It was a magnificent beast of a machine.
Ernest Hillis couldn’t stop looking at it. He wished he could remove the plugs in his nose so he could smell the air, but the team of engineers who’d built it would have a fit if he did. They insisted that the testing and validation of the robot had to take place in clean-room conditions. Even when he pointed out that the factory floors in which it would operate were anything but clean, they simply shrugged and told him to build his own.
He ran a gloved hand on the side of one of the four support legs. The columns were thick enough to take the weight, but jointed in ten places, which would allow the machine to move, bend and dance – just as soon as Ernest’s team was finished teaching it how.
He knew that those were his last few minutes of relaxation before the tests started on Monday. They had to upload the packets of pre-created programming, and get all the bugs out of the system before June… or Arkham Techno’s multi-billion-dollar processing plant would get even further behind schedule. And any more delays could very easily lead to bankruptcy – every employee knew that the investors were stretched to the breaking point and the creditors’ patience was well past it.
It had to work. And he and his crew had to make it work. It was as simple as that. A whole town depended on them to come out of its depression. The continued survival of the “Miracle in New England” – the revival of this once barren stretch of coast, with its under-educated population and its ludicrous superstitions was on his shoulders, and he knew he could bear the load.
He would make the magnificent beast roar.
“For an alleged technology firm, you people sure didn’t have much of a firewall,” Scott chuckled to himself. “My baby brother could have hacked through it in no time at all.”
But that wasn’t fair. He’d been preparing for this moment for three weeks, hitting Arkham Techno’s adserver business unit with one malware Trojan after another, partly to keep his hand in, but mostly because he knew that the company’s IT people would flock to the attack and personally try to make certain that the hackers didn’t come in on their watch.
All of this, of course, meant that there was no one watching when Scott popped in, quietly, this time, through a very unfortunate security breach in the manufacturing computers.
He had a look around. Anything he did would be kosher, since Arkham Techno was on Anonymous’ list of companies they didn’t like, for quite a few reasons having to do with intellectual property rights and with the fact that they had a unit running advertising, which slowed down response times, cluttered otherwise well-designed homepages and moved things one step away from a truly free and socialist internet.
He sighed. The interesting bits of the control system were hidden behind a password, so he started running his cracker. It was one he’d programmed himself, and it wouldn’t – or so he hoped – alert AT that there was someone snooping around their system. With such crude security, he was almost certain of it.
While the program ran, he looked around. It really was time to do something about the state of his room. A coffee cup from a month before sat in the geometrical center of the rug, small green-and-white circles floating in the remaining liquid. Assorted clothes covered most of the rest of the room. The blinds were closed tight, jammed the last time he’d tried to open them. It was a dump, but he was much too excited to clean now. His weeks of planning had paid off. He was in.
Or at least he would be when the program broke the password. In the meantime, he could sleep.
The opening bars of The Imperial March woke him. For one fleeting second, he wasn’t certain what was going on, but when it did hit him, Scott got out of bed as quickly as his gross weight permitted.
As he groped for his glasses on the desk, he promised he would begin exercising that very same day, just like every other. He shut the music off and read the message on the screen: “Success – but then you knew that already, didn’t you, you gorgeous hacker you”.
Scott smiled and began to poke around the largest of the control systems. A lot of it seemed empty, just huge amounts of processing power and disk space lying fallow, just waiting to be filled with something… awesome. The system was way overbuilt to be another factory line. He’d seen plenty of those, and they generally held nothing more exciting than a few feedback loops and redundant alarms with a big, usually red, shutoff command if any of a dozen parameters went out of a specified range.
This wasn’t a factory floor.
“Let’s see what you guys are going to build, my darlings,” Scott said. A few keystrokes took him to a less well-protected folder. And there, in a series of files labeled schematics – not very creative of them, hmm – he found it.
“That is awesome. And it’s also something very naughty to have lying around a factory. Imagine all the trouble it could cause if it fell into the wrong hands. A machine like that could very easily hurt someone.” Scott chuckled at his huge wit and went back into the control system.
A couple of hidden takeovers here and there, and this thing will be a lot of fun, he thought, running his hand along his whiskers.
He began to fill some of the empty spaces, writing the code he needed to take control away from the engineering team once they had the machine up and running, and chortling at how confused and irritated they’d be before the panic set in.
Then, without preamble or warning, his entire system shut down.
It took him four hours to get back in, but most of that time was spent trying to figure out what had happened. It would take a very simple system to simply punt him out of AT’s network, but it would take a very, very complex one to shut him down that way – and anyone who could do that could do one hell of a lot more.
So Scott painstakingly went over the logs of his last few minutes in the company’s system and tried to spot anything creeping past his defenses. There was nothing, not a single line, that stood out as hostile action. Things were going perfectly… and then nothing.
In the end, he’d simply shrugged and reconnected his servers to the internet. If he couldn’t find anything wrong, it was likely that there really was nothing wrong. It would just have to go down in history as one of those things.
Scott looked around the machine’s schematics and whistled. It looked like an autonomous robot that could solve quite a few of the industrialized world’s factory floor space issues. As long as you had a tall roof, this thing could build an entire car from the raw materials and components – even pressing the metal – in a tenth of the space of a conventional assembly line, and do it quicker. And when it finished, it could be programmed to do something else. The arms and appendages were infinitely flexible, and the processing capacity… well, it was clear that Arkham Techno wanted to test-run their new semi-autonomous AI capabilities.
AT’s artificial intelligence protocols had been recalled and removed from household use because the erratic behavior of myriad lawnmowers and vacuums had made people nervous, and investigation had deemed them potentially unsafe.
The thing they were building at their French Hill site in Arkham had a lot more capacity to think for itself than a foot long vacuum cleaner.
Scott’s palms became moist, and his breathing quickened. He had to make a conscious effort not to drool from the sheer desire…
He wanted it. He wanted it a lot.
His password crack was still good, so he went back in. This time he wouldn’t wait for the programming team. He’d block them out and see what he could make the robot do before someone managed to kick him out or incapacitate it would be fun.
There. He was in.
And then he was out. But for five seconds before his system shut down and every light in his house blew out, a large green-on-black font filled his screen, and scrolled:
YOU ARE UNWELCOME
YOU ARE UNWELCOME
YOU ARE UNWELCOME
YOU ARE UNWELCOME
YOU ARE UNWELCOME
The developer cringed as he delivered the news, stepping back as if he hoped he could make it out of his supervisor’s sight.
“What do you mean, unwelcome?” This wasn’t the way Ernest was expecting to begin his morning. After assigning the night team the task of getting the brain that lived inside his glorious robot up and running – or at least up and running for the most part – he wasn’t going to stand for any delays.
“Somebody got in, and we can’t get them out. We’ve taken the entire network offline to work on it, but we just can’t seem to get back inside. Every time we try, it flashes the message and shuts us down.”
“Shuts us down? What do you mean by that?”
“It turns off the laptop we’re using to access the mainframe and anything else connected to it. We’ve had to restart the entire company’s systems three times this morning.”
Ernest swore. Anything he wanted done correctly, as always, he had to do himself. “Let me see.”
Ten minutes later, his swearing had turned to profane shouts that had most of his team studiously attempting to avoid his gaze. The green letters had made their appearance, but instead of immediately shutting the computers off, the message was replaced by a kaleidoscope of eye-bending colors. A crawling chaos of bile yellows and excremental browns that, to Ernest, seemed the product of a diseased mind.
“That son of a bitch,” he whispered.
“It’s the hacker, the one who’s been putting malware into our ad system. He’s responsible for this. The bastard.”
“This really doesn’t look like…”
“Are you trying to get fired?” The developer didn’t answer. “Good. Cate told me that they had the guy located to nearly 95% accuracy, and that the FBI would act under the new piracy laws if we could give them a name and enough proof to satisfy their e-crimes team. She said they’d narrowed it down to the University of Arizona, and that her friends in net security said that there are only a couple of people down there that could break through our security as easily and often as this guy did. She said that they stopped the search because it looked like they had finally managed to block him out.” Ernest sighed. “Obviously she was wrong. The malware was just a feint, designed to get us looking the other way while he tore into the important stuff. God damn him.”
The laptop in front of him shut off, and took the lights with it. In a way, even this display of absolute domination by the hacker was better than watching the colors swirl. Ernest had felt that the chaos on the screen was evil, that it was slowly eating away his mind.
“Just call Cate and try to nail the guy, will you?”
Even in the darkened room, illuminated only by the battery-powered emergency lights, the relief of having escaped with his job was obvious in the man’s voice.
Scott ignored the knocking. He didn’t hear the shouts. His own shouts were more than loud enough to fill the room. He’d gone three days without sleep and without bathing, stopping to eat only when his stomach growled that it wouldn’t take it any more. Discarded Twinkies wrappers now lay two deep in places on the detritus that had already covered the floor.
“If you were really this good, you wouldn’t be working in IT at a goofy outfit like Arkham,” he said for the millionth time. “You puny pieces of corporate crap will not beat me!” He rebooted one laptop while another, freshly hardened against the newest crackers’ toys he could dig up on the least reputable fora attacked Arkham’s mainframes once again.
He was in… And then, in a puff of smoke and capacitor fuzz, the machine expired in what sounded like a terminal way.
He screamed, and didn’t even notice the crash of his door coming down, or the heavy footfalls behind him. The guys in dark jackets who subdued him and tied his hands with plastic wire-ties were surprised at how limp he went.
Scott fell asleep in the FBI van on his way into custody.
“Don’t give me that,” the big man said. Scott had already decided that this was the guy playing the bad cop in this particular scenario. The senior partner, a woman who would have looked great under any other circumstances, was pretending to look out for him.
“We already know you were responsible for the malware that ruined their ad revenue for the past few weeks. You’re going down for that, but maybe if you play ball with us and tell us what you did to the machine, you might get out of this OK. Arkham Techno says they’ve never seen anything like it, and that if you tell them how you managed to make it so they can’t reboot, can’t even format the brain, they’ll go easy on you.”
Scott was tired. They’d been going on like this for hours. He had been treated perfectly well, but the constant grilling was taking a toll. “I already told you. I had nothing to do with it. I would have bet anything that it was the security guys playing with me. After all, even if the IT guys are just a bunch of morons, the people who designed the brain inside that machine are probably smart enough to put up some serious security – which, come to think of it, should have occurred to me earlier. I still think you’re trying to make me confess to something I didn’t do.”
The cops looked each other in the eye. “What do you think?” the woman asked.
“I think we should let him stew a little,” the big guy replied. “We’ll send someone from the DA’s office to tell him what things look like. He might remember differently afterwards.”
They left, not even bothering to lock the small room behind them.
“No,” Scott said. “I don’t trust you.”
“Are you kidding? You can get off completely clean. All you have to do is play ball with Arkham Techno.”
“Do you really think I’ll fall for that? This is just another trick to get me to confess to something I didn’t do. If I sign that,” Scott gestured at the large sheaf of printed sheets on the table in front of him, “I’ll probably wind up in Leavenworth or something. Anyhow it will be much worse than what I’m looking at now.”
“What you’re looking at now is five years in a medium security prison. Don’t you think it’s at least worth looking at what Arkham is offering?” the lady cop asked him.
The big guy looked like he was about to explode. “Yeah. And besides, this is America, buddy. We don’t go around giving people false confessions to sign like some banana republic dictator.”
It occurred to Scott that maybe he really was the bad cop. The expression on his face would have been hard to fake; the redness of his complexion impossible. The combination reminded him that if they’d wanted to beat the living crap out of him, it would have been the work of a moment, and no one who wasn’t on their side would have heard anything.
“Let me have a look,” he said.
Scott read over the terms of the agreement. He read them over again. And once more just to be certain. Unless he was missing something important, they really said what the FBI cops had said they said. If he could help them neutralize the hacker who’d blocked the access to the prototype robot’s brain, they would drop the charges against him for the malware. Of course, it was stipulated that he had to give them enough info to convict the other hacker, but it seemed a better bet than five years in the slammer.
The cops seemed surprised when he finally addressed them. “How come they’re suddenly convinced that I didn’t do it?”
The woman shrugged. “One of their people tore apart the machines at your house. Said you hadn’t done it. And they need enough help that they’re willing to overlook the little stuff if you can help. So are we – our experts say that the blockage on AT’s system at the moment is better than anything else they’ve seen. They actually looked worried, so we really want to catch this guy.”
Scott sighed and signed the papers.
The big cop grinned at his partner. “Told you he was a rat,” he said. He walked off.
“No,” Ernest said. “Absolutely not.”
“Why not?” Scott retorted.
“I don’t trust you.”
The hacker chuckled. He seemed to be enjoying the novel pleasure of making AT’s people squirm in person instead of at a distance. Yeah, he’d be just the kind of guy who’d enjoy that – especially in a place where no one could kick his ass. Ernest promised himself to kick his ass anyway after this was over, even if he had to follow him all the way back to his rat’s nest in Arizona to do it.
“Whether you trust me or not is immaterial. You need me to do a job, and to do it, I need you to give me the tools necessary to do the job. Simple.”
“No, not simple. I don’t know how you know about the interface helmet–”
“You’re security sucks, that’s how.”
Ernest had to keep himself from hitting the guy, it took all his control to ignore him. “But it’s still experimental technology. If you break it, we can’t replace it. And if it breaks you, we’d have to pay for you. And we’d have to pay for you as if you were a real human being, not… well, not you, that’s for certain.”
The hacker didn’t even seem to notice the insult. “It doesn’t really matter. From what I’ve heard, your interface makes it possible to control a whole bunch of variables at once, and that’s exactly what we need to do right now. The way this guy is blocking us off is by having parallel processes shut down some systems while blocking others and bypassing your security with still more. I can use the interface helmet to keep all of that under control – and you know I can’t do that from a keyboard.”
Ernest sighed. He knew that the hacker had a point, but he also knew that the guy wasn’t telling the truth. He just wanted a chance to get his hands on the ultimate geek toy – even if he could only play for a while. “All right. But you’re going to sign a release, and I hope you get some strange kind of brain cancer from using it.”
The preparations took a lot less time than the hacker seemed to think they would and, if he hadn’t been so nervous, Ernest would have smirked at him. The poor guy had actually hinted that he wanted a tour of the clean room and a glimpse of the machine while Ernest’s team set up the equipment. He’d been pretty surprised when Cate had walked back in holding what looked like a cross between a bike helmet and a porcupine.
Ernest nodded. “The scanners are actually pretty light. Mainly magnets and wires which we use to read and modify the natural electrical currents in the brain. The spines are antennae which send the readings in real time to the mainframe over there, which processes it and responds quickly enough that you won’t ever consciously notice any lag unless you are really, really far away – think the surface of the moon.”
“And will it hurt? Don’t you have to plug it in or something?”
Ernest laughed. “I thought you’d seen the schematics. There’s nothing as barbaric as a plug needed. We couldn’t sell many of these if you needed brain surgery to use them now would we? Just put it on, and we’ll get it calibrated to your particular brain.” He stopped himself short of saying just what kind of mind he thought might reside in a slovenly hacker. The process was risky enough as it was – feedback from the system was, for the brain in the helmet, a very real experience – without risking a miscalibration because the subject was angry.
Five minutes later, they were ready. The development team started to guide him in the use of the helmet, and how to get it to interface with the specially designed operating and control system which allowed it to access all of AT’s computers. Pretty soon, the hacker was intuitively jumping ahead of his training team to access new functionalities. After about a half-hour, he said: “I’m going to see if I can make it into the brain on the machine. Cover me.”
Ernest was impressed in spite of himself – and in spite of the lame attempt at humor. Not many people had enough control of their mind to be able to achieve motor control of their physical bodies while their brains were under the influence of the helmet. Both he and Cate had come out from their first experiences embarrassingly soiled… And this guy was talking – talking! – in half an hour.
For the first time, Ernest began to believe that maybe, just maybe, it hadn’t been a mistake.
They watched his process through the helmet’s GUI. They could see where the hacker put his attention, and what he ignored, as each sector was shaded: red for high attention areas, blue for those he was ignoring. The schematic itself showed a general map of the system, created specifically in order to experiment with the helmet.
The hacker went logically. First, he studied the peripheral systems around the machine’s brain. Each one in turn came under the red-tinged scrutiny, and, as Scott got more proficient, sometimes he would take two at once, and then three. When he began to go after four at a time, the entire crew was watching. Some of the team members, formerly sullen at having someone come in to do their work for them, were actually cheering him on.
Finally, the interface between the brain and the system warmed a bit, almost imperceptibly, as though the hacker had just noticed it, seen nothing that warranted any attention and moved on about his business. It was a masterful display of control.
Slowly, imperceptibly, the hacker devoted attention to the interface, without letting his attention slip from the four other places he’d been attending to previously.
Ernest held his breath. Would he make it in? The interface moved from purple to dark red, and slowly to a brighter color.
All at once, the four peripheral systems went completely blue as the entire field of attention focused on the brain. Not the interface, but the AI within the machine itself. It went from blue-black to blood red in a second. There could be no doubt that the hackers entire consciousness was focused there.
The scream came from an unexpected quarter. Intent on the screen, the team had completely ignored the chair where Scott was strapped down. The man was writhing, pain written on the fat features of his face.
“No!” he cried. “No, no, no.” He screamed again, and again, and again.
Cate rushed forward to try to remove the helmet, but all she got for her troubles was a kick in the solar plexus.
“No! The stars, they burn!”
Before anyone else could react, the hacker pulled his arms free of the restraints and, with utter conviction, pressed two fingers under each eye until they were deep enough that he could push the eyeballs themselves out of their sockets. Then, as everyone watched, appalled, he simply tore them from.
The scream that went with this seemed to come out of the bowels of hell, but when the nerves finally gave way with a sickening pop, it stopped. The silence seemed glorious.
It was broken by a whisper. “But no. I can still see them. No, please. No.” The final word was stretched out, rising in pitch and volume until it was the scream of a woman in excruciating pain.
Then, with a final spasm, blood flowed out of the hacker’s mouth and he was still.
“Oh, my God,” Cate said. “Ernest, what are we going to do?”
But Ernest wasn’t listening to her. He was listening to the whine of gears, the motion of a huge machine coming from the clean room next door, from the place where a machine with nothing, supposedly in its brain, and no connection to the outside world was coming awake.
He heard the crash of its first tentative step. The boom of the second, more confident one. The screech as some piece of inconveniently located equipment was tossed aside, and another footfall. As a giant manipulator arm began to pummel the wall between the rooms, he knew the answer to Cate’s question.
“Run!” he shouted, and gave the example.
And he wondered whether the dead hacker might not be the lucky one.
Bio: I am an Argentine novelist and short story writer who writes primarily in English. My debut Novel, Siege was published in 2016 and I have nearly two hundred short stories published in fourteen countries. They have been translated into seven languages. My writing has appeared in Pearson’s Texas STAAR English Test cycle, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Perihelion SF, The Best of Every Day Fiction and many others.
Other recent work includes an ebook novella entitled Branch, published in 2014. I have also published two reprint collections, Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). The Curse of El Bastardo (2010) is a short fantasy novel. My website is at www.gustavobondoni.com.