Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Profound iMplications

Foreword

It all began in 2015 when Microsoft bought Intel. Microsoft renamed the company Wintel and began pouring resources into a long dormant project to develop a biochip capable of directly interfacing with the human brain. Development also began on an operating system to handle the interface. Three years later, Windows on My Mind and the biochip were released with great fanfare, including an appalling variation of Georgia on My Mind, and low sales. Microsoft simply didn't understand the devices market.

Microsoft's rival, Apple, thoroughly understood the devices market. The iPod, the iPhone, the iGlasses; Apple may not have created the devices market but they certainly perfected it. Given that, what came next should have been expected.

Apple wanted into on the biochip device market. Microsoft wanted good devices to run Windows on My Mind. The unthinkable happened. Microsoft and Apple merged, forming MicrosnAp. The biochip was re-introduced as the much more successful iMplant. Soon, everyone who was anyone had an iMplant running Windows on My Mind. Third party software developers quickly queued up to produce applications for the iMplant. But, due to a bit of marketing genius, the iMplant would not have applications. Instead, it had iMplications, iMps for short. Too bad the new name was so prophetic.

***

The Present

Susan came running into the test lab, "Frank's lost it."

"Great," I muttered, picking up the shotgun and heading for the hall. "What happened?"

"He said he was positive he'd fixed the problem so he was going to test the fix himself," Susan replied, following me.

Frank was in the hall, shambling toward us in that grotesque, B-movie zombie walk. The one I'd seen far too much of in the last month. I brought the shotgun up and blew Frank away. And blew away one of the last chances left for the human race at the same time.

"What got into Frank? He never tested his code before things went to hell," I said.

"Oh, you know," Susan said, "even before the Download he was getting irritated at all the press we were getting. Software test. The most dangerous job in the world. You got your picture on the covers of Time and Newsweek. I think Frank wanted to show he was brave enough to test software, too. So he loaded up his fix, left the lab and sent a download request. At least I guess he sent the request."

"Brilliant, Frank," I said to the corpse. "You couldn't just stay in the shielded lab? You couldn't leave the testing to the people the right safety mods? No, Frank's got to prove he's a man! And get himself killed."

"I tried to stop him," Susan said, subdued, "but I couldn't."

No surprise there. Susan was five foot three and maybe 100 pounds. Frank topped six feet and weighed more than twice Susan's weight.

"Not your fault, Susan. You can't protect someone from their own stupidity." I turned away from the body. "Let's go tell the others we're done. With only one developer, there never was much chance of fixing things. There's no chance without any developers."

***

30 Days Earlier

The Download came on the night of May 16, 2042. My 28th birthday and I was stuck working late. That's why a bunch of us were in the download shielded dev lab when the Download came. We didn't even know there was a problem until the tech support night shift came staggering into the room, drooling and walking like zombies.

Everyone was having a good laugh until two of them got hold of Chuck and ripped his throat out with their teeth. We stopped laughing and started fighting for survival. We lost Brian, one of our two remaining developers, but managed to bludgeon the support team into unconsciousness. We tried to keep them alive while we figured out what had gone wrong, but the first one to wake up started killing and eating everyone else.

It took a while to track down what was happening. Nearly everyone had gotten the Download. Windows on My Mind was always autodownloading patches. We're talking MicrosnAp, after all. A few people had their iMplants turned off or were blocked from receiving signals like we were. There were even a few people who didn't have iMplants at all. But my guess is that 99% of the U.S. population got the Download and turned into man eating zombies.

Not knowing what else to do, I called MicrosnAp support. I mean, I know they're generally useless for solving problems, but they were located in third world countries where there weren't many iMplants. If nothing else, I hoped they'd be able to coordinate communication and information exchange between isolated technical groups. Of course, I got the recorded greeting. The
updated recorded greeting.

"Thank you for calling MicrosnAp technical support. If you are in danger of being eaten by a person with an infected iMplant, please hang up and call your local authorities," the pleasant, mechanical voice told me. "If you are calling about problems with a recent download-"

I punched the 0 button on the phone, cutting off the recording and being routed directly to support and, of course, immediately into the hold queue. I waited. And I waited. Eventually, I started setup shifts for Frank, Susan, Mark, Janet and me. It took eight hours to finally get through.

"MicrosnAp support," said a tired voice in accented English, "this is Sreeni. How may I help you?"

"Hi. I'm calling from iMpSoft in the U.S. We develop iMplications for the iMplant and-" I started to reply.

"iMpSoft? You guys developed
Thunderchild did you not? I liked that game very much!" Sreeni interrupted.

"Different group, Sreeni. We do more business related stuff. But what I'm calling about," I added quickly in case Sreeni was going to interrupt again, "is to find out if anyone has figured out what caused this problem. We know it was a download from last night, but-"

"We are being told it was an illegal download. A virus," Sreeni said. "But that is only what our managers here think. We are not in contact with the Redmond office."

Typical management. Cover your ass first, solve the problem second. "Virus, valid iMp, whatever. I don't really care. What I want to know is if you've heard from any other technical groups? The few of us left here at iMpSoft are going to be looking for a solution, but there's only five of us. If we could get in touch with other groups, maybe use this support line as a way to exchange information, maybe we can solve this."

Sreeni wasn't sure it would be possible to use a business line for something like that. It took me 15 minutes to get him to talk to his manager. Who then had to talk to
his manager and so on. It took another hour and a half, but eventually someone who could make a decision was consulted. He was thrilled to have someone take some responsibility.

Within two days, we were in touch with 22 other development groups around the world. It wasn't much, but at least there people working on the disaster. I was pretty pleased, all things considered.

Then we lost contact with the group in Munich. One day, they just weren't checking in. A few days later, we lost the Tokyo group. Within a month, we had lost contact with 20 of the 22 other groups. There didn't look to be much hope for the human race.

***

The Present

Susan and I wandered back into the test lab. Everyone but Mark was watching the door. They'd heard the shotgun blasts and knew something was up.

"Frank's dead," I told them. "He decided he had the fix, uploaded it to his iMplant, left the shielded lab and sent a download request."

"Frank always was a dumbass," Janet said, wiping at her eyes. "Now we don't have a developer and we're only in contact with three other groups."

"Doesn't really matter anyway," Mark said. "Our test iMplants are useless now, anyway."

"Useless? How?" I asked.

"I was resetting one for the next code drop from Frank," Mark said, "and instead of the menu I got the Windows authentication warning. 'Your installation of Windows on My Mind is out of date. Do you wish to update your validation?' Of course I answered 'No' and the whole thing shut down on me."

Everyone else started talking at once, but I just stood there, stunned. I must have had a strange look on my face or something, because everyone got quiet and looked at me.

"You okay, Henry?" Susan asked.

"Jesus Christ, guys, we've been idiots! The solution was right there all along and it never occurred to us," I told them.

"What solution are you-" Mark began. Then comprehension dawned on him. "Oh..."

"What are the two of you going on about?" Janet asked.

"Windows validation," I replied. "What would happen if every single iMplant had an out of date validation and
no way to update it?"

It hit Janet and Susan just as hard as it had hit Mark and me.

Mark looked at me and said, "Road trip?"

"Oh yeah," I told him, grinning. "Major road trip!"

"How far is it from Raleigh to Redmond?" Susan asked.

I sent Mark, Susan and Janet out to grab a couple of good cars for the trip. No point in wasting time, so I suggested they go by the Porche dealership and grab a couple of really fast cars. While they were doing that, I left a message for the other three development groups with MicrosnAp support and asked the support crew to get the word out that we could really use someone who knew the technical side of Windows validation.

An hour later, we hit the road.

The trip was surreal. We had the roads to ourselves but it was hardly an easy drive. Lots of cars had been our when the Download came. Most of those cars crashed, making it impossible to just floor it in the Porches. If we got out away from cities things cleared up a good bit and we were able to really see how fast the cars could go.

If the roads were difficult, cities were downright scary. We tried to avoid them as much as possible, but cities remained the best places to find food and gas. And zombies. Before we left, I made sure Mark and Janet, who were in the other car, understood that we couldn't stop for anything or anyone. That's really easy to say but hard as Hell to do. We got our first taste for how hard it was driving through Greensboro.

A huge pack of zombies -- I'm guessing over 500 -- tried to stop us by sheer numbers. I was in the lead car when we spotted them massing on the road about a half mile ahead of us.

"Susan," I said, "use the radio and tell Mark to stay right behind us and to keep his foot on the gas at all times. Windows up and doors locked, if they aren't already."

Then I just pressed the gas pedal down and we zoomed toward the pack. Most people have never hit another person with a car. I certainly hadn't. So I just can't really describe how it sounds to literally plow through row upon row of people in a car. The noise is sickening, as bones snap and bodies tumble. Wipers can't keep up with all the blood and gore splattering on the windshield. And unless you're driving a tank or something, your car is going to slow down a lot as you try to bash your way through the pack. We hit the front of the pack doing close to 100 mph. We were down below 30 when we finally smashed through the pack and hit the open road again. I managed to drive another mile before I had to stop and puke my guts out. Susan was doing the same out the passenger door.

After that, we tried to find ways around zombie packs.

Bad as that was, the worst was when we saw regular people. They'd run out when they heard the cars coming, waving and shouting and trying to get us to stop. Not stopping for those people was the hardest thing I'd ever done. I guess it was harder on Mark and Janet. Just outside St. Louis, they stopped for someone. I saw it in my rearview mirror and had Susan try to radio them. They didn't bother answering and I couldn't stop.

We never saw Mark and Janet again.

Every few hours, we called in to MicrosnAp support, hoping someone had managed to get in touch with an actual Windows developer. Just about the time we crossed the Washington state line, Sreeni told us he'd found someone for us. A guy who used to be an operator in the labs in Redmond had turned up in south Florida. Sreeni patched us through to him.

"You the guy heading for Redmond?" a scratchy voice asked me.

"Yeah, that's me. Did Sreeni explain what we want to do?"

"He did. You aren't thinking this is going to be easy are you?" he asked. "You're going right into zombie ground zero and I'm not so sure you're going to be able to get back out, even if you do succeed."

"Please don't tell me I'm going to need a programmer with me," I replied.

"Not as long as you know how to change the date on a computer, you don't," he said.

"Computer? You don't mean an iMplant?" I asked.

"I mean a computer with a keyboard and a monitor and probably a mouse. You ever use one of those before these iMplant things came out?"

"I have," Susan said. "My grandparents had one of them and they showed me how things were done back in the old days, before iMplants. I don't know how to change the date, though."

"It's easy enough," he said, and explained it. He was right, it was easy.

"You just change the dates on network server. Something about 10 years in the future should do. The date will be kicked out to the other servers automatically. Then you just shut down the active validation server. Just pull the plug or whatever. When the active server goes down, the next server in the cluster automatically starts up and takes over running validation. First thing a server does when it comes up is send out a validation check and with the date set so far forward, none of them are going to pass. The server will send out mandatory shutdown codes for every iMplant out there."

"Sounds...a lot easier than I thought it would be. Thanks, um, you know I never got your name," I said.

"And you don't need to get it, either," he replied.

He told us which building we needed to enter and where to find the servers. "That's assuming they haven't moved them in the last few years. They probably haven't, but I'll be in regular contact with the support group in case you need me. Good luck you two. I think you're going to need it."

Seven hours later, we drove into Redmond. It was just like all the other cities we'd driven through. Quiet. Scary. Deserted. Except that I was always picking up some kind of movement out of the corner of my eye. The zombies were out there and they knew we were there, too. Unlike the other cities, though, we were going to have to stop in Redmond.

By the time we hit the MicrosnAp campus, we could hear masses of zombies moving behind us. We couldn't see them, but they were definitely following the car. I just hoped we could do what we had to do before they reached us. After their iMplants shut down, we should be safe enough. We found the right building, hopped out of the car, I grabbed the shotgun and we headed in.

It didn't take long to find the server room the guy had described to us. And those MicrosnAp operators were well organized. Every server rack was labeled and easy to find. Ten minutes after we came in through the door, Susan was pecking on a keyboard, changing the server date. We could hear the mob of zombies approaching outside the building as we waited for the date change to hit the other servers.

The zombies were banging on the building entrance when the dates changed.

We could hear them bashing the doors open as we shut down the active validation server.

We could hear them shuffling into the building as the next server in the cluster started up.

We could hear them on the stairs as a message flashed up on the monitor reading "POLLING WINDOWS VALIDATION."

We could hear them in the hallway as the a new message flashed up reading "VALIDATION FAILED. SENDING WINDOWS SHUTDOWN."

We were hugging each other in delight as the final message flashed up, "SHUTDOWN COMPLETE."

We looked up as the door to the server room banged open and the zombies began to shuffle in.

"H-Henry," Susan said, "they still look like zombies!"

"Run for the other end of the building! To the windows!" I said as I took a couple of shots at the leading zombies. That jammed the door a bit as some of the zombies started eating the ones I'd shot. It bought us a few minutes. I hoped it would be enough.

At the far end of the lab, I blasted out a window. We were on the third floor and should survive a jump to the ground. The zombies had cleared the jam at the door and were shuffling toward us as I lowered Susan as far down as I could then let her go, swung out of the window until I was hanging by fingers then dropped after her.

We both go up limping a little bit, but at least there weren't any zombies right there. Slipping around the building, we came within sight of the car. The closest zombies were about 20 feet away from it and facing in the other direction. Without taking the time to think about it, we dashed for the car.

I ended up having to shoot a couple of zombies and Susan clubbed another one, but then we were in the car and heading away from the MicrosnAp campus.

***

Three months later

We waited and hoped that the Windows shutdown would fix things, put people right again. In the long run, I guess their minds were just too damaged. We never found anyone who returned to normal.

Through the MicrosnAp support line, Susan and I organized a migration of those unaffected people we could reach. We're all living in Alaska now. It's damned cold up here in the winter, particularly for a guy who grew up in the Carolinas, but there aren't many zombies. We hope they'll all freeze to death during the winter.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Watch This!

“Hey, Cletus, hold my beer and watch this!”

That was the last thing Ronnie remembered saying before he ended up…where ever it was he’d ended up. He was standing in a line of some kind. A long line. And a real quiet one, too. Briefly, he wondered what the line was for, got bored with that and started looking around.

Off to his right it was bright and white and seemed to go on forever. Bo-o-o-o-oring! On his left, there was some kind of high fence, looked like wrought iron or something else expensive. On the other side of the fence was a high shrub wall, so he couldn’t see what was inside the fence. Behind him was Cletus. And the rest of the line.

“Damn, now that’s one long line!” Ronnie said.

“You want your beer back, Ronnie?” Cletus asked, holding out the open can of PBR.

Ronnie took the beer, glad to see Cletus had held onto the twelve pack after whatever had happened. That was one thing you could count on from Cletus. He always held onto the beer. That’s why he was Ronnie’s best friend in the whole world.

He had no idea what was going on, but Ronnie was sure it was going to be easier to face after a few beers. Draining the warm PBR in one long pull, Ronnie belched loudly, crushed the can on his forehead and tossed the empty over his shoulder. Faces turned toward them, frowning at Ronnie and Cletus. Taking another beer from Cletus, Ronnie tried frowning back. Everyone else just turned away. Not one of them asked for a beer.

“Cletus, we ain’t in Kansas no more!”

“Ronnie, I ain’t never been to Kansas so there ain’t no way we ain’t in Kansas no more. You gots to be in a place 'fore you can’t be in it no more!”

That was another thing Ronnie liked about Cletus. Cletus made Ronnie feel smart and there weren’t many people he could say that about.

“You got any idea what this line is for?” Ronnie asked Cletus.

“Can’t be for beer or someone woulda asked us for one,” Cletus replied, “unless they don’t like PBR.”

Ronnie tapped the person in front of him on the shoulder.

“Hey, you know what this here line is for?”

The person brushed his shoulder off, frowned even more deeply than when Ronnie had belched and turned away.

“Only one thing could get this many people out to stand in line on the 4th of July, Cletus. Got to be a concert!”

“Could be a white sale, Ronnie,” Cletus said. “My momma told some real horror stories ‘bout lines at white sales.”

Ronnie rolled his eyes and said, “You got any money on you?”

Turning out his pockets, Cletus replied, “Nope.”

“Me neither,” said Ronnie. “Dang, how we gonna get into this here concert without any money?”

“Do what we always do, Ronnie,” Cletus said. “Pull the truck up to the fence and we can hop over.”

“Good thinking, Cletus!” Ronnie said. “You remember where we parked the truck?”

“Heck, Ronnie, I don’t even remember driving here!” Cletus replied.

“Aw, Hell.”

Again, faces turned toward Ronnie, frowning the deepest frown yet. Ronnie flipped them off and pulled Cletus from the line.

“Gimme a boost up to the top of the fence. Then I’ll pull you up,” he told Cletus.

“What about the beer, Ronnie?”

“Well, of course you’re gonna hand the beer up to me first! You think I’m gonna leave perfectly good beer for these people?” Ronnie waved his hand toward the line.

The people in the line watched as Cletus boosted Ronnie to the top of the fence. As Cletus was handing Ronnie the beer, one man in the line turned to another.

“Shouldn’t we stop them?” he asked.

“Not my problem,” replied the other man. “Besides, the guy behind me probably wouldn’t let us back in line.”

“I beg your pardon?” said the man behind him. “Unlike those morons, you surely know why we’re in this line! I am honest and trustworthy or I wouldn’t be here.”

“Yeah, yeah. After you get through the gate, I’ll believe you. Right now, you’re just another guy who’s nervous about the big interview coming up. Besides, the morons are already over the fence.”

Dropping to the ground inside the fence, Ronnie and Cletus looked around. Expecting an amphitheater, they found themselves looking at a city with streets of gold and buildings of gold, silver and marble. It was the most amazing sight either of had ever seen. It kept their attention for almost an entire fifteen seconds.

“Don’t see no concert, Ronnie,” Cletus said, opening another PBR.

“Good thing you told me, Cletus, ‘cause I’d never have figgered it out,” Ronnie replied, his words thick with sarcasm.

“That’s what friends are for, Ronnie,” Cletus said, completely missing the sarcasm.

“All right, now be quiet. Maybe we can hear the crowd or something if we listen hard,” said Ronnie.

Both men listened hard, interrupted only be the occasional swig of beer. After a minute, Cletus spoke.

“Hey, I hear something, Ronnie! Over that a way!”

And now Ronnie could hear it, too. It didn’t sound like rock or country or even bluegrass, but it was music. After making sure Cletus still had the beer, Ronnie led off toward the music. After a bit of walking, they found the amphitheater.

“Told you it was a concert,” Ronnie said. “People don’t line up like that for anything else!”

“Where we gonna sit, Ronnie?”

“Down front, of course! Just follow me and act natural like,” Ronnie told him.

“Okay,” Cletus replies, following his friend.

“Ronnie?” Cletus asked after a few seconds.

“Yeah, Cletus?” Ronnie replied.

“How would I act if I didn’t act natural like?”

“You know, unnatural like,” Ronnie said.

“Well, what’s unnatural like? So’s I don’t act that way,” Cletus asked.

Ronnie sighed. “Trying to kiss me would be unnatural, Cletus.”

“Oh,” Cletus said, nodding. “I won’t try to kiss you, Ronnie.”

“Shut up, Cletus. I think they’re about to start something new.”

Ronnie was right. Music swelled around them, unlike anything Ronnie and Cletus had ever heard before. The music was cosmic. It was primal. It was triumphant. It was soothing. It was soul stirring and spirit up lifting.

It was not Free Bird.

Polishing off another beer, Ronnie yelled, “Free Bird!

Cletus joined in, “Free Bird!

The music ground to a halt. All around them, faces turned toward them, expressions of indescribable joy vanishing behind deep frowns. Ronnie and Cletus remained oblivious.

“Free Bird!” they yelled together. “Free Bird!”

Then, with a flash of light, the amphitheater vanished from around Ronnie and Cletus. They found themselves facing a crowd of angry people, all talking at once to… Ronnie gaped. The angry people were all talking to God. And they were all pointing at him. And at Cletus, but not as much.
God lifted one hand and silence fell. His great eyes turned toward Ronnie and Ronnie wanted to hide behind Cletus.

“It appears,” God’s voice rang out, “that discord has entered the realm of Heaven. Entered on Nike clad feet.”

“Uh, what’s He mean, Ronnie?” Cletus whispered.

“He means we pissed off a lot of people, Cletus,” Ronnie whispered back.

“There is no need to whisper, Cletus,” God said. “I hear all, regardless of volume.”

“Ronnie,” Cletus sounded nervous, “He knows my name!”

“Course He knows your name, dumbass. God knows everything!” Ronnie told him.

“I know He knows everything. I just figgered it was important stuff. My name ain’t important.”

“It is to me, Cletus, just as you are important to me,” God said. “Another important question is how the two of you came to be here.”

“Ronnie,” Cletus whispered again, “I thought you said God knows everything?”

“I do, Cletus,” God said, “but confession is good for the soul. Trust me on this.”

“We, uh,” Ronnie began, “we climbed over your fence, sir. I mean, your Godliness. And we went to a concert.”

“Which you interrupted with repeated calls for Free Bird,” God added. “While Ronnie Van Zant will be pleased to know his work is still appreciated on earth, I would like for you to start a bit earlier. Let Us say, shortly before you asked Cletus to hold your beer.”

“Oh, yeah, Ronnie! You got to tell Him about that!” Cletus said.

Ronnie squirmed as all eyes turned, again, toward him.

“Well,” Ronnie began, “my cousin Billy managed to get his hands on some real good stuff for lighting grills. And, you know, it being the 4th of July, I figgered I’d use it to start the fire for my cook out. I poured a whole bunch of the stuff over my charcoal and-“

“What kind of ‘stuff’ was it, Ronnie?” God asked.

“Well, You know, sir. God.”

“Yes, I do. As does Peter, as the act is now recorded in the Book of Life. But none of these others know.”

“It, uh, was, uh, some jet fuel and, uh, something cousin Billy said was liquid oxygen. He said it would burn something fierce,” Ronnie continued.
“So, I, uh, poured a bunch of both on my charcoal. Then I asked Cletus to hold my beer. Then I lit a match. Then we were outside your fence.”

Comprehension suddenly pushed its way through the fog of beer in Ronnie’s mind.

“Ah, man, I’m real sorry, Cletus! I killed you with my grill!” Ronnie said, distraught.

“That’s okay, Ronnie,” Cletus said. “I ain’t mad or nothing. And it that grill lighting was something to see!”

“Peter?” God asked.

“Yes, my Lord?” replied an old man with a long beard.

“Take Ronnie and Cletus and bring them into My realm properly, please.”

“You mean I ain’t going to Hell?” Ronnie asked. “I mean, I killed my best friend!”

“I done told you I ain’t upset about that, Ronnie,” Cletus said.

A book suddenly appeared in Peter’s hands, “Ronald Roosevelt Jenkins, you have led an aimless life, but one filled with kindness toward others. Accidentally killing your best friend was not a good way to end your life, but your friend’s forgiveness counts in your favor.”

Peter looked up and the book vanished, “You are to be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven, Ronald.”

“Ronnie,” God said, just before Peter led the two men away, “you are not the first to say ‘Hold my beer and watch this!’ Nor will you be the last. In a way, you are hardwired to say such things.”

“I don’t understand, sir. Um, my Lord,” Ronnie said.

God smiled at him, “Do you know your Bible well, Ronnie?”

“Pretty well. I think,” Ronnie replied.

“In Genesis, do you recall the words I spoke when creating the heavens and the earth?”

“Oh, I know!” Cletus exclaimed. “You said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light!”

“Very good, Cletus,” God said. “But I edited that a bit before sending My divine inspiration. My first words were…”

Even Peter’s eyes widened in surprise and anticipation.

“…Hey, Lucifer! Hold my nectar and watch this!”