A Better World

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A foray into Sci-fi. With the current dominance of smart phones and gadgets, it is hard not to speculate on this addiction to circuitry and electricity we have. I just let this one play out a futurist scenario where our addiction is interrupted.

Submitted: July 10, 2019

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Submitted: July 10, 2019

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I have this reoccurring dream that I am trapped in the shower cubicle of a plane as it is about to take off. While the plane prepares for departure, the cubical begins to shrink as the floor rises and the walls encroach to compress my personal space to about half size. I am scared I will be squashed like some hapless character in a cheap horror movie but each time it stops before I am crushed. Relieved yet shocked, I yell and scream to be released but nobody seems to notice.

That’s it.  I have never felt the plane take off, not even heard the sound of jet engines. I am never released, I just wake up. I once asked my significant other, Janice, what it all meant but she only shrugged and said

“Obviously, you are insane”

And went back to the Sudoku game on her phone.

Most people think that Sudoku originated in Japan but it the modern version was actually invented by Howard Garns in Indiana in the US in the late 1970’s. Janice was an addict, her phone smeared with the fingerprints of her rapidly moving digits and her normally smooth brow wrinkled in concentration as she contemplated the next correct digit.

At the time I wondered if I should be angry at old Howard for the way his game stole from our relationship. But if I went down that path, I should perhaps shoot Steve Jobs as well, if he wasn’t precipitously deceased already. Nowadays, I would probably happily do both.

Sitting on the veranda, I saw a plane rising in the distance. A new airbus I thought at the time. I remembered the dream and smiled inwardly, wondering if there was some alter ego of mine locked in the inboard toilet, screaming blue murder to be let out. I was distracted by a pinprick of blue light below the steeply angled plane and suddenly there was a red flare and if by magic the plane disappeared into the surrounding darkness.

“Janice, come out here!”

I blinked twice, trying to clear my eyes and swore I heard a faint, distant rumble. I tried to remember the old rule – was it 3 or 4 seconds per kilometre between light and sound transmissions? If I remember correctly, there is also some bias concerning temperatures, air currents, altitude and so on . Anyway, how long was it between the flash and the rumble? 20 secs? 30? So somewhere between 6 and 10 kilometres?

“Janice!”

The closest airport was 20-25 kilometres away. But there were several runways heading off in all directions and it took 20 minutes for a plane to fully lift off and reach cruising altitude and in that time it could travel 20-50 kilometres, dependant on the size of the plane and its engines. And how high it was at the point of impact

“Janice! Come out ….”

“I’m here. Stop your shouting. What’s going on?

Normally I would have taken some time to look her over, after all these years still surprised that I had found someone so lovely and yet so compatible to share my life with. Though neither of us were young anymore, I still saw her as the 20ish something girl met at one of those rare openings I  once attended. A young artist’s take on urban life that we both found childish and badly executed and were milling around the canape table waiting for a chance to politely excuse ourselves. Of such things lives are made and unmade, little coincidences that turn into major milestones.

“There was a plane, over there…”

“There is no plane Michael”

“That’s what I mean, it was there one minute and there was a flash and then it was gone”

We both peered intensely at the horizon and the myriad of stars that refracted light dully against the glow of the city.

“I can’t see anything”

“Of course, that is what I was saying; it was there and then it was gone. There was a blue light underneath and then a flash and …”

I realised the inadequacies of the tale and petered off. Janice glanced at the half glass of malt on the veranda table.

“Well, if there was something, I am sure it will be on the news. Disappearing planes tend to get noticed”

 “There was a rumble maybe 30 secs afterwards ….”

I added glumly but I knew Janice’s interest was fading. Understandably as the night was as normal as they come, the distant sounds of vehicles, the occasional siren, a lonely owl hooting in the park below.

“Come, grab your whiskey and come to bed. I need a backrub and who knows, maybe a bit of a rumble as well”

Janice smiled saucily and winked. I did not need a second invitation and there was nothing left out here to see anyway.

I wake up early. Always. Janice likes to sleep in and although she calls it our divergence, we both appreciate the difference.  I like the morning as it allows me to work and think without distractions, before the newest avalanche of phone calls, chats and mails begins its deluge. Janice says I twist and turn and snore in my sleep and those few hours between 5 and 8 gives her the luxury of stretching out. I have never told her she snores as well; the things we do for love.

Buoyed with a mug of filtered Columbian, I searched through the various news sites and feeds but nothing about a plane disappearing and certainly nothing near our city.  A flash flood had caused a landslide in Nepal, there were political riots in the Philippines and a drought in Argentina but other than that, nothing really momentous. Certainly no plane crashes. Paradoxically, I was disappointed as, insane as I may well be, I usually don’t hallucinate.

I glanced at a technical report of a new type of malware that was being used for cyber terrorism. It did not seem relevant and anyway was not my field. Let the boffins sort it out – they usually did and skipped to an interesting piece on the new genome project that was pointed towards extended lifespans and the repair of genetic predispositions. The once held fear that DNA testing would lead to selective breeding seemed to be old hat – these days they were looking at enhancing everyone. Well, everyone with a lazy half million or so that is. The author’s argument was that it was the same thing really, just morally more palatable. I found it hard to disagree - as the bard said, money doesn’t talk it swears.

“Morning babe”

Janice startled me out of my thoughts and I glanced at the wall clock. 7:30 – time flies when you browse. 

“Morning gorgeous – there is still some coffee in the press”

“I am on that diet thing. No coffee for two weeks, no alcohol, no fat.  I think an amoeba has a more varied diet”

I smiled as I looked at across at her and wondered again at my good fortune. Even first thing in the morning with tussled hair, no makeup and old baggy pyjamas, she torn at my heart strings. And other less altruistic places.

“Don’t get any ideas big boy, I have to get ready for work” and she skipped lightly out of the kitchen, a glass of hideous green juice in her hand.

She was always on some health kick or another, even though all the empirical evidence seemed to suggest she did not need it.  She wasn’t vain, well, she was as vain as any woman about her looks but the health diets were exactly that. Just maximising the strong natural genes she had been borne with.

By 12, Janice was long gone and I had finished a rough draft of the report on a new application. Gone were the days where any cowboy (or girl) could post a program on the web and expect millions to download it without thought. So many infections, hacks and plain theft had left a trail of disillusionment in their wake and opened up the once niche area of software testing.

The field had widened so quickly that adequately skilled software engineers and the training colleges had been blindsided and were struggling to keep up. Besides, the sort of work I did almost exclusively with the blue chip companies took years of experience to perfect. Of course, the demand would eventual peter off, IT was like that, but at the moment I was reeling in a fortune. C'est la vie.

Brownie, a Finnish O/S hacker who I knew from back in the day we worked at Connaught, pinged me just as I was about to break for lunch. Hadn’t heard from him for ages

“Hey Cisco, how’s it hanging”

“Hey Pancho!. Long time kemosabe”

Brownie and I had been on the  same team and as I was the older, the gunslinger  terminology had  crept in and we never really dropped it.

“So what’s on your mind stranger?”

“Check your mail. Just got this in from the DoD and  thought of you. A terrorist virus, right up your alley”

“A what?”

“Read the mail.  I have to run. Ping me when you have read it, tell me what you think”

“Will do partner. Where are you now?”

“Talk later, really under the gun here.  Let us know”

“Sure thing Pancho. Hi ho silver and away, eh?”

“You know it. Talk soon”

He was gone but I was already opening my mail client. Brownie was another weirdo like me, playing mind games with computers and making a fortune hacking code that nobody would ever read.  But we were the good guys, the “white hats”, defending the innocent and the ignorant from a world of pain and misery. Like the sheriffs and gunslingers of a different age, the same skills that made you good at one would equally equip you for the other; it was a conscious choice, not happenstance. So Pancho and Cisco wasn’t casual nomenclature either.

The file Brownie (aka Pancho) had sent through was a sanitized version of a restricted NSA report on a new hacktivist group called BlueFin. Like many of the hacktivists before them, they had a “manifesto”, which was basically a bit of psychobabble meant to give such groups and their disruptive actions a moral superiority. Cyberspace was full of such self-justifying vigilante groups, nothing unusual there.

The blurb, sorry, Manifesto, was a rail against technology and how it was turning the world into a technocracy, ruining traditional lives and livelihoods, a blight on civilisation. I had to smile wryly; a hacking group that decried technology was like a butcher signing on to the “Meat is Murder” campaign.

I was almost ready to close the file and move on to lunch when I remembered it was Brownie who sent it on. For all our light hearted banter, Brownie was far from a fool and I assumed he thought the same of me. So there was a reason he sent this drivel onto me, a reason it warranted NSA security protocols. If it was a joke, someone was taking it seriously and if that someone included Brownie, well, I had to give it more than a quick glance.

I read over the rest of the groups verbiage and then on to the NSA’s analysis. Never an exercise for the faint hearted, the NSA documentations were renown for being precise and thorough, which took away a large chunk of the readability so it was another half an hour or so before I finished the first dozen pages.

Absorbed, I grabbed a tub of yoghurt from the fridge and went over the summary again and then started to go through the appendices and code snippets. Whatever failings this BlueFin Alliance (their words not mine) might have had, technical incompetence was not one of them. The  “Manifesto” contained code samples and explanations of the virus they had released and read like a textbook for Black Hats.

They also took the trouble to explain that the virus had been released and had been in the wild for some time as a “Trojan Bot”. Again, these are not my words but the accepted description for hidden malware that when activated connects itself to the network and ultimately, the Bot controller. BlueFin claimed their trojan was a firmware exploit that they declared had already infected every connected PCB, embedded device, phone or computer on the planet; basically anything with a “smart chip” and an internet connection. Which meant everything with more brains than a pushbike.

Not would but had. They stated rather flatly that by their calculation, over 90% of the world’s logic circuits were already infected. The release of the manifesto was post trigger as they had chosen May 1st, International Worker’s Day, two days previously. Once infected, the Trojan sent its signal, released its payload and then erased itself – something like the self-destructing messages in Mission Impossible. 

The only thing that would remain would be a small “marker” , a lowercase BC (for BlueFin Code, they explained) in a circle, much like a copyright or trademark symbol. This would have no effect what so ever on the device or the payload, just a little reminder that the trojan was real and the code had executed. God, hackers are such egotists.

Of the “payload” itself, basically it would make the device unstable. How unstable was unpredictable except if the firmware was tampered with, then it would trigger a self-destruct response which would basically wipe the firmware in its entirety. The unpredictable response was an attempt to make computers more fallible, more human and supposedly liberate the world from the tyranny of accountants, the tech giants and the false prophets of social media.

But by then I had switched off the political claptrap and was more interested in the technical side. Sure, anything in IT was possible but probable was a whole different question. Ever since there were networks, and even before, there were hackers. From Mitnick to Assange, the peeping toms were part of the nature of the whole show. Indeed, well over half my income came from combating these usually immature kiddies or their more organised brethren in Corporations and the dreadnaughts we called nation states. Everyone wanted a piece of the pie and weren't adverse to bending a few rules.

Naively, I inwardly thanked Brownie for contacting me. If even half of what this BlueFin touted was true, this was ground breaking stuff. Or perhaps earth quaking was a better metaphor. Firmware hacks were well known, indeed I had half a dozen tools on a secreted hard drive that could do much the same.

But each were very much product specific and by nature targeted a specific set of devices that were usually patched by the manufacturer in due course. So Zero Day exploits were the key but, like I say, they were usually targeted. A random trojan that could infect all devices was something out of science fiction.

I pinged back Brownie, only to get a brush off.

“Catch you at half-mast. May you ride the wild buffalo forever”

It took me a moment to decrypt as it had been a while but I typed back

“Hi Ho Silver”

And his connect went dead.

***********

 

The door slammed and I could hear Janice cursing.

“Bad day at work Jan?”

I called out from the mess of my desk where I had spent the rest of the afternoon checking the firmware of various devices I had access to. Sure enough, there was the small blue marker with the circle and the letters BC in the middle. Arseholes. I took security seriously, made my living from it and for someone, anyone to breach my various protections I took as a personal insult. Sure, such things were possible; most users were technical idiots but my systems? My devices??? I understood what it must feel like to be robbed and pillaged. It should only happen to other people, not me.

Janice headed straight for the liquor cabinet and poured a stiff Martini. Janice liked her drink but she had an etiquette about it. A pre-diner cocktail, a glass or two of wine to relax, a martini at a club but a two fingered martini straight after work was a true rarity and made her reply redundant.

“A shit. A fucking shit of a day”

She finally gasped as she recovered from the heavy slug of the gin bomb she had concocted.

I had been looking forward to telling her about the BlueCode/BlueFin Alliance thing. Although not a nerd, she did like the weird side of my work as long as I kept the technical talk to a minimum. A bit of a greenie herself, I was sure she would find the BlueFin group interesting and besides, I hadn’t talked to anyone bar Brownie about it all and was itching to let it all out.  But now was obviously not the time.

“Come sit down, relax, tell Papa all about it”

She did not need to be asked twice. In reality, she didn’t need to be asked at all as the apartment was hers as much as it was mine. But I asked anyway and she accepted in the same spirit and lay back on the couch as I fussed in the fridge retrieving some cheese and crackers while she began a litany of the horrors of the day.

The car hadn’t started. The bus was overcrowded and the air conditioning did not work. She had been trapped in the lift at work for 15 minutes with two sweaty cyclists.  The printer did not work, the network kept dropping out, the battery in her phone had died and she had needed to keep it on charge most of the day.  There were three separate false fire drills that had bewildered the Fire Warden as much as the staff and put everyone in a snarky mood. Finally, the bus home had broken down and she had had to walk the last kilometre.

“Your technology failed me today dear” she said with a half-smile and downed the last of the martini, waving the empty glass at me for a refill. I mixed her another gin bomb and snuggled up to her on the couch.

“So how about your day? “

It was hard not to see a correlation between all these failures of hers and the BlueCode threat but one lesson I had learnt in my years in the business was never jump to conclusions.  Besides, I could see that Janice was not up for a technical discussions and in her current state of mind, a conspiracy theory was hardly going to help her relax.

“Same old same old. The networks are taking over the planet, Skynet is only months away, we are all doomed so take off those shoes and let me give you a foot rub”

Janice took a bath and we ordered out for dinner and she was in bed by 9, which was fortunate as 9pm was the half-mast Brownie had mentioned and Buffalo an old p2p chat app I developed way back when. Brownie was probably the only one left who could remember it and definitely the only one who still had an working copy.

“Cisco”

“Pancho”

“You read?”

“Iya kemosabe”

“You a believer?”

“Checked my kit and have blue circles to the wazoo”

“Really? I thought you of all people would be immune to such plays”

“Old age mate. “

“I doubt it. All the kit at the DoD is infected as well, so you are in good company”

“You think they are listening?”

“Who? The  DoD or BC? Anyway, I thought this app was supposed to be bullet proof”

“It is, or  was, I don’t know anymore. DoD is infected? Shite, BC have some heavy weight in there”

“We suspect there are heavies involved. Thing is too far reaching and well coded to be a bunch of script kiddies. The manifesto is probably just a decoy for a blind duck hunt of the Peking variety. Nobody really knows, all a bit too real atm“

“What about you? Scared”

“Not scared but …. Worried is probably the better word”

“Yeah, can dig it. J said there  was a whole bunch of breaks at the office today; printers, elevators and the like. Hard not to be paranoid”

“Yeah, I am noticing the same thing over here. People are blaming it on bad service and goods, which seems to be the case lately. But you have to wonder…”

I wanted to mention the disappearing plane from the previous night but decided that definitely sounded paranoid and let it slide. Brownie being “worried” was of real concern as he was definitely a cool player and understated everything. Worried for Brownie was the equivalent of being frozen in terror for any normal person and I felt a chill tremble through my body.

“What about this reverse engineering stuff – and the supposed logic bomb if you try a firmware burn?”

There was a pause and a sigh.

“Confirmed. Tried it on a couple of boards here and got a high pitched screech and a message on the screen saying ‘BFA says go fuck yourself’ and then darkness. Arseholes. Current theory is that it overheats the processors just after wiping the firmware and the result is a dead brick.”

There was a pause as the import of what he was saying sunk in. This was not just a laptop thing but all those logic circuit boards rolled out across the land in everything from traffic lights, to routers, cars and yes, even planes. Maybe Skynet was coming real after all.

“Weird thing is, the CRC still checks out. Like how can you change code and still maintain the CRC? It is impossible but true. Tested across hundreds of devices, all with the blue circle, all the same. Does not make sense.“

I hadn’t thought to check the CRC but I trusted Brownie on this. All firmware had a bit count that had to match exactly with the original file, a precaution against tampering. The system was decades old and foolproof – well, supposedly. The CRC was supposed to confirm that the file or transmission had not been tampered with and yet all these machines had obviously been stamped with the BC symbol.

We hashed it out for another hour or so but got no further than when we started. The world as we know it had been upended by an unknown group of uber actors and there did not seem much we could do about it. Promising to call again if anything changed, he warned me not to talk about the hacker side of it

“Not even Janice. My guess is there is going to be enough panic as it is and as far as we know, the manifesto was only sent to the DoD. So any leaks and my neck is on the line. Be cool.”

 

 

Somehow I got to sleep. I played around with the various devices for some time to confirm what Brownie said –the CRC/Check Sums were intact even though they displayed the modified blue circle. I did some research on the connect to see if there were any other reports of either BlueFin or systemic failure but besides the usual conspiracy theorists, everything seemed normal Still, I tossed and turned before finding sleep and my dreams were full of exploding aircraft and compacting shower stalls.

Janice was gone by the time I woke, an oddity in itself. There was a note on the fridge saying she had an early meeting and that the stove seemed to be playing up, if he could be a dear and have a look.  I shrugged and got yoghurt out of the fridge which seemed oddly warm. I tried the light switch but it was dead as well. At least that explained the stove.

Not that it explained why a high end apartment with its own large genset in the basement should be without power. I tried to ring maintenance but only got an engaged signal so took a cold shower. Not that that was my intent but the hot water was out as well. At least it woke me up and I started to think that the Blue circle and this debacle of a morning might have been related.

I told myself not jump to conclusions as I towelled dry in the chilly bathroom. Coincidence had a habit of making fools of the best of us so best to play it by the rules: test any hypothesise, confirm then test again. If this was the beginning of the BC attack, there would be enough panic to go around and a level head would be a distinct advantage.

So by the time I had dressed, I had zoned into my professional mode, avoiding emotive responses, concentrating on fact and logic (the two were not always the same). I pulled out my work tablet but, unsurprisingly, the apartment connect was dead. Unusually late going to bed, I had not put my phone on charge and checking it, there was barely 30% charge. Mail seemed to be working, which was a relief until I read some of the headers and all seemed to be warning of system outages

I rang both the super and Janice but no answer. Sitting in the filtered natural light of the balcony windows, I had a hollow feeling in my stomach. What if this whole BC thing was not a charade but real and 90% of the world’s electronics were currently in a state of meltdown? It wasn’t a question of what would be affected but rather what would not be.

I pulled out an old power bank and plugged the phone in before setting it up as a hotspot. My mind was racing, working through the various scenarios but trying not to commit to any one in particular.  I rang the maintenance number but it was still busy – which was logical if the whole building was without power. I tried to ring Janice’s number again but that rang out. Logically speaking, she was probably in a meeting but a shiver ran up my spine anyway.

Internet seemed to be working on the phone at least. I took several deep breaths and felt a little relieved that the whole world was not yet crumbling. The civilization as we knew it might be in free fall but I could get the network. Work the methodologies, don’t take anything at face value, test, confirm and test again.

It was like wandering through a city under siege. Half the most popular sites (google, amazon, fb and the like) were showing 404 although I could see the servers themselves were up. Those sites that still existed had large chunks missing, like bomb shattered buildings with the stairwells still intact.  There were some rumours of sunspot activity and EMP “bombs” but nothing about Blue Circle and all the major news sites were down or keeping mum anyway.

About an hour into this wonderland of decay, the lights suddenly blared on and the apartment filled with all the normal noises of modern living; air circulating, timers pinging, the rumble of the refrigerator, the buzz of lamps. I had not realised how silent it had been until the noise returned. Almost simultaneous, my phone began to screech, startling me.

“Janice”

“Mickey. Where have you been? Your phone has been engaged all morning and I could not see you online”

I explained I had been trying to ring her as well but the phone had gone all weird. She said the same had been happening everywhere.

“Work is a mess. Without phones and internet, we are dead in the water. It is like Zombie land here – everyone listless and bewildered. If a phone goes off, everyone suddenly comes to life, checking to see if it their phone. If it wasn’t so depressing, it would be funny”.

“Anyway, you are the Internet guru; tell me what is going on Mr IT Guy”

I wanted to tell her, really, but Brownie was right, no way would Janice be able to resist the pressure to tell everyone about BC. Hell, I was finding it hard enough and I knew the repercussions.

“Uh, the news groups are talking sunspot activity”

It was lame and Janice would know it but a promise was a promise and anyway, I had no solid proof bar the ravings of a hacker. At that moment, and for obvious reason, I chose to ignore the little blue circle that had spread across all my devices like some virtual bubonic plague.  Test, confirm and test again, right?

“Hmm, ok big boy, whatever you say. At least the phones are working now. Place was a wreck when I came in this morning. None of the electronic doors worked and no elevators. But that did not really matter as there was no air con or lights anyway so we sat across the road and drank coffee from a gas powered mobile café.  I would have come home but the traffic was insane – no traffic lights and cars stalled all over the place.  That sun spot sure as hell was some big one!”

I could hear the scepticism in her voice but without revealing my sources, there was nothing more I could say. I told myself I could explain it all later.  

“Well, you wouldn’t have improved things by coming home aytway. The electricity has only just come back on.”

And so it went, we compared stories but as my phone was about to expire, I had to cut the call short. I realised I was ravenously hungry and put together a hot breakfast of eggs, toast and coffee while my phone was charging.  Which is just as well as barely had I sat down again when the electricity died again.  And so it continued for the rest of the day.  

On the third or fourth attempt I managed to get hold of the super. We were old acquaintances and he knew my interest in technical matters so he gave me the full story that I summarised that although the genset was operational,  the switching equipment and line conditioning units that took over when the main power failed was not. So there was power just no way to connect it. The weird thing is that at times it would work, the power would flow then without rhyme or reason it would shut down again.

Which sort of correlated with my own experience on what remained of the web. Sites and applications would appear and disappear again at random. Large chunks of the larger sites would become accessible then inaccessible seemingly at a whim. There were some mutterings on the blogs about a virus but the whole thing was too massive and no one could believe that a single virus could cause such widespread chaos. It just didn’t make sense; the worst viruses in history had been targeted attacks that had spiralled out of control in the days, weeks and months following the initial infection. But not everything.

The whole Sun Spot theory did not hold much water either but it suggested planetary sized intervention, which suited some of the theorists. The so called CME magnetic spikes the sun gives out on occasion could logically take down the power grids and satellite systems but it was unlikely to affect computers more than momentarily and which a reboot would remedy. There would also be a correlating “northern lights” effect around the world and neither of these events were reported.

Of course, by now I was positive about  the cause, if not the solution. I worked through some of the code that the Manifesto contained but they did not make a hell of a lot of sense to me – I was an applications developer, not a systems guy. Synchronicity must have kicked in as going through the code, the lights flickered back on and in minutes, my Buffalo app sprang to life with a message from Brownie.

“Hi Ho Cisco, how’s things in your part of this freak show?”

“Pancho. What the hell man? Freaky is the word”

“Yeah, flapping in the wind. So before we get thrown off again, I’ll cut to the chase. BC is worldwide. Don’t know how the fucker did it but they did as the behaviour is fairly consistent across the  globe. All planes and mass transport has been shut down – we are spreading the sun spot story here but elsewhere they are blaming everyone from Russia, US, China and so on. Could get nasty except it will have to be carbines and WW2 cannons as any weapons bigger than a pop gun these days are chipped and yes, you guessed it, inoperable. Silver lining and all that”

“Fuck, any sign of a fix?”

“No idea. As systems come back online, nothing suggests why they went offline. When they crash, is also seems to have no rhyme or reason. It is all like some giant cosmic pinball machine just bouncing silver balls around at random. Everyone here is going crazy”

“Yeah, I bet. Minds the size of planets don’t cope with the unknown any better than us mere mortals. Same thing happening here and at Janice’s work. Any further words from the folk at the Blue Circle?”

“You haven’t mentioned BC to anyone I hope?”

“Mums the word Poncho. Though I feel a bad not telling Janice – she is pretty shook up by it all”

“We all are bro. Just chill. But we have had one more missive from the doomsday boy. I’ll send it through but same protocol. If you leak this shit now, you will probably end up on treason charges, if they bother to charge you at all. Most likely you would just disappear. Sure you want to look?

Brownie could play games as well as anyone and delighted in practical jokes but I could tell he was serious about this all. If word leaked and riots or worse ensued, treason would probably be one of the lesser charges. There were those who fucked with the DoD and got away with it I am sure but off hand I could not name you one.

“Sure, I’m game”

Barely the words were out of my mouth and I heard the ping of a file being transferred.

“Shrinks here reckon it is a single coder. Personally I have my doubts – it is like the Mona Lisa, the Nightwatchman and Irises all rolled into one and somehow working. If it is a single guy, he is one mofo of coder, nobody I have ever heard of can code so clean. And remember, what he sent is in “C” – it would have to be interpreted into everything from machine code to java to have the sort of effect we are seeing.”

“Hey Poncho, it sounds like you are in love”

“Maybe I am. That code is so … “

And the line cut again – must have been his end as lights were still steady here.

We had discussed the downside of a fully connected world back when Brownie and I were virtual new bloods to the game.  Brownie had pooh hoo-ed the idea, quoting the original design specs of the internet and how it was built to be decentralised, a fully distributed network where each node was independent yet part of the whole mesh. A grand scheme that would take something like 90% damage before it started to crumble.

The single page pdf that Brownie had sent through reiterated the fact though pointed out with corporatization and profit taking, that shield of 90% had been reduced to something like 50% as nation states and profiteers centralised the original design for profit and power. But, as it pointed out, that was irrelevant as the BFA design had infected well over 90% anyway - a proof of concept virus with the intent to destroy the power of the cartels and governments.

In a bit of showmanship (like I say, hackers are egotists at heart) he had made his hack self learning and mutable. They said they had no control over this, it might self destruct, it may gain control, but any attempt to influence or stop this “evolution”(his words not mine) would be futile and result in the self-destruction of the device, as Brownie had confirmed.

We had given control of our lives, our finances, our learning and our conversations to the digital construct. What the BFA had engineered was a mere adjunct to that – the governments and cartels that had tried to control would now find themselves curtailed by the very tools they sought to dominate with  The only thing bigger than those players were the machines and networks themselves and it was only right and fair that the revolution started with those constructs.

I leaned back in my chair as the lights flickered and then extinguished; a sort of poetic denouement to accompany the hacker’s words. Sitting in that sway-backed chair in the half-life of the natural glow the balcony’s door shed across my desk, the blue screen of my computer obliterated with the black and white manifesto, I was chilled to my bones.  This guy, girl, group, whoever had successfully implemented what yesterday I would have deemed impossible. A single group had brought the world as we had known it crashing down and left only an uncertain future in its place.

It was inevitable that the imagery of Skynet, that improbably science fiction Terminator tale leapt to mind but it was the scene of Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes, on his knees and decrying the stupidity of humans that more took my imagination. We had known this was possible, every doomsday conspiracy theorist had predicted something similar. We hadn’t ignored the threat we just hadn’t done enough to protect it.  If Brownie and the DoD were correct, one lone gunslinger had done the job. 

I felt depressed, impudent; I had spent half my working life double checking applications for security holes and had missed the real danger, the sub-systems that supported all this tom foolery we did with digital machinations. Like building brick kilns while Mt Vesuvius bubbled in the background and like Pompeii, the fallout from this eruption would obliterate life as we knew it, freezing us all in a moment of time that could never be regained.

My job, my life, the reason for my existence had been flash fried by some nameless vigilante who signed the world away with a fillet of code stamped with a blue circle. I imagined him leering (funnily, I always saw the culprit as male, as though a woman would be incapable of such a fiendish action) and although generally not a violent person, I wanted to smash his face in, pound away until the leer was a smear of blood and gore on the ground. That is how far I had gone into self-pity and fear.

I was startled again as the electricity came back on and again I realised just how much I depended on all the accruements of the digital age.  Not just the internet and the entertainment, but all the timers, the chillers, the grillers, the security systems, car ignitions, the elevators and escalators,  the toys, the music, that static background chatter that defined the new world.  Perhaps gone for good but humans are resilient creatures and the resumption of the electricity gave me hope that maybe all was not lost.

I have a healthy ego, I am a programmer after all, but I also knew that some of the best minds in the country, if not the world, were working on the issue. Still, it intrigued me and in some weird communal way, I felt just the effort would be token solidarity with those boffins charged with the real work. And who knew, a different perspective can sometimes be as useful as a whole raft of technical skills.

So I spent the rest of the day, in between blackouts and moments of angst, revising my knowledge of C and machine code that I had not used since college.  A whole different world to the RAD tools that were my bread and butter and I began to have a grudging respect, interspersed with  bouts of pure hatred, for the hacker who not only knew this stuff but who obviously excelled at it.  As I often wondered about the more skilled hacker, I could not understand why they were not out there making a motza from legitimate code.

For it was good, Brownie was right. Even from my limited and mostly forgotten knowledge of the language, I could tell that the programmer was a master at their craft. Faking a CRC check sum was not trivial but most of the documents I read that day declared it as possible, the most common MD5 check sum susceptible to a “collision attack” – whatever that meant.  The probability of doing it on such a massive scale was a whole different aspect though and nothing that weird had been seriously discussed on any of the forums I read.

On a more human aspect, I followed the news, or what remained of the news. Most of the overseas feeds were down as the satellites, those massive constructs of technology, were hit early in the peace. Most of the television stations were off air or on limited broadcasts using analogue signals that had been made defunct a generation before.

The  most apparent thing was nobody had really thought it through, at least on the commercial level. There was no “backup” to digital, we had ploughed in and harvested the digital age without barely a question on what would happen if these systems failed us in a cataclysmic manner as we were now seeing. There were redundant systems but they were copies of the original and prone to the originals vulnerabilities.

Firewalls, security perimeters, fail safe cut-outs were all rendered useless by a hundred lines of assembler code that attacked from within. The grandmother of all Trojans that ignored all the finery and frippery of applications and operating systems and went straight to the heart of the system; the machine code itself.

When Janice came home, I was still wondering and fretting. She was in a mood from hell; scared and angry and confused. Again she went straight for the gin bottle, an anomaly I would not have believed possible a week before – a day before! Two nights in a row but these were trying times, a digital biblical plague of locusts and I understood and for the first time in a long time, I joined her as drowning in alcohol seemed the only appropriate thing to do.

She raised her eyes and then her glass, acknowledging the shared despair. We had no words, needed no words, for the moment we were two frightened animals crouching in fear at the oncoming lights that surely would crush us.  For a few moments we wallowed in primordial terror of the face of the digital madness that surrounded us. But a couple of mouthfuls of gin and we were back in spirit, literally.

“So tell me Mr Brainiac, what’s going on?”

“Err, I don’t know, nobody seems  to know”

Janice gave me one of her “looks”. She has always been able to read me, which according to everyone else in my life is not an easy feat. It was a part of the reason why we had been a couple for so long but it had its downside. Like now when I ached to unload my burden and share the knowledge of the BlueFin and their machinations but for Brownie and loyalty and the promise of retribution that  would follow. She knew I was holding back and seemed confused as to why.

“Ok then, no answers from the Oracle? Then I am going to get washed up while we still have some hot water. I am sure there is some frozen pizza in the ice chest that will go off if this electricity thing continues. How about you put that on while I am in the shower?”

And that was that, the closeness we had just experienced disappeared into the ether and we were just two more people surviving the digital collapse. I wanted to hold her close, tell her of madmen with virulent code and warped perspectives, of my fear and despair during the day, of my talks with Brownie and the widespread nature of the disaster but I held my tongue. It seemed she had waited a split second, to see if I would come clean but then shrugged and headed for the bathroom.

Dinner was a lacklustre affair of reheated Italian bread and a bottle of nondescript Pinot Noir.  Conversation was sporadic and desultory, the elephant in the room being the incipient collapse of society as we knew it but a trust had been broken and Janice asked me no more direct questions, jst recounted the myriad ways the system had failed her during the day. With impeccable timing, the electricity died again just at the end of our meal and it was with almost relief that we took the half empty gin bottle into the bedroom.

In the eerie shadows of a quintessent moon, we talked for a while but finally fucked in the darkness like furtive animals. There was no tenderness or sense of sharing, just two lonely scared people seeking comfort and release in the most available form. In was as though the virus had broken the barriers of logic boards and infected our life, perverting and altering one of the little stabilities in my life. In a weird twist, I believe that our son, Jeff, was conceived in that night, in the darkness of that soulless act.

We both feigned sleep afterwards, scared or ashamed at what had just happened. When I did eventually fall asleep, I dreamed of the now familiar cramped toilet cubicle in a grounded aircraft, shrinking and compressing while I crouched and huddled in fear and impotence.

 

 

When I awoke the next morning, the room was flooded with the clearest light I could ever remember seeing. Everything seemed super real, every detail vivid and sharp as though overnight my eyes had invented a new way of seeing, a new clarity of vision that showed me a world so sparkling and new that it hurt.

Janice had already left, a note on the table said as far as she could tell everything was back to normal so she had a tonne of work to catch up on and not to expect her till later that evening. That was twice in as many days that I was the one to sleep in as she started her day.  I did not know it then but it was the start of the downhill slide in our relationship, one that would result in her leaving with our new born son barely a year later.

But as always, hindsight imbues things with a significance that is lost at the time. I was more intrigued that Janice believed the world was back to its old self and not so concerned about the finer details of our life. Still, I put the kettle on and ducked in for a shower – expecting that this was just the calm before yet another storm and I wanted to face the day clean and refreshed while it was still possible.

Off course, I checked my phone first – who doesn’t? – and the normal deluge of mail was there. Well, more than normal as the backlog from the previous day had crammed my inbox to capacity. So a good sign but then so was the steam coming off the shower and I put the phone down. The world could wait.

Well, for 15 minutes anyway. That’s how long it took me to shower and make a large cup of Columbian and once again log on to my console. A quick scan seemed to confirm that all systems were back online and the blogs were full of the “glitch” that would come to be known as “D Day”- the “D” an acronym for “death” or “Digital”, take your pick.

Whatever name you gave it, it appeared to have been world wide as people woke up to their own sunrise and logged on and told their tales of misery.  From what I could tell, the moment the systems stabilised was midnight in each time zone.  Sun spot or the Coriolis Effect seemed to be the most ascribed cause with only a few brave and perhaps more intuitive souls put forward the idea of a virus.

When eventually the news of a new blue circle containing the initials “BC” stamped onto the hardware of bios and firmware began to circulate, rather than seen as the cause of the disaster, it was ascribed legendary status as the “fix” that had solved the problem (though the cause of the problem was still being debated ). I later wondered if, rather than history being written by the victors, it was in fact propagated by the ignorant and unknowing.

At the time, I was absorbed following the voluminous blogs and chats that described the different ways the “D Day” had disrupted the daily lives of billion and the almost unanimous consensus was that people felt isolated, stranded and displaced by the sudden cessation of all things digital. We all knew that we used the connect too much, had translocated almost everything we could into a digital format but it was not until BC that we realised just how dependant we were on keeping that signal alive.

Literally overnight a whole movement had sprung up to roll back the clock, to revert the main control systems to analogue, lobby groups to push for redundant, parallel mechanical systems where ever possible, protest meetings to force Telco’s back to copper, manifestos that decried our reliance on electricity, indignant blogs that blamed the whole event on conspiracies, on complacencies, on wilful negligence, on corporate greed – basically any target the writers had always decried and now felt they had something worthy to sink their teeth in.

The various movements died out of course. There was no logic in the rants and certainly no awareness of the costs and technical challenges to turn back the clock. Besides which, whole generations had grown up fixated by the immediacy of their technical gadgetry and had neither the skills nor the patience to go back to a time when encyclopedias were on book shelves, not back pockets and communications needed to be planned, not ad hoc texts from random locations.

I had turned off this mummery early in the peace, more bored than informed by the babble of complaints and cries. But on that day, like Janice, I had work to catch up on and, still unsure that the crisis was really over, some correspondence to get off before it all fell over again.

“Hey amigo, all normal here on the western prairie, though the tumbleweeds are rolling and the prairie dogs are howling.  What’s the weather forecast from up in the highlands?”

To Brownie of course and yes, a bit immature and all that but I was sure he would get what I meant and baffle anyone else. After all, he was the one that started the secrecy stuff and it kept with the western theme we used as a codec between us. There was no immediate response so I poured another coffee and started in on the backlog of neglected correspondence.

It is a miracle how the mind can construct its own realities and histories. By the time Brownie got back to me and Buffalo pinged at the bottom of my screen, I had to think for a second on who it could be, the whole BC thing had gone clean out of mind while I tackled the more mundane tasks of my existence.

“Hombre. Nothing but us coyotes up here though storm clouds maybe on the horizon. You have some time for an old cowpoke, partner?”

“Hey Poncho. Flat out catching up on mails and dying for a break. So our little problem yesterday seemed to be a flash in the pan? You guys sort it?”

“Love to claim ownership but it resolved itself. Perhaps just a warning shot though now everyone is on double alert. Mind you, still some weirdness in the gold mine”

“Resolved itself? Most people here thought the world was about to end. All weird if you ask me”

“Yeah, same over here though resolved seems probably a bit conservative”

“Conservative? What do you mean?”

“Early days yet but there have been some interesting side effects”

“Like?”

“Run a bench test on your computer”

That threw me a little. Not what I expected at all but Brownie always had his reasons so I ran a compact stress test while I refreshed my coffee

“Weird but I’ll bite. 8.4 using Holman’s Nexus. What’s the point?”

“Normal?”

“Up a bit. I usually get 8.2’s but I guess its feeling perky today. What’s your point?”

“That’s just it. Everything is performing just a tweak better than it was 2 days ago. Double checked dozens of machines here with the same results. One or two points up”

“Freaky”

“You said it partner. Too early to say but the only thing that happened out of the ordinary has been … well, you know”

“Sun spots? You betcha”

If Brownie was playing the BlueFin connection close to his chest, who was I to argue. Something was going on for sure. Faster processing from a virus? It sounded like science fiction.

“Coriolis Effect for sure. Keep your eyes out for me, eh? Ask around discretely, see if any of your friends in low places are noticing the difference”

We talked for a while longer before he had to go and I hadn’t been joking when I said I was inundated with work. Nothing new mind you, just the backlog of jobs that had been backing up for a while and the outage the day before hadn’t helped. So we signed off but left me feeling uncomfortable and intrigued by his cryptic message.

So this mysterious machine code that had been somehow distributed to 90% of the worlds electronics by an unknown vigilante, had gone rogue, almost brought the stone age back and now had done an about face and was improving system performance ? Weird and weirder. 

I looked at my computer with some distrust and the queasy feeling that my whole working life depended on it. But could I trust it? Could I trust any digital device? My phone? My car? Maybe this firmware bug was improving my gear but what else was it doing? I was sure Brownie was asking the same questions.

Work or no work, I decided to do a full backup to a NAS drive I kept for that purpose. But the NAS was a smart device, ran on embedded software and firmware. Could I trust that? I fished out an old USB hard drive I had left over from a project a few months ago – at least that unit was pretty dumb and perhaps wasn’t the sort of device that the virus snacked on.

Just to make sure, I booted from an old systems disk I kept for recovery purposes and did a full image. Perhaps it made no difference, perhaps I was being paranoid and anyway, if I tried to recover it, who knew if it would be infected the moment it was back on another device, any device. Feeling paranoid and jumpy, I set it up and then went out for a while.

Enrico, the Super, was in the entrance as I descended in the lift. Again I marvelled at how radiant the world seemed. Just a little better than the day before. But instead of buoying my mood, it sent a shiver down my spine. Everything just a little bit better. With Brownie’s news, I should have been happier but the thought of a virus changing things without choice or volition was unnerving, Enrico was beaming

“Mr Delouses, beautiful morning, no?”

“Hi Enrico. I see you sorted out the problem with the generator!”

“I would love to take credit sir, but this is all mains power” he literally beamed ear to ear, the wide happy smile almost splitting his face in two “Mind you though” he winked conspiratorially “I did a test this morning and the beast was purring like a cat. If you ask me, she is running better than I have ever seen her before”

If he saw the look of dismay on my face, he did not seem to notice it as he turned and went back down the hallway, whistling tunelessly.

I remember walking outside into the morning sunlight and again was struck how orderly, how crisp and clean everything was. I tell myself now that it was my imagination, even in hindsight the changes could not have been so rapid. Perhaps it was just a sense of general relief among my fellow citizens. After the day of near crisis and the faint taint of doom of the day before, a normal day was a blessing to be savoured. The traffic seemed smoother, quieter, with none of the usual discordant sound of horns, screeching brakes, sirens and the hotheads reving their motors.

With a kind of shock, I realised this is how it should have been, how the city planners and housing developers imagined the world. A synchronised harmony with smiling happy people being courteous and buoyant. For as far as I could see, I was the only one with a frown, unable to shrug off my unease at linking Brownies news with the world around me. I guess I should have been happy, rejoicing in the good life but I could not help but thinking that if it was a virus that had done all this, what would it do next? I shivered.

By the time Janice got home, I had given up all thought of work and had spent the day browsing through blogs and news feeds. The phenomenon was reported everywhere; the crippled systems of the day before were now back online and running better than ever. The conspiracists were out in force, of course and blaming it all on the Chinese, the Iranians, the CIA or whoever their current rant was directed to. To give them their due, at least they had the inkling that something was not right, the majority were just basking in the reprieve from digital meltdown.

Janice was of the later ilk, back to her normal self and sailing in with hugs and kisses.

“What a fantastic day! All that silliness from yesterday just a big glitch in the sun”

Grateful to receive the attention, I closed the computer and the evidence of my Quixotic search for the ghost in the machine.

“So it was sun spots after all?”

She looked at me like an autistic child.

“Oh come on Brainiac, don’t tell me you haven’t been following the biggest story in IT for a decade? It is all over the news channels and people just cant stop talking about it. Apparently the whole world was affected, a once-in-a-lifetime eruption they say must have been the size of the moon. But why I am telling you all this? Surely you have been following it all …”

She petered out, now looking at me suspiciously, like I was a stranger trying to sell her the Brooklyn Bridge.

“What are you hiding?”

“I have been busy catching up. Yes, I read about the sun spots and how everything has come back better before but I am keeping my options open – something weird went on, that’s for sure”

And put my arms back around her but she wasn’t convinced, knew me well enough to know I was holding back somethings. She deftly slid out of my embrace and with forced cheerfulness (yes, I knew her as well as she knew me) declared she was just dying for a shower and scuttled off to the bathroom.

Like I say, hindsight can be a terrible thing. A trust had been broken and I was torn between the professional non-disclosure agreement Brownie had put me under and telling my buddy, my soulmate and my lover. I prevaricated while Janice showered but decided to brazen it through, it wasn’t’ that big a thing and I was nothing if not professional. Nothing being the operative word as it turned out.

We talked about the big D day a little but it was obvious she did not want to go into any depth. I knew she knew I was holding back but did not discuss it. Her former good cheer evaporated and after a lack lustre meal of takeaway Thai, she retired to the balcony and her phone. I went for a walk, feeling morose and guilty and pulled up at the little corner bar not far from home. By the time I got home, buoyed up with alcohol and guilt, determined to tell all, she was in bed with a facemask on and barely stirred when I rolled heavily into bed next to her.

It was another couple of months before I let her in on the secret. By then the world had changed in ways we could never imagine. The electronics just kept getting better, there was no second guessing or performance tests needed. Cheap Asian tv’s had evolved to 4k cinematic entertainment units. Phone batteries began lasting for days, some claimed even weeks. The internet was faster, smoother and humble residential modems were giving service like expensive corporate feeds.

All at zero dollars. Somehow the original BC malware (or upgrade as we had begun to call it) had morphed and morphed again, streamlining and enhancing even relative pieces of junk into flawless jewels of technology. None of the boffins could work it out. They talked of polymorphic algorithms and self-enhancing protocols but nobody really knew. If you tried to disassemble or reverse engineer the code the unit would self-destruct in defiance.

Enough people tried as the litter of circuit boards and warped electrical appliance testified. But far more were interested in how to “infect” their hidden stores of old outdated appliances. It turned out all you need to do was switch it on and connect it to power or the network and the job was done. Wait a week or so with the device powered on and suddenly you had a serviceable, efficient and modern appliance that previously had barely limped by.

Not everything mind you, a souped up commodore 64 was never going to be more than just that. But any reasonable device of relatively recent origin that had been discard due to speed or battery life was soon humming along with the latest offerings. Things were lasting longer, in service longer and our lives improved as the air conditioners, heaters, trains, planes and buses were more efficient, less polluting, smoother, cheaper.

I was in regular contact with Brownie by then, comparing notes and philosophies on the how’s and whys of this most marvellous of technological revolutions that seemed to have no driver and needed no input by the human factor. Digital death could perhaps be explained away by natural phenomena but the evolution of all things digital was nothing that could be ascribed to planetary bodies or electronic emissions. The story of BlueFin eventual leaked out but it was still an anonymous hacker who seemed indifferent to the success of their labours.

It wasn’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth but rather a half truth in the time honoured way of governments everywhere. A statement was released that a hack had been attempted on the entire worlds digital infrastructure and that the measures that the DoD had put in place to stop another such attack happening had had the side effect of improving the said infrastructure.

Which was all a crock of course. According to Brownie, they still did not know what was really going on. They had the original code but nothing they could find in that that would account for the current behaviour although their was an method that opened a port so that the attack could be orchestrated remotely.  So the conjecture was that yet further downloads had upgraded the code but they could not work out why or how the code worked

The original “manifesto” of the BFA had suggested they wanted to bring down the world’s digital paradigm and they had got perilously close to that. So why had they not followed through, why would they have turned around and improved the code to reengineer the firmware for the greater good? It just did not make sense.

Brownie reckoned the current theory was that someone else had hacked the open port – the hacker becoming the hackee – but it still made no sense as any other attempt to attach to the code brought only disaster. Besides which, the code itself had been scrutinised by some of the top “white hats”- the moral hackers – in the world and they had come up with nada.

If there was an injection of new code (and that was something most experts agreed on although nobody knew how) it would have had to have been done by the BFA themselves and since those original two missives, they had disappeared off the planet. The current theory at the time was that because the code had back fired, Blue Fin had called it quits and dissipated into the ether they had originally come from.

When I finally told Janice the full story, the manifesto from Blue Fin, the talks with Brownie, I had thought she would have been mollified, if not exactly overjoyed. Our relationship had turned rocky. She had known I was holding back and I knew she knew but neither of us could cross the divide and fell into a mutual unease, our previous easy relationship devolved to a wary secretiveness made even more complicated when she found out she was pregnant.

I was initially ecstatic about the news but Janice less so, as though the pregnancy was unwanted. Which hurt me more than I let on as we had always talked about kids and our shared desire to enter into that strange world of parenthood. Her lacklustre acceptance of the fact was a cruel blow and I knew I had to regain her trust.

So it was with some relief that I finally felt that the whole BC thing was sufficiently “out in the open” that  I could tell her the whole story without impinging on the promise I had made to Brownie months before. That hindsight I mentioned finally kicked in and I could see that the coolness had began back on D Day.

So I was surprised that rather than happy about the revelation, it made things worse. That I hadn’t trusted her, my friendship with Brownie more important than my relationship with her. The more I talked the bigger the hole I dug myself and finally gave up, shrugged and rather lamely admitted my fault, apologising profusely. She stared at me for some time before shrugging herself and going back to her Sudoku game.  I grabbed my coat and headed down to the bar.

The next few months were both wondrous and depressing. Wonderous because things just kept getting better. My old phone, which I had been thinking of upgrading due to its failing battery and limpid performance suddenly could last a day, two days and then a week between recharges and blazed along happily with whatever task I threw at it.

The same happened with the computers I worked with and just about everything else. The air conditioning and refrigerator were almost silent and issuing a flood of cold air at the lowest setting. Our cars slowly evolved into mini racers that literally purred along the road, yet their gas consumption dropped to half previous levels. Nothing needed fixing or replacing any longer, everything just worked and worked better than before.

It was a marvellous time to be alive. All the potential of the new technological age was being released and for once actually lived up to the claim that it was cost reductive. Planned obsolescence seemed to be itself rendered obsolete as devices updated themselves and extended their usability.  Of course, we did not really know all this at the time, just that things seemed to be working better and people rejoiced.

It was understandable I suppose. Not everyone could afford to upgrade every time the corporations decided that a new feature was incompatible with the old systems.  I understood the profit motive but it had been getting more and more expensive to keep up with the ever changing digital landscape. The original idea that it made things cheaper had grown to be a ludicrous delusion and yesterday’s models littered the land.

So when the old models began to work as good, if not better than the newer units, millions of upgrade purchases were cancelled and the money put to more useful purposes – like a holiday or a night out on the town. My personal depression was that as the devices grew better, my relationship with Janice grew worse, keeping secrets was never a great skill of mine and I truly wanted to share my doubts and take on the whole thing. But until Brownie gave the go ahead, it was professional suicide. Though, again in hindsight, that should have been the least of my fears.  

After my confession, Janice  barely tolerated any mention of my work, making snide remarks about confidentiality and outside loyalties. In return, she rarely mentioned her work and although she was beginning to look very pregnant, she started to refer to our son as “her child” not ours. At the end of a tortuous three more month, she moved out of our place and into  the arms of her bf Clara, who I always suspected had designs on my Janice.

By that time, the honeymoon with the BC virus was starting to affect more than just the digital devices. The first signs of trouble manifested  were the industrial strikes and protests as factories and service centres began laying off staff.  It had started earlier but since most of this was at the overseas factories and so was not immediately noted by the general public.

But at the six months mark, local retailers and repair shops began to also lay off staff and close their doors. The big movers and shakers in the tech business could no longer deny the downturn in profits and with that, the stock market began to slide, with fortunes being lost overnight. The culmination was Tech Tuesday, 9 months after D Day, when almost 50% of stock prices dropped to nothing and the economy began reeling into recession.

The irony was that technology itself was seeing a renaissance. The nanobytes and microcode happily continued improving themselves and the world was dazzled by the excellence of once old and useless devices. Second hand shops did a roaring trade while technical repairs shops dwindled. Nobody knew if it was a regression or a revolution and were torn between self interest and a nervousness about the flow on effects.

Governments and the business community were not concerned with such philosophical questions. Taxes were dwindling, the power structures were realigning and in this brave new world, fear became the dominating emotion. The Chinese blamed the Americans, America blamed terrorists, the tech companies blamed everyone and everything.

But by that time, I was beyond caring. Of course I was retrenched; nobody needed a software tester when the code itself would selfheal in a couple of weeks of regeneration. Janice had already left and by the time little Jeff was born, I was counted lucky to be able to see him before Clara put a restraining order against me and the pair disappeared into the New England area. My once happy world had crumbled to nothing in a short year.

I don’t know where we are headed but I am starting to see every electronic device as an enemy. I haven’t talked to Brownie in an eon and my neighbours treat me as a pariah. Governments are at each other’s throats, refusing to accept the new order and clinging desperately on to their rapidly diminishing power. Protest groups and mobs of the newly redundant are baying for blood and ironically are mobilising through the newly improved and almost impenetrable social media networks.

These days I spend most of my time tracking down BFA, I suppose vengeance is at the heart of it but in the end it is basically the only thing that keeps me alive. I rarely leave the apartment, preferring solitude to the dangers of the unknown, of trying to start again, to move on. I sit here with regret over Janice and a burning desire to destroy the destroyer, to track down and annihilate the BFA, group whoever or whatever they might be.

I know it does not make sense but then nothing seems rational anymore; this desolation caused not by a rebellion of code but by the very act of joining with us to make the world a better place. Another old much worn adage is be careful what you wish for.

And every night I dream of being trapped in a steel and plastic room that grows smaller and smaller on a plane that never takes off. Nothing is ever resolved and most mornings I wake in a cold sweat and a empty pit in my stomach as the apartment merrily hums around me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have this reoccurring dream that I am trapped in the shower cubicle of a plane as it is about to take off. While the plane prepares for departure, the cubical begins to shrink as the floor rises and the walls encroach to compress my personal space to about half size. I am scared I will be squashed like some evil character in some cheap horror movie but each time it stops before I am crushed. Relieved yet shocked, I yell and scream to be released but nobody seems to notice.

That’s it.  I have never felt the plane take off, not even heard the sound of jet engines. I am never released, I just wake up. I once asked my significant other, Janice, what it all meant but she only shrugged and said

“Obviously, you are insane”

And went back to the Sudoku game on her phone.

Most people think that Sudoku originated in Japan but it the modern version was actually invented by Howard Garns in Indiana in the US in the late 1970’s. Janice was an addict, her phone smeared with the fingerprints of her rapidly moving digits and her normally smooth brow wrinkled in concentration as she contemplated the next correct digit.

At the time I wondered if I should be angry at old Howard for the way his game stole from our relationship. But if I went down that path, I should perhaps shoot Steve Jobs as well, if he wasn’t precipitously deceased already. Nowadays, I would probably happily do both.

Sitting on the veranda, I saw a plane rising in the distance. A new airbus I thought at the time. I remembered the dream and smiled inwardly, wondering if there was some alter ego of mine locked in the inboard toilet, screaming blue murder to be let out. I was distracted by a pinprick of blue light below the steeply angled plane and suddenly there was a red flare and if by magic the plane disappeared into the surrounding darkness.

“Janice, come out here!”

I blinked twice, trying to clear my eyes and swore I heard a faint, distant rumble. I tried to remember the old rule – was it 3 or 4 seconds per kilometre between light and sound transmissions? If I remember correctly, there is also some bias concerning temperatures, air currents, altitude and so on . Anyway, how long was it between the flash and the rumble? 20 secs? 30? So somewhere between 6 and 10 kilometres?

“Janice!”

The closest airport was 20-25 kilometres away. But there were several runways heading off in all directions and it took 20 minutes for a plane to fully lift off and reach cruising altitude and in that time it could travel 20-50 kilometres, dependant on the size of the plane and its engines. And how high it was at the point of impact

“Janice! Come out ….”

“I’m here. Stop your shouting. What’s going on?

Normally I would have taken some time to look her over, still after all these years surprised that I had found someone so lovely and yet so compatible to share his life with. Though neither of us were young anymore, I still saw her as the 20ish something girl met at one of those rare openings I attended. A young artist’s take on urban life that we both found childish and badly executed and were milling around the canape table waiting for a chance to politely excuse themselves. Of such things lives are made and unmade, little coincidences that turn into major milestones.

“There was a plane, over there…”

“There is no plane Michael”

“That’s what I mean, it was there one minute and there was a flash and then it was gone”

We both peered intensely at the horizon and the myriad of stars that refracted light dully against the glow of the city.

“I can’t see anything”

“Of course, that is what I was saying; it was there and then it was gone. There was a blue light underneath and then a flash and …”

I realised the inadequacies of the tale and petered off. Janice glanced at the half glass of malt on the veranda table.

“Well, if there was something, I am sure it will be on the news. Disappearing planes tend to get noticed”

 “There was a rumble maybe 30 secs afterwards ….”

I added glumly but I knew Janice’s interest was fading. Understandably as the night was as normal as they come, the distant sounds of vehicles, the occasional siren, a lonely owl hooting in the park below.

“Come, grab your whiskey and come to bed. I need a backrub and who knows, maybe a bit of a rumble as well”

Janice smiled saucily and winked. I did not need a second invitation and there was nothing out here to see.

I wake up early. Always. Janice likes to sleep in and although she calls it our divergence, we both appreciate the difference.  I like the morning as it allows me to work and think without distractions, before the newest avalanche of phone calls, chats and mails begins its deluge. Janice says I twist and turn and snore in my sleep and those few hours between 5 and 8 gives her the luxury of stretching out. I have never told her she snores as well; the things we do for love.

Buoyed with a mug of filtered Columbian, I searched through the various news sites and feeds but nothing about a plane disappearing and certainly nothing near our city.  A flash flood had caused a landslide in Nepal, there were political riots in the Philippines and a drought in Argentina but other than that, nothing really momentous. Certainly no plane crashes. Paradoxically, I was disappointed as, insane as I may well be, I usually don’t hallucinate.

I glanced at a technical report of a new type of malware that was being used for cyber terrorism. It did not seem relevant and anyway was not my field. Let the boffins sort it out – they usually did and skipped to an interesting piece on the new genome project that was pointed towards extended lifespans and the repair of genetic predispositions. The once held fear that DNA testing would lead to selective breeding seemed to be old hat – these days they were looking at enhancing everyone. Well, everyone with a lazy half million or so that is. The author’s argument was that it was the same thing really, just morally more palatable. I found it hard to disagree - as the bard said, money doesn’t talk it swears.

“Morning babe”

Janice startled me out of my thoughts and I glanced at the wall clock. 7:30 – time flies when you browse. 

“Morning gorgeous – there is still some coffee in the press”

“I am on that diet thing. No coffee for two weeks, no alcohol, no fat.  I think an amoeba has a more varied diet”

I smiled as I looked at across at her and wondered again at my good fortune. Even first thing in the morning with tussled hair, no makeup and old baggy pyjamas, she torn at my heart strings. And other less altruistic places.

“Don’t get any ideas big boy, I have to get ready for work” and she skipped lightly out of the kitchen, a glass of some hideous green juice in her hand.

She was always on some health kick or another, even though all the empirical evidence seemed to suggest she did not need it.  She wasn’t vain, well, she was as vain as any woman about her looks but the health diets were exactly that. Just maximising the strong natural genes she had been borne with.

By 12, Janice was long gone and I had finished a rough draft of the report on a new application. Gone were the days where any cowboy (or girl) could post a program on the web and expect millions to download it without thought. So many infections, hacks and plain theft had left a trail of disillusionment in its wake and opened up the once niche area of software testing.

The field had widened so quickly that the skilled software engineers and the training colleges had been blindsided and were struggling to keep up. Besides, the sort of work I did, almost exclusively with the blue chip companies, took years of experience to perfect. Of course, the demand would eventual peter off, IT was like that, but at the moment I was reeling in a fortune. C'est la vie.

Brownie, a Finnish O/S hacker who  I knew from back in the days I  worked at Connaught, pinged me just as I was about to break for lunch. Hadn’t heard from him for ages

“Hey Cisco, how’s it hanging”

“Hey Pancho!. Long time kemosabe”

Brownie and  I had been  on the  same team and as I was the older, the gunslinger  terminology had  crept in and we never really dropped it.

“So what’s on your mind stranger?”

“Check your mail. Just got this in from the DoD and  thought of you. A terrorist virus, right up your alley”

“A what?”

“Read the mail.  I have to run. Ping me when you have read it, tell me what you think”

“Will do partner. Where are you now?”

“Talk later, really under the gun here.  Let us know”

“Sure thing Pancho. Hi ho silver and away, eh?”

“You know it. Talk soon”

And he was gone but I was already opening my mail client. Brownie was another weirdo like me, playing mind games with computers and making a fortune hacking code that nobody would ever read.  But we were the good guys, the “white hats”, defending the innocent and the ignorant from a world of pain and misery. Like the sheriffs and gunslingers of a different age, the same skills that made you good at one would equally equip you for the other; it was a conscious choice, not happenstance. So Pancho and Cisco wasn’t casual nomenclature either.

The file Brownie (aka Pancho) had sent through was a sanitized version of a restricted NSA report on a new hacking group called BlueFin. Like many of the more serious hacking groups before them, they had a “manifesto”, which is basically a bit of psychobabble meant to give such groups and their disruptive actions a moral superiority. Cyberspace was full of such self-justifying vigilante groups, nothing unusual there.

The blurb, sorry, Manifesto, was a rail against technology and how it was turning the world into a technocracy, ruining traditional lives and livelihoods, a blight on civilisation. I had to smile wryly; a hacking group that decried technology sounded like a butcher signing on to the “Meat is Murder” campaign.

I was almost ready to close the file and move on to lunch when I remembered it was Brownie who sent it on. For all our light hearted banter, Brownie was far from a fool and I assumed he thought the same of me. So there was a reason he sent this drivel onto me, a reason it warranted NSA security protocols. If it was a joke, someone was taking it seriously and if that someone included Brownie, well, I had to give it more than a quick glance.

I read over the rest of the groups verbiage and the on to the NSA’s analysis. Never an exercise for the faint hearted, the NSA documentations were renown for being precise and thorough, which took away a large chunk of the readability so it was another half an hour or so before I finished the first dozen or so pages.

Absorbed, I grabbed a tub of yoghurt from the fridge and went over the summary again and then started to go through the appendices and code snippets. Whatever failings this BlueFin Alliance (their words not mine) might have had, technical incompetence was not one of them. The  “Manifesto” contained code samples and explanations of  the  virus they had  released and read like a textbook for Black Hats.

They also took the trouble to explain that the virus had been released and had been in the wild for some time as a “Trojan zombie”. Again, these are not my words but the accepted description for hidden malware that is activated by a “trigger” event, usually a network signal or an auspicious date. BlueFin claimed their trojan was a firmware exploit that they promised would infect every known PCB, Embedded device, Phone or computer on the planet; basically anything with a “smart chip” onboard.

My mistake, not would but had. They stated rather flatly that they had already implanted the device on over 90% of the world’s logic circuits. The release of the manifesto was post trigger as they had chosen May 1st, International Worker’s Day, two days previously. Once infected, the Trojan released its payload and then erased itself – something like the self-destructing messages in Mission Impossible. 

The only thing that would remain would be a small “marker” , a lowercase BC (for Blue Code, they explained) in a circle, much like a copyright or trademark symbol. This would have no effect what so ever on the device or the payload, just a little reminder that they were real and the code had executed. God, hackers are such egotists.

Of the “payload” itself, basically it would make the device unstable. How unstable was unpredictable except if the firmware was tampered with, then it would trigger a self-destruct response which would basically wipe the firmware in its entirety. The unpredictable response was an attempt to make computers more fallible, more human and supposedly liberate the world from the tyranny of accountants, the tech giants and the false prophets of social media.

But by then I had switched off the political claptrap and was more interested in the technical side. Sure, anything in IT was possible but probable was a whole different question. Ever since there were networks, and even before, there were hackers. From Mitnick to Assange, the peeping toms were part of the nature of the whole show. Indeed, well over half my income came from combating these usually immature kiddies or their more organised brethren in Governments and Corporations. Everyone wanted a piece of the action.

Naively, I inwardly thanked Brownie for contacting me. If even half of what this BlueFin touted was true, this was ground breaking stuff. Or perhaps earth quaking was a better metaphor. Firmware hacks were well known, indeed I had half a dozen tools on a secreted hard drive that claimed they could do the same.

But each were very much product specific and by nature targeted a specific set of devices that were usually patched by the manufacturer in due course. So Zero Day exploits were the key but, like I say, they were usually targeted. A random trojan that could infect all devices was something out of science fiction.

I pinged back Brownie, only to get a brush off.

“Catch you at half-mast. May you ride the wild buffalo forever”

It took me a moment to decrypt as it had been a while but I typed back

“Hi Ho Silver”

And his connect went dead.

 

 

The door slammed and I could hear Janice cursing.

“Bad day at work dear?”

I called out from the mess of my desk where I had spent the rest of the afternoon checking the firmware of various devices I had access to. Sure enough, there was the small blue marker with the circle and the letters BC in the middle. Arseholes. I took security seriously, made my living from it and for someone, anyone to breach my various protections I took as a personal insult. Sure, such things were possible; most users were technical idiots but my systems? My devices??? I understood what it must feel like to be robbed and pillaged. It should only happen to other people, not me.

Janice headed straight for the liquor cabinet and poured a stiff Martini. Janice liked her drink but she had an etiquette about it. A pre-diner cocktail, a glass or two of wine to relax, a martini at a club but a two fingered martini straight after work was a true rarity and made her reply redundant.

“A shit. A fucking shit of a day”

She finally gasped as she recovered from the heavy slug of the gin bomb she had concocted.

I had been looking forward to telling her about the BlueCode/Blue Fin Alliance thing. Although not a nerd, she did like the weird side of my work as long as I kept the technical talk to a minimum. A bit of a greenie herself, I was sure she would find the BlueFin group interesting and besides, I hadn’t talked to anyone bar Brownie about it all and was itching to let it all out.  But now was obviously not the time.

“Come sit down, relax, tell Papa all about it”

She did not need to be asked twice. In reality, she didn’t need to be asked at all as the apartment was hers as much as it was mine. But I asked anyway and she accepted in the same spirit and lay back on the couch as I fussed in the fridge retrieving some cheese and crackers while she began a litany of the horrors of the day.

The car hadn’t started. The bus was overcrowded and the air conditioning did not work. She had been trapped in the lift at work for 15 minutes with two sweaty cyclists.  The printer did not work, the network kept dropping out, the battery in her phone had died and she had needed to keep it on charge most of the day.  There were three separate false fire drills that had bewildered the Fire Warden as much as the staff and put everyone in a snarky mood. Finally, the bus home had broken down and she had had to walk the last kilometre.

“Your technology failed me today dear” she said with a half-smile and downed the last of the martini, waving the empty glass at me for a refill. I mixed her another gin bomb and snuggled up to her on the couch.

“So how about your day? “

It was hard not to see a correlation between all these failures of hers and the BlueCode threat but one lesson I had learnt in my years in the business was never jump to conclusions.  Besides, I could see that Janice was not up for a technical discussions and I her current state of mind, a conspiracy theory was hardly going to help her relax.

“Same old same old. The networks are taking over the planet, Skynet is only months away, we are all doomed so take off those shoes and let me give you a foot rub”

Janice took a bath and we ordered out for dinner and she was in bed by 9, which was fortunate as 9pm was the half-mast Brownie had mentioned and Buffalo an old p2p chat app I developed way back when. Brownie was probably the only one left who could remember it and definitely the only one who still had an working copy.

“Cisco”

“Pancho”

“You read?”

“Iya kemosabe”

“You a believer?”

“Checked my kit and have blue circles to the wazoo”

“Really? I thought you of all people would be immune to such plays”

“Old age mate. “

“I doubt it. All the kit at the DoD is infected as well, so you are in good company”

“You think they are listening?”

“Who? The  DoD or BC? Anyway, I thought this app was supposed to be bullet proof”

“It is, or  was, I don’t know anymore. DoD is infected? Shite, BC have some heavy weight in there”

“We suspect there are heavies involved. Thing is too far reaching and well coded to be a bunch of script kiddies. The manifesto is probably just a decoy for a blind duck hunt of the Peking variety. Nobody really knows, all a bit too real atm“

“What about you? Scared”

“Not scared but …. Worried is probably the better word”

“Yeah, can dig it. J said there  was a whole bunch of breaks at the office today; printers, elevators and the like. Hard not to be paranoid”

“Yeah, I am noticing the same thing over here. People are blaming it on bad service and goods, which seems to be the case lately. But you have to wonder…”

I wanted to mention the disappearing plane from the previous night but decided that definitely sounded paranoid and let it slide. Brownie being “worried” was of real concern as he was definitely a cool player and understated everything. Worried for Brownie was the equivalent of being frozen in terror for any normal person and I felt a chill tremble through my body.

“What about this reverse engineering stuff – and the supposed logic bomb if you try a firmware burn?”

There was a pause and a sigh.

“Confirmed. Tried it on a couple of boards here and got a high pitched screech and a message on the screen saying ‘BFA says go fuck yourself’ and then darkness. Arseholes. Current theory is that it overheats the processors just after wiping the firmware and the result is a dead brick.”

There was a pause as the import of what he was saying sunk in. This was not just a laptop thing but all those logic circuit boards rolled out across the land in everything from traffic lights, to routers, cars and yes, even planes. Maybe Skynet was real after all.

“Weird thing is, the CRC still checks out. Like how can you change code and still maintain the CRC? It is impossible but true. Tested across hundreds of devices, all with the blue circle, all the same. Does not make sense. “

I hadn’t thought to check the CRC but I trusted Brownie on this. All firmware had a bit count that had to match exactly with the original file, a precaution against tampering. The system was decades old and foolproof – well, supposedly. The CRC was supposed to confirm that the file or transmission had not been tampered with and yet all these machines had obviously been stamped with the BC symbol.

We hashed it out for another hour or so but got no further than when we started. The world as we know it had been upended by an unknown group of uber actors and there did not seem much we could do about it. Promising to call again if anything changed, he warned me not to talk about the hacker side of it

“Not even Janice. My guess is there is going to be enough panic as it is and as far as we know, the manifesto was only sent to the DoD. So any leaks and my neck is on the line. Be cool.”

 

 

Somehow I got to sleep. I played around with the various devices for some time to confirm what Brownie said –the CRC/Check Sums were intact even though they displayed the modified blue circle. I did some research on the connect to see if there were any other reports of either BlueFin or systemic failure but besides the usual conspiracy theorists, everything seemed normal Still, I tossed and turned before finding sleep and my dreams were full of exploding aircraft and compacting shower stalls.

Janice was gone by the time I woke, an oddity in itself. There was a note on the fridge saying she had an early meeting and that the stove seemed to be playing up, if he could be a dear and have a look.  I shrugged and got yoghurt out of the fridge which seemed oddly warm. I tried the light switch but it was dead as well. At least that explained the stove.

Not that it explained why a high end apartment with its own large genset in the basement should be without power. I tried to ring maintenance but only got an engaged signal so took a cold shower. Not that that was my intent but the hot water was out as well. At least it woke me up and I started to think that the Blue circle and this debacle of a morning might have been related.

I told myself not jump to conclusions as I towelled dry in the chilly bathroom. Coincidence had a habit of making fools of the best of us so best to play it by the rules: test any hypothesise, confirm then test again. If this was the beginning of the BC attack, there would be enough panic to go around and a level head would be a distinct advantage.

So by the time I had dressed, I had zoned into my professional mode, avoiding emotive responses, concentrating on fact and logic (the two were not always the same). I pulled out my work tablet but, unsurprisingly, the apartment connect was dead. Unusually late going to bed, I had not put my phone on charge and checking it, there was barely 30% charge. Mail seemed to be working, which was a relief until I read some of the headers and all seemed to be warning of system outages

I rang both the super and Janice but no answer. Sitting in the filtered natural light of the balcony windows, I had a hollow feeling in my stomach. What if this whole BC thing was not a charade but real and 90% of the world’s electronics were currently in a state of meltdown? It wasn’t a question of what would be affected but rather what would not be.

I pulled out an old power bank and plugged the phone in before setting it up as a hotspot. My mind was racing, working through the various scenarios but trying not to commit to any one in particular.  I rang the maintenance number but it was still busy – which was logical if the whole building was without power. I tried to ring Janice’s number again but that rang out. Logically speaking, she was probably in a meeting but a shiver ran up my spine anyway.

Internet seemed to be working on the phone at least. I took several deep breaths and felt a little relieved that the whole world was not yet crumbling. The civilization as we knew it might be in free fall but I could get the network. Work the methodologies, don’t take anything at face value, test, confirm and test again.

It was like wandering through a city under siege. Half the most popular sites (google, amazon, fb and the like) were showing 404 although I could see the servers themselves were up. Those sites that still existed had large chunks missing, like bomb shattered buildings with the stairwells still intact.  There were some rumours of sunspot activity and EMP “bombs” but nothing about Blue Circle and all the major news sites were down or keeping mum anyway.

About an hour into this wonderland of decay, the lights suddenly blared on and the apartment filled with all the normal noises of modern living; air circulating, timers pinging, the rumble of the refrigerator, the buzz of lamps. I had not realised how silent it had been until the noise returned. Almost simultaneous, my phone began to screech, startling me.

“Janice”

“Mickey. Where have you been? Your phone has been engaged all morning and I could not see you online”

I explained I had been trying to ring her as well but the phone had gone all weird. She said the same had been happening everywhere.

“Work is a mess. Without phones and internet, we are dead in the water. It is like Zombie land here – everyone listless and bewildered. If a phone goes off, everyone suddenly comes to life, checking to see if it their phone. If it wasn’t so depressing, it would be funny”.

“Anyway, you are the Internet guru; tell me what is going on Mr IT Guy”

I wanted to tell her, really, but Brownie was right, no way would Janice be able to resist the pressure to tell everyone about BC. Hell, I was finding it hard enough and I knew the repercussions.

“Uh, the news groups are talking sunspot activity”

It was lame and Janice would know it but a promise was a promise and anyway, I had no solid proof bar the ravings of a hacker. At that moment, and for obvious reason, I chose to ignore the little blue circle that had spread across all my devices like some virtual bubonic plague.  Test, confirm and test again, right?

“Hmm, ok big boy, whatever you say. At least the phones are working now. Place was a wreck when I came in this morning. None of the electronic doors worked and no elevators. But that did not really matter as there was no air con or lights anyway so we sat across the road and drank coffee from a gas powered mobile café.  I would have come home but the traffic was insane – no traffic lights and cars stalled all over the place.  That sun spot sure as hell was some big one!”

I could hear the scepticism in her voice but without revealing my sources, there was nothing more I could say. I told myself I could explain it all later.  

“Well, you wouldn’t have improved things by coming home aytway. The electricity has only just come back on.”

And so it went, we compared stories but as my phone was about to expire, I had to cut the call short. I realised I was ravenously hungry and put together a hot breakfast of eggs, toast and coffee while my phone was charging.  Which is just as well as barely had I sat down again when the electricity died again.  And so it continued for the rest of the day.  

On the third or fourth attempt I managed to get hold of the super. We were old acquaintances and he knew my interest in technical matters so he gave me the full story that I summarised that although the genset was operational,  the switching equipment and line conditioning units that took over when the main power failed was not. So there was power just no way to connect it. The weird thing is that at times it would work, the power would flow then without rhyme or reason it would shut down again.

Which sort of correlated with my own experience on what remained of the web. Sites and applications would appear and disappear again at random. Large chunks of the larger sites would become accessible then inaccessible seemingly at a whim. There were some mutterings on the blogs about a virus but the whole thing was too massive and no one could believe that a single virus could cause such widespread chaos. It just didn’t make sense; the worst viruses in history had been targeted attacks that had spiralled out of control in the days, weeks and months following the initial infection. But not everything.

The whole Sun Spot theory did not hold much water either but it suggested planetary sized intervention, which suited some of the theorists. The so called CME magnetic spikes the sun gives out on occasion could logically take down the power grids and satellite systems but it was unlikely to affect computers more than momentarily and which a reboot would remedy. There would also be a correlating “northern lights” effect around the world and neither of these events were reported.

Of course, by now I was positive about  the cause, if not the solution. I worked through some of the code that the Manifesto contained but they did not make a hell of a lot of sense to me – I was an applications developer, not a systems guy. Synchronicity must have kicked in as going through the code, the lights flickered back on and in minutes, my Buffalo app sprang to life with a message from Brownie.

“Hi Ho Cisco, how’s things in your part of this freak show?”

“Pancho. What the hell man? Freaky is the word”

“Yeah, flapping in the wind. So before we get thrown off again, I’ll cut to the chase. BC is worldwide. Don’t know how the fucker did it but they did as the behaviour is fairly consistent across the  globe. All planes and mass transport has been shut down – we are spreading the sun spot story here but elsewhere they are blaming everyone from Russia, US, China and so on. Could get nasty except it will have to be carbines and WW2 cannons as any weapons bigger than a pop gun these days are chipped and yes, you guessed it, inoperable. Silver lining and all that”

“Fuck, any sign of a fix?”

“No idea. As systems come back online, nothing suggests why they went offline. When they crash, is also seems to have no rhyme or reason. It is all like some giant cosmic pinball machine just bouncing silver balls around at random. Everyone here is going crazy”

“Yeah, I bet. Minds the size of planets don’t cope with the unknown any better than us mere mortals. Same thing happening here and at Janice’s work. Any further words from the folk at the Blue Circle?”

“You haven’t mentioned BC to anyone I hope?”

“Mums the word Poncho. Though I feel a bad not telling Janice – she is pretty shook up by it all”

“We all are bro. Just chill. But we have had one more missive from the doomsday boy. I’ll send it through but same protocol. If you leak this shit now, you will probably end up on treason charges, if they bother to charge you at all. Most likely you would just disappear. Sure you want to look?

Brownie could play games as well as anyone and delighted in practical jokes but I could tell he was serious about this all. If word leaked and riots or worse ensued, treason would probably be one of the lesser charges. There were those who fucked with the DoD and got away with it I am sure but off hand I could not name you one.

“Sure, I’m game”

Barely the words were out of my mouth and I heard the ping of a file being transferred.

“Shrinks here reckon it is a single coder. Personally I have my doubts – it is like the Mona Lisa, the Nightwatchman and Irises all rolled into one and somehow working. If it is a single guy, he is one mofo of coder, nobody I have ever heard of can code so clean. And remember, what he sent is in “C” – it would have to be interpreted into everything from machine code to java to have the sort of effect we are seeing.”

“Hey Poncho, it sounds like you are in love”

“Maybe I am. That code is so … “

And the line cut again – must have been his end as lights were still steady here.

We had discussed the downside of a fully connected world back when Brownie and I were virtual new bloods to the game.  Brownie had pooh hoo-ed the idea, quoting the original design specs of the internet and how it was built to be decentralised, a fully distributed network where each node was independent yet part of the whole mesh. A grand scheme that would take something like 90% damage before it started to crumble.

The single page pdf that Brownie had sent through reiterated the fact though pointed out with corporatization and profit taking, that shield of 90% had been reduced to something like 50% as nation states and profiteers centralised the original design for profit and power. But, as it pointed out, that was irrelevant as the BFA design had infected well over 90% anyway - a proof of concept virus with the intent to destroy the power of the cartels and governments.

In a bit of showmanship (like I say, hackers are egotists at heart) he had made his hack self learning and mutable. They said they had no control over this, it might self destruct, it may gain control, but any attempt to influence or stop this “evolution”(his words not mine) would be futile and result in the self-destruction of the device, as Brownie had confirmed.

We had given control of our lives, our finances, our learning and our conversations to the digital construct. What the BFA had engineered was a mere adjunct to that – the governments and cartels that had tried to control would now find themselves curtailed by the very tools they sought to dominate with  The only thing bigger than those players were the machines and networks themselves and it was only right and fair that the revolution started with those constructs.

I leaned back in my chair as the lights flickered and then extinguished; a sort of poetic denouement to accompany the hacker’s words. Sitting in that sway-backed chair in the half-life of the natural glow the balcony’s door shed across my desk, the blue screen of my computer obliterated with the black and white manifesto, I was chilled to my bones.  This guy, girl, group, whoever had successfully implemented what yesterday I would have deemed impossible. A single group had brought the world as we had known it crashing down and left only an uncertain future in its place.

It was inevitable that the imagery of Skynet, that improbably science fiction Terminator tale leapt to mind but it was the scene of Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes, on his knees and decrying the stupidity of humans that more took my imagination. We had known this was possible, every doomsday conspiracy theorist had predicted something similar. We hadn’t ignored the threat we just hadn’t done enough to protect it.  If Brownie and the DoD were correct, one lone gunslinger had done the job. 

I felt depressed, impudent; I had spent half my working life double checking applications for security holes and had missed the real danger, the sub-systems that supported all this tom foolery we did with digital machinations. Like building brick kilns while Mt Vesuvius bubbled in the background and like Pompeii, the fallout from this eruption would obliterate life as we knew it, freezing us all in a moment of time that could never be regained.

My job, my life, the reason for my existence had been flash fried by some nameless vigilante who signed the world away with a fillet of code stamped with a blue circle. I imagined him leering (funnily, I always saw the culprit as male, as though a woman would be incapable of such a fiendish action) and although generally not a violent person, I wanted to smash his face in, pound away until the leer was a smear of blood and gore on the ground. That is how far I had gone into self-pity and fear.

I was startled again as the electricity came back on and again I realised just how much I depended on all the accruements of the digital age.  Not just the internet and the entertainment, but all the timers, the chillers, the grillers, the security systems, car ignitions, the elevators and escalators,  the toys, the music, that static background chatter that defined the new world.  Perhaps gone for good but humans are resilient creatures and the resumption of the electricity gave me hope that maybe all was not lost.

I have a healthy ego, I am a programmer after all, but I also knew that some of the best minds in the country, if not the world, were working on the issue. Still, it intrigued me and in some weird communal way, I felt just the effort would be token solidarity with those boffins charged with the real work. And who knew, a different perspective can sometimes be as useful as a whole raft of technical skills.

So I spent the rest of the day, in between blackouts and moments of angst, revising my knowledge of C and machine code that I had not used since college.  A whole different world to the RAD tools that were my bread and butter and I began to have a grudging respect, interspersed with  bouts of pure hatred, for the hacker who not only knew this stuff but who obviously excelled at it.  As I often wondered about the more skilled hacker, I could not understand why they were not out there making a motza from legitimate code.

For it was good, Brownie was right. Even from my limited and mostly forgotten knowledge of the language, I could tell that the programmer was a master at their craft. Faking a CRC check sum was not trivial but most of the documents I read that day declared it as possible, the most common MD5 check sum susceptible to a “collision attack” – whatever that meant.  The probability of doing it on such a massive scale was a whole different aspect though and nothing that weird had been seriously discussed on any of the forums I read.

On a more human aspect, I followed the news, or what remained of the news. Most of the overseas feeds were down as the satellites, those massive constructs of technology, were hit early in the peace. Most of the television stations were off air or on limited broadcasts using analogue signals that had been made defunct a generation before.

The  most apparent thing was nobody had really thought it through, at least on the commercial level. There was no “backup” to digital, we had ploughed in and harvested the digital age without barely a question on what would happen if these systems failed us in a cataclysmic manner as we were now seeing. There were redundant systems but they were copies of the original and prone to the originals vulnerabilities.

Firewalls, security perimeters, fail safe cut-outs were all rendered useless by a hundred lines of assembler code that attacked from within. The grandmother of all Trojans that ignored all the finery and frippery of applications and operating systems and went straight to the heart of the system; the machine code itself.

When Janice came home, I was still wondering and fretting. She was in a mood from hell; scared and angry and confused. Again she went straight for the gin bottle, an anomaly I would not have believed possible a week before – a day before! Two nights in a row but these were trying times, a digital biblical plague of locusts and I understood and for the first time in a long time, I joined her as drowning in alcohol seemed the only appropriate thing to do.

She raised her eyes and then her glass, acknowledging the shared despair. We had no words, needed no words, for the moment we were two frightened animals crouching in fear at the oncoming lights that surely would crush us.  For a few moments we wallowed in primordial terror of the face of the digital madness that surrounded us. But a couple of mouthfuls of gin and we were back in spirit, literally.

“So tell me Mr Brainiac, what’s going on?”

“Err, I don’t know, nobody seems  to know”

Janice gave me one of her “looks”. She has always been able to read me, which according to everyone else in my life is not an easy feat. It was a part of the reason why we had been a couple for so long but it had its downside. Like now when I ached to unload my burden and share the knowledge of the BlueFin and their machinations but for Brownie and loyalty and the promise of retribution that  would follow. She knew I was holding back and seemed confused as to why.

“Ok then, no answers from the Oracle? Then I am going to get washed up while we still have some hot water. I am sure there is some frozen pizza in the ice chest that will go off if this electricity thing continues. How about you put that on while I am in the shower?”

And that was that, the closeness we had just experienced disappeared into the ether and we were just two more people surviving the digital collapse. I wanted to hold her close, tell her of madmen with virulent code and warped perspectives, of my fear and despair during the day, of my talks with Brownie and the widespread nature of the disaster but I held my tongue. It seemed she had waited a split second, to see if I would come clean but then shrugged and headed for the bathroom.

Dinner was a lacklustre affair of reheated Italian bread and a bottle of nondescript Pinot Noir.  Conversation was sporadic and desultory, the elephant in the room being the incipient collapse of society as we knew it but a trust had been broken and Janice asked me no more direct questions, jst recounted the myriad ways the system had failed her during the day. With impeccable timing, the electricity died again just at the end of our meal and it was with almost relief that we took the half empty gin bottle into the bedroom.

In the eerie shadows of a quintessent moon, we talked for a while but finally fucked in the darkness like furtive animals. There was no tenderness or sense of sharing, just two lonely scared people seeking comfort and release in the most available form. In was as though the virus had broken the barriers of logic boards and infected our life, perverting and altering one of the little stabilities in my life. In a weird twist, I believe that our son, Jeff, was conceived in that night, in the darkness of that soulless act.

We both feigned sleep afterwards, scared or ashamed at what had just happened. When I did eventually fall asleep, I dreamed of the now familiar cramped toilet cubicle in a grounded aircraft, shrinking and compressing while I crouched and huddled in fear and impotence.

 

 

When I awoke the next morning, the room was flooded with the clearest light I could ever remember seeing. Everything seemed super real, every detail vivid and sharp as though overnight my eyes had invented a new way of seeing, a new clarity of vision that showed me a world so sparkling and new that it hurt.

Janice had already left, a note on the table said as far as she could tell everything was back to normal so she had a tonne of work to catch up on and not to expect her till later that evening. That was twice in as many days that I was the one to sleep in as she started her day.  I did not know it then but it was the start of the downhill slide in our relationship, one that would result in her leaving with our new born son barely a year later.

But as always, hindsight imbues things with a significance that is lost at the time. I was more intrigued that Janice believed the world was back to its old self and not so concerned about the finer details of our life. Still, I put the kettle on and ducked in for a shower – expecting that this was just the calm before yet another storm and I wanted to face the day clean and refreshed while it was still possible.

Off course, I checked my phone first – who doesn’t? – and the normal deluge of mail was there. Well, more than normal as the backlog from the previous day had crammed my inbox to capacity. So a good sign but then so was the steam coming off the shower and I put the phone down. The world could wait.

Well, for 15 minutes anyway. That’s how long it took me to shower and make a large cup of Columbian and once again log on to my console. A quick scan seemed to confirm that all systems were back online and the blogs were full of the “glitch” that would come to be known as “D Day”- the “D” an acronym for “death” or “Digital”, take your pick.

Whatever name you gave it, it appeared to have been world wide as people woke up to their own sunrise and logged on and told their tales of misery.  From what I could tell, the moment the systems stabilised was midnight in each time zone.  Sun spot or the Coriolis Effect seemed to be the most ascribed cause with only a few brave and perhaps more intuitive souls put forward the idea of a virus.

When eventually the news of a new blue circle containing the initials “BC” stamped onto the hardware of bios and firmware began to circulate, rather than seen as the cause of the disaster, it was ascribed legendary status as the “fix” that had solved the problem (though the cause of the problem was still being debated ). I later wondered if, rather than history being written by the victors, it was in fact propagated by the ignorant and unknowing.

At the time, I was absorbed following the voluminous blogs and chats that described the different ways the “D Day” had disrupted the daily lives of billion and the almost unanimous consensus was that people felt isolated, stranded and displaced by the sudden cessation of all things digital. We all knew that we used the connect too much, had translocated almost everything we could into a digital format but it was not until BC that we realised just how dependant we were on keeping that signal alive.

Literally overnight a whole movement had sprung up to roll back the clock, to revert the main control systems to analogue, lobby groups to push for redundant, parallel mechanical systems where ever possible, protest meetings to force Telco’s back to copper, manifestos that decried our reliance on electricity, indignant blogs that blamed the whole event on conspiracies, on complacencies, on wilful negligence, on corporate greed – basically any target the writers had always decried and now felt they had something worthy to sink their teeth in.

The various movements died out of course. There was no logic in the rants and certainly no awareness of the costs and technical challenges to turn back the clock. Besides which, whole generations had grown up fixated by the immediacy of their technical gadgetry and had neither the skills nor the patience to go back to a time when encyclopedias were on book shelves, not back pockets and communications needed to be planned, not ad hoc texts from random locations.

I had turned off this mummery early in the peace, more bored than informed by the babble of complaints and cries. But on that day, like Janice, I had work to catch up on and, still unsure that the crisis was really over, some correspondence to get off before it all fell over again.

“Hey amigo, all normal here on the western prairie, though the tumbleweeds are rolling and the prairie dogs are howling.  What’s the weather forecast from up in the highlands?”

To Brownie of course and yes, a bit immature and all that but I was sure he would get what I meant and baffle anyone else. After all, he was the one that started the secrecy stuff and it kept with the western theme we used as a codec between us. There was no immediate response so I poured another coffee and started in on the backlog of neglected correspondence.

It is a miracle how the mind can construct its own realities and histories. By the time Brownie got back to me and Buffalo pinged at the bottom of my screen, I had to think for a second on who it could be, the whole BC thing had gone clean out of mind while I tackled the more mundane tasks of my existence.

“Hombre. Nothing but us coyotes up here though storm clouds maybe on the horizon. You have some time for an old cowpoke, partner?”

“Hey Poncho. Flat out catching up on mails and dying for a break. So our little problem yesterday seemed to be a flash in the pan? You guys sort it?”

“Love to claim ownership but it resolved itself. Perhaps just a warning shot though now everyone is on double alert. Mind you, still some weirdness in the gold mine”

“Resolved itself? Most people here thought the world was about to end. All weird if you ask me”

“Yeah, same over here though resolved seems probably a bit conservative”

“Conservative? What do you mean?”

“Early days yet but there have been some interesting side effects”

“Like?”

“Run a bench test on your computer”

That threw me a little. Not what I expected at all but Brownie always had his reasons so I ran a compact stress test while I refreshed my coffee

“Weird but I’ll bite. 8.4 using Holman’s Nexus. What’s the point?”

“Normal?”

“Up a bit. I usually get 8.2’s but I guess its feeling perky today. What’s your point?”

“That’s just it. Everything is performing just a tweak better than it was 2 days ago. Double checked dozens of machines here with the same results. One or two points up”

“Freaky”

“You said it partner. Too early to say but the only thing that happened out of the ordinary has been … well, you know”

“Sun spots? You betcha”

If Brownie was playing the BlueFin connection close to his chest, who was I to argue. Something was going on for sure. Faster processing from a virus? It sounded like science fiction.

“Coriolis Effect for sure. Keep your eyes out for me, eh? Ask around discretely, see if any of your friends in low places are noticing the difference”

We talked for a while longer before he had to go and I hadn’t been joking when I said I was inundated with work. Nothing new mind you, just the backlog of jobs that had been backing up for a while and the outage the day before hadn’t helped. So we signed off but left me feeling uncomfortable and intrigued by his cryptic message.

So this mysterious machine code that had been somehow distributed to 90% of the worlds electronics by an unknown vigilante, had gone rogue, almost brought the stone age back and now had done an about face and was improving system performance ? Weird and weirder. 

I looked at my computer with some distrust and the queasy feeling that my whole working life depended on it. But could I trust it? Could I trust any digital device? My phone? My car? Maybe this firmware bug was improving my gear but what else was it doing? I was sure Brownie was asking the same questions.

Work or no work, I decided to do a full backup to a NAS drive I kept for that purpose. But the NAS was a smart device, ran on embedded software and firmware. Could I trust that? I fished out an old USB hard drive I had left over from a project a few months ago – at least that unit was pretty dumb and perhaps wasn’t the sort of device that the virus snacked on.

Just to make sure, I booted from an old systems disk I kept for recovery purposes and did a full image. Perhaps it made no difference, perhaps I was being paranoid and anyway, if I tried to recover it, who knew if it would be infected the moment it was back on another device, any device. Feeling paranoid and jumpy, I set it up and then went out for a while.

Enrico, the Super, was in the entrance as I descended in the lift. Again I marvelled at how radiant the world seemed. Just a little better than the day before. But instead of buoying my mood, it sent a shiver down my spine. Everything just a little bit better. With Brownie’s news, I should have been happier but the thought of a virus changing things without choice or volition was unnerving, Enrico was beaming

“Mr Delouses, beautiful morning, no?”

“Hi Enrico. I see you sorted out the problem with the generator!”

“I would love to take credit sir, but this is all mains power” he literally beamed ear to ear, the wide happy smile almost splitting his face in two “Mind you though” he winked conspiratorially “I did a test this morning and the beast was purring like a cat. If you ask me, she is running better than I have ever seen her before”

If he saw the look of dismay on my face, he did not seem to notice it as he turned and went back down the hallway, whistling tunelessly.

I remember walking outside into the morning sunlight and again was struck how orderly, how crisp and clean everything was. I tell myself now that it was my imagination, even in hindsight the changes could not have been so rapid. Perhaps it was just a sense of general relief among my fellow citizens. After the day of near crisis and the faint taint of doom of the day before, a normal day was a blessing to be savoured. The traffic seemed smoother, quieter, with none of the usual discordant sound of horns, screeching brakes, sirens and the hotheads reving their motors.

With a kind of shock, I realised this is how it should have been, how the city planners and housing developers imagined the world. A synchronised harmony with smiling happy people being courteous and buoyant. For as far as I could see, I was the only one with a frown, unable to shrug off my unease at linking Brownies news with the world around me. I guess I should have been happy, rejoicing in the good life but I could not help but thinking that if it was a virus that had done all this, what would it do next? I shivered.

By the time Janice got home, I had given up all thought of work and had spent the day browsing through blogs and news feeds. The phenomenon was reported everywhere; the crippled systems of the day before were now back online and running better than ever. The conspiracists were out in force, of course and blaming it all on the Chinese, the Iranians, the CIA or whoever their current rant was directed to. To give them their due, at least they had the inkling that something was not right, the majority were just basking in the reprieve from digital meltdown.

Janice was of the later ilk, back to her normal self and sailing in with hugs and kisses.

“What a fantastic day! All that silliness from yesterday just a big glitch in the sun”

Grateful to receive the attention, I closed the computer and the evidence of my Quixotic search for the ghost in the machine.

“So it was sun spots after all?”

She looked at me like an autistic child.

“Oh come on Brainiac, don’t tell me you haven’t been following the biggest story in IT for a decade? It is all over the news channels and people just cant stop talking about it. Apparently the whole world was affected, a once-in-a-lifetime eruption they say must have been the size of the moon. But why I am telling you all this? Surely you have been following it all …”

She petered out, now looking at me suspiciously, like I was a stranger trying to sell her the Brooklyn Bridge.

“What are you hiding?”

“I have been busy catching up. Yes, I read about the sun spots and how everything has come back better before but I am keeping my options open – something weird went on, that’s for sure”

And put my arms back around her but she wasn’t convinced, knew me well enough to know I was holding back somethings. She deftly slid out of my embrace and with forced cheerfulness (yes, I knew her as well as she knew me) declared she was just dying for a shower and scuttled off to the bathroom.

Like I say, hindsight can be a terrible thing. A trust had been broken and I was torn between the professional non-disclosure agreement Brownie had put me under and telling my buddy, my soulmate and my lover. I prevaricated while Janice showered but decided to brazen it through, it wasn’t’ that big a thing and I was nothing if not professional. Nothing being the operative word as it turned out.

We talked about the big D day a little but it was obvious she did not want to go into any depth. I knew she knew I was holding back but did not discuss it. Her former good cheer evaporated and after a lack lustre meal of takeaway Thai, she retired to the balcony and her phone. I went for a walk, feeling morose and guilty and pulled up at the little corner bar not far from home. By the time I got home, buoyed up with alcohol and guilt, determined to tell all, she was in bed with a facemask on and barely stirred when I rolled heavily into bed next to her.

It was another couple of months before I let her in on the secret. By then the world had changed in ways we could never imagine. The electronics just kept getting better, there was no second guessing or performance tests needed. Cheap Asian tv’s had evolved to 4k cinematic entertainment units. Phone batteries began lasting for days, some claimed even weeks. The internet was faster, smoother and humble residential modems were giving service like expensive corporate feeds.

All at zero dollars. Somehow the original BC malware (or upgrade as we had begun to call it) had morphed and morphed again, streamlining and enhancing even relative pieces of junk into flawless jewels of technology. None of the boffins could work it out. They talked of polymorphic algorithms and self-enhancing protocols but nobody really knew. If you tried to disassemble or reverse engineer the code the unit would self-destruct in defiance.

Enough people tried as the litter of circuit boards and warped electrical appliance testified. But far more were interested in how to “infect” their hidden stores of old outdated appliances. It turned out all you need to do was switch it on and connect it to power or the network and the job was done. Wait a week or so with the device powered on and suddenly you had a serviceable, efficient and modern appliance that previously had barely limped by.

Not everything mind you, a souped up commodore 64 was never going to be more than just that. But any reasonable device of relatively recent origin that had been discard due to speed or battery life was soon humming along with the latest offerings. Things were lasting longer, in service longer and our lives improved as the air conditioners, heaters, trains, planes and buses were more efficient, less polluting, smoother, cheaper.

I was in regular contact with Brownie by then, comparing notes and philosophies on the how’s and whys of this most marvellous of technological revolutions that seemed to have no driver and needed no input by the human factor. Digital death could perhaps be explained away by natural phenomena but the evolution of all things digital was nothing that could be ascribed to planetary bodies or electronic emissions. The story of BlueFin eventual leaked out but it was still an anonymous hacker who seemed indifferent to the success of their labours.

It wasn’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth but rather a half truth in the time honoured way of governments everywhere. A statement was released that a hack had been attempted on the entire worlds digital infrastructure and that the measures that the DoD had put in place to stop another such attack happening had had the side effect of improving the said infrastructure.

Which was all a crock of course. According to Brownie, they still did not know what was really going on. They had the original code but nothing they could find in that that would account for the current behaviour although their was an method that opened a port so that the attack could be orchestrated remotely.  So the conjecture was that yet further downloads had upgraded the code but they could not work out why or how the code worked

The original “manifesto” of the BFA had suggested they wanted to bring down the world’s digital paradigm and they had got perilously close to that. So why had they not followed through, why would they have turned around and improved the code to reengineer the firmware for the greater good? It just did not make sense.

Brownie reckoned the current theory was that someone else had hacked the open port – the hacker becoming the hackee – but it still made no sense as any other attempt to attach to the code brought only disaster. Besides which, the code itself had been scrutinised by some of the top “white hats”- the moral hackers – in the world and they had come up with nada.

If there was an injection of new code (and that was something most experts agreed on although nobody knew how) it would have had to have been done by the BFA themselves and since those original two missives, they had disappeared off the planet. The current theory at the time was that because the code had back fired, Blue Fin had called it quits and dissipated into the ether they had originally come from.

When I finally told Janice the full story, the manifesto from Blue Fin, the talks with Brownie, I had thought she would have been mollified, if not exactly overjoyed. Our relationship had turned rocky. She had known I was holding back and I knew she knew but neither of us could cross the divide and fell into a mutual unease, our previous easy relationship devolved to a wary secretiveness made even more complicated when she found out she was pregnant.

I was initially ecstatic about the news but Janice less so, as though the pregnancy was unwanted. Which hurt me more than I let on as we had always talked about kids and our shared desire to enter into that strange world of parenthood. Her lacklustre acceptance of the fact was a cruel blow and I knew I had to regain her trust.

So it was with some relief that I finally felt that the whole BC thing was sufficiently “out in the open” that  I could tell her the whole story without impinging on the promise I had made to Brownie months before. That hindsight I mentioned finally kicked in and I could see that the coolness had began back on D Day.

So I was surprised that rather than happy about the revelation, it made things worse. That I hadn’t trusted her, my friendship with Brownie more important than my relationship with her. The more I talked the bigger the hole I dug myself and finally gave up, shrugged and rather lamely admitted my fault, apologising profusely. She stared at me for some time before shrugging herself and going back to her Sudoku game.  I grabbed my coat and headed down to the bar.

The next few months were both wondrous and depressing. Wonderous because things just kept getting better. My old phone, which I had been thinking of upgrading due to its failing battery and limpid performance suddenly could last a day, two days and then a week between recharges and blazed along happily with whatever task I threw at it.

The same happened with the computers I worked with and just about everything else. The air conditioning and refrigerator were almost silent and issuing a flood of cold air at the lowest setting. Our cars slowly evolved into mini racers that literally purred along the road, yet their gas consumption dropped to half previous levels. Nothing needed fixing or replacing any longer, everything just worked and worked better than before.

It was a marvellous time to be alive. All the potential of the new technological age was being released and for once actually lived up to the claim that it was cost reductive. Planned obsolescence seemed to be itself rendered obsolete as devices updated themselves and extended their usability.  Of course, we did not really know all this at the time, just that things seemed to be working better and people rejoiced.

It was understandable I suppose. Not everyone could afford to upgrade every time the corporations decided that a new feature was incompatible with the old systems.  I understood the profit motive but it had been getting more and more expensive to keep up with the ever changing digital landscape. The original idea that it made things cheaper had grown to be a ludicrous delusion and yesterday’s models littered the land.

So when the old models began to work as good, if not better than the newer units, millions of upgrade purchases were cancelled and the money put to more useful purposes – like a holiday or a night out on the town. My personal depression was that as the devices grew better, my relationship with Janice grew worse, keeping secrets was never a great skill of mine and I truly wanted to share my doubts and take on the whole thing. But until Brownie gave the go ahead, it was professional suicide. Though, again in hindsight, that should have been the least of my fears.  

After my confession, Janice  barely tolerated any mention of my work, making snide remarks about confidentiality and outside loyalties. In return, she rarely mentioned her work and although she was beginning to look very pregnant, she started to refer to our son as “her child” not ours. At the end of a tortuous three more month, she moved out of our place and into  the arms of her bf Clara, who I always suspected had designs on my Janice.

By that time, the honeymoon with the BC virus was starting to affect more than just the digital devices. The first signs of trouble manifested  were the industrial strikes and protests as factories and service centres began laying off staff.  It had started earlier but since most of this was at the overseas factories and so was not immediately noted by the general public.

But at the six months mark, local retailers and repair shops began to also lay off staff and close their doors. The big movers and shakers in the tech business could no longer deny the downturn in profits and with that, the stock market began to slide, with fortunes being lost overnight. The culmination was Tech Tuesday, 9 months after D Day, when almost 50% of stock prices dropped to nothing and the economy began reeling into recession.

The irony was that technology itself was seeing a renaissance. The nanobytes and microcode happily continued improving themselves and the world was dazzled by the excellence of once old and useless devices. Second hand shops did a roaring trade while technical repairs shops dwindled. Nobody knew if it was a regression or a revolution and were torn between self interest and a nervousness about the flow on effects.

Governments and the business community were not concerned with such philosophical questions. Taxes were dwindling, the power structures were realigning and in this brave new world, fear became the dominating emotion. The Chinese blamed the Americans, America blamed terrorists, the tech companies blamed everyone and everything.

But by that time, I was beyond caring. Of course I was retrenched; nobody needed a software tester when the code itself would selfheal in a couple of weeks of regeneration. Janice had already left and by the time little Jeff was born, I was counted lucky to be able to see him before Clara put a restraining order against me and the pair disappeared into the New England area. My once happy world had crumbled to nothing in a short year.

I don’t know where we are headed but I am starting to see every electronic device as an enemy. I haven’t talked to Brownie in an eon and my neighbours treat me as a pariah. Governments are at each other’s throats, refusing to accept the new order and clinging desperately on to their rapidly diminishing power. Protest groups and mobs of the newly redundant are baying for blood and ironically are mobilising through the newly improved and almost impenetrable social media networks.

These days I spend most of my time tracking down BFA, I suppose vengeance is at the heart of it but in the end it is basically the only thing that keeps me alive. I rarely leave the apartment, preferring solitude to the dangers of the unknown, of trying to start again, to move on. I sit here with regret over Janice and a burning desire to destroy the destroyer, to track down and annihilate the BFA, group whoever or whatever they might be.

I know it does not make sense but then nothing seems rational anymore; this desolation caused not by a rebellion of code but by the very act of joining with us to make the world a better place. Another old much worn adage is be careful what you wish for.

And every night I dream of being trapped in a steel and plastic room that grows smaller and smaller on a plane that never takes off. Nothing is ever resolved and most mornings I wake in a cold sweat and a empty pit in my stomach as the apartment merrily hums around me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2019 Paul R. All rights reserved.

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