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LJ Idol Week 32 - Overwatch

LJ Idol Week 32 - Overwatch

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Please note: this is the second part of a two-part story. The first half is for "Intersubjectivity", and is essential for this piece. (Sorry.)

The first half can be found here: http://jexia.livejournal.com/1338776.html


=====================

A quiet knock on the door startled me awake. I must have dozed off unwittingly. My head felt murky; my mouth, too. Too much beer? Gin? Unsettling dreams about a megalomaniac trying to mess with everyone's brains?

I called, "Come in," and a servo-bot entered, carrying a tray. My mouth watered; the accompanying scents were greasy and savoury, just what my stomach wanted.

As I ate, the servo-bot bustled around, making a point of opening the wardrobe so I could see the clothes hanging there. I had no doubt they were just my size. After a quick shower, I found they did indeed fit me. The servo-bot gestured to the hallway, and I wandered until I found the others in the room where we'd met.

Alicia greeted me, but my response was lacklustre and distracted. My mind was churning furiously. Where was Benjamin? Was he okay? Jaylene came in, accompanied by a trail of techs. Benjamin hurried in at the end of the group, his cheeks flushed. He looked dreadful, his eyes dark-ringed with exhaustion.

<What happened?>

He didn't respond, other than to glance at me. I bit my lip and waited.

The techs bustled around, checking our headnets. I held my breath as the tech scrutinised mine, but apparently it passed muster.

Jaylene started to speak, and I cast a carefully casual look in Benjamin's direction. He looked distracted, tapping at his handheld device, but he paused long enough to send a message.

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> Sorry. Detected signs of someone trying to breach our commnet. Took a while, but I managed to deflect them. I'm sorry there hasn't been time to brief you.>

<What do I need to do?>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> It's my understanding that the override will appear as differential equations, in the preprocessor subroutines. You'll probably recognise them, but you'll need to locate any changes and revert them. You'll have to work fast.>

Jaylene was exhorting us to be honest and think of the big picture. I mentally snorted, knowing who I'd give that advice to, and ignored her.

<OK, I can do that.>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> There may be data protection on them, so you'll need to subvert that, and maintain the cyclic redundancy checks so the changes aren't detected.>

<That's a hell of a lot of calculations!>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> I know. Do your best. I've got your back.>

Jaylene finally stopped, and nodded significantly to Benjamin. He met my eye, and tapped his device.

I fell through familiar blackness, to the malleable space where I had reshaped my implant's functionality. I could sense others with me; the solidity of Henry, the grey sponginess of Rickard, the fiery flicker of Maria. Alicia glowed, ethereal and pulsing. If this was my mental model of them, there was no doubt how I felt about her.

A "voice" echoed through, more sensed than heard, all glint and steel. Jaylene, not bothering to materialise herself. "We are about to begin. Keep your responses as honest as you can. There is no judgment here."

A symbol appeared, the arrowed triangle of recycling. "Rubbish collection - should we increase the fees?"

Numb lassitude spread through me, warm and enticing me to agree. I mentally twisted, but couldn't escape it. Was this the feedback loop? I looked around frantically, but couldn't see anything to challenge. Maybe I had to go deeper?

I dropped to the preprocessor level, glimpsing the tail end of a calculation. Gah. I'd already missed it. These buggers were fast.

"Consensus reached. Fees to be increased 237%."

Another symbol appeared, the tasseled cap of an archaic educational ceremony. "University fees. Currently 15% funded by the city. Should the funding be dropped?"

Surely Alicia would protest? Her glowing form appeared quiescent and compliant. The amenable lassitude spread through me again, but I fought it, dropping to the preprocessor level again. There! That was one of my equations! I hurriedly scanned through the variables, searching for alterations. The sum of... ζ'... and -15 Ψ... no, that was the same... There! They'd swapped a Φ and a θ! I swapped them back, trying to resist the inexorable tug of the equation's processing. A warning chime sounded, and I reached for the CRC subroutine, frantically diving through calculations to rebalance the checksum.

I was too slow. It was gone.

Jaylene's steely voice sounded a little perturbed. "Consensus reached. University funding to be dropped, effective immediately." She paused. "Is everyone ready to proceed?"

"Yes, Jaylene," we dutifully murmured.

A green warmth appeared. "There may be some recalibration required." Benjamin's voice flowed liquidly through the virtual space.

"Yes, there does appear to be some fluctuations in the response matrices," Jaylene said.

"I'll stay here and watch over the consensus collection, if that is acceptable?" he asked.

"Of course. Let's proceed."

The malleable blackness formed into a shape, a human shape, the archetype of every unemployed citizen. The media liked to demonise them, painting them as dirty, stupid, and drug-addicted, while carefully avoiding any mention of the bots that had reshaped our society.

"The unemployment problem - does it require a more permanent solution?"

The figure lurched, leering and grotesque, and then shuffled up a ramp to a sinister black box, marked with the red logo of Animal Control.

I didn't wait. I dropped to the preprocessor level and scanned for the equation. Whoa. This one was a juggernaut, unrecognisable to me. I fumbled through the variables, simplifying where I could, trying to discern a familiar core. Could this substitute for that? I made the change, and was immediately surrounded by a swarm of stickiness, engulfing me and hampering my movement. This equation had data protection, and plenty of it.

Suddenly Benjamin was there, green and warm. "I've got it," he said, and embraced me. As he let go, sticky strings clung between us, but the bulk had transferred to him. I could move again.

What had they done to the equation? I made more changes, finding fragments that I recognised, and stringing them together. I almost had it.

"Look out!" Benjamin was behind me, watching as I worked, and he'd spotted another layer of protection. It exploded, pelting me with stinging fragments, but he shielded me from the main force of the blast. His glow flickered; he was hurting.

"Almost there!" I said, pleadingly, and made the final switch. The warning chime sounded, and I dived into the CRC calculation, trying the most common polynominals to see if I could find a match. Binary digits swirled around me; this was low-level stuff, and hard work. Yes! a 65-bit exponent, as I'd hoped! Any bigger and I couldn't have managed it. I had my new checksum, now I just had to overwrite the old one so that my changes wouldn't be detected.

"This way!" Benjamin's green glow shaded, dark to light, indicating the direction of the checksum, and he shifted.

<Message: Priority: URGENT. From: Benjamin Cleaver> GO DARK.>

I damped my virtual appearance, stifling it to an infinitesimal speck, and followed him, cautiously. Jaylene was there. That spiky form could be no-one else. "What are you doing?" she snarled.

Benjamin said, "I detected some more fluctuations, and I was trying to track them down."

"Hrm." Her steel was icy and disbelieving now. "Back to the group."

He bobbed and obeyed, disappearing up through the levels. She followed. I'd have to be fast. I flicked through tags and found the checksum, and clumsily overwrote it with the new value. It'd have to do.

With a jolt I was back with the others. Their forms stirred and twitched, as the figure of the unemployed man turned away from the sinister box.

"That's not right!" Jaylene shrieked. "That's not what the consensus was supposed to be!"

"'Supposed to be?'" asked Alicia. "How do you know what it was 'supposed to be'?"

Jaylene's jagged form twisted. "That's not your concern."

"Not our concern?" Henry demanded. "This is our consensus. What are you doing?"

Benjamin's green glow throbbed. "The same thing she wants to do to everyone. She wants to run consensus in reverse and make us all think the same."

You don't really have lungs in virtual space, but nonetheless, everyone gasped.

"Enough," she snapped. "We have enough data to extrapolate and do it without you. It won't be as concordant, but it'll do. I'd rather you complied, though."

Rickard, bless his blustery grey soul, found some spine and spoke for all of us. "No."

"Then you're superfluous." Jaylene's spikes distorted in a way that shouldn't be possible, and agony washed through me. My senses were overwhelmed with pain, though I could still hear the screams of the others. A stream of inversion matrices flooded from her, corrupting the innards of my implant.

Reacting instinctively, I gathered the malleable darkness around me. This was my space, in my head, and I'd be damned if this sociopath was going to kill me with my own brain. Through virtual eyes blurred with pain, I followed the flow of evil to its source, and engulfed her in a wall of blackness.

The pain stopped. Jaylene's shrouded form twitched a few times and fell still.

"What happened?" Sherm asked.

"I... turned the pain against her. I guess she got an extra-strong dose with it all focused on her."

"Is she... is she dead?" Alicia's radiant form huddled against me, still shaking with reaction. I did my best to exude competence and comfort.

"Let's go find out." Benjamin's form was starting to fade. The seven of us gathered around him, touched, and ascended to consciousness.

The brightness of the pale room was a shock. We still sat on couches and chairs- except for Jaylene. She lay crumpled on the floor, with the techs fussing around her. Benjamin levered himself stiffly to his feet, and limped over. "Don't bother," he said.

"She's still breathing," said one of the techs, hopefully.

"She got hit with an eightfold inversion matrix."

"Oh." The tech shrugged and moved away.

*

There were weeks of inquests, debriefings and implant inspections. I put up with the rifling through my implant, on the basis that it was the quickest way to absolve myself. Eventually, Jaylene was found guilty, and sentenced to 10400 hours of community service. A moot point, really.

Alicia and I saw her a couple of years later, begging outside NYLEC. She looked at us blankly, open-mouthed, as we went in to work. Alicia's an assistant director these days; she graduated top of her class. University funding has increased 12% since then. I work with Benjamin and the other techs; we're building a way to find true consensus, not just from seven representatives. The city belongs to the people; we can all govern it, together.
  • I know it's long; my apologies. It took on a life of its own. This is the piece I have most enjoyed writing, and I'm pretty sure I am going to revisit it and flesh it out more for submission somewhere (any suggestions?).

    I hope you enjoyed it. Concrit is very welcome, as always. :)
  • ...the grey sponginess of Rickard...

    See? Efficient as hell. Well done!

    "The unemployment problem - does it require a more permanent solution?"</i>

    Oh, boy. That is really bad.

    This was damned exciting. It was more of an adventure piece than the last one, which was espionage-esque intrigue. They complement each other really well and make foe a great story.
    • Cheers! They're not really meant to be stand alone pieces - it just grew and grew and I couldn't trim it without losing too much of it.
  • The media liked to demonise them, painting them as dirty, stupid, and drug-addicted, while carefully avoiding any mention of the bots that had reshaped our society.

    I was kinda mad on their behalf for like half an hour after.
    • It's something I'm pretty mad about all the time ;) New Zealand has greatly increased in inequality in the last decade, and there IS a lot of "othering" going on in the media.
  • I like it. You draw nice fine lines between maths and sorcery, technology and free will. The prospect of having certain feedback loops that can compel you to think in certain ways is terrifying enough, but the notion of doing it to obliterate different opinions is so very topical to certain aspects of the voting systems many countries use now. Would they be able to recognize that they did not agree with their own consensus after the fact, or would that imprint stay with them? Could they face the scorn of an outraged public after consensus ended?
    • These are all great questions that I really wanted to dive into, but I had to rein it back in for it to be a reasonable length (and able to be finished)!
  • I really enjoyed reading this :-)
  • Actually, the length didn't bother me a bit! That's because it's so well told.

    It reminded me of William Gibson in that you had a physical representation of the cyber world.
  • I am very glad that Jaylene got her comeuppance! Well fleshed out - good luck with getting it published!
    • Cheers! Will need a lot more work to make it say what I really want it to say, but I'm pretty happy with this considering length and time constraints.
  • The issues under consideration -- and the disturbing "consensus" solutions-- were well-chosen. We'll be revisiting them as a society for centuries to come.

    Rickard, bless his blustery grey soul,
    He hardly has any input or dialogue, but the description here and in the previous story just invoke an entire human being-- one whom we all know!
  • This is fantastic! I definitely think you should polish it until you're happy and submit it somewhere (though I have no suggestions as to where that might be, sorry!).
  • I'm so glad this had a happy ending. :)
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