The Great Engine of Atosa, II

This rough sketch takes place a close to 800 years before Hlau’s investigation of a string of hacks on some computer mainframes. Atosa, being one of the things on his list, is the site of a gigantic engine mainfame complex, built during a period that is comparable to Earth’s 19th century. Jing, the protagonist of this sketch, is witness to some of the early events of the Great Engine Heist. There is a discrepancy in the calendar system and the dates used here and some of Hlau’s stories. I’ll definitely correct it in future drafts. This part picks up from the first part.

On the rasterizer viewscreen, Jing monitored the requests that came in from all the engines networked with the Great Engine Complex. There was always a code identifying the engine and location requesting data, and this was all recorded on the spools of punch paper. Once he saw a spool was running out, he tapped the code for “halt.” Below the monitor was  a keyboard with the 60 syllabic characters of Phonic, with a key to tap a few times to select a Universal Character. Each syllable key on the keyboard automatically emitted the series of beeps – the longs and the shorts – but Jing preferred to tap it out on his singular telegrapher’s key, as the engines operated on a binary code, which was easily rendered in longs and shorts.

Zo, an adolescent girl from the local Tanesh reservation, was his apprentice. She was almost as old as long as he had been working at the Complex, which made her almost seventeen or eighteen years old. Had he stayed in the western city and got married, he could have had a daughter her age. He taught her things she needed to know such as tapping out code, reading the screen, and having an ear for the longs and shorts. He was teaching her how the gigantic engines worked and some more practical things for the job, like changing the data spools. After halting a terminal, he showed her how have the writing machine rewind the spool,  take the end slack out of the other bobbin, lift the spool away from its pin, and place it into a canister. Before putting in a fresh spool, he grabbed the hose from a nearby compressed airtank, pointed the nozzle at the writing machine, and showed her how to spray bursts of air at it to clean it. Before putting a fresh spool in, they would check the punching mechanism to make sure the puncher was clean and still sharp. The parts, which were crafted in Alys, were expensive not only for the workmanship, but also the voyage they took across the ocean to the United Republic. Everything was clean and Jing had Zo put in a new one.

In the past, Jing trained mostly boys who were sent by their parents from the reservations to learn a valuable trade. He found them difficult and challenging. Some, when they heard his Hladdat accent, would make fun of it. They thought it was funnier than Itanese accents, and it made very little difference to them, as their parents often talked about how they hated the Republic. They often had difficulty paying attention, especially when it came to learning the more mundane details of the job, such as what he and Zo were doing at the moment. They would often talk loudly and coarsely, and think that the telegrapher’s key was something to transmit ribald jokes. He often sent them home with an explanation to the director. The boys’ parents would come, contrite, sorry, and trying to bargain with both him and the director. They respected the director, who was Tanesh, and would makes claims that Jing was not such a bad man for a Republican.

So far, Zo was a good apprentice. She was smart, quick to learn, and paid attention to detail.

Zo put the canister on a cart to be taken to the data storage center. She then took a fresh data spool out of its canister, placed it in its pin, worked the slack through the punching area, put the end of the paper into the bobbin that would reel it in as the puncher wrote down the data. She wrote down the date on the new spool’s canister and filed in on the shelf until it ran out. After that task was completed, Jing had her come to the terminal and tap in “Go,” to unhalt the engine.

Before they moved on to another terminal, Jing had Zo practice reading the viewscreen. There was a request coming in, that she read and understood well. As he looked over Zo’s shoulder, Zing also saw something unusual – there was no code for the origin of the engine requesting files. Jing quickly moved to Zo’s right, where the telegrapher’s key sat next to the keyboard, and scrambled to tap in a “block” code. Whatever was accessing the engines quickly bypassed his commands. Over the years, Jing had learned a great deal about engine security and even helped with creating a firewall system that effectively kept a lot of the hackers out. Whoever it was, they were savvy enough to get past it.

He had never seen something like that, but he suspected this hack was a psychic crime. Somewhere out there, a rogue telepath knew to connect his or her mind with the engine and take data from it. He had heard rumors about this type of thing for years, that various engines have been hit and no hacker, no source had ever been found. Occasionally, data spools were stolen with no sign of break-in at the storage facilities.

Atosa had the largest group of engines in all of Itan. It was the hub of the network, all engines connected back to Atosa. As such, the Atosa Engine Complex was the largest target possible, an infinite data mine. Jing had to act quickly.

He picked up the intercom microphone and announced to all the coders and operators present to enter “Halt.” He picked up the earpiece of the phone and spoke into the phone’s mice attached to the wall, notifiying director of this compromise. She was on it was well and was finding no way to stop it.

Jing also felt he had no choice but to call the School of Wisdom. There was a temple in the nearby town, and if no expert was available, they could always call Shusa or Hitonnen to send someone over. However, since his once fiancee had left him for a holy man, he came to view the institution with distaste. While he understood the actions of one priest does not represent the entire institution, this priest was supposed to have officiated the wedding. And Jing remembered that the priest was a high-level telepath. Whoever the School of Wisdom dispatched, Jing hoped it would be anyone but this man.

to be continued…

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