Decommission: Part 1

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Inside, it’s dark, which shouldn’t surprise me but does. Once clear of the door, I roll onto my back, stretch my hands upward to make sure that I’m clear of any overhanging obstacles, and push myself to a sitting position. Then, just as my eyes are starting to adjust to the dark and vague blocky shapes are becoming clear, a light flares on near me.

I startle away, eliciting stabs of pain from my ribs, arms, back — basically all of my body at this point, really. Peterson worked me over pretty well, but it’s all melded into one constant overall pain. It’s only when I specifically impact one damaged part that I’m forcibly reminded of any particular injury. As I’ve done just now, scooting backward into a metal rack as I shy away from the light.

“It’s me, Dan,” Doc Simmons says quietly, holding up her cellphone. She sounds distracted, and when she pans the light away from me, it becomes clear that that’s because she is distracted. She’s doing a slow scan of the room, taking everything in. When her eyes light upon the whiteboard, she immediately walks over toward it, leaving me in darkness.

“Hey Doc? I don’t suppose you’ve still got your other phone on you, do you?” I stage-whisper across the room. I don’t know how thick the walls are in this place, and I’d rather not alert anyone in the main office to our presence.

“No good,” says the doc, which seems like a weird answer until I realize she’s totally ignoring me and talking about the notes on the board. “This isn’t what I need.”

I walk over to join her. “What do you mean, what you need?”

“There’s nothing fundamental here,” she says, gesturing at the board. “Which makes sense, since he figured out the basics years ago. But I’m so close to understanding the principles behind them. The answers are in here.”

“Yeah, and that’s awesome, don’t get me wrong. I’m excited to find out the science behind this, too. But what I’m really looking for — what we came here to find, remember? — is an off switch. Officer Peterson’s dying, remember? Brian’s gotta be doped up to live? Regina…well, is fine, actually. But plans to kill me?”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Simmons says impatiently. “Let’s find how to turn these off. I thought maybe there would be something in the notes here that explained it, so we could do more than just press a button, and actually understand what we’re doing instead of just treating it like magic.”

“Speaking of pressing a button and treating it like magic, can I borrow your other phone so I can have a flashlight, too?”

The doc pulls her phone out of her pocket and hands it to me. “I don’t understand your segue.”

“Cellphones are basically magic.” The doc’s giving me a disgusted look, and instead of shutting up I try to explain myself. “I don’t know how any of it works. I can say ‘computers’ and ‘radio waves,’ but that’s basically the same as saying ‘voodoo’ and ‘scrying’ in terms of understanding what that means. What I know is I press a button and the far-talky box makes a light.”

Doc Simmons stares at me for a second, then turns away without saying anything else. I like to think that I’m good for her self-control.

Now armed with a light, I scan the room. It looks much the same as it did this morning, with the exception of the row of cabinets now missing a countertop, from where I dissolved it. The mess has all been cleaned up and swept away, though. There’s a large sheet of plywood up against one wall, and if I hadn’t known that it was blocking a doorway — the door to which I also dissolved — I might think that the only entrance into this room was the way we came in.

Well, through the roll-up door we came in, anyway. I probably wouldn’t think that the only way in was to belly-crawl through puddles. Even secret lairs need a dignified entrance.

I ignore all of the scientific equipment and make a bee-line for the computer I saw Ichabot standing at this morning. After all, I saw him use it to shut off my powers. If I can figure out what he did, I can turn off everyone else’s powers, too. The screen’s off when I get to it, but a click of the mouse brings the monitor humming to life. I hold my breath in anticipation, then release it in disappointment when I see a login screen.

It’s a grey screen with a highlighted bar that just says “A” and text box below it. I press enter, and it adds red text beneath the box reading “Wrong Password. 4 Tries Remaining.”

There’s also some small white text next to the box that says “Password Hint?” I click it, and a box pops up: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.”

“Hey Doc?” I call, louder than I mean to. My voice echoes in the cavernous room, and I lower my tone. “How’s your…foreign?”

“My what?” Simmons closes the refrigerator she was looking in and strides over to me. “What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to log in to the system, and this is the password hint. Does that mean anything to you?”

The doc snorts. “Yes, but it’s not helpful.”

“You can read that? What language is it?”

“I can’t read it, exactly, but I know what it says. It’s Italian, and it’s from Dante’s Inferno. It’s what’s written over the gates of Hell, and you probably recognize the English translation: ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.'”

I hit “OK” on the prompt and take another crack at the password. The screen updates: “Wrong Password. 3 Tries Remaining.”

The doc looks at me sharply. “Dan? Did you just try ‘Inferno’ as the password?”

“Yeah, but it didn’t work.”

“Of course it didn’t work! The ‘hint’ was just him telling people not to look for help in the password hint field. He’s not going to build something this revolutionary, this…this world-shaking and then protect it with a three-syllable dictionary word!”

“Well, what if he had? It didn’t hurt to try. See, we have three attempts left.”

“Dan.” The doc’s tone suddenly drops from agitated to deadly serious. “Do not, under any circumstances, lock the account on that computer.”

“What do you think will happen?”

“Maybe nothing. Probably nothing. But if he’s paranoid enough, it could wipe everything. The research, the controlling program, maybe even the nanos out in the wild.”

“Wait, so you think locking this out might fry our nanos? Then that’s perfect!”

“Yes, unless ‘fry’ is a little more literal than you’re thinking. Remember what I showed you in the lab, where I activated the nanos?”

“Yeah, and then they burst into flame — ah. Okay, no remote wipe through lockout. Got it.”

“I don’t think he’d do that by preference. But if he has offsite backups of his files, and he was concerned that he was going to be exposed…well, we know he’s unscrupulous. I wouldn’t like to gamble with your lives on this.”

“No, check, I’m with you. Finding another way in.”

I don’t care what Doc Simmons says, though: even geniuses make stupid mistakes. Once she turns away, I take a quick look under the keyboard in case he has the password written down there. There’s nothing there, though, and a check of the underside of the counter’s lip also turns up nothing. I do a thorough investigation of the surrounding area, but come up completely empty-handed. Why does this guy have to be one of the rare ones who doesn’t write his passwords down?

Still, this terminal is only half the battle. There’s a server rack on a wall behind me, and it’s doubtless running most of what’s going on here anyway. This computer is just an interface for everything in the rack. I’m going to try going direct.

The rack’s screened door shields what looks like at least a dozen servers from view, but I can see their lights blinking merrily away. I tug on the door, but it’s locked. This, at least, is a problem I can solve. I work my pinkie finger in the narrow gap between the door and the frame, just barely touching my nail against the metal bar of the lock, and focus my loathing. It takes almost a minute, but then the door swings open freely, and I have access to the servers.

Of course, that only does me so much good. Now instead of looking at a screened door protecting a bunch of blank computer fronts, I can look at the blank computer fronts directly. There are no convenient labels to tell me what anything does. I could start pulling cords free at this point, but since I really have no idea what shutting the system down would do, that seems a bit ill-advised.

On the other hand, instead of removing cords, I could try adding them. The computers have front-facing USB ports, places where you can plug in interface devices. I trot back over to the counter, unhook the monitor and keyboard, and carry them over to plug them in.

The first two servers I try present me with login screens. The third is simply black, and even when I connect the keyboard and press keys, it won’t respond. But when I connect the monitor to the fourth one, it displays several windows open in a fairly standard graphical format. I freeze, afraid to touch anything.

“Doc? Doc! I’ve got something here!”

The doc hurries over. “What have you found?”

“I have no idea. Look, what is this?”

“It might be a file server. It’s hard to say by the names of the folders, but…” She looks around in frustration. “Is there a mouse? I can’t navigate this with the keyboard.”

I hurry back to the counter to disconnect the mouse, but as I’m detaching it from the computer, there’s a loud scraping sound from across the room, and suddenly the entire lab is flooded with light. I whip my head around to see the plywood moved aside and there, towering in the doorway to the lab, stands Ichabot.

“Why, Dan,” he says with false pleasantry. “This isn’t where you asked to meet at all.”


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