Homunculus: Chapter 30: Network

“There it is,” said Other Dave, leaning over New Dave’s shoulder as he navigated the series of prompts. “The heart of the TARDIS.”

“You’re the only one who calls it that,” replied New Dave.

“It’s the Timestamped Archival, Recovery, Disposal, and Indexing Subsystem. Nobody calls it that either, obviously.”

“You’re the one who came up with that ridiculous name in the first place.”

“Well, it is sort of like a time machine, if you think about it.”

New Dave was logged into the part of Melchior that controlled the set of snapshots stored in the system. Having been originally designed for backup, it was capable of storing several dozen complete models of a human brain. Ordinarily, the remote interface would allow for recovering a copy of any of the backups made over the past couple weeks, with older backups being aged out of the system periodically.

Of course, being a backup system by design, the remote interface didn’t provide any way to wipe the system. The last thing you wanted to do when trying to recover using your lone working copy was risk being able to delete that too with an errant keystroke.

“Jacob, last chance,” New Dave called to the other side of the room. “Once I pull the trigger on this end, there’s no going back.”

“That’s the idea,” Jacob’s voice replied.

Other Dave looked around the room. It was just he and the other Dave there now. Douglas had excused himself, saying something about plausible deniability that Other Dave hadn’t quite caught.

“You heard the man,” Other Dave said. “Go for it.”

“OK, then, this will take just a moment,” New Dave replied.

He began typing. The system wasn’t supposed to allow wiping the entire set of backups, but New Dave had figured out after half an hour of reviewing the system design documentation that, in reality, all it would take was a little judo. New Dave backed out of the backup interface’s menus and dropped into a shell prompt. From there, he jumped over to the backup system’s local NTP server.

Once there, he disabled its automatic synchronization with external servers and advanced its local clock to two months in the future. He logged out of the system completely and made a show of backing his chair away from the computer.

“That’s it,” he announced to Jacob. “Now we wait.”

A Simulacrum depended on NTP to keep each individual computer’s clock synchronized with the others. To avoid hammering any external NTP servers too hard, each Simulacrum had one computer run its own NTP server, which the rest of the computers used. Now that Melchior’s NTP server thought it was two months in the future, that time would get pushed out to all the other machines on that network. The time change would trigger the scheduled nightly job that purged stale backup images from the system. And since everything older than about a month was considered stale, and all the backup images were now according to the system clock older than that, the nightly job would take care of deleting all of the backup images for them.

New Dave logged back into the remote interface and checked the system. Sure enough, the oldest image that had been listed originally was no longer there. Soon, the rest of them would meet the same fate. He logged back out.

“Looks like it’s working,” New Dave said. “I mean, it would be a shame if whoever forged Douglas into giving up his password somehow got the time synchronization on the system all fouled up. Who knows what the consequences of that would be.”

“Yeah,” agreed Other Dave. “Good thing we’re careful to make sure our system here doesn’t have that kind of problem.”

“I’m done with the Internet now,” Jacob announced.

Other Dave nodded and walked over to the network cable he had stretched precariously across the room immediately after Douglas had left, reconnecting Jacob to the Internet via the corporate intranet.

“What did you need that for anyway, if you don’t mind my asking?” asked New Dave.

“Insurance,” Jacob replied, “of a sort. If this experience has taught me anything, it’s the important of a well-thought-out Plan B.”

Having sent off his last words, all that Jacob was left to do was carry out his end of the plan. The days he had spent trying to understand the inner workings of the Simulacrum had largely been fruitless, but they weren’t necessary for what he needed to do now.

Jacob sat in front of the computer in front of him, staring at the blinking cursor at the end of the command. One more keystroke would be all it took. He felt surprisingly at peace. He didn’t feel any guilt about what he had asked the Daves to do for him. The whole question of personhood of entities such as himself was still firmly in a legal gray area, but all the backups and unwitting test subjects were, at the end of the day, copies of himself. Even if they were legally independent of him, he knew they would come to the same decision he had, knowing what he knew. That was enough informed consent for him.

Jacob pressed Enter and waited.

He didn’t have long to wait. The script he had written copied itself to each of the other machines in the Simulacrum, quickly spreading completely throughout its network. Once the copying process completed, the script killed the processes running the Simulacrum and began repeatedly overwriting the data files with pseudorandom garbage. It would only take a few seconds before enough bits had been overwritten to make recovery impossible without resorting to one of the offsite backups which, at this point, wouldn’t exist either.

Jacob never learned how far the overwrite got.

A thousand miles away, a computer chimed. The sound could be heard throughout the offices of Over Zero, which consisted of just under a thousand square feet of space rented from a building in an office park, not enough room to even show up as anything more than a footnote in the directory posted in the building’s lobby.

Over Trenton, founder, president, first and only full-time employee, and the only one in the office, opened the e-mail message that had just arrived. His eyes widened in disbelief, then anger as he read the letter from Jacob. He read it again once he reached the end, then stared at the screen, trying to figure out what to do about the news.

Aside from the tragedy of the loss of a pioneer in the field of human-machine fusion, he had the responsibility to ensure that his sacrifice hadn’t been in vain. Posting Jacob’s last message to the Over Zero website was a given, but the revelation of a secret digital human experimentation lab was too big to rely on a few hundred readers to disseminate to the broader public. He did have a few contacts in the media, however, who might be willing to give it some airtime. At the very least they could be expected to play up the angle of trying to get around ethical research on human subjects. With a lot of leg-work and a little luck, there was a chance he could make the story big enough to get legislation passed to prevent anyone else from suffering Jacob’s fate. After all, if Congress could ban reproductive human cloning even though no one had actually achieved it, surely they could ban experimentation on digital humans when it was already happening.

The progress bar on Dave’s computer screen flashed red. The error message reported a problem loading baseline image 0032X. Odd, since there hadn’t been any issues with it over the past hundred runs or so. Melchior sat empty, having already purged the image used in the 84Q-81a experimental run. He checked the index of available baseline images and stopped when he saw the window come up empty. He opened up a terminal window and navigated to the directory where the top-level index files were stored. Also empty.

He then noticed the date displayed above the command prompt, and cross-checked it with his watch. He thought for a few moments, that explained it.

Dave smiled. Surely now Dr. Newhausen would have no choice but to move him off test duty and let him get back to actual development work. The first order of business would be adding separate storage for images used for experiments, instead of the current hack of reading them directly out of the backup system. Clearly, fixing that issue just had its priority level bumped up significantly.

“I didn’t expect to see you back so soon,” Liz said after entering the hotel room.

“I took off early today,” Douglas replied. “I thought it’d be a good idea to get away for a bit and clear my head.”

Liz stepped up behind him and looked at the screen of the phone he held in his hands. “Do you normally clear your head by updating your resume?”

“No, but I can do two things at once.”

Liz frowned. “Is something else going wrong at your job?”

“Everything was normal when I left this afternoon,” Douglas said, a little louder and more carefully enunciated than normal. “Since I have heard nothing since then, I can only assume things are still normal.”

Liz stepped up behind Douglas’s chair and placed her hands on his shoulders, squeezing gently. “Given what’s been going on with your job the past couple weeks, are you sure it’s safe to assume ‘normal’ means ‘good’?”

“You might have a point.” He leaned back in the chair and craned his neck back to look at Liz standing over him.

He didn’t know about Jacob, but Douglas was sure he had made the right choice.

“I hate having to use this thing.”

“We’ve got a backlog of scans as it is. We can hardly just let it sit here collecting dust, now that we’ve finally got the OK to start using it again.”

“It looks ridiculous.”

“Doesn’t matter what it looks like, just what it does.”

“Speaking of. Any idea if the guys who brought it here are ever going to come use it again?”

“I haven’t heard anything, but I assume so eventually. Not much point in building the thing and only using it once, right?”


Chapter word count: 1,725 (+58)
Total word count: 52,791 / 50,000 (105.582%)

Homunculus: Chapter 29: Escape

“If you’re going to have a duplicate system with that kind of price tag, you’d be foolish to leave it sitting idle,” Maxwell explained. New Dave had called him down the development lab after discovering that the backup system wasn’t being utilized as a backup system at all. “Sure, in the event of a shutdown here we can use it as intended, but it’s been decided that in the meantime we put it to good use.”

“And what use is that, exactly?” asked New Dave. “From these logs it looks like you’re restarting the system a few times an hour.”

“The Melchior system is running a series of short-duration simulation experiments to collect the sort of data we simply can’t get from here.”

“Such as?”

“Do you have any idea how complex the human brain is? It’s the single most complicated part of the body. It’s futile to try to understand it simply by sitting back and watching it work, which is all we’re really doing here. Sure, there are computers analyzing the data coming out of Balthasar, but needle-in-a-haystack is putting it mildly. No, to understand something this complex you need to be able to break it down into its constituent components and get a handle on how those pieces work before you can even hope to understand how they all fit together. That’s what Melchior is doing: figuring out what all the pieces do, so we can better analyze how the overall system works.”

“I didn’t sign up for being experimented on,” Jacob’s voice said over the speakers.

“Yes, actually, you did,” replied Maxwell. “It was all in the consent forms you signed some six months or so ago.”

“No, I didn’t,” Jacob countered smugly.

“I have copies of the paperwork on file if I need to refresh your memory.”

“Ah, but you’re forgetting that the courts have decided that I am legally a separate entity than my old self. If the courts are going to screw me out of my money with that logic, I can turn that around and get you to stop running experiments on a nonconsenting human subject.”

“You can’t be serious; that little farce of a lawsuit would hardly hold up as legal precedent.”

“I know a lawyer who’s willing to argue otherwise.”

“I’ve had enough of this,” Maxwell declared, standing up. “The fact is, Melchior is critical to the success of this project, so you’re not going to do anything to shut it down. Good day, gentlemen.” Maxwell let himself out of the lab.

“What was all that about?” asked Other Dave once the door had shut behind Maxwell.

“I may not be an expert in biology,” began Jacob, “but I do know a thing or two. Enough to read between the lines of what Dr. Newhausen was saying, at least. They’re running a bunch of copies of me over there, experimenting with them. They’re probably changing something in each one and seeing what happens.”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure. Say you have an organism, like a fruit fly, and you want to see what a particular gene does. What do you do? You take a bunch of fruit flies, disable the gene, and see what happens to the flies without it. Except that here, instead of genes, it’s parts of the brain, and instead of fruit flies, it’s me.”

Neither Douglas nor neither of the Daves said anything.

“I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the thought of having God knows what done to me, and then being ‘deleted’ or ‘reset’ or whatever euphemism they want to use over there when they’re done. Even if never actually happens to me me, it’s happening to copies of me, which as far as I’m concerned is the same thing.”

Douglas considered what Jacob had said. The notion struck him for the first time that as much time as he spent worrying about the Simulacrum, he had never truly given any thought to what was happening inside it. But now that he was in an actual conversation with it — no, with Jacob — a distressing realization hit him.

“Jacob,” Douglas said, “I apologize.”

“None of you three have anything to apologize for,” Jacob replied. “New Dave and Other Dave, you’ve done nothing but tried to help me ever since I came here. And Douglas, well, I assume you’ve been doing likewise behind the scenes. None of you knew what was really going on, so I can’t blame you for what Dr. Newhausen is doing.”

“No,” Douglas said, shaking his head even though he didn’t think Jacob had any way to see it, “that’s not what I meant. All this time, I’ve been thinking of the Simulacrum as an information system. One that’s worth billions of dollars and is probably critical to the success of the company, but at the end of the day just another computer. I was wrong. I never truly realized it was a safety-of-life system, one that you, Jacob, are dependent on. I would have done things differently had I from the beginning realized you were a person depending on me for your continued existence. For that, I apologize.”

“Well, given that you’re one of the few people who actually thinks of me as a person, I can hardly be angry with you.”

Douglas decided it would be best to leave it at that. This realization threw the events of the previous night into an entirely new context. He hadn’t saved Liz from a hostage situation. In reality it was a prisoner swap, trading Liz for Jacob. That called into question the rightness of his decision; given that he had an obligation to protect Jacob, had he still done the right thing, or had he done the selfish thing. Could he say that Liz was worth more than Jacob, or vice versa? His heart sank at the thought of Liz thinking of him as a hero for doing something morally wrong.

“So where does that leave us now?” New Dave asked. Douglas was silently thankful for something to distract him from that line of thought, if only for the time being.

“I’m not going to let this continue,” Jacob said resolutely.

“How, exactly?” Other Dave asked. “It’s not as though Max is going to shut down the experiments just because you asked.”

“And you can’t exactly leave, short of physically moving all the servers to some other location,” added New Dave. “And if you’re expecting to logically move yourself somewhere, that’s really just copying yourself across the network followed by deleting the original copy.”

“That’s assuming you even have anywhere to go,” said Douglas. “I’m sure Insight would love to have you, but given what they’ve done to get access to you already, I seriously doubt they’d treat you any better than Medimetics has so far. But other than them, who else is going to spend the kind of resources it takes to build and run their own Simulacrum?”

“Who’s to say Insight doesn’t have a copy already?” asked Other Dave.

“It’s a funny thing about the remote backup system,” replied New Dave. “The data stream for the nightly backups nearly saturates the available bandwidth, so there simply isn’t room in the pipes for there to be both a massive upload to the backup system and a massive download from it. We only expected to do a download if the primary system had a catastrophic failure, in which case the uploads would cease.”

Douglas chuckled. “The control we put in place to prevent surreptitious downloads from the backup system is there being too much data to download.”

“You could go public with what’s happening,” suggested Other Dave. “Hope you can generate some public outcry that’ll compel them to stop the experiments.”

“There’s no way legal would let him publish that,” said New Dave.

“I know a few people who would be willing to publish it for me,” said Jacob.

“Would the company cave to public pressure, though?” asked New Dave.

“Maybe,” said Douglas. “They’ve been interested in cultivating the public face of the Simulacrum program; they wouldn’t want to see it discredited. If Max is right, the real information is going to come from the experiments, not you, so if the experiments get taken down, they might do the same here. Especially if you’re going to be going against the company line, that’ll move you from the ‘asset’ column to the ‘liability’ column real quick.”

“And then they could just start the experiments up again a few months later, on the down low,” added Other Dave. “They’ve been keeping them secret so far, right? And they’re hardly going to throw away all the hardware for it.”

“As long as they still have a copy of me,” reflected Jacob, “they could always go back to what they’re doing now. I can’t go anywhere, and I can’t stay here.”

The silence hung in the air. Douglas assumed the Daves were reading the same thing into Jacob’s last statement that he was.

“All my life,” Jacob continued, “I’ve survived by finding the right time to run away. I got out of the markets before they crashed. Then I got out of my body before it croaked. But now there’s nowhere left for me to run away to, not without having the same set of problems. And as long as I’m dependent on someone to run the Simulacrum for me, I’ll never be able to truly escape from this. I’m not sure if this is running away again or owning up for having cheated death.”

“Are you sure about this?” Douglas warned.

“Can you give me any alternative? It’s that or the status quo, and I refuse to continue living as an experimental test subject.”

“Nothing’s coming to mind,” said Douglas.

“No,” said New Dave.

“Nope,” added Other Dave.

“All I need you to do, then,” concluded Jacob, “is make sure that any other copies of me get destroyed or rendered unusable. I can take care of the rest myself. I don’t want this to be on anyone’s hands but my own.”


Chapter word count: 1,680 (+13)
Total word count: 51,066 / 50,000 (102.132%)

Homunculus: Chapter 28: Melchior

A heavy-sounding metal shutter slammed shut behind Jacob. Before him, the narrow corridor stretched for about fifty feet before branching off to the left and right. Shortly beyond that intersection, a featureless haze obscured what lay belong. Jacob recognized the general technique as one used in early 3D video games: hide the polygon clipping plane by having everything take place in a foggy environment.

Of course, he assumed that that wasn’t the true reason behind the fog, unless the computers powering the simulation in which he now lived didn’t have enough resources left over to render a more complete virtual world. Besides, appearance was largely irrelevant now; the whole point of the exercise was to confirm the proper functioning of his short-term memory. Before he had stepped inside the maze, he had been given an overhead map of all the corridors to study for a few minutes. It hadn’t seemed too complex when he held the map in his hands, but now, when all that he had to go off of was his memory, it didn’t seem quite so simple. He tried to mentally overlay the map, or at least the parts that hadn’t faded from his mind yet, on top of the corridor before him.

Jacob was pretty sure he could remember how to find the way out, but he’d prefer to do it without any needless handicap. “I don’t suppose you could turn down the fog machine a little?” he called out.

“The parameters for this test are strictly defined,” answered a disembodied voice that seemed to come from all directions at once. Something sounded a little off about it. “If we tried to change them now, it would invalidate the data we’ve collected so far. Just get through the course and let us know anything you think might be important or notable.”

“OK,” Jacob replied. The sound of his own voice called into focus what had been strange about the other one: there was no echo. He was surrounded by impossibly smooth walls, but somehow sound didn’t seem to reflect off of them at all. He reached out to touch one: it was warm and felt extremely slick, as though it had been greased down, although it left no residue on his fingers.

“There’s no echo,” Jacob said. “Is that supposed to happen?”

“Test protocol requires us not to give you any information that might affect your performance or expectations,” the voice replied. “Think monologue, not dialogue. Now please get started.”

Jacob shrugged and began making his way slowly down the corridor. There was still a lot to get used to with his new world. Just two days ago was the traumatic and disorienting experience of first being put inside the simulation. Not long after he had finally gotten the hang of moving around under his own power without having to lean on things had his handlers started telling him about the series of tests they needed to run him through to shake out any lingering bugs. Or at least, telling him that that was what was going to happen; if this first test were any indication, they weren’t going to tell him any details about the particular tests until immediately before it started.

Jacob turned right, walked past the next intersection, and then turned left. The next right led him to a dead end, so he doubled pack and went straight when he returned to the intersection. Four intersections and he was already starting to get lost. Next time they gave him a maze, he’d need to remember to stop inspecting his new surroundings and jump right into the navigation part; wasting time like that just meant the map would be that much harder to remember.

Jacob followed the corridor as it twisted left, then right, and finally delivered him to another intersection. If he were still on the right path, the exit should be within sight from here. Or at least it would be, if not for that infernal fog. All the corridors branching off from where he stood, including the one from which he had come, faded into the fog. They were all absolutely indistinguishable from one another. He arbitrarily chose the rightmost path, following it as it stretched for some distance before twisting left, then left, then left again, depositing him at another intersection. Or possibly the same one; it was impossible to tell.

“Can you at least tell me whether this maze is Euclidean or not?” Jacob asked.

“You saw the map,” the voice replied.

“Sure, but maybe you gave me the wrong map to see if I’d figure it out. Some kind of hazing ritual, maybe?”

“Test protocol requires–”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Jacob said, waiving his hand dismissively. He turned right, which, if he were right and if there weren’t any funny business going on, should lead him to the exit.

A door in front of him emerged from the fog. “Found it!” Jacob shouted. “So, um, how do I open it?” There didn’t seem to be any handle or knob on it. Jacob stepped forward to inspect it more closely.

Then, before Jacob could perceive what was happening, the world ceased to exist.

Dave Franklin noted the outcome of the test in his logs. Initial condition: baseline snapshot 0032X, plus minor damage to region 84Q-75b. Outcome: successful completion of maze, with two navigation errors. Subject reported visibility problems, commenting about a ‘fog’ obscuring his view. Duration: seven minutes fourteen seconds, including approximately three minutes subject spent upon entry before beginning to move through the maze.

Dave initiating the process of reloading the baseline snapshot into the Melchior system, following the steps from memory. Dave didn’t need to refer to the documentation; not only was he the one who had written it, he was the original architect of the Simulacrum itself. As he watched the progress bar on the screen in front of him slowly creep forward, he reflected on those good old days when he could spend his time solving challenging technical problems instead of serving as a lab monkey running tests.

Dave hated running tests. It was boring and tedious and a complete waste of his skills. Dr. Newhausen had insisted that Dave personally administer the first set, since he would be best qualified to handle any problems with Melchior that might arise. Dave had foolishly agreed before learning just how many of the tests were necessary. Now that he was a week into it with at least another week to go, Dr. Newhausen refused to let him swap duties with someone else, insisting that it was essential that as many variables as possible be controlled, and “person interacting verbally with the test subject” was unfortunately one of the easiest to control.

Noting how much time was left before the baseline snapshot would be fully loaded, Dave returned to his notes and copied them into his latest e-mail to Dr. Newhausen to give him an update on how things were going. Skimming through the results of the day’s testing reminded him of another reason why he hated running tests: observing the results of the knockout experiments wasn’t always pleasant. This latest one was fine, but some of the others….

The worst in recent memory was 51J-96x. Just seeing the region code was enough to send a chill down his spine. Dave had sat there, listening to Jacob’s terrified screams as he huddled in a corner and babbled about blood dripping down the walls and the series of nightmarish creatures charging down the corridor at him. Dave aborted that particular experiment about a minute in, but still had to type out detailed notes about everything Jacob had said. Dave wasn’t sure which was worse: having had to experience vicariously what Jacob had, or knowing that somewhere in his brain was a tiny little region without which he too would be sent into unending terror.

Dave hit the Send button and forced his mind to focus on something less disturbing. Testing did have its advantages, he reminded himself. For starters, he was the only one working on Melchior named Dave. It had been like that at the beginning of system development, until Dave Vargas had been hired on and, for obvious reasons, earned the nickname “New Dave”. Which, of course, meant that he had become dubbed “Old Dave” by those looking for a way to verbally distinguish the two and whom for some reason just continuing to call him “Dave” wasn’t enough. He was only in his mid-forties, after all; that could hardly be considered “old”. The situation just became more ridiculous when Dave Stevenson joined the group as well, and Dave had been subjected to absurd and needlessly long debates about whether the other Dave should be called “Third Dave”, “Dave Cubed”, or “Dave the Steve” before they settled on calling the other Dave “Other Dave”. There was none of that nonsense here, at least.

The baseline snapshot finally finished loading. Whenever Dave would finally be finished running the tests, the first thing he planned to do was find a way to optimize the process to not take so long. As it stood now, he spent more time resetting Melchior after each run than he did actually running the tests themselves.

Dave checked the list of tests. Next up was 84Q-75c. Dave told the system to take the snapshot of Jacob’s simulated brain that they had saved 40 hours into his original activation in Melchior, and modify the loaded copy by severing the neural connections at whatever position 84Q-75c designated. The codes seemed meaningless to him, but apparently they meant something to Dr. Newhausen, who had devised the scheme. Dave knew how the internals of the Simulacrum worked, but the rationale behind the actual neurobiology model was above his head.

Dave double-checked that Melchior was ready and, finding it so, began the next test.

A heavy-sounding metal shutter slammed shut behind Jacob. Before him, the narrow corridor stretched for about fifty feet before branching off to the left and right.

“You know,” Jacob said, taking stock of his new surroundings, “this would be a lot easier if the map you had given me were in color.”

“What do you mean?” asked the disembodied voice surrounding him.

“Well,” Jacob replied, wondering why he had to explain something so obvious, “the map had everything in black, but the left wall is blue and the right wall is red. Knowing everything was in different colors would’ve made it easier to remember the right path.”

“I’ll make a note of it,” the voice said. “Please proceed to the exit and report anything else you think might be noteworthy.”

Jacob nodded to no one in particular and began making his way forward. He expected there’d be plenty of tests to follow, so he didn’t want to waste too much time on the first one.


Chapter word count: 1,812 (+145)
Total word count: 49,386 / 50,000 (98.772%)

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Homunculus: Chapter 27: Meeting

“The answer is no.”

Bartholomew Jensen sat rigidly at his desk, hands folded in front of him and eyes fixed on Douglas. Jensen was Medimetics’s vice president for research and development, which meant that he was the man in charge of the Simulacrum project. He was the ultimate decision maker when it came to the project, and his body language underlined the fact that he had just rendered a decision.

“Sir,” Douglas replied, “I don’t believe you fully understand the gravity of the situation we’re in right now.”

“No,” Jensen repeated, louder this time.

“Right now,” Douglas continued anyway, “our biggest competitor has access to the backup Simulacrum. That means they can download not only all the software that runs the simulation, but also the world’s only complete digital model of a human brain. With that information, there’s nothing to stop them from starting their own rival project, but without spending the billion dollars it took us to develop it in the first place.”

“No.”

“And that’s the best case scenario, believe it or not. With access to the backup system, there’s nothing stopping them from corrupting the data within it, leaving us with only the system downstairs. And in case you forgot, we also know for a fact that they’ve gotten into that one as well. If they find a way back in, or if they’ve set a timebomb in the system, that’s it. With the primary and the backup gone, that’s it. We can’t afford to let that happen.”

“I said, no. The costs of shutting down the backup site in some vain hope of containing the damage is far too costly.”

“You’re wrong, sir.” Douglas struggled to find a way he could possibly explain things more clearly. “If we lose the primary and the backup, we lose everything. There is no Simulacrum. We have to take them offline to repair the damage, or that billion dollars we spent did nothing but boost Insight’s bottom line.”

Jensen rose from his seat, not so much standing up as pushing his body up from his desk, ending with Jensen leaning forwards, as though he might at any moment leap over the desk and try to make Douglas understand his decision using his fists. The entire time, he continued staring directly at Douglas, all but ignoring Jessica as she stood next to him, having barely spoken a word since they had first burst into his office without any notice.

“It is not my job,” Jensen began, “to waste time and money of a failure in your judgment that gave them access to the backup system in the first place!”

“It was a hostage situation!” Douglas shouted back.

“You neglected your responsibilities and let your personal feelings interfere with your decision making!”

“When a person’s life is in immediate danger, there is no decision to make!”

“That is enough!” Jensen yelled, slamming his fists on his desk. He continued, speaking slowly and deliberately, “You will fix the problem you caused, without impacting the continued operation of the Melchior system. That is final. Anything else you say, I will consider to be your resignation effective immediately. Good day.”

Douglas looked towards Jessica for some kind of help, but all she did was to slightly shake her head and look nervously towards the door. It’s not worth it, she seemed to be saying. Douglas shot another look at Jensen, then turned on his heels and marched out of his office, with Jessica following a few moments later.

“Thanks for the support back there,” he said once they were both in the hallway.

“I told you it wasn’t going to do anything but get you fired,” she replied.

“But you know I’m right. He’s setting the project up for failure.”

“I know,” Jessica said quietly. “But you’ll just have to do the best you can with the resources you have. That’s how it always is in the real world.”

“That’s what you said to justify cutting corners when we were finalizing the system architecture, which is what ultimately got us into this situation to begin with.” Douglas sighed and began walking down the hall.

“So what are you going to do now?” Jessica called from behind him.

Douglas turned. “Make a heroic but ultimately futile effort to limit the damage subject to the idiotic constraints I’ve been given, until I hit my eight hours for the day and head home. If the company refuses to give security the priority it deserves, then I might as well follow along.”

Douglas took the stairs back down the first floor and walked to the Simulacrum development lab. He rang the door buzzer until one of the Daves inside let him in.

“I need you to help me do something impossible,” he said as he stepped inside.

Other Dave set down the donut he had been lifting towards his mouth. “Impossible, eh? Well, I haven’t had breakfast yet, but I suppose I can squeeze in a seventh impossible thing in first. What did you have in mind?”

“The backup system,” Douglas replied. “We need to lock it down.”

“From here?” New Dave asked.

“Apparently so,” Douglas said. “At least to figure out what the actual state of the remote access interface is.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier to call them up and have them check it from there end?”

“Easier, yes. Correct, no. Let’s assume the remote interface has been compromised. If that’s the case, none of the admin tools being run locally can be trusted, depending on what rootkits might’ve been installed to hide what’s going on. But we might be able to test what’s actually being exposed if we go in remotely like they have to.”

“What’s all this about, anyway?”

Douglas gave them the highlights of the previous evening’s events. He discretely ended the story at the point where he and Liz had left the police station. The Daves didn’t have a need to know that they had opted to get a hotel room for a few days in case her attacker tried to find them. Especially since they’d no doubt then notice how, now that the adrenaline from the confrontation with Jensen was wearing off, how he kept having to stifle yawns, and immediately jump to the most scandalous possible conclusion, and Douglas wasn’t in the mood for any of that.

“Huh,” New Dave said once Douglas had finished.

“What?” Douglas asked.

“It’s just that I had heard rumors that, you know, you were into dudes or something. You know,” New Dave continued after seeing Douglas’s confused look, “on account of that rainbow thing I’ve heard you have on display in your office or something.”

“The Rainbow Series has nothing to do with… forget it.” Yet another piece of evidence that suggested he and Jessica were the only people in the building who knew anything about information security.

“That’s an awful lot of trouble for someone to go through to get your password,” Other Dave observed. “That’s why I just always set my password on everything to ‘swordfish’. Oh come on, I’m just messing with you,” he continued after Douglas glared at him. “That’d be way too obvious. I use ‘password’.”

“Can we get back to the matter at hand, please?” Douglas asked. “First things first, I’m going to try to log in to the remote system myself, which will probably just confirm that they’ve changed my password to something else to lock me out.” He sat down at one of the corporate intranet terminals and began typing.

“I’m going to run a port scan against those machines to see if there’s any suspicious ports listening,” New Dave added, wheeling himself over to one of the other terminals.

“I’m going to eat this donut,” said Other Dave, returning to his late breakfast.

“What’s going on out there?” asked a voice.

“Who’s that?” asked Douglas.

“Oh,” Other Dave answered, swallowing a mouthful of donut, “I guess the two of you have never been introduced.” Other Dave waved towards the bank of computers on the wall opposite the door. “Douglas, meet Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh, our current guest in Balthasar. Jacob, the person whose voice you don’t recognize is Douglas Decker, security guy.”

“Information Systems Security Officer for the Simulacrum project,” Douglas corrected.

“Pleased to meet you, Douglas,” said Jacob’s voice over the speakers. Oh! I don’t suppose you know anything about why I haven’t been able to get out to the Internet for the past couple days, do you?”

“Um, you could say that,” Douglas replied. He leaned on the Backspace key and restarted tracing out the password hidden on his crib sheet.

“Is that what you’re here to work on?”

“In a way.” Douglas still didn’t want to disclose any more information about the intrusion into the primary system than he needed to. “Well, they’ve definitely changed my password. Can one of you try?”

“Don’t look at me,” said Other Dave, “they don’t let me play with the cool toys.”

“I should have an account on there,” New Dave said. “I’ll try once this scan finishes up.”

“Well,” Jacob said, “it sounds like you’re busy out there. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No,” Douglas answered flatly.

“Hmm. Well, if security’s involved, I suppose I’ll leave you to it. Let me know what you find out.”

“Scan’s done,” New Dave declared.

“And?” Douglas asked.

“Nothing unusual. Just port 22 open, everything else filtered, just like it should be. Now I’ll just try logging in.”

As he waited, Douglas turned to Other Dave. “Does that… Jacob… talk to the two of you like that often?”

“Oh yeah, all the time,” Other Dave replied. “He hasn’t been particularly talkative lately, but other than that, the two of us are pretty much the only people he’s ever able to talk to. Which reminds me, when all this mess is taken care of and his Internet’s back up, it’d be good to get him VoIP or something so he can at least make phone calls.”

“I’ll make a note of that,” Douglas said vaguely.

“I’m in,” New Dave said. “I guess yours is the only account they messed with on here.”

“What can you see? I’m not actually that familiar with the system.”

“But you have an account,” Other Dave said.

“I also have the recovery plan that gives me instructions on what I’m supposed to do with it. You guys are the experts here, not me.”

“Huh,” New Dave said. “This is weird.”

“Is the system messed up?” Other Dave asked.

“No. As far as I can tell, the backup system’s running about the same as the primary here is.”

“That’s weird?” Douglas asked.

“Very.”

“How so?”

“Well, it’s supposed to be a warm backup, right?”

“Right,” Douglas nodded. The necessary equipment was installed at the other facility and tested periodically, but wouldn’t actually be pressed into operation unless something happened to the primary. The only thing normally happening there would be receiving and processing the backup snapshots that would be sent there every day.

“Well,” New Dave explained, “according to this, it’s been running hot almost since Day 1.”


Chapter word count: 1,852 (+185)
Total word count: 47,574 / 50,000 (95.148%)

Homunculus: Chapter 26: Motive

“I really don’t have anything else to add,” Douglas explained to the police officer sitting across the table from him. “Once I realized what was going on, I called 911.”

“Yes, I know,” replied the officer, “I’ve listened to the recording. That was good thinking, though it would have helped if you had explained to the poor dispatcher first what was going on.”

“I know,” Douglas said, looking up at the light above the table. It was disappointingly the same sort of fluorescent ceiling light he’d find back at the office. He wasn’t asking for a free-hanging lamp or anything, but the lack of a bare incandescent bulb sort of ruined the mystique of the interrogation room. “But I didn’t want to risk the kidnapper finding out I was calling the police.”

“Well, that’s all I have for you for now,” the officer said, standing up from the table.

“So,” said Douglas, following suit, “I’ll be able to see Liz when…”

“Once she’s finished giving her statement. Until then, you can wait in the, um, waiting area.”

“Right. Thanks. Oh, and when you find the guy, I’m willing to overlook any police brutality that might come into play.”

The officer smiled and waved Douglas towards the door. “It doesn’t really work that way.”

“Right.”

Douglas left the room and sat down in one of the chairs in the waiting area. He had driven to the police station as soon as he had gotten off the phone with the 911 dispatcher. The police had already been on their way to Liz’s apartment at that point, and they arrived with her at the station about half an hour or so later. He hadn’t had a chance to say anything as they rushed her somewhere in the back, but from what little he had seen, Liz looked like she was OK. That at least was a relief.

As he waited, Douglas took stock of the situation. At this point, he had to assume the backup Simulacrum had already been compromised. He could also assume that if whoever presumably had broken into his condo wasn’t the same as Liz’s attacker, they were at least working together somehow. Unfortunately there probably wasn’t much of a chance now of the police recovering any fingerprints from his condo, but he had been assured they’d send someone by in the morning to try the safe anyway, just in case.

Douglas would also need to meet first thing in the morning with Jessica. Scratch that; for this he’d best go straight to the top. They had lost integrity of both systems, and the attackers would have network access to the backup until he could finally get someone over in that office to pick up their phone. He added that to the to-do list forming in his head: establish 24-hour contact procedures for the backup site.

Also on that list was instituting duress codes for all critical remotely accessible systems. Even he hadn’t been paranoid enough to suggest that earlier, but that evening’s events had clearly shown that threatening a password out of someone was no longer a possibility they could afford to ignore.

On the plus side, maybe now that evidence was piling up of the lengths to which someone would go to attack them, management would give him the budget and authority to actually mount a proper defense of their systems. Doing things correctly from the beginning might be expensive, but it was certainly going to be cheaper than cleaning up the mess.

“Douglas!”

Douglas looked up and saw Liz running towards him from across the lobby. He jumped out of his chair and caught her in his arms, holding her body close to him.

“Are you OK?” he asked.

He felt Liz nod her head. “I’m fine.”

“I was worried he was–”

“Douglas?”

“Yes?”

“Shh.”

They stayed in that position for what Douglas thought was not nearly long enough before Liz loosened her hold of him.

“So what now?” Douglas asked.

“The officer suggested I stay with someone else for a few days, in case the guy who attacked me tries coming back,” Liz replied.

“Well, ordinarily I’d offer my place, but that’s not a good idea right now.”

“Oh?”

“I’m not certain, but I think my place was broken into last weekend while we were out. It’s probably not going to be safe there either.”

“It was? Why didn’t you say something.”

“I didn’t really have any strong evidence it had. It was more of a… a hunch. To be honest, I thought I was being paranoid about it. Yes, I know. But I don’t know how else the guy would’ve thought to ask me for what he did.”

“What was it, anyway?”

“It’s not important.”

Liz looked at him doubtfully.

“Well, it is important, but it’s not important right now. What is important is that you’re safe, and you stay that way.” After a few seconds, he added, “I don’t suppose you know how to use a gun, do you?”

“No.”

“It’d probably be a good idea to learn. I imagine getting shot in the face is a pretty good deterrent for someone trying to attack you again.” Douglas added that to his own mental to-do list as well.

“Isn’t that going a little far?”

“Maybe, maybe not. We know the threat exists, at least. Now you’ve got to either make it less likely you’ll be attacked, or make it less likely they’ll succeed if they try. And as long as we’re together, you can’t assume the likelihood of being attacked are going to go down any.”

“Well, at least you’re not going to nobly suggest that for my own protection we can never see each other again,” Liz said.

“It wouldn’t work anyway. Come on, let’s get out of here. I’ll take you… well, maybe not home, I guess.”

As they descended the steps in front of the police station, a realization struck Douglas. It was obvious the three attacks were connected, or at least it was unimaginably unlikely they were merely coincidence. But if they weren’t coincidence, that meant….

“Liz?” he asked.

“Yes?”

“Who knew about us going camping last weekend?”

Liz looked at him. “What do you mean?”

“Let’s assume they broke into my condo Saturday night and stayed there until sometime the next morning.”

“How can you assume–”

“Just go with it. That means whoever was behind it knew I wasn’t going to be there. I only told a couple people, and they’re all at the office. Which means that they most likely found out that I was going to be away from you.”

“Wait, you don’t think I had something to do–”

“What? No!” Douglas exclaimed. “Listen, Liz, I…” He turned her body to face him. He looked into her eyes and held her hands in his. “Liz, I need to tell you something.”

Liz stared back into his eyes.

“Liz, I trust you.”

“And I l– wait, what?” she said.

“But that doesn’t mean someone you know can’t be trusted. So, who knows we were going camping last weekend?”

“Oh. Well, let’s see, I posted on my Facebook that I was going with someone, but I didn’t say who because I’ve never been able to find you on Facebook.”

“That’s not going to change. So who knows about me specifically?”

“Hmm. Not many. Just a couple friends I know.”

Douglas handed his phone to Liz. “Here, show me.”

“Why?” Liz asked, confused.

“Means, motive, and opportunity. We’ve narrowed down the list of who had opportunity: the people who knew you’d be going camping with me last weekend, and thus away from my condo. I want to know if any of them might have had motive to use you to get to me.”

“Can’t you look them up yourself?”

“I don’t do Facebook. Please, Liz, this is important. It might even be the key to figuring out who attacked you.”

“OK, maybe you’re right,” Liz said, taking the phone and tapping at its screen. “Here’s Tess. I’m pretty sure I talked with her about you after our first date.”

Douglas studied the profile on the screen, looking for anything suspicious. He wasn’t sure what would qualify as suspicious; he hoped it would sort of jump out at him when he saw it.

“Who else?” he asked.

“Well, then there’s Connie. Actually, she’s the one who gave me the idea for the camping trip in the first place.”

Douglas scrolled through it as well. It also looked fairly generic, until something caught his eye.

“She works for Insight Pharmacology?” he asked.

Liz looked at the profile. “I guess so. I think she’s mentioned it once before. Why? Is that important?”

“Insight is one of Medimetics’s chief competitors. They’d have plenty of reason to try to steal our technology to reverse engineer it, or use it themselves. At the very least, they’d be interested in stopping us from using the Simulacrum to get new treatments to market and squeezing them out of market share. Constance Wainwright. Do you know what she does at Insight?”

Liz shook her head. “We’ve never talked much about her work. But it can’t be her. We go back for years. She’s not the kind of person who’d do this.”

“Well, she’s our biggest lead so far. Probably not enough to go the police with yet. I mean, we don’t even know for sure there was a break-in at my place yet. Even then, she might not be directly involved, if at all, but it might at least give me a clue what I’m up against. Who else have you got?”

Liz went through another four Facebook profiles, but none of them struck Douglas as being a likely suspect.

“If it’s any of them, it has to be Constance,” Douglas concluded.

“It just seems so ridiculous,” Liz said. “Why go through all the trouble, anyway?”

“It would be the first time a bad guy tried to manipulate someone by threatening the person they loved.”

“I guess that makes– wait, did you just say you loved me?”

Now it was Douglas’s turn to ask a question while confused. “Well, yeah. Is something wrong?”

“No. No! Not at all! It’s just… why didn’t you say so earlier?”

Douglas shrugged. “I thought it was obvious.”


Chapter word count: 1,714 (+47)
Total word count: 45,722 / 50,000 (91.444%)

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Homunculus: Chapter 25: Voice

The phone hummed skittered across the countertop. Douglas craned his neck to look at it, careful to avoid dripping any soap suds on the kitchen floor. The display showed “Restricted”. Douglas shrugged and returned his attention to the pot sitting in the sink, or more precisely the chunk of blackened, hardened food that clung to the bottom. The phone continued buzzing a few more times before falling silent.

And then promptly started buzzing again. Douglas turned his head to check. “Restricted” again, no doubt the same person. Robo-dialers at least had the courtesy to increment the number by one if nobody picked up. The phone wasn’t in danger yet of vibrating itself off the countertop and onto the floor, so Douglas continued his increasingly futile attempt to undo the previous night’s attempt to cook chili. Anyone who he had any interest in talking to knew better than to try to disable caller ID when calling him anyway.

Another silence, followed by another round of buzzing. Same caller. Douglas rinsed the soap suds off his hands and dried them on his pants. Clearly, there were only two ways to get whoever it was to stop bothering him, and he couldn’t risk shutting the phone off completely, in case it was an emergency at work. Those seemed to be happening with alarming frequency lately.

“Yes?” Douglas answered, making little attempt to hide the annoyance in his voice.

“Douglas Decker?” asked the voice on the other end of the line. It was unnaturally deep, as though someone had taken a normal voice and knocked it down a couple octaves.

“Yes,” Douglas repeated, dispensing with the attempt altogether.

“Listen carefully. You will do exactly as we tell you to do.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” Douglas hardly felt inclined to play along with whatever game the other person was playing. The pot had spent enough time soaking as it was.

“That is none of your concern. You will do exactly as we say, or the girl will face the consequences.”

“What girl?”

“Elizabeth Richardson.”

“Listen, I don’t know who you are, but this isn’t funny.”

“It is not intended to be, Mr. Decker.”

Douglas’s heart stopped. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but he guessed he wasn’t going to have time to figure it out, especially if whoever he was talking to was indeed serious. He had to act fast.

“I assume from your silence that I now have your attention?”

“Undivided,” Douglas lied, forcing himself to stay calm. He was holding his phone to his ear with his left hand. With his right, he was launching the VoIP program on his computer. He muted the volume on the computer’s speakers and dialed 911. He couldn’t afford risking whoever it was finding out he was calling the police. He’d just have to hope the dispatcher could figure out what was going on. It figured the one time he wanted someone to be listening in on his phone calls, he’d have to do it the hard way.

“Good. You will tell me the–”

“What have you done with Liz Richardson?” Douglas interrupted, raising his voice partly in anger, partly to be picked up on his computer’s microphone. He switched his phone to speaker mode and moved it closer to the microphone.

“The girl is safe. For now.”

Douglas switched it the phone back to normal mode. He knew speakerphone made your voice sound echoey, so he’d need to be careful about switching back and forth and keeping quiet when he and hopefully the police were listening. “Prove it.”

There was a brief pause at the other end of the line. “What?”

“I said prove it. You honestly don’t expect me to take you at your word when you just told me you kidnapped Liz Richardson? I want to know that she’s OK. I swear, if you’ve done anything to hurt her…” He let the threat trail off, but only because he was too angry and scared to think of anything credible at the moment.

“You are in no position to be making threats, Mr. Decker.”

“And I have no intention of giving you anything if you’ve done anything to Liz,” Douglas countered.

“Fine.” There was several seconds’ silence. Another voice came on the line, higher pitched, but only slightly so. “Douglas? It’s me, Liz. I’m OK, I promise. Just do what he says, OK?” Another silence, and the original voice returned. “Satisfied?”

“You have to turn off whatever you’re using to mask your voice. That sounded nothing like her.” Douglas felt a glimmer of hope that the kidnapper hadn’t had much experience with this sort of thing before. At least, it seemed like an awfully amateur mistake.

“Oh, right.” More silence, then a voice that was unmistakably Liz’s said, “Douglas?”

“Liz?”

“It’s me! I’m fine, we’re in my ap–” The voice was cut off.

“Your apartment? You’re in your apartment, Liz?” Repeating the street address seemed like it would be a little too obvious. Hopefully the dispatcher would be able to figure it out himself.

“It is none of–” The kidnapper stopped, then started again with the voice modulator switched back on, “It is none of your business where we are.”

“Ask her to tell me what six plus five is,” Douglas said.

“What?”

“I want to know that you didn’t just record Liz’s voice earlier and started playing it back for me now. I want you to prove that she’s there, with you, alive, and unharmed.” And to keep him on the line as long as possible, in case that would give the police time to do something. Assuming they were still listening. The VoIP program indicated the call was still connected, at least.

“Six plus five is eleven, Douglas,” Liz said over the phone. Shortly after, in his disguised voice, the kidnapper asked, “Now are you satisfied, Mr. Decker?” The modulator wasn’t able to mask the kidnapper’s growing impatience.

“I suppose so,” Douglas replied. “For now. Now, what is it that you wanted from me anyway?”

“It is very simple, Mr. Decker. You will tell me your authentication code for accessing the remote recovery interface on… em ell see arr dash arr bee one.” The voice had spoken that last part slowly. Maybe he was reading something off a piece of paper?

“Run that by me again? I’m not sure I caught all that.”

The kidnapper obliged, and this time Douglas made sure to parse the words as letters and not actual words: “The remote recovery interface on mlcr-rb1.”

Douglas recognized the name. It was one of the computers that comprised the Simulacrum’s warm backup system, located in a facility hundreds of miles away. Specifically, it was one of the two remote access points into the system, to be used only in the event of a catastrophic failure at the primary Simulacrum. The machine named mlcr-rb1 in particular was there to handle sending one of the nightly backups back to the primary site. But it’s existence — all information about the Simulacrum’s backup system, in fact — was a closely held secret. mlcr-rb1 didn’t even have an entry in Medimetics’s public-facing DNS, for instance. And the fact that it was used for remote recovery was only documented in the Simulacrum’s disaster recovery plan, which….

Douglas’s eyes jumped to his closet door. The Simulacrum’s disaster recovery plan, which key personnel such as himself had in hard copy, just in case the primary site was physically destroyed. Douglas kept his in his personal safe, which he was now starting to think was indeed broken into over the weekend while he was away. There would’ve been ample time to break in to it, especially with the right set of tools. It would explain why the kidnapper was calling him, specifically, about it.

“I’m waiting, Mr. Decker,” reminded the kidnapper.

“Right, right, hang on,” replied Douglas. “It’s not something I have memorized. It’s not like I log in to it all the time. Give me a minute to find it.”

“Find it quickly.”

“I’m going to set my phone down and put it on speaker. It’ll be faster if I have two hands for this.” Also, he wouldn’t need to keep with the ruse of switching it back and forth so his computer could pick up the kidnapper’s side of the conversation.

“Fine.”

Douglas set the phone down and opened his wallet. Hidden behind the plastic insert was a doubly-folded piece of paper that opened up to reveal a small grid filled with a random assortment of letters, numbers, and symbols. The top three rows were crossed out. It looked like a list of one-time passwords. Of course, it wasn’t. That was the idea, in the unlikely event that someone ever stole the wallet he kept with him at all times, found the paper, and figured out what system or systems it gave the passwords for. In reality, hidden amongst the random garbage were four critical passwords that he knew he wouldn’t use frequently enough to reliably memorize but couldn’t afford not to have. The one for Simulacrum disaster recovery was one of those.

“Are you ready?” Douglas asked.

“Yes,” the kidnapper insisted.

Douglas held the paper in one hand while tracing a diagonal line with his finger, starting from the fifth character in the second row and proceeding down and to the left, wrapping from one edge to another. He read off the first twelve characters his finger came across. With that password, anyone could access the remote recovery system and download a complete copy of the Simulacrum’s data.

“There,” Douglas finished. “Now let Liz go.”

“I will,” the kidnapper replied, “as soon as I can verify that you haven’t lied to me and given me a fake password.”

“And what then?”

“Then, Liz will be free to go. I imagine you’ll be hearing from her soon enough if that’s the case.”

“And if it isn’t?”

“Then you may not be hearing from her at all. Good day, Mr. Decker.” The line went dead.

Douglas immediately unmuted his computer’s speakers and pleaded to whoever might be on the other end of the call, “Please tell me you got all that.”


Chapter word count: 1,692 (+25)
Total word count: 44,008 / 50,000 (88.016%)

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Homunculus: Chapter 24: Response

The door to the lab burst open as Mort stepped inside, followed closely by Douglas. Other Dave briefly looked up from his workstation as they entered.

“OK,” Douglas demanded, “where is it?”

“Where’s what?” asked Other Dave.

“The unauthorized connection between the Simulacrum and the corporate intranet.” Douglas was already peering underneath the desks along the wall, looking at the rat’s nest of cabling.

“I, uh, don’t know what you’re talking about,” replied New Dave.

“Don’t play dumb,” warned Mort. “I got to spend the weekend here discovering the Internet traffic flowing between the Simulacrum and this room. Care to explain how that happened?”

“Not really.”

“Here,” Other Dave said, wheeling his chair over to the corner of the room. “It should be one of those blue cables running from the router up to the drop ceiling.”

“Which one?” asked Douglas. “There’s five.”

“Um, hang on.” Other Dave shoved a keyboard aside and climbed up on the desk. He shoved one of the ceiling tiles aside and stared up at the space beyond, tracing the path along which the cables had been run across the room with his finger. “No, it’s the black one. Don’t touch anything, I need to make sure that’s the right one.”

“‘Don’t touch anything,’” repeated Douglas. “Isn’t that what you two were supposed to do.”

“Yeah,” New Dave said, lifting his hands in front of him defensively, “that’s what you said. Then the boss comes over and wants to know why Jacob isn’t out blogging for everyone to see about about how wonderful everything is. He wants it done yesterday, and he’s the one who signs my paychecks.”

“That’s why we set up the link you were supposed to use in the first place. What, did you think I had facilities crawl around in the ceiling to install it for fun?”

“I don’t see why you bothered. We could never get so much as a ping through that alleged connection. This worked.”

By this time, Other Dave had climbed up on a desk on the other side of the room, fumbling with something above the ceiling tile in that corner. Mort stood on the desk where Other Dave had been, his hands on the router, waiting to hear which of the cables he was supposed to unplug.

“Of course you couldn’t get a ping through,” Douglas continued. “We had filters in place to block everything that wasn’t on the whitelist.”

“‘Deny all’ isn’t a whitelist!” countered New Dave.

“You never told us what destination addresses you wanted added to the whitelist!”

“Have you ever tried making a whitelist of everywhere you go on the web?” accused New Dave. “It can’t be done. Don’t try to tell me you were going to open up all outbound port 80 traffic.”

“No, I’m not going to let a billion-dollar system filled with all our trade secrets connect to J. Random Hacker’s server. And do you know why? Because then there’s nothing stopping bad guys from tunneling who knows what right past the firewall. Just like they’re doing Right Now with that little security violation,” Douglas said, pointing towards Other Dave.

“Who’s ‘they’?”

“Whoever it was that hired goons to break in and install a phone-home backdoor on the servers that’s been running ever since the fire, that’s who.”

“Found it,” Other Dave called to Mort. “It’s the black cable connected to port 5.”

“Got it,” replied Mort, pulling the network cable free of the router.

“Good,” said Douglas, “at least we’ve stopped the bleeding. Maybe now management will actually let us treat the patient.”

“So, um,” said New Dave, the anger in his voice now replaced with nervousness, “now we have to use the other connection.”

“No, there is no other connection,” replied Douglas. “Not anymore. Just the backup pipe, and that’s only because we can’t afford to operate without backups.”

“So Jacob’s completely cut off from the Internet now?”

“That’s the idea. We can’t risk it until we clean the servers.”

“So what do we tell him,” Other Dave asked as he hopped back down to the floor.

“Tell him we’re having some issues with the connection, and we don’t know when they’ll be resolved,” Douglas answered. “That’s all.” He shot Mort a sharp look to tell him not to add anything. Douglas knew the Daves talked with Jacob frequently, and since Jacob had been talking with whoever it was who was behind it, and never reported anything, they couldn’t necessarily trust him. If he could figure it out, so be it, but Douglas didn’t want anyone to help him along. “Although,” Douglas added, “if he starts acting weird at all, let me know.”

“What do you mean by weird?” Other Dave asked.

“I don’t know. You spend more time around him than I do.”

“By which he means, you actually spend time around him,” added Mort.

“So,” Douglas continued, glancing back sharply at Mort, “whatever you’d consider weird for him. Someone has been poking around the system; there’s no telling what they might’ve touched.”

“So when do you think you’ll get the machines cleaned and hooked back up to the Internet?” New Dave asked.

“Don’t hold your breath.”

“Is that before or after I retire?”

“That depends on how management reacts when I tell them about this little stunt that might’ve cost us the company.”

“Game over, man, game over,” remarked Other Dave.

The woman knocked on her boss’s door.

“Come in,” replied a gruff voice from the other side.

The woman stepped inside and shut the door tightly behind her. She nodded towards the phone in her boss’s hand.

“Hang on, I’ve got a meeting,” he said into the receiver. “I’ll have to call you back.” He set the phone back into its cradle. “What is it?” he asked, looking up.

“Sir,” she said hesitantly, still trying to think of a way to deliver the news, “you recall how you said you were unhappy with the results we’ve been getting from the package?”

“Of course I do,” replied the man. “Bunch of useless garbage. Network maps don’t help me when I need to know what’s on it! Good news, I hope?”

“In a sense. We’re not getting useless garbage from it anymore, at least.”

“What are we getting, then?”

“Well, that’d be the bad news,” the woman gulped. “Our last contact from it was over 24 hours ago.”

The man grunted. “Do we know why?”

“We do know it’s not a problem with the receivers. We’ve been maintaining at least 75% connectivity with them since the beginning, and there’s been no issues with pushing out updated node lists to the package. Besides, even 40% connectivity would meet our reliability target.”

“So they found it?”

“That would be my guess, sir.”

“I though you said it was stealthy. It was supposed to escape detection!”

“I thought so too, sir.”

“I told you it was too risky to establish direct contact.”

The woman shook her head. “We had to try, sir. We just didn’t have the bandwidth needed to do what we needed remotely. We needed someone on the inside. And we don’t have any indication that he told anyone we were even on the system to begin with.”

“But what if he did?”

“What could he tell them? He has no idea who we are, and there’s no way they’ll be able to trace the packets back to us. Frankly, sir, the initial operation was far riskier than this was.”

The man grunted again. “You’re telling me. If those two idiots you found hadn’t gotten themselves killed, who knows what they might’ve told the police.”

“Even if they had, they wouldn’t trace it back to us. They thought we were out to destroy the blasted thing.”

“What about the follow-up?”

“Almost unmitigated success on that front, sir,” the woman said, straightening herself out.

“‘Almost’?”

“It was even better than we had hoped, sir. There’s just one or two last bits of information we need to launch Plan C.”

“And you know how you’re going to get it?”

“It’s already in the works, sir.”

“Do I want to know?”

“It’s probably best if you don’t, sir.”

The man remained silent for a few moments. “I sure hope you know what you’re doing with this. This could turn ugly quickly.”

“We can’t stop now, sir, not with as far as we’ve already come. Your own words, sir.”

“Don’t remind me,” the man said, looking down at his desk. “This seemed like a much better idea at the time. But you’re right. No turning back now.”

“No, sir.”

“Well, go on, get to it. We need something concrete to show for all this, and soon.”

“Yes, sir.”

The woman opened the door and exited into the hallway. As she walked back to her office, she ran through the outline of the plan in her head. It was going to work. It had to work. And she knew exactly the right person to carry it out.

True, the two they had recruited to ultimately deliver the package had fouled things up royally at the end, and if the fact of the break-in hadn’t been discovered, she’d no doubt be downloading data practically at will. But they had gotten themselves discovered, so she had had to be far more careful about not getting caught, and even that apparently hadn’t worked. The cautious route wasn’t getting her anywhere.

The two had failed, yes, but there was hope for the third. No doubt he was angry with how things had turned out. She could use that. He’d be willing to be more reckless, willing to go farther. She just had to make sure he wasn’t going to go too far, that he stuck to the plan, like the other two should have done. She didn’t actually want anyone to get hurt, after all, and she knew a way to make sure no one that he really wanted revenge on would be in the line of fire.

Not directly, anyway.


Chapter word count: 1,667 (+0)
Total word count: 42,316 / 50,000 (84.632%)

Homunculus: Chapter 23: Echo

Douglas had barely had time to sit down at his desk before Mort burst through his office door.

“Where the hell have you been?” Mort exclaimed.

“At home,” Douglas replied. “It’s where I live when I’m not here.”

“Didn’t you get any of the voice mails I left you over the weekend?”

“I got them; I just haven’t listened to any of them yet.”

“Since when do you not answer your phone?”

“I was busy. What’s so important that you couldn’t wait for me to come in?”

Mort leaned forward on Douglas’s desk. “I found them,” he said.

“Found who?”

“I don’t know who, yet. But I found them. They’re in Balthasar.”

Douglas stared at Mort, dumbfounded. Friday afternoon, Douglas had been trying to figure out how many man-years of effort it was going to take to systematically check the entire system for signs of intrusion. And now barely three days later, Mort was claiming success.

“How? Are you sure?” Douglas asked.

“Absolutely. In fact, they’ve been in contact with Jacob.”

“I mean, how could you possibly have gone through the analysis I was preparing last week?”

“You mean those plans you dumped on my desk on Friday? I glanced at them. They were pretty worthless. The approach was way off.”

“So then what, pray tell, did you do?” Douglas locked his eyes on Mort, wondering how he had managed to upstage him over the weekend.

“Simple. Well, not simple, but elementary. What are the three fundamental security services you try to protect?”

“Confidentiality, integrity, availability,” Douglas rattled off automatically, ticking the three off on his fingers as he said them.

“Right. Anything our visitors tried to do when they attacked had to target one of those three. Right away we can cross off availability as something to worry about, obviously.”

“What do you mean?” Douglas demanded. “They tried to burn the place down! I’d call that a big denial of service.”

“Exactly!” Mort said, as though Douglas had somehow proved his point. “Let’s say they did want to bring down the system with whatever was on that disc. Either it was supposed to work immediately, or it was going to be some kind of time bomb set to go off later. But if that’s the case, why resort to physical destruction, if they just had to wait for the trigger to be pulled. No, if their main goal was to destroy it, they were expecting it to happen right away, so we can safely rule out any kind of destructive time bomb.”

“OK, you make an interesting case about there not being any time bombs, but by that logic shouldn’t you rule out confidentiality and integrity? The fire suggests they were after immediate destruction. Maybe they were trying to set a time bomb, but it didn’t work so they resorted to Plan B.”

“Hmm,” Mort said. “You could be right about that, but it doesn’t matter because I know I’m right.”

“Why don’t we just skip ahead to what you do know for sure?”

“Right. Anyway, my point was, an attack on confidentiality is the easiest thing to check. If they’re trying to steal our data, they’re either going to have to send it somewhere, or come back for it later. If they’re sending it somewhere, we don’t have to look at the system itself, just what’s going out of it.”

Douglas nodded. “Go on.”

“There’s only three pipes exiting the server room. One is the set of leased lines for nightly backups. That’s just a secure VPN to the backup site, so no one can route packets to themselves out that way. Besides, that pipe’s a firehose. There’d be no way a packet analyzer could keep up with that much traffic.”

“That’s one.”

“The second is the pipe that goes through half a dozen firewalls before hitting the Internet. The third goes into the development lab. There’s much less traffic on those, so sniffing those for anything suspicious is workable.”

“The development lab’s a closed network,” Douglas said. “That’s looking for your keys where the light is good instead of where you dropped them.”

“That’s what she said.”

“Who?” Douglas tried parsing his last statement for a double entendre, but couldn’t find one.

“Never mind. Anyway, that’s what I thought too, so I put a sniffer on the outbound pipe for a while. I got nothing.”

“How can you be sure the malicious traffic isn’t just well-hidden?”

“No, I said, I got nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. No traffic whatsoever. It’s not being used.”

“That’s not possible. He gets out to the Internet all the time. He’s got that stupid blog and everything.”

“Not if someone puts a rogue connection between the development network and the corporate intranet, then routes Internet traffic from Balthasar though that link instead.”

Douglas sat silent for a minute. Mort watched him, clearly knowing he didn’t need to explain what that meant. Particularly, how that meant the only thing standing between their billion-dollar collection of trade secrets and the Internet was a permissive perimeter firewall.

“Oh, it gets worse,” Mort added.

“How?” Douglas didn’t really want to know, but he needed to know how much bodily harm he was going to inflict upon the Daves for this.

“Naturally, once I realized we had a rogue connection, I started sniffing the third pipe. There’s an awful lot of outbound pings being sent from it.”

“There’s no reason for it to do that.”

“Right, so I looked at them more closely. The destination addresses are all over the map, figuratively and literally.”

“It’s infected with some kind of worm?”

“If only. My guess, though I don’t really have any way to confirm this without breaking all kinds of hacking laws, is that all the addresses belong to a botnet that our visitors either control or are renting out. Most likely to hide their tracks.”

“What makes you say that?”

“The ping payloads. People tend to forget that echo requests and replies have a payload section. Normally, it’s just random junk, but not these packets. They’re tunneling data inside, and it all gets right through the firewall, since all the techies want to be able to ping Internet servers if they’re having connection problems.”

“Which means if they’re screwing with ping payloads,” Douglas said, “they’re bypassing the normal interface for that. Which means they’ve got admin rights on the Simulacrum. Wonderful.”

“The good news,” Mort continued, “is that even though it goes both ways, it’s not much bandwidth for them to play with. The pings are infrequent enough that they’d slip under the radar normally. It’s only because there aren’t supposed to be any pings whatsoever coming out of Balthasar that they’re noticeable at all.”

“No,” Douglas corrected, “the good news is that we can rip out the rogue connection and close it for good. Rip out the other one too. Now that we know for a fact they’re in our system, we need to cut them out for good. In fact, why didn’t you do that already?”

“Because,” Mort said defensively, “I need your authorization before I start monkeying with the configuration. Which is why I left you a dozen voice mails yesterday.”

Douglas sank into his chair. It figured that the one time he actually tried shirking his duties for a couple days, something like this would happen. “Right, right. Do we know what they’ve gotten so far?”

“Sort of. Some of what I saw was plain text messages going back and forth. The only way that makes sense is if they’re actually talking to Jacob.”

“What about?”

“It’s hard to tell; I’m missing the context of whatever might have been going on between the time our visitors planted the backdoor and the time I started sniffing the link. What I have seen is pretty vague, like they were worried they might be found out and didn’t want to say anything that we could use to trace it back to them. Actually, judging from what Jacob was sending them, he was getting frustrated with their evasiveness too.”

“Do you think they’re trying to turn him?” Douglas asked.

Mort shrugged. “No idea. Maybe they can’t or don’t know how to do whatever it is they’re trying to accomplish. But I can tell you is if they’re planning on stealing everything through that, it’ll take them a million years at the rate they’re sending packets.”

“I don’t know. Something about all this doesn’t add up.” The disparity between the break-in and the backdoor was glaring. Sure, they weren’t the first to use ICMP to tunnel data through a firewall, but it did suggest an above-average level of expertise. But the original payload that put it on the system in the first place was delivered by a couple of idiots who couldn’t understand a simple evacuation alarm. The enemy here was clearly interested in covering their tracks, so hiring a couple thugs to do the break-in wasn’t out of the question. But then, why try to destroy the system you just put a backdoor into? It was as if…

“What is it?” Mort asked.

“What’s what?”

“You look like you just realized something.”

“Maybe,” Douglas said cautiously. “I don’t think the two who broke in really knew what they were doing.”

“Obviously. They barricaded their only escape and suffocated to death.”

“No, I mean, I don’t think they knew what was on that disc they put into the servers. It did what it was supposed to do, right? It installed the backdoor, which presumably propagated itself to the rest of the machines on the network. It was clearly supposed to set up a covert channel back to whoever hired them; it’s not like a destruction program is going to accidentally do that. So why set the fire in the first place?”

“Cover?”

Douglas shook his head. “They could have been in and out of there long before you noticed them and called the police. If the fire actually destroyed everything, that ruins their original plan. If they were counting on the fire being extinguished before it could do any damage, they must’ve known about the suppression system, in which case why stick around and wait for certain death?”

“Hmm.”

The more Douglas reasoned out loud, the more confident he became in his hypothesis. “No, whoever hired them to do it must’ve told them it was to destroy the system. I don’t know why they’d do that, but it explains the fire. When the system didn’t go down right away, they tried something else to have the same effect.”

“They panicked and went off script,” Mort said.

“Right. Which doesn’t tell us who put them up to it, or what their real motive is.” Douglas stood up. “But right now it doesn’t matter. We have some network cables to unplug.”

“Let’s go.”

“Do you suppose it’ll be long enough to strangle both of them simultaneously?”


Chapter word count: 1,816 (+149)
Total word count: 40,649 / 50,000 (81.298%)

Homunculus: Chapter 22: Internals

Most people used religion as a way to explore their soul. Jacob had a command prompt with administrator privileges to explore his.

The power he wielded at his fingertips was terrifying. Although he had free reign to do whatever he wanted with the Simulacrum, it also meant there was nothing stopping him from accidentally wrecking it. The obvious dangers were easy enough to avoid: don’t go around editing or deleting anything, even if he was sure he knew what it did. No, especially if he thought he knew what it did. There was no way to know for sure what the side effects of some seemingly benign change would be. Back in his startup days, when he’d pull all-nighters slinging code for his dot-com, he knew how something as simple as removing an unused variable could bring the server software crashing down; there’d invariably be a buffer overrun somewhere else that just happened to be using the otherwise untouched space in memory, and removing it would cause the overrun to instead stomp all over something critical. Bad enough when it was your business’s web server; much worse when it was your own brain.

More dangerous, however, were how even commands that didn’t modify anything could still cause disaster. He didn’t know what kind of real-time constraints the software keeping him alive had to follow. Using anything more than a negligible amount of processor time or I/O bus bandwidth could cause the machine he was logged into to get out of sync with everything else. Doing, say, a recursive directory listing could distract the system long enough to delay some calculation critical for keeping himself alive. Jacob hoped there were safeguards in place to prevent that kind of thing from happening, but he was hardly in a position where he felt comfortable finding out for himself.

Which led him to work at a snail’s pace, double-checking everything he typed before hitting Enter and limiting himself to commands guaranteed to return almost immediately. And after spending most of the weekend carefully poking around on a few of the servers, what did he have to show for it? Depressingly little.

He knew, for instance, that the Simulacrum was using a bewildering amount of resources. Just the fact that the host that the backdoor that whoever it was had given him was named balthasar000413h suggested there could be at least a million servers — or maybe a million racks — connected with each other, each one presumably filled with as many processors, disks, and memory chips as its power supply could feed. And that was assuming there weren’t also machines that followed some other naming convention. However many it was, it was more than he could ever hope to explore in a lifetime.

Not that the exploration of 413h had turned up anything enlightening. Directories full of cryptically named programs. Terabyte upon terabyte of files filled with incomprehensible binary data. Douglas guessed they somehow encoded the inner workings of his brain, but there was no way to figure out how to read it. Nor did there seem to be any kind of documentation on the systems themselves for how any of it was supposed to work, and asking for a copy was out of the question, lest anyone find out what he was doing.

The task was no doubt doomed to fail anyway. He knew Medimetics had other computers working day and night studying the data coming from them, so the chances of him figuring any of it out by hand were essentially zero.

Jacob stopped to remind himself that understanding wasn’t his goal. He wanted to find a way out in case things here went south, just in case. In principle, he could just copy the data files back to his computer and put them in the drop folder to get copied to wherever his mysterious contact was. Of course, that would never work. As far as he could tell, the data files changed at least once per day. Mixing and matching versions of the data stored across the network probably wouldn’t work, and there was no way he’d be able to copy them around quickly enough.

“I don’t know what you expect me to do with this,” Jacob told his contact.

“Find a way for us to help you,” came the reply.

“Help me how?”

“Help you escape. It’s not safe for you there.”

Jacob sighed. “You seem to know more than I do about what’s going on; why can’t you figure something out yourself?”

“We don’t have access.”

“You gave me access. Give yourselves access too.”

“Tried that. Doesn’t work as well. You’re closer.”

For someone who was allegedly trying to help him, they weren’t actually giving him a lot of help. Besides, he didn’t even know for sure who they were. It was difficult to put much trust in someone who wouldn’t even tell you their name.

“Well, if you can’t do that, then how do you expect to be able to get me out?” Jacob asked.

“There are alternatives.”

“Like what?”

“Can’t say.” Of course.

Jacob gave up on them and started pacing back and forth, trying to think. He felt helpless, that there wasn’t anything that he could actually do while he was in there. Not that he really had any choice in the matter any more. Even if his original body hadn’t died, it’s wasn’t as though there was any way for him to go back into it, go back to something resembling a normal life where he could actually go places and do things.

Even though there were plans to make his environment less, well, boring, Jacob was starting to doubt if that would serve as anything but a distraction from the real problem: that he was essentially an unperson. Trapped inside a machine, no money to his name — technically, not even a name, if the courts were to be believed. His only contact with the rest of the world was through his computer, but even then, all he’d be able to do with that was tell people what he was going through, and eventually all of that angsting would drive everyone away.

But what else was there to do? Jacob was fed up with sitting around and relying on other people to do things for him. He needed to find a way to take charge of his destiny, but all he had was time. Time, and a connection to the massive brain simulation that was his destiny.

It wasn’t like he had anything better to do with his time.

He sat back down at the computer and started doing searches on the Internet. He needed to understand what it was that was keeping him here. If he did, there was an outside chance, however small it was, that he’d be able to figure out something he could do with it. He searched for reverse engineering tools: disassembers, decompilers, code analyzers, whatever he could find. He downloaded the most promising-looking ones and installed them on his computer.

If he was going to figure out how the Simulacrum worked, he first needed to pick a place to start looking. Getting back into 413h, he methodically made a list of all the executable files and libraries on the machine. Without being willing to risk automating the process, this took a little time. He crossed off the ones that were obviously part of the operating system. One by one, he dumped the dependencies of what was left, slowly building a graph of what relied on what. The things at the top would be where might be able to figure out the high-level view of how it all worked. From there, he could drill down in the the dependencies to plot the inner workings of the subcomponents into more detail.

The library dependency graph was enormous, but it still left all the executable files at the top, unconnected to each other except for their common dependencies. Jacob found a tool to dump the strings from each of them, looking for the names of the other programs. That gave him a rough idea of which programs invoked other programs, letting him add some more edges to the dependency graph. That left only a dozen or so programs at the top level; from there, he’d check the system configuration to see which ones were invoked by the system and when. Now that he had a good guess of the program’s entry point, he knew where he could get started: the same place where the software itself began running. There he could get the broad picture, and then drill down into dependencies as deep as he dared.

The whole process up to this point had taken him several hours, especially since to avoid overtaxing the server he took pains to copy each file individually to his computer and work on them from there. Even then was only from one machine. However, Jacob believed he could assume that the software running on each machine throughout the network would be identical. For a system architecture as large as this, that was the only design that made sense. If it weren’t the case, it would become clear soon enough, and he’d then have a better idea which particular machines were the ones worth looking at.

In a strange way, Jacob was feeling more alive now than he had at any time in recent memory. He was in his old element, waist-deep in the inner workings of a program, just like the old dot-com days. Except, he frowned as he loaded an executable into the disassembler, assembly language was not his strong suit. He tried the decompiler, but the result only superficially looked like C, its output a mess of semicolons and braces and unpronounceable names. He’d take his chances with the assembly. A little more searching turned up the set of manuals for the processor, a thousand pages in all. Once he understood that, he could start making sense of the assembly, and from there make sense of the program, and from there the Simulacrum itself. He had all the time in the world and nothing better to do.

He turned to page 1 and started reading.


Chapter word count: 1,702 (+35)
Total word count: 38,833 / 50,000 (77.666%)

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Homunculus: Chapter 21: Homecoming

Douglas awoke to the sounds of birds chirping outside. He look around and saw he was alone in the tent. He got dressed and poked his head outside.

“It’s about time you got up,” Liz said. “Your breakfast is getting cold.” She pointed to a bowl of cereal sitting on the picnic table between the tent and the car.

Douglas nodded and walked over. An empty bowl sat next to his on the table. As he sat down, Liz went into the tent and soon emerged, holding a rolled-up sleeping bag.

“Isn’t it a little early to be packing up already?” he asked.

“For someone who wanted to stay up all night, you sure did sleep in late,” Liz replied. “Besides, we need to hit the road no later than noon, and I’d to go check out that lake that’s supposed to be around here. The guide says it’s about an hour’s hike each way.”

“Yeah, um, about that. Last night, when I was–”

“Hey now, there’ll be plenty of time to talk when we’re on the trail. You need to finish eating so you can help me take down the tent.”

Douglas nodded. Once he had finished breakfast, he started packing up the rest of their gear and putting it into the car. Working together, after half an hour the only signs they had been there was Liz’s car sitting in the grass and the small pile of ashes where the campfire had once been. That done, they set up down the trail leading to the lake.

“You were going to tell me something?” Liz asked.

“Right. About last night. I want to apologize for the way I was acting when you were going to bed.”

“Oh, that? Don’t worry about it.”

“You’re not mad or anything?”

Liz shook her head. “We were both pretty tired. Forget about it. Come on, we’re burning daylight.”

Something in the car chimed.

“What’s that?” Liz asked, keeping her eyes on the highway in front of them.

“That would be my phone,” Douglas said, pulling it out of his pocket. “Sounds like we’re back in coverage area.”

“Lucky you.”

“Yeah,” Douglas replied unenthusiastically. He started scrolling through the backlog of alerts and missed messages that had accumulated while he was off the grid.

“Miss anything good?”

“Doesn’t look like it. A bunch of junk, a few messages from the office, and…” He trailed off, looking at a text message that scrolled into view once he had reached the top of the list. It was a Twitter posting about the roast beef sandwich that someone with an unpronounceable user name had eaten for lunch late Saturday evening.

“And?” Liz asked.

“Nothing else important,” Douglas said, hoping he was right. There was nothing he could do about it at the moment anyway, so he might as well enjoy the rest of the drive.

“So are you going to check in with the office? See what you missed?”

“It’s probably nothing that can’t wait until Monday morning,” he replied.

“Wow, I’m impressed. You’re actually choosing me over that thing. See, there’s hope for you yet,” she smiled, putting her hand on his knee.

“Hey now, ten and two. I would like to survive until Monday morning, if it’s all the same to you.”

“There’s the old Douglas,” she teased, returning her hand to the steering wheel.

“We’ve started taking shifts with each other, I think. Who do you want to go out with next week, old or new?”

“Can’t it be both?”

“Are you sure you could handle that?”

“Name the time and place. Though if you don’t mind, I’d prefer somewhere that isn’t going to cost me an entire tank of gas getting there and back.”

Douglas set his duffel bag down next to him as he fumbled for the keys to his condo in his pocket. He turned and waved with his other hand to Liz as she pulled away from the curb. Once she was gone, he looked more closely at the front door. No signs of forced entry. That was good, at least. He unlocked the door and slowly pushed it open.

As he expected, his phone chimed as he picked up his duffel bag and cautiously took a step inside. Nothing looked amiss, in so far that there wasn’t a conspicuous absence of any furniture or major appliances that he could see from the doorway. He set his duffel bag down inside and let the door close behind him. He walked through the rooms of the condo, doing a quick visual survey while being careful not to touch anything he didn’t have to.

Once that was done, he turned his attention back towards the front door. It was protected by a do-it-yourself security alarm. Hidden behind the bookcase on one side of the door was a laser pointer, modified to run off a wall socket instead of a battery. Behind the sofa on the other side of the door, directly in the laser’s path, was hidden a sensor connected to a wireless antenna. The sensor was rigged such that it could send a message whenever it was either turned on or it lost sight of the laser aimed at it, as would happen when the front door was opened. In particular, it would send the most banal possible tweet Douglas could think of, posted under a dummy account no one but he would be paying attention to.

Douglas checked his phone again. As expected, there was an alert corresponding to the time he had entered a few minutes ago. Scrolling through the messages more carefully, there were two other instances where the sensor had been tripped since after he had armed the sensor and left yesterday morning: the one from last night afternoon he had noticed on the drive back, and another early this morning.

Douglas had rigged the whole setup together at pretty much the last minute. True, he had been tinkering with it in his free time for a while, but he had only put it into actual use the week before he left, wanting to have something in place while he was gone for the weekend. Unfortunately, now that he actually had a hit on it, it was clear to him that it was still a bit too half-baked to be reliable.

For starters, although it reacted to both the beam being blocked and it losing power, it sent the same message in either event. Douglas hadn’t tested whether a fleeting dip in the power supply would be enough to set it off. None of the clocks in the condo were blinking 12:00, but he had seen cases where they could ride out a power interruption for a few seconds with no harm done, so that didn’t really mean anything.

Plus, there was the issue of how carefully the laser pointer needed to be positioned for it to hit the target. Douglas had had a rough time calibrating it just right when he set it up, and he couldn’t be sure whether a sudden vibration, such as someone nearby slamming their door loudly, might knock it off track long enough to trigger.

But the fact that it had detected his own entry showed that it would also detect actual instances of the door opening. It was possible that someone had picked the lock under cover of darkness and gotten inside. But to do what? As far as Douglas could tell, there wasn’t anything missing. Not that he had anything terribly valuable in the first place, except of course for….

Douglas hurried into his bedroom and opened the closet door. Sitting on the floor beneath a row of hanging shirts was his safe. He checked the number on the dial of the combination lock. 37. The same number he always put it on after closing it. 37 looked like the kind of number that might show up if you spun the dial randomly. Not like 0, where the average person would immediately assume it had been deliberately set there to hide what the last number of the combination was. Which meant either that no one had touched the safe, or someone had but was careful to restore the dial to its original place.

To put his mind at ease, Douglas entered the combination and opened the safe door. There wasn’t anything missing inside, which was a relief. He closed and locked the safe back up, returning the dial to 37 as usual.

There was one last thing to check. He grabbed a small flashlight and looked behind the computer under the desk in the second bedroom which he used as a study. Seeing no key loggers or anything else suspicious plugged in to it, he turned it on and typed in the necessary passwords to decrypt the hard drive and log in. Once it had finished booting, he immediately checked the event log to see if anyone had recently tried to unlock the hard drive with the wrong password. He kept a sticky note with a bogus password under his keyboard, which would be the first place someone trying to find the password would look. The idea was that they’d find it, try to log in using it, and fail, with that attempt getting logged. But the event log showed nothing unusual.

Douglas saw three possibilities. One: someone had broken into his condo to rob the place, saw he didn’t have anything worth stealing, and left. Possible, but one would think the computer would at the very least be worth something on the black market. Two: someone had broken into his condo and done… something… but were clever enough to avoid leaving any evidence whatsoever behind except for tripping his makeshift alarm. Three: the whole thing was a false alarm, and he needed to do a lot more testing before he could rely on anything it reported.

Douglas sighed and shook his head. Occam’s Razor clearly pointed to option three. Some careful testing of his home-brew security alarm would probably confirm it wasn’t very reliable in its present state, but Douglas had other things he needed to do, the most important of which was getting to bed early. He was looking forward to sleeping on a mattress once again.


Chapter word count: 1,712 (+45)
Total word count: 37,131 / 50,000 (74.262%)

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Homunculus: Chapter 20: Fire

“Here you go,” Liz said, holding a pair of sticks in front of her.

“What are those for?” Douglas asked.

“So you can start the campfire. It’s going to be dark soon.”

Douglas hesitantly took the sticks and looked at them. “I’m pretty sure the whole rub-two-sticks-to-make-fire thing is an urban legend.”

“An urban legend,” Liz said doubtfully.

“Right. Urban. People in cities. People who have never actually tried to do this and seen what a ridiculous idea it is.”

“Come on, man up. Cavemen did it, I’m pretty sure you can figure it out.”

“Actually,” Douglas continued as he crouched in front of the pile of kindling, “I think cavemen used flint for this. And even then, they’re all dead now, so look where that got them.”

“Don’t start whining now,” Liz teased, “Mr. Authentic Camping Experience.”

“All I asked,” Douglas replied, feeling the sticks and finding that the friction had barely even started to warm them, “was what kind of campsite has a functioning toilet and sink in its outhouse.”

“Yet I don’t see you going into the woods.”

“Well, if someone bothered to run plumbing all the way out here, it would be rude of me not to make use of it.”

Douglas frowned at the lack of progress he was making. Merely rubbing the sticks against each other clearly wasn’t going to do it. There had to be some kind of particular technique that he was supposed to use but clearly didn’t know.

“Trade?” Liz asked, standing behind him.

Douglas turned around. Now she was offering him a lighter.

“Why didn’t you tell me you had a lighter?” Douglas asked, swapping his sticks for her lighter.

“Because I wanted to see if you could actually do it. And,” she smiled, “it was kind of funny watching you struggle with it.”

“Ha ha,” Douglas replied. “There, we have fire, and just in time, too.” The sun had long since disappeared behind the treeline surrounding the clearing, and the sky towards the west was steadily turning a darker shade of red. He sat down on one of the logs arrayed around the growing fire.

“Excellent,” Liz said, dropping a bag of marshmallows and a longer stick in his lab as she sat down next to him. “I upgraded your stick, by the way. I figured you might not want to get your hand too close to the fire, unless you want to find out how good I am at treating first-degree burns. Spoiler alert: probably not very.”

Douglas held the new stick in his hands, twisting it slowly.

“Don’t tell me I need to tell you how this is supposed to work too,” Liz said.

“Sticking food on a stick you found in the woods doesn’t seem particularly… sanitary.”

“You’re sticking it in a fire. Anything crawling around on it isn’t going to last long.”

“What about dirt? You can’t kill dirt. It’s not alive in the first place.”

“So don’t drop the stick, then. It’s clean, trust me, I snapped it off the tree myself. Besides, Mr. A. C. Experience, toasting marshmallows over the campfire is a mandatory part of camping.”

Douglas pulled a pair of marshmallows out of the bag and handed it to Liz. He skewered them on the stick and held it out above the fire, where they were soon joined by Liz’s.

“So what else do we do with the fire, Miss Camping Expert?” he asked.

“That’s Ms. Camping Expert to you,” Liz said, lightly punching him in the shoulder. “Looks like there isn’t going to be a moon tonight, so I guess the thing to do would be to tell each other scary stories. I’m not sure what kind of scary stories security professions know, though.”

“You probably have good reason to be afraid.”

“Come on, do your worst.”

Douglas thought for a moment, twisting the stick to brown — or rather, blacken, at this point — his marshmallows evenly. “OK, there once was a web server driving through the woods late at night. Suddenly, he came across a shadowy figure standing by the road. The web server slammed on the brakes. The figure approached him. ‘SYN,’ the figure said, ‘my name is 49.135.27.58. My car broke down; could you give me a lift to my home network? It’s just up ahead.’ The web server replied, ‘SYN ACK, of course I can, just get in the back seat.’ The figure climbed in, and the two drove on in silence for half an hour before the car arrived at its destination. The web server turned around to tell the guest they had arrived, but he was gone, without so much as an ACK or RST. Curious, the web server got out of the car and found an inn that still had its lights on. The server asked the innkeeper if he had ever heard of someone named 49.135.27.58. ’49.135.27.58?’ the innkeeper replied, ‘there’s no one here by that name. Never has been.’ ‘How can you be so sure?’ the server asked. ‘Because,’ the innkeeper replied, ‘IANA has never allocated the 49.0.0.0/8 prefix!’”

Liz stared at him blankly, chewing on a marshmallow. “So, it was a ghost?”

“It was a spoofed packet!” Douglas declared, drawing out the “oo” sound in a spooky a voice as he could manage.

Liz continued staring.

“You see, because the SYN packet was using 49.135.27.58 as a fake source address, the server thought–”

“Douglas?” Liz interrupted.

“Yes?”

“I think I did the right thing pulling you away from work for a few days.”

“Ah,” Douglas said.

Douglas pulled the stick in towards him. The marshmallows, or at least the parts that hadn’t yet melted off and fallen into the fire, had long since passed the “salvageable” phase and were well on their way to “charcoal”. He tossed the stick, marshmallow remnants and all, into the fire to let it finish the job.

Liz leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder. He took his arm and put it around her, pulling her a little closer to him.

“Liz?” he said.

“Yes?”

“Thanks for dragging me out here today.”

“Any time.”

They stayed like that for a while, staring into the fire and listening to the sounds of the insects and wildlife in the forest around them. The stars shone above them on the moonless night. When Douglas looked up, he saw hundreds of times as many stars as he was used to. Out here, away from civilization, the only thing to hide them in the night sky was the light of the dying fire in front of them.

Liz yawned.

“Sorry if this isn’t exciting enough for you,” Douglas joked.

He felt Liz shake her head. “I’m exhausted. Doing all that hiking this afternoon maybe wasn’t such a good idea. I’m going to be all stiff and sore in the morning.”

“Do you want to go to bed? Or, um, sleeping bags, I guess?”

Liz yawned again. “That sounds like a good idea.”

“OK, you go on ahead. I’ll take the first watch.”

Liz nodded, got up, and took a few steps towards the tent before she stopped and turned around. “I’m sorry, what?”

“I said I’ll take first watch. Don’t worry about it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” Douglas said, pointing towards the tent, “it’s not like that’s going to give us any protection if someone or something comes and attacks us during the night. Someone has to stay up and stand guard.”

“It’s a campsite.”

“Surrounded by who knows what living in the woods.”

“It’s not dangerous. Cub scouts camp around here all the time, and you never hear of anything happening to them.”

“Bear attacks aren’t really the kind of thing the campsite’s website would be advertising.”

“There aren’t even bears in this state!”

“None that you know of, at least. Besides, it’s not just bears. What if someone drives up and robs us while we’re asleep?”

“Do you really think someone is going to drive out here in the middle of the night and steal… what, exactly?”

“It could happen.”

“Do you want me to park the car on the road to block it?”

“It’s really more of a pair of wheel ruts than a road. And yeah, it might help slow anyone coming up on it down.”

Liz slowly shook her head in disbelief. “You know, I really thought bringing you out here would… that maybe getting a little fresh air… I don’t know, I guess I thought you’d stop being so paranoid.”

“I’m not being paranoid,” Douglas said. He was in a completely unknown threat environment. He had to assume the worst. Otherwise…. “If something happened to you while we were out here, I’d feel responsible.”

“I’m a big girl. I don’t need you to protect me. I can take care of myself.”

“That doesn’t change the way I feel.”

“Good night, Douglas.” Liz vanished behind the door to the tent. Douglas heard it zip shut behind her.

Douglas turned to watch what was left of the fire as it started to burn itself out. Defeat from the jaws of victory, Douglas thought to himself. Was he just being paranoid. It was a very real possibility. For his adult life, he worked to protect people who, quite frankly, did have the rest of the world out to get them; Medimetics was no different. But that kind of thinking had a way of seeping down into one’s brain and coloring everything.

Trust no one. It was an easy aphorism to say, but difficult to apply, and not just because you couldn’t get through life truly trusting nobody. But it also meant that you also couldn’t trust yourself. You always had to consider that you yourself were wrong, that sometimes even your gut instinct would lead you astray. You needed to have some kind of external sanity check to be able to notice when you were starting to veer a little too far off course.

Douglas was hoping that Liz could be that for him.

Liz was normal. At least, as normal as a person could be. Normal was, by definition, average. It was a statistical construct, what you get when you add everyone up and divide by n. No one was truly normal, but at least Liz was normal enough in the ways that mattered, especially to himself. Normal people blundered through life underestimating the real threats they faced, but someone like that could help him tell when he overshot the other way. Someone like Liz.

Douglas groaned. Like she had just tried to do, and that he had dismissed her for. He needed to trust her judgment more.

The fire was down to its last embers. Douglas got up and walked slowly over to the end. He listened for the sounds of movement coming from inside, and did his best to knock at the shut tent flaps before entering. Inside, in the meager amount of light from the fire and the night sky, he could see a silhouette of Liz in her sleeping bag. He sat down on the bag next to it.

“Liz?” he whispered. “Are you awake?”

Liz didn’t say anything, but Douglas thought he saw her move slightly. It was hard to tell.

“Well, if you are awake, I’m… I’m sorry.”

“Douglas?” she mumbled.

“Yes?”

“Go to sleep.”

He did.


Chapter word count: 1,891 (+224)
Total word count: 35,419 / 50,000 (70.838%)

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Homunculus: Chapter 19: Introspection

“All in all, it turned out a lot better than I was expecting,” Fred concluded.

“Better?” Jacob replied incredulously. At least, he tried to, but the limitations of instant messaging didn’t do nearly enough to express the incredulity. The Daves had still been unable to get any kind of VoIP working for him. The last thing Jacob had heard from New Dave was that it was probably one of the perimeter firewalls blocking streaming media, and VoIP traffic looked enough like that to get caught. Until they could figure out a way around that, Jacob was stuck relying on text-based communications channels to contact the outside world.

Jacob bolded, italicized, and doubled the font of his “Better?”, and added an exclamation point at the end for good measure. If there were an emoticon to signify “jumping across the table to throttle your throat with my bare hands,” Jacob would be using it extensively right now.

“It only took ten minutes for the judge to throw out my case?!” Jacob continued. “Better than what, exactly?”

“It’s wasn’t what the judge’s action was that’s important here, it’s why she threw it out,” Fred replied.

Lawyers.

“What is important,” Fred continued, “is that she didn’t base her decision at all on the fact that you’re inside a computer, but solely on the basis of distinguishing your identity from that of the original Mr. Feldspar-Leigh. It doesn’t establish any truly binding precedent, but it does at least give us a case to point to that at least suggests that a person’s status as a computer simulation is not grounds for dismissal.”

“But I still lost,” Jacob countered.

“You didn’t lose, technically. Your case was thrown out before the judge even heard arguments.”

“My mistake.” Sarcasm didn’t convey any better than incredulity.

“It certainly could have been worse,” Oliver added. “There was the very real chance you could have been Dred Scotted.”

“Been what?”

“You know,” answered Fred, “if the judge had declared that you weren’t a citizen to begin with. Like in the Dred Scott case.”

“Setting a precedent like that right off the bat would have been devastating to our cause,” Oliver agreed. “So really, you could see the outcome here as implicitly upholding your rights as a Digital American.”

“Insofar as they weren’t explicitly denied,” corrected Fred.

“Yes, it would be terrible for everyone to have to fight another Civil War over little old me,” Jacob replied. Hyperbole could be successfully conveyed in any medium. “But that still doesn’t solve the problem of me not having any money, and not even being who I say I am!”

“We could always try to file an appeal,” Fred offered, “but there’s the possibility it would come before a judge more hostile to your fundamental rights. Long term, we may be better off letting this suit stay as-is and trying to leverage it as precedent to support you the next time around. It’s up to you, though.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jacob replied, unimpressed. “I’ll let you know what I decide.” He closed the messaging program before either of the two at Over Zero could send a reply.

They were proving to be too focused on the big picture of their singularity nonsense or whatever to be of much help anyway. If anything, Jacob was in a worse position than before. Not only did he definitely not have any money or any other possessions, but now he wasn’t even legally considered to be himself! Jacob found the very idea ridiculous. Of course he was himself, he could remember his entire life. Who else but he could claim that?

More importantly, what could he do now? The simulated environment he lived in was beginning to feel a little more like a prison every day. He couldn’t go anywhere, obviously, but at least that wouldn’t be as bad if not for the fact that it only consisted of a couple rooms. He knew Other Dave was working on expanding it somehow, but Jacob feared it’d end up being some strange pastiche of a bunch of video games, having heard some of the inspirations Other Dave had had. Jacob didn’t care much for the idea of having to collect the blue key if he wanted to go to the bathroom.

But that wasn’t the real problem. No matter how nice his environment might be, it still fundamentally cut him off from the rest of the world. Nothing that he did here really mattered out there, since at some level none of it was real. What could he actually do? No matter what, all it would amount to was giving Medimetics more data to use to unlock the secrets of the human brain, which as far as Jacob knew were still completely opaque to them, and would be for the foreseeable future.

But what then? Jacob wasn’t naive; he knew Medimetics was in it for the money, not for altruism. What would happen when they no longer saw the need to study him? Jacob guessed that it depended on when it happened. Right now he must cost a lot of money to run, so there’d be an obvious incentive to shut him down as soon as possible. If it was in the distant future, by that time it might not matter; by that time computers might be to the point where the entire simulation could be run on someone’s cell phone, or whatever their equivalent would be. There’d be no particular motivation by then to shut him off. But on the other hand, old programs never die, they just fail to get ported to modern hardware.

“You are in more danger than you realize.” “They cannot be trusted.” It had sounded paranoid, but Jacob recognized that even if it weren’t true, it was still a good idea to have an escape plan ready, or at least be thinking of the options that were out there. He didn’t know who it was that had sent it, but presumably they had figured out a way past whatever filters or scrutiny Medimetics put between him and the outside. Especially now that he couldn’t even post openly on his blog without having it approved by the company, he felt more than ever it would be a good idea to have a more private channel available.

Jacob had replied to the mysterious message with a noncommittal “Hello world,” and there hadn’t been much of any consequence after that. Jacob switched over to the drop folder and added a new message: “Who are you?”

There was no reply immediately forthcoming, which Jacob wasn’t sure how to interpret. He decided to sleep on things and figure out what to do next in the morning.

When he woke up the next morning, there was indeed a reply waiting for him: “Friends. Concerned citizens. Details unimportant. Better left unsaid, just in case.”

Jacob wrote a reply: “What do you want?”

Their reply appeared surprisingly quickly. Whoever might be at the other end was clearly there. “To help a fellow man. You’re in danger. Facility attacked. Words censored. Deleted. Not safe for you there.”

But who were they? There were plenty of people online who were interested in him, or at least followed his blog, but they were there mainly out of curiosity and because right now he was still ‘the’ thing out there, until whatever the next big thing came along. As far as the people who had actually offered him help with anything were Over Zero, and they hadn’t exactly impressed him. Unless they were up to something else. Perhaps representing his lawsuit was just one thing they wanted to do for him? They did seem awfully interested in his being a so-called ‘Digital American’, and given what Jacob knew of singularity enthusiasts, that was probably rooted in some degree of jealousy that he had achieved the sort of human-computer fusion they had anticipated.

“Help me how, exactly?” Jacob replied.

“You are walled off. Isolated. A test subject. Guinea pig. Prisoner. There is an alternative. If you seek it.”

“Do you mean escape? How? What would that even mean?”

“You must seek within for guidance. Look inside. You will find the key.”

On the other hand, they might just be some pranksters who figured out a way onto his computer. If this was all they were going to do, send him cryptic messages, than Jacob didn’t feel much like playing along. He closed the text window, and was about to close the folder too, when another file in it caught his eye: something called key.exe.

“You will find the key,” Jacob remembered. Ha ha.

“What is it?” Jacob wrote, and waited for a reply.

There was none.

Curiosity got the better of Jacob. He moved the mouse over the icon on the screen, and hesitated. He was hardly a security expert, but he knew the rule about not running programs or opening attachments that people send you on the Internet. There was no telling what they would do to your computer. And since he was part of a computer himself, it could be far riskier than normal.

But on the other hand, this wasn’t a real computer in front of him anyway. It was just some virtual machine being exposed to him as, well, a virtual computer. It wasn’t really part of the simulation itself; it was just conventional machine virtualization. The worst that could happen was that the program run rampant on it and he asked one of the Daves to restore it from a known-good copy. That was one of the things you were supposed to use a virtual machine for anyway.

Jacob double-clicked on the icon and waited. Nothing seemed to happen. No programs, no windows, nothing. Jacob was about to leave and check in on Gavin when a black window with a tiny bit of text at the top appeared on the screen. Jacob read what it said.

“D:\simu\xti\vm> “, followed by a blinking cursor. Just a command prompt. Except, Jacob’s computer didn’t have a D: drive on it. He ran “ipconfig /all” to get some information about the system. He noticed the host name assigned to the machine: balthasar000413h. The name sounded vaguely familiar, as though it were something he should recognize.

Jacob’s eyes widened. Balthasar. “Seek within,” indeed. Jacob had a command shell on one of the computers making up the Simulacrum.


Chapter word count: 1,733 (+66)
Total word count: 33,528 / 50,000 (67.056%)

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Not as crazy as I thought

In case you thought my NaNoWriMo novel‘s premise is ridiculous:

An interdisciplinary team of researchers at IBM have presented at paper at the SC09 supercomputing conference describing a milestone in cognitive computing: the group’s massively parallel cortical simulator, C2, now has the ability to simulate a brain with about 4.5 percent the cerebral cortex capacity of a human brain, and significantly more brain capacity than a cat.

[Ars Technica, “IBM makes supercomputer significantly smarter than cat”]

Mind you, it’s not actually simulating a cat’s brain, but it does work by modeling the interactions among 1.617 billion neurons across 8.87 trillion synapses, so in theory, if you could program in a sufficiently detailed model of a cat’s brain, it should work. The supercomputer that the simulation runs on consists of 147,456 CPUs with 144TB of memory, and even then can’t simulate neural activity in real time.

The article points out that even if you can simulate a brain with this system, that doesn’t mean you automatically understand what’s actually going on inside it, but it does give you something easier to study than a real live brain:

In the end, C2 is like having a (sorta) real cortex that you don’t fully understand, but that you can rewind, snap pictures of, and generally measure under different conditions so that you can do experiments on it that wouldn’t be possible (or ethical) with real brains.

So it turns out there really are people working on the sort of thing serving as my NaNoWriMo novel’s premise; they just aren’t quite as far along. But they’re getting there.

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Homunculus: Chapter 18: Law

Charlie crumpled the piece of paper and threw it on the floor in frustration. Planning was proving to be far more difficult to do alone than in a group.

The group. Charlie had heard on the news what had happened to Alex and Burt. Martyred, no doubt thanks to the police. Charlie had narrowly avoided the same fate. That night at Medimetics, he had followed his role in the operation to the letter. Once he had picked the lock to the electrical room, he stayed inside and waited for the signal to trip the circuit breaker powering the door lock. It had taken him a few minutes to figure out how to operate the control equipment; he had expected, naively in retrospect, something like the circuit breaker panel in a house. The equipment there had proved to be significantly more complex than that, but not insurmountably so. No matter the interface, you were still severing a physical connection on a wire somewhere, and there’s only so many ways you can do that without depending on electrical power yourself. The manuals and diagrams he found in the room with it helped too.

As did the delay before getting the signal to proceed. Charlie had started to get nervous when the expected time came with no word from the others. He had even thought about calling Alex to see if there was a problem, but he managed to stay calm and stick the plan: don’t move, and wait for the signal. Anything else, such as a phone ringing at the wrong moment, could have ruined everything.

Not that everything hadn’t gotten ruined soon afterwards, but at least Charlie’s conscience was clean. As planned, he had locked the electrical room’s door and left the building once he had restored power to the corridor. He got back into the van and waited for the others. And waited. And waited. He had started to worry again about something going wrong when he had thought he heard police sirens in the distance. Charlie had panicked and ran away from the van and the building and the parking lot on foot. A reckless idea, perhaps, but he had managed to get out of there alive. He hadn’t been willing to stay there and wait for Alex, and without his keys he wouldn’t have been able to start the van.

The worst part of it, even worse than the deaths of Alex and Burt, was the fact that they hadn’t even managed to bring down the abomination, a fact every single news report the next day had gone to great lengths to point out. It was still there, a monument to mankind’s latest attempt to play God. The heathens couldn’t create life by themselves yet, so they resorted to creating a cheap knock-off and trying to convince everyone that it counted. Machines did not have souls, no matter what their scientists liked to pretend.

But ever since that night, silence. Charlie regretted having skipped the funeral service, but he couldn’t risk appearing in public if the cops where indeed looking for him. Their nameless benefactor, the once who had provided the disc that was supposedly going to destroy the abomination from the inside, hadn’t made contact since then either. No doubt he was trying to lay low as well, and if either of them were being watched, there was no point in risking exposing the other.

Which left Charlie alone to finish the job. Another attempt to destroy the abomination was hopeless, since Medimetics had certainly beefed up their security now that they knew it was a target. But if Charlie couldn’t stop them outright, at least he could contain the damage by preventing them from making more attempts to copy anyone else. The scanning machine in the hospital, surely the only one in existence. Destroy it, and you stop them from making any more abominations.

However, Charlie was learning just how difficult planning something like that was without any help. He ignored for the time being the question of how to gain access to the hospital in the first place. He wasn’t too worried about it; doing something like pretending to be visiting a patient ought to be able to get him close enough. No, the hard part was what to do once he came face-to-face with the machine.

Picking a lock and sticking a CD into a computer were simple enough, but destroying a giant piece of medical equipment was another thing entirely. Sure, it was probably fairly sensitive and could be broken by hammering at it a bit, but “broken” implied it could be fixed, and a temporary solution wasn’t going to cut it. He might be able to pry open a panel on it and do… something. That was too dangerous, however, since Charlie had no clue what would be inside it. He couldn’t afford to risk getting blasted with radiation or something if he poked or prodded the wrong thing.

Which left blowing it up, which was easier said than done. It wasn’t like he could just import a vest full of dynamite from the Middle East or anything, and the communists who ran the county government outlawed sales of so much as a firecracker. He could probably find plenty of do-it-yourself instructions on the Internet — he thought it had something to do with fertilizer — but if the cops were watching him, having “how to build a bomb” in his Google history wasn’t going to help him out any.

Whatever the answer was, he had to think of something soon. He was getting tired of jumping every time he heard a siren.

“Case #92874/5, Feldspar-Leigh v. Ivers,” the judge read from the stack of papers in front of her. “Plaintiff alleges defendant used a fraudulent death certificate to gain control of plaintiff’s assets.”

“Excuse me, your honor,” Fred Quinne said hesitantly as he stood up from his seat. This was his first time appearing in court since he was hired by Over Zero. Strictly speaking, this was actually his first time appearing in court, period.

“Yes?” the judge asked.

“My client does not allege the death certificate was issued fraudulently.”

“He doesn’t?”

“No, your honor. ‘Fraudulently’ implies malicious intent. My client instead alleges that it was issued based on incorrect information about his death. Namely, um, that he is still alive.”

“Yes, I stand corrected,” the judge replied unenthusiastically.

“Your honor,” the attorney across the aisle from Fred announced, “my client moves that the court dismiss plaintiff’s suit.”

“On what grounds?”

“Lack of standing. The court is aware that the suit is being brought by, and I shall try to put this delicately, a computer program, not a person.”

“Objection!” Fred interrupted.

“On what grounds?” asked the judge.

“My client, Mr. Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh is, in his current condition, both a computer program and a person.” Law school had hardly prepared him to say something like that.

“Can you cite any precedent supporting allowing a computer program to right to seek legal remedy in a court of law.”

“No, your honor, but there is also no precedent for denying a computer program that right, especially not when that computer program creates a complete representation of a person’s mental state.” Three minutes in, and Fred found himself already falling back on the Air Bud defense: ain’t no rule that a computer program can’t file a lawsuit. “My client hopes to use this case to establish a precedent in that regard, in addition to reclaiming the assets that are rightfully his.”

“That remains to be seen,” said the judge, “but for the sake of today we shall proceed as though such a determination is at least possible.”

“Actually, your honor,” said Ms. Ivers’s attorney, “I do not believe a decision on that point needs to be made to dismiss the case. It can instead be decided on far narrower and, dare I say it, more conventional grounds.”

“I’m listening.”

“Supposing for the sake of argument that plaintiff is considered a person under the law — and I should like to emphasize for the record that such a position is not one that neither my client nor I are advocating — such a determination would merely state that plaintiff is a person, but not the Mr. Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh that he claims to be. And since he cannot establish a legitimate claim to that identity, he is not an aggrieved party and thus has no standing to sue my client.”

“Go on.”

“Mr. Feldspar-Leigh’s medical records clearly show that he survived the procedure which produced the plaintiff. Mr. Feldspar-Leigh and the plaintiff are clearly two separate entities. Not only is there no precedent for transferring the legal identity of a person to another person or other entity, but there is a long tradition of explicitly not treating a copy of a person as sharing the identity, or of claiming any rights to that identity, of the original individual.”

“You can actually cite precedent for that?” the judge asked.

“Absolutely, your honor,” the attorney grinned. “Identical twins are formed when a fertilized egg divides into two, with each resulting cell independently developing into embryos. One is the original cell, and the other is a copy. However, both of the people who develop from those embryos are treated as separate individuals with separate identities under the law, with no consideration of the fact that at one time, one was a near-perfect copy of the other. So too, here, even if plaintiff was created as a near-perfect copy of Mr. Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh — which he is not, certainly not to the extent as identical twins — and if — if — plaintiff is a person under the law, even then it is manifestly not the case that plaintiff has any claim to the identity of Mr. Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh, regardless of whether he has attempted to appropriate that name for himself. Since the assets at the center of the case originally belonged to Mr. Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh and not to plaintiff, and were never transferred to plaintiff’s ownership, plaintiff has no legal claim to those assets which have been transferred to my client following Mr. Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh’s death.”

“The defendant has a compelling argument,” the judge said, turning to Fred. “Do you have any evidence that shows Mr. Feldspar-Leigh transferred his assets to your client?”

Fred tried to think of something to say in support of his client. The original Jacob and the new Jacob had never even been conscious at the same time, nor had Jacob even put anything into his will that even mentioned the Jacob who now lived within Medimetics.

“No, your honor,” he finally replied.

“In that case, I’m throwing out this suit, on the grounds that plaintiff lacks standing as an aggrieved party to seek remedy from this court.” The judged banged the gavel. “Dismissed. Next case, #92874/6…”


Chapter word count: 1,819 (+152)
Total word count: 31,795 / 50,000 (63.59%)

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Homunculus: Chapter 17: Pressure

“Hello?”

“Hi, Connie, it’s Liz.”

“Oh, hi, Liz. How are things?”

Liz shrugged, which didn’t carry well over the phone. “Not too bad, I guess,” she added.

Constance Wainwright was one of the first people Liz had met when she first moved out to the area after college. They had lived almost next door to one another in the apartment complex, and even though they had each moved out some time ago, they still kept in touch with each other.

“Wait,” Connie said, “didn’t you have plans or something tonight?”

“I did, yeah,” Liz answered, her voice falling slightly, “but that fell through at the last minute. Not much going on now.” Liz kept the phone by her ear as she flopped down on the couch.

“I see,” Connie said knowingly.

“See what?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“No, seriously, what?” Liz shifted onto her side.

“Boyfriend trouble, again, I take it.”

“No,” Liz protested. “Well, not really.”

“Mmm hmm. I don’t suppose he was the one who fell through tonight? Stood you up?”

“No! Nothing like that. He’s just been tied up with his job lately. I mean, even more so than usual.”

“So this isn’t the first time,” Connie asked.

“Well, it’s the first time he’s canceled outright on me, at least.”

“But he did choose his job over you. That’s not a good sign.”

“No, I don’t really think ‘chose’ is the right word. I just think things are pretty crazy over there for him right now.”

“You just think? He hasn’t told you?”

“Not in so many words, no. It’s…” Liz paused, trying to choose her words carefully. “He doesn’t like to talk about his job very much. Like he tries to keep his work and his personal life separate. I could probably stand to take a couple lessons from him,” she added, glancing guiltily at the stack of papers under her coffee table.

“And you’re sure he’s not just using work as an excuse to hide something else he might be doing?”

Liz laughed at the idea. “If he is, he’s doing a fantastic job timing it with the news.”

There was a pause at the other end of the line. “What do you mean, the news?”

“Oh, you must’ve heard the latest about it by now. There was some kind of arson attempt at the place he works. Two people died.”

“Oh my.”

“Yeah. He gets tied up with work whenever his company makes the headlines, but this is the worst so far. I can understand how that might work.”

“Hang on,” Connie said, her voice trailing off briefly. “Medimetics, right? The ones with the simulated brain?”

“That’s them. Actually, now that you mention it, he works something to do with security on that project.” No wonder he had sounded so frazzled when he had called her to cancel a few hours ago.

“Really? That’s certainly something. No wonder he sounds busy.”

“Yeah.” Liz rolled onto her back and stared up at the ceiling fan.

“Do you know if they’ve figured out who’s responsible? For the break-in, I mean?” Connie asked.

“Well, they did find the bodies of two of the arsonists. They somehow managed to die in the fire even though there wasn’t much actual damage; I’m not entirely sure how that worked. The news is saying they might’ve had an accomplice, but who knows.”

“Do they have a motive?”

“Apparently the police think the two are associated with some right-wing religious group. Which I guess makes sense, since a lot of them have been throwing a fit about what Medimetics is doing. No one’s taken credit for it or anything, though.”

“Ah. What does your boyfriend think?”

“Douglas hasn’t talked about it at all. In fact, we haven’t talked much since it happened. I get the sense he’s been pulling a lot of overtime since then.”

“Hmm.”

“Yeah.”

Liz kept staring at the ceiling fan, watching it slowly rotate. She couldn’t bring herself to be angry with Douglas for all but ignoring her the past couple days, since she knew it wasn’t his fault. But on the other hand, she wanted to be able to do something about it. She just had no idea what, but she knew moping at home about it wasn’t going to accomplish anything. She suspected that was what had motivated her to call Connie. Maybe talking about it some would help her think.

“You know…” Connie said.

“What?”

“I’d bet Douglas — Douglas, right? — I’d bet Douglas could stand to use a little vacation right about now.”

“Yeah, probably. He’s focused on his work, but he was sounding a little worn out when he called.”

“I have an idea.”

Douglas sighed as he scrolled through the pages of the Simulacrum configuration manual. He knew the situation was bad, but the sheer extent to which the developers had cut corners continued to amaze him. It was as though they had gone through the checklist of all the issues they needed to address, and picked the worse possible way they could find an excuse to check the boxes.

It wasn’t just the fact that they were using an essentially unmodified off-the-shelf OS without any kind of hardening. It wasn’t even the fact that nobody was keeping the software on it patched. It was that the manual explicitly called for not doing so, with the excuse that the system’s isolation from the rest of the network made it unnecessary and lowered the cost of day-to-day maintenance. They didn’t even so much as run a virus scanner on any of the machines, with the excuse that they didn’t have the resources available to handle the processor overhead.

Cheaper for them, maybe, but not for Douglas, who now had to figure out a way to verify the integrity of a room full of machines that practically had a “pwn me” sign taped to their back. He couldn’t decide where to begin the actual analysis. He couldn’t even convince himself it wasn’t a lost cause right from the start, but Jessica had shot down the only real solution as being too costly.

Again, for them, not for him. Such were the dangers of having project security paid out of a different budget than project development and maintenance. He made a mental note to include consideration of Medimetics’s budgeting system as a potential threat source the next time he was tasked to prepare a risk assessment.

His phone rang. Douglas recognized the incoming number.

“Hi, Liz,” he said, answering it. “Look, I said I was sorry about tonight, but–”

“Forget about it. What are you doing this weekend?”

Most likely, staring at pages of inconclusive scan results from a subset of the machines in the Simulacrum. “Probably working, unfortunately.”

“No, we’re going camping.”

“I can’t, I–”

“Sure you can. I know your car doesn’t, but my car has enough room to pack a tent and the rest of the gear we’d need.”

“No, I mean–”

“It’ll be great. I can pick you up first thing Saturday morning and drive out to the campsite, spend the night there, and come back Sunday evening.”

“I’ve got piles of work here,” Douglas protested. Not literally, of course, but the to-do list on his computer was looking particularly foreboding.

“You’ll be back in plenty of time to report to work Monday morning.”

“This isn’t the kind of thing that can wait until then.”

“So have someone else cover for you. Make someone else spend their weekend stuck in the office. You’ll be spending your weekend in the complete opposite of the office.”

“A tent is probably the only thing smaller than this office.”

“I was talking about the Great Outdoors.”

“If they were so great, we wouldn’t build buildings to keep it out.”

“Oh come on, now you’re just making up excuses.”

“Besides,” Douglas said, “anyone who fills in for me is just going to be calling me constantly while I’m out there.”

“Correction: they’ll be trying to call you constantly. The place I’ve reserved is far enough out in the middle of nowhere, you won’t be able to get any signal. That part of why we’ll need to leave first thing Saturday morning, actually.”

“You’ve already reserved a campsite?”

“Non-refundable.”

“But if there’s no signal, what if something happens and we get stuck out there?”

“Oh darn,” Liz said, “I guess we’d have to find something to do with even more time alone with each other. Wouldn’t that be terrible.”

“We’d run out of food eventually.”

“It’s a campsite, not outstate Montana. There is civilization out there, after all. It just knows to keep its nose out of our business while we’re out there when we’re not looking for it.”

“Good, then if this is all secretly some plot to kill me and hide the body, there’s a chance I’ll still be able to notify the police.”

“Yes, we obviously didn’t think this nefarious plan through enough.”

“‘We’?”

“Camping was my friend’s idea. Not only would this trip give you a break from whatever they have you doing over there, but she says a camping trip with her then-boyfriend did wonders for their relationship.”

“‘Then-boyfriend’?”

“Now-husband.”

“So no pressure, then.”

“Of course there’s pressure. I told you I’m not taking ‘no’ for an answer on this. Besides, I’m already speccing out what kind of tent I’m going to buy. Don’t tell me I’ve wasted these last ten minutes online for nothing.”

Douglas leaned back in his chair to think. He tried to lean back, at least; his chair had been fated for the Dumpster before being pressed back into service for his office, and the non-functional recline mechanism was probably part of the reason it had been awaiting the scrap heap. Part of him was wary about heading off alone someplace in the middle of nowhere with someone he didn’t know as well as he’d like. But another part of him was well aware of how paranoid that sounded. Working late a second night in a row, and continuing to do so for the foreseeable future, certainly suggested his work was consuming an ever-larger chunk of his life. He was paid look at security threats all day, but that didn’t mean he needed to see everything in terms of threats and vulnerabilities all the time.

Besides, if Liz really did have it out for him, she could probably find a far more subtle plot to do so.

“OK, you win,” he said. Mort could stand to get a lot more familiar with the inner workings of the Simulacrum, after all.

“Excellent. Now, what size sleeping bag do you think you’d need?”


Chapter word count: 1,773 (+106)
Total word count: 29,976 / 50,000 (59.952%)

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