Sunday, November 2, 2008



I hope this post helps you understand how I know about this awful event which may happen in a few days.

The next day started like almost all the rest to follow: Wake up at 04:45, hurried group shower at 04:50, followed by a quick breakfast at 05:00. Somewhere in there you are expected to use the toilet. Breakfast consisted of sweetened rice or congee, a porridge-like substance.

My back and side had stiffened considerably, and I could barely walk. What I could see of my face wasn't pleasant either. I looked and felt like I had been run over by a truck. At breakfast no one wanted me near them, but I did manage to slide into a seat next to the girl whom I had saved.

"Go away," she said with misery in her voice.

"Listen, I just want to know your name."

She regarded me for a second, perhaps debating whether she really wanted to talk to me. "Ok, Hero. It's Misty Nguyen." She actually extended a hand to me.

"Alex Ross. Yes, the Alex Ross. The 'New Unibomber' or whatever they call me now."

"Listen, Hero," she said softly, "your stunt yesterday could have gotten more than yourself killed. I've heard of entire teams executed because one guy wouldn't shut up. If they think some team is working against them, they'll just wipe away everyone and start again."

"Harsh," I replied, stirring my congee sludge. "So they're really just looking for excuses to kill us. Why?"

"Jeez you really are new here. You'll see. We are given access to the most sensitive intelligence in all of Asia. We're supposed to process it. We learn things that could topple governments if it ever got out. Every one of us is a threat. If one of us were to escape, you'd probably see the largest manhunt on the planet. Our job is to process interrogation transcripts, private conversations between Party members, secret government proceedings and transcriptions, as well as general communications between citizens. Not to mention all the foreign material, but here at K2 we specialize in the internal Chinese espionage."

"So we're just some disposable human-intelligence computers to them, and they dispose of us once we wear out."

Misty hesitated a moment and looked around and then leaned in towards me. The mess hall wasn't surveilled as much as the work room, but she talked as quietly as she could to me. "There's this rumour, that once you've worked here long put the pieces together."

"What pieces?"

She talked even softer. "The Big Picture. The Big Secret. The thing they're trying to cover up by killing us. They divide the work up so none of us really know what's going on. But given enough time...they're working on something huge and I think our main job here is to stop each and every leak. It's said that once someone figures it out...they go insane from the knowledge. There are things worse than death apparently."

"How much do you know," I blurted. At that moment the horn sounded, and Misty practically jumped out of her chair.

"Alex," she said hastily. "You need to be careful. Don't trust anyone. Don't mention this to anyone unless I tell you they're safe. Now I've got to run and finish yesterday's and today's tasks or I'll be out on the quad again." With that she turned and rushed off.
After attending a class and calisthenics, which proved exceedingly difficult with my injuries, I finally arrived at my desk. Bethany handed me a sheet.

"Today's for real," she warned me. "I hope you paid attention in class. You don't want to meet Klingon again."

I began processing my task list. I rifled through conversations, looking for certain word patterns, all Chinese. In my spare moments, which were few and far between, I hacked through the system software. Whoever had designed this made it air tight. I couldn't get anywhere. I felt a presence behind me.

Bethany glowered at me and hissed through her teeth. "What the fuck are you doing? You want the guards in here? Stop fucking around. They watch every keystroke. And since I'm your supervisor they'll ping me too. You know they rarely kill people. But they are firm believers in whippings, beatings, cattle prods, and other things I don't want to think about."

Needless to say I stopped my prying into the system. Although what I had found gave me the germ of an idea on how to bypass their security. It would be risky, and obviously if I were to be caught it would go poorly.
Starting on that day I began constructing some system files. One character at a time. It took me almost a month to complete it without detection.

I called it my "backspace hack." Every time I hit backspace, to my observers it would look I corrected a typo. But my computer would copy the deleted letter to a hidden in-memory buffer. Then an innocuous keyboard combination would execute the buffer. The results would show up inside of transcripts of peoples' conversations. It was a huge gamble, and at first it proved hard to write two programs simultaneously, but my brain eventually mastered it.

Every day turned into a parade of pain and torture. I tried my best to keep to myself. Invariable, almost every day someone failed to finish an assignment, and the General would mete out some punishment. And every time he almost dared me to challenge him. Even with my extra-curricular activities, I managed to finish my tasks ahead of the allotted time.

One day towards "the closing bell" I looked over and noticed Misty struggling again. I had just completed my tasks and was working on my backspace project so I got up and slid over towards her workstation.

"What are you doing," hissed Bethany. "Get the fuck back here." I waved her off.

"Go away," wheezed Misty, sweat pouring down her face. Her hands shook so much she could barely type. "This isn't allowed."

"I'll risk it." I studied her output for a minute and found the blocking issue. "Here's the problem. Just summarize these stats here and here and you're all set."

"Oh my god," she breathed, "you're right. I'm so fucking stupid. Now get back to your station before they come."

As I sat down, Bethany whispered to me. "You fucker. Just wait. We'll all catch hell for that."

I ignored her. An idea hatched in my head that I began working
on feverishly.

Before dinner we had our usual assembly in the freezing courtyard with the General. And as usual, someone failed their task.

"Mr. Salvinsky," he addressed the Polish man. "This is the third time you've failed me. We do not tolerate failure here. Ten strokes of the prod."

The guards held him down. One after another they prodded him with an electric stick. He writhed and screamed with each prod, puking and seemingly losing control of his bowels. Once complete, they stood the man in front of the General, who then uttered words I immediately regretted.

"Why can't you be more like Mr. Ross? He's barely been here a month, and he completes his work before almost everyone else. Maybe we've been too lenient on all of you. Maybe we need to up your daily quotas. What do you think Hero? Do you think they can do it?"

He stared at my direction. I scarcely dared to say anything. After a moment of silence, the General walked over in front of me. I tried to maintain eye contact but failed.

"Nothing to say, Hero? Yes, we know what you've been up to." My heart leapt to my throat. Had they discovered my backspace trick? "We know you've been helping others with their tasks." I inwardly sighed relief. "Every man and woman pulls their own weight. So, to keep you busy, your workload will now double.

"What?? How am I--" He slapped his giant paw across my face, sending me careening into a pile of icy snow. I felt warm blood trickle out of my nose.

"Silence, cur! You American dog! You do your tasks or the prod will be the least of your worries. Now all of you, out of my sight!"

At dinner I waved Misty over, as I had been doing more and more. She examined my nose, but fortunately it hadn't broken. I guess I was feeling protective of her, but we couldn't be seen together too often, as that was punishable. Maybe once or twice I week we could sit together without arousing suspicions.

"Just act casual when I tell you this," I whispered to her. "I've modified your workstation so we can send messages to each other." She gasped but quickly regained her composure. I gave her detailed instructions on how to access it without alerting anyone.

"Alex, how are you going to manage your workload? If anything should happen to you, I don't know--"

"Ssh. I'll figure it out. It may take a day or two of punishment, but I'll do it." I squeezed her hand under the table out of sight as I stared into her wide brown eyes. With her free hand she wiped some of the blood off my face, with her hand lingering for just a moment on my lips before she withdrew it quickly. Now that was a severely punishable event. Coworkers could not co-mingle under any circumstances. Anyone caught touching or kissing would be placed in unheated solitary...after their hands were broken. Almost no one survived.

The next day I sent my first message to Misty while I feverishly worked on my increased workload. We had worked out some subtle signals, like head scratching or coughing to indicate we had sent messages. I tried not to stare at her all day because I knew they watched everything and that would be suspicious. Here's basically the conversation messaged over the course of the day:

Alex: How are you?
Misty: Scared. And lonely.
Alex: Hang in there. I'm here for you.
Misty: I want to die. But not here.
Alex: Someday we'll be free.
Misty: If you are planning escape, promise you'll take me. I'd rather die escaping than die by Klingon.
Alex: I will. And if I have to, I'll kill you before he can lay his hands on you.
Misty: Thanks, Hero :). Are you going to finish your tasks?
Alex: Yes, but just barely. I'm stealing some cycles from idle computers but its working.

Needless to say there was a loud groan in the Quad when the General didn't apply the prod to me. I think that's when I made some serious enemies. Now every one's workload doubled, and they had me to blame.

Posted: Sunday, November 2, 2008 @ 11:55 PM

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