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    Volume 8, Issue 2, May 31, 2013
    Message from the Editors
 The Disconnected by Aaron Ritchey
 A Beastly Game by Sarah Pinsker
 The City of Tears by Maigen Turner
 Tartarus by Charlotte Nash
 Bulls and Magic by Jarod K. Anderson
 Special Feature: Author Interview with Kenny Soward by Betsy Dornbusch
 Editors Corner: The Art of Persuasion by David E. Hughes
 Column: Spec Fic in Flicks by Marty Mapes


         

The Disconnected

Aaron Ritchey

         I don't do suborbital flights, but for this job I have to. I'm too obsessed with Abby to stay away. Abby, she's the Analog Prosthetic Ego tech who went funny.
         Suborbital flights jack with my psyche and my mind has already been jacked with enough. But you can't beat the convenience. Four hours from San Francisco to Bangkok. When A.P.E. techs go funny and clients get pissed, I can't get there soon enough. Normally I just do the cheap jet flights and get caught up on my TV, though my addiction counselor wants me to read books. The video doesn't help me with my condition. And because I can't stay out of the GIBX code, I'm getting close to a relapse.
         GIBX, that's the computer language the A.P.E is written in. It's dangerous for me to look at, but I can't help myself. Abby warned me, and I warned her right back. Abby, I have to help her. I know what's she's going through. I just hope I can get there in time.
         Four hours after leaving my cube in San Francisco, I'm in Bangkok, it's two a.m., and I can barely think. Collins is there with a driver outside. He pulls me close. He's the kind of guy who smells expensive, but spits when he talks.
         "Things are critical," he says. "We have to get them up and stable until the new tech gets here. Are we on the same page, Edison?"
         Lots of spit, lots of sales conference rah-rah talk. And I can barely remember I'm the Edison he's referring to and not the guy who did the light bulb thing. I want to dive into the code, but if I do that I won't email my mom's caregiver to check up on her. It's easy to avoid real people when there's GIBX.
         Collins walks me out to the car with his hand clamped to my shoulder as if I would bolt if he wasn't there. He's not your typical hookers-and-beer sales guy, which is probably why Ataxia Systems put him out in Southeast Asia. He's eerily driven, Christian I think, so the demons prodding him have halos.
         Two a.m. and Bangkok has Bay Area afternoon commuter traffic. Statues of cars lost in smog. The company's driver is third-world chatty, but Collins and I have our noses buried in our tablets. The caregiver in Dallas says my mom is stable after her latest episode, but she has quality of life concerns. Yeah, I have those all the time.
         I email my dad in Paris and let him know. My folks split up, but they keep tabs on each other through me. I'm fine with that, but I wish I kept in better contact with them. I wish my dad and I could talk, but then I've always had trouble with real people. Nice thing about servers, they don't get their feelings hurt when you don't call.
         With my personal life more or less okay, I'm on my tablet, bridging into the server I'm supposed to fix, scanning their logs. Just the usual node counts. Nothing glaring, but of course, there wouldn't be. Other analysts have been scouring the logs for hours with no luck.
         We stop at a gate. The site is this Blade Runner type of mega-building on the outskirts of Bangkok, Soi 500 or something, with lots of para-military security guards around. They peer in to see a sales guy suited up and a fat guy in jeans wearing the only button-up shirt he owns, sleeves rolled up. Guess who has the beard?
         I'm not sure about the name of the company. I'll figure that out for my expense reports later. I know they are into everything, military, health care, big beefy networks that need lots and lots of lovin'. I know they have an older but more stable server, the 14.3.1 and a full M.O.N.K. network sniffer, the 405.a, which is pretty decent. Their IT is probably near perfect, or was, until their tech went funny. Abby. I knew about her from the forums. Not the troubleshooting forums you're probably thinking about. Other forums.
         We're escorted by armored cars up to the building and Collins continues to de-brief me. "So, the ape tech goes bonkers," he says, "then their monkey sniffers go offline, and then their network crashes their system and they've been down ever since. First thing, get them back online until the next tech shows up. Next, find the root cause of the issue so this never happens to them again."
         "It's not ape tech. It's A.P.E. Analog Prosthetic Ego. And it's M.O.N.K. sniffers as in Micro Online Network Knowledge." I might as well be talking Chinese.
         Collins sighs. "Sure, sure. All I know is that we have a billion-dollar deal on the table and everything is riding on our success here. Got that? Both of our jobs are at stake."
         "Got it. Both of our jobs. Yeah."
         It's stupid to try and talk to him in any meaningful way. I hate it when people call us ape techs or ape analysts. It makes us sound like trained monkeys. Maybe we are. I know I felt like that when I was jacked in. Yeah, jacked in, jacked up, cyberpunk, God bless you, William Gibson, wherever you are.
         But I don't do that anymore. I'm just an analyst now. Disconnected, demoted and deranged, as they say. Which is what happens to most techs.
         Just like what would probably happen to Abby.
         Outside, the air is soupy hot and there isn't even any daylight. I can feel every pore on my body open and oozing. Just one more sweaty, fat ex-tech in need of a shower. A dime a dozen.
         More men with assault rifles move us into the building and it's dark. An executive is there in a suit and pink tie. Very Euro chic. He and Collins buddy up and start the niceties. I'm on my tablet, bridged into their server, looking at the event logs, but the messages aren't helping me. Neither are the M.O.N.K. logs. So I get busy in their code. For a guy like me, that's like an alcoholic going into a bar and ordering decaf coffee. It's the first step in a relapse. First you play with the GIBX, then you want the direct connect, and then you're going to Silicon Valley to get your port re-installed.
         My addiction counselor would not be happy, but I need to get them back up and the direct code is the quickest way.
         Collins walks the executive up to me. "This is Kelly Edison, our best analyst."
         The executive eyes me. "So you're the hero who will fix us by six a.m.?" Australian accent, or South African, I can't tell. White guy though. I figured he'd be Asian.
         I nod. My head has started the troubleshooting and I don't want to be polite. I want to figure out what went wrong with their stuff and then what went wrong with Abby. Save her if I can.
         "Very well," the executive says. He looks too good, like Collins, as if three a.m. is lunchtime and any minute he's going to start sipping martinis and checking his stocks.
         "Can I see where Abby worked?" I ask.
         He's confused. He doesn't know the name.
         "Your tech," Collins says. "The one who went unstable."
         "We need this up in three hours," the executive says, and he's no longer friendly. He's stone-cold stew about to freeze. "We want to see if Ataxia Systems really is the best before we sign any more paper."
         "It is," Collins insists and he launches into numbers and rhetoric and who cares about all that. I'm in the GIBX code and the nodes are cascading down over my tablet screen and I see it. But it shouldn't matter.
         Shouldn't matter, but it might have been what made Abby go funny.

~

         The server room. Even with the A.C. on, it's warm, womby and soothing. The whirring fans are like a mother's heartbeat. I'm in Abby's workspace, and it's like I've been here before, like I knew her. Which wasn't the case, really. She was only a voice in the forums, just some words, some broken ideas, an avatar of a flower dropping petals like ash. I didn't know what she looked like, but she was soul-pretty, and we connected. It was like we were the same person. And then she went funny. We all knew the signs. We tried to warn her.
         The interface is looking for a connection. Like a lover looking for someone long dead.
         Abby had tied a red ribbon around her plug, the cable she used to connect herself to the server. One of the few things that can't be done remotely or wirelessly. Techs need an old-fashioned cable, and a new-fangled port, right behind their left ear.
          The A.P.E. is flashing error messages on the screen.
Looking for connection. A.P.E. offline.
         Over and over.
         No pictures of Abby in her workspace. None of her and her friends at Angkor Wat, or on the Great Wall, or on top of the tallest skyscraper in the world in Kuala Lumpur. None of that, so I have no clue what she looks like.
         I see the books she was reading stacked around her monitor. Real books. Ayn Rand. Dostoevsky. A Bible. The I Ching. Of course, we told her to read more. It helps.
         A poem by e.e. cummings is tacked up next to her computer screen. "anyone lived in a pretty how town."
         If I really wanted to get to know her, I would have needed to see what she had on her tablet, what kind of apps, what kind of videos, what kind of music. But they would have confiscated her tablet first thing to get her away from the GIBX. She would be medicated in a hospital now. Ataxia Systems would be flying out counselors to talk her back, if they could. I remember how it all tasted when I was hospitalized. Chalky and medicated. How the counselors held me while I cried because I wasn't quite me anymore. Wasn't quite human.
         The plug is still lubed. It's corded back down into the tangle of wires and into their server. A weird, wild part of me wants to jack back in, but they removed my port. I'm back to being human.
         Their A.P.E. is crying out like a baby looking for a breast.
Looking for connection. A.P.E. offline.
         I take a simulator out of my bag and slip the plug into the port, it bridges into my tablet, and then I bridge into the server.
         I'm sweating. My fingers are leaving streaks across my tablet. Most of my work is remote, so I haven't been in a server room in a long time. And I've tasted the GIBX code. It's relapse city, and I'm the mayor.
         The smell, the fans, the air warmed by over-clocked CPU's. It brings it all back.
         The GIBX soothes me. Of course it does.
         The server notices the connection. A flash on the monitor. A single word in a node.
Abby
         The A.P.E. is looking for her. Well, looking for the last known value in the connection node. Servers aren't alive. Let me emphasize that. They are not alive.
         I type in my name, KELLY_EDISON. Nothing fancy. My addiction counselor says using an alias can lead to a double-life which can lead to relapse. Addicts like trying to live two lives because one is never good enough.
         The A.P.E acknowledges me and greets me in a very computer way, but I'm still not in session with it, not really, not like if I were jacked in. I type I want to look at line 5201314 in the GIBX. There is a 1 there. There should be a 0.
Abby
         No. KELLY_EDISON here. I want that parameter in line 5201314 changed to a 0. It looks like dead-end code, but it shouldn't be turned on.
          The A.P.E. changes it and we bounce the services.
         I start pinging workstations, but nothing. The site is still down. I check. Line 5201314 is back to a 1. Impossible.
         That's when Collins pushes through the door.
         Spitty Collins. "We have two hours." He's sweating and his jaw muscles are pulsating. "Let me remind you where we are."
         "I know where we are," I mutter, even though I still don't know the name of the company. "There's this parameter. I can't get it to stay at 0. It keeps turning itself on."
         "Fix it," he spits. "You think we're going to find new jobs with 29% unemployment?"
         Me unemployed would mean my mom would be out on the streets again. After I lost my tech job, it was bad. She had to find work, at her age, working as a consultant. We tried to connect, but the time zones made it hard.
         Collins slams the door.
         I try to reason with the A.P.E.
         For you curious types, here's a little history. The problem with networks is complexity. You combine hardware, software, and middleware, add in hundreds of temperamental servers and thousands of workstations all networked together, and you have this incredibly complex system. Troubleshooting can be murder, and so Ataxia Systems came up with a better way to communicate with a network. A human interface. A prosthetic ego connected to a human's analog brain waves. Instead of what tech support usually does, dig through error logs, try and recreate, all of that, you just ask your server: What's your damage, Sergeant?
         And it tells you exactly what's wrong. It's very nice. It put a lot of tech support people out of work. But dealing with an A.P.E. server can be tricky. The human mind can't really do what a computer can, and vice versa. So it's like talking Chinese in space to an autistic boy watching TV. At some point, both sides learn Chinese and both sides learn how to float in space and both sides become a little autistic. And the T.V. is always there blasting dissonance and distraction.
         And it all works as long as the tech doesn't get funny.
         I met Abby in the secret therapy forums. Ataxia has their own, but no one goes there because HR monitors them for problem children. Abby was a regular in the secret forums. It was getting harder for her in the real world. She started writing her own GIBX code, and she was getting in trouble for overtime. They limit an A.P.E tech's work hours or else they would never go home. I wouldn't have. Who doesn't want to float around in space, high on anti-autism meds, speaking Chinese?
         The A.P.E. server is insistent. I check the connection node and yes, Abby was the last connection. But my username should be there now.
Abby
         Not Abby. KELLY_EDISON here. I need you to change the parameter in line 5201314 to 0.
         Processing. Process Complete.
         Bounce the services.
         Nothing. And the parameter is back to 1.
Abby
         And around we go.
         An hour left. Collins comes in to remind me. His suit is rumpled and his voice is cracked from talking. That executive is probably pulling promises out of him with fishhooks.
         Collins gets mean. "You know how many analysts there are out there? You might be good, but I swear to God, you don't get them up, I'll make sure you never work again."
         He leaves, but I barely notice. My head is getting murkier. The numbers are making more sense than the words and the scar behind my left ear is itching. Bad sign. I have to get out of the server room, get away from the GIBX, but I have to fix things.
         Back to basics. What does line 5201314 do?
         I instant-message my buddy Donbo back in San Francisco. He confirms it is dead-end code they started for some kind of enhanced communication feature, but never finished. Donbo assures me that line 5201314 couldn't be the problem because it's not even attached to the master script.
         Of course I don't listen. I trace the GIBX down, and then see it, new code bridging line 5201314 into the master script. Abby must have done it. I have to find out why. I only have forty-five minutes, and this is the key to everything. Hopefully, she can still talk.
         I do a quick, highly illegal search to find the hospital where they took her. The hospital's server is on their network in the same domain. Big company. Big network. There are a string of hospitals across the globe. I recognize the name of the medical center where my mom is in Dallas. No time for that. Abby is here, in Bangkok. I'll take care of her, then my mom.
         I run to the driver outside and he's smoking a cigarette by his car. Dawn is smudged smog on the horizon. He agrees to drive me to where Abby is. Poor deranged Abby who wrote her own GIBX which at Ataxia Systems is grounds for immediate termination.

~

         In the taxi, Collins calls me on my tablet.
         I shut him down. I don't want to talk in English. I'm thinking in GIBX. It's a relapse thing, I know it, and there are server farms for A.P.E. junkies in Bangalore. I've thought about going there. I really have.
         An email from the caregiver in Dallas. My mom is slipping, still alive, but barely, not conscious. She may never come back. Tears flood my eyes, but I blink them away. I tell the caregiver I'll suborbit to Dallas once I'm done.
         She says my mother isn't in Dallas. The caregiver is giving her remote care. I ask very politely where my mother is. The caregiver says she can't tell me because of the Health Information Portability and Privacy act. I would need to go through their HIPPA department to get that information. I shut her down.
         I go back to the server. The server's logs are filling up with new errors. Abby errors. It's like it's shouting for her, which it shouldn't be because it should be connected to my KELLY_EDISON session, but it isn't. I see it's bridged into the hospital where Abby is. It knows she is there because Abby's brain waves, along with the rest of her vitals, are being collected and stored in the patient database tables.
Abby
         It's pathetic. It wants to see Abby. I want to see my mom. It's like the server and I are both orphans.
         I sit in the car and I start to cry and I know I look stupid. A forty-year-old fat man with a beard crying in a taxi in some foreign city early, early morning. Luckily, it's so misty and smoggy no one can see.
Abby
         I check. Line 5201314 is still a 1, of course. The network is still down.
         Fifteen minutes before six, I'm in the hospital with my tablet.
         "I'm family," I say. One big family of techs gone funny.
         They let me in.
         She's in a bed, her eyes are open, and I know her. It's not possible. It can't be. But it is. My mom is in the bed, eyes open, but no one home.
         Abby. Abigail Edison. My mother. I never thought to put the two names together.
         It wasn't just any consultant job she took. She became an A.P.E. tech. Probably never wanted to tell me because I might have relapsed. I probably would have.
         I go to her bed and I pick up her age-spotted hand and it's warm, alive, but she's not there. I move aside her white hair and trace a finger over the port behind her ear. It's swollen and red like mine used to get. I look at the vitals being electronically recorded into their EMRN system. I watch them drop. Lower, lower, lower. This happens sometimes. Sometimes when you unplug a tech, they die.
         The nurses rush in to save her, but they can't. I'm standing there. I'm watching my mom die. All the promises I had made to visit suddenly become lies.
         And the monitors go silent.
         My tablet beeps.
         I look. The line has changed. The parameter on line 5201314 is now a 0. The A.P.E. knows she is gone because there are no more vitals being collected. It then flashes what I wish I could feel.
New connection found
KELLY_EDISON
Network activity restored

         I shut off my tablet and sob like a child.

~

         Bangkok airport, waiting for a flight. Another down system in Belarus. I should be reading, but instead I'm looking at the code at the site where my mom worked. Collins doesn't even email me congratulations. He got his network back on and got his deal. Goody for him. I won't give him a root cause analysis. It's my mom's code. They would re-write it with canned GIBX, and I don't want that. It would be like killing her child. My brother.
         Donbo emails me the requirements on the enhanced communication feature they had started writing, but never finished. Line 5201314. They called it the love parameter, but felt it was too risky. Too many sci-fi ghost stories of A.I.s becoming sentient and nuking the world.
         He says something about numbers in Chinese that mean love, but I don't even bother Googling it. I'm too busy whipping myself.
         I should have visited more. I should have reached out. Maybe if I'd been a better son she wouldn't have tried to write her own GIBX to find a connection.
         I watch as the server disconnects from KELLY_EDISON and re-connects to a session with the new A.P.E tech, SuzyQueue. With my mom's new code, the jack will be all-consuming and delicious. I'll let her have her fun, but I'll watch for SuzyQueue in the therapy forums. I'll warn her, but she won't listen. My mom didn't.
         I read "anyone lived in a pretty how town" and cry because I was the anyone and so was my mom.
         I think I have all the crying out of me, so I video my dad. I look at him, an old man in Paris, reading Henry Miller, drinking coffee in caf├ęs, writing poems he publishes on the web. He smiles. "We never do this," he says. "It's nice to see you, Kelly."
         The tears fall before I can stop them. "She's dead, Dad."
          And we cry together. Thousands of miles away from each other, we cry like we're in the same room. It feels like we are.
          New connection found.




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