Alice [Defcon 24 Short Story Contest Submission]

08 Jun 2016

Preface

I’m still taken aback to being included with so many wonderful short story writers at Defcon. Reading them since my first Defcon I always wanted to someday submit my own and fortunately the first short story I ever submitted was liked. The idea for this story I already had had for quite some time. Initially it all began with this random idea of a cup of Orange Dot coffee, hackerspaces, and thinking of AI. Strangely I also wrote the story backwards: I began from the last paragraph and sentence, then went back to the beginning, skipping to SectorXXIV, then the rest. I guess that’s an introduction to how I go about the world.

It seems the story was cut a little short on the forums but here it is in full if you’d like to read it. Thank you again.

Alice

Swoosh. Water flowed between the walls, the exterior groaning in the wind. The house heated up slowly as the old heating system pipes creaked every so often. The dark form of a body lying on the ground stirred up from a light sleep. He had been holding off from turning the heat on as the cost had soared in recent years. Warmth invited him to hug the walls a little closer, shivering from the night before. Nash, are you there, Nash? A small voice called out past a flimsy door where a child sat with a mug of hot apple cider.

Yes I am, I’ll be out shortly.

Are you going to work today?

Apparently they need help to clear a few flags.

I’ll get you a cup, too.

Thanks darling.

Skin tightened sharply showing off collar bones and thin arms as he pulled a shirt on over his messy blue hair. Rough blankets scattered on the ground delayed searching for a pair of pants and finding a weathered worn bag. I’ll need that, he noted, while grabbing socks, boxers, and a pen. Sleepy warm hazel eyes were immediately blinded upon opening the door to morning lights. Shut eyes. Counting out loud, 2, 3, 5, 7… Opened eyes slowly this time to a grinning child.

Wait one second.

Okay.

Here’s a cup of apple cider. You should wash your hair.

Alright.

Thr33 is in the other room with 467nm, she’s visiting today.

Did Trace say she could?

Yeah.

Alright, don’t get into too much trouble. You all can use my pick set just don’t ruin the half diamonds again.

It’s your favourite.

Yes it is.

He wandered to the restroom. The faucet screeched. Cold water rushing out freely. Dipping his head into the sink he gave it a quick wash, splashed it on his face, and rinsed his mouth. A worn leather watch told the time with its wheels, levers, and springs inside. Time had slipped, he may be running closer to the time to arrive than he’d like.

Exiting the restroom the child held up a heavy rough cotton jacket. Thanks darling. The child smiled.

You’re welcome. Will you be at SectorXXIV tonight?

Yes, I’ll still tuck you in to bed tonight.

Promise?

Promise.

——

Carrying his weary body out the house, bag barely hanging onto his thin shoulders, he walked. Chilly dry weather penetrating to his bones, feet moving forward on uneven gravel.

Looking due east towards the sun he saw the last of the embers glowing as sparks lazily flew away. The wind carried the remnants of a great fire that burned over night. Small flames of the remaining fire burned ever so carefully, sparks dissipating midair into nothingness as energy flowed back to the environment. Its humble state of existence slowly waned. Children of the great flames at mercy of cold winds spreading across the region paving way for winter to take hold.

They were like humans, he thought. Flickering back to life hopeful as could be. Fire was used to silence in these times. Someone had been silenced this past night.

Gravel to broken pavement, shabby houses turned to former local business areas that were now shuttered up and closed. They did not survive the Great Human Recession.

Before the Great Human Recession it had been an era of exponential growth and advancement in human fields. Most of the world lived in moderate wealth and poverty appeared to be ending. Yet that was not enough for those who sought out to ride a chariot to the heavens. Slowly they began with replacing the very people who brought them to their wealth.

It started in factories. No longer did people make the products, machines did. No one cared when the heavy labour workers with grime on their faces and dirt on their jeans protested the loss of their jobs, their homes, their families, their livelihoods.

Life continued onward with headlines praising executives for slashing costs in so called unneeded areas, for advancing humanity into the next era of technology, for becoming more cost effective. People continued with their lives forgetting those whom were less fortunate as themselves.

He walked past what was formerly a popular chain restaurant, the dark yellow M sign tipping ever so closely each day to falling off the post. Remembering the protests it was hard to forget years of daily papers criticizing or praising those who fought for workers rights. They were slashed away with red pen, watching red ribbons cut in ceremonies introducing machines that had only a single purpose: to benefit the consumer of course with quick and healthy food, the companies heralded to the media.

Workers without jobs asked for help. People in collared shirts and pressed black pants scoffed, it was those workers own fault to work in an environment where machines could easily replace them. If they truly cared, they said with leather folios and a coffee in hand, they should have sought better opportunities while they had the chance. Mechanical hands made their shirts, ties, and leather folios that used to be done in factories by hand across Asia. Our country is great again, the media asserted, we’re no longer using slave labour or outsourcing to other countries. This is a time to celebrate, the anchors would report.

It was cold. He felt a guilt as he contributed to the Great Human Recession. Papers in his bag detailed algorithms he had poured over with countless amounts of time. Shame. It was a cold feeling.

Broken pavement to smooth sidewalks and streets, dirt and grime to clean metal finishes and smooth glass windows. No one sat behind the desks if one looked into the office buildings nor was any person walking into or out of nearly any of them.

How stark the difference to the past when humans used to sit behind desks looking at electronic screens 0900 to 1700. Basic IT and repair were replaced by robots, tier specialists eventually replaced by machine learning software perfected by academics and engineers. Do not fear, the anchors would say on the nightly television shows, it’s just the beginning of a new era where people work less and benefit more. Quietly over time they were replaced too along with bankers, financial specialists, executives, and so forth.

Not all lost their jobs as humans and machines integrated into society together with agreements. Machines taught humans in schools, humans helped machines when they overlooked problems. The Great Human Recession and the Great Rise of Efficient AI Technology (G.R.E.A.T) had begun together.

Beautiful humanlike bodies walked past him hard to distinguish from flesh and blood that also walked these streets. Crude machinery, wires, advanced software was the first step. Eventually with advanced machine learning they added synthetic skin, hair, and mannerisms. Enchanted humans loved them sometimes over other humans.

They were perfection. At least it felt that way when nannies were replaced by robots to love a human child. Their faces showed expression, they did not need rest nor wages. People considered them as family, defending them when criticized, for these intelligent machines had character, personality, perhaps even somehow a soul. What betrayed and set them apart from humans were their eyes. Emotions could flash on their face but the same eyes always peered, never changing perfect irises and pupils.

A blue shingled coffee shop stood between two tall buildings. Humans and machines walked in and out the opening doors of the two buildings. He entered the building to the left.

Good morning, Nash.

Morning, Hansel.

Haven’t seen you in a while how have you been?

I’m alright.

That’s good to hear.

Hansel’s handsome face beamed. It was quite beautiful that machine algorithms no longer able to be read or understood by humans, could potentially mean that Hansel truly was happy to see him. A curious thought. Hansel verified and activated his badge as quiet chatter could be heard. Ding, the elevators rang as people and machines entered and exited them. Cups of Orange Dot coffee were in human hands.

Work was relatively simple. He passed by closed doors, hushed conversations, a motivational quote painted on the walls every so often. Even with all the advanced machine learning processes that had been developed the occasional bumps and misdirection would happen. Here there was a 94.5% success rate, 5.5% differentiated them from humans. Humans still had to occasionally determine if something was a false positive or a false negative.

Redirecting machines to correct those false alerts over time they would pick up with repetition. Just a matter of time, they all joked in the break rooms, clutching onto cups of Orange Dot coffee in frazzled warm hands. Coffee in the office symbolized the social issue of humans versus machines, humans and machines. Orange Dot was amongst one of the few human owned companies left in the Fortune 500.

He cleared the flags after some time. The longer he stayed the more he’d be paid to make up the difference of no longer working 0900 to 1700 five days a week. That was the agreement made but no one knew when that’d change again. It was just enough to pay for the house and food for the kids.

Eventually he bid good bye until next time to his fellow cohorts with Orange Dot coffee in hand. Back down to the main level where Hansel sat to deactivate his badge. I hope to see you soon, Nash, it has been a while. I’ve missed you.

Nice to see you again.

Let’s go out sometime?

Ping me whenever you’d like to.

I will, take care of the kids!

Opening the door he exited, knowing Hansel would never leave the building.

——

Welcome to SectorXXIV, we do everything here. No judgment just make sure it’s not illegal.

Illegal?

A new person to SectorXXIV was at the entrance talking with DK, beginning a conversation on ethics in hacking. Yarn entwined with needles in loop after loop after loop. Soft frazzled yarn twist in DK’s fingers as DK knitted away with the look of amusement at a newcomer who did not know what SectorXXIV was. Quietly walking past them he went up rigid metal plated stairs to the second floor to find a table. A child sat in a corner struggling to pick a lock. Hey, do you need help with that?

I’m not a kid. I know what I’m doing.

You’re not using a tension wrench at all though. The stubborn child swore at him, bursting to laughter while handing over the lock and pick.

You got me there.

That’s alright.

Holding the lock the lull of metal in hand excited him. Picking up a tension wrench nearby he showed the child what to look for. Up, down, up, down, up, set, click, drop, drop. Softly gliding the pick back in adjusting with slight tension. The child ecstatically accepted back the lock and tools and hummed along with music from the radio. He walked away. Finding an isolated spot he sat down and grabbing a random lock from the box, getting his tools out from the bag. It was a bit loud today. Kids of all ages were running around with 3D printed plastic in hand, people grinding away at the metal station, some folks hanging around broken computer parts talking about the good old days as they called it.

Hey Nash.

Hi Holly.

I don’t go by Holly anymore.

I’m sorry my mistake.

You’re fine don’t apologize! Decided today I’m going to start going by Gr3y.

Gr3y?

Yeah, I’m done with the Christmas holiday phase.

He understood as he wasn’t always Nash either. One day he stumbled upon Graham Nash singing from a vinyl. Nash, it just fit. After that he was just Nash. One positive benefit leading up to the Great Human Recession was the advent of new medical research proving a more intimate look at what it meant to be human. SectorXXIV accepted Nash, Gr3y, and others like them with open arms when they were scapegoated for the rise of the machines from those unwilling and those who feared the unknown. Retaliation and hate crimes were common during the worst of the Great Human Recession but it had lessened in recent times.

New hair colour with that?

Isn’t it fantastic? I love it. Gr3y’s hair was now a silky silvery grey colour. It was quite the change from vibrant red beforehand.

Looks lovely Holly.

Thanks Nash, hope you stay for Hacker Politics Night, I’m moderating tonight!

I’ll think on it. Bean bags with human bodies covered the third floor, chattering away with nonsense and excitement preparing for Hacker Politics Night. Colourful beverages were all around them, sometimes the drinks helping certain introverts become more lively and wild than some already were without. For an outsider who believed hackers were antisocial, quiet, shy, awkward, would be surprised by the varying drunkards, alcoholics, partyholics, joining for the night.

Very few places were left for strictly humans, with the Great Human Recession, SectorXXIV was a place of community from an already torn society that tried to blame those whom were not like the majority.

The room of boxes, power tools, hammers, screen prints, endless spools of yarn and thread, glass, fabric, electrical components, mills, whatever one could fathom in mind of what a proper hackerspace should look like, everything imaginable was here. The vibrance and brilliance in all the rough and dulled edges, worn tools shared with the community, this place was quite magical for those who joined it.

Welcome to SectorXXIV, a hackerspace and safe haven for humans.

——

Swoosh. Old metal pipes rushed with a flood of water to heat up the house. A bird sang the first song of the day. In the darkness a body sat against a wall awake, running fingers through a sleeping child’s hair. Two other small bodies were asleep holding hands together, a quilted blanket over them. It was a cool morning and he worried they would become sick. A quiet voice came from the child.

Nash?

Yes darling?

Are you awake?

Yes I am.

Are you leaving today again?

No.

Can you show me how to do the cipher thingy again?

Do you mean Caesar?

Yes that one.

Okay. Let’s go out to the kitchen so we don’t wake those two. The two tiptoed gently out albeit small groans of the hardwood floor. The other children did not stir and slept soundlessly. The children would someday grow up and become the next generation leading those at SectorXXIV and more. Every day he saw them growing a little bit older, learning at a rate that would someday outpace even himself. That is happiness, he decided, and they need to learn as much as they could if humans were to have a permanent place in the world with machines.

A Caesar cipher is simple. You can do it with numbers or with two sets of the alphabet in columned tables. If A=1, then B=2, C=3, and so forth until Z=26. It works on a ROT system where letters are rotated and associated with a different letter or number to encrypt a message.

I keep forgetting that.

That’s okay. It’s a little confusing but you’ll get it. The child stood on a step stool to the sink, getting water into a tea kettle.

So can I do A=T?

Yes you can. Write your A, B, C’s and then write T next to A, and keep going.

A=T, B=U, C=W, like that?

Almost darling, it’s C=V.

Okay! How would I write to my mama if I do that? The child looked to him with faithful starry dark blue eyes. Young children had not lost their curiosity nor their love.

Darling, you do remember right?

Yes I do Nash.

Alright.

The child was a product of the Great Human Recession. He had been a close friend and neighbour to the child’s mother. Many who feared the unknown acted in anger, with words or violence. Many tried to push the blame and retaliated to vulnerable people as they did not know to cope with the loss of their jobs and livelihoods. The child is Bob, they threatened with weapons in hand. The mother defended her child but did not survive.

What do you want to say?

Hi Mama, how has your day been so far? The sky is blue over here is it blue there too? Love, Alice.

Lets try writing it down. Hi becomes…?

Ab?

Yes.

Soon enough the two enciphered the short message on a postcard: Ab Ftft, ahp atl rhnk wtr uxxg lh ytk? Max ldr bl uenx hoxk axkx bl bm uenx maxkx mhh? Ehox, Tebvx.

Are we sending it today?

Yes we are. The two walked out after pasting a stamp on with the return address the same as their home. Right as the postcard went into the postbox slot the postman came around.

Another message today? The postman chuckled showing no sign of strain from the weight of all the mail he carried as the underlying metal frame supported it all. It was the same routine each time, the same postman who would come to pick up the mail.

Yes sir.

It was all that was said as usual, the two walked away.

——

From a playlist the last song turned on. He opened his eyes midway through it. Alice had fallen asleep again on the back porch. The words sung by a cheery folk voice called out. Come to me now and rest your head for just five minutes, everything is good. The piano and the voice continued but he was no longer listening.

Looking up at the clear blue sky above he agreed: it was good.