When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth

It buoyed both their spirits. Watching Popovich and Rosenbaum go, it buoyed them up. Felix knew then that they’d all be going soon.
That had been pre-ordained by the fuel supply, but who wanted to wait for the fuel to run out, anyway?

> half my crew split this morning,
Queen Kong typed. Google was holding up pretty good anyway, of course. The load on the servers was a lot lighter than it had been since the days when Google fit on a bunch of hand-built PCs under a desk at Stanford.
> we’re down to a quarter,
Felix typed back. It was only a day since Popovich and Rosenbaum had left, but the traffic on the newsgroups had fallen down to near zero. He and Van hadn’t had much time to play Republic of Cyberspace. They’d been too busy learning the systems that Popovich had turned over to them, the big, big routers that had gone on acting as the major interchange for all the network backbones in Canada.
Still, someone posted to the newsgroups every now and again, generally to say goodbye. The old flame wars about who would be prime minister, or whether he would shut down the network, or who took too much food—it was all gone.
He reloaded the newsgroup. There was a typical message.
> Runaway processes on Solaris TK
> Uh, hi. I’m just a lightweight MSCE but I’m the only one awake here and four of the DSLAMs just went down. Looks like there’s some custom accounting code that’s trying to figure out how much to bill our corporate customers and it’s spawned ten thousand threads and it’s eating all the swap. I just want to kill it but I can’t seem to do that. Is there some magic invocation I need to do to get this goddamned weenix box to kill this shit? I mean, it’s not as if any of our customers are ever going to pay us again. I’d ask the guy who wrote this code, but he’s pretty much dead as far as anyone can work out.
He reloaded. There was a response. It was short, authoritative, and helpful—just the sort of thing you almost never saw in a high-caliber newsgroup when a noob posted a dumb question. The apocalypse had awakened the spirit of patient helpfulness in the world’s sysop community.
Van shoulder-surfed him. “Holy shit, who knew he had it in him?”
He looked at the message again. It was from Will Sario.
He dropped into his chat window.
> sario i thought you wanted the network dead why are you helping msces fix their boxen?
> Gee Mr. PM, maybe I just can’t bear to watch a computer suffer at the hands of an amateur.
He flipped to the channel with Queen Kong in it.
> How long?
> Since I slept? Two days. Until we run out of fuel? Three days. Since we ran out of food? Two days.
> Jeez. I didn’t sleep last night either. We’re a little short-handed around here.
> asl? Im monica and I live in pasadena and Im bored with my homework. WOuld you like to download my pic???
The trojan bots were all over IRC these days, jumping to every channel that had any traffic on it. Sometimes you caught five or six flirting with one another. It was pretty weird to watch a piece of malware try to con another instance of itself into downloading a trojan.
They both kicked the bot off the channel simultaneously. He had a script for it now. The spam hadn’t even tailed off a little.
> How come the spam isn’t reducing? Half the goddamned data centers have gone dark
Queen Kong paused a long time before typing. As had become automatic when she went high latency, he reloaded the Google homepage. Sure enough, it was down.
> Sario, you got any food?
> You won’t miss a couple more meals, Your Excellency
Van had gone back to Mayor McCheese but he was in the same channel.
“What a dick. You’re looking pretty buff, though, dude.”
Van didn’t look so good. He looked like you could knock him over with a stiff breeze, and his speech had a phlegmy, weak quality.
> hey kong everything ok?
> everything’s fine just had to go kick some ass
“How’s the traffic, Van?”
“Down twenty-five percent from this morning,” he said. There were a bunch of nodes whose connections routed through them. Presumably most of these were home or commercial customers in places where the power was still on and the phone company’s COs were still alive.
Every once in a while, Felix would wiretap the connections to see if he could find a person who had news of the wide world. Almost all of it was automated traffic, though: network backups, status updates. Spam. Lots of spam.
> Spam’s still up because the services that stop spam are failing faster than the services that create it. All the anti-worm stuff is centralized in a couple places. The bad stuff is on a million zombie computers. If only the lusers had had the good sense to turn off their home PCs before keeling over or taking off
> at the rate were going well be routing nothing but spam by dinnertime
Van cleared his throat, a painful sound. “About that,” he said. “I think it’s going to hit sooner than that. Felix, I don’t think anyone would notice if we just walked away from here.”
Felix looked at him, his skin the color of corned beef and streaked with long, angry scabs. His fingers trembled.
“You drinking enough water?”
Van nodded. “All frigging day, every ten seconds. Anything to keep my belly full.” He pointed to a refilled Pepsi Max bottle full of water by his side.
“Let’s have a meeting,” Felix said.

There had been forty-three of them on D-Day. Now there were fifteen. Six had responded to the call for a meeting by simply leaving. Everyone knew without having to be told what the meeting was about.
“So that’s it, you’re going to let it all fall apart?” Sario was the only one with the energy left to get properly angry. He’d go angry to his grave. The veins on his throat and forehead stood out angrily. His fists shook angrily. All the other geeks went lids-down at the site of him, looking up in unison for once at the discussion, not keeping one eye on a chat-log or a tailed-service log.
“Sario, you’ve got to be shitting me,” Felix said. “You wanted to pull the goddamned plug!”
“I wanted it to go clean,” he shouted. “I didn’t want it to bleed out and keel over in little gasps and pukes forever. I wanted it to be an act of will by the global community of its caretakers. I wanted it to be an affirmative act by human hands. Not entropy and bad code and worms winning out. Fuck that, that’s just what’s happened out there.”
Up in the top-floor cafeteria, there were windows all around, hardened and light-bending, and by custom, they were all blinds-down. Now Sario ran around the room, yanking up the blinds. How the hell can he get the energy to run? Felix wondered. He could barely walk up the stairs to the meeting room.
Harsh daylight flooded in. It was a fine sunny day out there, but everywhere you looked across that commanding view of Toronto’s skyline, there were rising plumes of smoke. The TD tower, a gigantic, black, modernist glass brick, was gouting flame to the sky. “It’s all falling apart, the way everything does.
“Listen, listen. If we leave the network to fall over slowly, parts of it will stay online for months. Maybe years. And what will run on it? Malware. Worms. Spam. System processes. Zone transfers. The things we use fall apart and require constant maintenance. The things we abandon don’t get used and they last forever. We’re going to leave the network behind like a lime-pit filled with industrial waste. That will be our fucking legacy—the legacy of every keystroke you and I and anyone, anywhere ever typed. You understand? We’re going to leave it to die slow, like a wounded dog, instead of giving it one clean shot through the head.”
Van scratched his cheeks, then Felix saw that he was wiping away tears.
“Sario, you’re not wrong, but you’re not right either,” Van said. “Leaving it up to limp along is right. We’re going to all be limping for a long time, and maybe it will be some use to someone. If there’s one packet being routed from any user to any other user, anywhere in the world, it’s doing its job.”
“If you want a clean kill, you can do that,” Felix said. “I’m the PM and I say so. I’m giving you root. All of you.” He turned to the whiteboard where the cafeteria workers used to scrawl the day’s specials. Now it was covered with the remnants of heated technical debates that the sysadmins had engaged in over the days since the day.
He scrubbed away a clean spot with his sleeve and began to write out long, complicated alphanumeric passwords salted with punctuation. Felix had a gift for remembering that kind of password. He doubted it would do him much good ever again.

> Were going, kong. Fuels almost out anyway
> yeah well thats right then. it was an honor, mr prime minister
> you going to be ok?
> ive commandeered a young sysadmin to see to my feminine needs and weve found another cache of food thatll last us a coupel weeks now that were down to fifteen admins—im in hog heaven pal
> youre amazing, Queen Kong, seriously. Dont be a hero though. When you need to go go. Theres got to be something out there
> be safe felix, seriously—btw did i tell you queries are up in Romania? maybe theyre getting back on their feet
> really?
> yeah, really. we’re hard to kill—like fucking roaches
Her connection died. He dropped to Firefox and reloaded Google and it was down. He hit reload and hit reload and hit reload, but it didn’t come up. He closed his eyes and listened to Van scratch his legs and then heard Van type a little.
“They’re back up,” he said.
Felix whooshed out a breath. He sent the message to the newsgroup, one that he’d run through five drafts before settling on, “Take care of the place, OK? We’ll be back, someday.”
Everyone was going except Sario. Sario wouldn’t leave. He came down to see them off, though.
The sysadmins gathered in the lobby and Felix made the safety door go up, and the light rushed in.
Sario stuck his hand out.
“Good luck,” he said.
“You too,” Felix said. He had a firm grip, Sario. Stronger than he had any right to be. “Maybe you were right,” he said.
“Maybe,” he said.
“You going to pull the plug?”
Sario looked up at the drop ceiling, seeming to peer through the reinforced floors at the humming racks above. “Who knows?” he said at last.
Van scratched and a flurry of white motes danced in the sunlight.
“Let’s go find you a pharmacy,” Felix said. He walked to the door and the other sysadmins followed.
They waited for the interior doors to close behind them and then Felix opened the exterior doors. The air smelled and tasted like mown grass, like the first drops of rain, like the lake and the sky, like the outdoors and the world, an old friend not heard from in an eternity.
“Bye, Felix,” the other sysadmins said. They were drifting away while he stood transfixed at the top of the short concrete staircase. The light hurt his eyes and made them water.
“I think there’s a Shopper’s Drug Mart on King Street,” he said to Van. “We’ll throw a brick through the window and get you some cortisone, OK?”
“You’re the Prime Minister,” Van said. “Lead on.”

They didn’t see a single soul on the fifteen-minute walk. There wasn’t a single sound except for some bird noises and some distant groans, and the wind in the electric cables overhead. It was like walking on the surface of the moon.
“Bet they have chocolate bars at the Shopper’s,” Van said.
Felix’s stomach lurched. Food. “Wow,” he said, around a mouthful of saliva.
They walked past a little hatchback and in the front seat was the dried body of a woman holding the dried body of a baby, and his mouth filled with sour bile, even though the smell was faint through the rolled-up windows.
He hadn’t thought of Kelly or 2.0 in days. He dropped to his knees and retched again. Out here in the real world, his family was dead. Everyone he knew was dead. He just wanted to lie down on the sidewalk and wait to die, too.
Van’s rough hands slipped under his armpits and hauled weakly at him. “Not now,” he said. “Once we’re safe inside somewhere and we’ve eaten something, then and then you can do this, but not now. Understand me, Felix? Not fucking now.”
The profanity got through to him. He got to his feet. His knees were trembling.
“Just a block more,” Van said, and slipped Felix’s arm around his shoulders and led him along.
“Thank you, Van. I’m sorry.”
“No sweat,” he said. “You need a shower, bad. No offense.”
“None taken.”
The Shopper’s had a metal security gate, but it had been torn away from the front windows, which had been rudely smashed. Felix and Van squeezed through the gap and stepped into the dim drug-store. A few of the displays were knocked over, but other than that, it looked OK. By the cash registers, Felix spotted the racks of candy bars at the same instant that Van saw them, and they hurried over and grabbed a handful each, stuffing their faces.
“You two eat like pigs.”
They both whirled at the sound of the woman’s voice. She was holding a fire axe that was nearly as big as she was. She wore a lab coat and comfortable shoes.
“You take what you need and go, OK? No sense in there being any trouble.” Her chin was pointy and her eyes were sharp. She looked to be in her forties. She looked nothing like Kelly, which was good, because Felix felt like running and giving her a hug as it was. Another person alive!
“Are you a doctor?” Felix said. She was wearing scrubs under the coat, he saw.
“You going to go?” She brandished the axe.
Felix held his hands up. “Seriously, are you a doctor? A pharmacist?”
“I used to be an RN, ten years ago. I’m mostly a Web designer.”
“You’re shitting me,” Felix said.
“Haven’t you ever met a girl who knew about computers?”
“Actually, a friend of mine who runs Google’s data center is a girl. A woman, I mean.”
“You’re shitting me,” she said. “A woman ran Google’s data center?”
“Runs,” Felix said. “It’s still online.”
“NFW,” she said. She let the axe lower.
“Way. Have you got any cortisone cream? I can tell you the story. My name’s Felix and this is Van, who needs any antihistamines you can spare.”
“I can spare? Felix old pal, I have enough dope here to last a hundred years. This stuff’s going to expire long before it runs out. But are you telling me that the net’s still up?”
“It’s still up,” he said. “Kind of. That’s what we’ve been doing all week. Keeping it online. It might not last much longer, though.”
“No,” she said. “I don’t suppose it would.” She set the axe down. “Have you got anything to trade? I don’t need much, but I’ve been trying to keep my spirits up by trading with the neighbors. It’s like playing civilization.”
“You have neighbors?”
“At least ten,” she said. “The people in the restaurant across the way make a pretty good soup, even if most of the veg is canned. They cleaned me out of Sterno, though.”
“You’ve got neighbors and you trade with them?”
“Well, nominally. It’d be pretty lonely without them. I’ve taken care of whatever sniffles I could. Set a bone—broken wrist. Listen, do you want some Wonder Bread and peanut butter? I have a ton of it. Your friend looks like he could use a meal.”
“Yes please,” Van said. “We don’t have anything to trade, but we’re both committed workaholics looking to learn a profession. Could you use some assistants?”
“Not really.” She spun her axe on its head. “But I wouldn’t mind some company.”
They ate the sandwiches and then some soup. The restaurant people brought it over and minded their manners at them, though Felix saw their noses wrinkle up and ascertained there was working plumbing in the back room. Van went in to take a sponge bath and then he followed.
“None of us knows what to do,” the woman said. Her name was Rosa, and she had found them a bottle of wine and some disposable plastic cups from the housewares aisle. “I thought we’d have helicopters or tanks or even looters, but it’s just quiet.”
“You seem to have kept pretty quiet yourself,” Felix said.
“Didn’t want to attract the wrong kind of attention.”
“You ever think that maybe there’s a lot of people out there doing the same thing? Maybe if we all get together we’ll come up with something to do.”
“Or maybe they’ll cut our throats,” she said.
Van nodded. “She’s got a point.”
Felix was on his feet. “No way, we can’t think like that. Lady, we’re at a critical juncture here. We can go down through negligence, dwindling away in our hiding holes, or we can try to build something better.”
“Better?” She made a rude noise.
“OK, not better. Something, though. Building something new is better than letting it dwindle away. Christ, what are you going to do when you’ve read all the magazines and eaten all the potato chips here?”
Rosa shook her head. “Pretty talk,” she said. “But what the hell are we going to do, anyway?”
“Something,” Felix said. “We’re going to do something. Something is better than nothing. We’re going to take this patch of the world where people are talking to one another, and we’re going to expand it. We’re going to find everyone we can and we’re going to take care of them and they’re going to take care of us. We’ll probably fuck it up. We’ll probably fail. I’d rather fail than give up, though.”
Van laughed. “Felix, you are crazier than Sario, you know it?”
“We’re going to go and drag him out, first thing tomorrow. He’s going to be a part of this, too. Everyone will. Screw the end of the world. The world doesn’t end. Humans aren’t the kind of things that have endings.”
Rosa shook her head again, but she was smiling a little now. “And you’ll be what, the pope-emperor of the world?”
“He prefers prime minister,” Van said in a stagy whisper. The antihistamines had worked miracles on his skin, and it had faded from angry red to a fine pink.
“You want to be minister of health, Rosa?” he said.
“Boys,” she said. “Playing games. How about this. I’ll help out however I can, provided you never ask me to call you prime minister and you never call me the minister of health.”
“It’s a deal,” he said.
Van refilled their glasses, upending the wine bottle to get the last few drops out.
They raised their glasses. “To the world,” Felix said. “To humanity.” He thought hard. “To rebuilding.”
“To anything,” Van said.
“To anything,” Felix said. “To everything.”
“To everything,” Rosa said.
They drank. He wanted to go see the house—see Kelly and 2.0, though his stomach churned at the thought of what he might find there. But the next day, they started to rebuild. And months later, they started over again, when disagreements drove apart the fragile little group they’d pulled together. And a year after that, they started over again. And five years later, they started again.

It was nearly six months, then, before he went home. Van helped him along, riding cover behind him on the bicycles they used to get around town. The farther north they rode, the stronger the smell of burnt wood became. There were lots of burnt-out houses. Sometimes marauders burnt the houses they’d looted, but more often it was just nature, the kinds of fires you got in forests and on mountains. There were six choking, burnt blocks where every house was burnt before they reached home.
But Felix’s old housing development was still standing, an oasis of eerily pristine buildings that looked like maybe their somewhat neglectful owners had merely stepped out to buy some paint and fresh lawnmower blades to bring their old homes back up to their neat, groomed selves.
That was worse, somehow. He got off the bike at the entry of the subdivision and they walked the bikes together in silence, listening to the sough of the wind in the trees. Winter was coming late that year, but it was coming, and as the sweat dried in the wind, Felix started to shiver.
He didn’t have his keys anymore. They were at the data center, months and worlds away. He tried the door handle, but it didn’t turn. He applied his shoulder to the door and it ripped away from its wet, rotted jamb with a loud, splintering sound. The house was rotting from the inside.
The door splashed when it landed. The house was full of stagnant water, four inches of stinking pond-scummed water in the living room. He splashed carefully through it, feeling the floorboards sag spongily beneath each step.
Up the stairs, his nose was now full of that terrible, green-mildewy stench. Into the bedroom, the furniture familiar as a childhood friend.
Kelly was in the bed with 2.0. The way they both lay, it was clear they hadn’t gone easy—they were twisted double, Kelly curled around 2.0. Their skin was bloated, making them almost unrecognizable. The smell—God, the smell.
Felix’s head spun. He thought he would fall over and clutched at the dresser. An emotion he couldn’t name—rage, anger, sorrow?—made him breathe hard, gulp for air like he was drowning.
And then it was over. The world was over. Kelly and 2.0—over. And he had a job to do. He folded the blanket over them—Van helped, solemnly. They went into the front yard and took turns digging, using the shovel from the garage that Kelly had used for gardening. They had lots of experience digging graves by then. Lots of experience handling the dead. They dug, and wary dogs watched them from the tall grass on the neighboring lawns, but they were also good at chasing off dogs with well-thrown stones.
When the grave had been dug, they laid Felix’s wife and son to rest in it. Felix quested after words to say over the mound, but none came. He’d dug so many graves for so many men’s wives and so many women’s husbands and so many children—the words were long gone.
Felix dug ditches and salvaged cans and buried the dead. He planted and harvested. He fixed some cars and learned to make biodiesel. Finally, he fetched up in a data center for a little government—little governments came and went, but this one was smart enough to want to keep records and needed someone to keep everything running, and Van went with him.
They spent a lot of time in chat rooms, and sometimes they happened upon old friends from the strange time they’d spent running the Distributed Republic of Cyberspace, geeks who insisted on calling him PM, though no one in the real world ever called him that anymore.
It wasn’t a good life, most of the time. Felix’s wounds never healed, and neither did most other people’s. There were lingering sicknesses and sudden ones. Tragedy on tragedy.
But Felix liked his data center. There, in the humming of the racks, he never felt like it was the first days of a better nation. But he never felt like it was the last days of one, either.
> go to bed, felix
> soon, kong, soon—almost got this backup running
> youre a junkie, dude.
> look whos talking
He reloaded the Google homepage. Queen Kong had had it online for a couple of years now. The o’s in Google changed all the time, whenever she got the urge. Today they were little cartoon globes: one smiling, the other frowning.
He looked at it for a long time and dropped back into a terminal to check his backup. It was running clean, for a change. The little government’s records were safe.
> ok night night
> take care
Van waved at him as he creaked to the door, stretching out his back with a long series of pops.
“Sleep well, boss,” he said.
“Don’t stick around here all night again,” Felix said. “You need your sleep, too.”
“You’re too good to us grunts,” Van said, and went back to typing.
Felix went to the door and walked out into the night. Behind him, the biodiesel generator hummed and made its acrid fumes. The harvest moon was up, which he loved. Tomorrow, he’d go back and fix another computer and fight off entropy again. And why not?
It was what he did. He was a sysadmin.







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