William Hertling
A.I. Apocalypse

CHAPTER ONE
A Regular Day

Leon’s phone buzzed, beeped, and shrilled at him until he reached one arm out from under the flannel covers and swiped his fingers across the display to stop the alarm. Eyes still closed, he shrugged off his blankets and stumbled towards the bathroom, a trip of only a few steps, hitting himself just twice along the way: once walking into his closed bedroom door, and the second time on the corner of the bathroom sink. He turned on the water, and leaned against the white tile wall waiting for the spray to get hot.

When he was done in the shower, he wrapped himself in a towel and walked more alertly to his room, steam rising faintly off his body in the tiny apartment’s cold morning air. The superintendent wouldn’t turn on central heating for another month, regardless of whether it was cold or not.

It was quiet in the apartment, his parents already at work. He grabbed yesterday’s dark blue jeans off his chair and pulled them on. On his desk was a deflated bag of cookies and an empty bottle of soda, evidence of his late night Mech War gaming session. He dug in a pile of clean laundry his mom had deposited inside his door until he found his vintage I(heart)SQL t-shirt. It was obscure enough that no one at school would understand it. They’d probably think it was some new band.

He grabbed his phone and shoved it into his pocket. He thumbed his desk, unlocking the drawers, and pulled out a locked metal box decorated with stickers carefully layered over each other to form, in aggregate, a picture of a plant growing out of a heap of garbage. An artifact of a girl from last year, he both treasured and was embarrassed by it. In the depths of the box, he rummaged around until he found rolling paper and some non-GMO weed, which he put into a jacket pocket. He fumbled through the container again, anxiously looking for his cigarettes, until he finally found them inside the empty cookie bag. He shook his head, wondering why he had put them there.

Leon walked the few steps down the short hallway to the kitchen. He shook cereal into an old cracked white porcelain bowl and followed with cold milk. He gently bumped his phone on the table, activating the wall display next to the table and syncing it to his phone. He surfed the in-game news while he ate, and checked out the game stats. He was ranked twenty-third on his favorite Mech War server, up ten spots due to the new genetic algorithms he’d written for targeting control. He had some ideas for an anti-tracking algorithm he wanted to try out next.

When he finished slurping cereal, he grabbed his backpack and headed out the door, securing all the locks. His Russian immigrant parents thought you could never be too secure. In addition to the electronic building lock and a digital fingerprint deadbolt, they had an actual antique key lock. Leon wore the key around his neck sometimes, and half the kids at school assumed it was a curious kind of jewelry.

He walked the few blocks to South Shore High School. Hundreds of kids streamed across Ralph Avenue, ignoring the cars. Drivers angrily honked their horns as their vehicles’ mandatory SafetyPilots cut in automatically. Leon ran across with a group of other kids, and funneled through the front door with them.

* * *

Leon made his way into first period, math. James was already there, wearing his usual army green flak jacket. Leon’s Russian heritage gave him blond hair and a tall, large frame, but James still had an inch or two in height and a solid fifty pounds on him. He punched James on the arm as he went in, and James punched him back. The bell rang, and they hurried to their desks in the back row. Moments after everyone else sat down, Vito flew through the doors and slid into his seat next to them, earning a glare from the teacher.

They might have been the three smartest kids in school, but they tried to keep that secret. They didn’t fit in with the Brains. Preppy clothes and drama club seemed ridiculous. Though the football team would have loved James, James would rather be playing MMORPGs. They surely didn’t fit in with the popular kids and their shallow interests. They weren’t skaters or punks. They might have been labelled geeks, but the geeks rarely came in wearing military jackets or ditched school to smoke pot. They were too smart and had too much of the hacker ethic to fit in with the stoners.

No, they were their own clique, and they made sure not to fit anyone else’s stereotypes.

Leon glanced over at Vito, who was fiddling with his ancient Motorola. Vito lavished care on the old phone. The case was worn smooth from thousands of hours of polishing from Vito’s hands. Even the original plastic seams had disappeared with age. When a component died, Vito would micro-solder in a replacement. Vito said that after a certain point the phone just didn’t get any older, it just got different.

Leon daydreamed through the class, volunteering a correct answer only when the teacher called on him. In his mind he was walking the ruins of Berlin in his mech, replaying the scenes of last night’s gaming.

He thought about writing a new heat detection algorithm for his mech. The current generation of games required custom programming to do well. Leon knew from history class that a long time ago the marketable commodity in games was gold and equipment. Now it was algorithms. The game made available the underlying environment data, and it was up to the player to find the best algorithms for piloting, aiming, detecting, moving, and coordinating mechs. There was a persistent rumor that DARPA had funded the game as a way of crowd-sourcing the all-important algorithms used to control military drones. Leon couldn’t find any solid evidence online to prove or disprove it.

No, maybe he should focus on a new locomotion algorithm. He’d heard that some mechs, using custom locomotion code, were coaxing ten percent more speed and range while keeping their thermal signatures lower. If that was true, Leon could sell it on eBay for top dollar.

Leon became more deeply immersed in the problem, and when the bell rang, only James whacking him on the head woke him from his thoughts.

“See ya later, Lee,” Vito called, heading off to another class.

“Adios.”

Leon and James walked together to their social studies class.

“How are your applications coming?” James asked.

“OK, I think,” Leon said. “I just finished the MIT application. I aced the qualifying exams. Dude, it sucks though. If I don’t get a scholarship, I’m screwed.”

“You and everyone else, man.” James clapped him on the shoulder.

* * *

“Okay class, who can explain the legal and political significance of the Mesh?” Leon’s social studies teacher looked around. “Josh, how about you?”

Josh looked up from his desk, where he appeared to be scribbling football plays. “Uh?”

“The mesh, Josh, I was asking about the mesh.”

“Mesh, uh, helps keep you cool on the field?”

The uproar of laughter from the class drowned out the teacher for a moment. “Very funny. Come on, someone. This is how you play games, watch TV, and get information. Surely someone has cared enough to figure out how all those bits get into your house.”

Leon rolled his eyes at James and mock yawned.

“How about you, Leon? I’m sure you know the answer to this.”

Leon hesitated, weighing the coolness impact of answering, then reached a decision. He felt sorry for the teacher. “The Mesh was formed ten years ago by Avogadro Corp to help maintain net neutrality,” he began.

“At the time, access to the Internet in the United States was mostly under the control of a handful of companies such as Comcast, who had their own media products they wanted to push. They saw the Internet as competing with traditional TV channels, and so they wanted to control certain types of network traffic to eliminate competition with their own services.”

“Very good, Leon. Can you tell us what they built, and why?”

Leon sighed when he realized his teacher wasn’t going to let him off easy. “According to Avogadro, it would have been too expensive and time consuming to build yet another network infrastructure comparable to what the cable and phone companies had built last century. Instead they built MeshBoxes and gave them away. A MeshBox does two things. It’s a high speed wireless access point that allows you to connect your phone or laptop to the Internet. But that’s just what Avogadro added so that people would want them. The real purpose of a MeshBox is to form a network with nearby MeshBoxes. Instead of sending data over the Internet via Comcast, the MeshBox routes the data packets over the network of MeshBoxes.”

Leon hadn’t realized it, but sometime during his speech he had stood up, and started walking towards the netboard at the front of the room. “The Mesh network is slower in some ways than the traditional Internet, but faster in other ways.” He drew on the touch-sensitive board with his finger. “It takes about nine hundred hops from one MeshBox to the next to get from New York to Los Angeles, but only about ten hops from one router to the next by Internet backbone. That’s a seven-second delay by Mesh, compared to a quarter-second by backbone.

“But the aggregate bandwidth of the Mesh in the United States is about four hundred times the bandwidth of the backbone because there are more than twenty-million MeshBoxes in the United States. More than a hundred-million around the world. That means the Mesh is bad for phone calls or interactive gaming unless you’re within about two hundred miles, but it’s great for moving files and large data sets around at any distance.”

He paused for a moment to sketch a stylized computer on the netboard. “But the real benefit of the Mesh is that it’s completely resistant to intrusion or tampering, way more so than the Internet ever was before the Mesh. If any node goes down, it can be routed around. Even if a thousand nodes go down, it’s trivial to route around them. The MeshBoxes themselves are tamperproof — Avogadro manufactured them as a monolithic block of circuitry with algorithms implemented in hardware circuits, rather than software. So no one can maliciously alter the functionality. The traffic between boxes is encrypted. Neighboring MeshBoxes exchange statistics on each other, so if someone tries to insert something into the Mesh trying to mimic a MeshBox, the neighboring MeshBoxes can compare behavior statistics and detect the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Compared to the traditional Internet structure, the Mesh is more reliable and secure.”

Leon looked up and realized he was standing in front of the class. On the netboard behind him he had drawn topology diagrams of the backbone and mesh. The entire class was staring at him. James made a “what the hell are you doing?” face from the back of the room. If he had a time travel machine, he’d go back and warn his earlier self to keep his damn mouth shut.

The teacher, on the other hand, was glowing, and had a broad smile on his lean face. “Excellent, Leon. So Avogadro was concerned about net neutrality, and created a completely neutral network infrastructure. Why do we care about this today?”

Leon tried to walk back to his desk.

“Not so fast, Leon,” the teacher called. “Why exactly is net neutrality so important to us? This isn’t a business or science class. We’re studying national governments. Why is net neutrality and net access relevant to governments?”

Leon glowered at a corner of the room and sighed in defeat. “Because in 2011, the Tunisian government was overthrown, largely due to activists who organized on the Internet. Egypt, Syria, and other countries tried to suppress activists by shutting down Internet access to prevent the uncontrolled distribution of information. The Mesh didn’t just disrupt Internet providers, it disrupted national government control over the Internet. Instead of a few dozen or less Internet connections that could be shut down by a centralized government, the Mesh network within any given country has thousands of nodes that span national borders. When governments tried to enforce wi-fi dead zones around their borders, Avogadro responded by incorporating satellite modems in the Mesh boxes so that any box, anywhere on Earth, can access Avogadro satellites when all else fails. Between Mesh boxes and WikiLeaks, it’s impossible for governments to restrict the flow of information. Transparency rules the day.”

“Exactly. Thank you, Leon, you can sit down. Class, let’s talk about transparency and government.”

Leon slumped back to his desk.

* * *

“Nice going, dork,” James called after class. “What happened to not sticking out?”

“Look, the Mesh is just cool. It’s the way nature would have evolved electronic communications. Cheap, simple, redundant, no dependency on centralization. I couldn’t help myself.”

“Yeah, well, have fun in history. Maybe you can give your class a lecture on Creative Commons.” James's tone mocked Leon, but when Leon looked up, he saw the corner’s of James mouth edging toward a smile.

“Yeah, sure,” Leon said, smiling back. James turned and left, off to another class.

Leon headed into his own class and started to settle into his chair when his phone started a high frequency shrill for an incoming message. Leon pulled it out to read the message.

Leon, this is your uncle Alex. I hope you remember me — when I was last in New York, I think you were ten. I hear from your parents that you are great computer programmer.

Leon rolled his eyes, but kept reading.

I am working on programming project here in Russia, and I could use your help. I have unusual job that your parents don’t know about. I write viruses for group here in Russia. They pay very good money.

Leon leaned forward, paying very close attention to the email now. Writing viruses for a group in Russia could only be the Russian mob and their infamous botnet.

I run into some problems. Anti-virus software manufacturers put out very good updates to their software. Virus writers and anti-virus writers have been engaged in arms race for years. But suddenly anti-virus writers have gotten very, very good. No viruses I write in last few months can defeat anti-virus software.

You realize now I talking about running botnet. Because of anti-virus software, botnet shrinking in size, and will soon be too small to be effective.

Unfortunately, although pay is very good, you must realize, men I work for are very dangerous. They are unhappy that

“Leon. Are. You. Paying. Attention?”

Leon looked up abruptly. The whole class was staring at him.

“Can you tell us why the colonies declared independence from Great Britain?”

Leon just stared at the teacher. She was talking, but the words seemed to be coming from far away. What was she babbling about?

The teacher went over to her desk. “Mr. Tsarev, will you please pay attention?” It was not a question.