When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth

A surprising number were running on a platform of shutting down the Internet. Felix had his doubts about whether this was even possible, but he thought he understood the impulse to finish the work and the world. Why not? From every indication, it seemed that the work to date had been a cascade of disasters, attacks, and opportunism, all of it adding up to Gotterdammerung. A terrorist attack here, a lethal counteroffensive there from an overreactive government … Before long, they’d made short work of the world.

He fell asleep thinking about the logistics of shutting down the Internet, and dreamed bad dreams in which he was the network’s sole defender.
He woke to a papery, itchy sound. He rolled over and saw that Van was sitting up, his jacket balled up in his lap, vigorously scratching his skinny arms. They’d gone the color of corned beef, and had a scaly look. In the light streaming through the cafeteria windows, skin motes floated and danced in great clouds.

“What are you doing?” Felix sat up. Watching Van’s fingernails rip into his skin made him itch in sympathy. It had been three days since he’d last washed his hair and his scalp sometimes felt like there were little egg-laying insects picking their way through it. He’d adjusted his glasses the night before and had touched the back of his ears; his finger came away shining with thick sebum. He got blackheads in the backs of his ears when he didn’t shower for a couple days, and sometimes gigantic, deep boils that Kelly finally popped with sick relish.

“Scratching,” Van said. He went to work on his head, sending a cloud of dandruff crud into the sky, there to join the scurf that he’d already eliminated from his extremeties. “Christ, I itch all over.”

Felix took Mayor McCheese from Van’s backpack and plugged it into one of the Ethernet cables that snaked all over the floor. He googled everything he could think of that could be related to this. “Itchy” yielded 40,600,000 links. He tried compound queries and got slightly more discriminating links.

“I think it’s stress-related excema,” Felix said, finally.

“I don’t get excema,” Van said.

Felix showed him some lurid photos of red, angry skin flaked with white. “Stress-related excema,” he said, reading the caption.
Van examined his arms. “I have excema,” he said.

“Says here to keep it moisturized and to try cortisone cream. You might try the first aid kit in the second-floor toilets. I think I saw some there.” Like all of the sysadmins, Felix had had a bit of a rummage around the offices, bathrooms, kitchen and storerooms, squirreling away a roll of toilet-paper in his shoulder bag along with three or four power bars. They were sharing out the food in the caf by unspoken agreement, every sysadmin watching every other for signs of gluttony and hoarding. All were convinced that there was hoarding and gluttony going on out of eyeshot, because all were guilty of it themselves when no one else was watching.

Van got up. When his face heaved into the light, Felix saw how puffed his eyes were. “I’ll post to the mailing list for some antihistamine,” Felix said. There had been four mailing lists and three wikis for the survivors in the building within hours of the first meeting’s close; in the intervening days, they’d settled on just one. Felix was still on a little mailing list with five of his most trusted friends, two of whom were trapped in cages in other countries. He suspected that the rest of the sysadmins were doing the same.

Van stumbled off. “Good luck on the elections,” he said, patting Felix on the shoulder.

Felix stood and paced, stopping to stare out the grubby windows. The fires still burned in Toronto, more than before. He’d tried to find mailing lists or blogs that Torontonians were posting to, but the only ones he’d found were being run by other geeks in other data centers. It was possible—likely, even—that there were survivors out there who had more pressing priorities than posting to the Internet. His home phone still worked about half the time but he’d stopped calling it after the second day, when hearing Kelly’s voice on the voicemail for the fiftieth time had made him cry in the middle of a planning meeting. He wasn’t the only one.

Election day. Time to face the music.

> Are you nervous?
> Nope,

Felix typed.

> I don’t much care if I win, to be honest. I’m just glad we’re doing this. The alternative was sitting around with our thumbs up our asses, waiting for someone to crack up and open the door.

The cursor hung. Queen Kong was very high latency as she bossed her gang of Googloids around the Googleplex, doing everything she could to keep her data center online. Three of the offshore cages had gone offline and two of their six redundant network links were smoked. Lucky for her, queries-per-second were way down.

> There’s still China,

she typed. Queen Kong had a big board with a map of the world colored in Google-queries-per-second, and could do magic with it, showing the drop-off over time in colorful charts. She’d uploaded lots of video clips showing how the plague and the bombs had swept the world: the initial upswell of queries from people wanting to find out what was going on, then the grim, precipitous shelving off as the plagues took hold.

> China’s still running about ninety percent nominal.

Felix shook his head.

> You can’t think that they’re responsible
> No,

she typed, but then she started to key something and then stopped.

> No of course not. I believe the Popovich Hypothesis. Every asshole in the world is using the other assholes for cover. But China put them down harder and faster than anyone else. Maybe we’ve finally found a use for totalitarian states.

Felix couldn’t resist. He typed:

> You’re lucky your boss can’t see you type that. You guys were pretty enthusiastic participants in the Great Firewall of China.
> Wasn’t my idea,

she typed.

> And my boss is dead. They’re probably all dead. The whole Bay Area got hit hard, and then there was the quake.

They’d watched the USGS’s automated data stream from the 6.9 that trashed northern Cal from Gilroy to Sebastapol. Soma webcams revealed the scope of the damage—gas-main explosions, seismically retrofitted buildings crumpling like piles of children’s blocks after a good kicking. The Googleplex, floating on a series of gigantic steel springs, had shaken like a plateful of jello, but the racks had stayed in place, and the worst injury they’d had was a badly bruised eye on a sysadmin who’d caught a flying cable-crimper in the face.

> Sorry. I forgot.
> It’s OK. We all lost people, right?
> Yeah. Yeah. Anyway, I’m not worried about the election. Whoever wins, at least we’re doing SOMETHING
> Not if they vote for one of the fuckrags

Fuckrag was the epithet that some of the sysadmins were using to describe the contingent that wanted to shut down the Internet. Queen Kong had coined it—apparently it had started life as a catch-all term to describe clueless IT managers she’d chewed up through her career.

> They won’t. They’re just tired and sad is all. Your endorsement will carry the day

The Googloids were one of the largest and most powerful blocs left behind, along with the satellite uplink crews and the remaining transoceanic crews. Queen Kong’s endorsement had come as a surprise and he’d sent her an email that she’d replied to tersely: “can’t have the fuckrags in charge.”

> gtg

she typed and then her connection dropped. He fired up a browser and called up google.com. The browser timed out. He hit “reload,” and then again, and then the Google front page came back up. Whatever had hit Queen Kong’s workplace—power failure, worms, another quake—she had fixed it. He snorted when he saw that they’d replaced the o’s in the Google logo with little planet Earths that had mushroom clouds rising from them.

“Got anything to eat?” Van said to him. It was mid-afternoon, not that time particularly passed in the data center. Felix patted his pockets. They’d put a quartermaster in charge, but not before everyone had snagged some chow out of the machines. He’d had a dozen power bars and some apples. He’d taken a couple sandwiches but had wisely eaten them first before they went stale.

“One power bar left,” he said. He’d noticed a certain looseness in his waistline that morning and had briefly relished it. Then he’d remembered Kelly’s teasing about his weight and he’d cried some. Then he’d eaten two power bars, leaving him with just one left.

“Oh,” Van said. His face was hollower than ever, his shoulders sloping in on his toast-rack chest.

“Here,” Felix said. “Vote Felix.”

Van took the power bar from him and then put it down on the table.

“OK, I want to give this back to you and say, ‘No, I couldn’t,’ but I’m fucking hungry, so I’m just going to take it and eat it, OK?”

“That’s fine by me,” Felix said. “Enjoy.”

“How are the elections coming?” Van said, once he’d licked the wrapper clean.

“Dunno,” Felix said. “Haven’t checked in a while.” He’d been winning by a slim margin a few hours before. Not having his laptop was a major handicap when it came to stuff like this. Up in the cages, there were a dozen more like him, poor bastards who’d left the house on Der Tag without thinking to snag something WiFi-enabled.

“You’re going to get smoked,” Sario said, sliding in next to them. He’d become famous in the center for never sleeping, for eavesdropping, for picking fights in RL that had the ill-considered heat of a Usenet flame war. “The winner will be someone who understands a couple of fundamental facts.” He held up a fist, then ticked off his bullet points by raising a finger at a time. “Point: The terrorists are using the Internet to destroy the world, and we need to destroy the Internet first. Point: Even if I’m wrong, the whole thing is a joke. We’ll run out of generator fuel soon enough. Point: Or if we don’t, it will be because the old world will be back and running, and it won’t give a crap about your new world.

Point: We’re gonna run out of food before we run out of shit to argue about or reasons not to go outside. We have the chance to do something to help the world recover: We can kill the net and cut it off as a tool for bad guys. Or we can rearrange some more deck chairs on the bridge of your personal Titanic in the service of some sweet dream about an ‘independent cyberspace.’ ”

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