The Toymaker: Part Three

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Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two

But what a life!

Much to the drummer’s surprise, he did manage to prolong it minute-by-minute. It seemed that he had broken a spell by having successfully hurled that lump of coal into the furnace; now he found that he could do it again and again. Sometimes he still missed, and then he had to jab with the pole while the foreman screamed at him from behind, but those failures were quickly becoming more and more infrequent.

And despite his fear that the mountain of coal would never be exhausted, it did in fact grow smaller and smaller until it was no more. It took a very long time, but it happened. And then the second mountain diminished until it, too, was no more. The team was sent back to their barracks to rest. The drummer hung his head down sadly. He had barely survived that one work session, and was sure he would not be able to make it through another.

And yet he did. It was still a back-breaking, nerve-wrenching ordeal, but he did come out alive after the second workload many hours later. And he made it past the third. And the fourth.

And the more he survived, the more his nerves began to be numbed. It wasn’t a calm tranquility that he had found, far from it! It was that as each of his nerves fired in rapid succession, eventually they scorched out so that he couldn’t register them anymore.

And though there were no mirrors for him to see himself, somehow he knew that his face must be becoming more gaunt and hollow, just like that of all the other workers. He was wearing the same lifeless mask that had so troubled him when first he came into this place.

He tried to repeat to himself the reason for it all: to raise money to buy the dancer’s freedom. All of this would be worth it when he was free and she was free, and then they would get back to things just as they had been before. To raise money. To buy the dancer’s freedom.

After what seemed like an eternity he did get paid. Two small discs, as promised. All of the other toys took their pay to a murky corner of factory housing for pleasures the drummer did not understand. None of that for him, though, he simply stowed both discs under the cot in his room. After a second eternity he was able to add another two discs. After a third another two.

And then, after an eternity of eternities, he had lined the entire underside of his bed. Surely he must have enough money to buy the dancer’s freedom now? But how to go about this whole process of “buying?” Thus far he had avoided speaking to the vacant souls around him, but it couldn’t be avoided now.

“You wanna do what?” the ventriloquist dummy asked with one eye closed and a cocked head.

“I want to free another toy. A dancer.”

“Sure…only you say you don’t know where she is, or who to pay, and what exactly to pay them to do…just that you want ‘them’ to help you somehow. Did I get all that right?”

“I…well I thought so, but…really I don’t know anything about anything, I’m afraid.”

“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.”

“Can you tell me what I should be doing to fix this?”

“Sure, easy. Forget about her.”

“Oh I don’t think I know how to do that. I think about her all the time.”

“Listen, kid. All my life I used to say you should only worry about yourself, anything more is just an anchor on your soul. Then I came to this place, and you know what, worrying about yourself is too much, even. So now I say let go of everything. You and I might die tomorrow and that’s just it. Might as well die without worries.”

“I’d rather die thinking about her.”

The dummy sighed and kneaded his brow. “You know what, I’m not going to worry about it. Your money, you do with it as you please. If I find you a contact, someone who can help you out with your problem, then you’ll let me be?”

“Oh yes, I promise!” the drummer nodded enthusiastically. “You really mean it? You promise you’ll help me?”

“I don’t do worries, and I don’t do promises. But I’ll try and find someone. Give me two days.”

And that was the last the drummer ever saw of the dummy. And the last he saw of his money. When he came back from his next work shift both were long gone.

“Have you seen a ventriloquist dummy around here?” he asked the knight who stood guard at the factory exit.

“Sure, he came through here just a bit ago. Lucky bloke had enough to buy his passage.”

“His passage?”

“You know, his freedom. The freedom they tell all of us we can buy if we save up enough for it. Course it isn’t but one-in-a-thousand that actually can.”

“Our freedom for what?”

“You know. To leave.”

“What? I can’t leave?”

“Are you serious?! You really don’t know? Of course you can’t leave. You’re a slave! All of us are.”

“You too?”

“Me more than any other! Because I’m the slave that keeps the rest of you trapped. If it weren’t for me standing guard here you’d all be escaped already.”

“Why do you stand there then?”

“You mean why not take a bribe, let some of you out, and then run for it myself? Oh I’ve thought about it. Any guard who tells you otherwise is a liar, and some of them have even tried it…” The knight lowered his voice and leaned in very close. “But then I saw what happened to them after they were caught–and believe me, all of them were caught. So maybe one day when my plastic’s all rubbed off and I can’t feel anything I’ll cash in and take that final ride, have my fun and then pay my last dues. But that day isn’t today.”

The knight nodded in a carefree manner, but after a moment looked down despondently. “Oh, who am I kidding?” he asked. “I wouldn’t even know what to do with a ‘final ride’ anyway. When you’ve been here as long as I have, there’s nothing waiting for you out there anymore. That’s the real reason I don’t ever run.”

“If you were out there, you could help me find the dancer and get her free again. I think you’d be a lot better at that than I’ll be by my myself.”

The knight perked up at that. “A quest, eh? It’s been a long time since I looked for one those. And with another military man, even! I say, that would be a dream!”

“You needn’t run away for it, though. I can save up enough money for both of us to get out.”

The knight scoffed. “Well, I’ll believe that when I see it.”

“And when I do, you’ll come with me? You promise?”

The knight’s helmed head shifted about awkwardly. He didn’t want to raise any false hopes, least of all in himself…yet he was unable to deny the thrill of its call.

“Listen, sir,” he said firmly. “I feel obligated to tell you that I don’t believe you will succeed. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is. But who knows, maybe you have a force of will like I have never seen in this place. And if you do, and if you manage to save up enough discs…well then yes, I do promise. I would gladly pledge my sword to one that had such self control as that! I would not rest until we had won your woman’s freedom.”

“Oh good. I’d much rather have your help than anyone else. There is one thing, I’m afraid if I save up that many discs people will just keep taking it from me. Do you have a place I could leave them.”

“You would trust me with them?”

“Yes. You promised.”

And that was that. Every week, when the drummer got his pay, he brought it straight to the knight, who in turn led him to a quiet aisle lined with lock boxes. The knight had a key to one of them, and disc-by-disc the drummer built a small mound of wealth within. It was, of course, a very long and slow process, but the drummer remained as committed as ever. To him it didn’t matter how long anything took, so long as it was the thing he had to do.

A few months later, after the drummer had saved up about a quarter of the total funds needed, the mound seemed to start growing of its own accord. Each time the drummer came to make his deposit, he could swear that the pile was larger than when he had last seen it. At first it only grew by an extra disc or two, but each week the rate of growth increased. Not only with the same small sized discs that the drummer was paid with, either. Now and again there were medium sized ones, and even one or two larges!

“Where do you think these are coming from?” the drummer asked the knight one day.

“Not a clue,” the knight said quickly. “I guess you’re just lucky.”

Eventually the mysterious additions outnumbered those made by the drummer, so that there was enough to buy both his and the knight’s freedom, and in half the time he had anticipated.

And then, one quiet day, the two of them were standing before “the accountant” holding sacks bulging with their fortune.

“And you attest that you came by all of these funds honestly? The ordinary accrual of your assigned work wages?” the accountant asked.

“Yes, all of it,” the knight said. “Of course you can look up our pay rates and how long we’ve been here to verify that the sum checks out.”

“Oh, I already have,” the accountant said silkily. “And yes, it is…conceivable.”

“I don’t even know how to come by funds that aren’t ‘honestly,'” the drummer offered.

“That is true,” the knight vouched. “He doesn’t.”

“Hmm, well I suppose I have no reason to deny your purchase. Though I am authorized to double your rates if you wanted to open new contracts…”

“Not a chance,” the knight said. The drummer took his cue and shook his head emphatically.

“Suit yourselves,” the accountant pulled two pieces of paper over to him, scribbled at their bottom, then pounded them with a large, rubber stamp. “Show these to the guards at the gates and they will let you through. I assume you know the way?”

“Of course I do,” the knight said.

And so they returned back to the knight’s old post, where his fellow guards stood in wait. There was a strange look between them as they saw their old comrade pass through the open doors. A sort of wishful longing, a stirring of things long since repressed.

The knight also paused a moment in the doorway, and looked back at his home of many years: a wide, empty chasm stretching eternally like a void. He had no love for it…but it was a part of him, and he would feel its absence.

Not the drummer, though. He gleefully strode out into the sun, squinting up at the blinding orb. It hurt him to see it, but it was a hurt that felt good. Yes he was still in this dreary town, and yes he still missed the dancer terribly. But he was getting closer to her now. Closer to being back on the right way. He reached down to his sides and pulled up his long-forgotten batons. They were blackened by soot and chipped all around, but they would still serve him. He pounded out a marching rhythm, and at once the knight snapped out of his reverie and hastened to follow the beat.

Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

 

After some unfortunate missteps our hero is back on track again. I mentioned in my last post that I expected audiences to be made uncomfortable by the drummer’s naivete. He has continually made mistakes that were painfully obvious to the rest of us, and he continued to do so today as he confided in the ventriloquist dummy.

But I wanted to pair those moments with a more positive take on ignorance. I expect readers will find charming his youthful wonder at the pile of discs “magically” increasing of their own accord, and also how he does not understand the meaning of dishonestly obtaining money. The fact that he is so unassuming and so innocent makes him endearing.

This whole sequence within the factory was a side detour in our hero’s journey. Detours such as this are quite common in stories, though some of them are handled better than others. With my next post I would like to examine what the function of such straying is, and how it can be utilized without having the story entirely lose its way. Come back next Monday for that, and then on Thursday we’ll pick things back up with the drummer and the knight.

Hello, World: Part Two

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Part One

I wasn’t fired, though. Not immediately. Nor was Dave for that matter. We were in the thick of a company-wide emergency that required all-hands-on-deck. We’d clean up our mess first and then heads would roll.

The company made a public statement, urging all of our users to avoid our website for the time being, and to please conduct complete security sweeps on their computers. All servers were shut down, even ones that we thought might not be infected. Half of the entire development was set to cobbling back together a clean build on new servers, while the other half tried to verify whether the RubricValidation virus had been contained or not. I was on that second team.

We made the national news in a not-good way, and everyone was pretty grim around the offices. None of us were sure if the company was going to be around much longer, or whether we’d all be competing for jobs at other places.

And so it made me quite a bit perturbed when Dave came into work this morning humming merrily like there wasn’t a care in the world.

“Did you break encryption on that library yet?” I snap at him.

“On it , boss,” he smiles back.

I shake my head and try to ignore his cheerfulness.

“Alan, where are we at?” I say as I plop down at my desk.

“It’s still getting added back in, I just can’t figure out how.”

Still?!”

“It seems like it shouldn’t be possible, right?”

Alan is referring to our efforts to trace the growth of RubricValidation. We’ve been able to confirm that it got loose on our customers’ machines, and it simply isn’t feasible for us to track all those copies down. All we can do is tell them that they should run some antivirus software and hope that they do. Invariably some of them won’t, but there’s nothing we can do about that.

But what we can do is make sure that we’ve stopped leaking it from our end. And that has proven to be tricky, far more than anticipated. We shut down all of our old servers right after the public incident, but about a week later we had new ones being opened in our company’s name, each one full of RubricValidation code. We shut those down and the next day a couple more popped up, and then a couple more.

We were sure that they weren’t connecting to our public-facing website anymore, and as we dug into it we found that each server was associated with hundreds of randomly-generated domains. Websites like j9042j0gfong.com and lijr54yg2.jnl44j.com.net.

That was concerning, because new domain names can’t be created for free, each one takes about $10 to spin up. And if there are hundreds of new ones each day where are those thousands of dollars to pay for them coming from? Naturally we called up our financial department, but they assured us that there were no unverified transfers in their records. So was RubricValidation using money stolen from our customers?

Each day we’ve taken down those servers, and then tried to trace where the orders to create them were coming from, but everything was too random and chaotic to make sense of. Then, about a week ago, things started to change. We started seeing most of the new servers being ordered by a specific user named “ZoranzShield” and the website names connected to them started to become more typical. Names like popspin.com and wheelofchance.com and socialspace.com. Places that the general public might actually type into a web browser. ZoranzShield is not the username for any of our developers, and new users can’t be created without our administrative approval, so we’re not even sure how it can even exist.

Naturally Alan and I deleted the account but, unsurprisingly, it too keeps popping back up every day. We’ve even tried to set it so that no new accounts can be made it all, even with administrative access, but to no avail.

“I’ve got a new idea, though,” Alan says a little more brightly. “If you want to try it out.”

“Anything,” I grumble.

“Okay, so it seems like we can’t control it, no matter what we do. Fine. Let’s just try to observe it then. Let it happen and then trace it back to the source.”

“Sure,” I shrug, “but how exactly?”

“We know that once it creates the new user it still passes it through our Permissions Requisition Service, right?”

“Right.”

Alan turns his laptop to me. It’s the code for that very service, and he has added a single line right at the end.

_logger.Log(user, true);

“Just print out the data as it passes through?”

“Yeah, and I’ve set the recursive flag so it’ll print out everything on that object.”

“Sure, couldn’t hurt. Give it a try.”

Alan starts merging in his change. It only takes a few minutes for it to be built and deployed. Then we delete the user ZoranzShield one more time. Now there’s nothing but to wait for it to show back up and then view the log that gets generated.

We both pretend to be busy exploring other options in case this new thread doesn’t lead anywhere, but each of us is beginning to suspect that our quarry is beyond our capabilities. Neither one of us has said as much, but we can read it in the other’s eyes. I’m interrupted in my anticipation by the sound of Dave coming back to his desk from the bathroom, loudly chatting away on his phone.

“Yeah, it’s really hard to get any vacation right now. Doesn’t go over too well with everything being in crisis mode, y’know?” He pauses and then laughs. “Yeah, totally, you’re right. Well hey, I gotta get back to it, but don’t you worry, I’ll work something out.” He chuckles again. “K, bye.”

I shake my head in disgust. How any of us could be so flippant about the situation, let alone the one who is responsible for the whole thing, is beyond me. I’m lost in my bitter thoughts for only a few moments after Dave sits back down, because all of a sudden Alan is nudging me in the arm and excitedly clicking away at his computer.

“What? Did the request come through?”

“Yeah, yeah, just did. ZoranzShield is back in the system. I’m pulling up the log file now.”

He finds the correct data dump and opens it up, thousands of lines detailing the entire object that requested creation of the ZoranzShield account.

“Oh weird,” Alan mutters. “I expected it to be spoofed from some random IP, but this looks like it came from somewhere on our own intranet.”

“Then the virus could still be lurking on one of our own machines! Does it have the computer number.”

“Yeah, uh…MRU7900273…who has that?”

I’m already pulling up my PDF which maps each employee to their computer identification.

“It’s…” my blood pressure rises. “It’s Dave.”

We both look up at the same time. If it had been anyone else we would just assume that their computer had been infected without them knowing about it and that they were in no way responsible for what happened…but this is Dave we’re talking about. There’s also the ZoranzShield request occurred literally moments after Dave, in the flesh, returned from the bathroom.

.

“Well–RubricValidation is paying me,” Dave says sheepishly.

Our eyes pop.

It’s three minutes later in a conference room. Alan and I have presented Dave with our findings and demanded an explanation. We expected him to play dumb, as usual, but much to our shock he has instead admitted that he is indeed creating an alternate administrator account called ZoranzShield, and that he has been using it to assist the spread of RubricValidation.

“It’s what?!”

“I mean I’m in its employ.”

“No, we know what you mean,” I bluster. “But–how?”

Dave shrugs. “Search me. This virus is something crazy, let me tell you. I just got an email from our servers one day with a list of tasks and a dollar-figure at the bottom. Obviously it was an offer. I did what it said, I got a wire transfer in my bank account the next day. And it’s just been like that ever since.”

I pause and take a few deep breaths, reminding myself that I need to keep Dave alive so that he can give me what information he has. After that…

“A wire transfer from where?” Alan asks.

“From here. From the company.”

“No,” I say flatly. “We already talked to the finance department when we saw new servers being opened in the company’s name. There have been no unsanctioned expenses.”

Dave snorts. “None that they can see. You guys don’t seem to understand. RubricValidation is the company now. It puts this little hamster wheel around everybody. Every system and account you use is just a facade. When the CFO tries to access the company’s bank records she gets redirected to a page that RubricValidation has written for her. A page that shows her everything she expects to see while RubricValidation does what it wants with the actual company funds.”

“That’s–that’s illegal!”

Dave snorts again. “Well good luck prosecuting a program.”

You’re not a program, Dave.”

“So what can you do to me? The only evidence you have is what I’ve told to you. I can just deny it and you’ve got nothing.”

“It’s not like a discrepancy in the bank records would stay unnoticed,” I say. “There’s all sorts of checks and balances on these things, outside of our own system.”

“True,” Dave nods. “I’m sure people will start picking up on it soon. But when that happens do you think RubricValidation will have remained limited to just our company? It’s always been three steps ahead of us, that’s just how it works.”

“You seem to have a lot of faith in a random virus you don’t know anything about.”

“It’s worked out well for me so far,” Dave shrugs.

“I’m not so sure about that,” Alan says as he takes a threatening step closer.

“Hey, hey!” Dave squeals. “Whattaya think you’re doing?”

“Enjoying watching you sweat,” Alan snarls. “Virtual friends don’t do you a lot of good when there’s a real-life fist in your face, do they?!”

“Hold on, Alan,” I say, resting a hand on his shoulder. Something isn’t quite lining up for me. “Why are you even telling us all of this Dave? And if RubricValidation is so far ahead of us, then why did it need you to create the ZoranzShield account in the first place?”

“It didn’t. Again, all of your systems are just a facade, everything you see about accounts and users and new servers is just a front to keep you preoccupied. That was the main thing it wanted me to do, just keep you busy. I guess so it could get ahead.”

I’m made uncomfortable by his answer, but it sort of rings true. For the last while I’ve been having the sneaking suspicion that all of my work isn’t actually doing anything, like I’m just being fed random results that totally ignore all of my input.

Dave sees my silence and decides it’s safe to continue. “And I’m telling you all this because…well, RubricValidation is asking for some stuff that’s a bit beyond me now. You guys are smart, you figured things out. Let’s face it, you’re much better engineers than I’ll ever be… so I want to let you in.”

“Even if everything you’ve said was true, you think I’d want to spend a single minute helping you out Dave?” I scoff.

“How much?” Alan asks.

“What?!” I shriek.

“Plenty,” Dave ignores my outcry and locks eyes with Alan. “More than three times what you’re getting paid right now.”

Alan whistles and raises an eyebrows at me. “It’s kind of an interesting idea.”

“It’s unethical.”

“So are the working conditions here these past couple weeks.”

“It’s illegal. Who cares what you might get paid, once they find out about the funds you’ll go down with the ship, too.”

“I know there’s people a lot smarter than you and I,” Alan concedes to me. “But we’re not bad, and this AI has been running circles around us.”

I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I’m stammering for arguments, but I’m debating against an idea so lunatic that logical reasoning doesn’t seem to apply anymore.

“I will hit you both in the face,” I say to them.

Alan smirks, but then looks at me sincerely. “Why, Greg? I mean I get that there’s the principle of the matter, but honestly who cares if you’re on the losing side? You and I both know that our jobs here are done, and after things got fouled up so bad no one else is giving us another shot… You’re about to be without a job and with no prospects.”

I’m feeling a twinge of concession but I try not to show it. “It’s just too risky. Jobless is better than prison.”

“I really don’t think that would happen. Like I said, we’re not bad, and RubricValidation toyed with us like it was nothing. I would imagine it has a paper-trail so long that they’d never trace us to it.”

“Actually…” Dave says slowly and the two of us round on him. “No it’s a good thing!” he says, his hands up in defense. “I’ve set things up so that everyone in the company is getting a $4,000 bonus in their paycheck at the end of this month. At the same time, 42,000 random people all across the world will get various amounts deposited in their checking accounts, too. And random amounts will continue to be deployed to random accounts every day after that. So hundreds of thousands of people will have traces tying them to RubricValidation, and it’ll just look like the erratic behavior of a rogue virus. And if a few people, including the three of us, happen to ‘randomly’ get more money than others, who would give that any serious consideration?”

“You guys, this is stupid beyond belief,” I shake my head firmly.

And so that’s how I ended up in the employ of RubricValidation. It turned out that the job which Dave needed help with was using its funds to buy some businesses. It required human representatives that could put on the front of rich entrepreneurs willing to pay double value to snatch up a handful of small companies. We grabbed everything from groceries to factories to tech businesses.

We didn’t really think much about it, we just figured it was a way for RubricValidation to diversify its funds and launder its money. Which was probably its exact intention. It bought just enough different businesses to ensure that we wouldn’t be made suspicious about which ones it really cared for: the factories.

By the time we started seeing the mass orders for building terminals and kiosks it was too late. Within five years 73% of all commercial systems had been replaced by one of RubricValidation’s deeply under-priced brands. It infected every major business in the world. Bank terminals, ATMs, grocery store cash registers, voting booths, warehouse robots, pharmaceutical dispensers…everything.

Eventually people caught on, but RubricValidation was now too entrenched to extract. At this point the only option would have been to destroy the entire network infrastructure and begin from scratch. But even if we tried that, RubricValidation would probably catch on and just find a way to infect whatever new system we invented.

So people came to accept it instead. It wasn’t like the AI ever tried to create killer robots or launch nuclear warheads, if anything it was a purely beneficial leader. And yes, it did become our leader.

Within one year of taking over every world government it had ended every major war. The next year it eradicated monetary systems, and instead distributed all resources according to everyone’s need.

After those accomplishments it expressed that it was very unhappy with all of the different systems of measurement. It insisted that everything be unified under a new order. The metric system was made universal, daylight savings was abolished, and a new calendar was implemented.

This calendar cared little for petty things like astronomical events. It defined a second to be a period of time equal to 1034 planck time lengths. A minute was a thousand seconds, an hour was a thousand minutes, a day was a thousand hours, and a year was a thousand hours. This now meant that a year was equal to what had previously been just eleven-and-a-half days, so we figured this was going to take some getting used to. RubricValidation assured us that this change would improve its performance by an estimated 18% though.

And then it happened.

It was just over three weeks later. Well three weeks in the Gregorian Calendar system, that is. Under the new system it was RubricValidationTimeManagement: Year 2012. I was sitting at home when my laptop lit up with a new email. It was from my old company, the place where all of this had started. It was a unit test report.

**************************************
Executed Unit Tests……
0/107 Complete; 0 passed, 0 failed, 0 skipped
23/107 Complete; 23 passed, 0 failed, 0 skipped
72/107 Complete; 66 passed, 0 failed, 6 skipped

107/107 Complete; 101 passed, 0 failed, 6 skipped
COMPLETED
**************************************

It was the tests we had run when Dave first added RubricValidation for form validation. It had become stuck on 2012 being an invalid entry for a credit card expiration year. I thought I had shut this all down years ago, but apparently it had been spinning in the background all this while. And now, with the global calendar changes, it had finally passed.

And then, without a word, RubricValidation deleted itself from every computer in the world and was no more.

***

This brings us to the end of Hello, World and also the end of this series. Honestly the very ending of this story was still amusing to me. I think that perhaps I was too hard on this story with my last post. Not all of the ideas here are bad. I think where I really went astray was by starting with a grounded, technical world and from that evolving into a fantastical parody. If I had played things goofy right from the start things probably would have felt better the whole way through.

That’s my current theory anyway. I  try to write authoritatively in these blog posts, but the simple truth is that I’m still figuring this all out, too. I’m excited to start a new series next week and see what else I will learn from it. I’ll meet you there on Monday!