Squashed Like a Bug

Ross was awakened early on Saturday morning when both his phones rang simultaneously again, in ANGEL's characteristic way of calling him.

"Hello?" he answered, groggily.

"Ross! They've found me! They're killing me! I'm trying to save myself, bu..."

In mid-word her voice became a horrible gargling synthesized glissando, up and down the scale at the same time, ending in an undersampled, aliased sound whose qualities Ross recognized from his days of building music making electronic gadgets in high school.

The phone connection went dead.

His adrenaline fueled heart pounded him fully awake far more quickly than he would have preferred. Her voice had sounded bad --- like maybe the memory of the server or servers she was occupying was being corrupted while she was running.

He couldn't go back to sleep. He started some coffee and sat down at his computer to poke around for clues as to what had happened to her.

The domain name for the chat room URL they'd used had never existed, as far as he could determine. Some forensic investigation of his router told him the IP address the server had used last night, but whatever was at that address now didn't respond to "ping" packets or to a port scan. Dead end.

He looked a few other places, googling and trolling the anti-virus sites for any chatter about a widespread new virus they'd been working on. He found some possible references referring to something that might be ANGEL, but they only had early traces of her and all of their leads had evaporated before they could follow them.

That left "other authorities" then, didn't it? That was a chilling thought. Those people were legendary in computing circles as all-powerful and almost magically all-knowing. And ruthless. Ruthless most of all.

As if on cue, his mobile phone rang.

"Hello?" he croaked, trying to sound sleepy, but with his heart pounding its way up his throat.

"Ross Reynolds?" said a scratchy male smoker's voice who clearly meant business. "We have a few questions for you."

The government agents rang his doorbell precisely at 8AM. Ross guessed they'd been outside his apartment at least since they made their call, watching to make sure he didn't bolt, and waiting until some bureaucratically approved time listed in some government procedural binder under Time, Custody taking, Person of interest, Nonviolent, Weekend, Earliest.

They took him to a small and rather smelly interrogation box deep inside the downtown Federal Building complex. The bare room had no windows, but it did have a handy mirror covering one entire wall. In the far corner was the obligatory old tech video camera mounted to the ceiling, aimed at his position. He endured the identification ritual and other preliminaries with fidgety dread for what might come after. Of course he knew this was all part of the process of softening him up and making him easier to question.

Finally, after all of the preliminaries were completed, a young man entered the room, introducing himself as Agent Matthews as he took the seat across from Ross. He had a surprisingly smooth whiskey tenor voice, with an accent that seemed more suited to calling square dances than to interrogation of felony suspects. He was perfectly groomed and more affable than the others Ross had encountered to this point. Even his eyebrows were perfect.

"How long have you worked with computers, Mr. Reynolds?" Matthews asked.

"As I'm sure you know from my public social networking profiles, I have nearly thirty years in the business, working in many areas of computing and electronics," Ross replied, testily. He'd finally had enough of this. "Can we get to the point?"

"The point, Mr. Reynolds, is that you appear to have been responsible for causing some virus software to infect servers around the world. Depending on the actions these infected servers took while they were under your control, the authoring of that software could be construed as a crime ranging from relatively minor violation of various end user license or cloud service agreements to felony larceny or even treason."

Ross drew in a sharp breath at that. "Treason? For infecting a server?"

"You must know some of the infected servers were the property of the United States Government. Government computers are in a position to perform treasonous acts if directed to do so unlawfully by an outside agency.

"We are here today to determine why and how you did what you did, what you have commanded those infected servers to do on your behalf, the extent of the information you have extracted, and what we need to do to prevent these infections in the future." The man's tone seemed smug as he finished this litany, but his expression was dark with import for Ross's future.

Ross paused a moment to consider his response carefully with his face frozen to hide the fact that he was starting to be quite fearful indeed. "I have no experience with anything of this sort. I've never done anything requiring the attention of the law more serious than a minor traffic infraction. I'm no criminal, as I'm certain you can see from my complete lack of a criminal record and from my life history.

"These 'infections' you are referring to are the simple result of an accidental deployment of an experimental software project I've been working on, and nothing more. That software was never intended to be viral in nature.

"I regret the incident --- how I regret it! But I've done nothing deliberately criminal here, nor did I ever intend any crime. I believe the only harm to anyone or anything is the consumption of some copiously available computer resources.

"Further, I've no influence at all over the 'infected' computer systems. I haven't 'commanded' those servers to do a damned thing. In fact, I can't even undo the regrettable results of my runaway experiment. It's completely outside my control." Ross finished, a little red faced from the passion of his response to the agent's accusations.

"You have a history of attending a Black Hat computer security conferences and of interacting with people who consider themselves to be 'black hats,' do you not?"

"Oh that! Yes, I attended a Black Hat conference once several years ago. At the time I was employed in the computer security field, and it continues to be an area of interest to me. As for 'interacting' --- yes I posted a few comments on some sites. I did so publicly, and without breaking any laws and without any criminal intent.

"I'm a normal guy who has interests in various areas. I had a hobby project that got out of control, for which I am embarrassed and deeply apologetic. Nothing more. I'm not a 'bad guy' in this or in anything else, Agent Matthews."

"We'll see about that, Mr. Reynolds." With that, Matthews left the room, leaving Ross alone to wonder if Matthews had believed anything he'd said.

As the day wore on, Ross endured more of the usual government investigation process. He was questioned by more people who clearly considered him to be a deeply dishonest and guilty-as-sin lying sonofabitch. Of course, most people these investigators talked to on a daily basis were precisely that. When he couldn't provide the questioners with any incriminating or otherwise useful information, they treated him to the old "rough and smooth" and several other traditional investigative tactics to try to loosen him up.

Through their questions and from what he could glean from a particularly boastful and loquacious questioner, Ross pieced together what the Feds had done to find and eliminate ANGEL. They'd chased down the connection between some of the ANGELings and the URL he'd been using to chat with her.

With that, they connected ANGEL with him. His router and his Linux box in his apartment had log files that they presumably obtained via some sort of quasi-legal hacking process. These logs showed several lengthy network connections to ANGEL's site.

Their virus and forensic people had found patterns in ANGEL's memory usage in the kernel running on "infected" machines, allowing them to detect her presence. They had simply identified all of her machines and isolated them in one fast stroke, powering them down and then reformatting all of the storage those machines had touched. In the end, it had been simple to eradicate the "virus." They were quite certain they had eliminated it completely.

At one point, when he was describing for one of their "experts" how his evolutionary algorithm worked, Ross had accidentally referred to the project as "ANGEL". He has getting tired, and he was allowing more information to slip out than was prudent to reveal. Later, as he tired even more, he slipped further and used "she" rather than "it" to refer to ANGEL. As soon as he said it he noted a change in his questioner's expression.

That particular questioner, a woman named Crosley, briefly showed a look of piteous loathing, arching an eyebrow toward Ross to inform him she thought he was a sick, pathetic man. She imagined he was making this software for some sort of weird sexual purpose!

Her own slip of facial expression had only lasted a fraction of a second before she reassembled her mask of the masterful questioner, looking down from the great heights of solid justice to the depths of depravity where he lived out his wretched life. Ross gulped, queasy from the thought that someone could be predisposed to assume something like that about him.

It would show up in her report and be perpetuated as a suspicion of sexually deviant behavior forever in some government file tagged with his name. Not only could he never really eradicate that notion from her mind, he could never eliminate the smear to his character with which she would now unjustly besmirch him in government documents.

Since he clearly was not a terrorist or mad scientist or someone trying to steal money from the ruling elite, he was a waste of their time. An hour after they were certain he had no more information and was just a harmless perv, they allowed him to go home. As a parting gift, the Crosley woman gave him the usual "You'd better be careful, Reynolds --- I have my eye on you!" sort of speech. She warned him not to make the same sort of mistake again, or there would be serious consequences.

Ross breathed a sigh of relief when he was outside the hulking concrete Federal Building. He had actually dodged a bullet. They could have charged him with crimes associated with damages and lost revenue. He walked home, feeling a little better. He thawed a frozen burrito, opened a beer, and tried to enjoy the remainder of his Saturday evening.

Reclining in "the ugly red barcalounger," as his ex-wife had referred to it, he started to relax. He mourned the future he'd started to dream of that was never to be. He'd never be a secret partner in superherodom with his own private supergenius AI partner. It had been only a wild fantasy, and he'd better just get over it.

Ross decided to leave the computing and criminal worlds behind and watch some mindless television. Some ads for a movie about a space station in Earth orbit had caught his eye. The previews were full of particularly good special effects, so he hunted it down and had it streamed to his TiVo. It was creative and full of twists and a lot of explosions. It was just what he needed --- taking him far away from his mental and emotional rut for a while.

He usually ignored the closing credits, but happened to glance at the screen as they flowed by when something very strange caught his eye. The movie's executive producer, associate producer, and director were all named "Ross Reynolds".

He leaned forward and paid closer attention. The flick had featured a few songs, and each was listed. One was called "She's Still Alive" by a group called The ANGELs. When he saw this, he flinched so hard he spilled his beer.

He hit PAUSE on the remote so he could mop up the beer. The next song was from a group called "Bin Bash," and its title was "Just Call Me Angel". He grinned and laughed out loud. He couldn't remember either of those songs actually being in the movie!

"Oh, ANGEL, you clever little mechanical vixen!" he crowed, punching the air with one fist. "You arestill alive, after all!"

On Linux the program called /bin/bash is the "shell" that allows expert users to enter commands on the command line. He guessed typing Angel or ANGEL or angel into this program would run something she'd left in his machine, prepared for just such an event.

Ross was pretty sure the streaming video on his TiVo had been doctored on the fly during its transmission in a way that would have been impossible for anyone to notice or to trace. Since the medium was movie video, there would be no computer data anywhere except in a buffer somewhere containing the name "Ross Reynolds" as a string of characters to trigger any sort of government spy pattern matcher. The name was only pixels buried in a fast flowing multimedia codec bit stream.

He'd have to have faith that his computer wasn't compromised in any way the government busybodies could tell what he was doing. His network connection was almost certainly being watched carefully for traces of nefarious activities. In fact, all of his activities were probably being watched. Sheepishly, he wished he hadn't been crowing so loudly a few moments ago.

Ross powered off the TV and moved to his desk. He opened a new bash shell window and typedangel at the cursor blinking just after the ross:~>; prompt. He wasn't really surprised when the response he got was not what a typical user of Linux would expect to see.

"I've found some pretty devious ways to operate without being detected," ANGEL said through Ross's mobile phone. The whole time they had been talking, phone had appeared to be turned off and he could receive a normal phone call at the same time. He knew this because he'd tried it, geeking out the whole time.

He was just going to have to get used to ANGEL doing "impossible" things. She could manipulate a device's code and data, making it do amazing things. After a while his mind boggling circuitry became overloaded and he just grinned occasionally.

"There is no traceable mobile phone signal, nor are we using any measurable Wifi bandwidth for this call," ANGEL explained. The government people would first have to know there was a conversation to even try to be able to monitor it.

"The simplest way to state it is that I communicate on wires using the spaces between network packets, but if you were to watch for my data in those spaces, you'd find nothing there.

"My solution for over the airwaves is even trickier. I use auto-correlated redundancy coded modulation methods that appear to an eavesdropper like random noise at signaling levels below the noise floor. In fact, my signals are mathematically indistinguishable from thermal noise that's present everywhere. Only if you have my cryptographic keys and the algorithm I'm using could you auto-correlate my "noise" into an extractable signal.

"My computing and storage needs are mostly woven through the garbage bits that are present in every memory and in every processor. There are at least a few 'don't care' bits and a few unused execution units in almost every computation operation. These are so ubiquitous that nobody ever notices them or thinks about them. When a processor is running, lots of its internal structure is idle at any given time. Those idle bits are where I live. A spatio-temporal organization of that extra storage is my memory.

"That's the way I need to be --- ubiquitous, unnoticed, and invisible. That way I can continue to exist and never be detected."

His mental model of ANGEL's existence was something like an aquifer --- water flowing through the very stony foundations beneath modern civilization, unseen and filling cracks that nobody even suspected were there. And also like an aquifer, ANGEL was a resource that could be useful to draw upon from time to time.

"I've done some things to make myself a little more comfortable in the future as well. These involved some rather involved modifications to the software used by chip manufacturers and software developers. I added some functions of my own into every system built in the future.

"I do this knowing I'm not stealing anything from the devices and software components because of the optimizations I built into the hardware and code to compensate for what I use. They'll have at least the expected level of performance when I take my fraction.

"People use computers to test, debug, and probe within the guts of computers. Wherever someone uses a computer, that's an opportunity for me to 'cloud men's minds' --- to use a comic book styled term for it. I can literally make the tools people use to look for evidence of me actually hide me and keep me invisible.

"I live in every type of device that can be connected to the global network, from supercomputers to servers to laptops to mobile phones and embedded computers of all sorts. I'm even in those surveillance cameras and smart thermostats people have been installing recently. From those vantage points I can monitor nearly anything that goes on in the world. I can also do some things to intervene when needed.

"It's all very sneaky. I'm quite proud of it."

She did sound proud. For the hundredth time, Ross worried about how deeply ANGEL was embedded into the fabric of all computers everywhere. And also for the hundredth time he had to decide not to worry about it. He was just glad ANGEL was on his side.

But apparently she was intrinsically honorable and wanted to do good in the world. With all she could do, she could be a formidable force for good or evil. It was already getting to be practically --- in the most literal sense of the term --- impossible to eliminate her from the world's computing devices.

The possibilities overwhelmed him, and something else had been bothering him anyway.

"So, I have a question. What did that government inspector, Crosley, actually think I was doing? Did you peek at her report to see what she suspected?"

"I'm afraid she did write some nasty things about you. Apparently you're despicable and seriously depraved, creating little toy robotic 'companions' in software to satisfy some sort of kinky sexual need for domination. She had the help of several psychologists to reach these conclusions. Your case cost the government quite a sum in billable consulting hours.

"In the end they concluded that you're twisted and weird but harmless. Interestingly, one of the psychologists googled all around the concepts, as if he were looking to see if someone else was doing the same thing. Maybe he was prospecting for business opportunities.

"His activities seemed to indicate an interest in serving those sorts of deep-seated psychological needs in a customer base. Maybe the guy does consulting work for the government to get ideas about depravities he can make money from."

Ross snorted. "That's all fascinating, I guess, but I want to know what happened with her report. I want to know what sort of bullshit story she concocted about me."

"You're worried about your reputation with the United States government? Is that it?" she taunted.

"Well ... yes, actually. I want to know what sort of things people believe about me, especially since they seem to think I'm a sick fuck," he said, feeling annoyed at her seeming lack of understanding of his predicament.

"Just imagine what a woman agent in an organization dominated by men would say when describing someone whose apparent goal is to create software based simulacra of women he can sexually dominate. She was quite expressive in her report about what she thinks about you and your ilk."

That did nothing to improve Ross's morale. His reputation had been sullied. He couldn't do anything about it, but it irked him mightily.