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%)

4 Responses

  1. Oh my. Well Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh is nothing if not decisive! (Excellent choice of surname by the by, have I mentioned that? One doesn’t come upon the hyphenated sort in stories very often.)
    I liked the changing of the time on the backup system. Simple. Elegant. Devastating.
    Again, great job. It’s been an exciting read all the way.

  2. Thanks! I figured the middle initial and hyphenated surname would make him sound pretentious and monied, the sort of person who would spend a few billion trying to become immortal. Also, because he got his money doing web stuff, and Tim Berners-Lee invented the web.

    More naming trivia: I chose to give the Daves the name “Dave” because Penn Jillette hates that name for being so bland and generic, ideal for breaking the One Steve Limit.

    Other character names were mostly chosen arbitrarily.

  3. I did get that he was monied, and even pretentious, but not unbearably so to me. He was not without morals, and did utilize his skills where he could. And perhaps I was moved to a higher degree of sympathy due to his desparate situation in the begining (and as it turned out, the middle and end) of the story. But hey, if you’re going to blow a few billion, why not turn yourself into a slew of ones and zeros in a few banks of computers? Something for you to save up for maybe? You’ll just need to come up with a slightly better system… Simulacrum 2.0

    Also I love obscure references and insider meanings.
    Fun Fact: Andrew Vienna, of Knowing Andrew fame, got his last name as a nod to Billy Joel.

  4. My original plan with Other Dave was to have him make increasingly obscure references in each chapter he appeared in, until in the final chapter where he referenced Appendix A and nobody had any idea what he was talking about. Obviously, though, I abandoned that idea since I didn’t put enough planning into it, so the obscurity is kind of all over the map.

    Additional obscure reference: the Simulacra were named after these Magi for obvious reasons, though I spelled one Caspar instead of Casper to avoid any unwanted friendly ghost connotations.

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