Into the Soft Fields
John A. Frochio
The fluid arms swiftly and gently deposited him into the shuttle pod and gracefully transferred him to the first slot in the docking module of the orbiting Titan station. The operation was smooth and seamless. Of course! He wrote the software that drove it!
Maybe that’s why they called him out of retirement. They needed the best. They needed Craig Colonna, software designer extraordinaire! He might be old, overweight, short, hairy (pure white, well trimmed) and not too humble, but he was still pretty sharp.
He didn’t usually boast like that. His name was well enough known among software professionals that he didn’t really need to. But among the non-techies in the rest of the solar system, he was pretty much just an old retired consultant.
A servobot herded him to the Captain of the station, Ariel Brinks. She was younger than he expected, with long dark hair that drew graceful curves around her soft-featured face. She stood up from behind her desk when he entered and walked around the desk to greet him. Her body was slim and athletic, and filled out her black and silver uniform nicely, a detail he seldom overlooked.
“Mr. Colonna? I’m Captain Brinks. I’m glad you could come on short notice.”
They shook hands. She had a firm grip.
“I was told someone of my expertise was needed immediately. However, I’m still in the dark about the problem.”
She sighed and returned to her chair. “After you settle in, I’ll arrange for you to be taken to the Data Center. Our IT Director will give you all the details. This much I can tell you. Don’t waste time trying to resolve our problem. The consequences could be dire.”
Hmm. Okay. He hated mysteries.
After he unpacked and enjoyed a decent lunch awaiting him in his room, another servobot came and escorted him to the Data Center. IT Manager Shannon Frank met him at the entrance. She was tall, with a full head of blonde hair, slim with glasses, professionally dressed, and well mannered. She extended her hand for a quick handshake before leading him into the Data Center.
“Welcome, Mr. Colonna. It is an honor to meet you. You’re quite a legend in the industry. I’m glad you agreed to investigate our problem.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Frank. How many are in your staff?”
“Call me Shannon. Human personnel is a luxury out here. Just me and my sysadmin, Julia Waters. Between the two of us, we support all the computer systems. Since remote support is impossible, we’re on our own for any upgrades, troubleshooting, application development, and user support.”
“That sounds pretty stressful.”
She pointed to her hair. “Premature graying. I dye it.”
He chuckled. “So, tell me about your problem.”
She said, “Follow me.”
She spun around, keyed a door open and led him through a large room that burst into sudden light. Dozens of racks filled the center of the room. Cabinets lined two opposite walls. Several tables were setup along the length of the room, each with two slim processors and monitors.
“Rack-mounted servers in redundant cloud configuration servicing twenty-four virtual application and database servers and our local Titan intranet, TiNet. In addition to administrative and research apps, we also have supervisory control over many real-time processors for monitoring and remote control of miscellaneous robotic equipment.”
He nodded. “Impressive. There’s more computing power here than I would have expected.”
“Yes, we need quite a lot for the amount of research, exploration, and construction and mining operations going on.”
“On one hand I envy you this great adventure. On the other hand I sympathize with you for the enormous burden you must bear.”
“It’s refreshing to talk to someone who understands. Now, about the problem we’ve been having.”
She paused and looked up for a few moments.
Then she looked straight at him. “This is difficult to explain. Let me see. Directives have been inexplicably cancelled, orders have been overturned. Operations and functions of varying importance have been suddenly, and without warning, halted, sometimes mid-process.”
“Do you suspect a saboteur from within your exploration team? Or a Trojan? Maybe a cyber attack?”
“Possibly. However, we have been unable to trace it back to anyone or anything. And are these part of a carefully planned attack or just random, meaningless attacks?”
“Neither is a very pleasant alternative. I assume you have the latest tracker software.”
“The latest we can get. But since we’re off the Interplanetary Net, we’re not generally susceptible to most viruses. Unfortunately, I suspect the worst, that there is a saboteur among us.”
He said, “We’ll see. I’d like to get started. This may be more serious and time-critical than anyone realizes. Especially since they probably know I’m here now.”
Shannon said, “We have an office and an account ready for you.”
His makeshift office was small, consisting of a tiny serviceable desk with a laptop, tablet, handheld device, a few pencils and paper (they were in the wild frontier after all), a 4×4 wall monitor matrix, a lamp, a nicely cushioned chair on wheels that wobbled a bit and best of all, and a small refrigerator. All the comforts of home, presumably in case of long late night computing sessions. The only thing he missed was a window with a view of the stars or possibly Saturn or Titan. Of course, he could always project an outside camera view onto one of his wall monitors.
With his account information locked in memory, he logged into the system and proceeded to get acquainted with the layout of the land, file structures, installed systems and services.
His data sink implant accumulated and organized all the information he could about the system, analyzing all processes and applications, data files and logs, noting any potential holes that he observed. He generated block diagrams, flow diagrams and entity-relationship diagrams. Within hours he had produced a fully detailed reverse engineered design of their system. Holo projections filled his office space.
Next he perused all available online documents. He preferred to analyze a system first before examining any potentially flawed documentation. That was just him.
Now it was time for a break.
He wondered if there was anything in the refrigerator. As far as he was concerned, anything was fair game.
After spending the rest of the day wandering the software landscapes of the system, he found himself yawning frequently. He decided to turn in for the evening. He fell asleep almost instantly.
The next morning after breakfast, Craig called a meeting with the Captain and IT Manager.
“First I need a list of all personnel with their history, job duties, system access privileges, anything and everything about them.”
The Captain agreed.
“I have a good overview of your system. I’ll be searching now for any signs of suspicious activity. Do you have detailed logs of the past abnormal events?”
“Yes,” said Shannon. “I’ll get those for you right away.”
The Captain said, “Is there anything else you need?”
“Yes. Later I may request personal interviews with specific users. Shannon, I would like to meet with your sysadmin as soon as possible.”
“Julia begins her shift at seventeen hundred. I’ll setup a meeting time.”
“Thank you. I’m just beginning the real work. As you are well aware, this is a potentially dangerous situation. I promise you I will move as rapidly as possible to identify and apprehend the perpetrator. Before you ask . . . no, I can’t give you a target date.”
Captain Brinks sighed. “Thanks for all your efforts.”
Julia Waters stared at something very closely on her terminal, occasionally tapping on her keyboard, so absorbed she didn’t notice Craig approach her. Craig examined her closely, looking for nuances in her actions. He noted especially the long, fiery red spray of her hair (Craig never seemed to get along with redheads), her red glasses, red and white blouse, petite body, intense green eyes.
He approached her slowly so as not to interrupt her work. Eventually he caught her attention and she looked up, puzzled at first. Then recognition crossed her face. She held up a finger. He stopped. She finished typing something, then stood up and walked over to him, extending a hand.
“Hi. You’re Craig Colonna. An honor to meet you. I’m Julia Waters, sysadmin.”
He smiled as he shook her slim hand. “Of course. A pleasure to meet you, Julia. You and Shannon certainly have a lot of responsibility here.”
She shrugged. “I guess so.”
She led him to a table with a pair of chairs. They sat down and talked shop a while longer.
Then he said, “Tell me what you think has been happening around here from your perspective.”
She took a deep breath. “It’s weird. It happens at random times. For no reason, a program stops running, happily exiting as though it received a normal cancellation request. Or an executing routine decides to halt an operation for no reason. We’ve had robot workers stop working, fans stop running, auto dispensers stop functioning, doors locking or unlocking at random, vacuum chambers filling with air and vice versa. So far no one’s been hurt or killed, but that could change at any time.”
“I get the impression you have an idea what’s causing these events. I want your honest answer.”
“And who at your station has the capability to do this level of sabotage?”
She spoke more slowly and softly now. “There really are only two here that could do this. Myself and my manager.”
She paused. “I have to get back to work.”
“Thank you for your time.”
Alone in his office later that day, Craig reviewed all the personnel details. Julia was right. There was no one else here who could come close to the sophisticated software manipulation required for this clear assault on their system integrity. Julia obviously suspected Shannon, and he expected Shannon suspected Julia. However, he was not entirely convinced that human intervention was behind all this. There was still the possibility of some kind of outside influence. For now he had to consider them both suspects.
He slipped on a VR helmet and went inside, into the soft fields where he felt at home and liked to roam. He loved the soft feel of the rough terrain and how he could bend it and shape it according to his whims. He felt invincible in this world. He was the software master.
He explored the soft landscapes searching for things that were out of place, things that did not seem right. From the top of a hill he watched the Titan rovers travel over jagged terrain in their quest to gather rock samples. In another direction he spotted the large, slow-moving trawlers that carried human and robot workers past the jutting mountains and ethane lakes to construction sites where they erected buildings and mining facilities. In still another direction he watched lab robots analyze stacks of materials gathered from Titan’s surface, busy flurries of arms and tubes and cutting tools.
Everything was running smoothly, a landscape of well-oiled efficiency. He kept his Argus eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary, any bump of suspicious activity in the road. He threw visualizations of all the executing processes up on his grid of wall monitors. He setup semaphores on each process that would instantly flag and log any suspicious events.
He let the watchers watch while he thought about the big picture.
He reviewed the detailed history of the anomalies. There was no discernable pattern and no clear objective to the events. He scratched his head and went to the refrigerator.
Later a red flag popped in his head.
He went in.
A “user” input was issued from an unknown user.
In response to the unknown user request, a team of robots on a field assignment on Titan turned around and headed back to the base.
Though the user was unknown, the system authenticated and authorized the nonexistent user. How could that happen?
Craig snapped up the trace logs and followed the user back to a nonexistent terminal. Another dead end!
But he wasn’t about to give up. Where was this phantom terminal and its mysterious operator?
He put flags on all terminal activity, grabbing ip addresses and both physical and virtual machine addresses.
He entered the soft fields again, marveling at the smoothly choreographed automation. He locked onto all terminals as they connected.
Finally the culprit showed up. He was surprised to find the unknown terminal had a physical address. Not what he expected. He traversed the soft fields in an instant and found himself walking into a dark warehouse toward a small light in a far corner.
In nanoseconds he stood—a virtual representation of a taller, more rugged and handsome version of himself (why be constrained by real world parameters?) staring down at a young woman in silversuit hunched over an old 19″ flat screen monitor with no stand propped up against a box on a stack of three pallets.
At last! So who was this unknown, disruptive user? Redhead. Petite. She looked up. It was Julia! Though she could not see him, he stood in front of her now. She looked like Julia, yet something was different. Sharper features. Almost wolflike. Almost inhuman.
The Julia-thing tapped furiously on the old rickety keyboard. On the monitor he saw lab robots dropping samples and breaking equipment. This was getting out of hand! He had to act. He sprouted a virtual keyboard and monitor, connected, and overrode her commands. The lab robots stopped in their tracks.
Puzzled, then angry, the Julia-thing growled in a voice that simultaneously chilled him and grated on his nerves. She typed more furiously.
He killed her terminal connection.
She stared blankly at a dead terminal.
He issued an alert to security.
She stood up and growled louder, then kicked the dead terminal off the pallets. It shattered on the cement floor.
Security bots burst into the warehouse and quickly surrounded the Julia-thing. Ceiling lights lit up the whole room. She charged at the bots. They blasted her with tranquilizer bullets.
She dropped to the floor. Then all the security bots suddenly halted. Their flickering lights went dark.
At that moment Shannon walked into the room. What was she doing here? No, wait, the inhuman features! It was another thing mimicking Shannon.
The Shannon-thing held onto a small handheld device. She pointed it at the prone Julia-thing. Instantly the Julia-thing was gone. Next she pointed it at Craig’s virtual instance. How could she know . . . ?
In an instant he was back in his makeshift office.
He had a headache.
He needed something from the refrigerator. And then he needed sleep. However, the real Shannon called an emergency meeting.
In a small meeting room, Craig told Shannon and Julia about his encounter.
“Whoever invaded your system not only replicated your user identities, but were also able to crossover between virtual sessions. The Shannon-thing easily transitioned from the Julia-thing’s virtual session to mine. Very sophisticated intruder.”
The head of security, a large black man named Emile Rhodes, was also in the meeting since the warehouse breach fell under his jurisdiction. Captain Brinks couldn’t be there.
Emile said, “There is no clear picture of the intruder who somehow disabled all my bots. She did indeed look a lot like you, Julia, but of course we know it wasn’t you down in the warehouse on Titan’s surface.”
Julia smiled. “I appreciate your vote of confidence.”
Shannon asked, “So who is this intruder who is stealing our user identities?”
Craig said, “It could still be someone who is among us. Personally I think a worm has been planted in your system, an A. I. worm that has been lying dormant for who knows how long, waiting for its moment to attack. Whoever is behind this and for what purpose, I don’t know—yet. My first goal is to trap it. Then we can go from there.”
Shannon said, “Contact Julia and I anytime you need backup. We can get into the system pretty quickly.”
“Things usually happen pretty fast, but I’ll keep that in mind.”
Craig didn’t really expect he would call them. He preferred to work alone. No matter how good they were, others were too unpredictable and could often be detrimental as well to the task at hand.
After a good night’s sleep, Craig went into the soft fields and awaited the next attack.
Titan’s surface had an unearthly quality to it under the orange-colored, glowing, shifting clouds. He enjoyed feeling the virtual roughness of the surface of Saturn’s moon as he wandered the landscape. He watched the large trawlers crawl by, each filled with ten or twelve human workers en route to a distant job site.
He spotted something.
A shadowy movement among the trawlers.
There! It was a man walking among them. It was highly unlikely that a real man would be out this far from the base, and unprotected from the bitter cold.
He zoomed in.
Ah, of course. It was himself—that is, an inhuman version of himself. He wondered how he would be able to capture this A. I. worm—or whatever it was—if it could readily hop from one stolen user to another, or one virtual session to another.
The Craig-thing approached one of the trawlers carrying something. It looked like a bomb.
He had to act quickly.
He dropped down behind the Craig-thing, watching it closely. No user should be able to see him since he was projecting himself into a software visualization of the real Titan’s surface, but he remembered when the Shannon-thing pointed the handheld at him. He expected this intruder could easily access his virtual session.
He scanned the object the Craig-thing held. It had all the attributes of a bomb including a timer which indicated twelve minutes. Twelve minutes!
He popped up a virtual keyboard and monitor and searched for the trawler controls. He zeroed in on the serial number of the closest trawler and took control of it. He turned it toward them and swung its digger arm out. The Craig-thing ducked and jumped back.
Suddenly his keyboard and monitor vanished. He spun around. The Shannon-thing stood several feet from him, pointing the handheld device at him. This time he ducked. Then he jumped at her. He should not have been able to touch her, whether she was virtual or real or somewhere in between. But he did touch her. He knocked her down and landed on top of her, and soon both were scrambling for the dropped handheld.
During the scuffle he was mere inches from her face, which was contorted into the countenance of a monstrous beast. He felt his heart race in mounting fear. Only the adrenaline rush kept him fighting.
Now maybe some help was in order.
From his net implant he transmitted an SOS signal to both Shannon and Julia, attaching his virtual and physical location and the cryptic message, “Need help both in the system and on Titan. Send guardsmen bots to trawler convoy. There’s a bomb.”
While his virtual self struggled to keep the Shannon-thing immobile, he noticed the trawlers were all stopped and the Craig-thing was moving toward them again.
At that moment a glorious warrior woman in silversuit, sequins and stilettoes appeared before him. Shannon appeared to have more illusions of grandeur than he ever did!
She kicked the handheld away. She said, “Let me take over. Try and thwart your double’s attack. The guardsmen might not make it in time.”
He jumped up and the Shannon-thing got to its feet. The two Shannons faced each other.
He turned his attention to the Craig-thing. Without any plan, he ran over and knocked him down.
The bomb remained in his hands. While he struggled with his double, another pair of hands grabbed at the bomb. And then another pair. He looked up and saw both Julia and the Julia-thing reaching over him. Well, now the party can begin!
Five minutes left on the timer!
Julia in her normal work clothes and her double in silversuit now had the bomb and were struggling for sole possession of it. Craig kept his double down on the ground and reviewed his options. He didn’t have much time. Come on! He was Craig Colonna, software master!
A drone buzzed overhead. He glanced up and said, “Knock it off. I’m trying to think here.”
The drone kept on buzzing as it traveled over them.
An idea hit him.
He scrambled to his feet, leaving the Craig-thing on the ground, and ran towards the fighting Julias. He plowed right into them, catching them off guard, then scooped up the dropped bomb. He quickly glanced at it: 47 seconds!
He ran a short distance and popped up a keyboard and monitor, accessed the drone control module and identified the one closest to their location. He took control of the drone and brought it down to him.
In the distance, the two Julias and the two Shannons were still fighting, but the Craig-thing was now moving quickly towards him.
He brought the drone down to just above his head. He held up the bomb. The drone grabbed it and took off. Good drone!
He flew it quickly toward the mountains, then ordered the drone to drop its cargo.
It didn’t drop the bomb.
Instead it started to come back.
He issued more commands. No response! He had been overridden. He looked back and saw the Craig-thing tapping on a tablet.
Damn viruses or worms or whatever they were!
The drone was approaching rapidly.
The trawlers, loaded with workers, were still unmoving. All of the real people in their area would soon be dead if he couldn’t turn this around. There was no time for any other solution. He head-butted his doppelganger.
The tablet bounced across the rough terrain.
He struggled with his fierce-faced double for several moments until he was able to push him away and leap for the tablet. He had just enough time to turn the drone away before he was jumped by the Craig-thing. They fought for a few more seconds until a powerful explosion rocked them. Without any other directive, the drone had sacrificed itself over the mountains.
Craig, Shannon and Julia found themselves standing alone in the virtual battlefield that overlaid the real Titan’s surface.
“Where did they go?” said Julia.
“Look!” Shannon pointed at the ground.
Three tiny creatures scurried away from them. They moved very fast. Before they vanished into the ground, Craig captured several images of them.
Back in their small meeting room, they all looked at one of the images projected on a full-sized wall monitor. In addition to Craig, Shannon, Julia and Emile, Captain Ariel Brinks also joined them.
Until this meeting, Craig did not know that Captain Brinks was in one of the trawlers on Titan’s surface. When the trawlers stopped functioning, the Captain and crew were all locked inside with limited air.
“Thank you for saving our lives,” said the Captain.
Craig nodded toward Shannon and Julia. “It was a team effort.”
Captain Brinks said, “It looks like a very small mouse.”
“With tiny wolf-like features,” added Craig.
“And this is our computer virus?”
“I believe so. They are much more intelligent than they appear.”
“You’ve never discovered this life form on Titan?”
“No. No evidence of any life except for some possible microbes.”
“My guess is they’re curious about what we’re doing here, and they want to protect their home from all of the invasive exploration that we are doing as well.”
“What do we do now?”
“Well, they know we’re aware of them now. So maybe we should try to contact them. Find out what we’re doing that they don’t like. Then we can offer some kind of truce.”
“If we can do this peacefully, I’m all for it.”
“That’s our best shot. Seeing how they can hack into a sophisticated computer system tells me they would be a formidable enemy. Better to make friends with them than the alternative.”
The Captain paced the room.
“How do we arrange this meeting with the . . . the Titanians?”
Craig scratched his beard. “Let me see what I can do.”
He went into the soft fields again, meditating on the previous day’s events. He waited on a hill overlooking all the human and robot activities of the Titan research mission team. He enjoyed observing the beauty of the vast expanse of rugged terrain and ethane lakes that was Titan.
He had posted banners everywhere with messages of peace, love and kindness. He posted images of himself sitting down at a table with himself, talking, not fighting. He posted images of humans on one side of a fence and tiny mouse-like creatures on the other, everyone living in harmony.
The invitation was out there. Whether they understood the invitation or not, or whether they were interested or not did not matter. It was he who offered the outstretched hand. It was they who would decide whether to take it or not.
After a while Craig saw someone approach him up the hill. It was the Craig-thing. Maybe he would call it Craig 2 instead. A table and two chairs were already on top of the hill. Craig sat down in one. In a couple minutes, Craig 2 sat in the other. For a while they simply stared at one another. Craig 2’s features, though still wolf-like, were softer now and not so frightening. Like a curious mouse’s snout.
“Well,” said Craig, “let’s start this off with introductions.” He reached out a hand. “Hi, my name is Craig Colonna.”
Craig 2 reached out his hand tentatively. But unafraid.
They shook hands in the soft fields.
Was that warmth he was feeling?
The exploration of Titan was about to become much more interesting.