When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth

The thing was that Sario was right. They would be out of fuel in two days—intermittent power from the grid had stretched their generator lifespan. And if you bought his hypothesis that the Internet was primarily being used as a tool to organize more mayhem, shutting it down would be the right thing to do.

But Felix’s son and wife were dead. He didn’t want to rebuild the old world. He wanted a new one. The old world was one that didn’t have any place for him. Not anymore.

Van scratched his raw, flaking skin. Puffs of dander and scurf swirled in the musty, greasy air. Sario curled a lip at him. “That is disgusting. We’re breathing recycled air, you know. Whatever leprosy is eating you, aerosolizing it into the air supply is pretty anti-social.”

“You’re the world’s leading authority on anti-social, Sario,” Van said. “Go away or I’ll multi-tool you to death.” He stopped scratching and patted his sheathed multi-pliers like a gunslinger.

“Yeah, I’m anti-social. I’ve got Asperger’s and I haven’t taken any meds in four days. What’s your fucking excuse.”

Van scratched some more. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

Sario cracked up. “Oh, you are priceless. I’d bet that three quarters of this bunch is borderline autistic. Me, I’m just an asshole. But I’m one who isn’t afraid to tell the truth, and that makes me better than you, dickweed.”

“Fuckrag,” Felix said, “fuck off.”

They had less than a day’s worth of fuel when Felix was elected the first-ever prime minister of Cyberspace. The first count was spoiled by a bot that spammed the voting process, and they lost a critical day while they added up the votes a second time.

But by then, it was all seeming like more of a joke. Half the data centers had gone dark. Queen Kong’s net maps of Google queries were looking grimmer and grimmer as more of the world went offline, though she maintained a leader board of new and rising queries—largely related to health, shelter, sanitation, and self-defense.

Worm-load slowed. Power was going off to many home PC users, and staying off, so their compromised PCs were going dark. The backbones were still lit up and blinking, but the missives from those data centers were looking more and more desperate. Felix hadn’t eaten in a day and neither had anyone in a satellite Earth station of transoceanic head-end.
Water was running short, too.

Popovich and Rosenbaum came and got him before he could do more than answer a few congratulatory messages and post a canned acceptance speech to newsgroups.

“We’re going to open the doors,” Popovich said. Like all of them, he’d lost weight and waxed scruffy and oily. His BO was like a cloud coming off the trash bags behind a fish market on a sunny day. Felix was quite sure he smelled no better.

“You’re going to go for a reccy? Get more fuel? We can charter a working group for it—great idea.”

Rosenbaum shook his head sadly. “We’re going to go find our families. Whatever is out there has burned itself out. Or it hasn’t. Either way, there’s no future in here.”

“What about network maintenance?” Felix said, thinking he knew the answers. “Who’ll keep the routers up?”

“We’ll give you the root passwords to everything,” Popovich said. His hands were shaking and his eyes were bleary. Like many of the smokers stuck in the data center, he’d gone cold turkey this week. They’d run out of caffeine products two days earlier, too. The smokers had it rough.

“And I’ll just stay here and keep everything online?”

“You and anyone else who cares anymore.”

Felix knew that he’d squandered his opportunity. The election had seemed noble and brave, but in hindsight all it had been was an excuse for infighting when they should have been figuring out what to do next. The problem was that there was nothing to do next.

“I can’t make you stay,” he said.

“Yeah, you can’t.” Popovich turned on his heel and walked out. Rosenbaum watched him go, then he gripped Felix’s shoulder and squeezed it.

“Thank you, Felix. It was a beautiful dream. It still is. Maybe we’ll find something to eat and some fuel and come back.”

Rosenbaum had a sister whom he’d been in contact with over IM for the first days after the crisis broke. Then she’d stopped answering. The sysadmins were split among those who’d had a chance to say goodbye and those who hadn’t. Each was sure the other had it better.

They posted about it on the internal newsgroup—they were still geeks, after all, and there was a little honor guard on the ground floor, geeks who watched them pass toward the double doors. They manipulated the keypads and the steel shutters lifted, then the first set of doors opened. They stepped into the vestibule and pulled the doors shut behind them. The front doors opened. It was very bright and sunny outside, and apart from how empty it was, it looked very normal. Heartbreakingly so.

The two took a tentative step out into the world. Then another. They turned to wave at the assembled masses. Then they both grabbed their throats and began to jerk and twitch, crumpling in a heap on the ground.
“Shiii—!” was all Felix managed to choke out before they both dusted themselves off and stood up, laughing so hard they were clutching their sides. They waved once more and turned on their heels.

“Man, those guys are sick,” Van said. He scratched his arms, which already had long, bloody scratches on them. His clothes were so covered in scurf they looked like they’d been dusted with icing sugar.

“I thought it was pretty funny,” Felix said.

“Christ I’m hungry,” Van said, conversationally.

“Lucky for you, we’ve got all the packets we can eat,” Felix said.

“You’re too good to us grunts, Mr. President,” Van said.

“Prime minister,” Felix said. “And you’re no grunt, you’re the deputy prime minister. You’re my designated ribbon-cutter and hander-out of oversized novelty checks.”

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