Beautiful World 23: Ultimatum

“We’re not going to make it,” Jules said for the fourth time since getting in the car. He hadn’t taken his eyes off of his palmtop except to glance at freeway exit numbers or look out the window for other landmarks. “Right at the bottom of the exit ramp, two blocks, turn left.”

“So you’ve said,” I sighed. “Look, wasn’t there anyone else you could call to watch the server? Someone closer?”

He shook his head. “I’ve called Infinicom; they’ve got extra monitoring on the box, but they say they can’t physically stash somebody in front of it. John or I could; we’re both cleared for access to the hardware and the box belongs to him, but John’s not exactly capable these days. So, guess who? Right turn.”

“I heard you, Jules,” I said, signalling and then weaving back across to the left lane. “So, they’ll let you sit in front of the hardware but then what? You could stop them from pulling the server off of the shelf, but you can’t stop them from pulling the shelves down. They could cut the power. Hell, Jules, if you really want to explore these paranoid ideas, why not imagine that they’ve changed all the clocks? It wouldn’t even take that; they could have just lied about the time. Even if they didn’t, all it would take is one nervous operator hitting a switch too soon and—”

Jules’ right fist slammed into the window, making it rattle. “Damnit, Adam, I know you’re the voice of reason and logic and John and I are a pair of emotional freaks, but right now you’re not helping! I’m worrying about John’s survival and you’re telling me all the ways in which he might already be dead. Not cool.”

“As far as medical science is concerned, he died on the operating table three weeks ago.” The words were out of me before I really thought about them. “If whatever passes for Johnathan is still running in there, then….” My voice trailed off when I glanced over and got a look at Jules’ expression. “I’m… sure he’ll be fine.”

Jules didn’t respond to that; he just looked back down at his palmtop. “Parking garage on the right. We’ve got two minutes.” His seatbelt was off as soon as he heard the parking brake engage, and before I had the car locked he was jogging towards the front of the Infinicom building. I had to sprint to catch up with him as he grabbed the door handle. Just as I approached, he jerked the door open, took two steps forward, and then froze. “Shit.”

Inside, four people in dark suits and visitors’ badges stood in the lobby, conversing and checking their watches. As the door swung wide, all four turned to look, staring directly at Jules and at me. They glanced back at each other, then turned to face us. The first, an older woman, took a step towards the door, her hand outstretched. “Miss Penrose? I’m Sarah Bellwether, Tadashiissei Security. Would you—”

That was all the prompting Jules needed. He started forward, his head down and his shoulders squared, trying to barrel past four security guards. “Ninety seconds, Adam.”

“Excuse me,” I said to Ms. Bellwether, stepping forward to run interference while Jules continued walking. “I’m Adam Watson, a friend of Jules’. He’s a little busy; can I—” One of the guards moved to cut Jules off as he went around me, and I jumped to interpose. “Can I help you? Excuse me, but—”

Tadashiissei Security immediately started flanking, voices jumbling as everyone started trying to have the last word. “—don’t know who you are but—can’t let you—with us, please—out of the way!” Someone’s hand landed on my shoulder. Like Johnathan tried to show me, I grabbed it and stepped back, tugging the guard off-balance, then shoved forward. Instantly two more hands were on my elbows, wrenching them behind me, and one of them called out, “Grab her!”

“Jules!” I shouted, trying to wrest an arm free. “Run!”

Jules’ rapid footfalls were his only response, followed by another set as the last guard broke after him. I heard the beep of the door, and then the snap of the latch. A hinge creaked, and then Jules burst out swearing as the door slammed closed. “—get your… damnit… let go! Adam!”

Ms. Bellwether tried again, firm but patient. “Miss Penrose, would you—”

“No, you fuckers!” Jules’ outburst was instant and unrestrained; something had finally snapped inside of him. “And it’s Mister; now let go—” I heard a slam, and then a muffled curse. “—no right to hold me, I’m trying to—” A deep artificial chime resonated in the air, followed by another a few moments later. “Ow, watch the—Damnit! Adam!” He jerked his right arm free, then tried to elbow the guard holding him in the ribs. The security agent grabbed for him again, and the two ended up tumbling to the ground.

“Oh, c’mon!” I shouted, my words echoing off of the walls. “You can’t do this! You’ve got no right to hold us! Where’s Infinicom security?”

“They issued us the badges when we arrived,” Ms. Bellwether said, her voice tightening. “They were quite eager to help us, given our long-standing business relationship. We had probable cause to suspect both interference with contract and fraudulent conveyance. Don’t prove those assumptions correct; you’re smarter than that, Mr. Penrose.”

“Now you get it right,” Jules grumbled, barely more than a grunt. “I get it. You win, okay? I give up. Just… let me go check on the server, please. I’ve got some people I really care about in there.”

Ms. Bellwether’s expression didn’t change, but at least her tone softened. “Of that there’s no doubt, but my orders are clear. I’m to escort you to a conference room on the eighteenth floor if you’re interested, or out of the building if you’re not. Those were the options given to me, and I’m afraid that’s all I can offer to you. It’s your choice.”

“Conference room?” I asked, straightening. I tugged once, and the guards holding my arms let go. “But why?”

Jules followed suit, pulling himself free. “Does it matter? The rollback’s started.”

“Jules, I’m about fed up with your attitude,” I sighed, throwing my hands up in the air. “You don’t know the server’s status right now.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled up his palmtop. “Memory’s at a hundred percent, swap’s at ninety-eight, and disk operations are pushing the limits of the hardware. There’s nothing more I can turn off or disable that doesn’t put the box at risk. Somebody getting bored and trying to load a sparkler in there could bring down the whole damn box, and I hope nobody tries to see who else is online. I need to hot-swap some RAM into it so that doesn’t happen, and some more disk would be really nice, too. That enough status for you, Adam?”

My eyes went wide. “Okay, so… that might have been good to know before.”

Jules smirked. “Why? They’re all just simulations, aren’t they? They’re not real.”

“Excuse me,” Ms. Bellwether interrupted. “We should either take this conversation up to the eighteenth floor or out to your vehicle. Our security staff is monitoring the health of the server as well, Mr. Penrose. Now please, either follow me or have a nice day.” With that, she turned and started walking towards the bank of elevators. The other guards withdrew as well, one standing by the elevators and the other two taking up position near the badge-coded door.

I walked over to Jules and offered him a hand. “We might as well follow her.”

“Why?” Jules glared up at me but took my hand in his good one, then hauled himself to his feet. “What’s the point? They won. We lost.”

I threw my hands up in exasperation. “Jules, will you stop being so bloody digital? Look, is the server down?”

He pulled out his palmtop. “Ninety-nine percent. If it hasn’t gone yet, it will soon.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Jules!” I grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him forcefully towards the elevators. “It’s still running; that means you can do something. You don’t know what they want; if they wanted us gone, they’d have escorted us out by now!” I shoved him towards the open doors. “You’re just running on blind faith again! I swear, you and bloody Johnathan, both of you.” As I pushed Jules into the elevator, I turned to Ms. Bellwether and forced a smile. “He’s not normally this stupid, I assure you. He’s just angry.”

Ms. Bellwether didn’t respond; she just pushed the button for the eighteenth floor. The elevator filled with awkward silence; Jules either glared at the floor or the security guard, who stood gazing impassively forward, ignoring both of us. I watched the light display as the numbers counted upwards, then glanced to the guard. As the door opened, she motioned to the hall. “This way. Hurry; you’re late.” Then she was walking quickly down the corridor, leaving me to half-urge, half-drag Jules behind me.

The conference room looked like any of the ones on campus, with a large table in the center and wheeled chairs around it. A wide display hung on the wall at one end of the table, with a camera mounted above it. A laptop sat on the desk, to one side of the monitor. As I guided Jules into a chair, Ms. Bellwether punched something into the computer, then quietly excused herself from the room and pulled the door closed behind her. The screen flickered once, then came to life, dominated by an animated Tadashiissei logo. The color-panels winked in and out in sequence for a few seconds, and then they faded, replaced by a remote signal from some other office. The window in that room was dark, and sitting too close to the camera was an elderly Asian man. He’d long since gone gray, his hair cut short in a Western part. A faint mustache sat on his upper lip, and he wore a soul patch beneath it. His glasses were thick, and a faint reflection of the camera glinted off of them. He wore a severe grey suit, with a dark green tie. As the camera focused on his face, he smiled warmly and raised one hand in a wave.

“Good evening,” the elderly man said. His smile was unnervingly broad. “I believe you wanted access to one of my servers.”

Jules shook his head wearily. “I don’t have time for this shit. Who are you and what do you want?”

It took a moment for Jules’ words to get to him, but once they did, his face darkened considerably. He sat upright, adjusted his tie. “My name is Kajō Kūsō. I own Tadashiissei, and by extension Irokai. You and your friends have been quite the nuisance.”

“Nuisance?” My voice rose, incredulous. “I can’t believe this! You let a major security breach put thousands of people at risk, you’re threatening our friend with deletion if he doesn’t pay your extortion fees, you’re threatening to wipe everything that’s happened just to stop the revolt your own policies started, and you’re calling us the nuisances?”

Mr. Kajō was visibly unimpressed. “I have no need to justify my reasoning to you, but you may rest assured that I hold the future value of my company above all else. That means doing what I think is best for Irokai. We found a number of collaborators within Tadashiissei who are being dealt with at the highest levels, and after extensive review from our database and maintenance teams, the rollback was seen as the best way to protect overall system integrity. Your friend is presently obstructing our ability to protect our creation.”

“He’s too busy trying to protect his memories!” Jules burst out, jumping to his feet, his chair skittering backwards across the floor. “Everything he’s done since he uploaded himself… you’re talking about wiping it all out!”

“We must be sure there are no residual effects,” Mr. Kajō riposted. “Any one of them could be harboring viruses or malicious code.”

“So you’re saying you want to force them all to lose three weeks or more off their lives, just because they might have some kind of virus? You can’t just scan them or something?” I shrugged helplessly. “Is this really the only way to do this?”

Mr. Kajō made a faint shrug. “It’s the fastest, and the one that will get the system back up and running the fastest with the least number of long-term side effects.”

I smirked. “It won’t stop the protests; it’ll only make those worse.”

The smile that Mr. Kajō wore in response sent a chill down my spine. “With no-one inside who remembers, who will protest? Irokai will be on new software immune to the old attacks. Security has already been increased. For the residents, it will be as if none of this had happened.”

I folded my arms. “Mitsuko will remember, when Johnathan’s account gets suspended for non-payment of debts he won’t remember owing.”

Mr. Kajō’s smile faded slightly. “We are prepared to remove those debts from the record.”

Jules grinned. “Giri will remember, when he goes to work and finds he’s been fired.”

“His position will be reinstated,” Mr. Kajō replied. His eyes were narrowed again, and the smile was gone from his face.

I shook my head in response. “We’ll remember, because we’re not in the system having our minds wiped alongside the residents.” Mr. Kajō’s mouth opened, then closed again. “Not looking like the cleverest answer now, is it? Do what you want with your ones and zeros, but you can’t touch us.”

Jules’ eyes darkened as he pulled his palmtop out of his pocket, looking down at it. “Adam, the box is screaming. We don’t have time for this.”

I nodded at Jules’ comment, but I kept my focus on Mr. Kajō. He tried again to speak, then caught himself. He let out a tight chuckle, then smiled once more. “You realize that, by locking themselves off from the main system during the upgrade, they will be unable to return to Irokai. Their authentication codes will fail. Their accounts will be rejected as fraudulent. Until they accept the database rollback, they will be unable to leave that tiny, tiny box. How close is it to dying? The drives are over capacity, the memory is running out. Soon it will come down very gracelessly, and if the backup system is offline….”

“You’re a damned monster!” Jules shouted at the screen, slamming both hands down on the table with a grimace. “You’re a lunatic and you’re playing god with people’s lives! Tadashiissei’s done for at this point! If they don’t go down this time, they’ll go next time, or the time after! You can’t keep Irokai forever! One day it’ll—”

“One day Irokai will go offline, and not return,” Mr. Kajō interrupted, his voice sharp. “It is the way of all corporate services, is it not? Those who wish to build alternatives have nothing stopping them from doing so. Now, if you have nothing further to say, I should check on the rollback.” His hand started reaching for the camera.

“Wait!” I burst out, waving at the camera. Mr. Kajō paused, looking at me, silent. I was stunned by my own outburst, but then I swallowed heavily. This is it. Make or break time. “Look, you could let that server go down. You could’ve let the hacks do their work. You could’ve let it all be wiped out, but you didn’t. You and Tadashiissei didn’t. You tried to save it, and now you’re trying to save it again, but you’re not asking the people you’re trying to save. They deserve a say in their own lives.”

“You forget,” Mr. Kajō faintly sneered. “I own Irokai.”

“Yes,” I admitted, “but you don’t own them. The residents. I’m not a lawyer; I can’t argue for the digitals. I know, though, that Imogen Franklin’s been ruled alive and well in there, and isn’t she one of your big celebrities? You’d hate to see something happen to her, wouldn’t you? Especially after all those efforts to promote her as a successful test case.” Mr. Kajō’s eyes remained dark and impenetrable, and I continued. “Please, this… this is real to her, to all of them, even if it isn’t to you. They’ve all got to be scared out of their minds in there. If that box goes down… if what you did to Johnathan three months ago wasn’t murder, then letting that server fail surely will be.”

For several seconds, Mr. Kajō was silent, then leaned briefly off-camera, exchanging words in Japanese with someone I couldn’t see. When he came back into focus, his eyes were still narrowed, but he seemed eerily calm. “I have received word that the rollback has completed, and I have some things to consider. I will speak with my legal team. In the meantime, I recommend that you go to the server room and install whatever upgrades will stabilize that development server. I will meet you within Irokai in an hour.”

I shook my head. “No, I’m not going in there until I have some—”

Jules was already heading for the door. “Then you can be the one to guard the box; my hand’s still shot for now. For now, though, I need you to hold parts for me. We’re running out of borrowed time.”

2 thoughts on “Beautiful World 23: Ultimatum

  1. “Why? They’re all just simulations, aren’t they? They’re not real.”

    This is kind of a low blow. Adam *is* trying to help, after all.

    I have a shred of hope for the development server refugees now. Don’t extinguish, please. ;)

    1. Extinguish? As is pointed out, they are all already dead. All that remains is a memory, which is fading fast. Even if time can be purchased for them to make it out, there is damage which has been done already which will not be reversible. If I were a wagering person, I’d place money there is far too much damage done to all involved; it might have been best to accept the rollback, while storing the information of what happened offsite securely in a fashion it could be retrieved and believed later.

      The title is indeed fitting . . . it is a beautiful world, one made of mirrors and light. Such a thing cannot last.

Comments are closed.