I am writing a science fiction novel for National Novel Writing Month. I’m taking the Robot Lord Scenario as my inspiration, so that’s the working title. Please give me feedback. I want to be like Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian, and publish each rough draft chapter online and invite criticism, so that I can get help refining it.
I looked out at the deserted nightscape of downtown skyscrapers below me, a warmly glowing stream of data, orange on black, obscuring my view. The motion activated streetlights were all dark, and most of the other office buildings were dark as well, hulking monoliths in the slumbering city. But a random pattern of lighted windows in the building across the street illuminated the deep blackness of the night. Cleaning people here and there vacuumed and emptied trash cans. They were actual humans, which explained why they needed lights. Inverse office denizens, they occupied the space left empty by the professionals at the end of their workdays.
I felt a sort of kinship with these human cleaners toiling in the night. They might not recognize our connection, but we IT people used to be relegated to the depths of the evening to do our own work, so that we didn’t disturb the ebb and flow of daytime business communications. When human workers lose their internet connection, they complain, so IT must work at night. But times have changed, software has replaced most of the office workers now, and software doesn’t complain if you take away its internet connection for a few minutes. Software doesn’t complain about much, actually, which is why so few of us can still find work at all.
I marvelled at these massive structures around me. Office buildings soaring thirty and forty stories all around, built in an era when tens of thousands of workers were needed to run an enterprise office. Now, floor after floor sat empty, mothballed, eerily silent. On previous jobs, I passed through these dead spaces sometimes, tracing cables, the vasculature of business data. Sometimes the building managers didn’t even bother tearing down the cube farms, and I would wind my way through these rodent mazes, shocked at how little space these old time office employees used to have. Of course, there are many fewer of us now, so it’s understandable that we would have more meatspace.
I watched the cleaning people doing their work and realized that my affinity with them went deeper than just sharing hours. The cleaners empty the trash, and I was in that office, high above the city, to clean up a mess that night myself. Only this mess didn’t clean up very easily. This mess melted through the floor and turned into a rabbit hole that led me on a journey that changed my life.
I was working at the time as a security consultant doing forensics. Anyone in computer security will tell you that the hardest part of doing that job is determining whether you’ve been hacked or not. In many cases, companies simply aren’t aware that their systems have been compromised, and it takes an outside party to clue them in. This client was a typical example. They were a big hedge fund called Ithildin, and they had a massive intrusion detection infrastructure in place. Their internal security team insisted that there was no malicious activity on the network, but, nonetheless, several million dollars were unaccounted for during an audit. So there was a huge struggle within the company between the IT department and the accountants. The IT department was accusing the accountants of fraud and the accountants were accusing the IT department of overlooking a hack.
In response, the CFO personally reached out to a forensic accounting firm with a computer security incident response department. The incident response team was an ad hoc group from a handful of companies, but I had worked with a few of them before and recognized that they were some of the top people in the business. I also knew one of the accounting people from the days when I used to do SOX compliance work. There was a lot of tension in the meetings, as the outside consultants found flaws in procedures across the board, in both accounting and IT. This was typical, and it would have gone a lot smoother if they had just kept the IT and accounting people out of the loop until we presented the final report. But management had somehow convinced the CFO that it was a good idea for their people to be closely involved in the investigation. So I was escaping into this empty conference room to take a break from all of the bickering and somehow found myself enjoying the deserted city nightscape.
My phone buzzed. There was a text notification icon in corner of my vision, so I expanded the window to read it. It was a message from my girlfriend, Bryce.
“How much longer?”
“I told you that I’m working tonight,” I texted back. “It’s hard to say, maybe a couple more hours.”
“Would you be pissed if I went out with some friends from work then?”
“Who is going?”
Just then a security consultant I knew well came into the room. His name was Kumar, but he insisted on being called Batou, after the Ghost in the Shell character.
“Wow, nice view. Is that why you have the lights off in here?” he said, joining me at the window.
“Yeah, and I don’t want to be found that easily. These meetings are horrid.”
“Tell me about it. This network is lousy with malware,” said Batou, shaking his head. “And that internal guy, Friedrich, keeps insisting that they have everything under control. I can’t stand that guy. He likes the douchiest rock bands. Nothing but uninspired, macho posturing.”
“He’s a phony who likes fake music,” I said.
Batou had been a goth back in the day and I had been a new waver, so we had already established a certain amount of grudging respect for each other’s musical tastes.
“I would say that there are at least three different crews operating on this network,” said Batou.
“Yeah, but that’s true of a lot of networks,” I replied. The text message thread with Bryce was floating in the center of my field of vision, but she wasn’t responding and I felt my stomach tighten slightly. It wasn’t like her to text me when she knew I was at work. And she went out with her friends all the time, so why should she ask me about this one instance?
Cyn, another consultant from the firm Batou worked for, popped her head into the conference room. “Hate to break up your romantic moment,” she said, carrying her laptop into the room. “But you need to see this.” She didn’t bother turning the lights on, but just plopped down at the head of the conference table. Data streams started lighting up my glasses as she threw some windows into our shared workspace. “I captured some weird traffic coming from this printer back to the hosted finance servers.”
“Jesus, Cyn, why do you lug that chunk of computation around with you like that?” I asked. Myself and everyone else I worked with generally just used our phones and connected to remote servers when we needed computing resources.
“I like to have local horsepower,” she said, patting the matte black slab.
“That’s just stupid,” snorted Batou. “Where do you ever go that doesn’t have bandwidth?”
“You’d be surprised how often having the ability to run offline processes comes in handy,” she said. “Oh, and just let me know when you guys are done bitching about my hardware, because this incident isn’t resolving itself, you know.”
“Let me see this printer,” Batou said. He waved a hand to open a browser to the printer’s IP address. A JetDirect logon screen appeared and he frowned as the default password failed to work.
“JetDirect? How old is this damn thing?” Cyn asked.
“I wasn’t actually expecting to see a logon screen. If they hacked the printer, they would have replaced the web interface,” Batou said.
“If they were idiots, they would replace the standard logon screen,” she said.
“Cyn’s right, this packet trace doesn’t look legit,” I said. I scanned a log file she had bookmarked. “That’s not printer traffic. Something’s up with that device.”
“Okay, okay,” Batou said, digging through a screen of transaction logs.
I scanned the printer with a fuzzing tool I had picked up on the forums recently, and somehow a shell prompt appeared before me. It had a hash sign blinking as though I was root.
“Uh, I think I got something here,” I said. Just then my phone buzzed and I passed the screen to Batou to examine.
“Just Jayson and Franklin, anyway we’re out already, so I guess I’ll text you later,” said the message from Bryce. What the hell? Now my girlfriend was out drinking with two guys from her job? And she somehow felt the need to tell me about it as though it were an item of concern?
“Fuck all, this printer is running some funky busybox,” Batou said.
“I told you,” Cyn said. She flipped up her glasses and gestured at the building across the street. “Whoa, nice view. Are those actual human cleaners?” she asked.
“Yeah, I didn’t know anyone was still employing those,” I said. But my mind was wandering. I loved my girlfriend, but I didn’t trust her exactly. She seemed pretty eager to be going out on the town with these two guys from her job.
A bot pulled up to the door, vacuuming as it went. It sensed that there were warm bodies in the room and shut off its vacuum. I watched as it dispassionately rolled over to the waste bin under the huge conference room table that had been fashioned from a highly shellacked slab of redwood. It extended its manipulators to grab the basket and tilt it back and up, efficiently emptying the contents into its gut.
“The competition will put those poor slobs out of work soon enough,” I said, as the bot rolled silently back out of the room and restarted its vacuum once it was in the hallway again.
“Oh, shit, this is just a mess,” sighed Batou. “And Friedrich will just act like a printer exfiltrating finance data back to China is no big deal.”
“Come on, Batou, China?” asked Cyn. “Seriously?”
“That’s a little convenient,” I said.
“Whatever, that’s where these IPs are registered,” said Batou.
”Where are you going?” I texted Bryce.
“Are you paying attention, Ivan?” Bryce asked me. “Who are you texting?”
“My girlfriend,” I said. “She’s going off drinking with two guys from work and I’m worried about it.”
“Woo, she’s trying get luck-ee,” Cyn said. She spun around in her conference chair and laughed. “Her fancy hacker boyfriend blew her off on a Friday night and she found some other guys to play with while he’s working.”
“Don’t rub it in,” I said, feeling stung.
“Can you guys focus please?” Batou said. “This looks serious. I think we found our exfiltration point right here. I don’t want to hear about Ivan’s slutty girlfriend. I want to hear how we are going to present this to management without Friedrich shooting us down.”
“The logs speak for themselves,” said Cyn, waving her hand dismissively.
“No, Batou’s right,” I said. “We need to find a way to sell this. Internal IT has a lot riding on this. It will make them look bad.”
“I don’t play those games,” Cyn said. “Facts are facts.”
“That’s why you’re stuck in lateral moves from place to place; you don’t understand business impact,” I said. I was trying to score points on her and get her back for teasing me about Bryce. I pulled up a channel to the Ithildin IT helpdesk in the shared workspace. A fairly low resolution avatar appeared and I recognized that this was probably a low level AI, the convention generally being that lower resolution meant less intelligent.
“Hello, this is Ithildin Information Technology Services, how can I help you?” said the avatar, looking over my right shoulder with a wooden smile on its face. It was presenting as an ambiguously gendered human of indeterminate race, which I thought was pretty progressive.
“We need some information about a printer,” I said, flipping through my open windows to find the name. “Oak-3115-Prn3.”
The avatar paused for a moment; its smile fixed disturbingly. “That printer appears to be functional, would you like to print a test page?”
Cyn chuckled and raised her eyebrows at me.
“No, no,” I said. “We want to know what this device is doing on the network, it must be fifteen years old.”
“Ah, printers produce hard copies,” said the avatar, without sounding the least bit condescending. Then it paused again. “For human consumption,” it added.
Did this AI really have some doubts as to whether I was a human or not?
“How do we escalate this thing?” asked Batou. Cyn just giggled. She thought this was hilarious.
“I know what a printer is, thanks,” I said. “The question is, don’t you have a hardware retirement policy in place? Why is this device still around?”
“Oh, this is a policy question? One moment please, acquiring additional resources,” said the avatar. Then the weirdest thing happened. Instead of being replaced by a different, higher level avatar, or gasp, even a real human, the avatar’s features seemed to grow sharper and more well defined. No gender or race clues emerged, but it became more attractive and there was a discernable gleam in its eye as it looked at me that sent a chill up my spine.
“Wow, this must be a new program,” said Cyn.
“Oh, hello, Ivan Rudnikov,” said the suddenly sharper avatar. “I have been authorized to answer any questions you may have regarding policies and procedures.” There was just the slightest smirk on the avatar’s face and I shuddered. I had dealt with advanced AI before, but this one was spooky.
“Thank you,” I said, and then caught myself. Why was I wasting niceties on a piece of software? “Why is this ancient HP printer still on the network? Shouldn’t it have been retired according to your hardware replacement policy?” I decided not to reference the printer by name to see just how smart this thing was. Did it really remember everything its dumber incarnation heard?
The avatar made a pained expression. “I am terribly sorry, but it appears you have identified a problem with our policies, pardon me while I obtain additional capacities.” A moment passed, and, to our shock, the avatar became even MORE high resolution, beyond natural, like a superrealist painter’s rendition of a model human, genderless, raceless, painfully beautiful.
“Holy shit,” said Batou, dropping into a chair.
I looked significantly at Cyn, but she just scratched her cheek and tried to act unfazed.
“My goodness, Ivan, your team really is quite good,” said the avatar, casually perching on the edge of the table, a trick I had only seen in very high end entertainment VR. “Friedrich is going to be very displeased by this.”
“What do you know about Friedrich?” asked Cyn. She sensed danger here, which was good. It showed that she wasn’t totally clueless about corporate politics.
“We work closely with Friedrich’s team,” said the avatar. It smiled, holding up a hand to calm her. “But the hardware retirement policy only applies to certain classes of equipment, and it looks like it this little workgroup printer didn’t fall into any of the categories defined, so it was never replaced.” The avatar paused for a moment, its eyes still, gazing into the ether. “Oh dear.”
“Oh yes,” I said. The code on that printer was old, and old code is easily hacked. I wondered how much the avatar could discern about what we’d found, and I started to become paranoid. This was some serious tech at play. You practically needed a dedicated nuclear plant to power an AI like this. Did it have access to our shared workspace? I checked the encryption and it seemed untampered with. But there were lower tech ways to find out what we’d been up to. A simple camera and microphone could have recorded our entire conversation.
“. . . and it looks like this oversight was a costly one,” the avatar said. It pinned me with a vicious glare that stunned me with its intensity, like the most dramatic Shakespearean actor I’d ever seen. “I think you should be very careful with this information, Ivan. It’s very sensitive. Careers are at stake.”
“Careers are always at stake when people like us are called in, Mr. Chatbot,” said Batou.
The avatar seemed to freeze for a moment, which gave me some relief. It was comforting to see this monstrous software instance showing some signs of weakness; its resolution rapidly decayed down to a level below its initial incarnation. It looked like a video game character from ten years ago. “Well, then, if you don’t mind, I will go ahead and close this service request. Thank you for using the Ithildin IT helpdesk. Please take a few moments to fill out our customer satisfaction survey . . .”
I closed the session in disgust, and the avatar disappeared. An odd blue-black afterimage lingered in the air for a moment before my eyes. I swept all the windows aside and flipped up my glasses to gaze at Cyn and Batou.
“Well, that escalated quickly,” said Cyn. She had an unpleasant expression on her face and her knees caved in dejectedly as she slouched forward.
“I’m not going to be pushed around by some goddamn hedge fund neural net,” said Batou, slapping his hand on the redwood slab, then rubbing it ruefully.
“Come on, Batou,” I said. “It is pretty crazy how much AI wattage is in use around here, but the creepy thing was right. We need to be careful with how we release this. Let’s call the home office and see what Rasmussen has to say about it.”
“The hell with that,” said Batou, compressing his lips and trying to look tough. I really had to laugh, to see this skinny south Asian nerd acting like a hard guy. “I’m backhacking that China server. I’m going to crack this whole thing wide open.”
“Ooh, you bad boy,” said Cyn, perking up at the prospect of mayhem. “Let’s do it.” I’ve always said that there is no such thing as a truly pure whitehat hacker. There is always a bit of the blackhat in all of us. We like breaking things, software, hardware, rules, procedures, whatever you’ve got. “Are you in, Ivan?” she asked me, arching a devilish brow at me.
I knew I would regret this, but I might as well regret my very nature or the nature of the world. “I’m in,” I sighed.