I stare at the gap between the mountain peaks of data. There’s been a break-in.
“Backups?” I say. Fresh snow crunches under our steps.
“Checked. Same gap everywhere.”
I picture the satellites containing the data of the Truth Banks, the supercomputers buried deep underground with backups and revision history, the top-secret security systems. If there’s one heist impossible to pull it’s this one, and yet the fifteen millisecond gap is right before me like a splinter in the holograms.
“Have you sent agents to verify?”
He flips the holo-generator’s lid back on and pockets the device. “Of course, Marcus.”
We turn right in a side-street. As a warning, he’s brought Lilly. She rushes ahead of us, spinning in the falling snow.
He says, “There’s a timer in the code, counting down. To what, we don’t know, but it’s unstoppable. You have until sunrise to find them.”
Lilly gathers snow with her purple gloves, throws the snowball at me.
“And after this?” I say.
Toothy grin. “You do this right, Marcus, and you get her back.”
Fists in my pockets. I nod.
Crouching to give Lilly a kiss on the cheek. “I am your daddy and I will always love you,” I say.
She giggles. “You are funny,” she says.
The agent pats her on the head, still grinning. “I think you’re right, Lilly. He is funny.”
I wipe my tears off with a sleeve, and fixing him a look of utter contempt, start my stopwatch.
The stairs lead down to a basement I know all too well. On the cement wall, in white paint, the name Gibson.
He’s hunched over his desk, a pair of goggles on his face. He touches a circuit with the electronic pencil in his hand and a buzz echoes in the workshop.
He looks up. With measured steps I approach.
I can see my doubled reflection in his onyx goggles. My face is expressionless. A mask. He goes back to his tinkering. “What do you want?” His voice is steady, no trace of fear.
“Banks were hit.” Slowly, I circle around him, breathing in the stale air of the workshop, taking in all the details. A pile of half-rotten ersatz-flesh robots in one corner. A calendar with a naked Asian babe, cracks snaking out of the wall spot where it’s been nailed. Cardboard boxes, duct-taped all over, scattered around. “All of them. Backup servers, too.” I swipe a finger on his work desk, examine the dust on my fingertip. “Nobody hacks into UN satellites, least of all the Truth Banks, without consulting the expert first.”
He sets the pencil tool down, lifts the goggles to his forehead. “You know Marcus, sometimes you’re a real pain in the ass.”
“UN’s got you in their pocket, huh? What is it this time? Caught you pirating virtuals? You swapped jail time by ratting old friends out–”
His nose breaks with my punch. Blood sprays all over my jacket. He barely has time to scream out when my left fist connects with his jaw.
I catch him by his collar.
“You have one minute. Make calls. Think. Pray. I don’t care. If you don’t give me names inside of a minute your skin will be a bag of shattered bones.”
Bloodied, he examines me, looks me straight in the eyes. “I used to work for the Agency too, you know?”
Closer to his face. “Fifty-nine seconds.”
But his eyes are searching for something, and I know he knows. “They got you transmitting to UN’s private servers, right?” He laughs. “Hey, pals.” Looking straight into my eyes. “Still the same rotten fuckers you were back in the day, I see.”
He spits blood in my face, but he’s spitting at them, really.
With sudden clarity, like a mirror unbreaking before me, I know he’s a danger. Worse, he’s all that’s bad with the world, the cause and root of all evil. I wrap my hands around his neck. Squeezing tight, I choke him, exorcising the world of evil, until his eyes roll back and he slumps to the ground, motionless.
A step back.
As suddenly as it came the knowledge dissipates, and I’m left staring at Les Gibson in his gray overalls, electronic pencil clutched in his fist. Les Gibson, who’s never truly hurt anyone besides a few corporations’ bottom lines.
Terror creeps up my body like a swarm of spiders. What did I just do?
Altering truth so blatantly is another warning of theirs, another reminder that they own me. I kick through the pile of fleshy robots and electric body parts scatter all over the floor, a thick, blue substance oozing out of them. I punch walls, venting out anger, disgusted with myself. Then I remember Lilly and regain my composure.
I rummage through Gibson’s desks, drawers, cardboard boxes, for a clue, a hint that he was somehow involved, but find nothing.
On my way out, something catches my eye. I approach the naked and kneeling Asian model. The dates. Numbers are scrambled, out of order. I tap the calendar’s screen twice but the picture doesn’t refresh. I flick through the other months where the days, under naked ladies of various ethnicities, are ordered normally.
Scanners switched on, I notice a network field around it. The calendar is receiving data.
Walking through Les’ neighborhood, I watch a throng of people shuffling about in the evening snow. Couples holding hands, friends laughing, parents with children, woolen hats and gloves and boots and scarves. I no longer consider them human. Instead, I see the eyes and ears of the Truth Banks, witnessing and recording every sound and motion. I see everyone who wouldn’t believe a single thing I say because the great gig in the sky tells them otherwise. I see obstacles, standing between me and my daughter.
My head buzzes with knowledge. The Agency bastards have cracked the calendar. The data it’s getting for its content comes from a location nearby.
I quicken my pace, knowing where to go.
The dilapidated house looks like it won’t survive another winter. Precariously, I climb up the creaking porch steps, and push open the lockless door. Walls, pissed and written on, hardly hold the structure up, and I have a horrible feeling in my gut that the roof’s just about to crumble down and bury me. Through a tight hallway, my Whisperer in hand, finger on the trigger, I sidle up to what must’ve been a living room.
Sprawled on the floor is a pale-faced junkie, needle stuck in one arm. I kick him, my Whisperer pointed at his heart.
He moans, and there’s a flicker of movement under his eyelids.
“Better sober up quick.” My grip on the gun is steady. “Anyone else in this house?”
But he turns his head, smiles, and nods off.
When I step into the adjacent room, I hear a clicking sound, followed by a blinding flutter. A nondescript body appears before me, shaped out of light and dust motes.
“Hello, Marcus,” says the hologram.
My name comes like a bucket of ice cold water.
“Who are you?”
In the center of the decimated room the faceless shape looks haunting.
“We are the Undoing,” it says. “The Tint of Optimism. The Collective. Call us what you wish. We are nameless.”
Despite its utter futility my gun’s pointed at the hologram. “You broke in the Truth Banks.”
“What do you want?” I wave my Whisperer at it. “Money? Release of prisoners?”
Even though it has no mouth I can sense it’s smiling. “No, Marcus. We want to restore order, give Truth back to the people.”
The shape flickers and gestures, but remains rooted to the spot. There’s probably a holo-generator on the floor and cameras embedded in the walls. They must’ve seen my face and ran a pattern-matching search for my name. I better keep them talking while Agency traces the signal.
“The world ain’t ordered to your tastes?”
It pauses for a moment, then says, “The Truth Banks were a brilliant idea, Marcus. Give everyone access to all the world’s knowledge, to every fact and action and you’ll have no more lies, no more wars. But humans always find ways to cheat the system for their own selfish benefit.”
“You’ve proven you can break in,” I say, packing my Whisperer in its holster. “Now go get yourself a nice scholarship, a job, a family.”
It laughs, voice sharp as crystal.
“What good would a family be in a world where it can be taken from you at the flip of a switch, in a world where a daughter can’t recognize her father because an organization has its iron grip on truth?”
Lilly. They can’t have pattern-matched that. I gape at the hologram, scraping for words. “How do you know?”
The light is out for a second and my heart sinks, thinking they’ve left, but it soon comes back like an apparition. “We are everywhere, Marcus. Even in the servers of the UN Intelligence Agency.”
My mouth dry, I say, “What do you want?”
“In ten hours the Truth Banks are going offline forever, backups irreparably destroyed,” it says. “You have that much time to prepare society for a world without absolute truth.”
It bows its head slightly, and I get the uncomfortable sensation that it pities me. In a flash, it disappears, leaving me alone on the creaking urine-soaked floor.
Agency activates operatives in Minsk at a moment’s notice, and sends them to the decoded address. I borrow their eyes and ears to monitor the action from the safety of my flat.
I see them walk across a grassy field, assemble at the bottom of an old commie block. I see them climb up a fire ladder into a claustrophobic hallway, where one foot after the other they crawl, silent as cockroaches, only to unleash their fury on a flaking door, kicking it to the ground and pouring themselves like a flood into the tiny apartment.
They spread to the rooms. Check under every table and behind every mirror. Nothing. The place is empty.
I switch off the consoles, put my coat on, and gun tucked in its holster I head out into the cold.
My neighborhood is calm, the snow untrodden. On a pixelated billboard, right above a soda drink advert, the four zeros of midnight.
Agency had the hologram’s signal analyzed thoroughly by advanced decryption software. The majority of it led to Minsk in Belarus, but it was split many ways, through many local routers, to mask its source. One of the routing spots was a children’s playground. I recognized the coords when I saw them.
It takes me fifteen minutes to get to it, the icy wind biting at my cheeks all the way.
One gloved hand on the gun’s grip as I approach the unused see-saws, the squealing merry-go-round. Snow flakes thick as cotton fall from the dark sky, glinting in the lamp light like diamonds. I make a tentative step towards the benches. That’s where I always sat, watching Lilly play with the other children. Emotion surges through my body, stops in my throat like a lump of coal. I swallow, gun pointing straight ahead.
But there’s nobody, so I activate the scanners with an eye blink. Foraging through drifting nanotech for network traffic logs, they download all data.
A fluttering sheet of paper carried by the wind sticks against my leg. I pick it up.
It’s a drawing. A little girl holding a boy’s hand, their grins like watermelon slices, her hair curly and golden, his short and brown. As I hold the drawing, the smart paper transmutes the crayon colors and shapes into letters. Never Alone, it says.
I let go of the drawing. The wind reclaims it, carrying it away into the sky.
Back home the nanotech in my head transfers the scanner data to my local console.
A whirlpool pulls me down, spinning, and spits me out into the depths of the Net. I see giant strings representing the Minsk signal. I pluck them. The transmission replays, the strings curl around each other like spaghetti, and I chase after them, twisting as they do, watching the intricacies of each separate thread, until the signal ends, and the strings grow taut and silent again.
My decrypting software splices the signal from the ruined house with the networking data from Minsk and the playground. The strings triple in numbers, and we’re spinning again, me and them.
Embedded within, I discover seven different codes, different locations.
This time I decide to go there myself. Without wasting any time I ping body rental shops in the separate cities, wire them the necessary money, and split myself seven ways.
I open my eyes. All fourteen of them. No longer in my virtual system, it takes me a moment to adapt to the different levels of brightness. In Osaka the sun may be shining, but in Trento it’s as dark and cold as in the apartment where my real, flesh-and-bones body is slumped in virtual slumber.
I take a step forward, and the robots obey. My vision’s kaleidoscopic, the sound a composition of seven competing symphonies.
On separate channels I observe the robots’ every step. I trot along a snow-free sidewalk in Baltimore. The light-rail train rushing by, the passengers’ eyes all hazed out, their minds off to their favorite virtuals. From a corner, blinding rays of sunshine. Sydney, Australia. People walking about, dressed scantly, wearing sunglasses and straw hats.
Red compasses point me in the right directions, and I orchestrate my bodies to follow. In Saint-Malo the location is a mussels restaurant, probably closed at this hour, lodged between a pancake shop and a souvenir stand. Istanbul’s transmission origin is an abandoned warehouse near the harbor. Krakow’s is St. Adalbert’s church, in the old town.
“Watch it.” A tanned, shirtless man gesticulates before me. Seems like I walked into him and his red-haired girlfriend. I backpedal, and hurry down the Sydney boardwalk.
I jog along an upward slope in Saint-Malo, raindrops in my vision, the static noise of the ocean in my ears. Wind flaps the canvas of an awning. On the sign beneath it: La Creperie d’Auguste. Right next to that, the restaurant. The compass arrow in that part of my vision spins in a circle. I’m at the right place.
An equally dark, though much quieter sea in Istanbul. Warmer climate. A drunken homeless man stops to look at me while I’m examining the warehouse. In my fish-lens view I see him coming up from behind. My metallic body turns swiftly. Voice volume dialed up to max, I yell out, “Get lost.” His eyes widen with fear, he drops his bottle and runs off. The entrance to the warehouse is on the northern side. Compass arrow spins in a circle. Two out of seven.
Sydney’s location is right at the end of the boardwalk, so I run, planks barely making a sound under the weight of my carbon-nanotube legs. My torso twists, the sun glinting off it, making other people raise their hands to shield their eyes.
A patchwork sky. Like a quilt stitched up of moons, stars, and a sun which appears only in certain corners.
The ramen place in Osaka is open, and I push open the door. Two men in business suits at the counter, gulping down their meals, and a couple in a booth, waiting for their order. Nobody looks up. There’s one other robot there, powering itself, perched against the red brick wall. My compass points me towards the bathroom.
On the bus, on my way to the old town, in Krakow.
There’s snow in Trento, too. The river Adige is livelier than ever, the snow pouring strength and life into it. Along its left bank, under a bridge, is my location. Three out of seven.
The bus stops. I hop off. Market Square is empty, save for a few drunken tourists. Getting near the church gets the compass spinning.
Osaka. The women’s bathroom. I hesitate for a second, check that there’s no one there, and push open the door.
Disabling the alarm, I walk into the dark and empty restaurant. Inside, a tiled floor, the upturned chairs and tables, and the blackboard with Moules Frites and prices and the Soup du Jour written on it in chalk.
Baltimore’s location is a light-rail station one block away from the city center. There’s only one other person, smoking a cigarette, tapping his foot impatiently, waiting for the train.
At the end of the boardwalk, in Sydney, with the sun right on top of me. Spinning compass.
I notice a window on the east side, moonlight reflected in it. I place a hand firmly on the drainpipe, and slowly, one foot after the other, I climb up, and break into the warehouse.
Seven out of seven.
Compasses dissolve out of sight, no longer needed. With the equipment built into the robot bodies I analyze the locations for transmissions, for nanotech routers. Colored bars fill up.
I download all network data into my console.
“Oh, excuse me, I didn’t–”
It takes me a second to figure out the voice’s origin, but once I do, all six other locations collapse, blanked out of my mind. A robotic face stares straight into mine, and neither of us moves, not even a bit. In the bathroom mirrors another pair of robots, staring at each other.
“Who are you?” he says at last.
He’s Agency, has to be. Knowing I ripped the seven locations off the routing tables they must’ve sent other men too. “I got this, you can go back home now.”
But he says nothing, face unflinching.
“Who are you?” he repeats, making it obvious he’s not them, because they got nothing to hide, they don’t need to act. The realization fills my real body, thousands of miles away, with terror.
Noticing scanning activity from his body I say, “You’re not Agency?”
“I’m not.” He takes a step forward. “I mean I am, but just this one job. You’re here, so I guess you too, right?”
“To my utmost pleasure,” I say.
He approaches by another step. “They took someone from you too?”
I raise my hand to stop him. Stop him from coming closer, from saying another word. I hiss, “None of your business,” though the speech synthesizer softens my voice back to normality.
He waves his arms around. “Got my little sister. She doesn’t recognize my name. You don’t understand what they’ve put me through. I got a few hours to catch them, and all I’ve found is that calendar in Philly.”
My mind races. I have to be the first to find the hackers, otherwise Agency might keep Lilly from me forever. I have to squeeze more out of him, get what I can, then feed him false information in return.
But as I open my mouth Agency alters my truth and I know this robot face is my most trustworthy ally.
I smile. Makes sense. We don’t have much time so they need us cooperating. They don’t care who catches those who broke in as long as the job’s done.
So here, in the women’s restroom of an Osaka ramen bar, we tell each other everything.
The locations are hops. Points on the map through which they route network traffic, stops for small fragments of unidentifiable data. Once the routing information from the seven locations is spliced together, the hops triple. I’ve no intention on wasting any more time by going to these places, because I know that all I’ll find are more routers, leading to more locations.
So I send an AI to do it for me. Rent bodies, find locations, analyze traffic.
To Philadelphia I go in my real body though, because I need to see for myself, because robots are incapacitated by law to do the things I intend on doing.
Downtown Philly. Dark, cold, no snow.
This little place, like a garage, where these hackers gather, to share knowledge or program stuff or what have you. Raymond’s words, in the Osaka bathroom. Fucking insane what they’re doing, like teaching themselves to do stuff, without knowing what they’re doing, or something, just to avoid the Banks.
I stand before the closed garage from Raymond’s coordinates. I knock twice with the tip of my Whisperer.
Kids knew nothing, he told me truthfully, but that bugged calendar led me here.
It takes me half a minute to hack the padlock. Lifting the garage door carefully, until there’s just enough room for me to slip through.
Inside, on a mattress on the ground, two boys, barely above sixteen, asleep. The place seems to be made up only of computer terminals, linked-up in a network of phosphorescent nanobots which halo the machines. From the wall, above the mixed up dates, the naked Asian model smiles down at me. I pull out a chair to sit down, and an empty soda can drops to the floor.
One of the boys stirs, looks up at me. “What the–” He sees my gun. Shuts up. He shakes the other one, not taking his eyes off the Whisperer.
“Explain everything to me,” I say.
They stand up.
“We already told everything we know,” says the one who woke up first. He’s wearing a Rest In Pus t-shirt and a beanie.
“Unlike the last guy you spoke to, I’m not afraid to kill.” A smile. “Now tell me everything. Start with what you’re doing here.”
They stare at me. “We live here.”
“Just the two of you?”
“No, there are others.”
“Where are they?”
“Work. School,” says the other one, with the scarf wrapped around his neck.
“Show me what you do with all this?” Waving my gun at the equipment.
He turns to the beanie. “Spike?”
Spike hesitates for a moment, then he shrugs and walks over to the calendar. “Twenty-seven. A Monday,” he says, staring at the dates.
The scarf starts up the machines near him, the nanobot halo lights up, and I’m observing the two of them, confused.
“Twenty-seven,” repeats the scarf, typing something on the air before the machine. “A Monday.”
I approach the projected screen. Code flies from top to bottom.
Spike’s still gaping at the calendar. “Then there’s a Wednesday. Four hundred and forty five.”
“Four hundred and forty five. Wednesday.” More typing. More computer code.
“What are you doing?” I say.
He turns towards me while typing up numbers and days into a program which morphs them into code. “I don’t know.”
I hiss, “You’re typing code. What’s the code for? Are you hacking?”
He looks me straight in the eyes, his fingers dancing on the invisible keyboard, and then he stops. They both stop.
“What was that?”
Both of them sit down on the mattress. “Something we do every day.”
“Who told you to?”
“A friend,” says Spike. “Said it was some sort of hacking tradition. But he honestly knew nothing about it, said he’d been doing it for a while, reading off calendars, or posters, or book pages, that somehow found their way to him, typing code, and that many people before him had done the same.”
“But why are you doing it?”
They shrug. “It’s tradition.”
I threaten to kill or torture them if they don’t tell me everything, but they swear that they just did. After a while, I start to believe them.
Outside, in the cold Philadelphia air, I gather my thoughts. Should I chase after their friend? And then after those before him? The chain is bound to end somewhere, but I fear I’ll never reach it in time.
Somehow, I’m reminded of ants, where each colony member carries food, moves matter piece by piece, not knowing what it’s building exactly, but building something nonetheless.
That’s when I remember Les Gibson’s workshop.
Running down the basement stairs, past the white paint. In the darkened basement, the robot bodies scattered all around as I’ve kicked them, the scrambled calendar on the wall, Les’ body, face down, in one corner.
I hurry to his desk, to the thing he was working on. I toss the microchip from hand to hand, analyze the writing on it. TYPE LI, it says. A robot brain.
I pick up the closest ersatz-flesh robot from the ground, its limbs limp. Behind its gray non-differentiated head, a panel. I flip it open.
Once the microchip is put in its place I let go, and the robot drops to the floor. A luminescence appears. A nanobot halo, connecting all scattered bodies, and like magnets they pull each other up, until they’re made whole again.
The robots stand in a circle, twist their necks to face me.
“Hello, Marcus,” they say. “Did you prepare society?”
“You’re controlling people.” I spit on the ground. “You’re no better than those abusing the Truth Banks.”
They smile crooked smiles, shake their little heads. “No, no, no, Marcus. You have it all wrong. We are the people, getting our Truth back.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit. I saw kids do stuff automatically. Countless others as well, I bet.”
“True,” they say, their voices strangely innocent. “But don’t you see that that’s what they wanted? To fight a system which monitors you constantly you have to figure out a way to destroy it without it knowing, without you knowing. Little by little, the tricks spread, everyone started doing small fragments of a job without being aware of its goal, not knowing the whole puzzle.”
“And so you were made,” I say. “You’re no people. You’re an AI, aren’t you?”
The gray, genderless robotic children giggle, a collage of different laughing tracks. “We consider ourselves an extension of humanity. Its helping hand. The Tint of Optimism. The Undoing.”
“The Collective,” I add, raising my gun. “Now call it off.”
“No,” they say. “There’s nothing you can do.”
“I have to stop you, I have to. Need to get my daughter back.”
“Poor, poor Marcus. Always at the service of Truth, even when that Truth is twisted, bent, and broken.” Their heads turn towards each other, nodding. “Truth broken, but Marcus is never alone, is he? Never alone.”
Suddenly I become conscious of the dead body in the room.
“Tell me one thing,” I say. “Was Les the one who started it all?” And if so, did he plan and orchestrate his own death, or was it an act of patricide?
A wave of shrugs. “We don’t know, don’t remember.”
I fire my Whisperer at one of their heads. It bursts open, spraying blue goo. They don’t say a word.
I shoot the others, one by one.
I’m walking fast, aimlessly, thinking what to do.
Reports from my robots come back, and all they’re saying is that there are more locations routing data all over the world, but I already know that. I’ll never trace all of them in time.
Panic mounts as my stopwatch seems to go faster and faster.
Even if I find all of these little workshops where people unknowingly contribute to the fall of the Truth Banks, there’s absolutely no way anyone would know enough about what they’re doing to tell me. It’s the perfectly distributed system. The ultimate pyramid scheme.
I picture the data, small chunks of it, added day after day by unsuspecting people, hopping from router to router as it circles the globe, assembling into the AI.
I will Agency to send me more knowledge, perhaps from some of their other hunters, but receive nothing. All I feel is hurt and love for my little Lilly.
Somewhere in the distance, behind a cluster of skyscrapers, the sun’s peeking above the horizon.
The changes come in waves. First, my memory unwinds like tape, and my brain starts to weed out the inconsistencies.
To alter your Truth, the Banks plant a small nugget in your brain, a tiny memory of something being said or done, and then your brain changes its structure, sticks memories around the nugget, adds to the stability of the fact. Now, I’m peeling off layer after layer.
A lightning flash in the sky.
I see myself in seven different cities, in the playground, in the ruined house, I see the operatives in Minsk, Raymond, all of us scanning the nanotech routers for traffic data, and consequently altering the traffic logs, muddying them with our presence. All of us manipulated by the AI to clean its tracks.
Another flash from above.
Sitting on the bench at the playground I see children. I see a boy playing with its robotic companion. Up and down on the see-saw, he laughs, and she laughs too, the newest type being capable of laughter. Type LI. Lilly, as they call them.
Lilly, Your Child’s New Best Friend.
A sheet of paper carried by the wind. Your Child. Never Alone. With the specifications and pricing for the latest model.
The lights are blinding my eyes. I’m in Les’ neighborhood as far as I can tell. There are people all around. Not sure what’s real and what’s memory, I let my brain sort everything out itself.
My stomach hurts. I’m going crazy and getting sane at the same time. My legs buckle and I slump to the ground.
Lilly. My daughter. But I know that’s no longer true, I know I’ve been lied to, and I feel betrayed, hurt. Like waking from a beautiful dream, sad that it’s over and sad that it’s never really begun.
I cry out, tears running down my cheeks. I shout, pull my hair out, stomp my feet on the ground, angry at my loss. I’m waiting for a comforting buzz in my head from someone, from anyone, but the presence is gone.
With tears in my eyes I look up at the flashes, high above. From the blue, morning sky, the satellites rain down like balls of fire.
Damien Krsteski is a science-fiction author and a software engineer from Skopje, Macedonia. His work has appeared in places like Liquid Imagination, Way of the Buffalo Podcast, Fiction365, Fiction Voretx and others. Most links to his stories can be found at http://monochromewish.blogspot.com.