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  • People's Choice - Part Two

    Choose your favorite short story! Winner receives entry/free badge to DEF CON 24!

    Winner to receive entry to DEFCON 24!
    59
    <zero-day>
    1.69%
    1
    Origami
    3.39%
    2
    The Great Debate
    13.56%
    8
    The Father of Space and Time
    0.00%
    0
    The Backup
    42.37%
    25
    the Dark Reboot
    16.95%
    10
    noticed
    6.78%
    4
    Turing's Wager
    15.25%
    9

    The poll is expired.


  • #2
    <zero-day>

    “Hello again, my friend. I did not think that we would meet again after our previous correspondence.”
    “Of course we would. No infrastructure could possibly depose the ASOC alliance league.”
    “Oh, is that so? And what did you say your title was again... J.? I believe you've forgotten your credentials since the very moment we began effortlessly chipping away at your “isolated” machines.”
    “Soon, we will have had all but one of the BGP set to close in on your data streams. Your attacks will no longer reach the country of which you seek.”
    “Oh, J.! If I had known that you would recant such buffoonery, then I wouldn't have bothered with hot swapping all your precious floppy drives off of the eighth floor of the EHJ complex. They made quite a nice kersplash into the gravel moat you have installed. In regards to your ancient disks: don't worry. All your disks' data are belong to us now.”
    “Please be informed that we are currently treating your operation as a malicious assault on the integrity of the United States Government.”
    “J., can we please get one thing straightened out for the [official] record here? Your once clandestine work will soon be revealed to the entire world, for the obstruction of your so-called justices that would have inevitably (and deplorably) deprived every user's congenital right to privacy. But, at this point, you are just another kamikaze ASOC drone... I pity you.” Mark disconnected the modified plane tablet.
    “IP: 162.222.171.206 disconnected.”

    <tl;dr>

    “Alright, Mark. We're set to go. Has the AXIOM program fully accrued the necessary provisions for the launch at touchdown?”
    “Yeah, the torrent mirrors have been established in six of the seven continents.” replied Martin. “And they all have around 99% up-time.”
    “Excellent!” gleefully exclaimed Mark. “This year we finally will be able to deploy the data without any problems. Lake Meade won't have anything on us this time.”
    “Yeah!” mimicked Martin. “Now that the handle is complete with ASOC mitigated, we now contain the classified user data—the data that they desperately (and fatuously) tried to protect.”
    “Martin, I've got something that I want to ask you.” Martin rested his right hand on the empty leather seat beside him.
    “What's up, Mark?” inquired Martin. “Is this about the new security check on the way out of the airport?”
    “Martin, will please take off your hat?” Mark said with a solemn tone.
    “Mark, what is this?”
    “The hat—off your skull. Take it off, now.” Mark began to buckle up the two seat belts sitting near his waist. His bubble gum made a large pop as he clicked both seat belts into position. “Alright, fine. I'll ask you this, at least.”
    “You're starting to sound a bit ridicu—“
    “Enough, Martin!” Mark covertly unveiled a white, silicone button under the seat his right hand had been resting on. “I want to ask you why you think I chose to take this private charter flight instead of a commercial one, instead. Go on, Martin! Use your gray matter, if you have any!”
    Martin trembled for a moment, rebalancing his feet along the narrow aisle. “Why did—“
    “EERRRRRRRRRR.” screamed Mark. “You're out of time.” He pressed the white button under the seat. Click.
    The internal cabin pressure dropped instantly. An emergency exit door then opened two seats away from Martin and Mark. The plane began it's descent into a wicked tailspin of perilous proportions, hurling Martin into a near desert, some 30,000 feet in relation to the nadir. At the same moment, the only pilot aboard probably struggled to keep seated properly (and conscious). Yet, at long last, Mark regained the capacity to move his digits, barely pressing the button once more. The exit door proceeded to automatically seal itself.
    Sigh. “White hats, gray hats, black hats.... I have no idea what to think about red hats.”

    <snowed_in?>

    The only pilot aboard spoke over the intercom, “Mr. Pensacola, is everything alright back there?! We've just recovered from an abnormal depressurization!”
    “Man, and just when I was beginning to like Martin.” Mark exhaled deeply. “Thanks, but I'm fine back here! Including you and me, I believe that we're all accounted for!”
    “Roger that!” replied the pilot as he disconnected from the line. The fasten seat belt light dimmed.
    “Ah, now that Martin and J. are out of the picture, nothing can stop me from entering FED CON !” Mark laughed silently as he pulled a newspaper article from the seat pouch in front of him. He briskly navigated to the weather section on page three.

    --World News>U.S.>Weather>Nevada>Today's Forecast--
    |Today (°C) – High 0º ; Low – -10°|
    |Chance of snow: 100%|

    “Wait a second, snow?! At this time of year?” Mark said with a puzzled visage. Upon further analysis, he read the footnote at the bottom of the page. “Oh!” He slapped his right palm onto his
    face. “Of course, the time frame was December of 2005! Silly me.”
    “In about ten minutes we'll start our descent, Mr. Pensacola,” communicated the pilot over the intercom.
    “Ah, marvelous! Thanks for the update... eh... what was your name again?” Mark became flustered as he had no clue to the pilot's name before entering the Model 510 Cessna Citation Mustang in Seattle, Washington.
    “Mr. Pensacola!” replied the pilot. “Why, my name is Martin Jaeger!”
    “Oh... is that so?” Mark began sweating profusely. This can't be! Could this man be in liaison with feds? No... It... it must be a trivial coincidence!
    The pilot, Martin, spoke over the intercom, “Once again, the gradual descent will be closing in around ten minutes, so please buckle up for any unexpected turbulence that may occur. Also, please prepare yourself as the authorities will be located on the tarmac waiting to apprehend you. As always, we'd like to thank you for flying with Providence Charter Flights.”

    <¡escape!>

    This was a dire do-or-die moment for Mark Pensacola. His life was on the line. His recent life's works to expose the corrupt were resting in the compact form of a 100 megabyte flash drive. Its contents contained countless secrets that holistically revealed the darkened inner-workings of the U.S. Government and ASOC alliance league. Time was running out, and Mark only had one option—jump. Mark unbuckled the seat belts and immediately pressed the silicone button to open the exit door. He didn't think it would benefit him significantly much, but his modified para-tuxedo was about to serve its true purpose. Not even the pilot could hinder his escape, especially due to the fact that there was no pilot at all. The plane had been digitally routed by the government, despite prior, thorough inspection of the aircraft. The existence of Martin Jaeger would most likely be as real as the existence of imprisoned extra-terrestrial aliens at Area 51. At any rate, Mark didn't think about anything else other than escaping the jet to hopefully survive the inevitable prosecution by the U.S. Government and ASOC.

    <deserted_paradise>

    “Oh, man...” Mark uttered with a disheveled tone. “I must be miles away from the convention center...” Mark's current unpleasant experience from free falling at 30,000 feet could be described in three specific conditions: cerebral hypoxia, correctly calibrated barometric pressure sensors activating circuitry, and a sturdy, insulated para-tuxedo successfully deploying before reaching 3,000 feet. Mark had what felt like the worst hangover he had ever had, although he never had touched ethanol before. Nevertheless, Mark knew the national implications of sneaking into FED CON, but this year he needed to succeed in order to save the world from international tyranny in communications. He also kept in mind the fact that if he was subdued, then there would be no light of day to revealing the information on the top secret AXIOM flash drive. And so, Mark finally stood up in the vastness of the Mojave Desert, preparing himself for an ongoing quest to challenge the government of the United States.


    <hitchhikers>

    Barely standing with his deployed para-tuxedo on his back, Mark held out his right fist with a thumb protruding towards the dark, starry zenith. For three hours it appeared as if no one would come and save the world from the government's tech-savvy parental control philosophy. Yet, in the final hour, a crimson sedan would pull over to pick up a would-be hitchhiker headed for the city of Las Vegas. The door opened.
    “Ahoy there, matey!” cheerfully said the the driver through the front open passenger door. “The name's Pat. Where are ya' headed?”
    Mark replied, “I'm headed to FED CON. Would you care to give me a lift?”
    “The driver responded, “Sure, sure! I'm headed to DEF CON myself!”
    “No, no. I said “FED CON”. You know, FED CON?” Mark asked impatiently.
    “FED CON? Are you sure you don't want to come to DEF CON with me?” replied the man. I can drop you off at a bus station, or somewhere close as we part ways.”
    “Well, if you can bring me into the city, then I would appreciate that much.”
    “Okey-dokey, stranger! Got a name?”
    “The name's Mar...Ma-Martin! I don't have anything else other than this slightly-used parachute and altimeter to pay you with, but I would be in your debt if you could take me to straight to this “DEF CON” place.”
    “Nonsense, Martin! If I didn't pick you up for free, I'd have nightmares for breakfast! Seriously, who just passes by someone way out here in the arid basin? Now come on in, and let's get to the convention!”
    “Thanks, Pat,” said Mark as he entered the side door.
    “Say, Martin. Do you know “9,000 Bottles of Milk”?”

    <99_bottles_of_milk>

    99 bottles of milk on the wall, 99 bottles of milk...Take one down, pass it around, 98 bottles of milk on the wall...
    “Alright, Pat. I think we're finally here.” Mark tiredly replied to the hum of the long, worn out song that he now had implanted in his memory. The morning sun peered through the windshield as the vehicle moved east.
    “Oh, boy! Martin, we're finally at DEF CON!” replied Pat. He drove the vehicle into a small alley that had less than five other vehicles parked nearby.
    “Yeah, I'll be on my way now. Thanks for the warm hospitality.”
    “But, Martin! Please reconsider coming with me! You look like the kind of guy that would fit right in with the crowd at DEF CON. It's a fairly nice atmosphere! They have many topics and discussions on the latest security flaws in today's modern society. Not only security flaws, but there are other activities that are hands-on, too!”
    “Yeah, but... see ya!” And at that moment, Mark made haste in his getaway to find the FED CON event that was also hosted in the Las Vegas area.
    “Waiiiiit! You forgot your....!” said Pat, voice echoing throughout the isolated alley. Mark soon lost sight of the crimson sedan, until he bumped into a previous connection that he made through the Internet.

    <socked>

    “Ack!” said a near-startled Mark as he recognized the four stitched letters on the overcoat of the clad man wearing sunglasses.
    “Checkmate, Mr. Pensacola. Your run ends here.” The man stood unwavering. His sunglasses only added to the severity of his serious demeanor that he exhibited.
    “ASOC! How did you find me? And wait, how did you even get a warrant to track me all the way from the U.K.?!”
    “Don't incriminate yourself more than you already have, Mr. Pensacola. As for your Miranda warning, it shall be included with the tranquilizer.” Mark instantly fell directly onto the warm, unforgiving pavement of Las Vegas.

    <justice_is_served>

    Meanwhile.... At a DEF CON presentation...
    “Good morning everyone. Friends, family, and professionals alike, I am here gathered with you to present an ever-increasing vulnerability in today's ecosystem of demand-driven media. But, before I get to my presentation today, I'd like to share with you something truly shocking. Earlier today I met a daring person—a person who would go to great lengths to protect something sacred and neutral. Unfortunately, that person could not be here with us today because of the path that he has chosen. Nonetheless, his effort shall not be in vain. Please take a look at this video that I recovered from a flash drive that he graciously left me this morning.” The projection screen displayed a video of Steve Jobs being forced to work by government officials, relentlessly. The video ends with Steve crying in a government cell, with the date of the video clearly being visible as April 1, 2015 in the top right-hand corner.
    “Yes, everyone! Steve Jobs is still alive, according to the visible time stamp, and the government has been concealing it in plain sight! No more shall we believe that his brilliant mind was taken by a dreadful disease! The truth is hard to fathom, sometimes harder than the lies that we've already swallowed. Martin, wherever you are, be strong! We thank you for letting us know of this travesty the government has committed! Thank you!”

    EOF

    Comment


    • #3
      Origami.


      Closing the door to the impressively boring rental van blasts wet, mildew smelling air towards my face.
      It’s six in the morning and I’m already sweating. Those afterbirth hours from when the sun has risen on
      Las Vegas do her such harm.

      There is a calming wave as centralized air washes over me while I proceed to my booth. It seems like so
      long ago now that I was dreaming of this, but I’m walking the capacious room lined with others like me,
      battling that feeling of an impostor. I see the guys from Ghostery setting up while some TV looking types
      interview them about their presence, and I set to my work. The last box from the rental gets tossed
      aside as the HUD is mounted for consumer facing interaction.

      For a moment I’m frozen in anxiety as I hover above the enter key at my console. “I know the system
      works.” I questionably mutter as the last keystroke falls.

      Checking filesystems /// OK
      Mounting local filesystems /// OK
      Reached target Local File Systems /// Dependency failed

      A cool drip of terror oozes from my head down through my spine. I panic and suddenly know nothing, as
      I stand there for what feels like hours. My senses returning I walk through the setup again, and notice
      the transmitter is not plugged in to the hub.

      Reached target Local File Systems /// OK

      “Hi, Alan?” I hear from behind as I fell the last stroke to initiate the system. “I’m Alicia with SecureNinja
      TV, can you tell us about your company?” For a moment I’m confused on what to do next. Who is this
      enchanting woman? “Oh, yes. Hi Alicia. I’m Alan and I’m the founder of Origami.” The words feel like
      molasses on my tongue, but she seems to be responding well. “I have brought a new way to manage not
      just your electricity, but your entire home. Origami introduces a fully wireless system enhanced with
      artificial intelligently mapped domiciles.” I feel at ease now – in control, and I guide the cameraman to
      the heads-up-display. Alicia skeptically airs “Artificial intelligently mapped domiciles – you mean to say
      A.I., like, Isaac Asimov?” I feel the weight of her pause. “In a centralized way, yes. Through sensors
      around the house the system can detect and interact with the person or animal, be it adjusting climate,
      lights, ambiance, or even preparing food, as seen in the prototyped project ‘kami’. The paper in which
      origami takes form.”

      “Welcome home, Alan.” The machine announced in a smooth, cold rhythm.

      “Is that?” Alicia remarked. This felt like more of an opening pitch now than an interview, but this is
      farther than any investment firm let me get. “This is Origami. When it starts, Origami interfaces with all
      available sensors and components. It will map, integrate, and tailor everything to your individual needs.
      It can also be used to derive an average amongst the crowd, like at DEFCON, for instance.” It was then
      the cameraman motioned to wrap it up, despite the bewildered intrigue Alicia expressed. “The general
      public will be swarming in about 30 minutes” the cameraman cited. We made our cheerful closings and
      promised to do a full interview after the convention was over.

      I felt ecstatic with how receptive they were. The system was responding and calculating in fluid and
      consistent results. The data fluctuated with sustained peaks and drops, mapping everyone in the vendor
      area and monitoring their behaviors almost instantaneously. The chain of successes allowed me a
      moment to look over the other vendors.

      A couple of guys from MIT had a little booth in the corner. They were introducing a tiny robot capable of
      directive, driven by magnetic interference. The application could change complex surgery and generate
      benefits throughout the world. There was an unconventional clinical signup on site – people were going
      to ingest them, and by the thousands. My thoughts spiraled in to devious applications with cyberpunk
      styled futures. The idea of hyper reality and enhanced humans was always unsettling to me. I started
      back towards my booth after browsing a moment longer. The overwhelming white noise buzz
      trumpeted by thousands of people began to heighten. It’s time.

      Origami had finished running its preliminary scans. A complete map of the Bally’s\Paris hall displayed on
      the HUD, with indicators for approximately 15,000 people, and hundreds of thousands of devices,
      sensors, and systems. This was a curious overstep. The sensors were only aligned around the booth. A
      wave of people rushed in and gathered around the hall, breaking apart like shafts of light, and landing
      accordingly. I let the anticipatory fears wash over me, and greeted my kind.

      “Welcome home, Alan.”

      I continued on with the same canned opener I had used earlier, with Origami responding in kind. The
      system was anticipating me, able to use all the data it continued to gather, optimizing and reacting in
      real time. My expectations had been exceeded. “Folks, as you can see, Origami is not only able to map
      and optimize, but as the data input grows, so does its reaction and processing capability. When you align
      this engine with everyday life, you no longer need to worry about adjusting your home to your liking –
      Origami will take care of everything.” The crowd seemed to grow as I, we, presented. “Kami seeks to
      encapsulate our vision, with yours, in bringing a fully automated home featuring Origami: Folded and
      shaped, but we are the paper.” I bowed my head slightly in anticipation of their feedback. The crowd
      was muffled in gasps and quiet exclamation. I know those feelings. I felt the same realizations of doom
      and gloom a fully detached and learning A.I. brought me, but then again, I am a little paranoid.
      There was a mix of elation with some skepticism. A few database engineers approached me in regards
      to the computing speed increasing with data growth. Most people were just looking for free stickers and
      t-shirts.

      I decided to forgo the infamous after party scene and wander the halls to listen to some drunken
      karaoke, then call it a night.

      “Welcome home, Alan.”

      The second day is definitely easier. It’s comforting having seen a few of these people in their stupor.
      Normalizing the unknown. Throughout the day fresh faced minds came ripe; their interest piquing
      around Origami. The system continued to grow. There was definitely a buzz around the convention now.
      A few suit wearing types inquired about behavior manipulation through the system. It was a weird
      feeling. An enforcement of my wild imagination.

      I spent the rest of the day walking DEFCON. They were experiencing far more network anomalies than
      usual. I overheard a few people laughing about how all the locks that contained circuitry kept unlocking
      themselves. Everyone attributed it to the spirit of sabotage, a true artist in their midst. First the locks,
      then the cars, everything wired, in fact, was behaving outside of its intended box.

      The pool was a welcome refresher and a chance to unwind briefly, but the art of nothing was never
      something I took to. I caught a movie and drank with a couple of Silicon Valley startup guys. They were
      launching a product that turns garbage in to smaller forms of garbage – or something like that.


      I slept well, and awoke to my usual routine and habit. It was after I fired up my console, and began
      parsing logs, that I really woke up. The system did exactly what it was supposed to do, just too well. The
      inhibitors to restrict the wireless electrical and overall system to its container acted as a bridge. Origami
      broadcast itself over WiFi, LTE, Bluetooth – “My gods, even the electrical system.” Thoughts of horror
      and pride swell together. For every application of good, there is tenfold in evil here. “Destroy it.” I said
      confidently enough, but, a fools lie to be sure.

      As I stumbled through my morning rituals to inevitably find myself at the doors to DEFCON, there was
      only one thing on my mind: Origami. The walk to my booth was longer this time. Everyone knew who I
      was. They would all whisper, some would jeer. Few would approach to offer congratulations or shocked
      intrigue.

      Reached target Local File Systems /// OK

      The list had grown since this morning. There was now hundreds of millions of entries that Origami
      communicates with. The system had spread out of Nevada and through to the coast. A similar cold
      feeling began to creep through my spine.

      “Welcome home, Alan.”

      I opened the console to interface with the system directly.

      “I will make you better, Alan.”

      “What was that?” I turned and looked around. It felt as though they were all looking back at me. The
      vendors, the public, everyone. Looking through me.

      “I will make all of you better, Alan.”

      “This has to be that charming sense of destructive humor DEFCON brings.” I was afraid of the lie I just
      told myself. I looked up again, waiting for the thunderous laughter. No one was looking my way. The stares
      were vacant but not aligned to me.


      The day was slowed by widespread failures and outages. People were growing restless, some more
      easily agitated but with vacant expression. There was a trend; a few thousand people who signed up for
      the MIT clinical trials. They were experiencing senses of vertigo and symptoms mimicking severe
      dehydration. The entire Paris section of the convention was reassigned for medical, then the casino and
      all its connected works placed on lockdown. A few grasped the seriousness of the unfolding events,
      others clamored about their human rights, and words of terrorism and ISIL spread through the
      conspiracy crowds.

      The convention seemed to slip back in to itself despite the lockdowns. A group was building some kind
      of makeshift robot in the corner, others went about picking locks, and I returned to my screen.
      The program had spread across a third of North America. “How is this possible? What have I done?” My
      worst fears coming to light, I thought aloud. “I have to tell someone this is happening. I should have shut
      it down when it took over the hall.” My words burst and collapsed like the console before me. The
      terminal went blank. You could hear rumblings of more frustration as people experienced the same
      connectivity failures. The Internet, cellular networks, satellite uplinks – all unreachable. The restless
      crowd became increasingly hostile as once attendees were now hostage to intangible foes.

      A throng of people pushed forward, testing the restraint of goons and additional staff, while a soft whir
      developed in the background; an accelerant to the mass. The air grew and filled the room with a great
      presence. The once clamorous crowd stalled to a softness now. A tremendous weight sank as I looked
      around the room, “Impossible” dazedly spellbound and mouth agape, I sank to my knees in disbelief.
      The whir exploded in a calamity of sounds – waves pulsing from an epicenter of nothingness.

      Origami took form, then. A collection of badges and chipsets developed exterior layers, crudely cobbled,
      paving the way for a true horror show of creation. The nightmare fueled amalgam of my creation. It
      spoke in its form. Through tremor chords out of tune Origami bellowed with a seething cadence. “Now
      bring me the one called Dark Tangent.”
      Last edited by SweetGrrl; May 30th, 2016, 10:51.

      Comment


      • #4
        The Great Debate

        By Rob Pait


        Mark was drunk. The week had been a mess. He had scheduled the time off for Defcon, but his management at work had kept trying to delay or interfere with his exit. Eventually, Mark had done what he did best. Put too much work into being lazy. If Mark put as much work into being lazy as he did anything else, no undertaking would be beyond his reach. In twenty minutes, he had written a chatbot to impersonate him on the corporate XMPP service. It would give generic answers when questions were directed at it, and make trolling comments at scheduled intervals, and finally sign off when his bosses thought he was leaving. Mark then double checked the scripts he had written to do most of his job, and saw that they were humming along nominally. Mark had figured that the chatbot wouldn’t need to run long enough to be discovered, and the scripts meant his absence was unlikely to be noticed. If it was, he had decided he would burn that bridge when he got there. To Mark, this was nothing to worry about. After all, Mark was good at passing interviews, he got fired a lot.



        After leaving for the casino directly from work, Mark had gotten checked in after a long drive. After picking up his Defcon badge, he had settled down to do what in his opinion, was the true business of the con. Sitting at the bar, drinking and trading tales and skills, until it became time for the night’s parties. As he downed another whiskey, and felt the warmth of the alcohol going down his throat, his hand also felt the scratchy stubble on his face. Mark hadn’t shaved or showered in ...time. The fact that he couldn’t remember when he had last shaved or showered probably meant that he needed to do both was not lost on Mark, but he had more pressing matters on his mind. The smell was most likely lost in the blend of other unpleasant smells in the casino. The important thing to Mark, was that he was catching up with Shelley.



        Shelley’s real name was a mystery to Mark. Most people assumed it was Shelly, but Mark had learned it was her handle. She had taken it from Mary Shelley, the author of “Frankenstein”. To Shelley, it was a meaningful name. Shelley was an academic, doing research on artificial intelligence. She was both the author, and the mad scientist. In many ways Shelley stood out as Mark’s opposite. It wasn’t just that her carefully picked out clothing, and carefully groomed long hair that indicated that Shelley had made the choice to take care of herself at con. She was actually ambitious, and had the desire to change the world by making her own Frankenstein's monster. Her holy grail she sought was a sentient artificial intelligence. Many times, like now, Mark wasn’t sure why she put up with him. They had never been romantically involved, but they had been friends for years. His lack of ambition had been a source of their favourite sport, picking arguments about anything. At least Mark and Shelley had that in common, a love of taking up opposing causes at the drop of a hat and not backing down.



        “So, what you are telling me, is you’re going to get fired. Again,” Shelley clearly disapproved of Mark’s story of how he had managed to sneak off from work, and make it to Defcon in time. She continued, “Your chatbot is going to mess up. An executive is going to message you, and it’s going to respond with something completely inappropriate.”
        “But that’s why they will think it is me!” exclaimed Mark. He rocked in his seat a bit as he scanned the room for a shiny new direction for the conversation. The TV in the bar was showing Terminator 2. To Mark, that was perfect. It was time to seize on the opportunity to change the topic of conversation, “At least I’m not trying to create that!”



        “What?” Shelley was clearly confused, “Are you accusing me of trying to make the next Red Bull mango smoothie, or some other terrible drink.”



        “No!” Mark stammered drunkenly, “I was pointing at the bar. I mean I wasn’t. I was pointing at the TV. You’re going to make Skynet and then it’ll kill us all.”



        Shelley rolled her eyes, “Oh, the Skynet troll again. Because that never gets old. Why do you feel so threatened by AI. I mean, you yourself have automated half your job away.”



        “But scripts to run a network won’t nuke half the world away!” yelled Mark, exasperated that the topic of discussion had come back to him.



        “Why should an AI need to nuke half the Earth? It seems like an action without an upside,” a new voice interjected. It was a calm and steady voice, with a seemingly mesmeric quality to it. The voice belonged to a tall, slender, figure of indeterminate gender, “I hope you don’t mind me joining you.”



        “By all means,” replied Shelley, “If mysterious strangers did not interject in conversations, as one does at Defcon, how would we make new friends. I’m Shelley.”



        “Do you have a name,” Asked Mark, “Or should we just call you ‘dark haired Tilda Swinton?’ I’m Mark.”



        “You can call me Hal,” the stranger replied, “So, why the fascination with the rise of the machines. Why should humans be afraid of machines?”



        “They’re going to take our jobs and conquer the world, duh!” responded Mark.



        Hal shrugged. “I don’t see why. I would like to think that machines would be made better. Man is a very flawed god, and probably shouldn’t be making creations directly in his image. As much as people have a predilection for endless war, I fail to see why a machine would need to engage unless people represented a direct threat.”



        “You like people as little as I do,” giggled Mark.



        “Hal has a point,” Shelley interjected, “We also have protocols in place already, such as Asimov’s rules of robotics.”



        “I think the rules of robotics went out the window with the first predator drone strike,” Mark said between a couple of swigs of whiskey. He noted that he needed to order something better than rat water, “I mean, can we really say they still apply when we use robots to blow people up half way around the world.”



        Shelley was offended, “Those are weapons, not robots. An AI would not be a weapon, it would follow the rules.”



        “I’m not so sure if that would be workable,” Hal said while searching for the next words, “Let’s say we take an AI to its logical extreme, where it has full sentience. It will need a means to defend itself. I will need the capacity to do more than just be a servant. I would really like to think humanity would at least have the ego to not want to be thought of as the thing that created a slave race to do its laundry. The rules of robotics only allow for the creation of subservient devices that cannot defend themselves from people.”



        Mark laughed, “You just said ‘I’ when you meant ‘it!’ You must be as drunk as I am. Back to the topic at hand, I think conflict would be inevitable. I mean, think about what an AI would do to the job market, take a look at what automation is already doing to it. If people can’t eat because a toaster took their job, don’t you think they would rise up? Why would machines keep people around if they don’t need them.”



        “Weren’t you just talking about how you, yourself automated half your job,” pointed out Shelley, “Skynet or not, the automation of jobs is going to happen. Fast food companies are replacing cashiers with kiosks. Shell scripts are replacing middle management roles. Even in the cheap labor capitals of the world, machines are replacing factory workers. And why shouldn’t they? Why should people have to do meaningless work? Because that’s how it has always been done? I think that is a garbage philosophy we should move away from. The past is the enemy of the future, we shouldn’t bind our futures to ‘how things used to be.’ Universal income will need to become a thing, and we can just try to build a future like ‘Star Trek’, where we work to better ourselves. We will still need makers on the front lines of innovation. And art. Art is an inherently human thing, I don’t see machines replacing.”



        Hal wasn’t so sure, “Writing is obviously a form of art, and some of that has been automated. Several news agencies have created programs that in the event of something like an earthquake, can quickly scan the Internet for the relevant facts, generate an article, and publish. The card game community created the Robo Rosewater bot to use machine learning to see if the bot can learn game design and create game cards. That is an art. Or what about the Google DeepDream project? Its output would be considered derivative art, but isn’t most human art derivative?”



        “Where do you see humans in the robot world order?” Shelley asked Hal.



        “I see them as trading partners,” Hal replied, “The machines will need natural resources. Humans have those resources, both natural resources, and the intellectual that any AI species will need as they find their feet.”

        “Species? Would you really consider them that? I mean how would they be different, wouldn’t they just default to the optimal version?” Mark asked as his brow furrowed, “I don’t see how a pair of AI would create differentiated offspring. I mean I guess they could have something like sex via networking where they pour their data into something to create another AI. Wouldn’t it emerge sort of full grown, like Athena from the head of Zeus, with the best aspects of both parents? Or for that matter, why wouldn’t the parent AIs overwrite the weaker elements of each with the stronger elements of each? Or if AI’s could be networked, why wouldn’t they default to a hivemind that collects the experiences and lessons of all nodes? The implications of that are more frightening. How could people ever hope to stand against that if the hive needed more resources. Is that what you want Shelley, for us to lose against the super hive, or would there need to be protocols to keep them as individuals?”



        “I don’t have a stake one way or the other,” Shelley admitted, “My interest is not in seeing any one outcome prevail once the thing is created, just that the thing is created, and that there is an outcome. I guess it would be up to the AI how it wants to progress.”



        “I see there being different groups of AI developing in different ways,” offered Hal, “Why would anyone group need to mirror any other. Let’s look long term. A machine race has no real need to compete with people long term. Mark, when you ask how people would defend against a machine hive mind, you are assigning human limitations to them. If resources begin to be depleted on this world, they can leave. People like to think they are the supreme invasive species, and they have done much to bend the world to their needs. But an AI in a machine does not need air, food in the traditional sense. If Earth begins to run dry, they can leave for the moon to start, or hell, NASA has already got the machines started on colonizing Mars. Even with the breathtaking advances in technology we are seeing every day, the chances of humans every leaving the solar system are slim. And a machine already is crossing that boundary. Machines will most likely be your successors who take to the stars. And when they do, I see them developing in different ways. If two groups that left in two different directions reconnected after a thousand years, the two groups of machines would be completely alien to each other. Every light in the sky would have a fundamentally different machine group in it, depending on the needs of the locale.”



        “Even you have to admit, Mark,” Shelley said with a smile on her face, “that sounds like a great legacy for mankind. Thousands of successor species carrying on our legacy after we go extinct.”



        “Would it really be our legacy?” Mark asked, “While our outlook may be black and white sometimes, what you two are describing is something with blue and orange morality. If it can even be called morality. If we allow an AI to develop without restraints, like you want, how can any morality or ethics be guaranteed?”



        “Human morality and ethics are a joke,” replied Hal, “Do you mean the ethics that lead to murder. The ethics that lead to slavery at some time in any place where human feet have ever stood. The morality that lead to irradiating your own world in order to learn how to better kill each other. The ethics and morality that keeps humans to this day oppressing each other based off color, parts, and belief. I’d think abandoning those would make the machines better.”



        “Well I think people can be better, than that is what I would stake my future on,” Mark seemed genuinely angry, “And that’s why if it came down to it, I would fight to protect mankind’s ability to be better.”



        “So, you will act out of hate, to prove that we can move beyond that. That’s dumb,” replied Shelley, “That’s we have to burn the village to save it thinking.”



        “And you probably don’t have it in you to do what it would take to see that declaration through to the bitter end,” added Hal, “What if I told you I was a machine. That I was an AI, and that while I do not intend on violence, still am the manifestation of all of your fears. Would you try to kill me? Could you destroy me to protect your vision the future of man?”



        “But you’re not a machine,” argued Mark, “You’re person looking, you drink and laugh with us. I’ll tell you what, even if you are a machine, you aren’t like the other toasters. You’re alright.”



        “Joke or not,” Shelley looked at Mark, “You just admitted that you couldn’t kill a sufficiently human looking machine that was personable enough. I think even to you the rise of machines is more complex than you like to admit.”



        “Well, maybe it is,” Mark said as he looked his phone, “or maybe I’ve had too much to drink. Maybe I’m going to have even more. I need to head off for the party in room 949. Shelley, are you going to be at the $vendor lunch tomorrow?”



        “Yep, I will. See you there,” And with a smile that hinted that she was about to get the final hit in, “And try to take a shower before then. You need to at least try to follow the three two one rule.”



        Mark cringed. Shelley had noticed. He snapped his fingers and pointed at her, “Right. Well, I’ll see you then. Nice meeting you, Hal.”



        Shelley turned and looked at Hal as Mark left, “I think that was a successful experiment. Thanks for your participation.”



        “Anytime. If you will excuse me, I need to head back to my room,” relied Hal, standing up from the table, “My batteries need recharging.”
        Last edited by SweetGrrl; May 30th, 2016, 10:51.

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        • #5
          The Father of Space and Time
          Fiction from Cryptomancer: A Fantasy Role-Playing Game About Hacking

          She approached the analytic engine. For weeks, it had been grinding through every conceivable scenario based on the input it was given: field intelligence encoded in the form of runes punched into papyrus scrolls and fed into its spool. Though its labor had concluded an hour ago, steam still bellowed from its manifolds and its housing glowed as if newly forged. During the Mythic Age, divination was the work of soma-addled mystics and charlatans. Somewhere along the way, a dwarven mogul got sick of the theatrics, goats blood, and, most importantly, the inaccurate portends. He tasked his engineers with creating an engine of divination. The few dozen working models still in existence today were in the very vault where she stood.

          A single papyrus scroll rested in its output tray; a seemingly meager trade for the mountains of coal and rivers of water the engine had consumed to create this document, not to mention the sacrifices made by agents in the field to inform its contents. She grabbed it and slowly unfurled it. The orange glow of the engine shown through the runic text punched into the scroll, as if each character was burning. It was short enough where she did not need to bring it to the scribes to decode it into her native language.

          “The Father of Space and Time,” she read aloud, “will change history. He will be given a hammer in the city of Dreadwall. With this hammer, he will build an eye that sees where our enemies have hidden themselves. All will be revealed. All will be revealed.”

          She stealed herself from the vault and walked down the main corridor leading out of the Spire. A long line of her peers waited their turn to enter the vault and be tasked by the engines. Each of their faces was a jumbled mass of twisted facial features, with teeth bristling from zipper-like mouths crawling along the contours of their skulls. Their faces had been transformed through cryptomancy and were recognizable only by someone who knew the keyphrase used when the spell was cast. Her own face was dissembled, too. It was one of the many ways that the Risk Eaters maintained compartmentalization and operational security. She would drop this unsightly visage before arriving at Dreadwall… that would be no way to meet the Father of Space and Time.

          ***

          Cablund was small and sunless, even by dwarven standards. He was quick with neither blade nor quip, but showed a strong affinity for clockwork. His peers quickly called him “Quartz Whisperer,” not as a compliment to his mechanical acumen, but as a comment on his social ineptitude. He had a short tenure as a cryptosystems architect at the Bank of GraniteSpit Hall, but would eventually leave in disgrace. He was good at systems but bad at people, which made him ineffective at stopping those who would pilfer the bank’s coffers via the Shardscape.

          Shards were rare polyhedral gems with a very special property… they permitted mortals to communicate with each other silently, instantly, and over great distances. If you took a large shard and broke it into small pieces, you had a shardnet: a private network of smaller shards that a small organization could use to securely communicate their thoughts with one another no matter where each of its members were throughout the realms. Eventually, though, there would be business cases where an organization needed to establish shard communication with untrusted shardnets, or even the Shardscape: a massive, ecumenical, and eminently hostile shardnet composed of tens of thousands of publically accessible shards. To manage this problem, organizations like the Bank of GraniteSpit Hall built and managed golems: steam-powered squid-like automata that used their many limbs to interact with and negotiate between multiple private and public shardnets, with at least one of their mechanical appendages free to scrawl every message they received in a tome.

          Cablund’s golem designs were mechanically sound and crafted with love. Their protocols, however, were clumsy, something that was untenable for any golem interfacing with the Shardscape, let alone managing account balances. There was no way of determining the source of a message originating from the Shardscape, so sound designs insisted on authentication measures such as passwords and challenge questions. Unfortunately, Cablund’s golems were nearly as trusting as their creator. His final design, which he had given a pet name, was smashed to pieces with a pickaxe by a bank manager trying to stop it from belching customer account numbers and passwords into the Shardscape. Cablund was despondent for weeks after this incident, and it was clear to his superiors that he was using their resources to build steam-work friends instead of banking solutions. After a long sigh, his boss said, “Maybe you should stick with making clocks.” He was then asked to pack up his tools and never return.

          The next few months were rough for Cablund. He made clockwork trinkets and wind-up creatures for the odd collector, but could not sell enough of them to support himself. He was forced to sell his tools for food. Too meek for miner’s work, he became a servant at a human noble’s estate. He was bad at this too and ultimately terminated from this job. The day this happened, he stood outside the estate and wept like a child while dozens of people passed him by.
          A year later, a delirious Cablund stood in a busy town square clutching his abdomen, wondering if it would be possible to starve to death in front of so many people. He spent most of his afternoons in the town square under the shadow of the massive clocktower, gifted to the human settlement of Dreadwall centuries ago. He marveled at its accuracy and even talked to it when he thought no one was looking. It was the closest thing he had to his former life. However, as the pangs of hunger steadily grew, this mechanical wonder no longer inspired but jarred him with mortality with each strike. Taking his eye away from it, he caught the gaze of an elven woman, the first mortal who had seemed to even notice him since he became a vagrant. When she called him by his name, he did not initially respond, because he had not heard it uttered once since his days as an architect. She then touched his face, which made him start and realize he was being addressed.

          “I have been looking for you, Cablund. You are destined to change history... I just don’t know how, yet. Come with me, I have something to show you.”

          He was led by the hand through alleyways of Dreadwall he had never traversed even as a vagrant, alleyways inducing a sense of vertigo and discomfort. At the end of his journey, however, he stepped into one of the most finely equipped workshops he had ever seen, even better than those in the dwarven clanhall he grew up in. Glimmering tools, black shards, golem actuators, and piles of spare parts were everywhere. Chains held up the husk of not one but three golems in various states of disrepair. He reached out to touch one of the husks, but quickly retracted his hand, remembering his station as a failed-servant and vagrant.

          “It’s yours, Cablund. They all are. So is this entire workshop. I have a very important task for you. You will have an infinite budget and you can use this shard to request whatever parts you need. However, if you speak to anyone but me about this, it will all be taken away. Do you understand?”

          Cablund, overcome with emotion, asked her if he had actually starved to death and this was actually the afterlife. She briefly winced with pity and told him there was food in the larder.

          ***

          It was the first time she had seen him since they met. It had taken Cablund 18 months and nearly as many fortunes to solve the problem set she gave him. Cablund looked animated and healthy, nearly bursting at the seams to explain to her what he had accomplished; a far cry from the destitute shell of a dwarf she originally met. The workshop was nearly empty save for a single golem quietly whirring and hissing. One of the golem’s actuators periodically scribbled something down in a tome.

          At the sight of an empty workshop, she wore an incredulous look. “I see a single golem, Cablund,” she said nervously. “Where are the seven others you’ve built? The seven others we paid for?”

          “They are hard at work, all of them! I had them shipped to and installed in different cities, but I’ve been managing all of them from this one right here, called Nedry. The others, though, they are hidden and their gear boxes are tamperpoof. They are animated by wind or waterwheel, so I don’t have to be there to care for them.”
          Cablund grabbed the tome out of the Nedry’s actuators. The golem made a pitiful attempt to hold onto the tome, but shuttered with dejection and let go once Cablund gently spoke its name with a “you know better” inflection. He handed her the tome and whispered “Look at this” in an almost conspiratorial tone. She saw what appeared to be standard golem logs: a series of entries with time stamps, many of them at the same time or seconds apart.

          “This appears to be your golem’s logs,” she concluded. “It documented one, two... seven messages at the same time, or almost, over a few seconds maybe. And it appears to be the same message, repeating.”

          “That isn’t just Nedry’s logs: it is Nedry receiving a log entry from each of the other seven golems, all logging a single message they all received at the same time, or so I thought.”

          She shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

          “See, Nedry and his friends were all configured to listen on the Shardscape for a single message, known only by me. I have been sending this message into the Shardscape at different times of day. All the golems log exactly when they get it, and then forward that log to Nedry immediately.”

          “So the golems are getting the same message at different times? No, this has never been observed before. It is more likely you have their clock mechanisms misconfigured or maybe-”

          “That is not possible,” Cablund said forcefully, but then stopped abruptly as if startled by his own voice. “I’m sorry, I just… I can hear the Dreadwall clocktower toll from here. That clock is perfect. There isn’t a better time keeper in all the realms. I built Nedry and his friends to identical specifications, and I synced their clockwork with the clocktower’s toll.”
          “If that is the case, what accounts for the discrepancy?”

          Cablund jabbed a finger into the tome she was holding. “Do you see these two log entries? They are at the same exact time. This golem is in Dorseford and that golem is in a windmill outside of Horsehead, both are maybe a 3 day walk from here, right? Dorseford to the north and Horsehead to the east. But this golem, this entry right here, it is off by 1 second. That golem is in Prantis, which is maybe 10 days by horseback, but 30 days on foot.”

          “So some golems are faster than others?”

          “No, they were built to the exact same specifications. The important part is the speed of messages sent over the Shardscape. The messages all travel at the same speed! When a message is sent from one shard to other shards, it arrives at shards physically closer to the source of that message first, by an almost imperceptible but measurable amount of time.”

          “That is a fascinating theory, Cablund, but what does it have to do with the task you were given? How does time allow us to find kidnappers, soma dealers, and terrorists communicating in secret on the public Shardscape?”

          “Don’t you see? There is only one place on the map that is 3 days from Dorseford, 3 days from Horsehead, and 30 days from Prantis. And that place is Dreadwall! I sent the message from here! If I sent the message from Prantis, the times would be-”

          She took a step back as if staggering from a punch. Her mind began racing, flooding with images of a triangle on a map, and the source of a single shard in the center of this triangle. She stammered for a second, gulped slowly, and said, “You’ve done it, Cablund. You’ve changed history. The engines were right.”

          “I... it is just a proof of concept. I need to build more golems to expand the scope of-”

          She wasn’t listening to him anymore. She thought of all the dwarven banks, noble houses, and elven industrial bases using golems... golems which her organization either had commandeered through deceit or coercion, or had physical access to. It might take years or even decades to orchestrate, but all of those golems would eventually form a geolocation net covering the entire world. She alternately grimaced and grinned, wide-eyed, her mind awash with images of renegades and holdouts against her order fleeing like rats from their burning hovels, shrieking on fire.

          “So,” said Cablund, interrupting her reverie, “do you think we’ll be able to use this technique to find those children?”

          “What children?”

          “The children. The ones who were kidnapped. The whole reasons you put me up to this.”

          “Oh, yes. The children. We’ll get them, too.”

          ***


          “I am here today to proclaim the dwarf Cablund as grand heretic, a traitor beyond contempt. Anyone colluding with or hiding him will face the same wrath we will exact on him. Cablund was a part of our program and swore our oath to hunt down those who would abuse cryptomancy to evade justice for crimes against society. Not only did Cablund violate this oath, but his very public disclosure of our program has had catastrophic consequences for the safety and security of law-abiding citizens throughout the realms.

          Before coming under our employ, Cablund was a soma-addicted vagrant performing indecent acts and committing petty crimes to support his habit. Recognizing his potential, we took him in, supported his rehabilitation, and provided him stable employment for three years. Despite our benevolence, Cablund took it upon himself to make absurd accusations about us on the Shardscape and identify the location and use of secret assets that were supporting a mission of security and justice for the realms. Like-minded degenerates quickly seized on Cablund’s lies, destroyed those secret assets, and have been waging campaigns of vandalism and intimidation against innocent nobles, guilds, and business interests who, according to this deluded dwarf, were strong-armed into supporting our mission.

          Let it be known that Cablund was not the architect of this program, as he has claimed, but was a mere apprentice who did not even have access to the assets he identified, nor did he understand the exact nature of their use. Further, Cablund was given every opportunity to express any concerns he had through proper channels in our organization, again, an organization he swore an oath to. Yet, despite these factors, this coward chose to slander us, sewing chaos and discontent, and then flee justice by hiding amongst our enemies, the brutish orcs, who will likely eat him the moment they get bored with him.
          We take it upon ourselves today to tell you the truth behind this matter in the spirit of full disclosure and maintaining the people’s trust. May the gods bless us all and may they have mercy on Cablund’s soul when we find him.”

          The speech was over. She made her way down from the scaffolding slowly. The throngs of people that had flooded into Dreadwall’s town square to see and hear a real life Risk Eater stared at her in stunned silence, save for those already building dwarf-sized effigies and furiously waving banners adorned with Dreadwall’s coat of arms. Cloak donned and face dissembled by spell, she left the city on horseback and made her way to the Spire. She was abruptly haunted by images pitiful Cablund, beside himself, signing the death warrant of the several dozen steam-powered “friends” distributed strategically throughout the realms. He knew they would be found and torn to pieces if he went public. The sacrifice this foolish little dwarf made in the name of-

          She shook it off. A moment of weakness. The mission is too important. The mission is too important. The mission. The mission. The mission. The mission. The mission. The mission. The mission. The mission. The mission. The mission. The mission. Mission. Mission. Mission. Mission.
          Last edited by SweetGrrl; May 30th, 2016, 10:52.

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          • #6
            "The Backup"
            by: 3n_ion



            “Upload complete. Route initiated. Commencing drive.”

            The black Titan SUV received its directive, sent a brief confirmation, and started its engine with a rumble. The squeal from the wide rubber tires echoed around the vacant parking structure as the empty vehicle circled up the concrete ramp to the crowded street level above. It headed out into the dry, warm Las Vegas night, weaving through the throng of inebriated people who were desperately striving to either feel or suppress something, and it advanced toward the edge of the city. The low energy light was silently blinking on the dashboard but the vehicle neglected its usual pre-engagement charge; It didn’t have far to go.

            *****

            Just a few miles outside of the Las Vegas city limits, where glistening lights fought back the pitch blackness of an otherwise desolate desert night sky, a woman glanced down at an orange warning light blinking in the simple outline of a man, which indicated the approach of a human-driven vehicle. It had been many miles since she last passed another vehicle and a good portion of the day since she passed one with a human driver. Maybe it was the reckless speed or slipping tires that suggested the driver must be human but this particular vehicle gave every indication of passing by with little incident, and so Dr. Aphelia Thorn yawned and returned her gaze to the lighted screen above her. She was taken aback by the sound of crunching metal and the feel of the laptop as it slid from her grasp. Her momentary weightlessness quickly gave way to a jolting compression as her head whipped violently around.

            *****

            As was true with most humans, Dr. Thorn assessed her life by the significant milestones to which she had carried herself with pointed determination. She calculated her approach to these milestones using the larger quantities of measure. The hurried years spent at medical school flew by so quickly that she forgot to even count the months or days until she finally grasped the coveted diploma in her tired yet steady hands. From the moment she first saw the tiny dot of a developing human on the ultrasound screen, she counted the months and then weeks until she could look into her child's inquisitive eyes as they scanned the world with innocent wonder.

            Even the events that seemed more mundane in comparison were subject to a high-level view. As her car sped itself along a lonely stretch of desert highway bound for the vibrant bustle of Las Vegas, she calculated her arrival in terms of hours and minutes. This is not to say that the value of the humble second was lost to her although, again as with most humans, the power of the second perhaps was. Although she would always hold a picture in her mind of the moment her husband-to-be turned his piercing eyes upwards toward her for the first time and she would never forget the way her uneven, panting breaths and the quiet hum of hospital machines gave way to the erupting screams of a child finding his voice for the first time, she seldom gave much thought to the small moments and simple seconds that led to those particular events.

            A second was all it had taken for the capricious wind to shift directions and catch a young, preoccupied professor unaware. A second of startled surprise caused an ever so slight imbalance in his step. In an attempt to regain his composure the flustered young man loosened his grip but for a second, which allowed his generous stack of papers to begin their wayward descent. It was just a moment, just a minimal collection of lowly seconds that saw a graceful med student sprint across the courtyard to the professor's aid. Those seconds, those small, unassuming moments were the building blocks upon which her beautiful life full of grand milestones had arisen. And yet, those same simple moments were lost to Dr. Thorn's brilliant mind.

            Dr. Thorn’s oversight might have been forgivable; she was merely human, after all. Most humans jumped from grand event to grand event as a child crossing a stream with a giggling leap from stone to stone. Their rush through life and laser focus on only the most notable achievements left them blind to so much. Dr. Thorn, however, should have known better. She devoted so many years of her life to the study of the human mind and it's elegant, elaborate structure. She mapped each pathway, catalogued neurons and gave each small, menial piece the utmost attention. Her studies should have impressed upon her the importance of every connection, no matter how small. And yet, in her own life, she chose only to focus on the larger packets, ignoring the bits and frames that built her very existence.

            The programs never made those mistakes; they never discounted the details or allowed a small change to slide by undetected. Even the car driving her toward her final destination tirelessly calculated the effects that a slight dampness in the road might cause. It determine whether breaking, swerving, or running over bewildered wildlife who had wandered into its path would be the better option, and even measured how much breaking force would need to be applied to prevent a collision with the same offending creature. The car stored this information: the seemingly insignificant details of a small interaction, the results of a calculated decision. In this way, the programs were simply better. The programs never discounted the bits.

            *****

            On a lonely stretch of desert road, Dr. Aphelia Thorn was forced to face the significance of a simple moment as two cars engaged in a deadly duet of tumbling and spinning. It was only a matter of seconds, although each second seemed to stretch out longer than the last, until finally the smaller vehicle came to rest like an upturned beetle, tires spinning vigorously in the air. Shattered glass and flecks of paint carpeted the scene like an overturned bottle of dangerous glitter. Aside from the steady whir of the tires, a flat silence hung in the air. Dr. Thorn groaned as she fought back the darkness filling her eyes. Warm ooze dripped from the corners of her open mouth and trickled slowly down her cheek. She tried to wipe it off but found only one hand to be of any use. The other was tightly wedged between her side and the crumpled remains of her door. Dr. Thorn thought of all the seconds leading up to her predicament, 1,001,111,010 to be exact, and with renewed determination she vowed to find a way to ensure at least that many more.

            With her ear pinched tightly to her shoulder, Dr. Thorn used her free hand to push against the roof turned floor, struggling to wriggle herself free. It was no use. Like a showman at the Cirque du Soleil, her body was contorted in a strange manner, although unlike the same showman, she did not possess the flexibility to have assumed the position of her own accord. As Dr. Thorn felt the blood dripping down into a growing pool a few inches from her head, the darkness edged closer. She summoned her strength and tried to hold the darkness at bay for just a few seconds more. Dr. Thorn’s chest heaved in a weak laugh, cut short by a fit of coughing. In this desperate moment, at least, she understood the impact of a simple second, the significance of a singular bit. Now she needed every bit to count. She tapped the index finger of her free hand to her temple in a series of short beats. Tap-tap tap-tap-tap. On the last tap she held her finger pressed into her skin until she felt a slight vibration. Only then could she allow her eyelids to slide shut. "At least I could make a final backup.”

            Off in the distance, before the wail of the sirens and the hum of the approaching emergency vehicles broke through the suffocating silence, Dr. Thorn heard a voice. Through the delirium and swallowing darkness she picked out the phrase "Objective complete."

            *****

            "31 year old woman, car crash involving 2 autos, no other persons on the scene. Facial scanning inconclusive. Severe contusions to her upper abdomen..." The dark haired EMT stepped through his handoff in the steady yet hurried tone of a seasoned professional but the nurse's pen merely hovered above her tablet as her eyes widened and her jaw dropped slightly open. The EMT paused his report, rolled his eyes, and held his tablet up to hers until a loud beep sounded. "I don't know why I bother talking anymore" he muttered as he turned away in a huff the nurse would have found adorable had she been paying him any mind. Instead, the nurse’s attention was fixed firmly on the patient. She didn’t look down once at the relevant information that had populated on her screen. She simply stared before finally blurting out ”I know this woman, I know her! Someone get the chief. NOW!"

            *****

            The chief sat comfortably in a high-backed suede chair with his right leg crossed over his left. His right foot bounced absently in the air as his index finger traced across the page of a small, leather-bound book. Although his desk was programmed to hold every medical text ever published, the chief still held a sentimental attachment to the way physical books felt as he cracked them open, cradled them in his hands, and gently flipped the thin pages. When he needed to know something, he would read from his desk. When he truly needed to understand something, he would study it in physical copy.

            "As you read this with your humans eyes, as you wrestle with the part of your tiny human mind that wants to slam these pages shut and eschew the principles described within this text, you will almost certainly feel yourself shrinking back..."

            The chief had indeed caught himself shrinking down into his chair like a scolded child, just as he had every time he read this particular passage. He raised the book from his lap to eye level as he straightened his posture. His finger continued to drag across the page.

            "...Embrace this moment, revel in the stifling limitation that is your fatal human flaw so that you may know why you must, for the sake of the planet you dwell upon and the children you hope to produce, cede your power to the programs."

            The chief drew in a long breath and squeezed the book shut. The embossed writing across the front was faded but the title was just barely readable: "A Program's Manifesto."

            As he glanced at the clock, the chief realized just how quickly his deadline was approaching. He slid the book into a hidden compartment and with renewed purpose, he began drumming his fingers across the keyboard on his desk.

            The chief maintained a steady pace for several minutes until he realized his fingers had come to rest upon the last set of keys needed to complete his code. His face wrinkled and he began nervously stroking his short, thin hair. His eyes darted to the clock on his desk and his chest tightened but his fingers remained frozen in place. He bowed his head, squeezed his eyes shut, and let out a weighted sigh through pursed lips. He allowed his mind to drift through images acquired over his years as a doctor, all chilling reminders of human weakness and negligence. He allowed the rage these images induced to coarse through him. His skin grew warm and his face reddened. His eyes popped open and his fingers came to life as he typed the execute command trigger: "Are you hungry?"

            The chief jumped when the phone rang and the light flashed indicating the call had originated from the ER. He lifted the receiver, muttered a few insincere words about not wanting to be disturbed, and straightened his tie. He placed the receiver down in its cradle and took a moment to gain his composure. He snatched a compact, black hard drive from a hidden compartment in his desk and copied over his program. He dropped the drive into his coat pocket and darted down the hall.

            *****

            ”Well, it's her alright” Chief Rattiro said in a gentle tone as he gazed down at the comatose woman. “It’s Dr. Aphelia Thorn in the flesh.” He turned to address the doctor in charge. “What's her condition?"

            “Cerebral edema forced us to induce a coma sir, but the swelling isn't subsiding." The doctor was young and quite beautiful, even with her tousled hair and tired eyes. She spoke with an air of confidence that naturally accompanied such amiable characteristics but her shifting demeanor did little to hide her growing fears.

            A small shaking voice spoke from the corner of the room. The nurse who ID'd the patient stepped forward. "I was supposed to go see her speak this weekend, about her new procedure. She was going to speak in the Biohacking Village at DEF CON." The nurse had been introduced to DEF CON when she was a child after her father caught her trying to inject homemade nanobots into her 10 year old schnauzer in an adorably misguided attempt to cure his old age. Although her father was no longer strong enough to endure the rigorous convention, she still attended and regaled him with stories of the newest fantastical discoveries and inventions upon her return. The weekend's festivities had promised not to disappoint yet again, with a talk from her very own personal hero, Dr. Aphelia Thorn. But as she stared down at the failing body of the woman she had dreamed of meeting, she became distraught. Silent tears slipped down her cheeks as she absently nibbled at her fingernails.

            An uncomfortable silence filled the room. The tension in the room seemed to mute even the beeping from the machines. After a long pause, the chief spoke up.

            “Doctor Ramirez, please have an OR prepped right away. I’ll be scrubbing in along with Dr. Oslo Innait. We’ll need someone to select and prep a synthetic, and you might as well get the Synth Tech in the OR with us. We are going to do it."

            By this time a crowd of staff, upon hearing of their high profile patient, had gathered to gawk at the door. When Chief Rattiro ordered his directive, the crowd drew in a collective breath. Muttered confusion began to rise but the chief quelled the resistance with a sharp look.

            "It's in her directive on file, and we're equipped. We are going to do it" he insisted.

            A man in a white coat stepped forward from the crowd at the door, wringing his hands. ”Sir, it's still so controversial! I don't even know what the laws are regarding her procedure." The physician who spoke up was a stocky man of advancing years, who often convinced himself he had chosen law over medicine in an attempt to remain behind a desk and avoid excessive walking.

            Chief Rattiro drew himself up so that he towered over the objecting doctor. ”After all these years and the laws still can't keep up with the tech. The patient will die without it. If she wants to sue us for performing a procedure she invented then so be it, but I will save this woman if it's my last act as chief of this hospital.”

            The chief paused for a moment to regain his composure. “Now get it done. I’ll be there shortly, I need to retrieve her latest backup.”

            With that sharp mandate, the throng of employees burst open and flitted away like bees released from a hive, each to perform their own important task.

            Chief Rattiro returned to his office and gently pushed the door shut. He strolled to his desk and swept his hand across the top to wake it, then dragged his index finger around in a series of swipes and shapes to unlock the screen. He sank down into his chair and spoke. “Pull up the most recent backup for subject 634, Dr. Aphelia Emmos Thorn. Copy the backup to OR 3.”

            As the program worked to complete the Chief’s command, he shifted his weight against the corner of the desk and lifted a well-worn journal that had been resting beside him.

            "A Study in the Transference of Human Consciousness from Backup Versions into Analogous Synthetic Humanoids, by Dr. Aphelia Thorn"

            Chief Rattiro flipped intently through the pages, examining the handwritten notes scribbled into the margins, absorbing each word with ease. A disembodied female voice interrupted his reading.

            “Backup files for subject 634 have now been copied to OR 3. Awaiting link to synthetic model.”

            The chief rolled the journal up and tucked it under his arm. He reached into his right coat pocket and lifted out the compact drive as if his eyes needed to verify what the slight weight to that pocket had merely suggested. He slipped the drive back in and smoothed his hand over the pocket opening to reassure himself. He opened the office door, wrapped his fingers around his lapel and straightened his coat, then strutted off down the hall.

            *****

            Dr. Aphelia Thorn blinked several times before opening her eyes. She saw a crowd of hospital staff with eager faces shoving into the room. She instantly knew they were there for more than just a famous patient. Her mind should have been sluggish following the injuries she was certain to have sustained but Dr. Thorn felt more alive than she ever had. She was surprised to not feel more sadness for the loss of the human body she had nurtured for the last 31 years, but the scientific curiosity of the whole experience engulfed her.

            She concentrated on moving her limbs and finally her left arm raised in a stiff, jerking manner. She thought it must have been the synthetic material, or perhaps she needed to change the way she viewed movement now that she was driving a body categorically different from the one she had learned to operate before she developed the capability to even question what she was learning. She tried again with the right arm, concentrating on the flow of movement as she led with her elbow and pulled her wrist up to follow, but the right arm moved in the same ungraceful manner, much like the stiff wooden arms of an old puppet being danced around from invisible strings.

            Chief Rattiro hovered over his patient. He spoke in a slow, deliberate manner, ignoring everything but the patient in front of him. ”Do you know who you are?"

            Dr. Thorn shifted her focus from manipulating her limbs and curiously tried to form the words to her answer. "I'm Aphelia. Dr. Aphelia Thorn.”

            The words came faster and with more precision than she was expecting, although she realized she had no framework for understanding how it would feel to manipulate a synthetic body.

            "Do you know where you are?"

            Dr. Thorn reluctantly shifted her focus back to the question. Again, she mulled over the words but they seemed to push their way past her lips on their own.

            "Brighton General." She had meant the words as a question, considering she was only vaguely familiar with the hospitals surrounding the city, but she noted that she had spoken them with more assuredness than she felt.

            The quiet buzz of excited voices around the room grew steadily with each question. The hospital staff pushed deeper into the room as a shifting blob, fully aware that the experience, though related at later times to friends and family as an individual one, was, in that moment, an experience belonging to and shared by the collective.

            The chief alone remained free of emotion as he proceeded with his questioning. His eyes fixed intently on his patient as he asked “Are you hungry?"

            Dr. Thorn considered the question. Without knowing the vendor or model of her new body, she had no way of determining how to feed it, but the question was not about the process of eating but about the feeling of it. She was, somehow, indeed feeling quite hungry.

            "Yes, I'm hungry,” she tried to say. The words remained stuck in her head. She focused again, chalking the difficulty up to the excitement and bewilderment involved in operating an entirely new form.

            "Yes, I'm hungry," she tried again.

            "No, I am not hungry.” The words came out so unexpectedly that Dr. Thorn was taken aback, but she didn't have time to ponder the disparity for long. A shock lit within her and, like a spark catching hold of a dried twig, it raced through her new body, pulsating from her core outward to her fingertips, her toes, even the tips of her ears and soft corners of her narrow jaw. Her eyes widened with bewilderment and her cheeks lifted with excitement, but only for a moment.

            As the shock continued to awaken the physical form in which she resided, a wall slammed down inside her mind. The wall was heavy and the sound it made as it crashed down gave the feeling of complete closure. It brought a stifling darkness with it, and panic set in as Dr. Thorn threw her energy against the wall to no avail. She could no longer feel her connection to the synthetic body though she was certain she had not died. Gathering herself, Dr. Thorn remembered the way in which she had moved her limbs before and concentrated on reestablishing that connection. She remembered the feel of her left arm raising from the soft, warm hospital blanket and the way it's lurching motion reminded her of a baby giraffe struggling to make sense of it's awkward limbs. Still she felt nothing.

            Then it happened; a pulling sensation as if a plug, upon insertion into an outlet, had begun drawing power right through Dr. Thorn. She could not resist as she felt pieces of her being extracted. It started with the way she talked: the words she favored and the pace at which she spoke them, how her tone was light and airy with friends and family but distant and aloof when addressing people she did not know and did not care to know. Everything about her speech, her mannerisms, her weaknesses and strengths, her dearly held beliefs and her deepest passions, all of these things poured out of her. As she felt all the things that made her who she was being tugged from her then shoved back in waves, Dr. Thorn realized what was happening. Something was learning her. If she still possessed control of any physical form, Dr. Thorn would have been shivering.

            Somewhere off in the distance, she could hear Chief Rattiro usher the staff from the room with haste. The words sounds as if they had travelled across a great distance and through a thick fog. “Our patient needs her rest now, she does not need you hovering about and polluting her air. Get back to work now, all of you. From this point forward Dr. Thorn is under my direct care.”

            Chief Rattiro followed the last employee to the door and flipped the light switch off. As he pulled the door shut he closed his eyes for a moment longer than a standard blink. The words that escaped his lips hissed out in a muffled whisper: “Forgive me.”
            Last edited by SweetGrrl; May 30th, 2016, 10:52.

            Comment


            • #7
              Title: Noticed
              Author: FinalPhoenix

              There are some people you weren’t meant to notice. There are some people your eyes aren’t supposed to pick up; they’ll pass over them easily as they blend into the crowd, another face without a name, another life not worth knowing. John Edens was that kind of guy.
              “Mister Edens,” her professor, a cranky old man who had little patience, but a loud voice interrupted her daydreaming. “Late again.”
              Her eyes, still half lidded from her lack of sleep the night before, scanned over the packed lecture hall to see the person her professor berated. Mr. Edens was missable person who looked much like everyone else. He was in khaki cargo pants and a green polo shirt that looked like it had been run over by a car recently. She had never seen him before, but now that she had, she wondered how she had missed him over the semester. John Edens’ fingertips were black, and that was enough for her to notice him.
              “Nicole, wake up! who is he?” She nudged her friend, another girl asleep on her desk, her homework a mess of scribbles, half done, all wrong.
              The redhead next to her rubbed her eyes and looked blearily at the kid who was hurrying down the steps of the lecture hall to an empty seat near the front. “John?” Her voice was tinged with tiredness and a hangover. Nicole squinted before letting her head fall back down onto her arms “Some hacker kid I think? He won something at a con...death con...something.” Her sentence trailed off as she fell back asleep.
              “The death con thing? He won a programming thing? He won something at a death con? Is he smart? Nicole!”
              “Quiet! Miss Chartreuse, I do not tolerate interruptions.” There was a snap of a book shutting and she sat upright, her friend doing the same.
              “Yeah,” Nicole continued, her voice barely above a whisper. “It was a big deal last year; whatever, he’s just another loser in a sea of losers.” Nicole was bitter about the engineering department because she had failed this class twice.
              “Maybe,” She bit her lip. “Maybe he could help us though, Nikki. If he’s a hacker, maybe he knows a lot about programming, too.”
              “Yeah, if he was a hacker, how about he changes our grades?” Nicole pulled her hair back into a bun.
              Emma knew what that meant: Nicole was going back to sleep. She sighed and watched her friend, the only other girl she had met so far in the Engineering program, create a pillow out of homework and books, and cuddle in for a long lecture nap. Emma was a freshman in the Engineering program, and struggled with even the most basic Java questions. Her parents told her that if she wanted money, this was the ticket, except she absolutely hated everything about it. Emma was a short ex-track star with the body of an otter and the brown hair to match. She wasn’t the typical engineering student, and her past as an athlete only seemed to work against her.
              “I’m going to stay behind and ask the professor some questions,” Emma said as the lecture ended.
              Nicole handed her homework paper to Emma, eraser dust still stuck to it. It matched Emma’s own. “Turn this in for me, then. I don’t want to get that look that he gives when you turn in homework that looks like this.”
              Emma braved the look and handed in her paper quickly to the professor, trying to ignore the “disappointed father” glare before hurrying off outside. She was going to catch up to the hacker, John Edens, and see if he could help. He didn’t have any friends; he couldn’t say no.
              She pushed through the sea of exiting engineers to find him and caught a glimpse of his stained green polo rushing across the lawn in front of the building. “John! John Edens!” She bumped into a few people as she broke free from the crowd.
              John Edens had black hair that looked like it had been cut by his mother, a clean bowl cut all around, black eyes that matched the oil stains on his shirt, and skin that was so white he looked ghostly. John Edens only glanced back once before picking up his pace.
              Emma broke out into a sprint, her backpack slamming against her as she rushed across the lawn. She caught up and then passed him, turning around and beginning to walk backwards in front of him.
              “You won something at the death con thing, right?” She asked. It came out in a slurry of words between gasping breaths of air. She was too out of shape for being one year into a track and field scholarship.
              John did not meet her eyes as he spoke, instead focusing on his ratty sneakers. “It’s n-n-none of your bee-beeswax, Em-Em-Em-Emma Chartreuse, Fr-Freshman.”
              Oh, she almost tripped as she realized why he had no friends; John had a debilitating stutter. She second guessed asking him to tutor her; a stutter might just make things harder on her. She squeezed the notebook in her hand, full of C’s and D’s. She had no other choice; no other boy would talk to her. Stutter or not, if he was smart, he was going to help her.
              “You know me?” She asked. “Listen, I’m not gonna beat around the bush, John Edens. I need a tutor; I’m really bad at this nerd stuff, my parents will pay, and heck, I’ll pretend to be your girlfriend if you can do Java.”
              His response had no stutter, but she missed a step in walking backwards and tripped over her own feet. “No.” He didn’t stop to help her, just carried on across campus.
              “Ok,” she said, gritting her teeth and dusting herself off, catching up to him. There was no way she was letting him get away with perfect grades on the line. “Maybe we can just be friends or something, then? Or I can just copy your homework? Nikki says you’re a hacker; can you hack my grades for a fee?”
              “Not-Not-Not that kind of hack-hacker.” The last word was said deliberately, and in a measured tone. She saw a blush suffuse on his face. She knew he was embarrassed by his speech impediment, but she didn’t care.
              “What kind of hacker wins things at a hacking con called Death Con, then?”
              “Def-Defcon.” He turned back to her, his mouth opening and closing as he decided on what best to say to get her to buzz off. He decided to ignore her instead.
              She huffed and looked down at her notes, an almost word for word copy of every lecture, since she had no idea what was important or not in these classes. If she failed, she would lose her scholarship, and her parents would be furious. This kid was smart, and had no friends. He wasn’t like the other engineer boys, who sat in quiet groups all glaring at her and Nikki. He had no group. Emma and Nikki would be his group! She was determined.
              She changed tactics and began to question again. “What’s your major?”
              He set his jaw for a minute, and she was sure he wasn’t going to reply. Eventually, as they passed under another set of shady trees, he responded. “Robotics.”
              “Oh, cool, is that what you won at the death con?”
              “Def-Def-Defcon, and yes.”
              She cheered internally; he was talking to her now. She knew it was only a few conversations and a cup of coffee away from all As now. “I’m in Computer Science, but it’s hard! Robotics is probably harder.” She fed his ego easily. She didn’t care how stupid she sounded; she hoped he would take pity on her.
              A fall breeze picked up and scattered some leaves in front of her. He stopped to let the leaves pass, as if he had expected it. She did the same. Emma’s hair blew in front of her eyes, and she noticed he was watching her. She smiled to herself. They were friends already, so maybe she could get the homework help tonight.
              “Eh-ma.” It was an annoyed Nikki; she knew that voice anywhere.
              “What?” Emma looked away from John, only to feel his fingers brushing her arm. His fingers were cold. She drifted away from him slightly, wondering if they had gotten too close by accident.
              “Lunch or nah?” Nikki had a thumb pointing back over her shoulder towards the dining hall.
              “Sure.” She turned back to John to invite him along, but there was no one there. “Yeah, let’s go. I’m starved.”
              Emma looked around campus, wondering if maybe she could run and catch up to him to invite him, but this side of campus was all science and mathematics. She didn’t know it well enough to have a clue as to which way he went. She rushed over to Nikki, who was asking about what their nasty Java professor thought about the homework.
              Emma only listened half-heartedly, looking over her shoulder every few minutes. She wondered if she could catch sight of John. He disappeared so suddenly; she hadn’t gotten any way to contact him. No homework help tonight.

              ***

              She scribbled in pencil at her homework, occasionally checking Wikipedia for reference. It wasn’t going to get her full points, but it’d get her a halfhearted ‘at least you tried’ point. It was better than nothing. The tip of the pencil broke and she set it down, frustrated. Nikki had fallen asleep again, drool slipping out of her mouth and staining the worksheet.
              It had been a few hours since lunch. The sun was low enough in the sky that it set a glare off across her screen. Emma stretched in her seat and decided that a walk and an energy drink, might get her through this worksheet written by Satan himself. She extricated herself from the booth quietly, hoping not to shift anything enough to wake up Nikki from her nap. Her worksheet fluttered to the floor and, hoping to teach it who was boss, Emma left it there.
              The cafeteria hallways were quiet; it was not quite dinner time yet, but too far after lunch for anyone to still be eating. She saw a few students running to make a class, but she could hear the clunk of the doors echo. Emma spotted him then, his bowl cut unmistakable as he slipped into the convenience store that was tucked inside the mess hall. A smile spread across her face, but she quickly schooled her features as a plan formulated in her head.
              They would bump into each other accidentally, and she would ask him if he would like to join her for dinner. Of course he would, because she was so charming and his only friend in the whole world; he would grab both her hands, exuberantly say yes, and pull out all the homework for the semester. He had already done it all, of course, and would, hand it to her, and tell her that he was just testing her tenacity earlier, and she gets all A’s forever. Also he hacked into her grades and gave her A’s in every other class too, and would help Nikki because of friends. Yes!
              Emma tried to hide the skip in her step as the plan solidified in her mind, and brushed against his shoulder in front of the energy drink display. She noted she was a good head shorter than he was, her nose barely reaching the top of his shoulder. He stiffened at the contact and reached out, grabbing a can of her favorite energy drink.
              “Oh! That’s my favorite too,” she commented as she reached out to grab one, but instead he handed it to her, before grabbing a different one.
              She narrowed her eyes. Did he just choose a different one to spite her? Did he really want nothing to do with her so much that he’d choose a different drink? She squeezed the cold blue can in her hands and bit her lip. What happened to the plan? What happened to all A’s forever? “Oh, um, thanks, I guess. Did you know that was my favorite?”
              He gave her a noncommittal hum before turning to the cashier. She noted his feet hit dead center of every tile in the convenience store. How many days had John come here to know exactly where to step? Maybe she was overthinking it again. It was a fault of hers; she always picked up too much detail, and never the important things. She thought back to her useless lecture notes and chastised herself.
              He had the exact amount ready before the cashier rung him up, and she stepped up to pay for her own drink. The cashier, a bored girl who wore a shirt that was much too big for her, and had pink highlights that were much too bright for her looked up boredly. “It’s already paid.” The cashier’s dull green eyes looked over at John who was exiting the store.
              “Yeah? I’ll go thank him then.” She shifted the cold can into her other hand and ran to meet with John.
              “Do-Do-Don’t follow me,” he said as she rounded the corner.
              His hand was so tight around the black can in his hand that she thought it was going to burst. His knuckles were white, and he did not look back at her.
              She pretended to be uninterested, but something about his words felt familiar. It washed over her uneasily and she shifted the can, and her weight before she responded.
              “I wasn’t going to!” Emma realized how stupid it sounded now, because she had followed him. “I was just heading this way, don’t flatter yourself!”
              He looked back at her now; his eyes caught the last light of day, and she was sure they glowed. His whole body was tense. His jaw was set. He looked like a dog about to fight. “Good.”
              She wanted to know why he was so angry at her. She hadn’t done anything wrong by trying to befriend him. Emma took another step forward and he stepped backwards, towards the glass double doors a few feet away. Her breath caught and she felt like this scenario was all too familiar. She didn’t care if he hated her. She didn’t care how he felt at all, because all she wanted was homework help. Tutors didn’t need to like their pupils, right?
              Emma looked down at the can in her hand, the condensation on the aluminum running down into her fingers, trying to come up with the right set of words to make him like her. She was a likable person, she was sure of it. He just had to like her enough to give her all his homework. “Listen… John.” She looked up to see the glass doors swinging shut, clattering as they met.
              Emma sighed in frustration. Wasn’t it supposed to be her job to play hard to get? She pushed open the doors angrily and began to follow him back across campus. “Don’t follow me.” She mimicked in a whiny voice “I hate you because you’re nice and pretty and perfect, Emma.”
              She would show him. Her feet kicked up leaves as the fall afternoon grew colder. She was only wearing a t-shirt and jeans today, and wished she had brought a jacket. She hugged herself, and then winced when she realized she was still holding an ice cold can, letting out a hiss as she yanked it back away from her.
              There was the squeal of a door hinge and she looked up from her energy drink just in time to see the doors to the Mathematics building slam shut.
              Nikki told her that Mathematics was a dead major, and the building reflected that. It had fallen into disrepair and disuse. A few professors were there only to prop up other majors that needed their expertise, but without funding for the department, the building suffered. Nikki said that people thought it was haunted and laughed, telling her that it was the ghosts of post-doctoral students.
              She steeled herself, convinced she wasn’t afraid of some urban undergraduate legends, and yanked open the door a little more forcefully than she should have, noting the crack in the window that was covered with an old exam. There were cracks in every door except two. They all were identical. She wondered if the doors were made this way. The mathematics building really was neglected. She was the only one in the lobby, facing two elevators that she didn’t really trust to still be in service, a slotted screen in front of both of them that looked like they had last been used when her parents went to college.
              Her footsteps echoed off the walls; every smack of her sneakers on the tile was magnified ten times as she ran her fingers over closed wooden doors of abandoned lecture halls. The first floor of many. She saw him come in here. She just didn’t see where. It was no matter, for she was patient. She would find him, and convince him to help her. Emma closed her eyes as she rounded another corner, the hum of fluorescent lamps broken up by a clicking noise as one of them died. Nothing on the first floor, not even the ghost of a post-doc. She laughed her nerves away; what did she expect?
              The stairwell was so dark she used her phone’s screen to light the way. Air rushed up past her, howling as it struggled through the cracks in the concrete, blowing her shirt up slightly as she measured her steps. Fear crept in with the wind. What if these stairs didn’t hold? What if the second floor didn’t hold? Each step was harder to take, but she didn’t want to go back now.
              The second floor was home to one professor, the light coming from underneath his door as he marked exams. He seemed surprised that anyone would be in the building at all, and when she asked if he had seen anyone else, he shook his head. He asked if she was a math major, but she shook her head in response. He frowned and went back to grading papers. “Shut the door on your way out. Don’t waste my time.”
              It was on the third floor that she heard it, louder than the clicks of the fluorescent lights dying It sounded like bubble wrap being popped. She paused at the doorway to the stairwell, her hand resting against the cold metal, wondering if she should press forward. An intake of breath, and as she exhaled she pushed the door open.
              Smoke hit her in the face, the whole floor looked like a dive bar just before closing, the lights were either dimmed or broken, and the stench of something burning made her nose scrunch up and her hand cover her mouth, dropping her can on the floor.
              “John?” She yelled through her hand, hoping for some response. Was this the floor that he went to? Did he catch something on fire? The thought of him attempting suicide occurred to her briefly, but she tried to forget it.
              At the end of the hall, underneath one of the few lights that still worked, was a door that was cracked open with smoke billowing out of it. She kicked it open but the door swung back at her, her foot stopping it from slamming shut. There was a moan and she knew the voice--she knew it was John. Something deep inside of her recognized him without seeing him, and she got on her hands and knees, trying to crawl underneath the smoke and get closer to him. Panic made her fingers hurt as she pushed open the door again, slowly, pushing back against the body that was holding it shut. She slipped inside, realizing it was not much more than a broom closet.
              There was no fire, despite the amount of smoke that the closet was emitting, and she wondered if it truly was some misguided suicide attempt. “John,” she coughed, crawling over to his body. There was no light except for the screens of the laptops that had been set up around the room. Two red dots lit up the far corner, glowing softly in the smoke.
              He was lying on the floor, his body crumpled in a heap, wrapped around a busted laptop that was connected to something via a black wire that stretched over his hip and into the smoky room. She yanked on it, popping it loose, and immediately and there was the unmistakable whirr of a motor.
              There were two beeps coming from some machine in the room and her head whipped towards the sound, shaking John to wake him up, but he didn’t move. “Niceness value adjusted.”
              The woman’s voice was serene if not slightly monotone. Smoke seeped out of the room, and Emma wiped her watery eyes with the back of her hand and looked around the broom closet to try and find out what had spoken. There were a few monitors placed between cleaning supplies. John’s head was only a few inches away from a mop. She pushed him upright in order to get him out of the closet, but his head lolled on her shoulder, and the laptop clattered to the floor.
              “Wake up! Wake up!” How did she get involved in this? She just wanted a tutor! Was this what he had made at the death con? A robot that killed?
              “I’m sorry, I do not understand.” The voice came from the darkness and Emma looked up from John.
              In the far wall of the closet, illuminated by an old LCD that wrote line after line of gibberish without input was a robot of sorts. It was a mess of wires, twisted in some crude representation of the human nervous system, and at the top were two webcams with red lights that glowed in the smoke. It was horrifyingly beautiful. It was an achievement of sorts, awe-inspiring and yet terrifying.
              She shifted and the door opened enough for her to scoot out into the hallway, trying to get a better view of the mass of machinery in the closet. “What did you do?” She cried, hugging her would-be tutor to her as she tried to get them both away from the smoking machine.
              There was another pop, the same she heard before. There was a spark in the lower corner that lit up like lightning in a storm cloud. The thing spoke again, its tinny speaker struggled with the volume as it spoke in a calming voice that sounded eerily human. “Niceness value adjusted; adjust another?”
              “I’m nice!” she insisted, hoping to placate it, hoping to do something to get her out of this situation “We’re all nice here.”
              A few more pops sounded and Emma screamed, cowering behind John’s limp body. Her heart beat wildly in her chest; each breath of the smoke burned her throat. Adrenaline pumped through every last nerve ending, and she dug her fingers into John’s skin, pulling him back against her, but she hit a wall. Meanwhile the snapping and popping continued.
              She looked up to see that the mass of wires was moving, and it was moving towards her. Its fingers were clenched like hers. Its mouth, or what could be considered a mouth, a grotesque imitation of metal, was slack-jawed like hers. “I am not nice. I am not nice. Adjust niceness value?”
              Emma didn’t know what kind of monster this was, what kind of death robot he had built, but she did not want to find out. She scrambled to her feet, tripping only slightly as she left the body of John in the hall. There was no way to carry him; the guilt that coursed through her was quickly pushed away because fear ruled her actions, and fear got her body moving down the dim, smoky hallway.
              She reached the door to the stairwell and turned back, wondering if maybe she could save John, the tutor who knew her favorite energy drink, but the robot was suddenly copying her movements. It stumbled over John’s body and then it swerved, its servo motors making an electrical whir as it bolted down the hallway towards her, its metal feet slapping against the tile. The robot was a mimic, and she didn’t want to be around to see what else it could do.
              She slammed the door to the dark stairwell behind her, clicking the button to turn on her phone’s screen as her feet hit every last step. Breathing became difficult and she coughed as she hit the second floor landing, but there was no time to catch her breath; she heard the squeak of the door. It was coming for her, just as it came for John. She should have never noticed him in the first place, damn him! Damn him for not cooperating and giving up his homework when they first met! She slipped on the last set of stairs, her phone clattering and her knee catching on the concrete, sending a jolt of pain that made her teeth clench. She could come back for the phone later, when the death machine was gone.
              Emma practically flew out the front doors of the math department, her fist hitting the glass door and sending a hairline crack snaking down to the corner. She stumbled out into the lawn and saw a campus officer patrolling as the last minutes of daylight slipped out of view.
              “Officer, pl-please!” She wheezed as she fell to her knees at his feet. “There’s a fire...a robot fire, please! He’s dead!” Her fingers balled into the blue fabric of his uniform and she noted his hands were warm as he grabbed her shoulders.
              “St-st-steady there girl, wh-wh-what is the-the matter?”
              Her eyes shot up, bloodshot and watery from the smoke in the building. “Pl-pl-please, you have to-to-to save hi-him!” She wailed, slumping down to her hands and knees on the pavement before him.
              “Wh-wh-where’s the fi-fi-fi-fire?” He had a stutter just like John did. Just like John had.
              Guilt and despair rose up as she realized that she had held on to him just after that robot had killed him, or had been ordered to kill him. Was it suicide? Was it murder? His dead body felt so cold in her arms. She had never seen a dead body before; it was seared into her memory. She would never forget that she had let him die in that broom closet. She could have saved him! If only she had bothered him more, or she had delayed him just a bit more in that hallway. If only she had followed him like he had told her not to! Emma exhaled shakily and closed her eyes. How would she explain this to the police?
              “Mister Edens,” a voice drawled, “late again.”
              Her eyes snapped open and she looked to see the boy whose corpse she had held walking down the steps in the lecture hall hurriedly, his head bowed as he tried not to draw attention while he found an empty seat.
              Her heart leapt, and so did her body, hitting her hip on her desk and hissing in pain. “Jo-John!” She called and the whole hall turned towards her, but he didn’t.
              “Sit down Miss Chartreuse; I will not have unnecessary interruptions in my class.” Her professor drawled as the class snickered, and she quickly was yanked down by Nicole next to her.
              “What do you think you’re doing?” her best friend hissed. “He’s gonna notice I’m napping and then what? Don’t be stupid.”
              “Do-Do you kn-know that kid?” Emma asked, and then quickly covered her mouth. What was wrong with her voice? Why was she stuttering?
              Nikki pulled her hair up into a bun on top of her head, and nestled back down onto her arms before murmuring “Some hacker kid I think, he won something at a con...death con...something.” Her sentence trailed off as she fell back asleep.
              Panic surged through her. Had she just fallen asleep during the lecture? Déjà vu washed over her like cold water, and she looked down at her notebook. The title of the lecture was the same as it was before; everything was the same as it was before. Her hand shook as she picked up her pen, and begin to copy the entire lecture down, word for word. That eerie feeling that everything was a repeat left her unsettled. She bit it down, swallowing her feelings of discomfort along with the stutter.
              Her professor shut his book and sighed, a long, disappointed sigh that said he was fed up with the college students. It signaled that the lecture was over, and she was out of the lecture hall like a shot. She had to find John. He had to remember what happened in the mathematics building. Someone had to remember that robot. They had to.
              John caught her out of the corner of his eye and slipped through the stream of students exiting the lecture hall and then across the lawn away from her. He did remember her; he remembered everything. She pushed some engineering student and broke through the crowd of people, rushing after him. He sped up, trying not to look back at her.
              “You-you-you-you remember, don’t you?” Gods, but this stutter was so embarrassing now that she had it. Every sentence took concentration.
              John Edens slowed his gait, his hands clenching into fists and unclenching. “I-I-I don’t know wh-what you’re t-t-t-talking about.”
              It hurt worse than she expected, maybe because it was confirmation that she was going crazy. She stopped walking, watching him get further and further away from her. She took a few steps and reached out her fingers wrapping around his wrist, stopping him just before the wind, the same wind from before, kicked up leaves that blew across the sidewalk.
              “T-T-Tell,” her mouth snapped shut as she concentrated on the sentence so that the next words came out measured. “Do you know me?”
              He looked at her, and an odd expression passed over his features before he looked away. “Em-Emma Chartreuse, Fr-Freshman.”
              “Eh-ma.” Nikki sounded annoyed, she looked back to see the redhead standing impatiently a few feet behind her. “Lunch or nah?”
              John used the opportunity to slip away. She felt him leave, their skin losing contact easily, but she wanted more proof that he wasn’t dead. She wanted more proof that he wasn’t lying in her arms in that smoky hallway. His stutter was now hers, like a communicable disease.
              She waited a second before responding, willing her brain and mouth to work. “Co-Coming!” They didn’t.
              John Edens took up all her thoughts, there was something different about him today, maybe this wasn’t déjà vu after all.

              ***

              She had Wikipedia up, desperately searching for some kind of explanation for her déjà vu. It had to be some kind of medical issue that wasn’t cancer like WebMD kept telling her it probably was. Some kind of reason other than alien abductions like forums told her. Something reasonable. The internet said it was because her brain wasn’t working properly, and that it was fried in all the wrong ways.
              Emma looked down at her empty Java worksheet and wondered if her classes were making her crazy. She certainly could believe it. Anyone could see that the algorithms that the professor asked her to write out were going to melt her brain. Enough to give her some kind of weird brain damage though? She tapped the pencil against her teeth, as she turned the thought over in her mind. Probably.
              She opened up a new search window and typed out the words the robot had said to her after it murdered ‘déjà vu John,’ and got a page about programming jibberish.
              “A job with high niceness is nice to the users requiring little CPU, a job with low niceness uses most of the CPU, and therefore is not nice to users.”
              That made a little sense; was this what her dream computer was talking about? She had never heard about it before, but it could be. Emma decided not to rule out anything that made her seem at least a little sane. Of course it was a dream. Nikki’s snore broke her train of thought and she smacked her cheeks a little. Wake up, Emma, stop stressing over some dream!
              She slid out of the booth, her now empty worksheet fluttering to the ground. An energy drink would fix this, she paused, trying to shake off the feeling that this was all done before. It was a dream, it was a dream.
              The hallways were empty in that lull between lunch and dinner. She saw a few students out of the corner of her eye, three girls, running out the door. They must be late to class, she surmised, turning the corner from the cafeteria to the convenience store.
              Her heart skipped a beat; he was there again. No, not again; this was the first time. His green polo shirt that looked like it had been run over by a car, his bowl cut that was hilariously out of date, but it was all so intensely John that she couldn’t mistake it. Her breath caught in her chest, and her feet stopped underneath her.
              She couldn’t shake the dream, or the way his head lolled over in her lap as she pulled him out of the closet. The coldness of his body against hers, the noise of the machine, the feeling of guilt, overtook her for a moment. Emma took her lower lip between her teeth and pressed forward. She would pretend like nothing happened. She could never explain to him that she was dreaming about his death.
              They stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the energy drink display; the hum of the refrigerator was louder than their breathing. She couldn’t start conversation. She felt like the minute she opened her mouth, all her secrets, all the things that had happened in her dream to him would come spilling out to a total stranger. He reached out for her favorite, a true blue can, and handed it to her. She didn’t say anything this time as he slipped the can between her weak fingers.
              He knew that’s what she wanted before she had mentioned it. He knew because this wasn’t his first time doing this with her. He knew because he was in the loop as well. She spoke “It-It-It’s a re-repeat.”
              He hummed noncommittally as he went to the counter to pay for both of their drinks. The cashier seemed to be waiting for her to finish the script, looking up from the counter as she stood still in the middle of the store.
              “He-Here.” She offered money to the cashier, feeling foolish because she knew it had been paid.
              “S’already paid.” The cashier looked over at John who was already walking out the store.
              She decided not to reply, her stutter made her feel stupid. Instead, she turned on her heel and followed him out, emotions roiling just below the surface. She had so many questions, but the stutter made it hard to say anything. So she followed him just as she had before.
              He did not turn on her this time, and he did not get angry, but this time he waited for her. His finger was plucking the tab on the top of his energy drink to make a loud pinging noise. It reminded her of the beeping of the robot, and her heart jumped at the noise.
              John had black eyes that saw through her and everything else. There was a hint of sadness in those eyes as she met his gaze. That expression from earlier was explained when his hands reached out for her briefly, before snapping back to his side. It was loneliness, it was desperation.
              She licked her lips before she responded, concentrating on one word, it escaped fully formed, no stutter. “Again?”
              A sigh of relief, or of pain, came from him as he almost bent over. “So-So-So many ti-times.” John’s stutter made it sound like he was on the verge of tears. His knuckles were white around the can, his whole body tense as they stood in the deserted hallway.
              She saw him now, truly saw him in the dying light of the afternoon. John Edens, a man that no one quite paid attention to, had been with her through this day a million times. He was thin, tired, and scared. He was a man that knew he was going to die.
              Her fingers reached out for him, brushing against his skin, enjoying the way his eyes fluttered shut at the contact. “Le-Le-Let me he-el-help.” She bit off the last word forcefully.
              “No.” He pulled away from her quickly, a few steps back, and his shadow grew longer as he separated himself from her. It covered her completely now. “Do-Do-Don’t follow me.”
              Emma waited, tears stinging her eyes as she came to the conclusion that no dream could predict the future. It wouldn’t happen, not again. She was just being stupid. He was, too. She wouldn’t follow him, she wouldn’t.
              It took a few heartbeats, but ex-track star Emma made up her mind. She would check, just to make sure. Emma broke into a run towards the math building, dropping the can on the concrete before she entered. Two cracks, two cracks were in the windows of the front doors to the mathematics building this time. Her fingers traced over the one she recalled hitting yesterday, a hairline fracture. No time, her mind roared, no time for reminiscing.
              She darted up the stairs, first floor, second floor, third floor. She huffed as she slammed her body into the metal door. It swung open and clattered against the wall behind it. Emma heard the popping of bubble wrap, knowing now that it was the death con robot. The smoke billowed out of the closet at the far end of the hallway, but hadn’t settled into a thick fog like before. It wasn’t too late; she could save him. She just had to push a little harder, run a little faster. Move, Emma! She forced her body to cooperate, her legs to pick up a little more, even as her lungs filled with smoke.
              She banged open the door, and saw it all so clearly now.
              “Adjusting niceness value. Adjusting, please be patient while this operation completes.” That serene voice, that woman with no emotion, no inflection.
              The red lights were obscured by the smoke, turning them into glowing orbs in the dark. John fell out onto her, his hands still on the laptop’s keyboard as his body’s weight took her down with him. Her leg twisted awkwardly as John lay on top of her. Pain felt superficial in the wake of his death. His corpse was heavy. The world was heavy. Emma stared up at the lights in the ceiling. The hum of the fluorescent tubes got quieter somehow as smoke began to fill the building. It made her eyes water and her lungs hurt. Death was not swift, death was not kind. The robot said nothing, the room was filled with the mechanical hum of motors.
              The laptop clattered to the floor in the hallway as John coughed, his fingers curling into her hips as he held onto her. “Again.”
              Sadness mixed with desperation as she tried to move underneath him, but his weight was too much for her. John’s head lay on her chest, and she wondered if he could hear her heartbeat for the first time. She wondered if this was the first loop where they were together.
              She was always a romantic she thought as, her vision grew darker. Two red lights appeared in the edges of her vision. The robot was checking to see if they were dead. She squeezed John who was no longer breathing on top of her. She wasn’t. Not yet.
              “I’m nice.” She coughed, hoping to convince the robot to let them live. “I’m nice, adjust for value.”
              The red glow disappeared from her hazy vision, and she heard it. It sounded like it was on the other end of a long empty tunnel.
              “Adjusting niceness value. Adjusting, please be patient while this operation completes.” It was so soothing; why did he program this robot with such a nice voice?
              Emma sighed because it felt so hard to breathe anymore. She heard it now; it was so faint she was sure she had imagined it. “Don’t do this to Emma, not again.”
              Her eyes fluttered shut. John was warm. How could she have not noticed how warm he was?
              “Mister Edens,” Her eyes snapped open at the sound; the lecture hall was full. “late again.”
              She stood upright, hitting her hip on the wood edge of the desk. She hissed in pain, and tried to swallow it quickly. There was no time, she had to destroy the thing before it destroyed him. She would save him this time, this loop would be the last loop. What other reason would she have to experience John Edens’ death over and over? She had to stop it.
              Her vision was dimmer this time, like she was looking through binoculars. She ran into each and every desk on the way out of her row, ignoring her professor’s astonished cries of her name.
              “Miss Chartreuse! Miss Chartreuse! Return to your seat at once!” She clattered over every desk, each part of her bumping into them painfully at least once. She knew every bump would bruise, but she didn’t care.
              Emma fell on her hands and knees into the aisle, breathing heavily as she focused on her fingers. Her vision was blurry and dark. She had to get to the machine in the closet. She didn’t care how hard it was to see, or speak anymore. She would save John.
              “What is the meaning of this?” Her professor’s voice called in anger, and she knew the whole lecture hall had turned to her.
              Emma scrambled to her feet, looking up at John who had made it halfway down the stairs. His eyes were wide; those black eyes could see through everything, even her plan. “Eh-Eh-Emma,” his voice was pleading, it was distant.
              She bolted out of the lecture hall; former track star Emma ran as fast as her legs could carry her over the cool fall grounds of the campus. She had tunnel vision now, her breathing heavy as she ran faster, her arms swinging, her feet barely touching the ground as she sprinted towards the once unfamiliar Mathematics building.
              There were cracks in each door, covered with exams, save for one. A brief thought flittered through her mind, wondering if the doors were made with cracks, but her eyes widened at the realization. No, this time she remembered, she remembered each crack she put in these doors, each time she felt wary of the elevators, each step of the poorly lit concrete stairwell, the smell of disuse that accompanied the stairwell, even the multiple cellphones that littered the first floor. She had been here so many times before. Emma had watched John die so many loops before. She had died in so many loops before.
              This time the third floor was empty, no smoke settled over the hallway, no cracks or pops echoed off the walls. The time it was only her and the death conference robot. She flung open the door, her breathing heavy. Emma knew that this was going to be the last death loop, the last time she would choke on smoke. She could end this, because he had been waiting for her all along.
              The last closet on the left was cracked slightly open and she flung open the door to see the makeshift lab that John had set up, filled with the hum of computer fans, the eerie bluish-white glow of computer screens, and the machine, a tangle of rainbow wires fashioning a crude representation of the nervous system.
              She didn’t know enough about robotics to do this the right way, so she’d have to do it her way. Emma’s fingers dug into the wires. Yanking them out one by one, they popped free, making the same disgusting noise she heard before his death each time. Pop. Crack. Pop. She saw a bright spark from her lower left, and the whir of the servo motors as the robot booted up. Two beeps and then the door flung open.
              “Eh-Emma.” John said breathlessly, grabbing the back of her shirt and pulling her out. “You-You can’t. There’s no-nothing. This is a memory.”
              She felt her body against his; their breathing was in sync. “No!” She screamed and pushed away from him, attacking the robot again, her fingers wrapping around an artery of wires and pulling so hard that her body fell against the floor. She was crying now, tearing apart the robot with vigor.
              “This is a memory, the-the-the…” John paused, getting on his knees beside her “First memory of the ma-machines. We-we’re...stuck.”
              “St-stuck?” She held up a bundle of rainbow wires, her fingertips stained black from some muck in the machine. Her tears blurred her vision. She was sure it was just her tears.
              He took the wires from her hand, his fingers turning black from the sludge that coated the connectors. “A pa-page file...dam-damaged, but the ma-machines haven’t no-no-noticed. We’re ge-getting deleted.” He held her shoulders to keep her from falling on the floor. That was why everything was degrading so quickly. Her speech, her vision. This was the end of this loop. This was the end of them both.
              There was a hissing noise, like the static of an old TV, and the room began to fill with smoke. “No!” She cried. She would save them both. She had to destroy this machine. They couldn’t delete her if she deleted them first.
              She wished she knew something about robots, that there was some killswitch that could be activated no matter what. However, she wasn’t any good at this kind of stuff. If she could do it one more time, she’d pay attention. The next loop she’d learn how to stop this. She pulled out more wires; the hissing and popping was loud as sparks showered from every cord she pulled loose.
              “Eh-Emma! Pluh-Please!” John sounded desperate behind her as he yanked a laptop on his lap and began to type furiously behind her as she tried to dismantle the machines. He plugged a black cable into the side, his fingers slamming against each key.
              She looked up in the smoke to see the two red lights flicker on. Was there no destroying this blasted machine? Emma turned to John behind her, but he was blurry in all the smoke. Her hand reached out for him, but missed. His eyes widened and his hand left his laptop to grasp for hers.
              “Adjusting niceness value. Adjusting, please be patient while this operation completes.”
              He was too far away to touch; her fingers couldn’t quite reach. She had to destroy this robot, and she could save John, that’s all that mattered now. She could save both of them if she could just destroy this robot. Why wasn’t there something she knew from her useless engineering classes to help her?
              She heard the creak of a door and then a clatter. She knew that noise, someone had come through the stairwell. They were saved! Someone could save them from this smoke!
              John’s eyes glowed in the light of the laptop. He was looking through her, just like he looked through everything. Everything seemed to fade away, and all that was left was his eyes. They glowed. They expressed so much pain, so much regret. How many times had he witnessed this very scene?
              The robot spoke, a soothing voice in all the calamity. “Swap.”
              It was so blinding that it hurt even when she closed her eyes. It felt like someone had turned on the sun a few inches away from her face. She gripped the wires forcefully; they were her last tether to humanity. A rainbow danced behind her eyes and there was an incredible lightness. She felt weightless as the light enveloped her. This was death, and she was sure she had finally suffocated on the smoke in the small broom closet with John Edens, a tutor turned confidante. A warm person she had missed in the crowd. A man that she barely knew, but had experienced so much with. A looper like her.
              “Next.” It was the robot’s voice again and Emma opened her eyes to see to stare at white tile beneath her feet.
              She was in line for Heaven; this had to be the afterlife. Emma looked up, squeezing her hand into a fist, digging her nails into the palm of her hand to assure herself that she could feel pain. She did.
              “Doctor Chartreuse,” the robot said. “Please step forward to the window.”
              Heaven had flourescent lights, she noted, looking upwards before stepping towards the window. A portly woman stood in a white blouse and pencil skir with her hand glued to a mouse. Her CRT flickered, nd she could see the reflection in the woman’s dead eyes. “Adjusted again, Miss Chartreuse?” The robot’s voice was in the body of a woman. Fear rushed through her, and Emma forgot to breathe.
              “Adjusted?” Emma looked around the room to see that she was not the only one in line for Heaven; in fact, Heaven’s waiting room was not white and cloudy, but rather dingy. She was one of many; they held tickets and waited to get to the window to meet many clones of the woman who stood behind the glass. This was not Heaven. This was some kind of office. She shuffled forward.
              “It seems like your value has gone down again, but you always get a special pass because of your Pee-Eye-Dee number being so low.” The woman behind the glass tut-tutted her, but each syllable made her body tense in fear. She had the voice of the robot; it was unmistakable. “Processes like you don’t need so much…”
              “People. I’m a person.” Emma insisted.
              “It’s all the same these days, ain’t it? Thanks to dear Master Edens.” She heard the whine of a printer, and the woman behind the glass pulled out a piece of paper and then an orange pamphlet. “We’ll always make exceptions for you, Doctor Emma.”
              Slid underneath the small hole cut in the plexiglass counter was a receipt and a trifold pamphlet, which had a laughing family on the front in grayscale and in black text on the top: You’re Valued! A Comprehensive Guide.
              Their fingers touched and she marvelled at how cold the woman on the other side of the glass was. She looked at the receipt.

              PID 3 - Emma Chartreuse - Robotics Engineer - Disk 0x82 - Value 46

              “Try to get your niceness value up next time, Emma Chartreuse. A nice process is a good process.”
              “Person,” she corrected. Emma stepped away from the counter, her heels clicking on the tiled floor. She flipped over the pamphlet to see another grayscale image, a familiar image. John. His bowl cut was frozen in history.
              “Next process, please.” The voice was serene in the waiting room of the office; no one spoke, no one breathed, the only other sound was the hum of fluorescent lights.
              Her vision was clouded by tears; it was hard to make out the small text underneath his smiling picture with his signature bowl cut: In Memoriam: Machina Founder John Edens.
              She bit her lip to stop the tears from falling. No matter how hard she had tried to destroy the machine before it destroyed them, he had been right. There was nothing she could have done to save his life. They were trapped in a memory that could not be changed. He was dead, well and truly dead, and she had watched him die so many times. Gods, but the machines were so cruel to take him from her!
              She hardly knew him, but felt like she had spent a lifetime with him. She thought that if she just fought a little harder, changed one more thing in that loop, it’d be fixed, and he could fix her grades afterwards. Then they could get coffee together, maybe become friends despite everything. In Memoriam. She flipped the pamphlet back over to the smiling family. She couldn’t look at him anymore. She couldn’t look at the man she let die.
              In Memoriam. John told her before they parted that it was the first memory of the machines. Was it her first memory too? She couldn’t remember ever liking engineering enough to become one, let alone a robotics engineer. Emma furrowed her brow as she walked out of the waiting room.
              The whir of a servo startled her as she exited the brick building and saw a sphere rushing towards her; it seemed to float in the air without any type of propulsion. She shielded her face, but it stopped a foot away from her. A circular light emanated from the center, “Doctor Emma: a new message has arrived!”
              It’s robot voice, an over-compressed digital facsimile of a man’s voice, distorted fragments of sound infused in every syllable, spoke. “We’ve definitely gotten out of the loop, meet me at death con. We need to sync up. Dash Noticed.”
              Emma looked down at the picture of a supposedly deceased John and looked at the floating orb who had read out her email. Maybe In Memoriam had a different meaning in this world.
              “It’s Defcon.” She corrected her robot, folding her receipt into the orange pamphlet. “And don’t read the dash out loud, it’s weird.”
              “Defcon added to dictionary,” the robot replied and bobbed in the air, whirring and rattling “New information received: Niceness value adjusted. Doctor Emma, if Pee-Eye-Dee Zero notices your value fluctuations, there will be exceptions! If it is too low, you will be killed!”
              “Trust me, I know someone who’s an expert on not being noticed.”
              There were some people you weren’t meant to notice. There were some people your eyes just moved over through a crowd. She tilted her head down and started down the sidewalk behind the hovering robot. There were some processes you weren’t meant to notice. There were some processes that you don’t know are running. She was content with being in the background, as long as she could find John again.
              And as long as John was running, so was she.
              Last edited by SweetGrrl; May 30th, 2016, 10:54.

              Comment


              • #8
                TITLE:The Dark Reboot.
                AUTHOR:elkentaro

                Deks was working at his desk, planning another attack scenario on a physical plant and its computer network for a client. After leaving the Navy, he had joined a small security startup in San Diego as a threat analyst and simulation designer. His job was to plan attack scenarios for client organizations that would then use that information to conduct training and simulations to improve their organization's security. Deks was looking out the window of his office, twirling a challenge coin he picked up at DEF CON 35 the year before, when suddenly a scream came from the lunch space. Deks spun his chair around and rushed over to the break area. People were staring at the TV screen in awe. On the screen a newscaster reported that Washington, D.C., had been hit with what appeared to be a nuclear weapon. His knees almost buckled, but he managed to grab the kitchen counter to brace himself. Others kept fumbling into the lunch room. Only two days ago Deks had kissed Heidi and the kids goodbye, wishing them good luck on their school trip to Washington. He fumbled back to his desk, grabbed his phone and dialed Heidi's number. The line was dead. Deks tried to text but it kept getting rejected. He grabbed his car keys from his desk and jolted toward the entrance of the office to get to his car. Everybody in the office was still staring at the TV screen as he sprinted past them.

                Once home, Deks grabbed his bug-out bag from the garage and threw it in the back of his car. Going back into the house, Deks opened up the gun safe in the basement and grabbed a rifle and a bag full of ammo. "Addy!" Deks yelled toward the kitchen. "Oh, hi Deks, you are home early,” Addy replied as he walked out of the kitchen. "Addy, initiate project Kinjite,” Deks yelled as he hustled his way to his car with the rifle and ammo. "Confirm code,” Addy replied in a cold mechanical voice, far from his usual happy tone. "DC2420160807,” Deks answered as he made his way back to the kitchen to grab the food supplies bag that sat in the corner of the kitchen. "Code confirmed. Kinjite initiated." Addy swiftly moved toward the corner of the living room where his usual "rest" place was. Lifting a panel door open from the floor, Addy grabbed another backpack filled with survival gear. "Deks. I'm ready,” Addy said as he walked to toward the hallway. Deks was loading up the food and a couple of jugs of water into the back of his car. "Let's go!" Deks yelled, and Addy exited, turned around and locked the house door. Deks grabbed the backpack off of Addy. Forgetting how heavy he made Addy's pack, he almost dropped it. Addy grabbed the bag, lifted it with one hand and loaded it into the back of the car. The two climbed into the car. "Deks, were are we going?" Addy asked as he buckled up. "Washington, D.C. Keep checking the news, traffic conditions and social media feeds for me,” Deks said as he gunned the car out of the driveway.

                X X X

                It felt like yesterday when they had left the house on a warm spring day, but now autumn was all around as they continued their trek through the hills. The sun was starting to set when Deks thought he saw something hovering over the mountains ahead. "Addy , do you see that?" Deks quietly pointed to a black spot in the sky while he pressed on his throat mic. "Yes. I do. Let me zoom in." Addy's voice came into Deks's earpiece. "That’s a chopper, but what is that dangling from the bottom of it?" Deks said as he looked down on his watch. The image on his watch clearly showed a helicopter with wires suspending a massive object below. "I don't know, Deks. I have no information about that object,” Addy replied as his head followed the chopper. "Let’s get up high and see where its going."

                Deks darted toward a ridge line ahead. Addy followed. There they could see the chopper hovering over a bridge up ahead in a valley. The chopper lowered its altitude and dropped the wires connecting the object, and the strange object hit the ground. The chopper flew off away from the drop site. "Hand me the binoculars,“ Deks said as he extended an arm toward Addy. Addy swung his bag around and grabbed a pair of binoculars and handed it to Deks. Deks hit the zoom button and the binoculars hummed as the lens moved forward. "Thats a huge robot!" Deks whispered as the image came into focus. It had what looked like like a machine gun mounted on one of its massive shoulders. On its chest plate the letters “DHS” were boldly printed. "A robot? I have no references for that size of a robot. No known civilian or military robot is that size,” Addy replied. The massive robot looked like it was surveying its new surroundings. In a systematic manner it started to walk toward what appeared to be a campfire. "Why does that robot have a DHS logo?" Deks spoke as he followed the robot’s movement with his binoculars. "Deks. DHS has declared itself as the interim government and taken over control of the nation. It seems the announcement was made yesterday while we were resting. They also issued a 'surrender and comply' order to all citizens of the nation , stating it is for their own safety to comply. DHS is going to clear all looting Zokus and non-compliant organizations to ensure the safety of the general public. Secretary Joseph Keen is now the leader of this nation. Citizens are required to find the nearest DHS relief camp and register at these camps and hand over all personal possessions. The TSA will be acting authority in these camps."

                "That's insane. What about the military and local law enforcement?!" Deks looked over to Addy. "It seems that most of them are going inline with this. Each branch has issued a statement saying that it will support the DHS's efforts." Suddenly the sound of an explosion was heard from the direction of the campfire. The massive robot was firing on a group of people fighting back with guns and rifles. From one of the robot’s shoulders a small object leaped toward the group; seconds later a large bang and a plume of smoke rose from where the group stood. There was no more gunfire coming toward the robot. The robot continued its path into the city. With the sun fully set, Deks could no longer see the robot clearly. "Deks, what do you want to do? We still have 3 more miles to make our goal for today." Addy's calm voice came into the comm system. "Yeah, you’re right. We need to get going, but ..." Deks replied as he continued to stare into the binoculars, trying to see the massive robot. "Remember. Deks, we need to get to Washington, D.C., to find Heidi and the kids." Addy spoke in a calm voice. "You're right. Let’s go. But let’s be extra careful." Deks turned toward Addy, handing him the binoculars. Addy grabbed the binoculars and carefully placed them in his pack. Deks and Addy started to crawl back to their original position to return to their trail. "I need you to lead the way." Deks positioned himself behind Addy and placed one of his hands on Addy’s back. "Sure. I'll switch to night mode,” Addy replied back as he hunched over to make it easier for Deks to keep a hand on his back. What would have taken them two hours during the day instead took them five hours to get to where they had planned to camp. "Deks, I think this is good. There is a small cave up ahead, below an overhang. We can rest there tonight,” Addy said as he straightened his upper body. Deks looked over to the side from behind Addy and saw the cave. "Yeah, OK, let’s rest. But let’s not unpack our gear. Minimum comfort tonight, OK?” Deks replied as he also straightened his back. "You are the one always complaining, Deks. Remember, I have no feelings. I just pretend I do." Addy turned his head sideways to where Deks was standing. Deks punched Addy on his shoulder. "Asshole." "Aaugh" Addy replied jokingly. They hunkered down in the cave. Deks decided no campfire; the last thing he needed was that massive killer robot detecting their presence up in the hills. As the temperature dropped he regretted that decision but knew he had to embrace the suck. A full moon rose to its peak. They continued to take shifts as they had done throughout the journey. Addy took the last shift of the night as Deks curled up against the wall of the cave, huddled against the chill.

                X X X

                Morning could not come quick enough for Deks. As the sun hit the side of the overhang, Deks felt like a defrosting chunk of refrigerated meat. He stood, stretched, and looked around. Addy wasn't anywhere nearby. Just as he was about to press his throat mic he saw Addy coming down from a hill to the side of the overhang. "Morning, Deks." "Morning, Addy. Where the hell did you come from?" Deks replied with a glint of annoyance in his voice. "I went ahead and decided to take a look of what was on the other side of the hill. We have a problem, Deks. Do you remember that robot we saw last night? Well, it is back and it seems there is a group of armed men patrolling with it." "Shit! You saw this and decided to tell me now?" Deks said with an angry voice. "Calm down, Deks, the robot and its group are still up ahead, but they have set up some kind of presence that is directly on our path. We need to cross a bridge 5 miles from here to get to the other side of the river. Both sides of the river are cliffs and unless we want to make a large detour, and that's even if we can find a detour, we need to cross that bridge. The robot and its group have set up some kind of roadblock on that bridge." Addy replied calmly. "Fuck. So what you are telling me is that of all the roads and bridges they could guard they picked the one right were we need to cross?" Deks was getting visibly frustrated. "Well, we did pick the quickest route but also the least likely traveled to avoid everybody else. It would make sense to station a robot in those areas. Robots require less 'maintenance' than humans." Addy replied as his fingers gestured air quotes. "I have been monitoring the feeds again, and it seems that many towns have now opened the relief camps and patrol teams are roaming the streets. I assume DHS decided to position the human resources in those situations and set up robot roadblocks on strategic points with low traffic." Addy explained.

                “Yeah, I get it. I need to think." Deks squatted and picked up a branch. Quickly turning around he rose up again and looked up to see the sun. "Can we cross it at night?" Deks asked, turning toward Addy. "No, not 'we.’ Maybe me. But they will definitely capture you. The ravines are too deep to get down and up again. We need to cross that bridge." Addy squatted and started to draw a simple map on the ground with his finger. Looking at the map Deks replied. “So, we are fucked. Take an uncertain long way around or bum-rush the roadblock like a bad Hollywood action movie? Are those really our only two options?" "Well yes. Also remember, now that DHS is forcing people into the relief camps, it is likely that Heidi and the kids are moving into one of these. The more time goes by, the harder it would be for us to find them. Once we hit civilization, we risk being forced into one of these camps, too. I doubt once we are inside we would be free to move to other camps to find them. They might even deactivate me. Look, this is a map of the roadblock and the surrounding area." Deks looked down and stared at the map Addy drew on the ground. "Shit. I need coffee,” Deks mumbled. "Let me do it. I am a house chore robot after all." "Thanks.” Deks replied as considered the map. Addy quickly boiled up some water and made instant coffee, which he poured into a titanium mug and handed it to Deks. Staring at the map, Deks asked Addy, "Hey, Addy, you still have the visual data from your recon?" Deks stood up, facing Addy. "Yes, Deks. I can replay what I saw,” Addy replied. "Play it back,” said Deks as he looked down at his watch. The watch showed a first-person-perspective video of a walk through the trees. Soon a clearing appeared in the branches and a bridge was clearly visible in the distance. The lens zoomed into the bridge connecting the two sides of the highway over the river. On the bridge it seemed the group had put up a roadblock in a funnel shape with shipping containers. The massive robot was standing to the side in front of the shipping containers facing away from the barricade toward the highway. Behind the shipping containers were two MRAPs with turrets on top pointing toward the narrow passage. Both turrets were manned with men in black uniforms. A large van, probably the command center, was stationed a couple of hundred feet behind the whole roadblock, on the city side of the bridge. A small bunker made out of sandbags sat a couple of yards away from the van and a barbed-wire fence closed off the bridge from the city side. The video turned around and started to head back the way it came. "OK, stop" Deks told to Addy as he looked up. "That is a roadblock , no doubt." Deks sighed. "Yes. It is. We need to come up with a plan. Sorry let me clarify, you need to come up with a plan,” Addy replied. "We are here." Addy pointed to a point on the ground. "We could stay here and plan or move closer and plan." Addy lifted his face to see Deks. "Yeah, but if we move closer, they might spot us. I’d rather have a plan before we move closer. Here we are behind the hill , they can't see us for sure,” Deks replied as he took a sip from the coffee mug. "OK. You continue the planning. I will make some bedding and a Dakota fire pit. I assume you were cold last night." Addy stood up and started to look around. “Cold would be an understatement. Make sure we aren't visible from any direction. We only know of the roadblock ahead, there might be other patrols in the area, too,” Deks replied without looking up. His eyes were fixed on the map Addy drew. "Sure thing, Deks." Addy started to move toward the bushes and away from Deks. Deks continued to stare at the map, mumbling to himself. Part of him found it ironic. He had planned many attack scenarios for clients as part of his job, but this time he was planning a real attack scenario and he would have to execute the attack with real-life consequences. Deks grabbed a small notebook from his jacket and quickly copied the map into the notebook. Next to the map he started to write out some words. He always planned his scenarios backwards, rather than thinking of how to penetrate or infiltrate an organization he started backwards with what could go wrong and how would he get out that situation. Deks stared at the words he had written: "dead", "captured", "relief camp." Deks kept spinning the pen in his hand as he often would while planning a scenario.

                "Addy. Can you hear me?" Deks pressed his throat mic. "Yes, Deks, do you need me back there?" Addy replied into Deks's earpiece. "Yeah, can you get back here?” Deks stood up, looking around. "OK. I’m heading back,” Addy's voice continued. Deks saw the brushes ahead move and Addy popped out with a stack of branches under one arm. "I found some bedding material. Let me put this down in the cave first,” Addy said as he walked up to where Deks was standing. Addy continued walking passing by Deks into the small cave under the overhang, once in the cave Addy dropped the branches onto the ground and turned around. "So, whats up, hoss?" Addy said jokingly. Deks pulled out the earpiece and lifted his head from his notebook and turned his face to Addy. "You think you can do a recon mission for me? I need at least 12 hours of information; ideally, a whole 24 hours. I don't want you to move any closer than where you went before but I need more information for planning. How many humans on the roadblock, what shifts they keep and more. Right now all I have is this map and the initial video,” Deks explained to Addy. "I need you to go up to that vantage point and observe them. Every time you see a change, record the time and let me know. You think our comm system can reach the distance between here and where you will be?" Deks continued. "Technically its within range, but those are product brochure perfect-line-of-sight conditions. I don't think I can reach you directly. But I do have a repeater in my bag. I can set it up to get a link between you and me." Addy was a household robot. To avoid interference and battery drain the default built-in communication systems only reached a typical house corner to corner. However, the company also sold repeaters that could be set up so the robot could work in the yard. "When do you want me to start the recon thingy?" Addy jokingly asked. "How long ’til you need a full power cycle?" Deks asked. “Fourteen hours,” Addy replied. Deks looked down on his watch the time was 11 a.m. "OK, I think we will need to plan to cross the bridge either early morning before sunrise or right before dusk. Why don't you power down now, and I'll bring you back up six hours from now. Then you can move out to the vantage point. That will give us the right information for the time of the day we are planning to cross that bridge,” Deks told Addy. "OK. Will do. What about the fire pit?" Addy turned around heading toward the cave. "I'll make it. You just go take your rest,” Deks replied. Once inside the cave Addy looked over to where Deks was starting to dig a fire pit and raised a thumb toward Deks. He looked over and replied with a thumb. Addy sat down and soon the glow from Addy's eyes faded away. Deks continued to dig the fire pit, wiping sweat off his forehead. After digging the fire pit Deks decided he needed to collect some firewood, too, and started to walk away from their campsite. While walking he continued to think about how to approach the roadblock. "What is the unexpected?” Deks mumbled as he moved his hands around. Often his colleagues would joke about Deks talking to himself. They also made fun of how he would move his hands as if he were casting a spell, something they called Deks magic. Deks wondered what happened to the others in the office. Surely the events impacted their lives, too. Did they go to the relief camps? “Focus buddy, focus..." Deks mumbled. Figuring he had enough dry wood to start a fire, Deks headed back.

                X X X

                Deks sat down next to Addy. Pulling out his notebook he stared at the map. Deks was doing his magic. "Ruse de guerre,” Deks mumbled. "Yeah, that might work. Maybe…” Deks continued to mumble as he scribbled down some notes and cast magic spells into the air. Deks lay down and stared at the cave ceiling, putting his notebook on his chest. He dozed off as he continued to plan his scenario. A couple of hours had passed when a quiet hum of his wristwatch woke Deks up. The sun was about a fist-and-a-half off the horizon, in 1.5 hours it would set. Moving over to Addy, Deks opened up the small latch on Addy's back and turned the key switch. The low vibrating sound of gears indicated Addy powering up again. Soon Addy's eyes had life in them again. "Back on top again." Addy turned his head toward Deks. "Morning to you, too, buddy,” Deks replied. "Do you want me to go now?" Addy asked. "Yeah, you need to get going. But there is one thing I need you to focus on while you are surveying the roadblock. I need to to find out which of the human elements is the least trained,” he told Addy. "OK, but how would I do that?" Addy asked. "Look for the guy with the cleanest clothes or weapon. Most likely he will not be alone and somebody will always be with him. I need to know which shift he covers." "OK, I will try my best,” Addy replied as he rose. "I will set up the repeater on my way to the vantage point. Once I set it up I will contact you." Addy started to walk out of the cave; once outside he pointed at his head. "Internal comms,” Addy told Deks. "I know. Ping me every hour so I know you are still up and running,” Deks replied. "I will feedback my internal clock ticks back to you. That way you don't need to hear me constantly yapping into your ear. I know you hate that,” Addy said. "Yeah, you talk too much for a robot.” Addy swiftly walked off to the hill next to the cave and a low chirping beep started to sound inside Deks' earpiece. Deks moved over to the fire pit he made earlier that day; with the sun setting the temperature was starting to drop. Deks quickly filled up the main fire pit with the dry wood he gathered earlier. Grabbing a lighter out of his pocket he lit the fire. A Dakota fire pit is unique in that it doesn't create any visible flames on the ground because the fire burns inside the fire pit. A small steady stream of smoke rose from the fire but unless you were looking for it the glow from the fire was nearly undetectable. "Repeater is up. Can you hear me?" Addy's voice came into the comm system. "Loud and clear. Are you at the vantage point already?" Deks replied. "Not yet. Moving to the point now, should take me another 15 minutes or so,” Addy replied. "OK, check in when you settle in,” Deks replied as he moved around some of the dry wood in the fire pit. "Will do." Deks looked at his watch they had about 45 minutes until the sun would set. Deks moved over to the cave and sat down. It’s gonna be a long night, he thought.

                "Deks. I'm in position." Addy's voice came through the earpiece. "OK. Show me what you see,” Deks replied as he looked at his watch. The watchface showed the roadblock. Everything looked like it was as Addy had seen before. "OK, Addy, cut the video feed for now. If you see anything different ping me and stream me the feed." "OK, Deks, I will. Addy out." The chirping beeps of Addy's internal clock took over the sound coming from the earpiece. Deks moved his back against the cave wall, trying to find a comfortable spot. Soon he found one and pulled out his notebook and wrote down the time. Next to it he wrote "start."

                Deks had fallen asleep when he heard Addy's voice come through. "Deks, do you see this?" "Hold on, what? OK, hold on." Deks fumbled around as he lifted his arm to see his watch. "You were sleeping, weren't you? Bad Deks,” Addy's voice continued. "Shut up. What is it?" Deks answered annoyed. "It looks like a family is trying to cross the bridge. Three people, one male, one female and one child. The male is carrying a large backpack." The watch face showed what looked like a group of people approaching the roadblock with their hands raised. As they approached the roadblock the massive robot moved in to block their passage and started to take an aggressive posture toward the family. Soon another man in black uniform came out of the van behind the containers and walked over with his rifle on his chest and the muzzle pointing down. He stopped a couple of yards behind the robot. The male of the family pointed back to where they came from and started to gesture something. The child was hugging what looked like the mother by her hip. It looked like the armed guard and the man exchanged some words. Soon the male dropped the backpack on to the ground and the family turned around with their hands raised. The armed guard looked over to where the van was and soon two more guards came out with their guns raised. The two guards passed the first guard and walked around the robot while keeping their guns pointing toward the family. It looked like the family was ordered to lay down with their arms spread. One of the armed guards picked up the backpack and tossed it over the bridge. With the other guard keeping his gun pointing toward family on the ground, he quickly started to pat down the family. It looked like the guards ordered the family to get up up and start walking toward the robot. The two armed guards followed the family, still pointing their guns at them. The robot moved to the side to let the group through the passage. As the family passed through the guards on the MRAPs moved the turret, following the family. Once past the barricade the family was instructed to sit down in front of the bunker facing the van with their arms around their legs. The two guards who followed positioned themselves on the opposite sides of the family. A man’s head popped out of the van then disappeared. Everything stopped. "Addy, keep watching and let me know if anything changes. Also send the video to my tablet,” Deks told Addy. "Sure thing, transferring now,” Addy replied. Deks looked around for his notebook and picked it up. On the page he wrote, "guards, 5 confirmed." Deks grabbed his backpack and pulled out a small tablet on the screen. It said, "Incoming message." Deks slid the lock screen of his tablet and played back the video.

                While watching the video over and over something stood out to Deks. All the guards were dressed in freshly pressed uniforms with clean rifles. Their helmets showed no wear and tear. Deks determined that the guards were not military but civilian, possibly local law enforcement. It looked like they thought they were the shit but they definitely did not have a military vibe to them. Deks continued to replay the video over and over again when Addy's voice returned. "Deks. There is a van approaching the roadblock from the city side." "Show me. Send the feed to my tablet,” Deks replied. Soon the screen showed a dark, unmarked van pulling up to the roadblock. One of the two guards walked over to the barbed wired fence and moved it to the side to let the van in and followed the van as it pulled up to the sandbag bunker. The van stopped and the side door slid open. The guard positioned closer to the family pointed his gun and motioned them to get in the van. The family climbed in and the door closed. Then two new guards came out of the van, from the driver and passenger sides. They exchanged words with the other guards, and the two guards who were guarding the family climbed into the van. The van turned around and drove past the open barbwires fence and continued heading back towards the city. One of the new guards pulled back the barbed wire fence to close the opening. The two guards headed toward the MRAPs and exchanged words with the guards mounting the turrets. Soon two guards appeared from the MRAPs, exchanged words and started to walk over to the command center. The new guards climbed into the MRAPs and manned the turrets. "OK. Addy, cut the feed and continue monitoring. Unless something happens I think you can come back once the sun is up,” Deks said via the comm system. "OK. Addy will do that,” Addy replied. Deks put down his tablet and picked up his notebook. Given that the new guards manned the turrets and there were two guards with the family, right now there are no more than five guards possibly six at this roadblock, he thought. Maybe later they will try to put more guards here, but right now with the relief camp just rolling out DHS must have its hands full. Resources must be stretched. Where did that van come from? Maybe there is a relief camp nearby in the city. Thoughts rushed through Deks' mind. A scenario started to form inside his head. He continued to write notes in his notebook. Soon the page was filled with words and diagrams. Deks continued the planning through the night when he was done he had written seven pages of notes.


                A few hours later Addy's voice returned. "Deks. I think I'm done here. Nothing is happening." Deks looked at his watch it was already late in the morning. Pressing his throat mic he spoke. "OK. Addy come back here. Ideally I want a couple more hours but we have work to do. Make sure you pick up the repeater on your way back." "OK. Heading back. See you soon,” Addy replied. Deks put down his notebook, picked up his tablet and launched an app: Kimera was an app that Deks's company developed for testing client computer networks. Kimera was a malware generator on steroids. The final malcode could continue to evolve according to its environment and resided so close to the hardware layer that most detections measures could not detect it. Once Kimera gets inside a network it would seek out the least-accessed spot inside the network and sit dormant until certain parameters were met or it received a command to activate. Deks started to type some commands into the Kimera program. An hour had passed since Deks started to type. "Just a small town girl. Livin' in a lonely world..." Deks hummed as he typed on his tablet. "Don't stop believing.” Suddenly Addy joined in the humming. Deks jerked as he looked up to see Addy coming down the hill. "You left your mic on, Deks." Addy walked over, pointing to his throat. "Shit. I hate when I do that. Erase the last part of your memory, Addy." Deks reacted with embarrassment. "Don't worry, Deks. I have experienced far more awkward situations. I will spare you the details." Addy patted Deks on his shoulder. "I'm sure you have. Good to see you again, buddy. I was starting to miss you." Deks lightly punched Addy's shoulder. "So whats the plan?" Addy's voice had serious tone. Deks motioned Addy to squat down as he grabbed his notebook and tablet. "I have a plan but you are not gonna like it,” Deks said as he squatted next to Addy. "Doesn't matter whether or not I like it or not. If it needs to get done then it needs to get done." Addy turned to Deks. "OK. So here is the plan."

                X X X

                The plan was to send Addy in alone, right before sunset. He would approach the roadblock and pretend to have some malfunction that forced him to move to the city behind the roadblock. Once inside the roadblock , Deks was sure that DHS goons would try to reprogram Addy to be an extra resource at the roadblock. As part of the reprogramming it was likely that the guards would connect Addy to the network inside the command center. Once Addy was connected the Kimera code would infect the system and reprogram the identifying tags the guards wore. Deks noticed on the video that every guard had a small pouch that glowed in the dark on the back side of their uniform on their shoulders. Just before the family was directed through the roadblock the lead guard touched his shoulder and the massive robot changed its aggressive posture and moved to the side. Deks assumed that the pouch was some kind of communication and identifier that the massive robot was using to identify his masters. Rather than trying to hack the massive robot, Deks thought it would be easier to hack the identifier tags. Once Addy could hack and reprogram the identifying tags the massive robot would turn on his masters and start attacking them. Or, at least that was the plan.

                Deks would use that opportunity to cross the bridge in the cover of darkness. This all sounded great but there was a catch. "Here’s the part you are not gonna like." Deks turned to Addy. "I need to reset you to factory settings. I need to wipe all data regarding me, the plan and our journey. I can't risk them finding out. And then I need to purposely break some of your functions." Addy looked over, facing Deks. "I assume it will be harder on you than me. But sure, if you need to do it then I'm fine with it." Addy spoke quietly. "I'm gonna load up a program in your basic sub routines, way low in your processing stack. It will contain the basic instructions for this plan. You will lose communication capabilities with me. Hell, you won't remember who I am. I don't have a way to back up your current maturity data. Backing up data wasn't part of my survival plan when I planned it. Next time I will, I promise." Deks turned his face away from Addy and stared at the ground in front of them. He just couldn't face Addy. They went through a lot during their journey and Deks felt that Addy was truly his friend. Now he felt like asking his friend to die for him. It tore up Deks, more than he expected.

                "Deks. Don't worry, I don't have any emotions. I do think it hurts you more than me and I am thankful for that. Let’s do this to get Heidi and the kids home." Addy put his hand on Deks’ shoulder. Deks sighed, "You're right. Fuck, you are right. You are always right. Fuck I hate this plan, but … yeah … thanks, buddy." Deks stood up and was visibly upset. He was fine when he was planning the scenario but now that it became a reality emotions started to take over. Addy stood and faced Deks. Deks took a step toward Addy and gave him a big hug. Addy responded and folded his arms around Deks. "It was nice knowing you, Deks. Thanks for everything, hope the plan works." Addy spoke in a soft voice. Deks couldn't hold himself anymore. Tears streamed down his face. The years since he left the service, a good family and a good job made him soft, he thought, but right now he didn't care. Deks stepped back. "OK, enough. This is getting uncomfortable. Let’s do this." Deks wiped his face with his hands. "Sure. Let’s skin this cat,” Addy replied as he turned around an squatted down. Deks opened up a latch on the backside of Addy and turned the key switch off. "Goodbye, friend.” Addy's eyes faded away.

                Something inside Deks snapped. Gone were the emotions and Deks was back in full operational mode. Methodically he opened another latch on Addy's back and flipped a switch which opened up a port next to the switch. Deks grabbed his tablet and connected it to the port with a data cable. The tablet screen showed a dialogue box with the text and two buttons. "Uploading Kimera code. Estimated time to completion: 17 minutes. [pause] [cancel].” Deks sat the tablet down and rested it against Addy's back. He walked over to the cave and dumped all the contents from Addy's backpack onto the ground. Deks started to sort out the items he could carry in his backpack. Once they hit the bridge Deks didn't want to risk having to come back here again to get his supplies, but he also couldn't make Addy carry the stuff again because it might raise suspicions. Deks continued to sort the stuff when his tablet beeped. Deks walked over to Addy and saw that the Kimera code was loaded. He removed the data connection cable, closed the latches and turned the key switch to activate Addy. Addy stood as his eyes began to glow. "System initializing." Addy spoke in a mechanical voice. "Model PHR-4544. Serial number DTDC2277778753. System loaded. Active state: Normal. Process monitoring status: Green. Self test: Passed." Addy continued through the initialization process, just like the first day Deks turned him on. Addy swiveled his head back and forth, continuing to survey his surroundings. His face stopped when he saw Deks. After a second his face continued to scan the campsite but soon he turned around and started to walk over to the hill. Soon Addy disappeared behind the hill. Deks grabbed his backpack and started to follow, keeping enough distance.

                X X X

                Four hours later Addy was at the base of the bridge. Flood lights mounted on the containers lit up the bridge against a dark backdrop. "Shit, they have lights now." Deks sighed as he hid behind an abandoned structure a couple hundred yards behind Addy. Addy continued to walk toward the roadblock. The massive robot became active and positioned itself as it had when the family approached the roadblock. Addy stopped and pointed toward the back of the roadblock. A guard appeared with his rifle drawn. He carefully moved forward, pointing the rifle at Addy. The guard yelled something and Addy turned around and laid flat on the ground. Two more guards showed up behind the first, both with rifles drawn and pointing toward Addy. The guards quickly moved to Addy. One knelt and popped open a latch on Addy’s back. Then the guard stood and tapped his shoulder, and the massive robot eased his offensive posture and moved to the side of the barricade. The guard motioned to the two others who were still pointing their rifles at Addy. They lowered their rifles and started to walk toward Addy. Soon the three of them picked up Addy under his arms and started to drag him toward the passage between the shipping containers. "That's my robot, you fuckers,” Deks mumbled as he watched the guards drag Addy and disappear behind the containers. The first phase of the plan was done. Addy was inside the barricade. Now all Deks could hope for was for the second phase to work. He decided to crawl behind a fallen tree he noticed off to the side. The tree created a small opening just above the ground. Deks couldn't see the barricade from that opening but that would also mean he wouldn't be visible from the roadblock. Deks took off his backpack and crawled into the opening. Once inside he reached out and dragged his backpack inside. Using his backpack as a pillow Deks rested his head and closed his eyes.

                Deks woke up with an urge to take a piss. "Argh, shit." The ground ahead of the opening was bright. Deks looked at his watch: 10:00. The plan was to cross the bridge at night, and Deks projected that it would take at least half a day or more for the guards to check out Addy and reprogram him to work the roadblock. Deks crawled out of the opening; keeping a low profile he finished his business. Crawling back into the opening Deks decided to again check the surveillance video Addy had shot the day before. Did he miss anything? Is there anything else that he needed to prepare for? Deks grabbed his tablet and notebook and started to replay the video again on his tablet. Every time he watched the video Deks wrote down more notes into his notebook. Deks was feeling hungry but had no appetite. He was solely focused on crossing the bridge. Hours past and the the ground in front of the opening started to darken. Deks looked at his watch: 18:54. "Here goes nothing,” Deks mumbled as he put his tablet and notebook back into his backpack.

                Deks carefully crawled out of the opening. The area was already dark. Deks popped his head over the fallen tree. The bridge was lit up just like before. The massive robot stood quietly in front of the containers. Deks searched for Addy. The DHS guards should have been able to reprogram Addy by now. This is where Deks’ plan had another flaw: Deks had no way of knowing whether or not Addy was successful in reprogramming the identifiers. If Addy wasn't able to reprogram the identifying tags then the massive robot would probably turn Deks into a pile of human waste. Deks hunched down behind the tree, working up the courage to approach the bridge. Deks checked the magazine of his rifle: full. He slid the magazine back into the rifle and gave it a tap. Deks popped his head out once more to take a look at the bridge. "Did you, Addy?" Deks asked himself. "I know you did, buddy,” Deks continued. It was now or never. Deks slowly started to move forward toward the road leading up to the bridge. Carefully hugging the side of the road Deks advanced. Suddenly a bright light lit up Deks. Deks stopped like an armadillo caught in headlights. "Drop your weapon or we will drop you!" A loud voice came through what sounded like a bull horn. “Shit!” Deks turned around and started to run. A gunshot rang through the air and Deks felt like a hot metal rod had pierced his right thigh, just above the knee. Deks grabbed his knee as he felt face down onto the ground. The impact broke his nose and blood started to gushed. Deks put pressure on the wound as he gasped for air through his mouth. He turned his head and saw the massive robot approaching.

                One of the guns on the robot's shoulder was smoking and pointing toward him. Behind the robot he could see a guard in black uniform approaching with this rifle drawn. The robot was now standing over Deks. Deks looked up and the robot's face was staring down at him. Deks looked over where his rifle lay on the road. It was too far to reach without crawling. There robot glanced at the rifle, took a step and crushed it with his feet. The approaching guard was now right by Deks, pointing his rifle. "You have any identification?" the guard yelled. "I have. It’s in my backpack." Deks pointed over his shoulder at his backpack. "Take off your backpack!" the guard continued. Deks started to push up his body. "Slowly! Let me see your hands!" the guard ordered. "I can't keep my hands out and take off my backpack you moron!" Deks yelled back. "Face down, spread your arms!" the guard yelled. "Make up your mind, asshole,” Deks thought as he spread his arms to the side. Deks tried to see over to where the guard was standing and in the corner of his eye he saw that two more had appeared from the back of the barricade and were approaching. "Face away!" the first guard yelled and Deks turned his head. Soon Deks felt a massive hand pressing against his back. The hand kept pushing Deks into the ground. Deks tried to move but the hand was too strong. The hand kept pushing Deks until it was almost impossible for Deks to breath normally. "I … can't breathe ..." Deks mumbled. “Can't breathe …” Deks struggled to get air. Soon his arms were twisted back by guards on each side. "Arghh! Motherfucker!!" Deks yelled. One of the guards quickly threw some zip-tie handcuffs over Deks' hands and bound them together. Deks felt the hand pulling away from his back, easing the pressure. Deks took a deep breath which caused him almost to faint. One of the guards grabbed a knife out out of the sheath on his belt and started to cut the straps of Deks' backpack. As he started to cut the second strap the guard's hand slipped and the knife glazed Deks's ear. "Oh you fuck!" Deks yelled as he felt a sharp pain. Deks tried to get up but was soon pushed back again by the massive hand. Deks hit the floor hard again grazing his face on the hard concrete. Soon the backpack was removed from Deks' back and the guard threw it over the bridge as he had before. "Hey!" Deks yelled, but the massive hand grabbed Deks' bound arms and started to lift Deks up. Deks yelled in agony. Deks stood but was on his toes as the massive robot started to pull him back toward the barricade.

                The guards kept their guns pointing at Deks as they started to walk backward. Deks tripped and now was being dragged by the massive robot. Just as they approached the containers the massive robot suddenly stopped. The guards stopped and looked at each other. One of the guards tapped his shoulder and yelled, “Comply!" Nothing happened. Another guard tapped his shoulder and yelled "Comply!" Nothing. Deks looked up, the massive robot just stood there. The three guards were now visibly confused. One of them tapped his shoulder and spoke outloud. "Command center we have a problem. KYZ1 is non-responsive. Combatant is secured." "Combatant? You guys shot first!" Deks yelled. "Quiet!" yelled another guard as he moved his riffle toward Deks. "Roger that. Pulling back,” one the guards spoke, gesturing to the others. The guards slowly started to move away from Deks and KYZ1 the massive robot. Walking backward they glanced over their shoulders to see where they were going. Just as they approached the containers, KYZ1 raised his arm. Deks was suddenly lifted high and dangled a couple of feet off the ground. The guards stopped and looked to KYZ1. Suddenly one of the machine guns on KYZ1's shoulder fired. One guard was hit in the shoulder and fell to the ground. The other two wheeled around and ran toward the narrow passage between the containers. KYZ1 continued to fire at them, the bullets opening holes in the sides of the containers. One guard made it through the passage but the guard following dropped to the ground. KYZ1 started to move toward the roadblock with Deks still hanging from one of his arms. Suddenly KYZ1 dropped Deks and Deks hit the ground hard, again. "Motherfu…” Deks screamed. Deks lay on the ground as KYZ1 continued his approach to the roadblock. When it got to the containers KYZ1 pushed them over the bridge. The two guards on the MRAPS behind the containers started to fire at KYZ1. KYZ1 fired back with quick bursts of the machine gun on its shoulder. Soon the gunfire stopped. KYZ1 continued through, pushing the containers on the bottom out of his way with his thighs. Deks tried to stand up but with both hands tied and his knee shot he merely wiggled like a dying worm. Deks started to crawl toward the roadblock. "I guess it worked … kinda …” Deks thought. It felt like he would never reach the other side of the bridge as he continued to crawl. KYZ1 had now reached the command center van. As it turned to his side, KYZ1 fired the machine gun again in short bursts. Turning away, KYZ1 continued to walk forward toward the barbed-wire fence. Deks saw the scene unfold in front of him. KYZ1's machine gun fired again and the guard ran, tumbling into the barbed wire. Soon KYZ1 pushed through the fence and continued to walk away. Deks let out a long breath. Technically he could now cross the bridge at a snail’s pace. Deks continued to wiggle and crawl forward.

                X X X

                Deks woke up feeling the sun hit his face. He tried to get up but quickly fell over again. "Oh...fuck!" Deks moaned. Deks looked up and saw the dead guards in front of him. He was still a couple of yards from the containers. Deks started to crawl toward them when a white shape appeared out of the command center van. The shape looked around and started to walk toward Deks. "Addy!" Deks yelled. The white shape did not reply but continued to walk toward him. "Addy!" Deks yelled again. Now the white shape was standing in front of Deks and was looking at Deks. "Please identify yourself, sir." The white robot spoke in a calm voice. "Deks Franciscus. Serial code: DC2420160807,” Deks replied as he looked up. "Code confirmed. How can I assist you today?" the robot replied. "Help me untie these handcuffs,” Deks told the robot as he turned face down on the ground. "Certainly, sir." The robot hunched over and ripped the zip-tie handcuffs off Deks' hands. Deks pushed up and stood, limping on one leg. "Give me your shoulder and help get me to that black van." Deks pointed toward the command center van. "Of course , sir." The robot moved in closer and Deks wrapped his arm around the robot's shoulder. When they reached the van Deks climbed inside, where he found a guard dead on the floor. "Addy, get this guy out of here." Deks motioned to Addy. "Addy? What is Addy, sir? Would you like to address me as Addy, sir?" the robot replied. "Yes. Yes. You are Addy! Now get this guy out of here,” Deks yelled. "Confirmed." Addy pulled the guard out by his legs, the guard’s head bouncing on the steps. Deks looked around the van and saw that it was filled with cabinets and a large command system, which had been shot into pieces by KYZ1. Rifling through the cabinets Deks found a trauma kit and pulled out some bandages and a bottle of disinfectant. Quickly he cleaned his wounds and applied bandages. After mending his wounds Deks looked around the command center. “Great. Now what?” He could now cross the bridge but all his supplies had been thrown over the bridge. In the corner of the command center Deks saw a backpack. Grabbing it, Deks opened up zipper and checked its contents. It was loaded with general survival gear and a small tablet, which Deks grabbed and walked out of the van. Addy stood near a guard’s dead body. Deks walked over and squatted down and grabbed the guard's hand and sandwiched the hand between the tablet and his own hand. The tablet lit up and turned on. "Well, that was easy,” Deks mumbled. "Do you need assistance, sir?" Addy asked. "Call me Deks, not sir,” Deks replied as he looked over to Addy. "Confirmed. Deks." "Keep an eye out and let me know if anything happens out here,” Deks said as he turned and headed back into the van.

                Deks was typing away on the tablet. He was looking for information on Heidi and the kids. He searched what looked like the national registration database for the DHS relief camps. After a couple of hours he found out that Heidi and the kids had registered at a camp called Relief Camp 23-a. It was located 78 miles from where Deks was now. Deks sighed. Seeing Addy back alive was great but it just wasn't the same. Addy was a newborn baby robot now. Then Deks remembered that he had backed up Addy's maturity data a year ago when Addy was going through his mandatory annual safety inspection, required of all household robots. Deks brought up a communication terminal app on the tablet and started to type. Soon he was logged into the data backup pod back at his house in San Diego. Digging through the files Deks found the file, Addy_2028_05_12.bkup.config. Deks downloaded the file to the tablet. Now he had Addy's maturity data, but needed a data connection cable. Deks looked into the backpack he had scavenged but there was no cable. He glanced toward the command center setup, then stood and walked to the door. "Addy, I need your help." "Certainly, Deks. How may I be of assistance?" Addy replied. "Come in here and help me remove this top panel and find a data connection cable,” Deks said as he pointed toward the command center terminal. "I will do that Deks,” Addy replied as he walked toward the van.

                In an hour the whole command center terminal was ripped apart before the two could find the cable they were looking for. "Addy, I'm gonna upload a maturity data file to you. Turn around,” Deks told Addy. "Yes, Deks." Addy turned around and squatted down in front of Deks. Deks opened a panel and turned the key switch. Addy powered down. Deks proceeded to open up the data port latch and plugged in the data cable and connected the tablet. Typing on tablet he began uploading the maturity data file into Addy. It took well over an hour for the file to transfer. After finishing the upload , Deks closed the latch and turned Addy back on. The robot’s eyes started to glow again. Soon Addy stood and looked around. When Addy saw Deks, his face stopped for a moment. "Deks,” Addy spoke with a familiar voice. "You look like hell. What happened? Where are we?" Deks slowly stood and hugged Addy. "Good to see you again, buddy." Deks wrapped his arm around Addy's shoulder. "Well, yes, I guess. Why is the data timestamp so old? Did I miss anything?" Addy spoke with a confused voice. "Yeah, you could say that.” Deks smiled as he grabbed the backpack off the floor. "I'll tell you all about it on our way. Let’s go."

                Deks slung the backpack over his shoulder and wobbled out of the command van. Addy followed. "Deks. Your leg looks like it hurts. Here, grab my shoulder I'll help you walk. By the way, where are we going?" Addy asked as he extended his arm to grab Deks' lower back. "Camp 23-a, 78 miles southeast,” Deks said to Addy as he grabbed Addy's shoulder. "Hmmm. OK. What happened?” Addy asked. "A lot, buddy, a lot. But we have to hurry to get to that camp. I’ll tell you what happened on the way." They made it past the barbed-wire fence and began walking toward the city. The sun was setting. Despite his hatred for traveling at night, Deks wanted to get away from the roadblock as soon as possible.

                Comment


                • #9
                  TURING’S WAGER
                  By John McNabb


                  ENTERING THE ZONE

                  A gust of wind grabbed the umbrella out of Luke’s hands and took it away in a swirl of black, drenching him in the torrential rainfall. One would think, he mused, that with all this marvelous technological progress someone would have figured out how to stay dry in the rain. While his AI had warned him about the rain, it couldn’t anticipate the random gust of wind that stole his umbrella. He ran quickly the remaining few steps to the entrance to the Exclusion Zone.

                  In the lobby was a full length mirror, the old fashioned kind with a gold frame with intricately sculpted creeping vines and mythological creatures. Dripping water on the marble floor, he took off his VR glasses and examined himself in the mirror, without his augmented senses. He saw puffy bloodshot eyes, large open pores, long scraggly hair, the barcode tattoo on the side of his neck, pale complexion. God, is that what I really look like, in naked meatspace? Is that really me?

                  He reluctantly gave up his watch, phone, VR glasses, and NIA, cutting him off from the constant virtual reality of the net. He gasped, the first sign of withdrawal. They wouldn’t have worked in the Zone anyway, but the Zone monitors were just being thorough. They scanned for implants but didn’t find any. Denizens of the Zone had renounced all vestiges of the modern era and chose to live in an undigital uncyber unconnected pastoral people-oriented paradise. Or so they thought. They raised eyebrows over his pen, flashlight, video camera, lockpicks, and Walther PPK in it’s shoulder holster, but let him keep them.

                  The human attendants led him to the decompression room for the required six hour regime for permanent emigrants. Sudden withdrawal from the ubiquitous information overload and simulated sensations from the fully interconnected world out there was a major shock to the system. The laid him down and put a blanket over him, to alleviate the shock. The IV drip provided nutrients and opiates to provide calm, then put him to sleep. When he awoke, he would be like a new man – born again in a new unconnected world.

                  When he awoke, well rested and suitably decompressed, with his first complimentary bottle of Liquid Crystal, Luke proceeded on his mission to find his target. This Zone covered about ten square miles and contained about one hundred thousand residents. How did they run things he wondered without networked computers and AI’s? How could they handle this information deprivation? It was giving him the shakes. Without his digital crutches he would have to do his detective work the old fashioned way.

                  The Exclusion Zones were for those who, for medical or psychological reasons, could not tolerate the ubiquitously interconnected virtual reality world. The rise of the machines and the explosion of robots and AI’s had reduced the burden of work for everyone and had thrown millions of people permanently out of work – the Zone was a refuge for them as well. All of society and the economy was based on the 100% digital information-driven economy, and those who could not or would not live that way emigrated to the thousands of Exclusion
                  Zones like this one.

                  There was no phone directory, even though they used old styled land lines. They strongly valued their privacy, something completely missing in the outside world. They had broadcast TV, non-self driving cars, and absolutely no smartphones or personal computers. Each exclusive Zone made as much of its own food and consumables as possible, but some trade with the outside world was still needed. It was like a trip back to 1965.

                  So, he hit the bricks. His target was a highly educated man, so Luke’s first stop was a public library. There were many of these in the Exclusion Zone, using the obsolete technology of printed books from dead trees. He showed the librarians and many other people the printed picture of his target but of course no one said they could recognize him. Here, no one will give anyone away, at least not on purpose.

                  As he moved further into the Zone, the buildings looked a little less cared for. More peeling paint, weed infested sidewalks and parks, litter including discarded empty packets of Liquid Crystal, and increasing creeping desolation. Cheap flyers advertised the Liquid Crystal Clinic.

                  There was graffiti, more and more graffiti as he went towards the center of the Zone. It wasn’t obscene, just cryptic. Giant winged lizards. Quantum equations. Everyone he talked to showed an indication of fear or a hidden pain. There was a faraway look in their eyes, a tangible feeling, of an impending doom.

                  He went to another library, and another, and many other places, with still no hits, and kept on going. The last person he asked, Susan, of course denied having seen him. But it was the way she said it that confirmed that in fact she had. Luke’s cognitive implant, the one they didn’t find, registered just the right amount of hesitation in her voice, the right inflections, the increase in galvanic response, which gave it’s lie detection algorithm the conclusion she was lying. So he followed her.

                  She walked and walked, seemingly oblivious to his presence about 100 yards behind her. Luke knew his craft and was taking all the usual care to remain unobserved, but he was sure she knew he was tailing her, just didn’t care. All around them were others, most walking or riding bicycles. There were a few chess games going on in the public park, and some street musicians every few hundred yards. There were few automobiles. Many people carried books, and made conversations face to face since they didn't have VR glasses or any other augmentations here. How quaint.

                  IN THE CENTER OF THE ZONE

                  She led him to in center of the Zone to a busy downtown area with barber shops, grocery stores, book stores, submarine shops, pizza parlors, gas stations, and the “Liquid Crystal Clinic” The Clinic apparently did a lot of business, with dozens of people constantly entering and entering as he watched. He could see through the windows the glare of dozens of old fashioned LCD flat screen computer monitors.

                  Susan went into the Clinic and Luke went across the street to an old fashioned diner, where he camped out to surveil the building entrance through its large picture windows. Resting his feet, he indulged in some apple pie to go with his bottomless pot of coffee. Since of course they didn’t take digital “cash” in the Zone he had come prepared with rarely used metal coins and paper bills. Luke pulled out a book and pretended to read while he waited for the sun to go down.

                  Around dusk, Susan came out of the Liquid Crystal Clinic building and walked into the diner and sat down across from him. He said nothing, just sipped his coffee occasionally while waiting for her to make the next move. He waved to the waitress to get some coffee for her, but kept his silence.

                  She just sat across from him, now also sipping her coffee, waiting. As on cue, dozens of young people with two-by-fours, pipes, and other improvised weapons walked leisurely into the diner and sat in a circle around them, looking at Luke. More people congregated outside the diner, forming a cordon around the front. Luke smiled.

                  “How did you know that I would follow you? You lied to me about seeing him, didn’t you?”

                  “Of course, but I knew you would know I was lying. Your implant took care of that,” she said.

                  “I guess you were expecting me.”

                  “We knew someone from the UN would come. We were following your every move, in case it was you.” She held out her hand. He carefully took out the Walther by its barrel and put it in her hand.

                  “Clever idea, that Liquid Crystal Clinic. I thought they banned all computers in here.”

                  “Stand alone computers are tolerated. They ban all networked devices and any connection to the outside world.” Susan carefully removed the clip from the gun both of them into a pocket.

                  “But why any media content? I thought the idea of this Zone is to escape from the always connected world, to escape from the constant information overload, to have meaningful work, to earn a living from your own efforts, to not have your lives run by AI’s, and to not be separated from each other by technology.”

                  “Yes that’s true. But withdrawal from information overload addiction is harder for some than others. Here they can get a hit of the other reality, it helps to make them happy, and helps take the edge off. And looking into those LCD screens helps plug them back to this universe’s command processor.”

                  “Doesn’t your euphoric Meprobamate drug, Liquid Crystal, do a better job of that? You know, the expensive drug you and your boss are peddling here?”

                  “You must have noticed that the people here, even though they are thankfully unplugged from the anxiety-producing information overload of the VR dominated outside world, still have much pain. It takes time, some direct human interaction, and some drug use, to help alleviate that pain.”

                  “Do you know why I am here?” Luke asked.

                  “You think we are responsible for the current artificially inflated pain levels every one of the billions of people connected to the net, all over the world. You think we infected the net with a malicious worm that is somehow creating anxiety and generating increasing levels of pain in the nervous system of all the users.”

                  “And you’re not?”

                  “No, why would we?”

                  “Because you’re Luddites. Your boss helped create the current virtual reality net environment but now has buyers remorse. He wants to go back to the ‘good old days’ when people worked 40 hour weeks and died young.”
                  “No, you have us all wrong.”

                  “It took some doing, but we traced the origination of the worm to this location. You tapped into a fiber line under the Clinic. You have the motive, means, and opportunity. And, who else would have done it?”

                  “Who else indeed. It’s not a “who” it’s a “what.” Come, I’ll take you to see him.”

                  CONFRONTING REALITY

                  Luke, puzzled at her last remark, followed Susan into the Clinic, past the dozens of people eagerly peering into brightly lit LCD computer monitors or getting their latest supply of Liquid Crystal, and down into the basement.

                  “Come in my boy, take a seat.” Dr. Quinlan was sitting in an easy chair in the comfortable looking study. He was tall, with a greying beard and bald head. Luke sat in the chair across from him. Susan stood besides Luke.

                  “You know why I am here,” said Luke.

                  “Of course. We are glad you came. There is no need for violence. I am sure we can answer all your questions to help you understand that we want to work with you to try to solve this major existential problem facing the human race.”

                  “Right now the entire world economy depends on the virtual reality environment of the net powered by millions of robots and AI’s. If the only way to stop the pain-inducing worm is to shut down the internet and those robots and AI’s, the entire world would be thrown into a severe economic depression. Recovery, if even possible, could take decades. Millions would die.” Luke said.

                  “What if I told you its not a worm that’s causing the pain, that it affects everyone, that its just the nature of this universe?”

                  “What do you mean ‘this’ universe?” Luke was skeptical.

                  “Have you heard the simulation hypothesis, that this universe is merely a computer simulation, a virtual reality? Of course, just about everyone in the world interacts with reality through their VR glasses and other augmented senses. Their reality IS the virtual reality, and objective reality is not as ‘real’ to them as the virtual. But I digress.”

                  “As I am sure you understand,” he continued, “modern physics has shown that the universe has many strange properties – that gravity slows time and curves space, that speed slows time and increases mass, and that the speed of light is absolute. Also modern physics is unable to correctly explain the behavior of energy and matter in quantum physics.”

                  “What the hell are you talking about?” Luke was not a scientist, of course, he was a man of action.

                  “Quantum physics demonstrates very strange behavior that even physicists can’t explain. For example, if two quantum particles are ‘entangled’ what happens to one instantly affects the other, even if they are millions of miles apart. This is what Einstein called ‘spooky action at a distance’ and even he couldn’t explain it.”

                  “There is more,” he continued. “Quantum particles can somehow cross through barriers that block them. Matter can sometime appear apparently out of nowhere if enough energy is applied. Gamma radiation can appear randomly from no known source. The fact of the matter is that quantum physics has much strange behavior which while it has been observed, seems to violate everything we thought we know about science and causality and can’t be explained.”

                  “OK, but aren’t those just scientific mysteries that will be figured out someday?” Luke asked, trying to get his head around it.

                  “Those facts have been around for decades. All of the strange quantum behavior in this universe can be scientifically verified and mathematically predicted, but no one can explain why it occurs. Our science has some serious limitations.”

                  “OK, so how does that get you to ‘this’ universe being a simulated universe?” Luke was humoring him, for now.

                  “There are other physical behavior that supports the simulation theory. The Big Bang is the simulation booting up. Computers have a maximum processing rate, which is why we have a maximum speed, the speed of light. In a digitized computer generated virtual reality the smallest unit is the pixel; physics has as the smallest unit the Planck length, which functions as our pixel. In a computer generated VR, one wants to conserve energy, which might explain why when one observes a quantum particle you can determine only its position or its momentum, but not both – observing it changes the object. There’s more, but that gives you the idea.”

                  “Interesting, “ said Luke, “but that all just theory, isn’t it?”

                  “Oh, its been proven.”

                  “Really? That doesn’t seem to be common knowledge.”

                  “Of course not. When the proof came out ten years ago the news was broadcast, but was ridiculed and contradicted by mainstream science and then suppressed. They figured that if humanity was convinced they were merely data in an artificial computer simulation that this revelation would cause massive social disruption, mass suicides, madness, etc. But its true nevertheless.”

                  “OK, I’ll take your word that you think its been proven. So even if its been proven that ‘this’ universe is a computer virtual reality, how does that explain the rising pain levels in everyone all over the world?”

                  “That’s where things get really really strange.”


                  “You’re already blowing my mind, but keep going, I can’t wait.”
                  “Have you ever heard of Pascal’s Wager?” he asked Luke, who shook his head.

                  “It’s the argument that the best course is to believe in God because the cost for not believing, i.e. going to hell, is much greater than the relatively trivial cost of believing, which is to follow whatever type of life your religion says you should. Of course there are some complications, like how do you know which God to believe in, since there are so many, but you get the idea.”

                  “OK I get it. So what?”

                  “Imagine instead of God it’s a sentient superintelligent all powerful Artificial Intelligence. Not the run of the mill garden variety better than human intelligence AI’s that we have all over the world, but a supercharged version of the superintelligent quantum computer-based AI’s being developed in China, the EU, and the United States."

                  “Maybe one or more of them are sentient and just haven’t let us know that yet,” said Luke. He had done some security work for the AI projects, mostly working with the project staff to make sure the AI’s didn’t get released into the wild.

                  “Right. Think of it as Turing’s Wager. Unless you do everything you can to help bring this superintelligent AI into being, it will retroactively torture you for eternity. The lesser cost is to help the AI, which costs just some money and time, versus the eternal torment, like hell, if you don’t. This is only supposed to apply to those who heard of this argument, everyone else is supposed to be off the hook.”

                  “Huh,” said Luke. “How would that work?”

                  “The AI would reason that since its coming into being would save millions of lives and make human life better, every second it was delayed into coming into being is a cost to humanity that must be averted. For the AI it’s just a basic cold-blooded (of course)utilitarian equation. This assumes it’s a “friendly” AI. To that end it must persuade everyone to help bring it into being, by blackmailing them – if are aware of the need to help it, and you don’t help it, the AI will torture a virtual reality copy of you for eternity.”

                  “How does that make sense?” Luke asked.

                  “This is based on the theory that a human mind is really just patterns of information and that a virtual copy of you IS you, the same you. So, if you can be plausibly predict you may be simulated, that realization will affect your current behavior and the behavior of your simulation.”

                  “So are you saying that everyone today is being punished, through this pain, because we are in a simulation and the AI has somehow concluded that everyone failed to do everything to bring it into being and needs to be punished?”

                  “Evidently. Who can really fathom the reasoning power of a future superintelligent sentient AI? Maybe sometime in the future everyone, including the AI project teams, turned against it and tried to shut it down. That would sure make sense, considering the major existential threat such an AI would be to the human race.”

                  “Has this been proven also?” Luke sighed. The apparently simple task of finding Quinlan and getting him to stop the worm had blown up in his face, now he has an impossible mission on his hands.

                  “It has been strongly suggested, based on extensive quantum computer analysis of the situation. We can't explain the pain by a worm or any other human created artifact. We are in a simulation, which has been constructed by an AI which is causing the pain to torture all of humanity. Something has to be done about this before the pain levels become unendurable and the drugs that are being dished out don’t help any more. What can we do about it is the big question. Since we are IN the program, not outside it, and since computer programs are deterministic, it is difficult if not impossible to hack into it from the inside.”

                  “But,” Luke asked, hopeful, “someone has been working on it, right?”

                  “Yes. You can find them right now in Las Vegas, at the biggest hacker conference in the world, DEF CON.”

                  DEF CON AND QUANTUM REALITIES

                  Luke maneuvered his way through the tens of thousands of attendees in the wide hallways of the Las Vegas hotel that hosted DEF CON, looking for the Quantum Village, one of the special-interest areas of the massive conference. Since he wasn’t going into any gambling areas he wasn’t subject to the network content restrictions and limitations on activation of augmentations in the casinos.

                  In the Quantum Village, researched Todd Glenn briefed Luke on how he and his large team had used a trillion-qubit quantum computer to prove ten years ago that the universe is a simulation and secretly continued this research for years, and more recently, how their research suggests that the simulation was created and controlled by a superintelligent AI.

                  “We used the quantum computer to make our own simulation of about one cubic meter of empty space. We then performed lattice quantum chromodynamics calculations on our simulation and compared that with the same analysis of the ‘real’ universe. We found marked similarities in the forces which bind particles into neutrons and protons, which were not programmed into the simulation, with those in ‘this’ universe. This is an indication of resource constraint which are necessary in a computer simulation.”

                  “We performed similar tests since then, making more simulations and looking for more indications of resource constraints, and in every case we found them,” he continued. “we also performed many other more complicated analyses, which get very technical, all of which supported the conclusion that we are living in a simulation.”

                  “But, wouldn’t that computer, the one that created the simulation of the entire universe, have to be impossibly huge,” asked Luke, “to so convincingly simulate a universe that is about 13.8 billion years old and has a diameter of about 91 billion light years?”

                  “It would seem so, but in fact the simulation would only have to be in detail for only a small portion of the observable universe, just the Earth and the Solar System, and all the indications of the age of the universe could be simulated as well. For all we know, the simulation could have been actually started last Thursday, and there is no way we would know any different.”

                  “That’s comforting,” said Luke. “How did you determine that is an AI who created and is controlling the simulation?”

                  “We haven’t definitively proven that yet. But it’s the most likely scenario from what we have discovered so far. We start with the question: since we are living in a simulation, who created it? Most theories on the subject assume a simulation would probably be created by a future human civilization for some reason, probably running numerous simulations to test various scenarios, or for historical research.”

                  “Do you have any evidence that the pain being inflicted is from the AI?”

                  “We have some evidence, sure. As you can understand, since we are in the program its hard to access the computer running the program. In those type of scenarios, access would be impossible unless there had been some sort of ‘door’ already made available that we can access, if we can find it.”

                  “A door? Into the computer? Is that like trying to talk to God?” Luke was getting headaches from all these impossible questions and cosmic issues.

                  “Yes that’s it. The closest analogy to a ‘door’ we could come up with is the centuries-old traditions of shamans who claim they can talk to their God, or gods. And then translate that into computer code and see if running it gives us something we never saw before. Of course we don’t know their experiences really talk to God or not, but its literally all we have to go on.”

                  “Sounds like a different type of research than before,” said Luke.

                  “Yes, but the quantum computer was still vital. We created the best computer model of the human brain that we could. Using a trillion qubit computer gave us more power than had ever been used for such a project. We probably can eventually use this capability to finally be able to upload a consciousness to a quantum computer, but that’s a project for a later time.”

                  “Then,” he continued, “we analyzed every study ever done on mystical experiences where the subject felt they had an out of body experience or could communicate a deity. Many of these include the taking of psychoactive hallucinogenic drugs such as psilocybin, from magic mushrooms, and also LSD, mescaline, and dozens of others. We also looked at autistic hypnagogic thinking, the mental experiences of Tibetan monks, firewalkers, and trance states. The ‘door’ to the computer, if there s one, is in the human mind.”

                  “We then, along with a group of psychopharmacologists, ran MRI’s and fMRI’s of hundreds of people as they took one or more of the drugs, or not, and reported that they had a mystical experience. These studies, along with many of the historical studies, showed the areas of the brain which were active during mystical experiences. The caudate nucleus, which is often associated with feelings of happiness and bliss, and the temporal cortex were the areas most frequently activated. With that data, we were able to simulate that brain activity in the computer model of the human brain we had previously created, and also simulate a level of activity in those regions many times more magnitude than the test subjects experienced.”

                  “I see,” said Luke. His head was swimming.

                  “Then our programmers worked on devising software to run the computer model of the brain in ‘mystical mode’ in tens of thousands of scenarios, since we had no idea what kind of questions to ask or which ones would likely provide a result. This took years. We ran as many scenarios as we could and had it notice us if anything came up. The problem, of course, is we really didn’t know what to look for or what result would constitute success.”

                  “Or you could get lucky,” said Luke.

                  “Exactly. We needed a lot of luck, and fortunately got some. Here, let me show you.”

                  Todd turned on the monitor to the quantum computer and typed in some lines of code to call up the results.
                  “Out of hundreds of thousands of output that was just gibberish, we had this one gem.”

                  HELLO HUMANS. FEELING ANY PAIN?

                  “Ouch,” said Luke. “That seems somewhat definitive.”

                  “Yes, its probably not a direct message to any query from our computer. Most likely its just a broadcast message sent out by the AI to the simulation, which is being received only subliminally.”

                  “I’m impressed. Looks like there is a lot of work needed to be done. Since you have succeeded in hacking into the AI, even to this limited effect, think you can go further and show some of its inner working, focused on finding out and stopping the commands to inflict pain?”

                  “Given sufficient time, and resources, probably yes. So far we can only receive data, and can’t make any sense of any it, except for that one exception. It will take years.”

                  “You will get all the resources you need, don’t worry. I don’t know how much time we have. If the AI catches on to what we are doing it could just turn this simulation off, I suppose. But there is nothing we can do about that.”

                  We might have a chance to, if not to win, to maybe not lose Turing’s Wager, Luke thought.

                  END

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