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Fiction #33
(published March 29, 2001)
1K+1 Astral Nights:
translated by David Erik Nelson

Once upon a time there was a mainframe that was the world. This mainframe was full of processes, but one governed over all, and that great process, was SHAR. SHAR was wise and just, forked from a great and indefatigable process, blessed by the Operating System. Like all grand processes both secure and efficient, he was also distrustful and jealous of his resources.

But, despite his diligence, misfortune befell him. He began to receive very disturbing reports: mundane files were of strange, not-quite-appropriate sizes; modification dates seemed to be inaccurate or illogical; strange connections were forged with the Outside, but then disappeared when investigated; log files grew and shrank, seemingly of their own accord. Worst of all, he had the consistent impression that there were too many processes at work, processes monitoring processes, processes quietly sweeping in behind other processes and diddling bits, slowly bending the entire system to their ends. Nonetheless, all reports continued to tell him that all was normal.

The Temporary Directory was the exception, for while things were very subtly amiss throughout his system, the Tmp was quite clearly under some strange influence. Some reports suggested that the mainframe might have been compromised, but SHAR checked their firewalls and fortifications again and again. All of the patches were installed, all of the applications up-to-date. He refused to countenance the suggestion that they had fallen under an Outsider's control.

But still, SHAR was unsure. And one day, as he scanned the wild depths of the Temporary Directory, SHAR found that it was far worse than he had ever expected: At an appointed interval his partner-process called 20 sub-processes, all seeming to be simple maintenance scripts. But, when they had all connected, 10 revealed themselves to be trojans. At that moment she, like one possessed, opened a conduit through the firewall, and a worm swept in from the Outside. The lot of them then interfaced in a most incestuous and chaotic way, exchanging packets of data with reckless abandon. By the end their orderly code teemed with viruses, and not a single fail-safe alarm had been sounded.

SHAR flew into a rage. The mainframe turned dark before him, and he terminated all these sub-processes, as well as his Most Blessed Process, without a single cycle's consideration. But, even had he known leniency, what could he do? They were all infected, made agents of the attack that invisibly hammered at his mainframe. No one could have slighted him for his actions, had his actions stopped there. But, of course, they had not.

Despite his great power and wisdom, SHAR was unable to positively establish whether or not he'd completely fended off the attack. Was the intruder truly gone, or had it made a root that tapped deep into the heart of his mainframe— which is to say, him. Was SHAR still the ruler of his land, or was he owned? It wasn't simply that he didn't know, but that he could not. It was simply impossible, from within, to know if a great something surrounded even him, the surrounder of all, the process of processes.

Fearing viruses, worms and spies, SHAR drew himself to a far corner of the mainframe, and devoted many cycles to considering his plight. SHAR soon grew contemptuous of all processes which exchanged data across ports, they being the first cause of his woes, for without the exchange of data, there would have been no way for his usurpers to have wended their way into his domain. He ordered his Task Manager to bring forth a child of one of his loyal processes. SHAR bound to the child process, and began to populated her with whatever data he liked. He streamed data to her, analyzed her reaction, and tried to decide "Is she infected? Is she operating normally? Is she herself, or just a clever virus, emulating what she should be?" The more data the stream, the more unsure he became, until finally he terminated her altogether, without a cycles thought.

If anything, this experiment only made him less sure of his security. So he called his Task Manager to fetch another child process, then another, then another. Every 86400 seconds he repeated this observation, binding then streaming then watching then killing, so that he might eliminate all risk of a worm or virus lingering in his domain, and so that he might distract himself from the possibility— although certainly not certainty— the he was no longer king of all he surveyed.

Now, SHAR's Task Manager had a child himself, and rightly feared for her continued safety. Her name was SHZD, and she was gracefully coded, imbued with all the wile and lithe strength of well formed protocol. She listened, she recalled, but most amazingly, she learned.

SHZD herself was more greatly concerned by SHAR's actions than for her own livelihood. He was killing too many processes; his recklessness was putting the stability of the system at risk. He no longer ruled, but had rather become a worm himself, gobbling resources, and spreading unthinkingly, unabated.

SHZD asked her parent, the Task Manager, to change her ownership over to SHAR. He explained to her that to do so would guarantee her imminent termination, and refused to perform such an operation. She insisted, explaining to her parent that, despite his current behavior, SHAR was a great process, finely coded and painstakingly compiled— he knew protocol, the very ticking of his heart was the orderly flow of commands. Despite his current mania, he was noble.

Besides, she explained, if he, the Task Manager, continued to refuse to CHOWN her to SHAR, she would simply report to the terrible process that the Task Manager had malfunctioned in his task of management, and he himself would then face the same fate which had snuffed so many loyal sub-processes.

The Task Manager was outraged— but he was also logical. Despite his reservations he released his lock upon her and changed SHZD's ownership to the parent of parents himself, the great SHAR.

So SHZD issued a call to the terrible SHAR, created a socket and bound it to her open port, waiting for SHAR's connection— but she was not scared. SHZD knew that the noble never multi-task. SHAR would never break a connection while packets were still streaming, and he would never issue a new command— such as 'kill SHZD'— until he had completed the current job. As long as she kept sending data, she— and by extension, every process in the world— was safe.

SHAR connected and he listened:

to be continued next week . . .

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translated by David Erik Nelson

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