“The De-bugging of Arias Home Systems,” by Elsa M. Carruthers
Aaron’s back and shoulders hurt, but he couldn’t take a break until he traced the source of the corrupted code. Somehow, several houses in the Arias II complex had their default settings switched on. Worse, the default setting was a moss and ivy- covered brick ruins. The angry messages and calls came at such a pace that he’d had to assign his best systems engineers to run interference with the angry homeowners all night.
Celia called up to him from her desk. It was situated behind his in an otherwise plain, empty room. “Aaron, the default setting looks like it is locked in. I have run through each bit of code, and there are no patches… this is somehow organic to the programming.”
“What? No, we didn’t even have this as a model. Rustic cabin yes. Fallen-down building, no. What the hell? Run it again.”
“I am telling you, this isn’t a patch or a virus.”
Aaron turned to look at her, it was rightfully his ass on the line. He cried seniority to HR, and pulled the job out from under her, even though everyone knew she was the best engineer in the company. Calls to HR are supposed to be confidential, but everyone knew about it within an hour.
“Did you do this?”
Celia dropped her headset and glared at him. Her dark eyes pulled tight in anger. “I have been working in this for eight motherfucking years, cabrón. Why would I fuck it up? I have my name practically written all over this. I’d never work again. Don’t get me wrong, as soon as I can, I am going after you. Believe that. But this? Na-ah. I am not that petty.”
Aaron shook his head. She was right. He knew she was. He was about to say so, and tell her how much he wished he could take it all back, because he really did, when Micah let himself in.
“Jen wants to see you.” Micah smirked at Aaron. “Now.”
Aaron sighed. He was fucked. Micah had already pulled the flat-paneled door of the Systems Room open and stepped into the maze of hallway. Aaron watch Micah head toward the elevators without even a glace over his shoulder to see if Aaron followed. Jen was probably ensconced in her Penthouse office; this was very bad.
They rode in silence, but Aaron could feel Micah’s amused gaze on him. He clenched his jaw. He’d love to punch Micah’s smug, shit-eating face. Someday, he told himself. Someday.
They rode up and up, until they indeed reached the Penthouse. Up here, it was like another universe. Real plants, including orchids, grew out of wall gardens and giant concrete planters. There were dwarf trees that seemed to sprout out of the roof-top floor and not for the first time did Aaron marvel at the undoubtfully huge expense it was to reinforce the truces below, not to mention the constant care these plants needed. He never saw a gardener, but knew there had to be someone.
They wove through the courtyard to Jen’s office door. Micah cleared his throat and put his hand up, signaling to Aaron that he had to wait outside until called. He walked through the massive doorway and shut the door behind him.
“Condescending putz,” Aaron said under his breath.
Micah’s voice blasted from a speaker somewhere over the door. “I can hear you,” he sang. “Also, Jen says to give her a minute.”
Ten minutes later, Micah screamed out of the speaker. “SHE SAYS SHE IS READY NOW!” The giant door opened.
“Thank you, asshole,” Aaron sang back in the same tune Micah did before.
Aaron smoothed down his shirt, straightened his tie before stepping into the reception area. Micah pointed to the open French doors to Jen’s office. “Go on in. She’s waiting for you.”
Jen sat behind a massive Teak desk, probably from the last supply of Teak in the world. Her stilettoed feet were propped up on the right-side corner of her desk and Aaron did his best not to look up her skirt. It unsettled him, as it was probably meant to.
“Sit down Aaron,” Jen said. He sat in one of the two black sling-backed chairs and balanced himself on the edge of the seat to keep from sinking back into it like a hammock.
She laughed. “I can see that you don’t often sit in this type of chair. If it is more comfortable, you may stand. This won’t take long.”
He cleared his throat and waited for her to continue.
“I have cleared out the residents of Arias II, by giving them all resort passes to Juniper. I have also given a press release and offered a non-specific, non-legally binding apology for this inconvenience. That is what I have done. What you are going to do is fix this goddamned mess!”
She smoothed the lavender-lilac colored fringe of bangs from her forehead and pushed her red reading glasses up the bridge of her nose.
“You will fix this and find out how it happened in the first place! Also, you better make sure that this malware—”
“It isn’t malware as far as we can tell,” Aaron interrupted.
Jen gave him a withering look that made him want to crawl away and never come back. “Well, I suppose that is some good news. I want all of your logs, forward them to me through the internal server.” She waved at him to go.
Aaron made to go. He hesitated, wondering if he should mention that the code was somehow overwritten.
“Is there something else? Should I get Celia as point on this?” She goaded him.
“Nope, I am working with her and we’re making good progress.” He left without looking at her or Micah.
Back in his office, Celia was deep in thought behind her multiple monitors. He could see the lines of code reflected off her anti-glare glasses and he again wanted to tell her how sorry he was, how he respected her, how working with her, even though she hated him, was the best thing that ever happened to him. Instead, he sat down and got to work.
He couldn’t see that anything was wrong. And then, by accident, he noticed the code rewriting itself in sections. It was so subtle, the changes seemed like nothing, a vine instead of a tree in the front. And he wouldn’t have caught it all if he hadn’t actually watched a bit of code rewrite itself.
“Celia, it looks like it might be malware after all. I just saw a—”
“Uh-huh,” she said in a dreamy out of it voice. “I saw it too, trying to trace the little hijo de la chingada, but he is slick.”
Of course, she saw it first. He smiled to himself.
“I am thinking,” she said in the same far away voice, “that it isn’t just malware, but some sort of ransomware. Whoever this is, is chevere as fuck!” she said with real admiration. “Anyway,” she said without looking up, “what’d Jen have to say?”
He told her how she got people out and that she threatened to put Celia on the job, hoping that Celia wouldn’t rub it in too much. She surprised him by holding his gaze for a few seconds. “Look, I am only pissed because you could’ve won fair and square. Not that weaselly shit you pulled.”
“I know. I can’t even tell you how sorry I am.”
“Sorry don’t fix shit. Now you’ve got to earn your title. Don’t be such a huevón, and you will be like top five level. I mean, you’ll never be as good as me, but, hey, nobody can be.”
He smiled. “I’m going to order some food. Looks like I will be here a while, but you don’t have to be. You probably have things you want to do, and this is my mess.” He couldn’t possibly ask her to pull another all-nighter to save him, though he really wanted to.
“Nah, it is all right. I want those mini panini thingies and I am dying for some fries. Get that and I am good to go for a few more hours at least.”
Aaron texted the order. They ate as they worked. Aaron came close to smashing his keyboard several times. “Fuck! Every time I am close to stopping the changes, they just go around me. Who the fuck is this?”
Celia muttered something to herself. She was trying to trace the source of the hack. “Slippery fool, whoever it is.”
Just as she said that, Aaron’s commands no longer worked. He tried to override, nothing. “I can’t,” he said.
“Me either. This is bad. Very bad.”
Aaron’s hands shook, and his shirt stuck to him where the sweat bled through his undershirt. “Was this a distraction so that the hacker could clone the drivers?”
Celia stepped away from her bank of monitors. She rubbed the crease between her eyes and pursed her lips. “The whole program is hijacked. I’m not even sure we can do a Systems Restore.” She squatted in front of her backpack and pulled out an external drive. “We can try to reroute; use this to—”
“You’re a genius!”
“I know,” she said and winked. Celia placed the external drive on her desk. Aaron touched her arm.
“You don’t have to stay. You’re in the clear for this, I will take the fall.”
Celia looked at him up and down. “Nope, I am taking this hijo or hija out!” She plugged it in and was immediately confronted with firewall after firewall. They weren’t failproof, just annoying and time-wasting.
“You see this? This is old school right here.”
Aaron saw it. The ransomware hid on the OS and then replicated itself in file after file. “You know your external drive is toast now too, right?”
“Ah mierda, I didn’t think of that.” She sighed. “I am so tired.”
“I hate to say it, but I think we’re done.” Aaron tried to do a System Restore, figuring that they could rebuild the destroyed coding, but he saw that even as he typed, the hacker had full control.
“I’m iced-out,” he said to Celia.
“Me too,” she said and threw her headset across the room. “Carajo!”
“It’s okay. I’ll figure something out.” But he wasn’t even fooling himself.
All their monitors flashed, then went black. They stood in silence, each watching the dead monitors. Several seconds went by. Neither of them spoke though Aaron knew Celia must be feeling as helpless and frustrated as he did.
The screens turned back on. It looked like a manual reboot, but then Aaron and Celia’s faces were on the screens.
“That was like a few minutes ago.” Aaron’s throat went dry. The hacker customized the malware and had complete remote access control of the computers. But why show them the pictures? Why not leave the monitors off instead of teasing them?
Celia still stared at the screens as she spoke. “What are they trying to tell us?”
“I think it is a tease. We should go down to the server room and see if we can do something from there.” He made to pat her shoulder and stopped himself. She wasn’t some employee working overtime. She was the only person who could help. And he’d better put any romantic ideas he had away.
I haven’t confirmed a guest for next week, so next’s week is a mystery. Do you have a fragment you’re dying to share with the Interwebs? Send it my way at firstname.lastname@example.org. See you next week!