Thursday, March 27, 2014

Story 207: Kill Command

Travis leaned forward to look at the wall.  "Flawless," he said. "How long did you say it's been like that?"
Mary sighed and shook her head. "We don't know.  A few days, at least, but I think it happened slowly so it's hard to be sure."

Mary's husband Carl was sitting on the couch, staring at the fabric.  "I think it's been a while since we had to clean anything though.  I probably haven't dusted in a few months."  He stood and began pacing around the room while he waited for Travis to say something, anything, but instead the engineer continued to run his hand up and down the wall. "Trav... is it serious?  Is something wrong with the computer?  You know the Johnsons were saying there was lag for just a second before it started to rain last time.  Like everything stuttered or something."

Travis finally broke off his stare and turned to look at the couple.  "Nobody reported that to me.  Might be related, might be their imagination.  If I had to guess, I would say something is taxing the system.  Badly."  He looked at the wall one more time, the surface smooth and regular.  There should have been cracks, and bumps, and bubbles in the paint.  He did his best to smile and told everyone he would get it fixed, and then headed out to the control room.

The walk was pleasant as always, perfect houses on one side and the lake on the other.  Travis couldn't enjoy it, though.  He found himself trying to look at things from the corner of his eyes, attempting to catch errors in the world.  Was there a pattern to the rocks on the hiking trail?  Was the asphalt of the road too smooth?  What about the leaves on the trees, should those have looked so... regular?  He reached the path and turned down it, walking to a small shed at the corner of a field.  Removing the padlock, he stepped into the cavernous space.

The control room was far larger on the inside, because it was technically a different simulation.  Immediately Travis knew something was wong; it was like when he had been out in the world and had gotten a new prescription for his glasses.  Everything had seemed fine, but once the new lenses were in he could see how much detail had been missing from the world.  How long had it been since he had come to the control room?  A year?  More?  The system had seemed so stable, he hadn't had to think about his tech support position for ages.

He rolled a chair over to the main station and did some basic diagnostics.  All the hardware reported back that it was online and working as expected, which wasn't surprising since it was made to literally survive the end of  civilization.  It had another two hundred years on the warranty.  On to the software side... as he had expected, something was using way more resources than it should be.  It had started eight months ago, and was using just a little more each day.  Travis could tell that it would start causing serious errors soon, possibly crash the simulation entirely and require a reboot.

A shiver went down his spine.  A reboot would leave everyone trapped in a little bubble for two or three days while he got everything fixed and restored, and that kind of isolation could be more than a little traumatic.  Not only that, but some things weren't completely backed up which would mean a lot of little personal touches reverting back to factory settings.  The Wilson's holiday lights display, names of lovers carved on a tree, little lost items dropped behind couches.  All those tiny things that made the simulation feel real.  It had taken forever for people to adjust, and having it revert...

Travis shook his head and got back to work.  No use worrying about something that didn't need to happen, and he felt confident he could locate the problem.  It was hiding, somehow, impacting multiple systems but not coming up on the process list.  Then again, that seemed like a clue unto itself.  Travis pulled up the special troubleshooting and testing queue and sure enough, there the process was.  It had to have been created by someone with IT credentials, and since their network connection had gone down during the war sixty years ago that only left himself and one other person.  Travis' finger hovered over the red button that would terminate the process, and he hesitated.  It couldn't hurt to call, he decided.

"Mike, this is Travis.  Did you start a process eight months back on the support queue?  ID is IZE009."
There was nothing but breathing for a moment. "Trav, yeah.  That's... that's a vital process.  Just leave it running."
"Well, it's eating up processors and memory both.  We're going to lose the simulation entirely unless I kill it.  You need to be more careful with side projects, you should never let them loose on the main system.  What the hell were you working on?"
"Just... look, just promise you won't stop it."
Travis sighed.  "Mike, look real close at the texture of your walls or something.  Tell me what you see."
Another pause, longer this time. "Oh.  Trav... oh, man.  How long?"
"I don't know.  It all depends on when the first crack forms in the dam.  It's like the blackouts on the old grid, if one plant froze up it increased the load on all the others and there was a chain reaction.  What I'm saying is that the simulation will probably be fine until someone sneezes, and then the whole thing might cascade down at once."
"I need... I need time to fix it, without stopping it.  Just wait."
"I'm trying to look at what the hell this thing is, but it's... it's everywhere.  Whatever you did, this thing has grown to take up all available space in the system.  It's got its fingers in everything, you can't just redesign it on the fly.  Shit Mike, is this thing self-programming?"
"... come over to my house, okay?  You can shut it down remotely if you need to."

Travis forced himself to walk rather than run, and he pulled up the process on his tablet as he headed towards Mike's house.  He knew that he should stay in the Control Room when messing with the system just in case, but Mike had sounded scared.  Once again, his hand hovered over the button but he held off and rang the doorbell instead.  Mike answered, looking miserable.
"Come into the back room, Trav."
He turned and walked away, and Travis followed.  He hadn't seen Mike in months, or Mike's wife Lilly.  They had dropped off the face of the world, but that didn't raise a lot of alarms - with a population of eight hundred you got used to people needing some quiet time every few decades, time to get away from the people you saw too much of every day.  If they had been able to stay on the network it would have been a little better.

The back room had been filled by a model of the town last time Travis had seen it, but now it had changed.  The walls were covered in pictures of cartoon animals, and a crib sat in the corner.  There was a changing table, a rocking chair, a doll.  He felt a knot forming in his stomach.  With anyone else he would suspect a mild mental disturbance, an obsession with the idea of children that they couldn't have now that physical bodies had been left behind.  But with Mike...
"What did you do?"
A voice answered from behind him.  "He made a miracle, Travis."  He turned to see Lilly looking at him, eyes glistening, holding a baby that gurgled and clutched at her earlobe.  Travis looked down at the tablet in his hands, at the red button that he knew he had to press.
"You son of a bitch."