Chapters One & Two
The old atmospheric condenser, antique and dilapidated, was probably the most advanced piece of technology for a hundred miles. Big as a house, it stooped rusting in the tall grasses that seemed to grow a centimeter taller every day. The vast conical intake assembly that had, in the distant past, sucked in air to be strip mined of moisture lay crumpled and rusting in the vegetation, but for a structure as ancient and exposed as this, the condenser seemed in remarkably good condition. The amount of valuable scrap metal and salvageable wire visible at a first glance would confuse most travelers, who would expect that these would have been taken from an unoccupied structure by scavengers long ago. But as Haojing knew, the condenser was not unoccupied. It now served a much more useful purpose as a residence than it ever could have in operation. No one, these days, would say they were lacking for water.
Gingerly, she stepped over a pile of scrap, searching for a place to plant her foot that was free of both sharp metal and predatory plant life alike. Though she had made the climb before, the relentless growth of the creeper vines and tarantula grass meant that each time was unique. As it did in many places in this broad valley, the vegetation served as its own kind of defense system. To pick your way through it, particularly in a graveyard of rusting machinery, was no easy task. And to break an ankle, out here, meant permanent disability. Tetanus anywhere meant death.
She moved deliberately, and with deliberate volume, as she picked her way carefully up to the crease in the side paneling that functioned, more or less, as the front door. The occupant she sought was friendly but not particularly stable, even for the times, and she didn’t want to startle him. Again fear bubbled up insider her that she would find him dead; it would not be the first time she had gone looking for a favor and found a body instead. She tamped the feeling down. She had traveled for two days to find him and if he was dead her brother would be soon to join him. He had to be alive.
“Dr. Ian?” she called out. “Dr. Ian, it’s Haojing Wang.”
Haojing poked her head through the crease, blinking as she moved into the musty dark. She carefully maneuvered down the slanted metal floor, which had sagged and bent unevenly over the years. Sunlight spilled in from innumerable fissures in the structure above. Haojing took a moment to compose herself as she looked down into the giant apparatus. The prefab condenser had been installed on top of a concrete foundation dug deep into the earth. Everywhere the preexisting structure had been altered and repurposed, new doors cut out, scrap metal repurposed into rickety stairs. Much like the landscape in which it sat, the condenser seemed to change and grow on its own. From deep in the structure came the sickly green glow of luciferin lamps – hard to come by, these days, and even harder to keep working.
She stepped gingerly down a set of carbon fiber containers that had been awkwardly stitched together into a set of stairs. Steam, or some other form of gas, wafted around, seeming to come from everywhere. Pungent smells, acrid and unidentifiable, greeted her as she moved deeper into the structure. She glanced up at the top of the condenser, high above her head. Thin channels of light seeped in between sheets of metal where the hull had sagged and separated.
Though the message was unwelcoming, relief flooded her cheeks. He was alive. And he was talking. If he was talking, he was still persuadable. Some in the past had been greeted with the barrel of a gun; some had found him near comatose from synthetic morphine. Today he was talking. Talking was good. Talking meant there was a chance.
“Dr. Ian, it’s Haojing Wang. You know my mother, Chien-yi.” She picked her way further down into the condenser. She felt a vague sense of panic as she passed from the part of the structure that sat above ground into its depths, the light growing fainter as she did. All around her, small gas generators and motors sputtered loudly. This smell, at least, was well-known to her, familiar if not pleasant – the ubiquitous odor of gutter gas, sulfuric and tart from its impurities. Beneath the clatter of the engines, far subtler, was the steady hum of far more advanced technology. That the occupant of the condenser could make the former speak to the latter was precisely why she had come.
“Get out. There is no food here.”
He was close now. He sounded more distracted than angry, another good sign. Haojing maneuvered slowly down another steep ramp, keeping her hands raised slightly ahead of her. As she took another step into darkness, she saw his form, outlined against a glowing green computer monitor. In a moment her eyes adjusted and he came fully into view.
Even from behind, he did not look good, though she supposed he never had. His skin, like those of many in those days, was ruddy and lined, dirt and wrinkles and sunburn knotted together on his hands. His shock of greying hair was patchy and unwashed. His ancient prosthetic leg was tinged with rust and caked in soot, no doubt the accumulation of decades of exposure to gutter gas exhaust. He still wore an old lab coat that had been white in an earlier age; she could not bring herself to blame him for this affect. He stood impassively, staring at an old monitor, green text on black. A tangle of wires, unsheathed from their protective cabling, ran to an IBM 8086, its beige case yellowing and battered. Glued awkwardly to that frame was an old touchscreen tablet, the screen smashed, a single cable snaking out from the micro-USB port and splitting into a dozen smaller wires that had been soldered and held in place with black electrical tape.
She shook her head at his vulnerability; anyone could have come up from behind and killed him, and there were many in the area who would have done so with no compunction. But the alternative, for her, would have been worse. His wild swings from paranoia to indifference had suited her interests this time.
“Dr. Ian, I’m not here for food. Please. I’m Haojing Wang. You know my mother, Chien-yi.”
“Go away. I’m very busy and I have nothing for you.” He did not turn.
She stepped closer.
“Here. I brought you cigarettes.”
He sighed and looked up from his terminal, half turning towards her. He looked gaunt and pale; she wondered when he had last slept. He looked her over, giving no sign that he recognized her, and gestured towards the pack in her hand.
She shook her head.
“Kreteks. Indonesian spiced tobacco.”
He grimaced, but extended his hand out to take them.
He pawed open the yellowed cellophane. With a trembling hand he opened the pack. With great delicacy, he removed a cigarette. He fumbled around in a pocket of his lab coat and pulled out an old dessert torch. Expertly clicking and releasing the trigger in one quick sharp motion, he lit the cigarette with a split second burst of flame. He pulled an exaggerated drag. The scent of the spicy clove tobacco tinged the air.
“Butane?,” said Haojing, cocking her head towards the torch in his hand.
He nodded, distractedly, examining the torch in his hand as if it were the first time he had ever laid eyes on it. “Yes. Butane. Real butane. You have no idea what I have to do to get my hands on it.”
As he said this, he looked around him, seeming to notice her for the first time. His brow furrowed with distrust. He took a hurried step to his left, blocking her view of his monitor, and quickly pocketed the torch.
“What do you want? Who are you?”
She stepped forward a little, into the flickering light of the luciferin lamp.
“I’m Haojing Wang, Dr. Ian. I’ve come before, several times. You know my mother, Chien-yi Wang.”
“Chien-yi Wang….” he said, trailing off. He looked through her, his face vacant.
“Yes.” She hesitated. “And you knew my father. Kai Chi. Kai Chi Wang.”
He nodded silently along with her words for a moment, then shook his head.
“Yes. Yes, of course. Kai Chi. You’re Kai Chi’s daughter.”
“Haojing. Yes. Haojing Wang.”
“Hello. What can I do for you?”
Haojing gathered herself and began.
“It’s my brother, Long Fei. My younger brother. Chien-yi’s son, Long Fei. He’s very sick—”
He shook his head, quickly, and turned back towards his terminal.
“I’m not that kind of doctor, Miss Wang. And I’m very busy. Go to a healer in your village. I can’t help you.” He began pecking at the ancient keyboard, the keys landing with a perfect chock-chock-chock.
“No, please. Dr. Ian, you’re the only one who can help.”
She stepped even closer forward, and bracing herself, took the risk of touching him gently on his arm.
“Long Fei was a K-5 baby.”
He turned to her, again, slowly. He nodded slightly, then motioned to her to follow him.
“You better come in and sit down.”
The condition had many names, but was referred to in the medical community (back when there was a medical community) as 22q11.2 deletion syndrome. 22q11.2 referred to the precise location of the missing chromosomal information that caused the disorder: chromosome 22, region 1, band 1, sub-band 2. For years, various symptoms had been disaggregated, their connection unknown, and an alphabet soup of names had been applied to the different pieces. With gene sequencing came the understanding that all of these had the same root cause. For many with the syndrome, the various symptoms were debilitating – susceptibility to infection, cleft palate, spinal deformities, autoimmune disorders, deafness. For those with Long Fei’s particular symptoms, the congenital heart defects it brought were inevitably fatal. Inevitable, that is, until the development of advanced medical cybernetics. One implant, in particular: the Kurosagi series. 22q11.2 touched on many of the body’s systems at once, which was part of what made its more unfortunate varieties so deadly. Earlier implants attempted to correct the cardiovascular problems but could not address the deeper systemic issues. The Kurosagi was revolutionary, a neuro-cardio-endocrine implant. Nothing like it had been attempted before.
The first two iterations of the Kurosagi device prolonged life by a matter of days, typically, depending on the type and severity of symptoms. The third in the series prolonged life far more effectively but required uninterrupted connection to a large and fragile power supply. The fourth version worked perfectly for a few years, then frequently caused debilitating cybernetic allergies. The K-5 simply worked. Its processor was the envy of any mobile phone of the time, and it enabled the implant to continually improve itself, constantly updating its algorithm in real time. Amid the slow motion collapse of so much else, a miracle of technology for a small group of sick babies. Long Fei, now 18, would surely have died in infancy if he had been born ten years earlier… or five years later. In the many years she had helped her mother care for him, and helped keep his implants running, Haojing had found perspective by reminding herself how lucky her brother was.
But things had changed.
They had withdrawn into a deeper section of the labyrinthine substructure. The room was dimly lit, the stagnant air filled with vague chemical smells. Nearby she could hear another gas generator wheezing and sputtering. Dr. Ian was slowly bringing another hybrid computer to life. A first-generation iPhone’s innards, long since freed from their casing, were contained in a plastic bait box sitting on the school teacher’s desk where they sat. A long, frayed cable ran from it to an impossibly thin laptop, its casing shattered, trackpad long since excavated from its socket, various keys missing from its keyboard. But the screen lit up beautifully, still, its 16k resolution comically stretching the phone’s display – at present, sitting rotated 90 degrees to the right. Dr. Ian poked a finger at the circuitry of the phone, with obvious annoyance. Eventually he coaxed the accelerometer into displaying the screen right side up. Satisfied, he began pecking at an IBM Model M, its old cord now hard soldered to some connection in the phone.
Haojing could only marvel, as she had before, at what she saw. There was more total computing power in the room than in her village.
“The C variant, you said?”
“Yes,” said Haojing. She reflexively dug out the little spiral bound notebook her mother had given her last Christmas, though she knew it all by heart. “The C model.”
“A Korean refurb, I take it.”
“Ah… yes.” She felt flushed with embarrassment without really knowing why.
“And his symptoms –”
“His heart. There’s a few other things. But it’s his heart.”
“Please. Be comprehensive.”
“He’s immunocompromised, but not too serious. My mother takes care of it. He has acid reflux and sometimes he can’t swallow. His left arm is shorter than his right. His mouth droops on one side.”
“And what’s changed?”
“He gets spasms. He says he can feel the implant working when it happens. Sometimes his pulse shoots up like crazy for no reason. He sweats constantly, particularly in his sleep, which never happened before. The diagnostics make no sense; they say he’s dead or they give a negative heart rate. He gets jaundiced after he eats.”
Dr. Ian clicked through a database, occasionally stopping to awkwardly finger what remained of the iPhone’s screen, clumsily scrolling. He sat staring for many minutes, switching back and forth between various pages of the stretched-out database. He frowned, and sighed, and shook his head, and frowned some more. For a long while he only scanned cells. Haojing became concerned that he had forgotten her.
Finally he turned to her, expectantly.
“You have brought his data, haven’t you?”
She reached into her grey canvas backpack and pulled out a sturdy container, zippered shut and covered in thick composite fabric. The peddler she had gotten it from had claimed it was bulletproof. Opening it, she gingerly extracted a thumb drive, handling it with care befitting its vital contents. It was not a large drive, only 100 terabytes, but that was more than enough for the purpose. She and two of her younger brothers had worked for two weeks, filtering and scraping sediment from an old refinery for a gutter gas baron, to pay for it. With a moment’s panic she placed it in his waiting hand.
He wrestled with an old USB extension cable, wired tenuously to the phone, trying to connect her drive. He wiggled it around, and as he wiggled an icon would blink in and out on his screen. With every clicking shake of the drive, her heart jumped. At last the icon stuck and stayed and he maneuvered back to the keyboard. He tapped around again, calling up a command line. She followed his inputs with interest; she was a talented programmer, when she could find access to a terminal, which wasn’t often. But the language he was using seemed Byzantine and archaic to her, a relic from a more advanced time.
“Here we go,” he said, and clicked enter.
The program chugged for a while, a digital percentage counter running up anticlimactically to 100. When it was finished, a simple black and white chart was displayed, perhaps 12 lines tall.
“That’s it?” she asked.
“Well…,” he said, and tapped in a command to expand the data. The screen proceeded to fill and overflow immediately, thousands upon thousands of lines spooling endlessly. He tabbed a command to interrupt the flow.
He collapsed the data and stared at the chart. For a long while she stood wordlessly in the dank space while he stared at the screen, at times humming softly to himself. She attempted to study him for clues to his thoughts without seeming to do so. She could not help herself from thinking, once again, about what she would say to her mother and her brother if the news was bad.
“Well,” he said. “It’s not great. But it’s not a disaster. I think I can help your brother.”
She shuddered, for an instant, a spasm of relief and gratitude and pent up stress, and then it was gone.
“That’s very good to hear. How can I help? And what’s your price?”
“No help needed. And my price is information. Specifically the information in this drive. I’m keeping your brother’s algorithm.”
She leaned uneasily, not sure how to respond.
“Relax. I have no interest in your brother as such. This data is valuable to me for reasons of my own. That’s all you need to know.”
“Do we have a deal?”
He turned to her.
“I’m going to run a program that will write a script. You will run this script on his hub, which will inject updates into his implant’s algorithm. His hub is still operational, I hope?”
“Yes. It’s fine.” It was, in fact, held together with masking tape and sat perched on an old boot that held it in place, but it was operational.
“Good. Because this is the bad part.”
He tapped out a few commands, setting the program to work. He eyed the screen as the processor chugged, then pulled his glasses from his faced and wiped them with his filthy lab coat.
“Your brother has to remain hooked up to his hub, essentially always. He can disconnect briefly, at times. Maybe for a half hour. An hour at the absolute most. But he will have to be tethered to the device as often as possible. He must sleep next to his hub. Probably for the rest of his life. I can stabilize things, and my script should arrest the data rot for a long time. But you must understand that absent a full flash of his firmware, there’s always a risk of catastrophic data loss.”
He cast a look again at the data on the screen, frowning.
“And you need to hurry home.”
For a moment, Haojing’s thoughts spun, as she considered what this meant for her and her brother.
“Do you understand?”
“Does he work?”
“When he can. He can’t do much, but he helps. Sometimes he sorts scrap for the metal peddler.”
“I’m afraid he’ll have to stay at home from now on.”
“What is the risk, exactly?”
“His algorithm is eating itself. His code has cannibalized; it’s begun to overwrite not just his specific data but its own core functions. And the problem is accelerating. If this data is correct, he’s lost more signal in the past week than he did in the previous year. The hub can save him, along with my code injection, but every time he disconnects, his implant is rewriting itself and performing less well.”
“Self-correction is its function; that’s what made the K-5 series so revolutionary. Its ability to iterate its own software has been essential to its success. But it’s decades old and now it’s failing. Somewhere, deep in the code, its ability to identify what it should and shouldn’t overwrite has gone wrong. The hub’s software knows the difference; that’s hardwired. But the implant’s great strength has become the problem that’s killing your brother. Only constant connection to his hub can prolong his life. How long that will work, I can’t say.”
“Is there no permanent fix? Any way to really repair it?”
He breathed out through his mouth, slowly and theatrically.
“Sure. Someone could rewrite the firmware, flash it to stop the deterioration. There may be someone left in the world who can do that, someone who knows these systems and their code deeply enough to fix your brother’s implant for good.
He tapped the screen, looking absent as he discussed her brother’s potential death.
“But I certainly can’t.”
He carefully disconnected the drive and placed it into her waiting palm. In the damp air of the rusting condenser, it felt cold in her hand. He turned brusquely away from her and returned to his terminal. When he spoke again he seemed a thousand miles away.
“Hurry home, Haojing Wang. As fast as you can.”
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