Books written by Ray Sullivan

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Parallel Lives chapter 79

As Michael drove he found himself bombarded with questions, unsurprisingly as he was technically still the opposition. Alan had sat in the front, forcing Karen to take the back seat. Karen doubted if any other permutation had ever crossed Alan's mind. Leaning forward as far as the seatbelt would allow, she led the questions.
'What have you lot been doing to John?' she asked, unable to wait any longer. Michael drew in a deep breath, he knew he would have to come clean, or at least fairly clean, over this. He really wanted to do this once only.
'I'm not stalling you, but some of the things I need to explain are quite complex. Would you mind if we held that one over until all of us are together. I don't mind telling you about myself and who I work for but if its all the same...' he said, keeping his eyes firmly on the dark road ahead, ensuring that Jack's rear lights were always in view.
'Go on then,' encouraged Alan, keen to drag as much information as he possibly could. 'tell us about who you work for.' Michael swallowed.
'I work for DTRU, the Defence Technology Research Unit, he explained, 'We're based in a few locations in the UK,' he said, surrendering his right to liberty in one sentence. Alan was unimpressed.
'Can't say I've heard of it,' he proclaimed. Michael shrugged as he drove.
'Good, then we've done something right at least. Its meant to be secret, we carry out the research that the Government wants to keep British, not necessarily to give us any kind of commercial edge but more of a technological one. Most of our work is destined for the military and the intelligence services, but a lot filters its way into everyday life sooner or later,' he said, pleased to have an audience for his life's work for once.
'One example of our work, that is now used outside of the intelligence field it was developed for, sits on virtually every matrix sign on our motorways.
'We developed a system for reading vehicle number plates some years back, for use in Northern Ireland. The army were having great difficulty in tracking vehicle movements, especially across the border. Sure, you can set up checkpoints at border crossing points but that gives you two problems.
The first is that the enemy knows you are logging vehicle details and can take actions to disguise their movements, and second, it's very manpower intensive. Also, if you take it to its logical conclusion and man every passing point all the time you end up forcing the enemy to take alternative routes, ones you aren't covering at all,' he explained to his passengers. Alan thought for a few seconds before pitching in.
'So this technology, it reads number plates. Couldn't a camera do that?' he asked.
'Cameras did and do, all the time. But they have one major limitation, the film or video tape has to be manually searched afterwards. You've still got the manpower overhead, but you add in a time lag.
'Our system reads number plates automatically and feeds the information directly into an intelligence database. From there it is manipulated a dozen ways; sorted, collated, trended and suspect vehicles tracked.
The Irish never knew how much intel was gleaned just by watching their vehicle movements,' finished Michael, aware that he didn't know that much about these two or their affiliations. Karen took up the mantle, keen to demonstrate that she was not just a 'woman indoors'.
'So they have rolled this out onto the matrix signs. I think I read that somewhere, it's to replace the speed cameras, isn't it?' she asked. Michael warmed up to this interest.
'More than that, traditional speed cameras are basically flawed. They have to calculate a near instantaneous velocity on a moving object over a very short distance. When you think about it, most cars are either accelerating or slowing down, rarely travelling at a constant speed. Probably the only cars not changing speed are the ones keeping exactly to the speed limit, because the drivers are aware of the speed camera.
'I'm amazed that the speed cameras aren't challenged more in the courts,' he said, on a personal hobby horse, 'given that they are measuring variable shapes, bunched up traffic, cars travelling in the opposite direction.' Karen interrupted.
'So they use your number plate reading equipment instead of cameras, how does that help?' she asked. Michael half turned as he spoke, now he was getting to what he regarded as the exciting bit.
'Well, what they don't do is any speed calculations on moving targets. That's their strength.
'What they do, and they do it very well, is read every visible number plate that passes in front of them, and then passes the info onto a central computer, along with the time and the location. The next time the car passes under one of these devices the data is compared. They know where the matrix signs are, or more importantly, how far apart they are. It's simple maths to work out the average speed of a car from that information,' Michael said, looking around to check that his audience were still interested. The sums were swimming around Alan's head, not quite adding up.
'This must cost a fortune to set up,' he exclaimed. Michael was ready for the fiscal argument.
'In principal, you're right, and I doubt if the Department of Transport has paid a fraction of the real cost of the system. Don't forget, the development costs were absorbed by the Northern Ireland budget. There would be some implementation costs, but the biggest hitter is undoubtedly the installation costs.'
'So, who paid?' asked Karen. Alan was ahead of this game.
'His intelligence friends, I reckon. That short-arse with you is part of that crowd, I assume,' he stated.
'He is, yes,' replied Michael before continuing, 'Them and other agencies, including the police. The speeding element is simply a bonus which will pay for extensions to the system in time, but can never recoup the real costs,' he explained. Karen had caught up and was in danger of overtaking the pair of them.
'So that's why you told us to avoid the motorways, its only in place there,' she said, half asking, 'and I suppose that all traffic is being tracked while on the motorway network. Talk about Big Brother.'
'It's technically more challenging on other roads, motorways have clearly defined and controlled entry and exit points,' Michael agreed, 'but tracking all vehicles is a waste of time. It would take inordinate resources to collate and sift the information, even after the computers have done their bit. But you're right about my reason, it's more or less standard practice for the Secret Service to have the system "keep an eye out" for specific number plates, that's what its good at.'
Alan felt the explanation was reasonable, well within his understanding of current technology.
'The mobile phone thing, another way of tracking?' he asked. Michael flicked his head swiftly to one side, indicating agreement.
'As soon as you switch on a mobile phone it searches for its' network. It does this periodically so that the network "knows" where to send text messages and phone calls. By triangulating three cells they can work out your position to within a hundred metres or less.' This explanation seemed to satisfy the two passengers and slowly the group fell into an uneasy silence, each watching the tail lights in front.
Jack was doing a lot of thinking, driving along virtually alone. John had surfaced, mumbled about various events and people, mostly strangers to Jack's ears, then had sunk back down. He had tried engaging John in conversation once or twice but had eventually given up.
As he drove through the dark evening on predominantly unlit roads, squinting in near pain whenever cars approached from the opposite distance, he realised that neither he nor Karen had eaten since breakfast. He didn't even know if Alan had eaten at all that day, he was the kind to skip breakfast, Jack reckoned. As he rounded a left hand curve Jack was greeted by a petrol station, its brand name illuminating the grassy areas surrounding it. Checking his gauge he decided to pull in and fuel up, using the opportunity to discuss tactics with the occupants of the other car.
As he pulled up to the pumps he noticed there was a ramshackle cafe sat alongside the petrol station, seemingly open although clearly under-utilised. Michael had pulled up to the adjacent pump and was fumbling with the hire car's fuel cap. He turned to Jack.
'How are you paying? I've been using John's credit card, but I guess that's been compromised, judging by those two guys in Bristol,' he rationalised. Jack patted his pocket.
'Cash,' he said, 'I reckoned that credit cards would be easy to trace. I assume that was the object of the exercise today, avoiding being traced. I drew some out while in Manchester, I didn’t know how the day was going to pan out.' Michael agreed with the sentiment of not being traced.
'Unfortunately I hadn't planned on any of this and when I grabbed the opportunity to get John away the last thing I wanted to do was stop for cash,' he explained.
'I'll cover the fuel costs,' offered Jack, not believing that he had gotten himself into something like this. The thought crossed his mind, 'something like what? I don't know what all this is about.'
'Let’s stop for something to eat, that place looks open and I reckon we can park around the back,' he added. The looks on the faces of Karen and Alan, who had been following the exchange closely from their seated positions, told Jack that he had made a popular suggestion. He completed his fuelling and, once Michael had done likewise, walked over to the kiosk and paid.


Copyright Ray Sullivan 2011

The characters, places and events described in this novel are fictitious and any resemblance to persons, places or events, past or present, is coincidence.  All rights reserved

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