His name was Pancho José Epsilon-Rivera. But one of the first things he said to Basil was, “Just call me Panch.”
Rivera was in in his early 50s and had gray hair clipped short. His naturally brown skin looked a bit darker, despite living underground, thanks to daily walks in the atrium’s park.
He was the computer scientist assigned to train Basil. Basil spent the first few days shadowing him as he worked on StarCen’s core.
Rivera said, “So . . . how to describe what we do? This is the core.”
He waved at the giant gray biomass in the center of the room. They stood on a suspended walkway looking down at it.
“Back in olden times, computer chips were printed on silicon. There was the matter of conductivity, as you know, and succeeding generations of chips had tighter clusters and greater numbers of circuits, and so forth and so on.
“At some point, the laws of physics dictated we would run out of space on chips. We could only make the prints so fine. Processor speeds ran into some limits, too. Thus entered biocomputing. It was revolutionary. Much faster. Molecular-level circuits, computers at the speed of thought. Fun stuff.
“Fast forward again and you get to quantum computing. Change a binary digit here from zero to one, and its corresponding digit on the other side of the galaxy changes as well. Instantaneous communications. Amazing processor speed, too.
“Finally, throw in the advances in artificial intelligence, and you end up with StarCen. Our job at Thespar, in this branch of the company anyway, is to keep her maintained at optimal performance.
“So, underlying all this biomass, all the circuits and relays and transistors and molecular processors . . . making everything work . . . is a lot of code.
“Code has been with us a long, long time. You can trace it back to punch cards on IBM census counting machines from the 1930s. That was crude code. The code that controls StarCen is very complex.
“But when you burrow down deep enough, get past the user interface and the command modules, and everything else . . . in its rawest form the code controlling StarCen is just like anything else. A bunch of zeroes and ones.”
Basil nodded. He thought he could see where the older man was going with this.
Basil said, “So, when you want to modify that code, you make minor adjustments at the most basic level?”
“Precisely,” Rivera said, seemingly happy that Basil got it. “At the molecular binary level, small changes are virtually imperceptible to anyone using the normal administrative interface. Even if they do go deep diving, finding those slight changes are virtually impossible if they don’t know what they’re looking for.”
“Really? Virtually impossible? How are you so sure?”
“Let’s put it this way. So far, we’ve never been caught. And we’ve been doing this since before the war started. Granted, we’re very, very careful. But it’s still really hard to see changes this small, in the grand scheme of things.”
They walked inside the spacious control room. Rivera brought him over to a huge holoscreen above his personal workstation. A series of numbers floated above the desk, arranged in a diagram.
“Now, if you’ll notice the ‘map’ . . . everything in StarCen’s conscious is diagrammed out for us here. If we want to adjust things so that she does not alert police of someone’s presence, for instance, we have to make a series of careful numerical manipulations . . . here.”
“We have considered your request to serve as an outside agent, and I think we’re ready to approve it.”
Lexi’s heart soared when she heard El say this. The feeling reminded her of when she was little and her father threw her up a little ways into the air and caught her. It was a thrilling sensation.
El said, “However, it comes with a catch. If you are caught, we cannot allow you to reveal anything about what we do here. So, we will be injecting you with a special kind of nanobot before you go out each time.”
Lexi nodded, her elation subsiding a bit.
She said, “It’s going to kill me, isn’t it?”
“No. We’re not barbaric like the Tetrarchy is. These nanobots will be attuned to your mental state. They will wipe your memory. You’ll slide into something resembling a vegetative state, unable to remember anything. Total amnesia.”
“That sounds barbaric. I think I’d rather you just kill me.”
“Actually, there’s a method to our madness. We’re hoping if it came to that, the authorities waste precious time trying to recover your memories. Any kind of time and effort we can make them lose is a good thing.”
“How do I know you guys won’t activate it the minute I step out of here?”
El said, “You’ve got to trust somebody, Lexi. You certainly can’t trust the League. We’re your best bet.”
She smiled at the younger woman and made a beckoning motion.
“Let’s go see if the computer nerds have fixed StarCen so she won’t rat you out when you go back outside.”
“I don’t understand,” Lexi said. “You’re telling me you can alter StarCen to the point she won’t alert the authorities of my presence? Why can’t we erase the records of all our friends who were rounded up by SSI? Let’s get them out of jail!”
Rivera shook his head. He said, “We can adjust things, but there are limitations. Anything we do that gets noticed could destroy everything we’ve been working on. We can’t make massive changes and hope to get away with it.
“Let me tell you a story. Toward the end of the Second World War, an increasing number of German bombs dropped on London were duds. They were filled with inert material instead of gunpowder, or not filled at all. Some of them had notes. ‘Don’t worry, English. We are with you. Polish workers.’ Other said things like, ‘This is all we can do for now. Jewish slave labor is a bad idea.’
“You see, these workers could not make every bomb defective. They would have been caught, punished, and replaced. But, they could affect a certain percentage. The ones that did not explode saved lives and property. It was what they could do, and get away with, and still remain in place to make a difference.”
“Okay. That’s a nice analogy and all, but these are my friends. One boy was there only because I invited him!”
Rivera smiled, sadly. He said, “I’ll tell you another story from World War II. The British had cracked the Nazi’s Enigma code, thanks to Turing and others. Churchill received word of a town in England that was going to be bombed. He faced a dilemma. He could alert the town and evacuate the residents before the bombing and save everybody. But if he did that, the Germans would know their code had been cracked.
“Or, he could do nothing. The bombing would occur. People would die. But, he could continue to read the German’s secret communications and help defeat them.
“He chose the latter. It was tough, but it was the right call. He and the allies were able to defeat National Socialism in part because the Enigma code was an open book.
“We are in a similar situation here. We can modify StarCen and her records as you suggest. But if we made such a large change, it would draw notice. And at that point, SSI would realize that StarCen was compromised. All of our people whose records we have modified would be at risk. Everything we are doing would be compromised. We’re not going to allow that to happen.”
Lexi turned away. When she spoke again, bitterness tinged her voice.
“I was just a stupid airhead, living in fantasy land. I can’t believe how naive I was. I just wish I could fix my mistakes, that’s all.”
El put a hand on her shoulder. She said, “You may not be able to fix all your mistakes. But, we are going to give you a chance to do something. To strike a blow.”
Lexi nodded. Her eyes flashed and she clenched her teeth.
She said, “I would like that very much.”