Three days after the apocalypse, Glen Whitmann was just hitting the stale and jangly stage of a serious caffeine buzz. The day after Mission City, Epps and a couple of the Sector Seven dudes had taken a couple of the computers that had survived the trashing of Hoover Dam and set them up in the Autobots' garage, which at least had a set of back-up generators. They'd then installed Glen and Maggie there with orders from Keller to try to find a way to neutralize the virus that had locked down global communications.
Personally, Glen had his doubts about their succeeding. Just getting the damn virus on screen so they could analyze it had been hard enough: they were supposed to... what? Remote hack an affected server? When they couldn't even get online because the servers that controlled the comm relays were the ones that were down?
They'd solved that problem in the end when Bumblebee had suggested they hook up Jazz's comm unit as an independent, heavily buttressed comm relay. It had taken Ratchet an hour to extract it and delete its access to the squad's tac-net – "Damned if I'm going to deal with this thing infiltrating the rest of us!" Ratchet had growled – then 'Bee had had to jury-rig an interface usable by human beings to one of their borrowed computers.
By day's end, however, they had had a working relay that had no problem tapping the affected servers, and had downloaded a copy of the virus into a sandbox, which 'Bee had also furnished.
"This is a fairly basic, generalized isolation environment," the injured Autobot had warned. "It's a cut-down version of what I've got running as a first-level active buffer. I'm not sure I can rig something more elaborate on one of your machines, and I don't necessarily know what I'm dealing with, either, so I can't tailor the programming environment. The diagnostic tools are basic, too, but perhaps they will be a little more sensitive than what you have available."
Glen had spent a few hours knocking about the original Decepticon signal that had landed them in this mess with 'Bee's basic tools, just to familiarize himself with the program, and had quickly come to the realization that whoever had hacked the Pentagon's network hadn't even bothered to encrypt the stolen data. Hell, he hadn't even bothered to translate it into Cybertronian – which, given that he and Maggie had managed to read the file directly, was an obvious point, all things considered. He just hadn't really considered them before.
But with 'Bee's diagnostics easily separating out English and Cybertronian content, and evaluating encryption levels, it was hard to ignore the fact that what everyone had been tripping over hadn't been encrypted data, it had simply been another language.
Apparently, the 'Cons had taken one look at human beings and decided not to waste even basic security measures on them.
Just think you so bad-ass, Glen sneered, offended, though admittedly... they were. And that arrogance might be a good thing for humanity. It might mean that the virus was comparably simple, although if this were simple, he would hate to see complicated. Glen reached unerringly for the can of pop on the corner of the desk. He'd already pulled two all-nighters, and was contemplating whether he could manage a third – that post-apocalyptic thing and nearly getting diced by an invading mini-robot wasn't without its effects – when something caught a tired eye.
What the...? Glen blinked hard, feeling the burn behind his eyes that he hoped wasn't some kind of chemical floating around in the air, then pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose so he could squint at the screen. Fingers flew over the keyboard, and he clicked on the scrolling time bar, dragging it backwards, "rewinding "the flow of code. Streams of what 'Bee's command-breakers were telling him were separate elements of the code skipped by, 'til he saw the subset that had caught his attention. He clicked on it, and dragged it into a "sandtray," as he'd come to call all the little extra boxes 'Bee had written in, and watched as the diagnostics went to work on it.
"Security", one of them announced; and "heterodaptive – 0001 alpha ??# fragment" another told him. Glen shook his head.
"No way!" he muttered, then shoved his chair on its rollers over to the doorway, so he could poke his head out and call, "Hey, Maggie! C'mere, you gotta see this!"
Maggie, who had set up shop in the break room, looked up from her station at the lunch table. She swung her feet down from where she'd been propping them on one of the chairs, and began making her way over to Glen, pausing at the water-cooler, with a grimace, to toe off her shoes. In her stockings, then, she padded over to join him.
"What is it?" she asked, leaning over his shoulder. Then seeing the code in the box, she frowned. "Did the program crash?"
"Whoa, I don't crash, girl!" Glen protested. "This here's just a sandtray – we're still runnin'. But get this: I pulled this outta the stream. Number – " Glen paused a moment to click briefly back to the main box and check " – thirty-six."
"Okay, so the virus tried to write in an illegal operation that would crash the whole program." Maggie shrugged. "So what?"
"Lemme tell you so what: this ain't no write-over line. Stream thirty-six ain't part of the initial attack coding, it's part of the 'holy kludge, Batman' crazy countermeasures against us trying to shut it down. This here comes direct from them," Glen said, and thrust a thumb over his shoulder in the approximate direction of the Autobots.
That got Maggie's attention. "You're serious?" Glen nodded, the very picture of confidence. Maggie cocked her head, eyes narrowing, and Glen watched her brow knit one anxious furrow at a time as she ran through the implications. "You're saying that the general protection fault coding is almost an exact match for something that came from a Cybertronian virus?"
"Weirded out yet?" Glen asked. Maggie straightened, folding her arms across her chest.
"Why would they have something that primitive, though?" she wondered, gnawing gently at her lower lip.
"Not sure. And it might not be primitive. Look." Glen minimized the one sandtray and went back to the main box, located stream thirty-six, and pulled that into its own sandtray. A couple of clicks, and he'd highlighted the relevant coding in its context. "What I've got in the other tray is just a fragment. It belongs with this whole subroutine – and I don't know what this does."
"Go back to the other tray," Maggie said, and when Glen had pulled it up, she tapped a fingernail against the screen. "According to 'Bee's terminology, it's 'heterodaptive' – it's an environmental adaptation mechanism."
"Pretty much every countermeasure stream is 'heterodaptive,'" Glen replied, making air quotes around the word. "Don't see how that much helps us."
"I suppose not," Maggie murmured. She stared a moment longer, then shook her head, hunching up her shoulders, as she tossed him a rueful look. "Weird!"
"Kinda makes you wonder what else we're gonna find in this sucker," Glen drawled, arching a brow at her.
"Well, we won't find an anti-virus, that's certain. Even with Bumblebee's heuristics, we're not sure which stream controls replication," Maggie sighed.
"Thinkin' we might need some bigger guns for this one," Glen agreed.
"Give it another few hours. Maybe 'Bee can do something with the data we've mapped without having to tap the server himself," she said.
"Or maybe we can get Ratchet to snoop the server, if he's so dead-set against 'Bee risking infection," Glen mused.
"Maybe, though he's pretty battered himself, with all those scorch marks," Maggie pointed out.
"Yeah. Wonder what explosion he ran into!" Glen replied. The two of them fell silent a moment, staring at the malicious code, before Maggie stretched and said:
"God, do I want espresso!"
"Nuh-uh. Mountain dew, girl," Glen retorted, and took a vigorous sip of his own, then sighed with contentment. "Breakfast, lunch, and dinner of white hats everywhere!"
Maggie shook her head. "You mean grey hats!" she retorted, then headed back into the break room, presumably to scoop a double helping of their diminishing supply of Folgers into the coffee-maker.
"Sure thing, Ms. Will-Go-to-Jail-for-the-Rest-of-Her-Life," he called after her. When Maggie refused to dignify that with an answer, Glen chuckled, then turned his attention back to the screen, perusing the comments 'Bee's analyzer had come up with for that subroutine. 'Heterodaptive,' he decided, probably was the least helpful tag since 'general protection fault'.
"Could be a sign," he muttered to himself, then laughed quietly again to himself. "End times, man – Microsoft really is the avatar of evil!"
As it turned out, he was more right than he knew at the time.
"That piece of coding is first-line defense," 'Bee said, when he came to it. The legless Autobot was lying on his stomach on the garage floor, propped up on his elbows so he could more easily read the desktop that Maggie and Glen had dragged out into the shop on Glen's chair, trailing bright orange extension cords behind them. The two of them stood now one at either shoulder – or rather, Maggie stood, Glen was sitting on one of 'Bee's forearms, chin in his hand, so he could scroll for the Autobot, whose fingers were entirely too large to use the keyboard.
"So we thought," Maggie said.
"What with it bein' all heterodaptive," Glen quipped, then paused a moment, before saying: "Blue screen of death, Cybertronian style."
"The what?" 'Bee asked.
"Blue screen of death – it's what happens when the OS crashes. It's pretty much the same thing as this – literally," Glen explained, as he continued scrolling. It wasn't until the Autobot spoke again that he realized 'Bee wasn't even paying attention to the screen any more.
"When you say 'literally'," 'Bee inquired, tone rife with alarm, "do you mean the code is the same?"
"Huh? You mean earlier? Well, yeah, pretty much. I mean, this here is different." Glen quickly scrolled back, then leaned forward to indicate the surrounding code. "That part, though, that's the same."
At that, 'Bee gave a low, rumbling whine of his engine, which apparently meant something, because across the room, Ratchet looked up rather sharply. "What?" the CMO demanded.
"You have to see this, Ratch," 'Bee declared, and blinked. Maggie took a quick step back as 'Bee raised his arm – the one Glen wasn't sitting on – to touch the side of his head. When the Autobot lifted his eyes, a blue image appeared in the air before them – the computer screen, writ large, with the GPF code highlighted on it. And right beside it, another image: the actual blue screen of death.
"What did I tell you about direct upli –?" Ratchet began, but then halted abruptly, staring at the image. Then he, too, made that odd rumbling whine, and stepped around the car-lift he was using as worktable to stare at the image. He lifted a hand, as if to touch the lettering, impossible as that was, and his vents flared out, giving the impression of an enormous, chartreuse cat confronted with a tub of water. Maggie looked from him to Bumblebee, shifting uneasily.
"What is it?" she asked. 'Bee said nothing, just looked pointedly at Ratchet.
"That code," the Autobot CMO said slowly, "is an element in Cybertronian self-defense. It's a basic code unit that everyone has installed on him during construction."
"So how'd it get on our computers?" Maggie demanded, scowling.
"The damn white hats stole it," Glen said hoarsely. And when Maggie looked at him, he said impatiently: "Hoover Dam. 'The dawn of the modern age'!"
"Oh my God," Maggie murmured, horrified. "This is Megatron's code!"
"Hell, yeah," Glen swore. "Man, that's, like, the ultimate hack! On both sides!"
"What do you think, Ratchet?" 'Bee asked his squad mate.
"The timeline fits, if humanity has based its technology on copying from him. And this modifying element – " the CMO pointed at a couple of lines on the blue screen of death image " – is just a little too specifically tied to what I've seen of this planet's basic data structures to come from someone who hadn't had multiple hostile encounters with human software. Megatron is the only one of us who would have had the time to develop a specific response to human programming that could have been copied back into human software on a broad basis like this."
"Man, that is cool beyond cool!" Glen chortled. And to the concerted stares of his colleagues, he protested, "Aw, c'mon! Maggie, tell me this isn't funny!"
"It isn't funny." She glowered at him, but then admitted, "Ironic, maybe."
"Yeah – exactly why it's funny," Glen said. "We were right all along – Microsoft really is the evil empire!"
"Along with every other operating system on Earth that takes its basis in this," Maggie pointed out. "Which would be all of them." She looked over at Ratchet again. "What are the consequences, if we've got an element of Megatron's code embedded in our own systems. Is this going to build in a weakness Decepticons could exploit easily?"
"Oh, there's no question that you have programming from Megatron on your systems, and more than just this fragment. I'd have to run the code on several of your machines to see what you have, and how much you've adapted it," Ratchet replied, but then shrugged. "However, on the basis of the evidence, I'd say you're not particularly compromised – the virus you're dealing with now would have shut you down regardless of whether this fragment were present, from what I've overheard. And with the Allspark destroyed, the only remaining threat has been eliminated."
Glen and Maggie looked at each other at that. Then: "What threat?" they demanded, at practically the same instant.
Ratchet gave a low rumble. "Why do you imagine that all of the Cybertronians sparked on this planet have been hostilely inclined toward you?" he asked, flatly. "The Allspark doesn't make us Decepticon or Autobot; it's the code imprinted in us beforehand that gives us our orientation, that determines our first reactions. We're dealing with fragments, but they're heterodaptive experiential markers driving self-protective reflex – against you, against your coding adaptations. The 'bots sparked here prove their provenance: they're Megatron's creatures. It's the only origin that fits."
"I... see," Maggie managed.
"We're totally tearing that code out," Glen said, fervently. The CMO cocked his head at him, luminous blue eyes fixing upon him.
"Why?" he demanded bluntly, engine growling. "As I said, you needn't be concerned about that danger anymore. Without the Allspark, nothing can transform drone fragments into living reflex." Vents flared out once more, before Ratchet shook himself, and they settled.
"Once I get everyone back into working order, 'Bee or I can run the code for you and come up with countermeasures, if drone work hasn't yielded anything," he continued in a more normal tone and posture.
"I'll do it," 'Bee volunteered quietly.
"I'd appreciate it," Ratchet replied. So saying, the CMO stood, hunching a bit to avoid hitting the ceiling, and, having apparently exhausted the subject as far as he was concerned, returned to his work. 'Bee watched him a minute, then glanced to either side at Glen and Maggie.
"Shall we?" he asked, nodding at the computer. Glen stood, cracking his back and neck, then pointed to the office in the back.
"I need caffeine for this," he declared.
He hurried out of the shop and crossed the break room to the office. By the side of the desk was a three tier pyramid of mountain dews, courtesy of the "Dewbot," as he'd taken to thinking of it, that had been taken down the other day. He snatched two cans, stuffed one in his pocket, and went to rejoin the others.
But he was only halfway across the break room when his steps faltered, and he slowed to a ponderous halt. The room was quiet, save for the soft hum of Maggie's computer, and he slowly turned around to stare at its glowing screen.
Time passed, and nothing happened. Of course, nothing happened – it was a stripped down shell of a computer, with a boot drive and an Autobot-crafted virtual OS for virus-killers.
It also wasn't alive.
So why were the hairs on the back of his neck standing up?
Every geek and hacker to roam the 'net traded stories of the Crash That Came From Nowhere. Not the stupid ones that "civilians" complained of, but the real McCoys of computing disasters. The errors that just wouldn't die, that gave no warning when they struck and took all your data with it to the great circular filing bin in the sky. Sometimes you could trace it to hardware. Sometimes, well, sometimes...
Did something have to be alive to be out to get you? Or was there something like karma after all? Bad mojo that lingered in an innocuous-seeming tangle of zeroes and ones?
With a shake of his head, Glen marched to the wall socket, grabbed the computer's cord, and pulled it free. Then, addressing the darkened screen, he warned: "I'm gonna get me some of them scented candles next time, hear?"
Feeling only somewhat more at ease, he headed back into the main shop, to find Maggie, her hair now pulled up in a messy bun, standing directly under 'Bee's chin so she could type, both woman and robot staring intently at the screen.
"What kept you?" Maggie asked, as he clambered over 'Bee's arm to join her.
"Nothin'. Just the first can kinda exploded on me," he lied. "Had to clean it up."
"All right, well, we're going to try running strands eleven and sixteen simultaneously. 'Bee says sometimes it pays to look at synchronizers," Maggie said absently.
"Figures time's on their side," he said, and ran a hand down over the back of his neck. Then knuckling sleep from his eyes, he said determinedly: "Okay, let's see what we've got!"
"Fact is you're looking at the source of the modern age. Microchip, lasers, space-flight, cars: all reverse-engineered by studying him. NBE-1." - Simmons, TF 07.
Exorkizein: Greek: to abjure.