Chapter Thirteen

The corpse was desiccated but not yet skeletonized. He was leaning against the door marked with a simple grey sign reading “Terminal.” In the wet world above, teeming with parasites and scavengers, bodies decomposed quickly, but in the stale air of the bunker it was impossible to say how long he had been sitting there. The cause of death was less obscure. The semiautomatic pistol was still clutched in his shriveled hand; the hole in his temple was wrinkled and ran with dried blood, which had long since turned into dust that collected on his torso. His blue dress shirt and khakis hung off of his shrunken corpse.

She leaned over and pulled off his ID card, clipped to the pocket of his shirt. His name was Stuart, and he looked fat and happy in his corporate photo. She recalled the first corpse she had ever found, a strange woman from the end of the road in her village. She had taken her own life too. Haojing had gone to ask if she could climb the tree in the backyard. She crept in to find the woman hanging from the light fixtures by an extension cord. When she had returned home and told Chien-yi, her mother had said, “This is what the world is now.” She was 8 years old.

In his other hand was a crumpled note. In shaking ballpoint pen it read:

ID FIRST username: admin11 password: "@7n84I^5'13h@m' I still have hope for the future.

Haojing read and re-read the note, then pocketed it.

“Thank you, Stuart,” she said, then stepped over his body into the terminal room.

The room was smaller than she expected, no bigger than a minor office. A security camera hung conspicuously in the corner, pointed at an ordinary office chair that sat in the center of the room. A large, high-resolution monitor hung from the wall. Its screen was black. She walked over to it and tried to flip it on, but to her mild embarrassment was too short to reach it. She pulled over the desk chair and stood to reach the side of the TV, but none of the buttons were responsive. There was also no obvious way to access the computer. Most users, she assumed, probably brought their own laptops and interacted with Big Flat wirelessly. While she pondered, a light popped on in her peripheral vision.

Walking over, she found a small screen built into the wall. Beneath it sat a metal drawer. The screen displayed a simple text terminal, green text on black. Two words were printed in a chunky computer font. It read

Credential Validation

“Well,” said Haojing. “You must be Big Flat.” She dragged over the chair and pulled out the drawer. In it sat a nondescript grey keyboard. She inserted the ID card into a slot beneath the monitor, then keyed in the username and password, double and triple checking every character. A long string of text ran down the screen, then stopped, the cursor blinking expectantly.

System ready.

Haojing frowned. There were old cobbled-together computers in the computing shed – back when there was a computing shed, she reminded herself – with intuitive GUIs, ones which were capable of intricate human interaction. This was an old-school interface from a system capable of running more calculations in a second than all other computers had ever done in the history of the world combined.

> Do you have a natural language interface?, she typed.

Human interaction modules include:
§  Turing-certified language package
§  3D-capable adaptive GUI
§  Oral language encoder and interpreter
§  Holographic avatar
§  14,000 language and dialect presets
§  Five-factor personality analysis
§  Adaptive social interaction engine

“OK,” she said out loud. “So where are they?”

> Activate human interaction modules, she wrote.

Human interaction modules automatically disabled by system for energy rationing.

> What are current energy levels?

Energy production critically degraded. Current production stands at 7% of capacity.

> What is causing energy production loss?

Unknown. Energy system diagnostics inoperable. Fission reactors offline. Solar production operating at 24% efficiency.

> Were defensive systems disabled by system for energy rationing?

Negative. Defensive system shutdown requires administrative override. Defensive systems disabled by user account Admin11 14 years, 12 days, 7 hours ago.

Haojing glanced back at the corpse in the doorway. He probably had grander hopes for whoever came to use Big Flat. But saving her brother’s life would have to suffice.

> How long until energy loss prompts system shutdown?

Under typical rationing-reduced computing load, system energy will be depleted in 17 days 5 hours. System hibernation possible for approximately 234 years.

She held her breath. It was time for the big question.

> Are information gathering systems still operable?

Information gathering systems still operating at reduced capacity.
Climate analysis systems at 10% of capacity.
Seismic activity monitoring operating as normal.
Wireless spectrum analysis at 20% of capacity.
Powerline analysis inoperable.
Humint data entry overdue 21 years, 120 days, 5 hours.
Camera and sensor banks operable but disabled by user.

Haojing chewed her thoughts for a while. She had played this moment over in her head again and again on the journey, but she still was not 100% sure what to ask.

> Do you have information on the Kurosagi-5 series?

Affirmative. Exhaustive information on hardware, firmware, development history, personnel, sales, and other. Specific query?

Haojing felt her heart leap into her chest.

> Can you interact with a malfunctioning Kurosagi-5 unit and repair its firmware?

Negative. System security protocols prevent direct interaction with external cybernetic implants. Risk of system corruption is considered unacceptable.

> Override those protocols.

Negative. Protocol override requires executive administrator privileges.

> Can you create a new firmware for a Kurosagi 5 series on bootable media? A disc or drive?

Negative. System security protocols prevent exporting scripts.

Haojing slammed the keyboard in frustration.

> Why?

This unit is capable of producing malware that could cause worldwide system corruption and global network shutdown. External programming functions require 7-step security procedures.

She leaned back in the chair. She suddenly felt exhausted, all of the miles and long days behind her seeming to add up all at once. She stood up and wandered around the room to stave off her fatigue. It occurred to her, with some satisfaction, that all of her fear of this strange place had faded away. How late was it? It was impossible to tell, deep in the side of a hill. She wished she had some coffee. There was a fairly steady supply, a few years ago, an old man who would trundle into town with a donkey cart and sacks of beans, but he had stopped coming, and no one could get the beans growing well locally. The soil just wasn’t right. For a moment she thought about coffee and about Long Fei.

She sat back down at the terminal screen.

> Who can write a new firmware?

19 organizations are known to possess this capability.
Kurosagi Systems
Bell Laboratories
IBM China Research
KAIST School of Computing
Palo Alto Research Center Incorp-> Pause.

She rubbed her temple in frustration. She doubted if a single one of these organizations still existed. For a long while she thought about what to ask next.

> What is the most recent confirmed information you have on an individual with expertise in Kurosagi firmware?

Latest confirmed record added 7 years, 14 days ago. Information scraped from cellular communications data. Dr. John Simon, age 57. BA Carnegie Mellon, PhD California Institute of Technology. NSF GRFP. Winner, Gödel Prize. Winner, Donald E. Knuth Prize. Board Member, IEEE. Spouse deceased. No known offspring. Cellular data links subject to the Colony.

She frowned.

> What is “the Colony”?

Insufficient information for complete analysis. Designation appears most extensively in records of defunct intelligence agency, harvested from ethernet scraping 11 years 45 days ago. Term designates a non-state actor group nominated for a terrorist watch list. Consideration for list incomplete at time of agency dissolution. More recent data less robust.

She pressed the spacebar and the screen scrolled down, displaying a list of mentions in the computer’s database, analog organizations, information about state terrorist watch lists. She clicked through several screens idly. She stopped for a moment at the group’s symbol, an abstract image of an ant, which looked even cruder on the low-resolution, interlaced display of the terminal screen. She made a quick sketch of the symbol in her notebook, then clicked on. The problem with endless information, she thought to herself as she impatiently cycled through screen after screen of minutiae, is that it’s endless.

She was snapped back to attention by an entry in the “Known Associates” list, one she almost missed. She fumbled with the keyboard to find the right keys to scroll back up; for a moment, she thought she had imagined it. But there it was, in the dim green text, listed unceremoniously alongside dozens of others.

Kai-Chi Wang

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©2019 Fredrik deBoer