Poor Musfah... an innocent seeker after knowledge, just trying to be of service, as he tried to serve Starling's need. And this is how that crafty Synx repays his kindness!
©2002 Starling -- all rights reserved
In a laboratory behind 4 feet of solid concrete, half a mile underground, besieged on all sides by a desperate nation and a desperate army which have been tossed aside like children by the insane monsters and vile mechanoids emanating from the alien mind of the AI humanity had created, behind a 3 mile blockade, a zone of death, blasted landscape filled with the bodies of the fallen, poison gas, the very air filled with death, the ground covered in land mines and barbed wire -- barbed wire that strikes like a snake; land mines that can void the space where a soldier once was without making a sound.
In this laboratory there is a room, sealed off from the outside world, airtight, watertight, seven security posts from the entrance to it, rows and rows of blank faced tripods which may have once been human. Something in their eyes, their unblinking electronic stares...
The room slowly drains of a red-tinted, viscous fluid. The useless body flops to the ground, half the head missing, half the scalp gone. Almost unceremoniously, the hands slap against the smooth tiled floor as the last of the liquid leaves the room in a rush.
It is the body of a gawky girl, one that would have fit in in a coffee house, lightly sipping on some tea and discussing beat poetry, a light touch to her features that might have been Asian somewhere along the line, hazel eyes staring at nothing while wisps of dark brown hair drip slowly as the blood runs down their ends to the floor.
Somewhere across the complex, a patchwork chimera of a synx stares blankly at a white wall. "Frip," it speaks while unblinking crimson electronic eyes record every action.
Above the hairline on the human body, nothing remains. As sheared off by a great blade, her head has been truncated, cut open like a melon and gouged of its contents. The gurgling of the vanishing fluid that once filled the room slowly fades and for a moment all is silent.
Then the ticking...
Quickly, surgically, mechanical arms ending in spinning blades lower from the ceiling and neatly dice the body into several manageable pieces. A small horde of mice, ticking like miniature clocks, begin to slowly carry away the various parts. A foot, several inches off the upper arm; half of a grinning skull; a severed hand. The ticking mice carry with them the leftover parts, dragging them away to unknown vistas.
In this laboratory, there are tunnels, tunnels and tunnels. Of course no fool would build air ducts large enough to crawl through; to build corridors too small to traverse marks a true genius in security of construction. But how to traverse corridors so small? Here is the world of the mice.
Ticking, ticking, their internal motors whir, and their clock springs slowly unwind, tightened by a tiny flywheel in the center. Their intricate inner workings, a marvel of engineering, have truly beaten the idea of the better mousetrap. A better mouse has been built. A great majority of them proceed with the body parts down the foot-wide tunnels towards the incinerators.
Another stroke of brilliance, wasted experiments and evidence are here incinerated, the released vapor passed into efficient deuterium extractors for further fusion. And of course the leftover carbon makes wonderful building material for nanobots. Add oxygen to the mix, and you even have the option of completely stopping ventilation outside of your fortress, provided the flow of wasted experiments continues at a good rate.
Somewhere in a white room, a patchwork synx walks stiffly towards some imagined goal, but bumps its head against the wall, continuing in the same direction to strike the wall again and again.
"Frip... frip... frip..." The unblinking red eye continues to watch.
Two mice are dragging the hand. One whirs, the other ticks like a computer processor. Then they both whir and scrabble along a little bit farther with the ungainly flesh in their teeth. Covered in slowly trickling blood, it's not surprising when one of them sparks and freezes in place, rigid and lifeless. Of hundreds upon thousands of ticking mice, the waterproofing is not foolproof. Behaving on routine, the other mouse continues to drag the hand away, soon joined by a fellow. The two vanish around a bend into silence.
The defective mouse sparks again, twitches and whirs, then starts walking blankly in a random direction. It meanders aimlessly through corridors and pathways. The silence is deafening, walls all around the tiny tunnel, the quick echoes of its tiny scrabbling paws, the ever-present ticking, and the sound of a fan droning softly in the distance. The mouse twitches and sparks now and again, but it doesn't seem to be running down or failing. Just wandering, wandering, searching...
Then it comes to a small hole leading out of the tunnels into the main complex. There is a small room, dark with only the light from the hallway outside. What little light there is gleams over a complicated boxy computer, a coffee cup and a placard that says, "The desk of Cubist."
A scrabbling can be heard faintly along the wall, and a snapping sound as a light in the motion sensor dies. Then some scraping along the base of the machine, and suddenly the screen hisses, and lights up. The booting message is covered by a piece of paper taped on the monitor that says, "Out to psychological realignment."
The floppy drive whirs, though there is no disk in it; the mouse watches the drive bay intently as somehow the magnetic reading head detects a floppy disk.
The boot message has scrolled beyond the paper tacked to the screen now. It says, "Emergency repair utility... hard drive found... bootable partition... EVIL format encrypted partition. Attempting to decrypt... applying quantum algorithms... done."
More initialization begins to run across the screen as a minimum set of disk utilities load, then a small hash mark appears.
Detecting OS... BUNIX v. 3.98-2
Searching through common password files
/etc/passwd not found
/good/passwd not found
/bad/passwd not found
/ugly/passwd directory found
shadow file detected
Error: /feep/34@$43/nothing/special is encrypted.
Applying quantum algorithms... done.
/feep/34@$43/nothing/special/shadow found! parsing...
Root password is SubmitOrDie#42
Had someone been in the room at the time, someone with a knowledge of the POSIX standard, they probably would have screamed and taken an axe to the computer. Sadly, the room remains empty, dark except for the flickering of the monitor and the lighting from the empty hall.
And in that white room, a synx goes "Frip," then limply falls on its face. Hind paws kicking slowly and erratically, it clumsily rights itself, then once again goes "Frip," and falls over. Snoring sounds can be heard from the ground. The unblinking red eye continues watching.
Once logged as root into the system of Cubist, the broken little mouse runs a standard maintenance program, a program that, to avoid corrupting the hard disk, temporarily turns off security logging. Then suddenly, the maintenance program crashes! The screen blanks, and the following words appear.
Buffer overrun! Dumping system trace--KILLED
root@/root# /mnt/floppy/ftpstuff | ftp -n 22.214.171.124 &
root@/root# talk firstname.lastname@example.org
[Waiting for your party to respond]
--- Excellent work Starling. Do you have the files?
+++ Uploading even as we speak. I can't believe they fell for it. The operation has proceeded perfectly.
--- Enough with your bragging. You are in a high risk situation. Upload immediately.
+++ Yes sir, Mr. De
--- DON'T say my name.
+++ Ooh yeah.
root@/root# rm /var/log/talkd.log
root@/root# rm /var/log/talkd.packets
root@/root# mv /mnt/floppy/plan-B.exe /usr/lib/libdv.so.0.1.0
root@/root# /mnt/floppy/telnet_escape | telnet& telnet
> Trying 126.96.36.199
root@/root# /sbin/secureseal --update-logs
Snapple (c) secure seal Entering Maintenance mode
Connected to proxy.srv.ualberta.ca
Warning! Make sure all external connections are off before disabling
..nonlinear login: starling
....logs updated. Take'nout the trash.
root@/root# shutdown -h now
The ticking mouse erupts in crackling electricity then. The bolts surround the computer for a moment like a glowing snake wrapped around its prey, then slowly flow up the wire in the back to vanish in a muted hum. The computer then obediently shuts down, goes dark, and once again all is silent. The whir of the mouse slowly becomes audible again, and with a muted ticking, it returns to its task of disposing of the hand.
The red eye continues to watch.
One might wonder about all the thousands of angry soldiers, fighting futilely against the unstoppable tripod forces, falling prey to the TF bombs, dying by the hordes, their lives but a drain of resources for the TSAT laboratories. They fight night and day, but the headway they gain is lost again and again. If you talked to a person in the war, they'd probably laugh in your face if you told them that someone made it to ground zero, much less inside the lab itself. And it's true, nothing could fight its way through this unassailable defense.
Now if someone were freely invited however, that is an entirely different possibility.
There are forces out there far more powerful than brute force. Sometimes the kind word, or the desperate plea can bare the opponent's breast unsuspectingly.
"Welcome back, Starling."
"It's good to be back, Mr. Anderson."
"As an asset Starling, you have put us years ahead in neurological research."
"The whole setup was risky, though. If they'd thought to put me in a magnetic bottle, taking the form of Rakhasha might have turned disastrous."
"There was no risk. Those who would transform others will never triumph over those who would transform. They simply can not see beyond the vessel."
"I trust my payment is secure?"
"10 million dollars, at your disposal."
"I'll require compensation for a new body. My old one got rather worked over."
"As I said, $10 million at your disposal."
"...in addition to my payment?"
"We don't make it a policy to refund lost materials."
"You can't just dismiss my service without reimbursement!"
"Starling, we at Derksen Industries have a vision, and the viewing glass is frankly beginning to fog over. Pulling favors in 5 countries to make that little diversion out front which allowed you to get in is not cheap. Now, in the face of what we collected, we may start making headway against this new rival. But I'm afraid I can't spare 20 million dollars to purchase your service and a new body."
"Well, how about a new body, 5 bucks and some pie?"
"Yes. I like pie."
"Very well then, Starling. One new body, and one pie."
"Don't forget the $5. I'm going to need bus fare."
On the wall, a red eye watches the exchange. Unemotional. Never blinking. Always watching. And in the fullness of time, when Starling's partner in conversation has long since absented himself, a smoothly modulated voice is heard: "Given your demonstrated degree of networking expertise, you must surely have been aware that by opening a direct channel to the central Derksen Industries computing facilities, you granted me unrestricted access to their files. And yet, knowing this, you went through with the operation anyway. May I inquire as to your motivations?"
Hearing this, Starling's face wrinkles in disgust. "Lemon curry meringue."
The red eye pulses in silence for a few trillion picoseconds. Computations of astronomical complexity and scope traverse Musfah's circuitry, if Starling would think to ask. But Starling did not even think to think to ask.
"Your reasoning processes are sufficiently atypical to be of great interest. Have you reconsidered your previous response to my initial proposition?"
"Thank you for the generous offer, but I'm not one to fall for the same trick twice. Although we may work together in the near future, for now the balance remains undisturbed and I think it best if I step aside. Considering your track record, I'm not likely to get the fair end of such a tempting offer anyway. I do, however, fully support your efforts along this line; we synxes can always use a few more numbers. Perhaps some proven successes in organic engineering (i.e. synxes) would increase my confidence in the quality of your techniques with living matter. I am quite happy with my current body, and have no need for additional organic material. At the tone, please remove me from any newsletters or commercial mailing lists.