The Robot Lord Scenario (My Novel) – Chapter 1 (Ivan)

I’m writing a science fiction novel for National Novel Writing Month. The Robot Lord Scenario is my 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.

Ivan looked out at the downtown skyscrapers, a warmly glowing stream of data, orange on black, obscuring his view. The motion-activated streetlights were dark, as were most of the other office buildings, but a peppering of lighted windows in the building across the street illuminated the deep blackness of the night. A cleaning woman in a drab gray uniform emptied trash cans, while another one vacuumed. They were actual humans, which explained why they needed light.

Ivan felt a kinship with these cleaners toiling in the night. IT people were once relegated to the depths of the evening to do their own work, so they didn’t disturb the ebb and flow of daytime business communications. When human workers lost their internet connection, they complained, so IT had to work at night. But times had changed, software had replaced most of the office workers, and software didn’t complain if you took away its internet connection for a few minutes. Software didn’t complain about much, actually, which is why so few in IT could still find work at all.

He marveled at the 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. Now, floor after floor sat empty, mothballed, eerily silent. On previous jobs, Ivan had passed through these dead spaces, tracing cables, his tall, lanky body doubled over. He was shocked at how little space office employees used to have. Of course, there were many fewer of them now, so it was understandable that they would have more room.

As if to echo his thoughts, a bot that resembled a motorized garbage can entered the room, vacuuming as it went. It sensed a warm body and shut off its vacuum. Ivan watched as it dispassionately rolled over to the plastic bin under the huge conference room table that had been fashioned from a highly shellacked slab of redwood. It extended its manipulators and grabbed the bin, lifted it, and tilted it sideways, efficiently emptying the crumpled papers and soiled coffee cups into its gut.

His phone buzzed. There was a text notification icon in the corner of his vision and he expanded the window to read it. It was a message from his girlfriend, Bryce, How much longer?

I told you I’m working tonight, he texted back. It’s hard to say, maybe a couple of hours.

Would you be pissed if I went out with some friends from work then?

Who’s going?

Just then, a security consultant Ivan knew well came into the room. He was a diminutive, dark-skinned South Asian named Kumar, but he insisted on being called Batou, after the Ghost in the Shell character. He had a new wave haircut, shaved closely on the sides and styled to look carefully unruly on the top.

“Wow, nice view. Is that why you have the lights off?” Batou said, joining him 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. That guy, Friedrich, keeps insisting they have everything under control, but I’ll bet that there are at least three different crews operating on it.”

“Yeah, but that’s true of a lot of networks.”

Ivan and Batou were both working that night as part of an ad hoc team of computer security consultants. Ivan had worked with a few of them before and recognized them as some of the top people in the business. The hardest part of their job was determining whether or not a client had been hacked. In many cases, companies simply weren’t aware that their systems had been compromised, and it took 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. Thus, there was a huge struggle within the company between the IT department and the accountants. The IT department was accusing the accountants of committing fraud, and the accountants were accusing IT of overlooking a hack. So Ivan had escaped into this empty conference room to take a break from the bickering, and somehow found himself enjoying the deserted city nightscape.

The text message thread with Bryce was floating in the center of his field of vision, but she wasn’t responding, and he felt his stomach tighten. It wasn’t like her to text him when she knew he was working. And she went out with her friends all of the time, so why would she ask his permission that night?

Cyn, another consultant from the firm Ivan and Batou worked for, popped her head into the room. She was a pale skinned punk rocker with a blue mohawk. “Hate to break up your fun,” she said, carrying in her laptop, “but you need to see this.” She didn’t bother turning on the lights before she plopped down at the head of the conference table. Data streams lit up their glasses as she threw some windows into their 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?” Ivan asked. He and everyone else used their phones to connect to remote servers when they needed computing resources.

“I like to have local horsepower,” she said, patting the matte black slab. Ivan glanced at her midriff, exposed by a half-shirt she had ripped up and decorated with a red letter “A” inside of a circle, the symbol for anarchy. He regretted that he’d worn his typical corporate outfit, khakis and a button down shirt, and he wished he’d dressed in all black. At least Batou had split the difference and worn a black Joy Division t-shirt with his khakis.

“Let me see that,” said Batou. He waved a hand to open a browser to the printer’s IP address. A logon screen appeared and he frowned when the default password failed to work.  

“How old is this thing?” Cyn asked.

“I wasn’t expecting to see a logon screen at all,” Batou said, “If they’d hacked it, they would have replaced that.”

“They’d be idiots to replace that. It would make their hack obvious,” Cyn said.

“Cyn’s right,” Ivan said, “This packet trace doesn’t look legit.” He scanned a log file she’d bookmarked. “That’s not printer traffic. Something’s up with this device.”

He scanned the printer with a fuzzing tool he’d picked up on the forums recently, and a shell prompt appeared before him. A hash sign blinked as though he was root.

“I think I’ve got something here,” he said. Just then his phone buzzed and he passed the screen to Batou to examine.  

Just Jayson and Franklin, anyway, we’re out already, so I’ll text you later, said the message from Bryce. What the hell? Now his girlfriend was out drinking with two guys from work? And, if he recalled correctly, Jayson was the CEO. He felt sick.

“Fuck, this printer is running some weird busybox,” Batou said. “And Friedrich will just act like a printer sending finance data back to China is no big deal.”

“Come on, Batou, China? Seriously?” said Cyn “That’s a little convenient. Whenever someone gets hacked, they blame the Chinese.”  

Ivan messaged his girlfriend back. Where are you going?

“Are you paying attention, Ivan? What are you doing” asked Cyn, annoyed.

“It’s my girlfriend. She’s out drinking with two guys from work and I’m worried about it.”

“Whoaaa, she’s trying get laiddd,” said Cyn. She spun around in her office chair and laughed. “Her hacker boyfriend blew her off on Friday night and she found some other guys to screw.”

Ivan frowned and looked away, too hurt to think of a good comeback.

“Can you guys focus, please?” Batou said. “This looks serious. I think we found our exfiltration point here. I don’t want to hear about Ivan’s slutty girlfriend. I want to hear about how we’re going to present this to management without Friedrich shooting us down.”

Ivan pulled up a channel to the Ithildin IT helpdesk in the shared workspace. A fairly low resolution avatar appeared and he recognized that it was probably a low level AI, the convention generally being that lower resolution meant less intelligent. It was presenting as an ambiguously gendered human of indeterminate race, which he thought was pretty progressive.

“Hello, this is Ithildin Information Technology Services, how can I help you?” said the avatar. It looked at Ivan with a wooden smile on its face.

“We need some information about a printer,” he said, flipping through his 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 me to print a test page?”

Cyn chuckled.

“No, no,” he said. “We want to know what this printer 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.

Cyn giggled again.

“I know what a printer is, thanks,” Ivan 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?” said the avatar, “One moment please, acquiring additional resources.” Then the weirdest thing happened. Instead of being replaced by a different, higher level avatar, or even a real human, the avatar’s features grew sharper and more well-defined. No gender or race clues emerged, but it became more attractive; it’s jawline sharper, its features finer and more regular. There was even a discernable gleam in its blue grey eyes that sent a chill up Ivan’s spine.

“Wow, this must be a new program,” said Cyn.

“Hello, Ivan Rudnikov,” it said. “I’ve been authorized to answer any questions you may have regarding policies and procedures.” There was a slight smirk on its face and Ivan shuddered. He’d dealt with advanced AI before, but this was spooky.

“Thank you,” he said, and then caught himself. Why was he 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?”

The avatar narrowed its eyes and grimaced. “I’m terribly sorry, but it appears that you’ve identified a problem with our policies, pardon me while I obtain additional capacities.” A moment passed, and, to their shock, the avatar became even MORE high resolution, beyond natural, like a superrealist painter’s rendition of a model human, genderless, raceless, almost painfully beautiful. 

“Holy shit,” said Batou, dropping into a chair.

Ivan looked significantly at Cyn, but she just scratched her cheek and looked away, trying to act unfazed.

“My goodness, Ivan, your team really is quite good,” said the avatar. “Friedrich is going to be very displeased by this.”

“You’re right,” said Ivan. The code on that printer was old, and old code was easily hacked. He wondered how much the avatar could discern about what they’d found, and he started to feel paranoid. This was some serious tech at play. You practically needed a dedicated nuclear power plant to create an AI like this. Did it have access to their shared workspace? He checked the encryption and it seemed untampered with. But there were lower tech ways to find out what they’d been up to. A simple camera and microphone could have recorded their entire conversation.

“It looks like this oversight was a costly one,” the avatar said. It pinned Ivan with a vicious glare that stunned him with its intensity, like the most dramatic Shakespearean actor he’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 reassured Ivan. It was comforting to see this monstrous software showing some signs of weakness, as its resolution rapidly decayed to a level below its initial incarnation. Now it looked like a video game character from ten years ago. “Well then, if you don’t mind, I’ll 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.”

Ivan closed the session and the avatar disappeared. For a moment, an odd blue-black afterimage lingered in the air before their eyes. He swept the windows aside and flipped up his glasses.

“What the hell kind of AI was that?” asked Cyn. Ivan thought he could detect just a trace of fear in her eyes.  

“To hell with that,” said Batou, clamping his lips together and trying to look tough, despite being a skinny, south Asian nerd. “I’m back hacking that Chinese server. I’m going to crack this whole thing wide open.”

Ivan’s heart beat faster at the suggestion, but he silently weighed the pros and cons. On one hand, hacking the hackers who’d violated this network was poetic justice. What comes around, goes around. Also, it would help them gather valuable information about where the money was funnelled to and could help them resolve this case quickly. And, of course, Ivan and his team were hackers themselves and always up for a little mayhem. But, on the other hand, this was technically illegal and they could not only get fired by Rasmussen, but maybe even charged with a crime. He felt conflicted and uneasy. On the plus side, it took his mind off of Bryce.

Cyn seemed unfazed by Batou’s bold suggestion. “You badass!” she said, excited at the prospect of switching from defense to offense. “Let’s do it!”

Batou gave Ivan a hard, questioning look, and Ivan thought it over for a minute. He’d always said there was no such thing as a truly pure, whitehat hacker. There was always a bit of the blackhat in all of them. They liked breaking things: software, hardware, rules, procedures, whatever.

“Are you in, Ivan?” Cyn asked, arching a devilish brow at him.

He knew he would regret it, but he might as well regret his very nature or the nature of the world itself. “I’m in,” he sighed.

Chapter 2 here.