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Authors: Epredator,Ian Hughes

Tags: #Sci-Fi & Fantasy


BOOK: Reconfigure
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Table of Contents



By Epredator / Ian Hughes


First Kindle Edition, October 2015

Text Copyright © 2015 Ian Hughes / Epredator

Chapter 1 - Off the Grid


You know when you really need a phone signal or an Internet connection? When that is the time it chooses to not be there for you? Well, that, but the other way around. Roisin really did not want a signal to be picked up by anything, but it is hard to turn off the Internet of Things. There are ways to shield connections, a nice metal box creating a Faraday cage… or, just wear a tin foil hat. With this dense vegetation, tall trees and damp atmosphere it was no Faraday cage, but it would drop the signal strength of anything that was low-jacking her wirelessly. Roisin was shivering with the cold, as much as with the terror; she had not even been out here for an hour yet. She knew that she had way more body heat than the trunks of the trees around her. Any close proximity thermal imaging would spot her in no time. She wasn’t being hunted by a Yautja, but their thermal vision system in the movies was based on the real thing after all! She found herself pondering the link between science fiction and science fact, those real life things that had come into existence just because someone wrote about it and put it in a film or on the TV. Those flip-up clam shell early mobile phones which emulated the Star Trek communicators (The Original Series she reminded herself to add), that were dreamed up in the late 1960s.

The leaves and branches around Roisin started to transmit the low frequency thud, thud, thud of rotor blades off in the distance. As she started to hear, as well as feel, the noise it reminded her of her favourite retro arcade game, Gauntlet. The repetitive beat matching the ‘Elf is about to die’ death drum of that experience. It was much easier to add new life and stop the incessant nagging reminder of her impending doom in the game than out here in the real world. Roisin became intently aware that time had run out for her. As her levels of fear grew, her mouth got more dry and she felt almost completely immobile.

“Agh! Snap out of it.” She told herself. It was way too easy to daydream, to mentally wander off and not pay attention. That, after all, was what caused all this in the first place. Just a simple mistake, one tiny little lapse and moment of inattention, or was it serendipity? She started to wonder when those little mistakes that led to great inventions and ground breaking ideas were in fact serendipity at work. A force of nature that no one quite understood yet many people relied upon. Sir Isaac Newton sat under a tree, an apple fell, he noticed it. He followed the idea, built on the basics, took it to the next level. That is almost exactly what she had done. Roisin considered and processed this. In case anyone was tapping into her thoughts she applied a degree of humility. She was not claiming to be another Newton, this was not gravity. She had noticed something, and it was moving. Just a few days ago, she had followed the idea and seen where it could go. As it turned out it led to a cold, dark scary wood, in mortal danger, cowering and hoping nothing gave away her position to them. Her inner voice told her to stop mentally wandering. A pointless attempt at some sort of mental control by her own inner regulator. It never worked, but it never stopped trying to remind her to just get on with things properly.

“OK! Think! Work this by the numbers this time, none of this gut feeling, go-with-the-flow-and-see-what-happens attitude. Right! I am off the grid, I chose to come off the grid to avoid getting …” her inner voice found it hard to use the word ‘killed’, “…in any more trouble… Though I know that if I was on the grid I would have a few more options. But if I am on the grid then I might get… You know…”, she hit a loop. She was a techie, she knew how to write code. Sometimes, even on purpose, you construct a never ending loop. This one was two competing loops, with what would be considered, a race condition. Race conditions are nasty things. Most people think a computer does what it is told. However, most people don't realise that if you tell it to do two things, that in fact conflict, it may end up doing whichever one it comes to first. In the early days of computing this was not a problem, it just led to unreachable code. If a program can’t reach a line of code because of all the ones in front of it stop that, then it will never run. The code doesn’t have conflict, but it does fail a load of test cases. It can even be detected by a compiler as unreachable code. In current systems many things happen at once, everything listening for an event to happen. Multiple threads all ready to do their thing once given the nod. If two routines respond to the same event, but do the complete opposite, it just depends where the scheduling clock is ticking as to which one gets to respond. You can run a test 1,000 times and get the same answer, then on 1,001 the opposite happens. In a complex code system it is very difficult to spot. Most crashes and accidents with automation fall into these edge conditions. Either more than one thing runs at once, or something can’t get access to something it needs, or there is an infinite loop and an end condition is never met. Programming is an art form. How often had Roisin pointed that out, she thought? In traditional art with oil on canvas, The Mona Lisa doesn’t turn into The Scream every now and then as you look at it or blink. The corners of Roisin’s mouth lifted into a Da Vinci pleasing smirk as she considered that actually really could happen. ‘BUT ONLY IF SHE WAS ON THE DAMN GRID AND NOT OFF IT, SO AS NOT TO GET KILLED!’ She screamed at herself with one of her inner voices.

The chill in her body and the meandering thoughts in her head were replaced with a rush of adrenalin. All this sitting around waiting for something bad to happen was not going to get her anywhere was it? On your feet soldier! Let’s just hope it's not ‘Gaaame Over Maaan!’. She was almost hearing and seeing the film scene in her head as clearly as if it was on a screen in front of her. She pushed her back up against the tree, and felt the dank bark with each hand. Roisin took a deep breath (it felt more like a drink than an inhalation) and pushed up with her thighs.

“We have lift off.” She whispered to herself. She ignored the inner voice trying to say pessimistically, “Let’s hope we don’t have a problem, Houston."

She took her iPhone out of the pocket on the inside of her jacket. It was a little more shiny and slippery than normal. It was suddenly going from the relative warmth close to her body and was now exposed to the biting air. This caused molecules of water to gather together forming a mist on the dark reflective screen. Roisin looked at the inert device. Once she hit that power button, she had to act fast. She might be able to do that, she had made a lot of modifications to her little app since that fateful evening and the serendipitous Tweet!

Chapter 2 - Right text, wrong window


Roisin sat in her office, just the glow of her laptop screen illuminating her face.

Techies are night owls… sometimes. Roisin knew the pattern of her own mind and body pretty well. There are times when she could write code for hours, entering the mental state of Flow almost instantly. Sportsmen and women called it ‘being in the zone’. She could see the constructs and relationships between the multitude of objects and events she was creating even before she had struck any of the keys. The human brain can cope with focussing on seven things (plus or minus two) at once. The key, for the type of programmer Roisin found herself to be, was to use a sort of fractal technique to keep the concepts down to three or four different ones. This was well within the five to nine ideas the mind is comfortable holding on to. Like a mental version of a file explorer tree she would expand one of them, revealing another three or four sub concepts. Of course, Roisin being Roisin she knew that when Flow kicked in, seven plus or minus two becomes more like fourteen plus or minus four. That was only a rough guess. Nothing ruins Flow better than trying to analyse Flow whilst you are in it! She had tried a few times, the same way she had tried to figure out how to fall asleep, or to stare at the occasional floating aberrations the human eye gets. You can see them, but look at them and they move. An inexorable fact of science that to measure or observe something changes it.

Roisin knew when Flow was going to happen. Unfortunately, the world of work, the traditional corporate office, just couldn't cope quite so well with the times when Flow did or didn’t happen. Despite lots of advances in technology and culture, there are still some companies and people who just rely totally on the concept of nine to five (or more like seven to ten and then some). If you are not at your desk tip-tapping away, or dialled into a conference call, then you are not ‘productive’. She could, like many other techies, just Flow code for a solid eight hours, but when it stopped, the muse was gone. Just because the clock said it was a certain time did not make the muse pop in again for a quick cup of tea and some more coding. No, Roisin was not a regular hours person, neither was her profession. Non-Flow coding leads to mistakes. As with any art, it needed to be allowed to happen, not forced. Forced coding led to holes in the code. Targets to write x lines of code in y hours created over bloated systems that no one would ever understand. Still… as long as people make their target! Roisin imagined a faceless group of corporate bosses in a club somewhere, trading deals with one another across companies to make applications more and more unreliable, so that more money would have to be ploughed in to fixing them again. More profit, just trickling upwards.

Flow was for coding and no Flow was for sleeping, eating or if the worst came to the worst, systems administration. Roisin had never really enjoyed the whole sys-admin thing. For some people it was a calling. Configuring machines and patching servers, setting up firewall ports, defragging drives and so on are all important tasks. These tasks needed someone with a different personality type to hers. It required a rigour, patience and a use of Flow in a different way to that of creating code. Systems admin is part of the same art form as programming, but the medium is different. Writing code is like painting in oils and sys-admin is like woodwork… maybe marquetry? Here she goes again! Roisin realised that she was drifting. Her own little conversation with herself was making a correlation between two things to try and come to some sort of understanding about the difference. At another higher layer of abstraction, those things might look identical.

“It’s all computers innit?” some of the less well-informed kids at her school used to say. She had to chuckle to herself when she heard people attempting to be street, and yet using what sounded like a fundamental starting routine in code, init(). She could explain what an initialisation routine might do, but ‘it’s all computers’ people only really want to know how to Prestige on Call of Duty without putting the effort in. They want to apply a mod to make their role in a game impervious to any loss. She had tended to just nod, it wasn’t worth wasting any processing power on them.

The Flow had gone, but the code was getting there. Over the past eight hours she had written six separate model objects with their appropriate accessor and helper functions. Her event control loop now dealt with most of the messages that would be generated in the system. A configuration file allowed for a less ‘open heart surgery’ approach to changes in some of the objects. This layer was an ongoing task. Roisin always wrote the code dirty first, loads of public functions and exposed variables. Once it worked she then locked it down a bit more and exposed only those parts that really needed to be. It wasn’t always a perfect way to work and would drive more scientifically rigorous programmers around the bend, but it worked for her. If she worked in a team she would deliver the same locked down piece of code to the group, so it really didn’t matter the path she took to the same end result. Over the years she had been tutted at a few times for this approach. Team leaders and colleagues on projects sought to mould her way of problem solving to be more in line with theirs. It had saved her a lot of rework as requirements shifted, as they always did, so she stuck with it.

Now she sat looking at a screen with a terminal window open. Terminal windows offered a text only entrance to the World behind the lovely windowed systems, touchpad controls, colours, sounds and spinning logos. A small white on black cursor blinked at Roisin, staring at her, like a dog waiting for a stick to be thrown, so it could career off, grab the stick and then come back for some more blinking. A command line interface, the CLI, the domain of all serious tech geeks. For years the CLI has been there waiting for magical incantations to be typed into it. What are those magical incantations?

“Bloody command line!” Roisin said out loud. She hated it.

Of course any true techie can’t say that. You have to love the CLI! If you don’t, you are not really a techie? Her thoughts churned around the paradox. That, of course is not true. You can be a great techie, and hate a CLI, but you are then separating from the geek herd. A blinking cursor, no indication or instruction as to what to do next, requires expertise. If you let ‘normal’ people know how this all works, then they won’t hold techies in such high regard when it comes to keeping the World running. Just like all the acronyms and word replacements of the tech industry, or of management, government, law, teenagers and clinicians, the CLI provides a haven for techie knowledge. It is hard because you cannot see what you are doing, you have to know. Roisin had seen, and used, some of the old pre-PC terminals that this style of interaction was based on. The earliest computers had no flashy human computer interface, just encoded punched cards, rectangles of paper with holes in them stacked into a reader. Light through the different combination of holes determined the instructions to be performed. (Before that, there were just circuit boards and manual switches to flick, really hard-core techie engineer stuff!). Results of the punched cards came out as printouts on a line printer. Roisin recalled the computing history lessons at school. People started being able to communicate with one another with a keyboard and printer, sending teletype messages. Someone spotted that you could plug one of these into a computer instead of the cards (or initially, as well as the cards). One line at a time would be sent to the giant room of computers. Odd that this evolved full circle to how we use social media messages today, she thought. Sending one hundred and forty characters at a time, or posting ‘wall’ comments. Eventually, the paper of the line printer was replaced with a cathode ray tube screen and keyboard. It was still sending one line in and one, or sometimes multiple lines, out. That was the late 1960s. Despite a huge computing revolution, the rise of the PC and windowing systems, tablet computing and ultra HD graphics cards, 50-odd years later we are still using the same damn command line interface! It lacked any sort of human convenience to talk to our machines. It is REALLY annoying, she shook her head in resignation. Still… let us get on with it. She realised that the history lesson and the chain of thought about how we got to this point wasn’t going to get her very far right now! She was in full-on procrastination mode.

She typed ‘ls -l’ in the command line… well, she thought she had typed it into the command line…

“You numpty!” She whispered to herself. OK! OK! She was not the first person to do this. With so many input fields on so many devices, Web pages and chat applications, it is quite common to send the wrong information to the wrong person. That sinking feeling of ‘Oh no! What did I say to who?’ It is the digital equivalent of ‘he is standing behind me, isn't he?’ You see it in movies and cartoons. Roisin could see a cartoon cat, full of bravado, yet slightly weak and feeble, mocking his arch enemy, a Bulldog. Seeing the dog loom large behind the cat, breathing hot nasal steam like a mad bull about to charge.

“ThThThThat’s all Folks!’ She stuttered to herself.

She had typed a Linux command somewhere, not to her CLI, not just to a fellow techie. No! This time she had just Tweeted it to the entire World - showing off her apparent incompetence, globally. The browser window had gained focus and because she was not paying attention, because she hated the task she was aiming to do so much, she had just Tweeted ’ls -l’. Some mis-Tweets, or live chat fails can easily be adjusted with little embarrassment. This one, asking to list the contents of a directory in long format, really made her look like a total doofus. She braced herself, and waited for the torrent of abuse. She tried to second guess the first ones. Would it be “Sorry No Friends found”, “Folder empty, diary empty too”? It began, first it was a bot. @CLI_FTW just retweeted her. Command Line Interface For The Win? It was a comedy ironic bot, a script set up to capture just this sort of confused typing. Massively Multiplayer Online games featured command line chat. Modern ones have voice, but people still love to stay in character and just type. FTW means For The Win - a short hand way of saying, “I say! That was rather splendid, and we should have more of it!”

@CLI-FTW as a name meant that command lines were great, even if in games they were full of typos. Those typos were now part of the general culture of online communication. The most used one when people claim to have pwned you. A common mistake was to type pwned, as the p is next the o on the keyboard. Trash talking, to say you have been beaten or ‘owned’. Roisin could now afford to have a little huff and self deprecating tut that her typing error had led to a response from a bot. One that someone had written to specifically pick up on typing errors, by saying just how good CLI’s are. I hope they feel smug. The responses came in pretty thick and fast for the next few minutes. Anyone will troll anything it seemed. No great pearls of wisdom arrived, just digital finger-pointing and jeering. She had got away with that. Just… best not do it again!

Roisin was about to click back to the terminal window when she noticed a little blue box containing the number one appear on her direct messages icon. Nobody ever really DM’ed her. She clicked the messages to take a look. It could of course be anything, now that Twitter had implemented the ‘it doesn’t have to only be 140 characters’ limit on direct messages. Very useful when in the social media arms race with the likes of Facebook, Snapchat, Skype and WhatsApp.

The message read.



total 2

drwxr-xr-x+ 5 root wheel 170 1 Sep 2015 World

drwxrwxr-x+ 14 root wheel 476 1 Sep 2015 usr


“WTF!” Roisin did occasionally do the most annoying thing of using Internet slang orally. She chastised herself before double joking back to her self-censoring thought, saying, “Sad Face." This DM response was not normal. If it had been a bot being clever it would have Tweeted it publicly, to let everyone know just how clever the bot writer was. Roisin decided it was worth looking this user up. She wasn’t about to click on anything else on the message, or related to it. You never know what weird back door payload hackers have available, to get to your accounts. She turned to her other machine, popped up the lid and waited the few seconds for it to revive itself from the slamming shut it got earlier in the day. She opened up Twitter, as an anonymous user, and typed ‘raykonfigure’ into the search box. There was indeed a user called that, it sounded like a play on reconfigure? It didn’t have a blue tick, there was nothing to indicate it was anything other than a regular account. In social media, tick validation made accounts a real proper thing, owned by the likes of Kanye West or Stephen Fry, TV shows and corporations. Roisin was having another drifting daydream. You don't often see Kayne West and Stephen Fry in the same room? It will be a great YouTube clip to see Stephen Fry visiting President West in the Whitehouse. She snapped herself back to the Twitter profile.

Roisin turned back to her main machine and searched for ‘raykonfigure’ again. She needed to be logged in to find out any more information. The profile page looked very new. No actual Tweets, just the default egg icon. The account had a few followers, but they all looked like pyramid scheme scammers, or marketeers of some kind. The following list looked pretty small too! Just one person. @Axelweight. She gave herself a slight pause to consider this. The only person this account was following was Roisin herself? She was called Roisin after Axl Rose, the original lead singer in Guns ’n’ Roses. Her dad had wanted Rose as a name for a girl, or Axl for a boy, but her mum wanted something a little less fanboi. They chose Roisin as a compromise. It was lucky, given her techie choice of career, that she wasn’t called Slash! She played a twist on her own, nearly given, name and its lineage in order to get a decent online handle, and Axelweight was that handle. Handles come from all sorts of places, but are often just a name and a birth year. Kincade is not a common surname, but she wanted some degree of anonymity in the handle from her real life identity. Not to hide, just to be a little aloof. She wanted to be a digital rock star, and have the World rotate around her, or something like that! It just felt right at the time and it stuck. Either way she felt it was a little more on-point than just being @rkincade89.

BOOK: Reconfigure
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