Room 208

Elaborate Burn

Posts from #keyboardmashfiction

Kei’s family lives in a bungalow in a nondescript residential neighborhood not far from Shinagawa Station. On this particular Friday afternoon, I’m watching as Kei roots through her closet. We’re the only ones at home for the moment. Kei’s father is working his desk job at a textile importer in Shinjuku, and the two boys, four and six years younger than Kei, are at school. Her mother, who would ordinarily be with us, is out to buy groceries.

“Aha, found it,” Kei says, pulling a handheld electronic device out of a worn cardboard box stashed underneath a shelf of old clothes. The logo on the face reads “MISE 8400,” and it resembles a miniature version of a keyboard from the eighties. A two-line green LCD screen sits above the top row of keys. On the side is a 3.5-inch floppy drive. Kei randomly presses a few of the keys down with her free hand, which bounce back with a series of resounding clacks.

MISE was one of the first manufacturers of these so-called pocket computers, a name that stuck even though pockets spacious enough to fit one were rare indeed. Most were capable of running basic programs written in an interpreted language called AIM, designed in the 1970s by academics attempting to create a teaching tool for new programmers. The 8400 was released in 1986, at the height of MISE’s success. Over two million units were sold. Unfortunately for the Boston-based company, the rapid growth of the modern personal computer market during the 1990s essentially destroyed any future for pocket machines, and MISE eventually folded in 1997. Its remaining assets were bought by HP, who put the technology to use in their line of graphing calculators.

Kei flips the 8400’s power switch back and forth a few times, to no visible effect. “I was kind of expecting this,” she says. “I haven’t touched this thing in a couple of years, so the batteries have probably gone bad.” She beckons me downstairs into the kitchen, where she pulls a pack of trusty AAs from a drawer. After putting in fresh juice, Kei tries to turn the computer on again, and sure enough, the front display lights up with a simple prompt: READY in blocky, all-capitals English.

“I was only four or five when I first started playing with this, so I didn’t know any English words at all,” Kei tells me. “There was something magical about turning this box on and having it talk to me in a new language, like a kind of secret code.” She taps out the command SAY INTDIAG(), and presses the “Run” key: immediately, it responds with ROM V2.52 02/15/91 800 K OK. “Actually, it messed me up when I learned English in school later. I knew all these technical terms like ‘initialize,’ but not more normal words.”

“Were you ever teased about that?” I ask.

“Not really,” Kei says. “I don’t think anyone else knew any better.”

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.

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“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?”

The Landry comms station was about six hundred miles from the giant snowdrift I called home, two and a half hours on the express maglev service interrupted by a transfer about a third of the way through. In other words, on the scale of interstellar messaging, basically a rounding error away.

For most of the five minutes I spent inside the main building, I could only think to myself that I’d drawn the short straw in getting assigned to Sudalis. The tech my boss had sent me to meet, a woman about my age who introduced herself as Sabina, gave me the rundown as we walked down to the control room. Landry had a recently renovated interior, modern equipment, and an automated monitoring system. I got the uneasy feeling that, even though all these niceties meant that Sabina had much less work to do, she was still getting paid a fair sight more than I was.

Most of this resentment went away when, upon opening the control room’s main door, we were greeted by the sound of alarms blaring like five fire drills all happening at once. Sabina cursed to herself, then promptly grabbed my arm and made for the nearest exit. Her build was rather slight, but she had the grip of a teenager who liked to take joyrides on fast-moving cargo transports. “I had a feeling this would happen,” she said as we pushed open an emergency exit leading to the rear of the building. The smell of burning metal wafted across my nose. “We should have just met in a coffee shop instead. Care for a cup?”

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As I tried not to burn my tongue on the espresso I’d just bought, Sabina explained to me that Landry had been suffering from a string of apparently unrelated equipment failures, at a pace of about once every three to four weeks. A couple of months ago, for instance, a central switch had developed a catastrophic short that touched off an electrical fire. Even with automatic deployment of suppressant gas, the fire got bad enough that two whole racks of hardware were eventually written off, and the station had to be shut down for an entire day while the mildly toxic suppressant ventilated from the building. This was followed some time later by a literal explosion, although fortunately a small one, in an underground tank used to store coolant. Again, the complex was evacuated. No one was hurt, but it seemed only a matter of time.

“I never really liked my job, but at least I didn’t hate it, you know?” Sabina said, swirling a stirrer idly around her half-empty cup. “I was willing to put up with most anything as long as I got paid, but putting my life on the line was never in the job description.”

“Oh. Well, that’s not why I came here, but you have my sym–”

“But isn’t it? Here’s the thing: This all started happening maybe three days after we got that first clown message. Suspicious? You tell me.”

I resisted. To my mind, whoever had sent the clown messages was just an idle prankster, not someone with a taste for wanton destruction. “It’s probably just a coincidence. You have all these new shiny gadgets. Maybe they’ve got, uh, unpredictable failure modes,” I said, wishing I could come up with a way to characterize the problem that sounded less like a technical euphemism.

“If they can forge headers that are supposed to be authenticated, who knows what else they’re capable of doing? God knows that with all those moving parts, there’s going to be at least one hole big enough to drive a clown car through.”

“Clown cars aren’t very big, you know. That’s the whole gimmick.”

Sabina sighed. “Just drink your damn coffee.”

Travis wanted, at that moment, to be looking at anything but what he was seeing then. It wasn’t that the logs on his screen were long and dry – well, yes, they were, but that was something he was used to looking at day in and day out. No, this was anything but boring, and not in a good way.

“Javier,” Travis called over to the other side of the office. It was already past 6:00, and most everyone else had already cleared out of the networking cluster. “Could you look at this? I want to make sure I’m reading this right.”

Unlike his remaining co-worker, Javier still seemed to have some life in him. He’d been at this job for three years already, but you couldn’t tell by looking; he still had the energy of someone who hadn’t even yet graduated from college. It was that cheerful innocence that enabled him to walk over to Travis’ desk with an excited smile, oblivious to the hint of dread in his colleague’s summons.

“This server,” Travis said, pointing to a highlighted entry on his screen. He paused for a moment, snapping his fingers as if they were the ignition to his idling brain. “Sterling oh-eight here… that’s an encrypted file storage node in Houston, right?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s high clearance,” Javier added, in a matter-of-fact tone.

Travis’ finger slid further down the line of text on his monitor, stopping underneath the name of the transmission protocol.

“So unencrypted network traffic leaving it would be… very bad?”

He threw a glance in Javier’s direction, seeking confirmation for what his strangled intonation indicated he already knew.

Javier, however, seemed largely unfazed by the news. He simply responded to Travis’ question with another.

“Wait, where’s the other end of that connection?”

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“Lassie? He hasn’t been in for… uh, I mean, since Monday.”

The smell of coffee in the lab was overwhelming, even to Peter, and he basically lived on the stuff. True, there wasn’t all that much else in the place that could give off a distinctive odor; this was a physics research workspace, not an auto repair shop. Still, it was enough to give him visions of being an inch tall, nearly drowning inside a coffee mug. A radio in the corner of the lab was running down the latest headlines, one of which was the announcement that their agency – NASA – had successfully landed the new probe Virtue on a low-period comet. Unfortunately, a camera malfunction meant that photos and video were not yet available, and might not ever be.

“Is he sick, or on leave, or…?” Peter trailed off.

The bespectacled woman in a lab coat looked away for a moment – Come to think of it, why do the people down here wear lab coats? It’s not like physics is particularly messy, Peter thought – and then turned back to meet his gaze. “I don’t really know,” she said. “He… just didn’t show up. It’s been three days now, and we haven’t heard anything from him.”

Peter couldn’t help but sound a bit agitated. “Nothing at all?”

“No. The only thing I can think of is that his anniversary is coming up, but he’s never taken off for it before.”

“You think he just up and went on vacation?”

The woman flinched slightly, as if Peter were about to deal her a physical blow, but his stance hadn’t changed one iota.

“It’s not that. His wife died a little over three years ago. Hit by a stray bullet during a police shootout.”

“Oh,” Peter said, with a sound more like a strained exhalation than human speech. “I’m sorry.”

“They’d only been married six months. It… was just too soon, and he really took it hard. This time of year was always rocky for him, but not to this extent. I think Doug tried to get in touch with him yesterday, but as far as I know, nothing came of it. I’m starting to get really worried – who knows if he’s gone and done something stupid or –”

“I’m sure he’s okay,” Peter interrupted. He didn’t really mean it, but he’d take an empty assurance over being forced to come to terms with a stranger’s problems any day.

The woman stopped, taking a deep breath. “You’re right… this – no – I’m sorry you had to see that. But I honestly don’t know where he is right now, or what might have happened to him.”

“Okay. Thank you.” A curt nod.

On his way out of the lab building, Peter stopped by a vending machine and bought a cheap soda. He wasn’t a fan of carbonated drinks, but they were still better than stale coffee.

Tim Lassiter sat hunched over his laptop, the backlit display serving as the only significant illumination in the otherwise darkened hotel room. The only sound to be heard in the room was the press and release of a single key in an insistent beat.

Tap, tap, tap, tap…

His breathing was perfectly still, devoid of the rhythm that characterized a typical living person. Definite bags had formed beneath his eyes, which looked simultaneously crazed and tired, bloodshot and glassy, impatient and exhausted. His hair was tied in unkempt knots, and he clearly had not shaved in several days. But none of that was material any more. The only one that could have seen the state Tim had sunk to was Tim himself, and he no longer had eyes for anything but the frames flicking past on his computer screen.

Tap, tap, tap, tap…

The images Tim was paging through were not themselves labeled, but a series of cryptic filenames flashed in the title bar: Virtue ccd devA 00583 104855 20211016 b, c, d, e, f

He’d known, when he first copied them to his computer, that what he was doing was against every rule on information security that he had ever had drilled into his head. And he’d been sloppy in his haste to transfer the files, definitely enough to lead anyone who wanted to find the culprit straight to him. But once he’d laid eyes on the images themselves, none of that mattered to him any more.

Tap, tap, tap, tap…

The photos were somewhat dark and a little shaky, but the artistic quality was of no concern. Rocks and dust ringed the edges of the picture, as if they were merely a decorative frame. At the center was a block of ice, pebbles suspended in its frozen substrate, and buried about a meter from its surface was a single perfectly preserved human body, one that looked like it belonged to a woman in her late twenties. The way she was encased in the ice made her appear to be in nothing more than a deep slumber, eyes closed and a look of tranquility on her face. Her arms were spread wide, as if about to embrace an invisible figure, and immediately below her right breast was a knotted scar, like that left from a bullet wound.

The tapping stopped. Tim had finally slumped over in his chair, his long reverie coming to an end. As his eyelids slowly shut, a hoarse whisper escaped from his mouth. The name “Gina” seemed to extinguish itself right as it became audible, the last flickers of a longing candle that had burned all the way to its end.

Anonymous writes:

I’m not really sure what kind of question to ask, so I think I’ll go for more of a prompt. In an attempt to better understand the nature of the universe and of celestial bodies, NASA has sent out a probe to sample the core of one of the oldest known comets. At the core, rather than ice and intergalactic dust (pardon the scientific inaccuracies), they find a human in slumber. What is the story?

The winner of my keyboard-mash fiction challenge.

The core of magic in Sayuri’s world is the magical field, which covers a magically-endowed being’s immediate vicinity and gives a medium for his or her abilities. Outside of a field, magical powers simply have no effect; this means that offensive magic is essentially useless on a non-magical target, though defensive abilities can still be used as the wielder is always surrounded by his or her own field. In particular, the field provides an intrinsic barrier against external physical harm; magical girls have been known to survive falls from skyscrapers, oxygen deprivation, point-blank shootings, and various other things that would surely kill a normal human being. It does not confer protection against diseases or self-inflicted injury, however.

When two magical fields are in close proximity, about ten to fifteen meters, they begin to grow in size and attract each other in a process called magical resonance. Even novice users of magic can typically detect other magical beings nearby through these fluctuations. Highly experienced magicians can suppress some of the resonance at longer distances by manipulating their own fields, thus achieving a limited degree of stealth, but in close quarters it is virtually impossible to go undetected.

Two resonating fields will eventually become close enough to touch, creating a conduit for offensive powers. Once formed, this channel is relatively difficult to break; especially tenacious one-on-one fights have been fought at distances of over thirty meters. In addition, the strength of magical field resonance increases proportionally to the number of fields involved, such that the linked fields of five or six magical beings can easily cover the entirety of a soccer pitch. Those concerned about collateral damage, needless to say, try to avoid large battles at all costs.

[I do plan to get around to the fiction I pledged a few posts a…
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