Incubator

This is the era where everything slips over that metaphorical waterfall. Up until now there were two clear and mighty rivers, "fiction" and "fact" and these ran alongside one another and intertwined but remained clearly separated, the red and the blue always ultimately separable into "this is possible; that is not". Now we're past this threshold and bouncing up and down in the turbulence at the bottom and it's becoming less clear. For example:

There was a time when computers were invented. Not long after this there came fantasies of running the whole world using computers, and future horror spectre threats of mad "computer geniuses" using said computers to take over said world. There was a time when Computers-with-a-capital-C were some omniscient omnipresent unstoppable genie force there to be taken hold of by sufficiently powerful hacker geek sorcerors and put to work turning on humanity - or even deciding to rise up on their own initiative (which by a process of elimination would have to have been installed as an unverified third-party plugin and would have voided any existing warranty, because a computer with initiative is almost oxymoronic) and put humanity to the laser plasma blast and crush all our heads. And likewise there are arose computer-based heroes able to leverage the mighty and nebulous forces of The Computer to break any firewall ("firewall" being a collective term for every form of computer security ever created, regardless of how closely it resembled TCP port-protection software), hack any system, instantly retrieve and cross-reference the most astoundingly trivial details ("the shade of paint on the chips on that wall was only used in one type of car: the 1988 Chrysler Saloon VX9! There are only two of those in Gotham, and they're both owned by--") and use them to catch the bad guy. Without delay, or time spent to code, or consideration given to the real-world layer-1 connectivity of the hypothetical system storing all of this information. Not shown: the eighty man-hours two bored temps spent transcribing the paint fleck database from paper onto computer, and all the trivial-yet-catastrophic typographical mistakes they made during that week. Not shown: the meeting where it was decided to hire those temps to perform that transcription instead of sticking with paper files (which have been good enough for decades) and saving the cash so the department can stay under budget.

Regardless of the facts of the world, some good stories came out of it-- this is true of all eras and all situations and all fictional genres and media.

Then the Internet, the literal physical reality of an interconnected network (yes, that is where the name comes from), began to catch up with and resemble, in some quite surprising and imaginative and unexpected and useful ways, the "Internet", that fictitious construct which, via some sort of high-speed magical data-based L-space, connects every microprocessor in the civilised world (and elsewhere).

You're in a hospital ward. You need a way for each patient to contact a nurse if they need one. You want to achieve this without posting a nurse at each bed to watch in shifts. You want to achieve this without them having to holler, if for example it's night and the other patients are sleeping or they can't holler or you don't feel like being hollered at. You give each bed a button and wire the buttons to the front desk where the nurses sit. But that's a hassle and it's a custom wiring job. It's not exceedingly practical. What if you want to move the beds around, and can't move the connector where the button goes into the wall? Or you want to add more beds? What if the front desk gets moved or renovated, or you want to add another desk, or you want nurses to be able to carry a durable, medical-friendly, low-tech digital personal electronic wossname which buzzes if they're needed-- you know, an iPhone? What if radio and microwave signals would interfere with existing hospital technology, so you can't use a simple radio? What if a radio would need a licence or some nonsense? What if what if?

There are ethernet ports all over. Plug the machine into the intranet. Decuple the I.T. guys' salary to account for the equivalent increase in uptime, response time, and all the other metrics in that there Service Level Agreement (haha, just kidding). If it's on the network, it's on the network. You can send a ping for medical help from anywhere. You can receive a ping for medical help from anywhere. You can wire up every button in F Wing. You can wire up the life support monitoring systems (oops, just went from three nines to five nines uptime requirement, and now there are real human lives on the line, I.T.!). You can put doctors' diaries up there and let them access from wherever. You can put patient files up there (behind a quote-firewall-unquote, of course!). You can network all your high-tech diagnosis machines and finally emerge from that black and barbaric Stone Age where if another hospital needed those X-rays they had to get them sent over physically by a guy on a bike.

You can make all of these systems vulnerable to highly proficient external attack. You can put a living human at the mercy of a computer, for real. Is it advisable? It certainly makes a great deal of sense in many respects, because, as previously intimated, the magical evil computer-sorcerors are fictitious and nobody wants to kill people over the internet.

Well.

And only the very best, highest-technology, cleanest and most reliable and well-funded of hospitals have the wherewithal to install such systems. The kind of world-class, internationally-renowned hospital where such world-class, internationally-renowned individuals as Mr Alakwem Urno Urnomekwe can afford to be treated. The poor, elderly, stout man is getting on in years and stress is weighing on him. That's not a quote from his files, which more precisely state "heart disease" in great detail and with great amounts of additional attendant detail. Diplomatic considerations and UN sanctions aside, even thousands of miles from Urnomekwe's homeland (former territory) (region of operations) (international war crime scene), it would violate the most basic principal of medicine to turn away a (paying) patient.

His son, the younger Urnomekwe, whose name is Malija but who is known in this conversation as "Mr Urnomekwe", is elsewhere entirely. It is a very nice building in a very nice part of the aforementioned homeland, with much natural beauty and all modern conveniences, though the location itself is highly inconvenient to access. The room is air-conditioned and positively pleasant to do business in.

"He is guarded twenty-four hours per day," the... "specialist"... explains, waving away a proferred tray of alcoholic drinks. "None for me, thank you. From what your gentlemen have told me and from everything listed in this document here, while covert approaches to the building would be theoretically possible, the low-residual-presence in-and-out for which you have stated a preference is not practical. Someone would be seen and almost certainly someone would be caught. The risk of collateral damage is great and I am sure the political consequences of harming or killing a native of this nominally friendly target country would be undesirable."

This much, Malija knows already, and the impatience on his face communicates this with surprising clarity.

"In collusion with your own cardiologist we have devised a computer program which will introduce a typographical error into your father's medical records and then raise an alert inside the medical sensors attached to his chest. It's not possible to induce an overdose this way. His medics aren't dumb enough to fall for anything so simplistic. But the typographical error will lie dormant for a few days during which time we will raise several more alerts in order to bring your father's cardiologist, after consultation with the patient file, to a specific conclusion, and then to a specific course of action. The correct course of action, assuming the file is correct, but since it is not, the operation will kill your father."

"What if it doesn't work?"

"If your father survives the operation, it would be a miracle. If the surgeon changes his mind during the operation, which is a possibility, he may realise that the patient file has been tampered with and the record of the tampering is missing, in which case all bets are off. The surgeon may realise this much earlier, before even entering the theatre. In this case, foul play will be spotted. Not traced back to us, but your father has a limited list of enemies and you are at the very top of that list, so you would certainly be suspect."

"Then what other options are open to us?"

"Well. One of my own consultants has provided to me a computer virus which he calls 'Incubator'. It turns a computer system into unusable sludge. It makes all the information already present inside it irretrievable and uses the processing capacity to run genetic algorithms to make itself more efficient. It's the most toxic program ever created. Not virulent, but destructive. This sample was extracted from a computer already destroyed in this way and compatible with the hospital system. This would destroy everything in the hospital system. It would be equivalent to striking it with a tactical nuclear weapon. More than likely, several hundred people would be killed and your father might well survive."

"Do it."

The specialist confers with his people for a moment, then names a figure, to which Malija grudgingly agrees. A wire transfer is made and the specialist confirms it. "This is the first time that Incubator has been used. Congratulations."

"It doesn't matter if my father survives," explains Malija. "He will know that I am coming for him and he will have to move to defend himself ever more strongly. People will be afraid to associate with him. I will kill anybody who stands near him or provides him with help. He will not survive long. He will leave behind a legacy of ham-handed corruption, backstabbing from his lowest foot soldiers up to his own highest levels of government, and atrocious racial cleansing. Ten thousand people killed in one year! Ten thousand with his entire militia behind it? And the camps stand close to empty. Some were shut down, they saw so little use. The guards left and the prisoners took over and created a town! I will take his work and turn it into something good. Efficient support of people who have the money to afford it. A strong and moral militia. And what we finally deserve: an efficient Program. Release the Incubator." He steps forward and pushes the button.

Discussion (8)

2010-11-14 22:51:42 by qntm:

1784 words. Running total is 27084 words. I like the first half of this much more than the second. My one-line story idea was "Hyper-Advanced Computer Viruses FROM THE FUTURE" but this in itself did not entail much of a story. The first half developed "using a virus to hack a hospital and kill someone (the impracticality of)", but then I realised that a hypervirus from the future wasn't necessary to accomplish this so I was left with nothing intelligent to fill it with, so I fell back on this "African leader carries out incompetent racial cleansing; son assassinates him, proceeds with competent racial cleansing" idea which is gimmicky at best and distasteful at worst. Worse still, I still can't cross off the hypervirus idea! Grr.

2010-11-15 00:03:53 by Mike:

Hypervirus count = 2. Or is it 3? Seems good. Almost a bit too realistic. >.< Definitely one of your better stories.

2010-11-15 01:09:57 by LabrynianRebel:

Getting one of these every day makes college far more bearable.

2010-11-15 01:19:05 by Kriel:

I'm loving the way you're doing nanowrimo this year. Having a new qntm story to look forward to every day is awesome. The only thing I'm missing (which, i suppose, is a mandatory effect of writing this way) is that some of the ideas seem undeveloped. They're awesome ideas, and I don't know what well of creativity you pull them from, but they could have more done with them. Keep up the great work. I'll be reading.

2010-11-15 01:24:18 by Mike:

That's definitely the singularly most prominent thought spinning around in my poor, overused brain every time I read these. But they are still quite good, eh? You're gonna triple your database of stories by the end of the month (not counting Fine Structure and Ed)... I love this.

2010-11-15 08:56:18 by skztr:

To be "An advanced virus" as opposed to "some guy spending a week or so infiltrating a system an planting a normal virus, it would need to be a hypervirus from the future". An examination of the impossibility of a "genetic algorithm" being able to even judge whether or not it is being successful in existing on a single system/network/etc might prove interesting. Security research often involves: "Okay, that broke everything, so we've at least got a simple DOS. Can we do anything more intricate?" and in any case involves a lot of rebooting (for lack of a better word). Not to mention just needing to find a way to inject a virus in any useful manner is a task in and of itself, which by the time you've worked out, there really isn't need for anything "viral". At the end of the day, any virus can be defeated by swapping-out an infected system for a non-infected system, which any five-nines operation is going to have (disconnected from everything, of course) on hand.

2013-01-30 06:51:17 by Joe:

Well, that may seem to be true but remember the Sasser virus (technically, a worm)? Freshly installed computers had these ever-so-conveniently open services running on ports that were really hard to disable. It got so bad that computers would be reinfected by the time they had been online for 2 minutes, on some networks. On the other hand, embedded devices that have really simple functions ('send this packet for button presses with button presses encoded as packed bits') don't tend to get infected... EVER. They're too stupid to run Turing-complete emulations and often have hardwired (OTP or Mask ROM or only over JTAG/similar ports) firmware on their microcontroller. It's hard to infect a computer with 16 bytes of (data) RAM including registors and I/O ports that is on a Harvard architecture. ;) Even if they were physically able to be infected, they don't (have to) listen to ports. In theory, you could even have them use a broadcast protocol layer using MAC addresses such as IPX/NetBIOS. A bit of code in the IP stack to gain an IP address using DHCP is also unlikely to be a backdoor. The real problem is packet flooding. Say, you make a packet that pretends to be IP address 192.168.xxx.yyy where xxx and yyy are incremented through all values in use. The same applies to MAC addresses and ARP exploits. You would have a perfectly clean device... that would just be useless because the switch/gateway/router/hub (insert name for your device with an OS that manages packets) getting infected. Use a default password for the admin page or have exploits in HTTP/DNS/etc. service implementations and you could have some issues even with all the PCs and remotes and displays uninfected. You're literally one firmware update from it being bricked.

2021-04-28 00:47:39 by Basilisk:

Sometimes I forget that qntm is even writing a story, I was really enjoying just hearing how hospitals get around different problems.

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