The Chaos Protocol
June 10, 1965, Joliet, Illinois
“Hey, Harry, come over here for a minute, would you?”
Tim Gallagher, thin, red-headed, and just twenty years old, squinted at the sheet of paper he was coding. It was midnight on the grounds of the former Joliet Army Ammo Plant, now a government installation located ten miles south of town, or, as its employees described it, in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere. In the building next door, four hulking RCA mainframes flashed the lighted buttons of their master consoles in an array of vivid reds, blues, yellows, and greens, their changing patterns indicating the contents of the various memory registers.
In its heyday during World War I, intrepid workers hand loaded land mines here at JAAP for shipment to the troops in Europe. Now a portion of the complex was Tim’s place of work, a small brick building with a corrugated asbestos roof and very thick walls. In the unfortunate event of an explosion, the designers hoped that the blast would blow off the roof, leaving the rest of the building more or less intact.
The Joliet Army Ammunition Plant still used most of its brick buildings to manufacture TNT and load it into various armaments. But three other odd little structures in addition to Tim’s were reserved for computer programmers, twelve of whom hunkered in each building.
The programmers were a hardy lot who put in more overtime than a gang of teamsters. By government fiat, Tim Gallagher was added to this select group at the end of his six-month Automated Data Processing Intern Program, becoming one of the youngest programmers at JAAP. Here, age was immaterial. Programming was still such a young art that Tim’s skills were nearly level with those of the older men, many of whom had only recently become programmers themselves after noting that it brought a rise in rank and salary.
Tim’s pod of four buildings was known as Group 9, and tonight ten of the gunmetal grey desks in Tim’s building were vacant, their occupants having already completed their sixteen hours of mandatory overtime for the week and departed. The linoleum curled under his feet, and the pall of cigarette smoke aggravated his lungs, but Tim felt lucky to have the job. Although the training had been less than adequate, he liked computers and he learned quickly, and the first thing he learned was to ask questions when he didn’t know something.
Harry finished his donut and gave his fingers a final lick, then heaved himself from his government issue chair and lumbered over to join Tim in staring at the paper. He was older than Tim by fifteen years, and paunchy.
“What’s the problem?”
“Right here -” Tim tapped a finger beneath a date field that read 09-05-65 “-where it says 65 for 1965.”
Harry’s broad shoulders rose in a shrug. “That’s standard notation.”
“Well, sure, but it just occurred to me -what happens in the year 2000? The date comes up 00. The computer thinks it’s 1900, and any date-linked data is corrupted. Or it thinks it’s an error, and shuts down completely.” Tim frowned at the offending data. “And Harry, that would happen to all the computers in the world, as far as I can make out. They all use a two-digit date field.”
Tim turned in his chair to see Harry chuckling at him and shaking his head.
“That’s a hell of a thing to worry about, Tim,” he said, still smiling broadly. “Number one, it’s thirty-five years in the future.”
Harry hoisted a beefy hand and began to tick off the points on his fingers. “Number two, all these mainframes will be on the scrap heap by then -obsolete. Number three, once we figure out how to expand the computer memory, we can use four digit years. And number four,” he wiggled his fourth finger, “number four, whatever happens, it won’t happen on my watch -I’ll be retired by then.”
He lowered himself into his chair and surveyed Tim with a smile. “It’s okay, Tim,” Harry said. “Every COBOL programmer makes that discovery at some point in his career. And we all just ignore it.”
“Oh.” Tim felt a little foolish. “So you don’t see it as a problem?”
“Nah.” Harry yawned, stretched, and rubbed a hand meditatively over his burr haircut. “Not our problem, anyway.”
The two men returned to their coding. The midnight stillness was broken only by the scratching of pencils, and, from the massive computers in the building next door, the faint staccato click-click-click of the tape drives.
June 10, 1999, Columbus, Ohio: Day 205
Alex Stauffer squatted on the bank of the Scioto River, using a surgeon’s care to impale a nightcrawler on the hook of his new Loomis rod, a Father’s Day gift from Karen. A breeze riffled his hair, and Lowell’s famous lines flashed across his mind.
“‘And what is so rare as a day in June? Then if ever, come perfect days,”’ he quoted aloud, smiling at his eight-year-old son Ethan, who jigged from one foot to the other, anxious to get started. Karen had dressed him with her usual care, and his khaki pants, green boots, and fishing vest echoed his father’s attire. Ethan was altogether a handsome little boy, dark-haired and green-eyed, with a mischievous smile, a replica of Alex at that age.
Unable to endure another minute of standing still, Ethan left Alex to his worms and ran the short distance down the bank to look at the water. A moment later Alex heard him come panting back.
“Dad, how are we going to fish in there?” Ethan tugged at Alex’s sleeve. “Look at the water!”
Distracted from baiting his hook, Alex stood to look at the river. The Scioto glittered in the sunlight, its color a horrid, fluorescent chartreuse. “My God,” he breathed.
“The fish, Dad, look at the fish!” Ethan’s voice was tearful, and Alex tore his eyes from the garish water to look at the shore. A dozen dead fish lay there already, and hundreds of others bobbed on the river’s surface. What could possibly have happened?
The wind changed then, carrying with it the stench from the water, heavy and putrid. Alex gagged. His eyes raked the shore for his son. It couldn’t be good for them to breathe this air; he had to get Ethan home.
“Dad, look!” Alex’s head snapped around at the sound of Ethan’s voice. The boy had clambered down the bank and was standing on top of a large pipe that was spewing torrents of stinking green liquid into the river. Raw sewage!
Alex ran full tilt down the riverbank, only to see Ethan fighting to keep his balance atop the pipe. “Ethan!” he screamed, but his son had already fallen and was sliding slowly down the side of the pipe toward the water.
“Dad!” With Ethan’s scream echoing in his ears, Alex flung his body up over the pipe, scrabbling for a handhold on the smooth surface. He thrust his arm down to grab the boy’s hand, but Ethan slipped, and Alex saw the foul, churning water close over his head. Without a thought, Alex dived after his son, but the fumes blinded him when he resurfaced, and he knew that if he swallowed any of the polluted river it would kill him. He couldn’t see Ethan anywhere, and he thrashed helplessly in the water, calling his son’s name over and over and over –
“Alex!” Karen’s voice sliced through the fog. “Alex! Wake up! You’re dreaming, sweetheart! Wake up!”
With a huge sense of relief Alex opened his eyes. His t-shirt clung damply to his body, and the covers hung half off the bed. The bedroom was lit by the small table lamp; his wife was sitting up in bed, looking at him with anxious eyes.
“Which one was it this time?” She touched his face with her hand.
“The sewage pipe.” Alex’s breathing slowed, and he pillowed his head in Karen’s lap. Looking at the familiar room relaxed him, and they had learned early in the course of his nightmares to turn the light on at once.
“Do you want to tell me about it?” Karen’s hand gently stroked his hair.
“Oh, it was pretty much the same as always. I wonder why Ethan is always a little boy in these dreams.” Ethan was now a tall, awkward fifteen-year-old. “He’s big enough to pull me out of that river.”
“Maybe it’s because the kids were little when you first found out about year 2000 problems.” Karen’s voice was soothing; they had been over this ground before, but the repetition had the calming effect necessary for Alex to sleep again. When the nightmares began several years ago, Alex found himself wide-awake, mind racing, for hours afterward. Sessions with a therapist had alleviated the effect of the nightmares, but hadn’t eliminated the nightmares themselves.
The first one had jerked him upright, shaking a startled Karen by the shoulders, shouting, “We’ve got to get out of here! We’ve got to get out!” The nightmare had come on the heels of a letter sent to him by an employee of a plant that produced monitors for controlling the manufacturing processes in chemical plants. The employee had claimed that management knew that one of their monitors would fail in the year 2000, but despite the danger to the chemical plants to which they were sold, they would not recall the monitor or even tell their customers it was faulty.
Alex had immediately thought of the disaster at Bhopal, India, where 4000 people died in their sleep when the Indian supervisors ignored an alarm, and forty tons of lethal methyl isocyanate escaped from Union Carbide’s storage tank and spread over the city. He did not need a therapist to tell him that his nightmare of trying to escape a building filled with noxious gases was the result of the monitor letter. The sewage pipe dream first occurred after he had read an article describing an Australian coastal city’s year 2000 test of its sewage system: the system had malfunctioned. Only the quick thinking of one of the city engineers had prevented the dumping of a day’s raw sewage into the harbor.
Alex lay in the now-darkened room and listened to his wife’s soft breathing. The real nightmare, he thought, was this: when he opened his eyes in the clear light of day, the nightmare did not dissolve, it became hard-edged reality.
Smiling at his wife Masha, fifty-five year old Sergei Kamenov, professor emeritus of the mathematics department at Moscow State University, propped his slight bulk on the rail in front of the elephant enclosure at the Moscow Zoo. He had suggested the outing to distract his mind from the illness, but the June sunshine that glinted on his balding head did not alleviate the fatigue that plagued him. The thought of the walk back to the metro station made him ache with weariness. I should see a doctor, he thought for the hundredth time. I am too young to feel like this.
Masha smiled back into his eyes, which was easy to do as they were of roughly equal height. She was still pretty, was Masha, even with the graying hair and thickening of body that came with age. When he was younger, he had worried that she might tire of his own owlish, good-natured face. Now he was resigned to the way he looked, and he knew that it was his mind that attracted her, not his body. He did not want Masha to worry. Or so he told himself, although he feared she was worried already. Better to go to the doctor and get it over with, perhaps.
For some time now he had suspected that his workload was affecting his health. Not only was he teaching his usual class, and continuing his research; he was also tapped to complete a nasty bit of work for the FSB, the Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti or Federal Security Services, the current embodiment of the KGB. Some believed that Russians need not fear the FSB the way people had feared the KGB twenty years ago. But where the KGB and its successors were concerned, Sergei still held to an old adage: calling a turnip a rose will not make it smell like one. Russia in 1999 was far from a constitutional democracy, and with the present continuing unrest, who could say whether the FSB might be not be ascendant again? Sergei felt it wiser not to disappoint their expectations of him.
He was a top – perhaps the top -mathematician in an abstruse field of computer science. He could discuss his specialty with perhaps fifty other people in the world, only six of whom could understand it at his level. His passion was theoretical mathematics, but when the FSB decided to use him, they did not take such niceties as this into consideration. They simply told him what they expected.
And they expected a lot. The man who approached him had asked whether he could produce an algorithm that a programmer could insert into a bank’s source code to withdraw money invisibly. He had to ask the man to go away and come back again, because he had to think about it first. But when the man returned, Sergei told him yes, he could do it, and he was careful not to ask why they wanted such an algorithm, although he winced at his own cowardice.
Why had he agreed? He wondered about it still. It was true that Sergei enjoyed a mathematical challenge. He had been certain that if he were given access to the source code of a bank or government agency, he could do exactly what the FSB wanted. And since all the banks and government agencies in the world had laid open their source code to do year 2000 fixes, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not only would it be easier to insert the algorithm in the first place, but once planted, it might easily be mistaken for a y2k bug. He sighed. Masha often accused him of existing in a different world, in an abstraction where he need only think about his numbers, and only incidentally about their real-world effects.
Masha. She was another reason that he did the bidding of the FSB. He had heard too many stories – true ones – from friends whose families had been threatened. And he was not as naive as Masha thought him, though sometimes he clung to the purity of theoretical mathematics to avoid confronting their applications.
But the longer Sergei worked, the more likely it seemed to him that this algorithm could upset a delicate balance. And if the world was not as wonderful as it could be right now, neither was it as terrible. What would happen when he completed his algorithm and gave it to the FSB? Sergei shivered again in the warm sunshine.