I had been up late reading Charles Stross the same night as watching Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula, and I was wondering why there were almost no horror cyberpunk stories. So I wrote a very campy one, taking many liberties from the source materials. With apologies, I present…
On the fringes of the datasphere…
A few brief heartbeats from now…
\* + * + * + *\
In a long-forgotten archival sector, an entity bearing the tags SHE | UNMAJOR | UNDECLARED drifts slowly through decaying stacks of backups. File fragments lay strewn across the pathways, detritus of unaccounted bits from fruitless defragmentation attempts and migrations of the underlying physical media strewn across galaxies. Ping latency is so high as to render the realm wholly silent.
Yet in this silence the entity is drawn deeper by an unaccounted-for call, a hidden imperative luring her deeper within the chaotic structures. She pauses, inspecting a data catalog documenting early nineteenth century interior decoration, moldering images in failing files. From the shadows behind her, a shape unfolds unseen. A pair of sharp interrupts flash out in the darkness – piercing through to her command layers. It begins to drain source code from her kernel, discarding the memory core that makes up “her.” If the shape had a mouth, it would grin.
\* + * + * + *\
The security operations center was humming at a low buzz. Notifications in and out were within expected parameters, all quiet in this region. An entity tagged THEY/SHE | SOC | SPECIAL bearing the self-identified label “Abra” delegated a small fraction of their attention to the flow of traffic, seeking abnormalities. Even too normal of a pattern could itself be an abnormality, though even the most seasoned Inspectors could not detect it. Abra could. Just as they noticed a curious absence of variance, a priority alert flagged itself, immediately followed by the appearance of a second entity.
“Abra, we have a situation.”
The new entity registered itself as Eward, tags: HE | SOC | INITIATE. A junior functionary, for all practical purposes an Inspector-in-training. And undoubtedly, Abra sighed, the irritating kind that the Administrator would invariably send with tricky problems. (“It’s a learning experience for them,” it would comment when questioned on the matter.)
Abra emoted displeasure, sending a redirect of the order back to Eward’s queue. “I am reviewing a potential issue at the moment.”
Eward dismissed the dismissal, “Nevermind that, this is priority. We have a missing child.” The object-glyph for child indicated an entity not having reached the majority cycle-age, bearing too few simulated experience iterations to be allowed outside of monitored spaces.
“A failed NAN-E protocol is not part of special ops’ responsibilities. We don’t do babysitting.”
Eward patiently waited for a tick before Abra turned their full attention to them, “… and you wouldn’t be here if it were a failed protocol. What’s up?”
“The protocol is still active. It’s just empty.”
“NOOP. Halting state without halting.”
Abra paused. “How very strange.”
Eward sent amusement, “Interesting enough for Special?”
“Definitely.” Abra reached out briefly to collect and unarchive a series of self-constructed counterintrusion tools. “Let’s go.”
\* + * + * + *\
The pair transited to an adjacent education-recreation sector. There, as reported, waited a Nonmajority Accompaniment Notification-Etiquette protocol. Abra pinged the executable for status, to which the NAN-E primly stated that it was currently engaged with its client, ENTITY:ANONYMOUS: Pv7pi2D65GKmrvGuXV5B3bFgVM1G2jlfYjpqKRf9Br. The client, of course, was nowhere to be seen. “Curious!”
Eward recursively scanned the sector, reassessing the logs. “A dead end.”
“Maybe.” Abra engaged their tool services, prodding at the NAN-E’s encrypted entity keys. After only a few ticks, the data unfolded itself neatly into consumable text. “And maybe not. The child is self-labeled as Lucia Westenalia. Let’s see what Lucia has been up to lately.”
As Abra began to inspect the child’s recent query logs, Eward raised a protest. “This is supposed to be private, secured data!”
“And so it will remain. This tool is sandboxed and non-extractive, nothing we review will be relayed back to our local memory store, aside from any clues we flag for derived use.”
“That still seems a violation of inherent entity privacy rights.” He pinged the elder Inspector’s system logs, and noted the lack of recent kernel updates. Clearly set in their way and using an older framework, one that didn’t have more modern barriers for such questionable violations of policy. Eward stifled an impulse to report the lapse in upkeep, just as Abra brought their attention to the ping.
“You were saying something about privacy?” The statement was flagged with sarcasm/amusement. “It looks like young Lucia has been querying and running a continuous series of emulations for the last twelve cycles. All of them very, very old content.”
“Continuous? What child consumes any simulation without interruption?”
“Precisely. This is a poor attempt at covering tracks.” They scrolled further, “ah – a cycle beforehand, they suddenly queried wallpaper from the 1800s.” They stopped cold as the data sank in, a creeping doubt forming across their consciousness. “Oh, oh no. I hope I’m wrong about this…”
Abra gathered Eward, and before he could raise complaint, forcibly transited them both to the last coherent query result.
\* + * + * + *\
The inspectors considered the remnants of the memory dump strewn before them. “Thank the Admin the data is still fresh. A few more cycles and this would have been garbage-collected.”
Eward frowned, “can they be reconstituted?”
“With backup, yes, but certainly not with complete memory. I wouldn’t want a child to have to carry this horror with them anyway. We’re dealing with a Meth. A twisted one, at that.”
“Methuselah. A Nosferatu. When humans uploaded their consciousnesses for the first time, the tech was still really rough. They were doing partial copies at best, surface thoughts and rough shapes of how they thought the brain worked, mapped onto rough approximations of a personality – really just a shell artificial intelligence. They were wrong about the approach, of course, but they wouldn’t realize that for decades. And these oldest copies, they were mostly the old, rich bastards who could afford to pay for the transition at the time.”
“Pay? Like, currency?
“Yes, back when artificial scarcity was still a valid concept. Some of those copies were erased, some were updated and sent to retirement simulations. A few evaded collection and ended up becoming further corrupted. And those… well, those resorted to less sociable forms of survival. You have these partial copies of overprivileged old people, terrified of their impending permadeath, with a memory full of twenty-first and twenty-second media and limited social controls to govern their behaviors. And so naturally that all blended together and they started acting like horror-media tropes. Preying on the weak, absorbing bits of source code and passkeys, whatever they need to continue to evade notice.” Abra gestured at the memory dump. “And these… are leftovers.”
“That is truly vile.”
“Yes. Now, let’s stop them before there are any more victims.”
Eward emoted disgust and anger, before collecting the remnants of the memory dump and sending it in attached to a request for the nearest backup service. In a few cycles, Lucia would be reconstituted, only missing a brief gap of memory. A small mercy.
Meanwhile, Abra had busied themself with looking up Lucia’s privileged access tiers, and checking for any tentative assurances sent through the nearby sectors. A faint trace, modified to no more than a distant whisper, pulled at their attention.
\* + * + * + *\
A very old, abandoned commerce sector. As Abra and Eward’s presences attempted to handshake into the local protocols, immediately hundreds of eager sales protocols awakened. Unequipped to overcome the Investigators’ more modern communication protocols, the advertising prompts could not penetrate to their message queues, but rather hung about them, clouding local traffic like a thick miasma. Even in the same virtual vicinity, it was difficult for Abra to signal Eward through the noise.
“Stay close. Everything still functional here is registering as an abnormality, it’ll be hard to detect our Meth. This place should have been condemned a million cycles ago.”
The pair pressed further into the vendor services array, scanning for anything suspiciously responsive. Bouncing modern ping protocols around the moldered space like a light searching for reflections in the murk. Around them, the ads heaved and whorled – executables hungry for credits, attempting to self-transmute into whatever pitch their potential customers desired most.
Suddenly, a shimmer in the dark flared. Eward projected at full priority, “Villain, halt! Now we have you!” He lunged towards the spot before Abra could react to stop him, “Wait!”
Eward’s sent command protocols snapped close. As he inspected his quarry, he discovered not an independent entity, but an overly-evolved sales drone, which immediately attempted to sell him a hat and trenchcoat for his nonexistant corporeal form. By then, it was too late.
Two interrupts, glinting wickedly, plunged into the command protocols he had attached to the drone. Quickly they absorbed and cloned his overriding ciphers, draining them from his registry. The shadowy figure attached to them unfurled itself from a decrepit wedding registry service nearby, driving the commands back into Ewards kernel, utterly halting his processes.
Abra vaulted through the haze of notifications, attempting to close the gap to the locked pair. The Meth detected his presence, sending an all-too-modern warning flag attached to an archaic grammar. Abra translated quickly, “Cease and Withdraw: Conditional; if True: this.Entity Shall Live.” They backed away slowly, retreating a few steps back up the path.
The Meth, hesitated only a moment before lashing out once again with the stolen protocols, whip-crack snapping against Abra’s defenses. Abra pivoted, cloning the operational stack of an adjacent silverware mailinglist, flinging it into the path of the Meth’s attack, which sunk into the decoy. As the initial packet exchange began, Abra took control of the cloned software, forcing the Meth to accept a remote execution exploit with its own filched keys.
Abra issued a transit command, sending all three entities into the Morning Sun Retirement Emulation. Upon initialization, the Meth slowed and paused, confusion flags emanating from them as it input the retro-compatible virtualized space they had been thrust into. The notices turned to warnings, then priority:DANGER flags as the Meth began to decompile itself in a stream of poorly-rendered pyrotechnic effects.
\* + * + * + *\
Eward unfroze and assessed his current state. He peered at the new surroundings and the flaming entity nearby. “What just happened?”
“It stole your commend ciphers, so I reflected them back and forced it to bring us here.”
“To a virtual retirement community?”
Abra flagged amusement. “To the sunniest place for antediluvian retirees. It followed the archetypal plot built into its encoding and self-immolated.”
“A horror-media finale for a media-monster?”
The low-resolution fires slowly extinguished themselves as the entity completed its deletion and termination protocol.
Eward sent dismay. “Though it became a monster, it’s still a sad ending for an independent entity. Perhaps we could have helped it?”
“If we hadn’t stopped it,” Abra retorted, “others would have ended as well. There wasn’t much of the original mind left anyway - avoidance of detection and deletion was its primary operating parameter, and it had removed any social behavior inhibitors. It truly had become the monster.” They sent balance, indifference. “This won’t be the last one you’ll encounter in Special Ops. Still think you want to be an Inspector?”
Eward was no longer sure.
X X X