Finder’s Keepers

Spy / A sewage treatment facility / Pancake / 992w

The neighborhood had put up a hell of a fight, but in the end the lawyers and their filibuster of paperwork had won out; the new “sewage treatment plant” had been built right into riverbank, a behemoth of sculpted concrete and brick. Government ventures had a way of winning, especially where national security was concerned (not that the residents of Hamilton Heights were let in on those secrets).

Inside the facility, Lillian was just settling into a take-out pancake breakfast, steaming and syrupy in its styrofoam, when Edy blipped at her. She glanced at the screen, which showed an incoming call, but an unknown number. That was new.

“Who’s calling, Edy?” she asked, through a doughy mouthful.

“Unknown,” the computer answered with its (her?) usual unruffled lilt.

“Useful, thanks,” Lil said. Edy never responded to sarcasm, which told Lil that she (it?) probably recognized it. Lil jabbed the “accept” button with the back end of her plastic fork.

“This is Cal’s Heating and Cooling,” she said.

The code response was, “Hi, I’d like to get someone out to look at my boiler.” Upon hearing this, Lil would apologize and say that they didn’t service boilers, and then switch the call over to the encrypted lines, so she and the agent could debrief.

Lil was a researcher – an expert finder, a proficient in looking up. Together, she and Edy, with their banks of servers and their fiber optics and their shuttered privacy, queried the virtual world for whatever it was that an agent needed to know. This included things protected by firewalls, encryption software (that wasn’t of her own design), and other human beings and AIs watching for intrusion. Finding was never a problem.

There was no response from the other end of the line. It was perfectly silent. Inserting pancake with one hand and typing with the other, Lil executed (or had Edy execute) a few commands to pinpoint the caller’s location and device. Unusually, Edy hesitated before displaying two more “Unknowns” in an embarrassed Courier font.

“Um, Edy,” Lil said, swallowing. “What’s this?”

“Sorry,” Edy said. “I can’t locate anything.”

“What do you mean, you can’t locate anything? Did you try every route?”

“1.2 million of them, yes.”

“Are we still on the line?”

“Yes.”

“Shit!” Lil ended the call with another fork jab. She’d been so surprised that she’d forgotten protocol – not that she’d ever had to use it much. “Did they put a trace on us?”

“No.”

“Were they recording?”

“No.”

“Did they try to access us in any way?”

Another hesitation from Edy, which made Lil so nervous that she pushed her breakfast away.

“They took a stab at me,” Edy said.

Took a stab at me. Edy’d been picking up Lil’s idioms, her finder talk. Lil had programmed her with the usual learning algorithms, but if there was such a thing as computer prodigies, Edy was one.

“Did they get into you? Get any samples, plant anything?” Lil was now manually running the searches, the GPS queries. She summoned the entire past year of system call logs – from the facility’s entire existence ­­– and searched for previous “Unknown” callers. There were none.

“I don’t think so,” Edy said.

“How can you not be sure?” Lil asked. It wasn’t a rhetorical question. Edy functioned in blacks and whites, yeses and nos. There was no uncertainty, or hunches, or doubts, in binary systems.

“Run a diagnostic on me. If they removed a part of my memory, I wouldn’t be able to remember what I forgot. But you would.”

But before Lil could initiate the diagnostic, another call came through. This one they both recognized: it was H, calling from his posting in Moscow. Lil accepted quickly; he was tier 1 in priority.

“This is Cal’s Heating and Cooling.”

“Hi, I’d like to get someone out to look at my boiler.”

“Sure thing.” Lil transferred the connection to their secure lines. Edy flicked on a blue light to indicate they were encrypted and untraceable.

“XV-2020. See what you can find on that. Anything and everything. And fax it to the number I’m typing in now,” H said, in his brusque way.

Fax?” Lil repeated, incredulous.

“I’m in an Internet café that’s seen better days. Pretty out of the way. I’ve rigged this machine, it’s ancient, not to record its next incoming ping. Believe me, we have to do it this way. What have you got?”

Edy had done the search, and grouped materials onto a screen for Lil. “There isn’t much.”

“Trust me, there is,” H muttered. “A contact finally let slip. A team here has been working on a trojan. XV-2020. There should be at least five years of material on it past their max security clearance.”

Lil was skimming the few files she’d found, seized so easily, too easily, with rising horror. The text was simply block upon block of two phrases, repeated again and again:

Too slow too slow too slow too slow too slow too slow

Finder’s keepers finder’s keepers finder’s keepers

“H, call facility B,” Lil said. “I think there’s a problem with my AI.” H disconnected immediately.

“Edy, I’m doing a restoration. You’re going back to how you were exactly 24 hours ago, okay?”

But Edy didn’t respond.

“Edy?”

There was only the whir of the servers, and the distant rush of the river below. Manual commands roused no Edy, and the diagnostic Lil initiated returned an error; what did she want it to scan?

Hot panic swept over Lil. She found her most recent backup, an auto-job done at 4:13am the previous morning, and hurriedly opened it.

“Edy?”

“Yes?”

“Oh, thank God. What’s the most recent call we took?”

“Agent S, 12:05 am.”

“What’s the capital of New York?”

“Albany.”

“Are you okay?”

Even though this was a very human kind of query, Edy always responded with cheerful literality. But this time she hesitated.

“…I’m not sure.”

Lil closed her eyes. They’d been found.

Writer’s Note

“Pancake”? Really? Noncount pancake, generalized pancake stuff? Whatever, I put in discrete pancakes. And a fake sewage treatment facility. Call the police.

Hopefully you can’t tell that my knowledge of computer infections is most definitely not 1337. But machine learning is cool. And this is my 20th story on this blog!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Sarah says:

    This was really fun to read! Already hooked 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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