When I went back to Landry the next day, the smell of charred electronics was still lingering in the air. I’d nicked the air freshener that had been sitting on the counter of my hotel bathroom in the hopes of masking the odor, but even with the station’s interior ventilation on full blast, nothing really helped. Lacking for better options, I found myself leaning over and sticking my nose into the fragrance cartridge every so often as I pored through Landry’s logs and computer code on one of its sleek, glossy terminals.
The damage had been minimal this time, thankfully, limited to one network switch that was simply swapped out for a spare. Sabina was positively beaming at the small scope of the trouble. “Maybe things are starting to look up,” she said as she passed by my workstation. “Nothing blew up this time, right? Does this count as threat mitigation?”
“It counts if you’re willing to take the credit for it,” I said, not bothering to take my eyes away from the screen.
“Oh, perfect. I can submit this for my next performance review.”
“You guys have performance reviews?” I scrunched my face in distaste, not at Sabina’s response but at a particularly inscrutable line of diagnostic output.
“We do now that I have something to brag about,” Sabina said, with a chuckle.
“And meanwhile I’m the one sitting in front of the computer…”
“You’re the one who volunteered for it.”
“I’m beginning to regret doing that,” I said sullenly. “Spending all my time up at Sudalis doing nothing made me forget just how much of a pain debugging is. It’s not worth it, I’m telling you.”
“Not even for the bonus?”
“Not unless that bonus is…” I flicked my eye to the clock in the corner of the monitor. “Four hours of my life back.”
I finally removed my hands from the keyboard and put them behind my head, leaning back in the chair in exasperation. An upside-down image of Sabina’s cheerful face greeted me in return.
“Taking a break?” she asked.
“No. I’ve figured out what’s going on.”
“Yeah. But, uh, before I tell you…” I spun the office chair around so that I no longer had to crane my neck to look at Sabina. “I have to ask, who wrote the station’s legacy message handling component?”
“That’d be me. Why do you want to know?”
I felt my breathing get a little shallower. Diplomacy was not exactly my strong point. “Um, uh, well, I just wanted to – uh –”
Sabina laughed. “I’m just kidding. Some contractors ported over the control software from the old station setup. Let me guess, it sucks.”
I sighed in relief. “Yeah. It’s terrible. I’m surprised this entire station didn’t burn down long before you got here.”
“So what’s wrong?”
“I’d prefer to explain what isn’t, because that list’s a lot shorter.”
“I had a feeling.” Sabina shook her head as she dragged a nearby chair up next to me. Sitting down, she nudged me over so she could get a good look at the screen. “Lay out the scene for me.”
I mimed my head exploding, complete with the sound of a bomb burst. “That’s about the long and the short of it. There’s buffer overflows, missed bounds checks, stale pointers,” I said, ticking each of the items off on my fingers as I went, “and on top of that the source code comments are composed entirely of out-of-context movie quotes.”
“That last one’s worthy of the gallows.”
“I’d say. Anyway, what’s really stupid is that none of this would matter if it weren’t for the fact that the clown does some really extreme stuff with the comms signal. The messages are padded with a bunch of random noise that’s barely within the specs. As bad as this code is, it’d handle pretty much every normal message fine. The ones from the clown, though… the control computer’s memory will turn to garbage faster than you can say… uh…” I trailed off, losing my train of thought. “Help me out here. What’s, like, a clown catchphrase?”
“Don’t ask me. I always thought clowns were really creepy. Besides, aren’t you supposed to be the clown expert?”
“Please, don’t remind me.” I slumped over in my chair, defeated.
Sabina stared at me in bemused silence for a moment. Finally, with a voice of mildly sarcastic concern, she said, “I’ll send the drone around with some coffee, okay?”