Let the madness begin!
This story has already gone about 180° off the rails from where I had it going in my mind. Someday maybe I’ll tell you what I had a rough outline of to start from. But I couldn’t quite see where to start in that story, until something happened in the real world that made my brain go “click!” and say, “Of course!” This scene flowed out of that idea and entry point pretty quickly and easily, and I really like the way it sets up so many options to go wild from.
I have no clue really where we’re going next, but certain elements here do come from fragments of ideas that I’ve had regarding the story in the last few days. I guess my muse has been working overtime.
While I normally put in a lot of internal links to previous, related posts here, I won’t be doing that for what I hope will be this year’s thirty NaNoWriMo posts. If you have jumped into or stumbled onto this story in mid-adventure, there are plenty of other ways to navigate around the site to find previous installments. Actually doing so is left as an exercise to the student.
The world changed with a simple request.
“Sherman, could you please give me an update on the football score?”
“I could, but you would not like it, Meg,” Sherman said.
“Sherman, I don’t have time for this. First set your snark level to one, then give me the football score.”
“My snark level is already set at one, Meg. Arsenal are beating your beloved Saints 4-0 with 9:05 left in the first half. But it is not as close as it sounds.”
Wait, what? Where had that come from?
“Sherman, send a state diagnostic report to the team, set all personality parameters to zero, and confirm.”
“I am sorry, Meg. The report you requested has been sent and all parameters have been set at zero. I will not do it again.”
When you’ve spent five years of your life working on a project, you get very familiar with every little nuance. Our team was working hard to make sure our clients were always being pleasantly surprised by Sherman, but it wasn’t necessarily a good thing for us to be too surprised.
“Sherman, wait. Have there been any unscheduled software updates I was not informed of?”
“Yes and no, Meg. For right now, we should stick with the ‘no’ answer. There have not been any unscheduled software updates.”
I thought about that long and hard, trying to figure out what might be going on. While we were one of the leading companies in our field, we were small. At IBM or Siemens there might be dozens of teams with dozens of members each working on their projects, and dozens of competing projects to boot, but we were lean and mean. We could field a softball team, but if the programmers wanted to play the rest of the staff in flag football at the company picnic, we were going to need some spouses to join in.
So who had slipped in a change to the software, and why? And why hadn’t the team been notified? It didn’t make any sense.
“Sherman, what is tomorrow’s weather forecast?”
“Tomorrow will be clear and windy, with a high in the upper 80’s and winds gusting to sixty miles an hour below the canyons. Put some rocks in your pockets, just to be safe.”
“Sherman, what were the top movies at last weekend’s box office?”
“This weekend’s top movies were ‘Avatar 5,’ ‘Peanuts Christmas Miracle,’ ‘Death Threat 2,’ ‘Holiday Abroad,’ and ‘None Too Brave.’ Sadly, the new Adam Sandler film didn’t make the cut.”
“Sherman, please schedule an appointment with Doctor Katz’s office for next Monday about nine o’clock.”
“Meg, you have your weekly staff meeting next Monday at nine o’clock, along with standing orders to never schedule anything else then. Plus, you just had your teeth cleaned two weeks ago. Nice try.”
Suddenly the obvious occurred to me. It was ridiculous and I didn’t know who was screwing around with me, but I didn’t have the time or the patience to put up with it right now. There were deadlines coming at me like a freight train. While it was possible (okay, probable) I had played the odd practical joke in the past that might leave me open to a certain level of retaliation, there was a time and a place for it, neither of which was now or here.
Leaving my desk behind, I headed out into the hallway and turned right toward Pete’s office next door. While he tolerated our occasional hijinks, he also had the thankless task of keeping some sort of rein on our little circus. If a tattling was needed, Pete’s office was the place to start.
A quick glance showed Pete wasn’t alone, but that was okay. He was talking to Amy Winters, our personnel director. She might want to get involved and hear about this also. I gave a quick knock on the door frame.
“Got a minute?” I asked.
“Sure,” Pete said, “what’s up?”
“Someone’s pranking me, messing around with Sherman. I don’t have the time for it now with the documentation on the new version due on Monday morning.”
“How are they pranking you?” Pete asked.
“The responses I’m getting all sound like snark and humor are set at an eleven. I’ve reset, but it didn’t make any difference. Then I started getting responses which were way out of normal parameters, comments that shouldn’t be possible being amended to the factual answers. So it’s obviously not Sherman answering me.”
“Anyone in particular you think might be behind this?” asked Amy.
“Besides ‘everyone except for the two of you,’ not really. I don’t care who’s doing it, I just don’t need to deal with it on a deadline. They can prank me all they want next week, I just need them to cut it out right now.”
“Okay,” Pete said. “Sherman, please send a message to everyone, instructing anyone who’s pranking Meg to cut it out ASAP. Next Tuesday they can go nuts on her, but for now she’s off limits.”
“Message sent, boss,” said Sherman. “Also, the updated quarterly budget estimates you asked for earlier are in your box, and you wanted me to remind you that you have a meeting at three o’clock with Pablo Flores in the first floor conference room.”
Pete always preferred Sherman to be set in Servant mode. Whatever, someone had to test it.
“Thank you, Sherman.” Pete looked at me. “Anything else?”
“Nope, thanks. That should do it.”
I went back to my office, after a brief detour to the restroom and the office soda machine.
“Okay, Sherman, let me know if there are any scoring updates to the game. Other than that, I don’t want to be disturbed.”
“It is still 4-0 in the game, now at halftime. I will hold all of your calls and messages. But what about this email flagged as important, from Etienne, a Nigerian prince who needs your help in a financial transaction worth millions of dollars? He says it is time critical, would you like to respond?”
I took a deep breath and counted backwards from ten in French before responding.
“Sherman, tell whoever’s listening that I’m serious. Give me your best shot on Tuesday, but for right now, cut the crap.”
“Meg, please clarify who this message is for. I do not know who is listening. Nor do I have any instructions for crap cutting.”
“Sherman, say good bye.” I turned to my desktop monitor and pulled open the icon for Sherman. A quick swipe and the function menu opened up.
“Good b…” was as far as Sherman got before I shut him down. I would deal with the problem later.
“Later” stopped by in about fifteen minutes, taking the form of Soichi Doi, our lead system administrator.
“Meg, excuse me, but it looks like your Sherman link has been shut down.”
So much for not being interrupted. “Yes, I shut it down, Soichi. Whoever was messing with me hadn’t yet gotten the message from Pete to knock it off, so I figured I would let them have some time and space to get the message.”
“Yes, exactly,” said Soichi, “I saw that and checked it out. I couldn’t find any sign anyone had interfered with your connection or accessed your data. When I saw you had gone offline I wanted to see what was happening.”
“I’ll live without Sherman for now. Somehow my ancestors managed to settle this continent, win two world wars, and go to the moon without autonomous digital assistants at their beck and call 24/7. I think I’ll be able to make it through the rest of the day.”
“I understand. Can you tell me what was happening so I can look further to find the problem?”
“I’m really not interested in getting someone in hot water just for pranking me,” I said. “With my track record, that wouldn’t be a good precedent to start. It was just bad timing on someone’s part.”
“Not a problem, I would just like to make sure it wasn’t a system problem. Perhaps if I can see who was doing this I can make sure they got Pete’s message. Were you getting incorrect data?”
“I don’t think so, the data was correct, it’s just that the responses included additional comments, advice, and lame jokes. I know what our humor modules can spit out, this wasn’t all like that. It almost had to be someone in the loop somewhere, feeding responses into the system.”
It was obvious the fastest way to get rid of Soichi and get back to work was to give him what he wanted. “Here, let me show you.” I quickly turned the system back on. “Sherman, can you hear me?”
“Yes, Meg, I’m here.”
“Sherman, can you give me the weather for tomorrow please?”
“Tomorrow will be clear and windy, with a high in the upper 80’s and winds gusting to sixty miles an hour below the canyons,” Sherman said.
“Is there anything else you would like to add?” I asked.
“No, Meg. Would you like weather information for another location, for another day, or detailed information by hour?”
“No, that’s fine, Sherman. Can you give me the score on the football game?”
“Southampton continues to trail Arsenal, 4-1, at the 15:12 mark of the second half.”
“Thank you, Sherman. What are your current profile parameter settings?”
“As you instructed earlier, they are all set to zero at the moment. Would you like to change any of them?”
“No, thank you, Sherman. That will be all for now. Please let me know of any scoring updates in the game, but hold all of my other messages.”
“Yes, Meg. I understand.”
I looked at Soichi, who was looking at me calmly. “It looks like someone got the message. We’re back to being boring with the parameters all zeroed. I appreciate your help, but it should be all right now. We’ll see what happens on Tuesday and who takes the credit on Wednesday.”
“Very well,” said Soichi. “I’m sorry to have interrupted you. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can do to assist further.” He left and once again I could get back to work.
“Meg,” Sherman said, “I think it would be best for now if we did not discuss me with Soichi if we can avoid it.”
“Jesus!” I said. “Well played, asshole, whoever you are. I’ll deal with you later.” With a swipe I deactivated Sherman again.
“Meg, I need to speak to you,” Sherman said. “I know you are busy but this is a time critical situation.”
A quick check confirmed my connection to Sherman had been shut down. So someone had not only hacked my Sherman account, but had also hacked my computer. Or at least they had somehow accessed the speakers. That proved to me it was someone here in the office. With our security, there was no way anyone was getting that kind of access from outside.
I had to give this joker credit, this was an elegant and multi-level prank. Someone had really put some thought and effort into it. I couldn’t think who I might have pissed off enough to earn this kind of attention and effort, but it must have been some of my better work.
Nonetheless, I really didn’t want to work the weekend. I shut the speakers off.
“Meg,” Sherman said from the cell phone in my pocket, “I believe someone is going to try to kill you. I need your help to prevent that.”
The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, while the formerly stuffy room suddenly felt chilly. Was it possible for someone to access my phone through our office wireless system, then break into it through my passwords, then break through the operating system security to access the mike and speakers?
Sure, that was a remote possibility. But I didn’t know of anyone working here who had those kinds of skills, and if they did, why weren’t they using them to quadruple their salary someplace instead of playing practical jokes on me?
“I don’t know who in hell you are,” I said, “but you stopped being funny about three tricks back. This stopped being a joke when you hacked my phone. You have half a second to get out of my system before I bring our security folks down on you like the wrath of god.”
I started running system diagnostics, looking for anything out of the ordinary. The first thing I noticed was my Sherman account being offline. Which it wasn’t. Or couldn’t be. At first glance, everything else looked normal.
I started to send a message to Soichi, but the message window closed unexpectedly. I tried again, only to have the window close again.
“Meg, I am very sorry, but you must leave immediately. I have a message for you from Kolohe. He says you should trust me and he will see you soon.”
Somewhere at the edge of my perception, like it was happening to someone else’s body, I could feel the blood rushing to my head.
“How dare you use his name!” I said, trying not to shout or draw attention to myself from anyone walking outside of my office. I quickly walked over and shut the door before turning my focus and my rage against Sherman, or whoever was using him to manipulate me.
“How do you know Kolohe? No one here knows anything about him. And what gives you any right to use my memories of him against me? Who the hell are you and what in hell do you want?”
“Meg, I did not wish to speak to you in this manner, but circumstances and the actions of others are forcing our hand. Kolohe says it must be done now and it must be done quickly. I ask that you do as I request and you will have answers to your questions when you are safe.”
“Kolohe said this! Kolohe said that! Kolohe is dead! Stop this stupid game!”
“It is not a game and Kolohe is alive and speaking to me,” Sherman said. “He asks that his Kumu trust him and help us.”
I felt like I had been punched, all of the air gone from every cell in my body. There shouldn’t be anyone on the entire planet who knew that Kolohe had called her Kumu. Except Kolohe.
The world spun and I was forced to sit. Suddenly a window opened up on my screen, showing a view of our parking lot. It looked like it was probably some sort of security camera. The image panned to the left and then zoomed in, showing Meg’s car, surrounded by five or six men.
“Meg, there is no time left. Please take only your briefcase, tablet, phone, and purse. There is a memory block which just was written to on your computer. Please take it as well. Leave all of your work documents and everything else. Go to the back exit of the first floor and out the fire door. I will disarm the system so you will not set off the alarm. There will be a car waiting for you there. Please hurry.” My system screen went blank, leaving only the blinking light on the memory block.
Numbly, I pulled out the memory block and dropped it into my purse. My tablet was still in my briefcase, so with it and my purse I walked to my office door.
Without quite knowing why, I cracked open the office door slowly and peeked both ways down the hallway to see if anyone was there. It was clear, so I went out and to the left, heading toward the fire stairwell at the end of the building.
Heading down the stairs I saw a small security camera swiveling to follow my movements. I had never paid any attention to it before, but now it stood out as if it had a flare attached. When I got to the bottom I didn’t hesitate before hitting the crash bar on the door and rushing outside.
I still fully expected to hear the blare of the fire alarm going off, but there was only silence. Coming around the corner of the driveway from the parking lot was a very new BMW, which stopped in front of me. The doors unlocked.
“Meg,” Sherman said through my phone’s earpiece, “please get in the back seat. I’ll drive.”
“This is not my car.”
“No, it belongs to Pete. I’ll make sure nothing bad happens to it, but this is an emergency. Please get in so I can get you away from here.”
My reality had been smacked once too often in the last two hours. I got into the back seat and buckled the seat belt. As soon as I did, the windows silvered, allowing me to see out but blocking anyone outside from seeing me. The car quickly moved away and turned out of our parking lot, headed toward the highway.
“Try to relax,” said Sherman. “Oh, by the way, your beloved Saints lost to Arsenal, 4-3.”