Sabotage IV: Termination

<Recap: Watchtower and Fingers are two operatives who are using an exiled spy’s robotic companion to constantly monitor him. Unfortunately, the robot is built on a missile guidance system which is incredibly lethal and adaptive.>

Watchtower was woken from his fitful sleep by a very white and pale Fingers. Immediately, he knew it was trouble.

“It’s that robot, isn’t it?”

Watchtower waited for his blurry eyes to focus on the poor screen rendition of what had once been Bishop. The old man had been smashed in the head and his pillow appeared to be drenched in blood.

Fingers was restless and fidgety and absolutely incoherent.

“I swear I was just trying to make the thing move away from him! The damned firewall began to spout gibberish and started to corrupt the data, so I went back into the system and tried to clean it up but…”

“Fingers…”

“But the system override malfunctioned at the same time and then I was…”

“Fingers. Stop,” said Watchtower, now almost shaking the younger man back to sanity.

“I can’t Watchtower! I think I just killed the old man!”

“Calm down and tell me what happened.”

Fingers sighed deeply. He pushed his glasses up against his nose and then began his tale.

“So, after you fell asleep, I started watching some of the videos. It was mostly the usual stuff I expected. Him showing off his survival skills in the forest. How many birds he’d killed and eaten. The right way to hunt for one of the more edible species. Tree climbing 101 and suchlike.”

“That’s some seriously gruesome content, but go on.”

“Then, he started telling the robot about itself. About what are the things it first learned to do. How the new appendages were working and so on. The last few longs are basically about how to hack at trees, you know with knives and stuff.”

“Okay, and?”

“And Friend sort of began to move his arms. It sort of looked like he was imitating Bishop’s motion from the last video, because I’d played it. I got worried that I had inadvertently activated a routine, so I tried to go back into the system and then turn the damn thing off, or at least move it away from the old man, without blowing our cover. Friend’s security firewall suddenly locked me out. And when I was scrambling to uncover why, the visuals knocked out as well. The system came back online only after I’d stopped trying to access it, and then our visual trace opened up to show me this.”

Fingers sighed after he’d finished. There was a long pause while Watchtower’s mind was in overdrive. He wasn’t completely illiterate when it came to managing computers. Fingers looked tired and harassed. It was almost as if the guilt of having actually killing another person was wearing him down and he didn’t know how to manage it. Watchtower scrutinized him carefully. He wasn’t used to bloodshed. He wouldn’t be able to survive more than a few minutes in battle, unless he was behind an electronic device.

“Wait, there’s something I need to confirm for myself,” said Watchtower, leaning over the computer.

“You can have it,” said Fingers, pushing the keyboard away from him in some expression of revulsion and disgust. he didn’t know how he was going to explain his actions to anyone. It was obviously an accident, but with such a high-sensitivity target, who would believe that?

Watchtower considered the situation carefully. Even though they had managed to locate such a target, there had been no conclusive evidence that they would have been able to gather any information from this source anyway. Besides, most of Bishop’s data would have details about the war, foregone information that would work serve only to rile up tensions and serve as more fodder for conspiracy theorists and historians. What need had this generation for such tensions?

“Fingers….”

“I have no chance out of this, do I?” asked the younger man, face sick with guilt and with the thought of the inevitable consequences.

“Fingers, answer me this. Can you somehow retrieve the footage of the last few minutes before Bishop died?”

“What good will that do? I’m incriminated as I am.”

“Fingers, just trust me on this. Try to hack into it, one last time.”

Last time, he remembered, a robot like Friend would still have it’s underlying locomotive control managed by….

Fingers groaned and began to type furiously all over again. A wall of corrupted alphanumeric data blocked Fingers out.

Watchtower’s eyes widened as a calm, smooth voice recite…..

“Target assigned. Codename classification: Bishop. Status: Exiled. Location confirmed. Target confirmed. Mission completed.”

 
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Sabotage III: Suspicion

<Recap: Watchtower and Fingers are two operatives who are using an exiled spy’s robotic companion to constantly monitor him. Unfortunately, the robot is built on a missile guidance system which is incredibly lethal and adaptive.>

“I think he’s onto us,” said Watchtower, after the old man was asleep. He spoke in a hushed whisper, almost afraid that Bishop could hear him.

“There’s no way he could be,” replied Fingers in a flippant tone “And there’s no need for you to be so hushed up. We can hear him, but he can’t hear us.”

“Did you see the way he just stared at the robot the whole time? We saw it through the robot’s own eyes!”

“Just because he was looking doesn’t mean anything.”

“What if he built in a fail-safe or some form of intruder detection?”

“Tower, I have to stop you here. Did that poor old man look anything remotely like a spy?! He probably couldn’t even remember his own name!”

“Oh yeah? Then tell me why did he not choose to input any data files today? He probably suspected his Friend had been hacked into.”

“Tower, give the man a break. He has nothing to say. Nothing! What could you possibly have to say after living so many years by yourself in exile?!”

“I would have a lot to say if I was carrying so many state secrets that I had to be exiled!”

There was a momentary pause in the hostilities. The crickets in the forests had fallen silent.

Fingers tried a more diplomatic approach.

“Tower, do you really think that Bishop is capable of remembering memories from so long ago? He’s an old guy, and people forget things, you know? Especially old people.”

“Look, Fingers, I’m not asking you to find him and coerce information out of him. Just go through whatever content he’s stored inside his robot and then we can start with that.”

“You do realize that means keeping the robot up all night?”

“What? Robots don’t sleep.”

“This one does have a standby cycle programmed into it. And it will consume energy. Bishop will know if his toy’s batteries run out.” said Fingers, swiveling back to his keyboard and pulling up Friend’s encoding again. The translucent wash of code did not hide the old man sleeping peacefully underneath his blankets behind it.

“File repeat,” said Friend’s voice to itself once the humming loop was over.

Watchtower couldn’t help but jump a bit once he heard that voice again. After encountering that voice in several unpleasant contexts at the front lines, Watchtower had a conditioned adrenaline reflex to it. Fingers noticed his discomfort. You had to have survived some really nasty experiences if  voice was bad enough to frighten you. Watchtower was, by no means, an easily frightened person.

“Tell you what, Tower, I’ll go over all the data. You catch some sleep, yeah?”

“You’ll do that?”

“Yeah, I’ll be up all night.”

“I owe you coffee,” said Watchtower.

“Not a problem,” said Fingers, busy working on the encryption protocol. The code transformed before his very eyes. Fingers really enjoyed his job.

“Just…just be careful not to tinker with it too much, okay?”

“Don’t worry. I won’t.”

</to be continued/>

Sabotage II: Isolation

<Recap: Watchtower and Fingers are two operatives who are using an exiled spy’s robotic companion to constantly monitor him. Unfortunately, the robot is built on a missile guidance system which is incredibly lethal and adaptive.>

Bishop sat in the cozy chair he had once made for himself several years ago, and felt his withered fingers outline the scratches and marks he had made in the walls of his cabin. Solitary exile was not a thing for the weak. The incessant silence had a way of making memories come larger to life, of making random voices in his head sound louder than reality. It had come to a point when Bishop had realized that he was screaming and screaming to himself until his voice was hoarse and yet, the memories returned with a vengeance.

“Do you want a drink?” asked Friend’s smooth, calming voice. Miles away, Watchtower and Fingers stared at Bishop through Friend’s poorly pieced-together visualizer. Watchtower gripped his companion’s chair strongly as the pixels tried to gather themselves into the face of one of the most wanted fugitives of the last generation.

“Thank you, Friend,” said Bishop, accepting one from the Robot’s extended arm, blissfully unaware of two humans watching him via Friend’s visual scanners.

He watched reflectively as the machine bustled around the makeshift kitchen that he had put together. His entire residence was a tribute to the accumulated strength of several years of survival skills in the wild. Yet, the comfort of having another mobile presence in this void was so fulfilling. There was that one day when Friend’s vocal transmitters failed. Bishop remembered the dread he had felt during the night Friend was silent. That terrifying sense of being flung into the unfathomable depths of some inconceivable darkness, the sense of being lost in the void. The absolute, complete, and invulnerable sense of nihilism had driven Bishop to suicide many times over. For a man who was trained in self-survival, the task of trying to kill himself was a very rebellion against the essence of his being, and his physical conditioning forced those ventures to be a failure.

Terrible. Terrible. The silence had been screaming at his ears for long enough now. How many years had it been? His senile brain lost count.

Until he had found a Friend.

“You’re very quiet today,” said Friend, staying faithful to its programming and breaking the lull.

Bishop smiled paternally at the hideous conglomeration of metal and scrap goods that formed Friend’s face.  He wondered why, of all things, had he fashioned a powerful guidance system into a humanoid robot that was nothing more than a talking, functional toy. He knew why.

In that pitch black silence, in the height of his depravity, in the misery of his pain and terror, there had been a voice that had saved him.

“Warning: Central core disengaged”, it had said.

Bishop could have cried hearing another voice. It was a guidance missile, true. It could have been lethal, true. It could have been set on targeting him, true. But, for that one moment, Bishop had heard a humanoid voice that spoke a language he understood after a decade. He was not giving up on that. He was not letting go. And running away, was very possibly the last thought he had in his mind.

Exile wasn’t going to be so bad once he had a friend.

“Is everything all right?” asked the same voice that occupied his thoughts. Once the voice of a killer, now the voice of a friend.

“I’m fine,” said the usually garrulous old man.

“Do you want to record the events of today?”

Bishop laughed until his lungs gave up and he wheezed a bit. Recordings. He had stopped entering his logs and recording his memories a long time ago. Granted, the contents of his thoughts would have cost a human soul in the last generation. And in fact, they did. They cost many human souls. Those that lay on the cemetery. Those that manned the weapons. Those that mounted guidance systems on automated missiles. He had once known some of the most terrible scandals ever, some of the most closely guarded secrets of states and dignitaries and weapon systems.

But the silence had taken them all away. The primal human need for a person, just someone to hold, to regard, to speak to was more stronger than integrity.

It was after making several video logs and several diary entries that Bishop learned a new flavor of exile. Beyond the occasional tree he used to climb, or the random bird that he hunted or some mundane activity that he could manage besides daily housekeeping, he had nothing else to say. Now that he was too old to do or be anything, he felt reluctant to record. What possible content would it have?

One of the first things that Friend had learned to do was repeat the logs back to him. Bishop heard himself for a while, and then realized that the ennui was as terrible as the silence itself.

Where was death where you needed it? Had he truly spent all his life avoiding death so skillfully that he had escaped it forever?

Of course not! Bishop, you’re impatient even in your senility, he told himself and smiled at nothing in particular.

“I am unable to engage you in conversation, or keep you entertained. My repository of stories is limited and I cannot access any more amusement for you. You refuse to enter new content into me. Am I not functioning satisfactorily enough?” asked Friend.

Bishop avoided choking on his drink. Since when was Friend suffering an existential dilemma?

“Friend, you’re fine.” he said, clasping one of the hand-shaped appendages, all five fingers. Such a comfort to hold. The joy of feeling a presence through actual tactile response was a privilege that Bishop had been long-denied.

“Are you sure everything is okay?” repeated Friend, its eyes peering into Bishop’s closer than before.

“Yes, Friend. I’m just tired. An old man like me needs some of his quiet moments, no?”

Friend turned away and performed a superb imitation of sipping its own drink. Avoiding silent moments was the sole purpose of Friend’s existence. Yet, Friend had adapted to the increasing frequency of these needs as well. The adaptive system was genius, pure genius. Especially how it seemed to intuitively guess human wants.

Bishop regarded the robot with his weary eyes. He felt a rush of paternal affection. It was his own creation. His child. His caretaker. His companion. His Friend.

“Help me get to bed please, friend?” The robot obliged almost instantly. It’s flexible arms helped the old man out of his makeshift chair and provided him with the structural support he needed as he hobbled to his bed. Then, Friend covered him with a blanket and without a prompt, began to play a soft humming melody from it’s data reserves. It was a tune that Bishop himself had recorded several years ago, and then played it to himself every night. The audio file was labeled “Mother’s lullaby”.

</to be continued/>

Sabotage I: Malfunction

Prologue:

Target assigned.
Codename classification: Bishop
Status: Exiled.
Location confirmed.
Target confirmed.
Launch co-ordinates selected.
Departure confirmed.
Warning: Projectile trajectory deviation detected.
Warning: Central core disengaged. 
Warning: q2837687ASYD08uqgeW-a-arning————//////<system failure>///////

1.

The little vehicle was parked against the backdrop of the forest. Its two occupants had decided that it was a convenient location to avoid any stray electromagnetic radiation that could interfere with the fragility of their endeavor. It was located close enough to the town’s pizza outlet. Inside the little vehicle was a large array of impressive gadgetry, with two people huddling over. One was tall, and clearly uncomfortable at being confined in such a cramped space for so long. The other was younger, keener and perpetually clattering away the keyboard. For a moment, they had opened the windows of that stuffy car, in order to let some of the cool forest air enter in and drive out the semi-pervading odor of a little too many onion-garlic pizzas.

“Fingers, what’s happening?” asked Watchtower, impatiently.

There was the sound of staccato keyboard typing, and the occasional accompanying beeps from inside the surveillance vehicle. Watchtower had been a little awe of his partner when this project began. Fingers was barely a college graduate. It was only afterwards that Watchtower found out that Fingers had hacked into every high security website with uncanny ease. The government was tired of asking him to suppress information, and threats against him didn’t seem to work. So they hired him.

Watchtower watched Fingers’ fingers twitch over the keyboard in some form of ghost typing. In the dim blue reflected light, he mused a bit about the generation gap between himself and Fingers. Too many geniuses packed into an era, he wondered. Where was human evolution heading?

“Friend is making breakfast,” said Fingers, cheerfully. He swiveled around in his chair, flexing in the tiny vehicle. “Told you, Tower, there was no need to rush. Bishop is the human embodiment of predictability.”

“We can’t know that for sure.”

Fingers scoffed mildly and interlaced his long fingers at the back of his head. “Of course we can. He’s an old man, who’s lived in solitary exile for way too many decades.”

“Doesn’t make him any less dangerous.”

“Tower, come on. There’s no way he’s capable of anything. He’s so disconnected from the rest of humanity, he doesn’t even connect to the Internet. I mean, if it wasn’t for his robot, we wouldn’t have even known he still existed.”

“Who knows what else that thing is capable of? The damn thing was constructed from a missile guidance system.” asked Tower, philosophically.

Fingers scrambled a bit over his keyboard. A few rapid clicks later, Friend’s specifications illuminated their faces.

“Hmmm…..the robot seems to share the same operating core as the old missile guidance systems. Obviously,  Bishop’s heavily modified it. But most of the functionality is still managed by the guidance AI…..The physical appendages seemed to be comprised of a miscellaneous collection of metallic junk….”

“Metallic junk can be quite dangerous in the hands of a veteran spy. Especially when it’s in the hand of a missile guidance systems. I mean, Fingers, you were probably just a kid then, but those guidance systems were…. ”

Memories of gunshots. Haste, evasion, capture. Human attackers would at least stop for a moment and recuperate. A small defect that was easily countered by using automated systems. That was how Watchtower had earned his name. He used to stay out and snipe the machines down, one by one. Careful. Precise. He didn’t need to waste an entire magazine emptying bullets like torrents on the enemy, watching their blood spatter on the faces of the fallen…..

“….Were?” prompted Fingers, interrupting Watchtower’s memories.

Then a generation of geniuses came along, and decided that having merely automated killing machines wasn’t good enough. So, they made them adaptive automated machines. Let’s teach our machines how to kill ourselves better. Watchtower still got goosebumps from hearing the voice of those guidance systems. Cold smooth, calming metal voices, zoning in on their position with less than 0.000001% error. Target assigned. Target confirmed.

“…were homicidal AI’s,” finished Watchtower, shrugging his shoulders in an instinctive attempt to get the memory of that voice out of his head.

There was an awkward silence between them, while Watchtower wondered why in the world would anyone want to design a companion out of that. You needed to be a some level of desperation to be able to truly have the voice that haunted the entire generation live with you. The same voice that coldly, ruthlessly drove missiles into people was now telling a spy like Bishop how he should live his life?

“Oh come on, really?! Friend is the kind of thing a high school kid designs for a class project! The AI is older than Bishop himself!”

Watchtower didn’t buy it. He stayed quiet for a while, as Friend’s encoding flashed across the screen. What could Bishop be doing with that guidance system? Was he planning a secret attack somewhere? Was he outfitting the system for something nastier? An assassination, maybe?

The “Friend” had once tried to access it’s sub-networks to search for replacement parts as it was a model designed to optimize it’s own functioning. It’s specifications were now outdated, and if Fingers hadn’t particularly been scanning for it, he wouldn’t have found them. Within two seconds of the AI accessing the Internet, Fingers had jumped on its IP and after several traces, located Bishop as an unexpected surprise.

The authorities had been after Bishop ever since he was recorded as missing from exile. If they known at least a decade earlier that one of the AI had joined forces with him, they would have sent an entire army instead of two operatives. But now times had changed. An old exiled spy in possession of an even older failed machine did not represent an alarming threat. Hence Fingers and Tower were assigned to full surveillance, knowing that their heads would be on the line if they summoned the cavalry without probable cause.

Fingers didn’t ask before he looked past Friend’s basic shell encoding, and crept into Friend’s inner database. They watched the seemingly endless stream of code. Random segments of alphanumeric characters that comprised Friend, and his machine psychology.

“Whoa, wait. What was that?” asked Tower, pausing the stream with a tap on the keyboard.

“What?” asked Fingers, already crawling his own over the keyboard, identifying the selection by syntax and keywords.

“That bit of code. Is that a…..is that a…..”

“Memory module. Yeah. Tons of encrypted files overwriting the geographical data the original guidance system used to have. See, the very fact that we can access it means that some of it’s former security has been disabled.”

Watchtower wasn’t quite convinced. It could be a lure. The old guidance system used to do that too, in order to fool the intruders that they had taken control of the projectile, until it backfired on them.

“Wait, so he’s replacing the geographical data? Why?”

“He’s storing some form of date log in them. It’s chronologically structured, and it’s….voluminous. Since the geographical data hasn’t been in use ever since the system hardware was replaced, the operating system is pushing all this new data over the old ones. ”

Fingers scrolled ahead.

“The hardware additions are designed to manage kitchen utensils and the like. Friend’s so harmless, Tower!” He sounded as though he was justifying for the robot himself.

“What kind of data?” asked Watchtower, unable to suppress his paranoia.

“Um, mostly entered texts, some videos, and audio recordings….”

“…containing?”

“They’re largely about himself, I presume.  If I didn’t know any better, I would guess that it’s some form of his personal diary.”

“HE STORES HIS SECRETS?!”

“I guess. Lonely man like him is probably gonna talk. Friend seems to be designed for the sole purpose of being a….friend, really.”

Watchtower felt a bit confused at this discovery. Bishop had, in all these years, forged a personal companion from a formidable targeting system, and was now using it as an extended repository of memories? He was a fool to believe such a thing could be true. No, no. Now that they had identified his location and they knew where he existed, it was evident that they hack into it and try to find out more about what information Bishop had stored.

“Why can’t you just break in and confirm if the data’s about him? What if it’s about sealed government records or something?”

Fingers’ long fingers twitched over the keyboard. For once he hesitated.

“Um, Tower, I don’t know how to break this to you, but since he’s started modifying it so heavily, the original operating system doesn’t organize it as it used to. All this overriding information is  dispersed all over the kernel of the guidance system.”

“So, you’re saying that we would have to rewrite some of the protocols that the original guidance system used to have?”

“Um….I sincerely hope not, but we might have to. You know what they say about AI’s that have been hacked into, right?”

“They go corrupt and homicidal?”

“Right. And those that are homicidal to begin with? They just get worse.”

“So, you can’t do it?”

“Of course I can,” Fingers scoffed. “I just wanted to let you know what the consequences were.”

“Fingers, I haven’t come where I am today without taking a few risks,” said Watchtower, sounding braver than he felt.

Fingers was smart enough not to fall for it. Or maybe it was the way Watchtower’s face flinched as Fingers peeled past the guidance system’s code.

“Whatever you say,” said Fingers, and began to edit the code.

</to be continued/>

Cyberpunk Logs #02: The Ways of The Artist

 

Xori had agreed to meet Nixter only when he realized that she had spent the last few credits and had literally nothing else to go on for the monthly cycle. In fact, when she tabulated her savings from last annual cycle, there was indeed too little to go on. Even if she included begging and stealing. On a diet that was now basically soda, and the cheapest fast food that she could scavenge, Xori’s clothes had grown enormously large. They were grubby and worn out. They hadn’t seen a laundry machine in a very long time. 

It wasn’t too bad, reaffirmed Xori to the pale reflection in a broken mirror. At least she didn’t sweat so much, so her clothes didn’t stink too often. The large dark circles comfortably nestled her eyes, sagging her sallow malnutritioned skin. Xori wished her blankets would do the same. She made an effort to clean herself up somewhat, and found that the credits she had stolen last night had been stolen away from her. Oh well, she would need to work some more on that. But for now, she earnestly hoped Nixter would be able to offer her a job. She desperately needed one, and only the suppressed hunger inside her knew how painful that desperation was.

Some semblance of civility came back to her, what if Nixter asked her to share the price of a meal or a drink or something? Even at a shady joint, anything beyond entry cost an upward of five credits. But then, she wondered, Nixter was the one who arranged for this meeting, so he should likely have planned the expenses. Besides,given how soft a character Nixter was, he might never dare to ask a lady to pay on his behalf.

It was strange how she never reached out to Nixter. A former colleague and perhaps the only person who wavered dangerously close to the label of “friend”, Nixter had always been supportive of her.  She felt that she was getting too dependent on him, and the awful realization that he may have misunderstood their friendship to be something more dawned on her so she broke off all contact. She had no room in her life for things like that. In all her correspondences with Nixter, she tried to pretend that something like this had never happened and she still maintained that it was an eminently forgettable episode of her life.

Xori tried to dust off her large sweater, which was comfortably older than her. She looked around the little makeshift room she had made. It was still very quiet, so Xori could tell that the neighboring residents of the slums wouldn’t be able to hear her or watch her go out. At any rate, one of those rascals had stolen her five credits anyway. But were they really hers? Xori didn’t bother to ask morality and ethics of the situation. I’m poor enough to forget these things, said Xori to herself. She found it comforting in a way that her life had only been reduced what she thought were the core necessities: food, shelter, code and maybe an occasional luxury – a puff or two didn’t hurt.

Xori latched the heavy bolt securely with her fragile hands. It was something she’d done too often once she discovered that rodents and children had bitten off some of the wires in her room. Her computer beeped gloomily as she left. Xori sighed into the cold dawn, and the mist clouded up the air before her. The cold bit into her skin, but she had to walk, because she couldn’t afford to pay for any alternative transport. Besides, it was easier to steal from random pedestrians in the street. Xori was once the shy introvert who could never see anything beyond her code, but the driving need for sustenance had shown her what life was about.

Xori remembered how angry her family had been when she ran away from college in order to pursue programming as a career. You’ll never get a job, they said. Everybody can write any kind of code these days. Nobody pays for any utilities, or even computers. You should apply yourself to better things. Their insistence had driven Xori to write code late into the middle of the night when she knew that nobody was watching her, judging her. Oh, you write code? How is it any different from the rest of the world’s program? Why should I pay for your application when I can write better ones myself? Programming was now an outdated career.

But Xori enjoyed it, for whatever it was worth. She still loved writing and compiling her own applications and designing her own projects. As is with every programmer, they have their own style, their own taste, and Xori’s was almost exquisite. There were times when she had written hacks for Nixter, and that was when he had come across her true talent. Even then, he had encouraged it only as a side-hobby. Nobody will pay for software in a world where anyone can generate, create and execute an idea almost effortlessly.

Nixter, who was a history afficionado, would often compare programmers to writers and historians. There was a time when their skills were greatly valued until their methodology became too mainstream and it was hard for them to sustain a career through one of them alone. Which was why Nixter had dropped out of the game early, or timely as he would say. Xori had stayed on, and she intended to stay on until either her computer or she died. As projects became rare, the credits she would charge per project also increased, and that turned away many customers who were soon finding free and easy options. But passion alone is not sustainable and so here she was trying to present her surviving self before Nixter, trying to make a point. Trying to not want a job, when she would have died for one.

Nixter was very well-dressed, and he sat with the casual air of someone with credits. Someone with a career. If Xori didn’t know him, she would have thought he was ideal target to steal from. A little bit of snobbery and prim behavior, a lot of upper-class acculturation and Nixter had evolved from a code-writing punk to someone with a respectable job like a sustainable energy scientist.

Despite everything, Xori felt a little bit of herself falter. What would Nixter think of her if he saw her like this? The poor have no shame, she told herself. She approached him from behind and tapped his shoulder. He jumped as though a beggar had stained the beautiful textile with the touch of her hands. He registered annoyance, followed by slow shock, followed by a smile as he realized it was Xori. In the one moment that his face split into a smile, Xori was reminded of the boy who used to furiously code beside her, late into the nights, coding just for the heck of it. Indeed those were the good times.

“Xori! It’s been too long!”

It had. That was obvious. Xori stared around awkwardly, sizing Nixter up in the entirety of his being, trying to smile. He had done so well for himself, that he seemed to be from another world altogether. She stood a little apart from him, unsure of whether she should run away. Long periods of isolation and regular life in the slums had made her language coarse, and some of the former genteel Xori resurfaced and reminded her that it was inappropriate to be here.

Then her tummy crunched into her, and the smell of food could nearly make her cry and so she stood there, rooted in terrible silence and awe. Nixter pulled her into  a hug, from which she was hesitant. The smell of clean clothes and a well-fed lifestyle permeated through her. Nixter closed his arms around her and was alarmed to discover how thin she had become, and how he could feel the bones in her rib-cage.

“How are you?” asked Nixter.

Xori’s tummy wished to record the momentous occasion by ruining it somewhat.

“Come, let’s get some breakfast,” said Nixter, without asking her what her current diet was, what were the meals she ate and so on. Nixter led her into one of the restaurants she wouldn’t have dared enter, but Nixter steered her through. Clearly, he seemed more than willing to pay for her meal. Xori sat uncomfortably at the edge of her seat, feeling all the more self-conscious. Xori found the shame surprising. It never bothered her when she needed to steal, but now it bothered her to be a civilized human being. Nixter ordered a meal that was fit for three, and politely directed all the dishes to Xori when they arrived. It was an exhibition of self-restraint to not stuff the food into her all at once.

“So how have you been?” asked Nixter, as though oblivious to the sight of her wolfing down on food.

“Alive,” was the concise response.

There was an awkward silence during which neither knew what to say next.

“Still writing the good old commercial code, are we?”

“I am. Can’t say about you. So there’s no ‘we’,” said Xori, gulping down another jam roll.

“I write applications from time to time, as well,” conceded Nixter. “Here, I have a few functional prototypes if you want to see them,” he said, offering her the debug-log from his mini-computer. Xori stared at the device with envy. What was such a powerful computing tool doing in the hands of people who needed it the least? But then, beggars can’t be choosers. As it is, it was mostly UI design, nothing too great from a computing perspective. It was mostly code designed to appeal visually. Nobody wrote real hard core work like they did in the old days.

Xori was not impressed. Some part of her work ethic said that she would rather stay unemployed than stoop to such a  boring job. But then her tummy, the memories of the claustrophobic slums and the rodents and the general squalor disagreed. Xori thought she’s show him one of her personal projects now that he was here. After all, she wasn’t prepared to sell her skills without having something to show. Nixter was awed, as always. Xori was good at what she did, which was why she did it.

“Very nice,” said Nixter. He praised her somewhat and then persisted in making some more small talk, the kind which Xori had long-since forgotten to make.

“You said you had an offer?” she asked, hoping not to give away the obvious.

“Well, yes. I have an opportunity that would allow you to write code and allow you to live my lifestyle.”

“I’m listening,” said Xori as she stuffed her face with two more jam rolls.

“So, the offer I have would let you write whatever code you want, and we can commercialize it if you please. You will have the most cutting edge resources available to you at no cost.”

“What kind of resources?” said Xori, her voice still strained from gulping too hastily.

“Any number of visual screens that you’d like, the newest compilers, any technology that you want, top of the line.”

Xori wasn’t too convinced with the vague description. But if allowed her to stay warm, live well and eat food, especially food like this, she wouldn’t mind. She sincerely hoped that it wasn’t going to be a UI design job.

“What kind of projects could I take on?”

“Anything you wish,” smiled Nixter in response.

This was too good to be true. Xori slowed her munching down somewhat so she could think through things clearly. Obviously, with a mini-computer like Nixter’s she would be able to write the kind of code that would re-design operating systems. But then, what about the data security of her old code? What if they expected something from her that she did not  know yet?

“Tell me more. Where is this place? What is this firm’s name? What do they do?” said Xori, wanting to know more about this conveniently beneficial organization.

Nixter leaned closer to the table, and Xori couldn’t help but notice that he was carrying a lot of open credits on him. He put his hand on the table.

“You know when we were both back in college and how we would sneak out after college and write code?”

Xori nodded. Those hacks were how she had met Nixter. If she had known that such an organization existed back then, then she would never have to go through this…

“So, I miss those days. A lot,” said Nixter, pausing carefully as he considered his words. “I know you didn’t want to speak to me for a long time after those days..”

For reasons that are self-explanatory, thought Xori, considering a pastry on the table. She would have liked to question the relevance of the past, but then she reminded herself that Nixter always had a soft spot for History.

“…and I didn’t even know if you were alive or not. Believe me, you have no idea how thankful I was that you replied to my message.”

I didn’t really have a choice, thought Xori, munching on the cake, looking for any excuse to avoid eye-contact. It’s not as shameful as you make it seem. You’ve done worse. You’ve stolen hard-earned credits from fellow beggars. Why does it make you so awkward to seek a job? Xori wished he would end his historical detour soon and move the conversation back to pressing matters.

“So, now that you’re here, and you’re still writing amazing code, I was asking you to come join me.”

“Are you offering me a job?” asked Xori, cringing immediately inside. She had blurted out too soon. She would frighten him away. He would now know how desperate she was for a job and might take advantage of her vulnerability. But then again, it was better him than anyone else who would abuse her skills. He, of all people, at least appreciated good programming skills.

“I’m….I’m asking you to live with me. I’m asking you to marry me.”

Xori choked on what she was eating. In a hasty effort to get her water, and somehow explain himself for the faux pas, he launched into a great comparison of the pros and cons of his proposition. Xori managed to swallow whatever it was she was eating and then wrung the table napkin in extreme discomfort.

“You don’t have to answer me right away,” said Nixter gently, letting her have her space, turning red with embarrassment at the fact that he had surprised her so much.

Xori fidgeted some more with the idea and her napkin. Indeed, it would be a great life. Food, access to everything she had ever wanted. Why, given time, she might even evolve into a real lady in Nixter’s company. But then what about her independence? Nixter obviously expected a huge emotional commitment and Xori was unsure if she could search within the depths of her to provide it.

At least he didn’t ask you to love him, reasoned Xori. But then, he might as well have, because he expected that to happen eventually. It’s not that he’s not like-able, mused Xori, it’s just that I can’t feel the same way because I have so much more code to write in my life. Nixter didn’t have to explain the pros and cons of the situation. Xori had lived in poverty long enough.

“….Live with you?” Xori didn’t even dare to utter the words that had followed.

“Yeah,” nodded Nixter helpfully, wondering if she might actually consider him this time. The last time, he had been young, immature, and incapable of supporting her, especially the hobby that she so adored. But now he had grown up and he was waiting to hear an equally mature response from the object of his affections as well.

Xori stared at the empty plates in silence. Was that what all the food was for? To get her to acquiesce? Had he thought he could buy her with the lure of a better life? But then, wasn’t she the one who had woken up in sheer desperation?

Nixter was momentarily occupied by the fact that he had to now pay for the meal as they were almost done. Xori noticed that he tucked his credits into the upper pocket. If she could have two or three of them, she would be ready to live out the next annual cycle. Then she looked at the person in them. He had promised her an entire lifetime. What did a lifetime mean to someone who had lived from hand to mouth for so many years?

“I’ll……I’ll need some time to think about it,” muttered Xori inaudibly. She had to repeat it so that Nixter could hear it over the clamor.

Nixter did not know how to feel when she said that she would leave. How would he ever find her? What if she said no? But he momentarily put those thoughts to rest as Xori pulled in for a hug. She was so weak and fragile, she might even need medical care, but where could she afford it? Should he offer her money? What if she thought he was trying too hard to influence her decision?

“You’ve been a good friend, Nixter,” were her departing words. Xori then walked slowly, carefully and deliberately to the nearest transport. In the shadow of the vehicle, she took off and once more Nixter was staring at empty air.

When Xori felt that she had run a distance far away from him, she paused to count the credits she had stolen from Nixter’s coat as she had hugged him. There was enough to relocate to a new city, to buy the new computer she had always dreamed of and maybe even snag an elite customer or so, who wanted some custom application on the side. It wasn’t too bad, she wondered as she returned back. In a weird way, it had been thoroughly productive, but then some part of her objected to how she was treating Nixter as a person in all of this. What about his needs? And his proposition?

Xori began to pack together all her meagre belongings. She was going to carry all the data she had compiled and all her previous code, but she couldn’t bear to carry the decade old view screen with her. With the credits that she had, she might even be able to buy a new one. She was soon scheduled in for the earliest transport out of the city and spent the rest of the day making herself untraceable, especially to Nixter, who might have law enforcement searching for her. Only the other children in the slums and the rodents would know that she was gone. To he rest of the world, she might not even have existed, had it not been for her brilliant executables.

When the wind from the rushing transport touched her recently clean face and hair, and for the first time Xori smiled spontaneously, she watched the city’s skyline race away from her. She was leaving all this behind. Dirt. Filth. Desperation. Nixter. She allowed herself to feel a tinge of sadness and hoped he would understand.

“I’m sorry Nixter,” she sighed to the wind and the lonely falling tear was whisked away into the night.

The Lady of Shalott Revisited

Using Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott as a template, Shalott is now a nuclear facility manned by a single lady. This is a poem of what happens as a result of long isolation and distraction.

Image Credits: Cyborg by Itluan on dA at http://ltluan.deviantart.com/art/Cyborg-266216981

Image Credits: Cyborg by Itluan on dA at http://ltluan.deviantart.com/art/Cyborg-266216981

 

On either side the river lie

Landscapes of barren life,
That smother the world and engulf the sky;
And through this outpost, a transit runs by
To the metropolis of Camelot
And up and down the bar-graphs go
Monitoring the radioactive sludge flow
Inside the far off island below
The reactor of Shalott. 
 
The reactor grumbles and gears quiver,
Legions of robots march together
Serving the energy needs forever
By this abandoned outpost near the river
Conveniently forgotten by Camelot. 
Multiple walls and metal-lined towers,
Overlook a space of nuclear power 
And the formidable technology embowers
The Lady of Shalott
 
By an early age, she was qualified
To lead a mission highly classified
Which ensured Camelot was fortified
Being the sole human who supervised
The Reactor of Shalott.
Only robots have seen her wave her hand
And watched her as she carefully planned
When the fuel of the reactor would expand.
The Lady of Shalott.
 
Only covert spies, sneaking in
Among the metal scrap within
Hear a beep that echoes clearly
Of a computer that operates yearly
Courtesy of Camelot.
And by the moon, the spy weary
Puts to rest a conspiracy theory
That a human operates someplace so dreary
Except the Lady of Shalott. 
 
There she works by night and day
A complex graph with colors gay
Her calculations stored in a large array
From which she cannot look away
To admire the lights of Camelot
She knows what the disaster might be
And so she monitors steadily
And little other care has she
The Lady of Shalott.
 
Moving through the glass door clear
That surrounds her all the year
Statistics of the world appear
There she sees the transit near
Winding down to Camelot.
There civilization passes by
Their sleek towers touch the sky
Powered by energy in a secure supply
That must transfer from Shalott. 
 
Sometimes lost tourists in a group
Usually an entertaining troupe
Would unintentionally snoop.
But nobody else would stoop
To visit the desolate Shalott.
Sometimes through the monitor screen 
Came news of heroes in a glorious scene
She has no hero, only a machine
The Lady of Shalott. 
 
But in her analysis she still delights
To project progress and future sights
For often through the silent nights
Our lady sits down and writes
Code that supports Camelot. 
Or when the moon was overhead
She’d contemplate her life instead
“I am half-sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott. 
 
A respected politician of noble rank
Of a smooth face and expression blank
Stepped off on the riverbank
Unflinching as decaying metal stank
His name tag said Sir Lancelot.
The most charming man in the administration
He himself chose this exploration
To discover exactly how the regulation
Of nuclear waste affected Shalott.
 
Without hesitation he announced his presence 
And what followed after several sessions
Of trying to understand the robots expressions
He would strive to garner her acquiescence
This Lady of Shalott. 
From his modest name tag hung
An image that betrayed him to be young
Over his shoulder, his authority was slung
Venturing into remote Shalott. 
 
All in the partially lit, computerized room
Was the stale air of suppressed gloom
Machines pausing only to resume
He did not dare to assume 
Any happiness in Shalott. 
As he initiated the awkward conversation
The Lady could not help but feel admiration
That she could hear his appreciation.
In the functioning of Shalott. 
 
His broad clear brow in reflection glowed
And between them the conversation easily flowed
They discussed machinery and optimized code
Human conversation was such a rare episode
For the Lady of Shalott. 
As he requested to see the stabilizer in action 
Our Lady was unable to resist his attraction
And with no regards to the following reaction
Accessed the thermal core of Shalott. 
 
She left the robots, he left the room
She left the pressure control pointed at doom
She did not hear the subdued boom
Until the klaxons began to fume
At the facility of Shalott.
Out flew superheated gas and floated wide
The screens cracked from side to side
“Initiate emergency protocol!” cried
The Lady of Shalott. 
 
In the stormy reactor core churning
Gases and temperatures were already burning
Automatons kept the dials turning
Equilibrium lost was not returning
At the Reactor of Shalott. 
The access chamber lay beyond reach
The robots could not secure the breach
Dangerous chemicals began to leach
Onto the soils of Shalott
 
And down the river’s dim expanse
Lay the victims of her mischance
To save herself from this circumstance
She promised that she would take a chance
To save the citizens of Camelot
And at the closing of the day
She pulled the lever and collapsed she lay
Suffocated and isolated, lifeless and gray
The brave Lady of Shalott. 
 
After her unfortunate demise
The remaining robots were able to surmise
That she was the only one who could authorize
A complete shutdown that would internalize
The explosion of Shalott. 
As the power lines went down 
Citizens could only frown
Ignorant of the sacrifice that had been made uptown
By the forgotten outpost of Shalott. 
 
Under grey tower and ancient balcony
By greasy walls and radioactive atrophy
A gleaming shape she was escorted by
Pale between the robots hoisting her high
Silent in Shalott. 
Quietly, the unfeeling machines paid their respects
to The human Lady who didn’t expect
Any, and so they disposed of her with no effects.
Down the river to Camelot.
 
Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted city near
Died the sound of urban cheer.
And they questioned themselves for fear. 
All the press and citizens of Camelot. 
But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”
 
King Arthur heard a report concise
From Sir Lancelot and asked his advice 
On whether such a disaster could happen twice.
Human lives were too high a price. 
Especially a citizen of Camelot. 
Lancelot made an interesting revelation
That the robots could function without human supervision
Why risk another soul trapped in perpetual isolation,
Stranded on Shalott?

{Dev}fest 2014: How I evolved into a better person and programmer

So, I’ve been gone for a week. I have literally been disconnected from social media and from my friends and usual coursework for a week.There’s a hacking/app-developing fest that happens here for a week and I participated in it for the first time. It was an interesting, exhausting and draining experience, but I have emerged from the experience with a boost to my self-esteem and some serious resume credentials. I don’t mean to brag, but it seems that the complete detachment from the human world for a week has left me with several ideas that I want to say. For the record, I am running on two hours of sleep and I have written code for approximately 86 hours cumulatively. Therefore, please excuse me for any errors that may inadvertently happen.

It’s a beautiful feeling. That delicious joy of exhaustion, fulfillment and creating something entirely new and your own. The joy of watching your effort work. The joy of creating a tool that will make everything so much more accessible and awesome and in an infinitesimal, but important way, contribute to the continuum that is human progress.

I had several different feelings about joining this project. I know that I am somewhat capable of writing code, but I always had the assistance of homework or a syllabus to structure my learning. This leaves me somewhat sensitive to the fact that despite all my years of experience, I have felt under-accomplished. As it turns out, there are several friends in my friend group who are programmers. All of them decided to go ahead and register for the project without asking for me. I was quite upset about it because I thought they were insidiously (or not) implying that I wasn’t competent enough to be a part of them. They were exclusively a group of six males, and this venture was supposed to be a “bro” thing. My friend justified that clearly, my presence was unwelcome for a completely different host of reasons beside my competence.

I struggled to come to terms with it somewhat, and though I understand the gender-normative requirements of “bro-time”, it still didn’t change the fact that I felt slurred. So I was determined to find a crazy, insanely hard project where I would be valued. I managed to come across a group of five graduate students working on a machine-learning system. Perfect. Not only could I be exposed to wisdom of the <ahem> not-so-ancient, but also I could get first-hand experience in something I’ve wanted to do in forever: machine learning. I was the youngest of the group for a while (we eventually picked up another undergraduate freshman to help us with HTML), but I was still the only girl in the group. Even though I felt immensely grateful for the opportunity to be in such an environment, I was also completely in awe of the people I worked with. We were going to design a three-dimensional recommendation system that would parse through all of the English articles in Wikipedia and based on a combination of some cutting-edge machine learning algorithms be able to fetch better articles.

For a while I thought my presence was unwelcome. All said and done, I’m a fresh-faced sophomore in a group of experienced graduate students. They’re basically doing me a favor by having me on board. So, I pushed myself constantly to deliver, to perform, even if the deliverable required of me were relatively mundane. There were times when it failed. I was required to use a programming language that didn’t have any sort of documentation on it whatsoever. We were taming the mutant beast formed from hodgepodge code of millions of free examples over the web.

My project lead told me that he was actually grateful that there was at least someone in the team who was always cheery and optimistic and funny, because without it working on such a complex, exhausting and immense project would have been difficult. My project lead is an amazing man. He is a visionary, a good human being, a kind soul and more so, an extremely charming man. He is also ambitious, driven and very receptive to feedback. Without him, I would have still been a pouting weenie. Now I call myself a programmer. We are one step closer to creating his dream, which is, in fact, our dream.

During the span of the week, I spent every day writing code from 6:00PM to 11:00PM. Combine that with the 24 hour hackathon the night before. I have learned HTML, CSS and Javascript (Three.js) in one week. I have re-drawn co-ordinate systems and made my math education worth its money, by squeezing out formula for transforming 2D co-ordinates to 3D, working with the changing geometry of shapes as a camera zooms into a screen and the co-ordinate system stretches out, staying patient while scraping the best I can off internet examples only and more so, working in a language that has no formal support system. I’m not saying our team was smooth and non-disruptive. We had our disagreements. We had our conflicts. We resolved whatever we could. We presented the final best of whatever we could. I realized that I wasn’t doing this immense project because I wanted recognition and credit, which was indeterminate. I was doing this simply because I loved it and I created it.

Our project demo wasn’t too spectacular, because our team lead was exhausted beyond measure and so were we. But I was still happy that I had participated and I knew that I had evolved into something else. We were presenting to some of the spectacular people in the industry of hacking and app-development and I was rather disappointed by fate that we were all so tired that we couldn’t make our final pitch properly.

Then two hours later, they announced the winners in different categories of the week-long Devfest. We were awarded the Andreessen Horowitz award for Most Technically Challenging Hack.

Yeah, people are talking about me now. I have the street cred I wanted. One of my friends from the “bro”gang went so far as to suggest that I should work for a company and start making money of my own already. I am admired and loved and envied and perhaps some combination of all of these or none at all. But I do know that I have finally tasted the pure joy of creating on the fly. Of recognizing a structured, final end-goal with limited unstructured resources. I have finally realized the pure unadulterated joy when your code compiles and your screen renders exactly what you imagine it to be. I have finally grown into that person who can shrug off what other people think of me. Only now, when people whom I have never known are congratulating me, have I realized just how empty the rest of the world is in relation to the goals I have accomplished in my mind.

I don’t know how else to say it without actually saying it. I have actually surpassed my own expectations as a person and as a programmer. I know that it is truly within me to strive for something higher and literally I am radiating gratitude to every force and being in this universe. Thank you for everything. Thank you truly, most sincerely, eternally for everything. For the friends I’ve made in this journey. For the incredibly talented people I’ve come across. For the person that I have now become. For the person that I am yet to become.