In cyberspace everyone can hear you scream, but nobody actually cares.
Now you can rest for a while, and the thing that is thrashing inside your ribcage has some time to wind down. You are going to read a story. No, don’t take your eyes off the text – rest assured it is the kind of story that you like. It is familiar and strange at the same time, and you are part of it. It is somewhat like the murky dreams that suck you down in the small hours. If you are one of the sleepers, you can probably understand what I mean.
We might begin with the ending, which you are probably familiar with. But we shall begin with the beginning, which didn’t take place too long ago, either. Of course, to you it already seems lost in the dusk of yore. As a matter of fact, hardly more than a year has elapsed since then.
It was August, and the R&D division of the Orbitech corporation marketed a new generation of anti-hacking programs. Sphinx. There was a great commotion, multimedia promotion campaigns were launched, waves of champagne flowed and countless clients bought Sphinx programs without having the least idea what they had spent their money on.
In theory, Sphinx was just as efficient as wetware viruses in protecting databanks against hackers. The major difference consisted in the absence of a lethal effect on the infested one. The idea was hailed as revolutionary, humanitarian and maybe another dozen such adjectives that, retrospectively, combined naive insouciance and involutary humour.
What stayed alive, however, was only the hacker’s body. The Sphinx program would erase the personality, devour the memory, annihilate the reflexes, rewrite the information stored in the brain, reorient the mental processes. The results were some sort of zombies, human carcasses possessed by a digital demon, puppets on the unseen strings of the puppeteer-program.
In only two weeks, hospitals were filled to burst with ex-hackers, become pitiful dummies that were no longer able even to walk. Multimedia news agencies broadcast shocking reports, with rows of white bunks on hospital corridors, full of human figures pierced by tubes, IV drips and miniature robot-endoscopes. Non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace filed formal protests to the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization and the International Court of Hague. Had the scandal started a few decades earlier, maybe their protest would have been of some importance, but under the conditions at the time, it only had a symbolic value.
True enough, you have encountered terms which no longer mean anything: the United Nations, court, corporation, hospital. Search deep in your memory and remember what they mean. Don’t stop. Keep reading.
The radical solution – the only possible one – would have been the extermination of all those contaminated with Sphinx. But back then mentalities were very different from the present ones, and the people who proposed this solution were quickly labeled as paranoid, intolerant, extremists of the right or left (sometimes both).
And while the world was speaking to the wind, the Sphinx started its work in motionlessness and silence. It came from a realm of pure information and had found itself exiled in strange places, dense and dusky, devoid of the electric field’s quasi-instantaneous rush. Toiling away with the crude, inefficient tools of enzymes and biochemical reactions, the Sphinx started to reshape the flesh in which it was prisoner, changing it so as to better serve its purposes.
Yes, purposes. The Sphinx was not just any program, but an entity with a superior level of organization who had its own purposes, unknown to anyone. For the time being.
In turn, one by one, the Sphinx’s victims seemed to recover and checked out of hospitals, but the public didn’t hear the news because the places of those checking out were immediately taken by other victims. Once out of hospital, those infested by the virus – or possessed by the demon’s informatic avatar, as televangelists would rather put it – would change their address and, invariably, would break contact with all relatives, all acquaintances. In that world which was so different, where loneliness was institutionalised, few people remarked how widespread this phenomenon was.
For the Sphinx was cunning. The changes that it made upon flesh had not to be seen too soon, not before they were complete, ready to use.
After a few months during which – day in, day out – the multimedia showed the same glassy eyes, the same overcrowded hospital bunks, the same powerless wetware doctors, most people got bored and went back to their usual worries and entertainment. Some of them – few – had the tenacity to ask themselves questions, look for answers, search the fluorescent labyrinth of Orbitech cyberspace. And the Sphinx dashed on each of them in turn, like digital lightning, crouched in their deserted synapses and continued its work.
Then the day came. The day of fire and ashes when sphinxes came out of the places where they had spent months in loneliness, the day when they spread their wings, opened their scaly arms, united their digital minds in the interface and became masters of the world.
In the light of flames and neon, reflected in glass facades, in chrome and enamel, the creatures reshaped by the Sphinx emerged. They no longer bore even a vague resemblance with humans. They were proud, strange, each of them one of a kind. And their swift unforgiving minds already mastered humanity’s electronic nervous system. And the winged beasts annihilated with surgical precision any attempt to resist.
They had one mind, one will. And the Sphinx’s will was cold and merciless.
You know well that almost nothing stood in its way.
What you do not know is that one of the designers of the Sphinx program had a sort of unexplainable, primitive, almost atavistic penchant towards completely outdated things such as information printed on paper. Essential elements of the program were found in a file, where the Sphinx could not suspect their presence. Worse yet, the file was found by a man clever enough to use the information with maximum efficiency. Kenneth McKenzie.
The mind that encompassed the entire net shattered in countless schizoid splinters. When the Sphinx’s legions dashed on McKenzie, in his garage in South Dakota, the harm had already been done. The digital spell had broken. The demon had been blown away.
Sphinxes became lonely hunters, adorned with amulets of wood, brass, silicon or human vertebrae, stalking from the top of deserted arcologies and flying above the ruined cities. Sometimes they fight with one another, in a strange parody of dogfights. At other times they sit still for days on end, as if trying to find again the pure ecstasy of uniting in One. And at other times they set traps.
If you’ve read so far, you can only be human. Any sphinx would have sensed the trap after having read the first lines. Sphinxes never sleep and are quick, ever on the lookout. A sphinx might have survived. Maybe. For you, however, it is too late. The first – and last – thing you are going to see when lifting your gaze from the text will be me.