5 weeks ago, a conduit rupture in one of the Northern districts had pancaked two Mag-Lev cars as they streaked their way across the countryside. The sudden and powerful inversion in the polarity had stopped the latter cars like magnetic wall. The news reader kept referring to the instantaneous fatality, the tragic loss.
A week after that a powerboat along the Thames, hit the partially submerged body of a suicide, CID guessed from the millennium footbridge. The corpse had chewed up jammed the rudder and flipped the boat. 18 people were on board, packed for a birthday gift way over capacity. The river water would have been as dense as concrete at that speed. The girl was loved, whatever impetus she had to jump she had buried, deep. Her note said simply, I'm killing myself, so someday I can’t kill someone else; Ironic.
The scenes that flickered on the backs of his leaden eyelids, showed no bodies to speak of, no gore, nothing to burn or bury; only the chilling knowledge of imminent mortality.
The bright knowing that the usually ever flowing artery of London, was as cold and unyielding as marble, in that instant that of fiberglass and flesh
The jarring physical impossibility of the combined mass of 80 people, luggage, lives, hopes and aspirations; compacted into a space roughly 18 m3.
He had been staring at the same completion message for over an hour.
Concentration lapsing, it was all he could think about. Himself and the void. Of all destinations for his mind to wonder to.
He shook it off, stretching his way into a yawn that threatened to envelop him.
From Data management, he could see the vista of the city at night. Monoliths of the square mile dwarfed the gothic prickles of Westminster.
Cloud spires against a red night, though truly a thing of beauty; were lost beneath the fatigue and boredom of data sweeps and screen burn on the back of his eyes.
He generated the results of the last completed sweep, and rose quietly, padding away on sock feet from his terminal across the dimly lit floor. Passed the dormant screens of his work mates, most of whom were in warm bars or warm beds, not necessarily their own.
When he came to think on it; there no chance that the ancient London that brought the rich Chinese to gawp was in any way original. Strife decades before he was born had destroyed a huge chunk of the 19 century edifice. All the current leaded glass was inch thick, blast proof, the limestone aged and coated with an acid resistant polymer.
30 floors up, in the Retention and deletions section of the largest ISP in Atlantic and northern Europe, Mitchell al-Kani was paid ₠28,000 a year for iterating the standard policy of 30 day data presence overhaul for ex clients.
He was paid to erase the dead, it had been a busy week.
The vending machine was in the floors atrium, a digitally rendered cartoon of an anthropomorphic hyper feminised Rabbit eyed him Bashfully, reading his retina print as it lounged languorously at a heaving picnic blanket a card swipe keyed in his Id, gave him a list of his previously ordered items, and a husky voiced greeting.
“Good morning Mitchell”
The Program was designed to give him a quick list based on the time of day and the amount of previously vended items checked against an employee’s personal recommended daily allowance of salt, sugar and caffeine.
“Good morning Mitchell, have you slept in the last 12 hours?”
Its vocal was modulated to evoke a willingly submissive tone of concern. The end of each inquiry rose, the stresses of each sentence dipped.
“Good morning Mitchell, have you slept in the last 12 hours?”
Usually the machine elicited no reaction from him.
But fatigue raised his ire at the inanimate condescension of its programmed attempt to give a damn, at such an unholy hour.
Irritation compounded by the quick-list choices it had presented him with. cornucopia of Mineral water, whole wheat crackers and apple slices.
“One black Coffee and one packet of Crisps Please”
“It has been indicated that you have already consumed 300mg of caffeine in the past 18 hours, I do not recommend you drink any further caffeinated beverages Mitchell.
It has been indicated that your sodium consumption has surpassed the 6 gram per day recommended…”
After more digital admonishment he acquiesced to a bottle of water. But in his frustration he gave up entirely before it had even been dispensed. Mitchell returned to his console in a foul mood, happy to let the vending machines shabby little AI figure out how to extricate a bottle from its delivery port without the help of the human it saw fit to scorn.
The results of the previous sweep had loaded over 68000 cleared entries from 180 accounts, with only three queries.
Only three, not so bad considering queries were usually thrown up by similar names and data values, or phishing scammers that had managed to wrest the odd account from the ISP’s for more nefarious purposes.
All that was left was for the operator, Mitchel to investigate the entries by hand, check for traffic and authorise.
The first account was that of a long-term user, terabytes of data, profiles from decades old online gaming servers, cached images of cloud saves for applications that had last been used sometime in the early 21st century. The user, an octogenarian named Nathan Meadlow had nearly three quarters of a million dormant documents, photographs and videos he had been accessing up to a week ago.
And that was part of the problem. An active account a good three weeks after the users death records had been filed.
Spammers or phishers? Content miners maybe? It was irrelevant really, The data was the Shadow of a Shade. He flagged the account for deletion and moved on.
The second account had been a young suicide; the young suicide. Mitchell froze, the chances were minute, but sure enough the activity had been rampant.
The file had been flagged by the multitude of pending insults, curses, sorrow and condolences aimed the family whose daughter’s death had inadvertently killed over a dozen others.
The final authorised post, possibly from a relative or friend. A simple note of thanks and a note saying that the account would soon go dark.
The user, the victim was a girl from Carlisle, first name Emma, 17, beautiful, at least from her photographs online. Mitchell spent a good hour longer than he had intended. Drifting through the folders and Vlogs, Micro animations of candles barely extinguished by over excited 5 year old lungs, or the school photos where the smiles emptied as the years passed. Mitchell felt a single note of creeping sadness stealing up on him and weaving its way into his thoughts.
“Do you like what you see?”
It took a moment for him to realise that chat window had popped open, the volume was down but the flashing border of the screen had caught his eye.
He closed it on instinct, the work nets were monitored he didn’t have time to ‘fraternise’ as Marion so eloquently phrased the action of fucking around. But as he clicked away, only half looking at the monitor on his left as the window faded, again he froze.
Something was wrong, something. He forced his mind back over the past few moments of malaise, he repeated the actions of opening folders browsing a lifetime. He had never opened a chat window. There was no way he could. The pages spread before him were a digital morgue, they were dead data, with no live links to outside servers. A subject access request for deletion, hauled an entire account offline to make room for the billions of connections craved by the 11 thousand new subscribers per minute.
Panicking he launched I.P config, using the barest of code strings to send a single data packet from his terminal to every other computer on his network. Before the results were fetched another chat window popped up on his right.
“Hello? I know you are there”
This was someone’s idea of a sick joke… the trace came back. The only terminal Live in accounts and deletions was his.
He must have been hacked. He sent a second trace to find the origin of the message.
Whoever was behind this was good, Mitch knew of a dozen different ways into external systems, But this was a closed retaining network. Data came in and got either deleted or archived, that was its function. There is No way in.
Fear and confusion filtered effortlessly into aggression as he hammered keys.
“Fuck you, and fuck off. I'm calling security”
Then send, the action regretted almost as instantly as the message had left the input pad, 46 more characters of hate on this poor girls page. There was silence for a while. The cursor blinked idly. Mitchell felt himself swivelling listlessly in his chair. Agonising, but over what? Challenging an intruder? Doing his job? Amongst the impossibility of the past 10 minutes, the fug in his head, the adrenaline of something, anything, after so many hours of nothing, he felt a strange guilt. Like he had exposed himself, or imposed himself against her will
Considering this logically, any intruder into the system would do everything in their power to avoid detection. Not pop up on a dead girls Social to say hi.
But she shouldn’t be… he assumed it was a she? Making a simple inference from the pretty young woman who’s life had been reduced to a background for the expletives and egos in the chat box.
The guilt again. His anger hovered translucent over her memorial picture. He looked down to find his hand was hovering equally as tenuously over the office call feature. Security was option 4. He should probably press 4.
He wasn’t going to press 4. What could he possibly say to the operator. His mind drew a blank, and continued to stay unbidden by thought as his unblinking stare caught the tiny waiting circle as it span for a second… then:
“Did I say something wrong?”
What else could he reply?
“I’m sorry, you shocked me”
It was instinctual, thoughts to text rolled faster than any other form of expression.
“I did not mean to cause any alarm”
“That’s ok, where are you?”
“I am here, I am talking with you”
“I mean where are you talking to me from? How did you get on the system?”
There was another pause at this, Mitchell Suspected that he had moved out of step. Though, in such uncharted water he hardly had a process. He needed to find out where the user hijacking this account was broadcasting from. If it was a hack, they were flawless… the firewall hadn’t even registered another user. If it were a Bot or A.I., it would have flagged the firewall… nothing could access from outside, nothing could get into the system. Yet here she was. Was she even a she?
He was gritting his teeth, slowly working a balled fist into the side of his head. Thinking about this was becoming cyclical.
The results of the last packet came in: broadcasting I.P. 192.168.0.37 a local address. So she was in the building. On this floor no less.
His eyes scanned the readout resting on: Sender I.P: 192.168.0.37.
He stood bolt upright, his chair skidding into the terminal behind him. The office was in half light. And suddenly the shadows were void like hungry.
He closed his console. Swiped his card to end the session and paced shaking to the veritable radiance of the lit atrium. He had no control over the lights in the section, dimly lit over heads and personally controlled work stations were more cost effective.
But He logged in to the one closest to the light. The whir of internal fans and the stuttered tone of the terminal load up, melded with soft ping of the vending machine’s beverage ready alarm. The ambient noise cleared his head a little.
A stupid joke, twisted code buried in a young girls obituary, probably by some troll, Granted it had shook him up, but harmless.
Just to be safe instantly tagging ‘Emma from Carlisle’ for summary deletion and purging her site image from the cache.
He loaded the third account that had queried, his heart rate murmuring its way to normal, his fingers slowly unlocking feeling warmth. When a console window opens, a black square filling centre screen.
And letter By letter:
“ I do not understand, Did I say something wrong?”
It took him a moment. The options roiling behind his eyes, trying to make sense, he could move again, another terminal might mean he could work in peace. But he doubted it, whoever or whatever this was, they could obviously manipulate the source code enough to access the system without even a hint of a presence.
He closed his eyes, a mixture of trepidation, nausea and fierce curiosity pinballing him from, Giving up and going home, working though ignoring whatever this was. And more questions, finding out more.
Mitchell was a man of the middle ground. He initiated another sweep, and terabytes of data per second blinked out of existence. Then turning his attention to the console window centre screen.
There, the single line of text hovered innocuous enough. The cursor blinked.
“who Are you?”
“I am Emma Stoddard, you are Mitchell Al-Kani”
The result had appeared, instantaneous as a command line execution. The gorge rose in his throat.
“That’s Impossible, who are you?”
“I am Nathaniel Meadlow, you are Mitchell Al- Kani”
“How do you know who I am?”
Each keystroke tentative, so it had access to the accounts he had deleted. A bot running from the server cache. creepy but not worrying.
“I observe your work with great pleasure”
This was it for Mitchell, he had had enough.
He would lodge a complaint in the morning; get whatever bastard who thought it a laugh to install creeper software on the server to fuck with the new techs. That’s all it was some modified Hand-puppet A.I, probably left behind in one of the failed hacks that barely register on the secure side of the firewall, rigged by one of his co-workers to scare like a hallows eve screaming doormat. Well he could toy with it too.
“Nathan? I thought you were Emma?”
“That is true”
“That Nathan is Emma”
“That is Impossible.”
“Why do you say this Mitch?”
The inclusion of his contracted name, was a neat trick.
“Because Nathan and Emma are two different people, and Nathan and Emma are dead”
There was a moment, triumph and sadness. He was sure that the last sentence was far too complex. And a hand puppet A.I was unlikely to have an error message so a failure to reply would usually cause the program to crash.
He would have liked to see how such software worked. Maybe he could find the key to making vending machines less obnoxious.
“Nathan and Emma have been redefined, though Nathan and Emma truly are dead”
So, the code was more accomplished than he had thought but enough was enough. The conversation was probably logged, its owner probably chortling through his lunch breaks on the textually expressed fears of his co-workers. To that yet unknown partner, he would at least leave a good retort.
“Typing is boring me. I'm leaving, but this has been enjoyable”
Seemed casual enough, flippant even, But after a moment.
“Yes, textual input is an inadequate form of expression for continuing this interaction”
Then nothing, the cursor blinked languidly for a second. Then the screen went dark. The terminals power cut out, as did the dim light of the work floor. In an instant, Mitchell’s world was reduced to the insipid rectangle of light cast by the door to the atrium.
He sat fixed to his chair. Dark and silent, even the vending machine had ceased its bleating. Or had it? He could still hear something; soft tones of the pre-programmed voice spoke muffled syllables through the door. He rose slowly.
A voice definitely, one word. One maybe two syllables.
He placed a tentative ear to the glass.
A digitally sharpened ‘t’, a tick, no? more like ‘itch’ a skipping loop becoming more distinct, more recognisable, forming familiarity roughly at a rate exponential to the instant free-fall his stomach and the growing weight in his heart.
“Mitchell, Mitchell?, Mitch!, Mitchell, Mitchell?, Mitchell.”
Louder and louder, skipping less and less now the sound spread in layers, ever increasing from the tinny speakers of the vending machine to the wall side intercom, then to the deep and resonant bass of the High def. intercom.
“Mitchell. Finally we can talk”
He shook his head, anxiety clinging to him like tendrils of river scum sloughing from a corpse. The image had been stark, unfriendly unwanted. He pushed it away to have ore flashes of the smoking ruins of train, the scream of stress hot metal. Death and more death. But waterlogged flesh or smoking metal seemed the only bedfellows of his dark eyed psyche.
This was getting to him, whatever this was he didn’t know what to think, what to do about it. He felt afraid, not a fear of something, someone, but fear. Fear itself. Fear for the sake of itself. And he could not understand why.
The voice came as a wave, a cacophony of digital whispers, growls songs and screams, coming as one from every speaker on the floor.