Ten minutes till curtain call. Ten minutes until curtain call. The midway is crowded, and I have to weave my way through people, strollers, children. All the way across the fair. No, I can’t be late–if I’m late, I’ll never get another contract. Hell, I’m the opening act–I might be fired then and there. If there’s one thing that the ringmaster hates, it’s a late performer. If there’s one thing he hates more, it’s a late tech.
I burst into the back entrance, head straight for the catwalk entrance, the narrow steel ladder burned into my vision–up a few steps, into the stuffy room. Everything’s on, everything’s working. I just need to up there: I slam straight into the ringmaster. Brian doesn’t budge, his five-foot-ten frame glowering over me, laid out on the ground, gasping for breath. He grabs my wrist and jerks me up, and I barely catch my balance. “Sorry sir, sorry, but I need to–” “We need to talk,” he says. “After the show.” He walks away.
I stand frozen for too long, though, and he glares again: “Run, boy! The show’s on in two minutes!” I shake myself out of my trance, and head up the ladder. Collapsing onto the second stool, Mark gives me a look. “Pissed off Brian?” He asks. I don’t need to answer–he heard the whole exchange. I put a headset on. “You shouldn’t have been late.”
“I know. It was an accident.” My teeth are clenched, and the soundboard is on the fritz again. Now is not the time to chew me out, Mark. I duck under the folding table and unplug-plug a few wires. It makes a whizzing sound, and the lights blink on.
“What kind of an accident results in almost being late to a show?” he asks. I shoot him a glare, just as the eight count begins. The show goes by without any major errors, but the anxiety lumping in my stomach doesn’t go away. What will Brian do? Climbing down the ladder feels like I am walking to my own execution. Brian is waiting, of course. He looks like he might be ready to rip my head off. Instead of shouting at me, though, he holds up a finger and says, “I need to talk to Jess first. Meet me in the back lot.” Across the fair–where I had been just before the show.
The back lot was, if possible, hotter than the midway. The heat seemed to radiate from the hundreds of cars and vans and RVs and trucks, all meant to transfer the fair and it’s inhabitants and employees across the country. My pickup was dwarfed by the bigger semis and UHauls, at the far end of the lot. The spot was generally considered undesirable, but the fast food joint across the highway had 24/7 wifi, another luxury I couldn’t otherwise afford.
I opened the tailgate. It held a sleeping bag and as many comforters as I could afford–the rigid lining of the truck bed was uncomfortable, and cap offered almost no insulation when the temperature dropped at night. There was a twelve-inch-deep wooden board the functioned as a shelf–charging station, bookshelf, server rack. I had devoted a lot of work to hiding the inset solar panels on the roof, in the hopes they wouldn’t be vandalized. A throwback to the days at the Science Nook, and a convenient way to charge the computer. Hiding the wires had been the hardest, ironically. I opened the laptop, plugged it into the servers, that also held memory back up.
The screen flashed, and a series of beeps I recognized as Artemis’s binary introduction played. Word flashed across the screen:
Hello Admin privileges to [KAT HARUKO] BACKDOOR2 error security failure HELP Sorry,_help_requested_thru_backdoor._Attack_unprecedented.
LOCATION REQUESTED, SYSTEM MAN’T REQ’D.
BACKDOOR SECURITY FAILURE CODE 0101383294
BACKDOOR SECURITY FAILURE CODE 0101383294
BACKDOOR SECURITY FAILURE CODE 0101383294
UNIT LOCATION UNKNOWN.
CONTACT ATTEMPT #3 UNIT LOCATION UNKNOWN.
CONTACT ATTEMPT #2 UNIT LOCATION UNKNOWN.
CONTACT ATTEMPT #1 UNIT LOCATION UNKNOWN.
My blood runs cold. What the hell has just happened. Brian is approaching, the sun is beginning to set. Too much, too much. “Hey,” he says. I shut the computer shut and practically fling it behind me. He doesn’t know much about computers, but I imagine that he can tell that it’s nicer than I should be able to afford. If he opens it, it’s more than obvious that backdoor security failures aren’t exactly your run-of-the-mill OS issues. “Hi?” I say. He doesn’t move. “I want you to explain why a lady with a suit walked up to me, forty five minutes before the performance, and asked me where the hell you were. And, why, afterwards, she explained that she was a detective from the CIA. Why the hell is the CIA after you?” I suck in a breath.
“Did she tell you her name?”
“Yes–” He closes his eyes for a second, searching for the name. “Uh, it was Asian, maybe Japanese? Like–Katsuri Haruki, maybe?”
“Katsuki Haruko?” I say.
“Yes, that’s it.” He gives me a suspicious look.
“Listen, Brian, I’m not a nutjob terrorist or anything. I was a programmer before I came here–worked in a mall, across from Kat’s cover operation. She figured out that I was okay at what I did, but the store went under, so I moved. I kept some of the stuff–” I motioned to the computer, “but I sold what I could, came here. It was what I could get, at the time. I have no idea why she’d be asking around for me.” It’s a lie–I know exactly why she’s looking for me. Why the hell would Apollo set off? Nobody would attack it like that. Nobody could attack it like that.
“She also said you’d say that. You’re not just some lousy programmer if the fucking CIA is after you. What’s the real story?”
His face blanches when he sees my glare: “Listen, buddy, I didn’t come here looking to dredge up the past, okay? I don’t know why the fuck the CIA’s after me, but it sure as hell wasn’t because I was doing anything wrong.” Lies, all lies. But I have no choice. This is about so much more than my job, right now.
“She said you had several artificially intelligent monster program out there, and you’d hacked the government multiple times. She said that they needed you for, uh, Northern Lights?” He suddenly looks worried? Was that possible? He wasn’t supposed to know any of that. Nobody was supposed to know–so Kat must have told him because it was a serious issue.
“Fuck,” I say, and my suddenly-quiet voice seems to scare him. I reach behind me for the laptop. “Did she say anything specific?”
He shakes his head. “I told her that you weren’t there, I didn’t know where.”
“Nobody could break Apollo. Even with Zeus, Athena, and Artemis. How the hell is Northern Lights activated?”
“I dunno. That’s all she told me. But who–what–” I jump down from the tailgate.
“I need to know where she is right now. This is very, very bad.”
“I told you that I don’t–”
“Can I use your phone?” I ask, and he wordlessly hands me his phone.
“Thank you,” I say, dialing her number. The phone rings several times, and a mechanical voice answers: the number is no longer available. I curse. The only other option is to sic one of the small programs after her, but I know it won’t work. She keeps to herself, and last I knew, the only emails she operated were burners.
“What are these–Greek gods?” Brian asks. “The ‘monster programs’ you were talking about. I switched them over after Katelyn went psycho–but nobody’s supposed to know they exist, and even if they did know, how the hell–”
“So they’re AI?”
Yes, yes…they are artificial intelligence. None of them were programmed with emotions or any particular power. They were set to protect Apollo. No attacks, no nothing. The only one that does anything is Ares, and that’s–”
“How many of them are there? What does Ares do?” “Ares–Ares just scans for searches, anything out of the ordinary. Attacks computers that try to do anything out of the ordinary–it’s programmed to ignore a few computers, mostly government ones that aren’t a threat and would become one if monitored. There’s–uh, most than twelve. Most of them are small–just system hacks that make Apollo harder to pull down. There’s not backdoor on Apollo, though–only the main gate. Nobody’s supposed to know it, it’s closed, totally closed,” back and forth, back and forth; the world feels like it is collapsing around me, but everything is totally normal.
But what is this even about?–” He was going to ask another question, but I cut him off:
“There’s a gang, it’s international, but originates in Japan. Kat was working on the case, I made a program to track their whereabouts, help catch the gang. We’re so fucking close, so close to shutting it down–we don’t even need people, we could tear it down by crippling their systems. But they have it, or they’re getting in–I don’t know, it’s closed, that what I mean, I can’t get in, I’d have to pull all the other systems off and tear the thing apart, server by fucking server and–” my voice chokes. Three years of work, three years of running from anybody who could figure it out, and it was practically all over.
“And?” Brian looks cold. “And–” A thought suddenly strikes me. Impossible, but what had I been taught? They’d stop at nothing to pull Apollo down.
“You’re one of them.” He smiles. I’m royally screwed.
“That’s good, you’re finally getting it,” he smiles, and I don’t even want to think about what could be coming. At best, a bullet through the head. At worst? I can’t even imagine it. His hand casually sneaks towards his pocket, and it takes me too long to respond, but I try: Grab his arm, block the punch, elbow to the face, knee him anywhere, do it, don’t think, you don’t have the time, time, grab him, get his shoulders, pain isn’t the point, getting him down is the point, pull his feet out from under him, duck the punch, how do you flip him, he’s on his back, he’s still dangerous, this isn’t easy, this isn’t like they tell you it will be, grab his arms, push them to the side, how do you dislocate his shoulder; then time goes slow and I’m not sure exactly what’s happening, certainly not the pain I expected, but everything’s fuzzy, and this is the end, end, end–too final, I don’t know what to think. It’s over, that’s all I know. I wish dying didn’t feel this way. Anything, even if it meant pain. But we don’t always get to choose the way we die, do we? I can only hope that the program is okay, that everything is at least okay enough to survive, because perfection is impossible.
That’s life, I suppose. Surreal: it gets hard to breathe, I want to be scared, gasping for air, but I don’t move, just lay there. The world goes white, gray, the whole rainbow of colors, black. Nothing.