid." This was a surprise since she was unaware of any outstanding violations at all. She thought about it for a second and then it occurred to her that it wasn't even the second Thursday, but rather the first.

Myra fought off the temptation to mentally condemn all meter maids (what was the masculine form of "maid", she wondered) and told herself it was a thankless job that somebody had to do, and after all not everybody could do a perfect job all day and every day. On the other hand, she was not about to just pay the ticket and chalk it up to the inscrutable nature of fate, especially with that threat of impoundment hanging over her head. She was going to fight the ticket and if there was any fairness in the world she would win easily.

Later that day she explained her plan of action to Mack, her officemate. He had a disconcerting habit of typing at his keyboard while otherwise paying very close attention to the conversation. "You know, Myra," he said as he typed Java source code with the other half of his brain, "you are just going to spend days dealing with this problem and not get anywhere. You know how bureaucracy is, especially when it comes to things like parking tickets. Just pay it and save yourself some trouble - you can't fight city hall."

"Yes I can and I will," said Myra in a somewhat plaintive tone. "I am not going to let this slide, both because they will tow my car unless I get this straightened out, and because somebody has to take a stand, fight for what's right and all that stuff".

"Yeah, everybody's got to have a hobby I guess." Mack pointedly lost interested and went back to his programming. "Just be sure to take along a nice fat book if you are going to wait til you find somebody who can actually do something about it. If there is anybody at all who can do something about it." Myra didn't find his attitude helpful but she hadn't really expected to.

Bright and early Friday morning she walked into the Traffic Office in City Hall and found the Citations department. There was no waiting room - it was just a window in a busy hallway. A few people were ahead of her but she paid no attention to them as she had in fact brought a fat book, which happened to be volume 7 of a 10-volume pulp science fiction epic. She paid no attention to her environment until the clerk's "Next please" attracted her attention and she walked up to the window.

The clerk looked earnest and eager to be helpful, but Myra chalked that up to the hour of the morning and a certain lack of intelligence required in such a job. "I got this ticket but it is wrong and I want it canceled," she explained as she handed it over.

The clerk looked at it the way a Baptist minister would at an Escher print. "It says you parked on a block where they were doing street sweeping. There should have been a sign explaining what day they have it. If the sign was missing or defaced that is a different department."

"No, that's not it," explained Myra. "On our block street sweeping is the second Thursday of the month. Today is not the second Thursday."

"So you only just saw it?" The clerk looked it over critically. "I would have expected the color to be more faded if it sat out there a month, though."

Myra could be very patient when she had to - that was one of the required skills of a good programmer. She finally explained the situation to the point where the clerk agreed that the citation was in error.

"Well, you're right I guess. But I don't know what we can do. The ticket is in the computer and I don't know if I can take it out. Also these 7 other unpaid tickets are in the computer too. Wow, the first is from 1966..."

"That's ridiculous," explained Myra. "Let me see that screen." The clerk reluctantly swiveled it around and showed Myra the sordid history of her parking violation career. There seemed to be no menu on the mainframe-vintage screen that promised to contain a "Remove ticket" item either.

"There has got to be a way to take care of this," she said confidently, but the clerk only shook her head and took back her screen. She prepared to call the next appellant but Myra was determined not to give up so easily. "I am not leaving until you fix this damn ticket," she said in a loud voice. She was normally so mild-mannered that when she got her dander up it could be quite a spectacle.

"There is nothing I can do," said the clerk, her former helpful manner evaporating. "Please step aside."

"I am not stepping aside!" Myra and the clerk glared at each other for a moment but were interrupted by an official-looking yet somehow devious and conniving man who had appeared at Myra's side.

"Maybe I can help," he said looking around somewhat furtively. He was middle-aged and not especially notable, but was clearly a bit higher in the chain of command than the clerk so Myra switched her attention to him. "My name's Jack Buffalo. I'm the supervisor of the traffic bureau - maybe I can help." He motioned her to follow him to his office in the inner recesses of the building.

As she followed she explained the situation again. He listened but seemed to have his mind on something else. He interrupted occasionally to ask a question, but most of them seemed rather irrelevant to her, such as whether she had studied any martial arts or developed any expert systems in her work. The answer to both questions was negative but he did not seem to be paying much attention.

Eventually he pulled out a form from his desk entitled "Parking Citation Appeal Form", filled in a few lines, and gave it to her to complete. He handed her a pen and as she started to write she felt a sharp jab in her finger. She gasped and dropped the pen, and exclaimed, "Your pen just stabbed me!"

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry, that pen has a loose wire," he said in a rather offhand way and handed her a new one. "Pardon me a minute." He picked up the other pen and walked out of the office.

With an increasing sense of surrealism, Myra completed the form and waited until Jack returned. He was holding a sheet of paper and his attitude seemed to have changed in some indefinable way. He sat down across the desk and gave Myra a long look.

"What are you looking at?" she said with irritation. She put the completed forms on the desk but Jack did not seem to be paying attention.

"Do you know what your blood type is?" he asked, taking Myra completely off guard. She had no idea what it was or why Jack would care, although she then understood the meaning of the stabbing pen. "You have a very rare blood type," he continued. "Perhaps one in several million has the same combination of factors, and that is a very important bit of information for us right now."

Myra had a naturally curious nature so she waited for him to continue. She made clear without saying so that he had a lot of explaining to do.

Jack sighed. "This is a long story but I hope you will bear with me. I think the clerk told you something like `Your ticket is in the computer and we can't change it now'. That is literally true and it has been that way for quite a few years now. We are in a terrible bind and until now we didn't see a way out of it, but you have provided a small hope." He paused for a minute, and since none of this made the slightest amount of sense and Myra made this clear by her expression he continued.

"As you may know we use a centralized computer system called CAESAR for all the city accounting and business." She hadn't known or cared. "I don't know what that stands for but I could probably make up a cronym. (Is that the word for the thing that an acronym is the acronym for?) What you probably don't know is that this same type of system is used by most State and Federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, for managing pretty much all government business." At Myra's skeptical reaction he continued, "I know, you are probably thinking that no sane person or government would use the same system for managing parking tickets, keeping track of taxes, and targeting orbital nuclear-powered particle beam weapons, and would certainly never build in expert system capabilities and then connect all the systems into a distributed network. But we did, and you can imagine what happened."

Myra wasn't sure how to react to this statement. On one hand it did sound like the absolutely worst way to automate government functions, and to present some very significant technical challenges along the way. On the other hand, it would explain a lot of things.

Jack continued. "CAESAR has changed over the years. In some ways it has gotten, well, senile, as in the case of your parking ticket problems. In other ways it has become rather shrewd, to risk using anthropomorphic terms. For instance it has placed very strong defenses around its central processing facility. This is a totally automated and self-contained installation in a suburb of Fresno (I'll bet you were expecting the Nevada desert). We still have access to the facility, in theory, but to get in one needs to pass an identity check, and the only person who we know still has full access is the system's original creator, Hiram Crab. Needless to say, he has been dead for years, so nobody has been in the facility since the early seventies. A group of civil servants including myself have been secretly meeting and planning for quite a while now, trying to figure out how to rein in this crackpot cybernetic despot."

"At this point, when we run into a problem like an incorrectly issued parking ticket, the odds are that CAESAR's mechanisms for dealing with the problem will have deteriorated to the point where we have no way to make the change we want. The system is making more and more mistakes as time goes on and we have less and less control over it. We can only speculate on what the next problem will be - bad tickets one day, and nuclear war the next." Jack opened a drawer of his desk and removed a wooden tray with some crackers and cheese, and offered Myra some. It was actually very good if a bit stale and dusty, and she ate as he continued.

"If this were an ordinary data processing center we would have a number of options available to us. We could simply send in a team with the necessary equipment and just turn the thing off, for example. But it's not that easy. CAESAR was designed with security in mind, and has extensive self-protection mechanisms which it has enhanced over the years. We could probably overcome them if that were the only issue, but there is also a huge amount of very valuable data that CAESAR has control over and we don't want to damage the system's memory. We have to be very selective about what subsystems we knock out and what we leave intact, so that rules out a frontal assault or for that matter any attack which would give CAESAR advanced warning of what was coming. And then there are the orbital particle beam weapons."

Jack illustrated the point by tossing his pen point first into the cheese. "You are probably wondering what this has to do with you." Myra nodded, which was not really necessary. "Two things are important here. The first is that the way CAESAR identifies individuals for purposes of access to its facilities is by blood type analysis. The second is that the only person we have been able to locate, who has both the same blood type as Hiram Crab and also the right personal qualifications for this job is you. So you can see that it is clear what must be done."

"Personal qualifications?" asked Myra with a mixture of indignation and curiosity. "What do you expect me to do anyway? All I want is to clear my parking ticket record. I'm not about to sneak into some government installation and negotiate with a crazy computer or whatever it is you have in mind."

Jack smiled. "Let me just say that you are really the only one who can do the job. We have compiled a psychological profile of the person who can pull this off, and I can assure you that you match it exactly. For example, that book you are reading." He pointed to Myra's volume of pulp science fiction. "That is one of the small number of authors that our psychologists have determined our cyber-commando would be likely to read. Then there is the determination you showed in fighting what you saw to be an unjust yet impersonal attack on your law-abidingness. All this combined with the testimony of your vital bodily fluids makes the decision pretty clear."

Myra was feeling a bit incensed at this point. "For you maybe, but why do you think I will do it?"

"It's very simple. That is the only way you are going to get that ticket taken care of."

Myra thought about this for a minute. He did have a point - she didn't want to risk getting her car towed the next time a "mistake" was made. She had some vacation days coming up and no plans, and she had an aunt in Fresno who she had promised to visit soon anyway.

"Sure, what the heck. Where do I start?"

The next week was a non-stop blur of activity for Myra. Jack dispatched a lackey to feed her cat and take in the paper every morning, and she was immediately flown to a secret base, this one in the Nevada desert, for intensive training in a wide variety of skills. These included evasion of mechanical detection devices, debugging and code modification for vintage COBOL/LISP software systems, nonchalant yet purposeful loitering and skulking, and high explosives. The people she worked with all struck her as dedicated and intense yet somehow envious of her. Her rock-climbing instructor, Spade Grange, expressed it best.

"Myra", he said with a squinty voice, "I've known you only a few hours and I know that after this week I will probably never see you again. But I feel like I've known you for weeks or more. You are doing something that we have trained all our lives to do. The French Revolution, the Boston Tea Party, the end of the Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader throws the Emperor off the ledge - these are all defining moments in our eternal struggle against tyranny. I have dedicated my whole life to that struggle and now I finally see an end to the long wait. When you walk through that door into the installation in Fresno, every one of us will be with you, and even though we can't accompany you in person I want you to feel that we are all somehow looking over your shoulder, watching every move and judging your performance, and comparing it with how we feel that we would have done if only we had the correct blood type. I guess what I am really saying is that we wish you the best of luck."

Myra didn't know if this made her feel better or worse but at the end of her week-long training session she felt that what she was doing meant a lot more than just fixing an incorrect parking ticket, at least to the others if not her.

Monday morning found Myra driving North on Highway 99 from Bakersfield. She had spent Sunday making her way through the desert, hoping that her radiator wouldn't overheat or some critical part of the car melt. It was really beautiful country but she found it hard to enjoy the experience, knowing what was in store for her the next day.

She followed her directions to the installation and parked across the street from a completely featureless and solid-looking building. It had three stories and took a whole city block, but to the casual driver-by it would give the impression of a warehouse or some kind of utility building. Little did the neighbors suspect that this gray and brooding presence (no, not brooding, Myra thought, more like vacantly staring into space) held the nerve center of the computer network that controlled the vital functions of every governmental unit in the nation.

A great deal of thought had gone into her equipment. She had much more with her than she could carry, especially if some of the contingencies that Jack's people had planned for came to pass. Infrared goggles, adherent pads for her hands and feet (just in case her rock-climbing skills failed her), logic probes, plastic explosives, the latest Cray palmtop with viruses devised by the best in the business specifically for CAESAR, and a cornucopia of clever contraptions for every conceivable situation.

Myra changed into her breaking and entering outfit in the back seat of her car, which was a far from easy task. It made little sense to equip her with the traditional camouflage outfit, but her clothes were designed to protect her from the one weapon CAESAR was known to have: high power lasers. Her cap, shirt, and trousers were all made from a highly reflective fabric that should limit most laser damage to second degree burns. Once she had loaded up with the usual panoply of guns, ropes and electronic gear, she was ready to go.

She left her car and walked nonchalantly across the street. It was clear from the reactions of passing drivers that her style of mirror clothes would never be practical for general wear. The main entrance to the building was a simple metal door set flush with the wall, with no signs or other markings. She inserted the key that the team had reconstructed from the fragmentary records of CAESAR's construction, and as the door swung open her last (and somewhat unworthy, she felt) hope of a reprieve vanished.

The hallway was completely dark so she switched on the built-in lighting capabilities of her uniform. She could see just fine but expected that she would make a very strange picture to another human. The corridor was quite long and had many turns so Myra rapidly lost her bearings. As she made her way deeper into the bowels of the cybernetic organism she became aware of a high-pitched noise with many harmonics, and increasing heat. At some places she felt a rumbling, as if heavy machinery were at work.

Soon she arrived at another door. There was light here, although from the dust on the floor and rusty appearance of the hinges she could tell she was the first human in quite a few years to appreciate the fact. Unlike the first door, there was a device here whose function she was well aware of - an automatic blood analysis unit which was an impenetrable barrier to all but her.

With a certain amount of trepidation, Myra placed her finger into the opening in the side of the device. A light went on to indicate that the unit was operational, and as she felt a small pinprick Myra was glad that she had recently had her tetanus booster. She withdrew her finger, and after a few minutes, the light went from red to green, and the door groaned open like an arthritic three-legged dog.

All her briefings at the secret base in the Nevada desert had prepared her for a great deal, but nothing like what she saw in the space beyond. The door opened into a cavernous area which seemed to occupy most of the space of the building. Walls, cables, electronic equipment, and gadgets of undefined history and function were everywhere, with connections running crazily with only a madman's or a computer's idea of organization. This was not the layout that she had studied in the blueprints of the building.

The reason for the discrepancy were made clear to her when she observed the area for a while. A large number of small robots the size of cats were moving about, carrying bits and pieces of everything a computer might want. These had been originally designed to let the computer replace broken parts, but it appeared that CAESAR had realized that fixing old parts and making new ones were not very different.

Myra stood very still for a while, until she realized that the robots were not changing their behavior at all. One approached her from the side but at the last minute swerved around her feet - clearly they could avoid obstacles but were not designed to attack them.

Armed with this information, she slowly moved to the center of the room. She was searching for the Master Control Processor, which coordinated the activities of the other processors. If she could knock that out, the rest of the system would freeze up and preserve its data until Jack and his elite group of cyber-folks could clean up. There might be a period of a few weeks when no tickets could be written, no taxes collected, and no defense made to a foreign nuclear strike, but that struck nobody has a serious problem.

Myra had a strange impression of being a virus or tapeworm inside of a huge living organism that was as yet unaware of her presence. The wires were the nervous system, the robots were red blood cells, and the larger robot rapidly approaching must be an antibody.

The meaning of this did not escape Myra for long. She dove to one side and did a somersault as the antibody hit her with a sizzling red laser weapon. Her garments did better than she expected, as she felt hardly a thing but an innocent disk drive in a far corner was fried by the reflection. Somewhere in Nebraska, an insurance regulator was waiting for the results of an audit and was going to wait for a long time.

The attacker bore down upon Myra as she fumbled out one of the high-tech guns she had been equipped with and began to fire explosive armor-piercing shells into the robot. Shrapnel flew out with each hit and came close to putting out her eyes but all things considered the robot fared worse than she did. It kept moving forward but then toppled over and skidded to a halt against the far wall.

"Whew, that's one down," said Myra as she tossed the gun away, its ammunition spent. She had no idea if there were other similar robots in the area or whether this one was autonomous, or connected with the main computer, so she started searching with some urgency for her goal.

It had changed a great deal in the past decades but she eventually decided that the large structure in the center of the room was the Master Control Processor. Her objective was to place a shaped explosive pack at a certain location, set the timer, and stand clear. Her backup plans involved connecting to the running operating system and locating and modifying certain crucial areas of the program's memory, but given the choice between debugging a very complex program and blowing the computer up (a choice she had never been given before) she preferred the latter.

The next goal was to reach the top of the MCP which was about 20 feet up. Feeling very well prepared, she untied a long polymolecular cord from around her waist and attached a grappling device to the end of it. She tossed it up to the ceiling, where it stuck on the first try. She was never much good at climbing ropes in high school gym class, but fortunately she didn't have to worry: the grappling device had a small but powerful winch which pulled her up to the top quite easily.

She scrambled onto the top of the unit and immediately located the critical panel. She couldn't attempt to remove the panel because CAESAR would immediately detect the operation and probably do something very bad to her, but that is where the explosive charge came in.

Myra stopped as a bad feeling came over her. The explosive charge - where was it? She searched all of her pockets and couldn't find it. Could it have dropped on the ground during her fight? She looked on the floor with her high magnification goggles and saw something different: her computer with the viruses all ready to go. Unfortunately it had been smashed into a large number of pieces. That was not good.

She thought for a minute about the explosives. Where could it be? Then she remembered. She had left it in her glove compartment. There was no reason she could think of why she couldn't go back to her car and get it and then come back in - the Master Control Program did not seem to be taking any additional security precautions. She tried to think of alternatives such as manufacturing gunpowder from charcoal and sulfur but dismissed them all as impractical. She would have to go back.

The way out was not as bad as the way in. She knew what to expect and no new hazards presented themselves. She propped the second door open as a precaution, and found her way out the long corridor, which after all had no branches.

As she emerged from the dark building she blinked in the morning sunlight, at least until her goggles compensated for it. She crossed the street again, to the consternation of yet more motorists, and walked over to where she had parked her car.

It was gone. She knew where she had left it but there was no car in that space. Could CAESAR have been more devious than anybody expected, and evaporated the car with an orbital particle beam weapon? Or maybe this was the work of a rival organization, intent on sabotaging Jack's work. Then she noticed that the car behind her had a bright green parking ticket. With a sick feeling she looked up at the sign by the side of the road.

"No parking for street sweeping, third Monday of the month."