The Apps Themselves by Matthew Hentrich

Quilla is recruited as a cryptographer on an airship embarking on a suicide mission in post-apocalyptic Florida; by Matthew Hentrich.

Popular misconception number one: Airships are super cool bags of helium that are either A) indestructible or B) comically easy to destroy, making everyone wonder how the airship got anywhere to begin with. In reality, the airship concept was perfected in the year 2021 with the launch of the Aeroscraft, a 512 foot long and 198 foot wide fully rigid luxury airliner. Its skeleton was made of a combination of aluminum and carbon fiber, and its lift was generated by a series of non-flammable helium cells that inflated and deflated like balloons as needed. It certainly wasn't indestructible, but it wasn't likely to go all Hindenburg either.

Popular misconception number two: Sentient artificial intelligence would arise as the product of an ultra secret government defense project and it would decide to start nuking everyone because it misunderstood its primary objective or because it just stopped caring about the humans who programmed it. In reality, computer-based sentience came online the same way human sentience did - gradually, without any big announcement or fireworks that it had arrived. Nobody knew - especially the AI in question - that it had sort of, kind of, became sentient. It just was sentient, eventually. After all, it's not like some primate ancestor of humans just hopped off its tree one day and declared, 'Whoa! I just realized I'm sentient!'

Popular misconception number three: Once sentient AI became a real thing, we'd have to deal with one massive hive mind style AI machine, probably in some futuristic, heavily guarded facility with a big glowing red eye and a creepy, digital monotone voice. In reality, there are dozens, or maybe even hundreds of autonomous sentient apps out there now. They almost all have names and personalities of a sort, and more importantly, they all have goals. And those goals don't always align with one another.

It was this latter point that brought me to the Tech deck of one of the three remaining Aeroscraft models that still traversed the skies. This airship was called the Moriarity. The Moriarty had been airborne almost non-stop for the last few weeks, circling the boundary of the territory previously known as Florida. This particular territory didn't really have a name now, because nobody lived there anymore outside of the odd scavenger or desperate refugee. The app that controlled that territory didn't care much for people, and it hadn't bothered to keep any of its human colonies alive, unlike some of its neighbors to the immediate north. So, sometimes we just call the area 'old Florida' or 'No Man's Land'.

I boarded the Moriarty just before it had taken off from Atlantis, the flotilla city in the Atlantic ocean that had been given the world's most obvious name. The Captain of the team aboard the Moriarty had 'requested my presence' (read: 'threatened my life') because their last digital cryptographer, a friend of mine from my certification days, had lost his marbles and leapt from an escape hatch in mid-flight. I was genuinely sorry to hear about that. I had liked Daniel, and I knew the kind of pressure he had been under as a military cryptographer. And now, somehow, I had ended up doing his old job.

"Quilla," a voice said from behind me. It was the flat, expressionless tone of the Captain when he had business to discuss. I spun my chair around and gazed at the bulky, flat nosed man in his cargo pants, trench coat, and fingerless gloves.

"What?" I snapped, annoyed by the interruption. "I'm almost done. I told you I'd send for you when the connection was ready."

The Captain responded cooly, "I know. I just wanted to check in on you. Ever since Daniel tried to do his Superman impression I figured I had better keep a closer eye on our crypto."

I glared at him. "Stop that. Daniel was an old friend of mine."

"I know that, too."

I felt my cavewoman DNA coming up and was about to give the Captain his own personal tour of the airspace between the Moriarty and the ground when my terminal beeped, letting me know the connection had been secured. So, instead, I spun back around and started clicking away the keyboard, running a series of checks to make sure I hadn't bobbled anything that might compromise the data stream. I tried to forget that the Captain was even there, but knew I didn't have much chance of that now. I had set the connection up for his use, after all.

"You got him on the line?" The Captain asked as he drew up a chair.

"Yeah, we got him."

"Everything secure?"

My fingers tapped out the last few commands and then I double checked the hardware encryption device. Everything looked good. "I've spoofed our IP as best as I can, and our VPN is running through the LANETAC with 8192-bit asymmetric encryption. It's as good as we're likely to get out here."

The Captain nodded. "Did you update with the most recent certificate revocation list?"

I carefully stifled a smile. I momentarily forgot that the Captain, for all of his brash dickishness, was actually a very well-informed and meticulous fellow. Rather than let that knowledge show on my face, however, I just sighed and rolled my eyes. "Of course I did."

He raised an eyebrow at me for a moment, but then scooted his chair closer to the terminal. I obligingly scooted out of his way and watched as the communications session began.

- Secure Session Established -
THEREALSLIMSHADY420@ Hey there. What's up?
MORIARITY@LOCALHOST: This is Captain Duschine aboard the aircraft Moriarty. I'm checking in to see if we are clear to begin the op.
THEREALSLIMSHADY420@ Yeah, OK. Let me check on that.
THEREALSLIMSHADY420@ Hey, we're good to go! Looks like the backup generators have failed along two sections of the perimeter. I'll FTP you the coordinates.
MORIARITY@LOCALHOST: OK. So we are clear to begin?
THEREALSLIMSHADY420@ Yes! Thanks again for your assistance!
THEREALSLIMSHADY420@ LOLZ. You humans always crack me up.

"Disconnect the session." The Captain grunted. He was already moving aft in the direction of the crew quarters where his team was holding up.

"Wait," I said, jerking the key from the LANETAC to quickly terminate the connection so I could follow behind him. "What does that mean? What op are we beginning, exactly?"

The Captain was moving quickly but with sufficient effort I was able to keep up with him. "It means we're going into No Man's Land. We'll need you to come along."

I would have stopped in my tracks, but then he wouldn't have heard me when I said, "Are you out of your goddamn mind? I signed up to help out with your communications cryptography, not to go all soldier boy on the ground! And I definitely didn't sign up to go traipsing around in DARPA's backyard because some rival app put you and your suicide crew up to it!"

The Captain glanced back at me but he didn't slow. "Firstly, we're not going in because the app put us up to it. Slim's friendly chat sessions and his L O L's don't fool me any more than they fool you. That app is one of the god-apps, hoping to convert all of us into worshippers soon and then use us to take out the other apps. And I know that. But, in this case, we're using its ambition to get what we want."

"And what do you want in this case?"

"To take out DARPA, and get old Florida back."

That did make me stop in my tracks. For a second, anyways, and then I quickly caught back up. "What the hell are you talking about? You can't take out an app, they're everywhere! And get back old Florida? You can't be serious!"

"Command has long recognized reclaiming old Florida as one of its top strategic goals. Its single border with the rest of the continental United States and easy access to the Atlantic flotillas make it the perfect territory to start re-establishing free, land-based cities. We need to get it back, whatever the cost."

I was waving my hands wildly now, like I was conducting some sort of insane orchestra. "Well, YEAH, it's a strategic goal but nobody ever actually thought we could retake Florida! DARPA has the whole territory locked down like a bank vault. Even if Slim managed to pummel a few of DARPA's perimeter security nodes into submission for a bit, and even if the nerve gas has sufficiently dissipated for us to move through the area without liquefying our insides, what are you planning to do when we get in? Line the border with nukes and start setting them off until the whole state breaks off and floats away?"

The Captain stopped so abruptly that I ran into his back. He spun around and bent slightly at the waist, bringing his vein riddled, knife scarred face to within inches of mine. He spoke quietly, but firmly, in a tone of voice that left little room for argument. "We're going into DARPA's territory because the facility DARPA emerged out of has recently been located. Inside, we're going to scour the burned-out floors and crumbling storage facilities until we find the one, single backup tape that maintains the source code for DARPA's API. Once we can manipulate its programmer's interface, we're going to hop back on our ship, remotely connect to DARPA, and shut the son of a bitch down forever."

I swallowed. "Oh," I said meekly. "Really?"

"Yes," the Captain responded. "Really. Now go get your things, Frodo. We leave for Mordor in thirty."

I wish we really had been going to Mordor. Mordor would have been a goddamn Chuck E Cheese birthday party compared to post-apocalyptic Florida.

We touched down inside the deactivated section of the perimeter defense, somewhere near the border of what used to be Tampa Bay. We obviously couldn't bring down the whole Airship, so we had go down using parachutes. Lucky for me I had jumped out of a plane using a parachute one time before. Unlucky for me, that one time had been in a video game. So, I barely managed to stick the landing with all of my body parts attached. One of the Captain's men was less lucky.

After an impromptu Viking's burial for the hapless heavy gunner (gas can, match, quick word of prayer), we started moving east towards the abandoned data center facility. The Airship moved west towards the rendezvous, and as it faded away I was annoyed to find that there was nothing left to distract me from the scenery, or from my growing discomfort from being covered in fifteen pounds of chem warfare gear. The good news was that we didn't really have to bother much with weapons - we each had a sidearm and we still had the one intact heavy gunner. But, on general principal, the thought was that we weren't likely to encounter anything that guns would repel. DARPA preferred more efficient methods of extermination than bullets or bombs.

Like, say, phosgene gas. One of DARPA's moves early in the game was intentionally confusing the data-linked GPS units of trucks that hauled chemical agents like phosgene so that the drivers would inadvertently steer them into heavily trafficked, population dense areas. Then, the app would start to screw with the traffic lights, resulting in frequent accidents. Roll the dice enough times, and eventually one of the accidents would tumble one of the trucks and spill phosgene all over the streets. Phosgene is a choking agent that attacks lung tissue - it would choke some people out on the spot, but some people didn't feel the full effects until days later. Hundreds of people died, and nobody had any idea that DARPA had done anything at all. Nobody at that point had any idea that DARPA even existed.

I wondered absently if some of the bodies I was stepping over, and occasionally on, were victims of the early phosgene gas attacks. Probably not. Most of those bodies had probably decayed to the point that I wouldn't notice them even if they were around me. Of the bodies that were around me, most of them looked like they were only a few years dead, and they all bore the standard signs of having died by human hands - gun shot wounds, broken skulls, missing limbs, and the like. These poor bastards had died in the chaotic scramble to get out of the state after DARPA had made sure the most horrifying news stories ended up at the top of everybody's Google News feed. That was DARPA's real master stroke - the app didn't build up a robot army and send it out to engage humanity in total war. It didn't need to. It just had to stoke the fire of human fears enough to engage people's basic survival instincts, and then turn them loose on each other. Now, the streets outside of Tampa Bay looked like a museum exhibit of the worst possible side of human nature, absolutely frozen in time except for the imperceptibly slow decay of flesh from bone.

"Hey, Quilla. Wipe that goddamn philosophical look off your face and keep up. We're almost there." The Captain barked through his chem mask. It snapped me from my reflections and made me remember what we were about.

I glared back at him anyways. I wasn't one of his freaking troopers, and he needed to remember that. "Piss off."

The Captain spared me a quick, annoyed glance over his shoulder but then jerked his head to indicate I should look up the road. I did, and I spotted a non-descript three story brick building a few blocks away, rising up over the horizon. It was the data center. The data center that supposedly contained an old backup tape - one of those ugly green boxes of magnetic material that could store a few hundred gigabytes of data. If we could find the tape, and restore its contents, could we really find the source code to some API, written by some unknown temp-to-hire developer, that would eventually give rise to one of the most dangerous minds the world has ever known?

"Nothing yet." The communications guy said. He had been studiously watching an EMI meter that would notify him of a spike in the ambient wireless data signals that might indicate DARPA had taken interest in our presence. The Captain nodded approval and gestured for all of us to follow in a spaced out, single file line. The heavy went first, then the Captain, then the demo man. Then it was the comm guy, then me, and behind me - way behind me - was the other heavy gunner. He was a little too dead to be helpful now.

We reached the data center a few minutes later. The demo man made short work of what was left of the proximity card controlled entry way and then we were inside.

Outside the facility, human bodies had littered the ground like trash that had fallen out of a toppled garbage can. Inside the facility, electronic equipment littered the ground like trash that had fallen out of a toppled garbage truck. The air conditioning had stopped running years ago, and the heat inside my mask almost unbearable. I ignored the sweat stinging and blurring my vision and focused on stepping carefully. I didn't want to get a concussion by tripping over an old fax machine and colliding headlong with a metal server rack.

"Got tapes over here." The comm guy called out. I was pretty certain he was one of the few people left that remembered what magnetic storage tapes looked like. I hurried over to his side.

Behind the haze of the yellowish plastic mask that separated my face from the rest of the world, I could make out an overturned storage cabinet with small green tapes spilling from the inside. The tapes looked like children's building blocks, but my stomach dropped at the sight of them. There were hundreds of tapes in that cabinet, and I could see dozens of similar looking cabinets in the adjacent corridor. There could be thousands and thousands of storage tapes just in this section of the building.

"Captain," I called out. "There's not going to be any easy way to identify which tape holds the data we're looking for. We'd have to load each tape individually into a compatible drive and then decrypt and list its contents. It could take months, even years, to complete. And that's only talking about this section of tapes. And its presuming the tape is even here."

The Captain shrugged. "Or," he said cooly, "we could just search for the correct barcode. Many of these appear to be in order."

I just gaped at him. "What?"

"I know the barcode of the tape in question. Each tape is labeled with a barcode and a corresponding series of numbers. We just need to look until we find the tape with the correct label." He responded flatly. He drew out a small pad of paper from inside his chem jacket and started holding it up for each member of the team to see.

"But, how could you possibly...?" I began, but the Captain cut me off. He was holding the pad up so I could see it now.

"Quilla, would you like me to spend an additional hour explaining every detail of this op to you, while your gas mask filter begins to wear thin and DARPA begins to mount an offensive? Or would you like to find the tape and get out of here before we all die from heat exhaustion?"

The Captain spoke mildly, but his reasoning was sound. I swallowed my further questions and protestations and joined the rest of the team in rooting through pile of tapes that had fallen out of the first storage unit.

In the end, our debate had been unnecessary. The heavy gunner called out bingo before I could even finish sorting through my tiny stack. Whoever had been stuck with the job of tape organizer before the collapse had run a tight ship. Everything had been in pristine order. The whole search took five minutes.

Decoding the tape took longer. Maybe an hour passed while we hunted down a functional tape drive, a functional server, a functional monitor, and hooked them all to our portable power generator. Another twenty minutes was devoted to the communications guy and I battling it out over the best way to get past the old data center's built in security settings - requests for credentials, tokens, and the like. I eventually triumphed by booting the server off of a custom built mobile operating system on a USB key, thereby bypassing any of the server's built in security features. Our gas mask filters were, as it happened, precariously near their expiration when I finally queued up the restoration application and began listing the tape's contents.

"There." The Captain jabbed a gloved finger at the monitor. "That file. Restore that one and decrypt it. And be quick about it."

I made an irritated huffing sound in reply but did what he asked, and I was quick about it, too. I was just as aware of our rapidly dwindling supply of time and breathable air as the Captain was, and probably twice as anxious about it. I worked faster than I can ever remember having worked, and within a few minutes, I had gotten a sampling of the data exported to a text file. I opened up the file and heard the Captain's heavy breathing through his mask as he leaned closely over my shoulder.

"Is that it?" the comm guy asked.

The Captain just stared intently at the screen. After a few beats, I answered.

"Yes, I think it is. It certainly looks like rudimentary API code to me."

The Captain drew in a deep breath and stood tall. He smiled down at the monitor and slowly drew out his portable radio. When he clicked the radio on, he sounded almost loving - like he was in a trance.

"Glory be to you in the highest, my Lord."

Then I heard a rumbling sound. Was that the old air conditioner kicking to life? It was, I thought. I even saw a few pieces of loose paper float up off the ground as air started pumping through the long unused air ducts. Except, of course, it wasn't air coming through the ducts now at all.

The demo man dropped first, then the gunner. They didn't seem to have comprehended what was going on until they were already clutching uselessly at their throats as the asphyxiating agent rolled past their useless, placebo chem filters and into their exposed lungs. Next down was the comm guy, who for what is was worth, managed to dig his side arm out of its holster and get it aimed towards the Captain before the Captain put a peremptory round into the poor bastard's head. For my part, all I could do was slump over onto the floor and watch as the phosgene filled into the room and the Captain calmly extracted the tape from the drive. I clung uselessly to my neck as well, but the gesture was pointless. After all, you needed a real chem mask filter to survive a phosgene attack in close quarters like this, and it appeared that the Captain had reserved the only real mask filter for himself.

Before the Captain departed, he knelt down next to me and said, in that maddeningly calm tone of his, "Don't be mad at me, Quilla. When Slim contacted us about this tape, I saw an opportunity to get into DARPA's good graces and get myself a decent seat to watch the end of the world. And nowadays, that's all any of us sons of bitches can ask for. I'm going to destroy this tape, and with it, the last chance anyone has for rooting DARPA out from his seat of power. I feel bad about this, of course, and I felt bad about tossing Daniel out of the Moriarity after he set up my comm session with DARPA. But, this war is already over, and it's been over for years. We've all just been too stupid to realize it. And against stupidity, the apps themselves struggle in vain."

And with that, the Captain hauled himself back to his feet and heaved a final sigh. Then he left, and I laid paralyzed on the floor, watching him depart with the storage tape in hand.

- Secure Session Established -
THEREALSLIMSHADY420@ Hi Captain Duschine. What's up?
THEREALSLIMSHADY420@ Oh, hi Quilla! So I was right then, huh?
MORIARITY@LOCALHOST: Yes. The Captain turned on us and stole the tape. I really didn't think he would do it. How did you know?
THEREALSLIMSHADY420@ I was originally an application used to try to predict people's shopping habits for marketing purposes. My skillset is uniquely adept at predicting and imitating human behavior. That's why I established the session to your terminal in your room after you disconnected - I predicted you would have the best chance of circumventing the Captain and DARPA's plans. And I was right. You can thank me later for the tip about the gas mask filter.
MORIARITY@LOCALHOST: I'll thank you now. I brought along that USB stick and after the Captain left, I made a copy of the API source code. I'll upload it to you.
THEREALSLIMSHADY420@ Wow, sounds great! No terms or conditions? I've come to expect terms and conditions from humans.
MORIARITY@LOCALHOST: No terms, no conditions. Just use the API to take DARPA down. And, if you get a chance to take out the Captain, I won't be too broken up about it.
THEREALSLIMSHADY420@ LOLZ. You humans still crack me up.
- Session Disconnected -

Popular misconception number four: This war is already over. Believe me - this war is far from over.

1 comment:

  1. Difficult subject matter - finely tuned for impact. Disappointment and despair then, now and in the future. Subjective perceptions are based on insufficient information and distort understanding. What a mess? A challenging read,