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Storm Code

A short story by Brendan Butts (Slither)

Streaks of authentic lightning flicker in and out of existence across the Dome's prosthetic sky. Lee cups one hand across his face, attempts to shield his eyes from the gusting wind. With his other hand, he pounds keys on the deck an NLM LiteTerm lying across his lap.

From his perch on a plastic lawn chair on top of the sixteen story Westinghaus Apartment building, he has a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of the turmoil his storm will cause. A storm that is already taking place, its beautiful arcs of electric discharge jumping from cloud to cloud.

Lee thinks of this as foreshadowing. A warm-up for what is soon to come. He wishes he could just sit back in his lawn chair and enjoy the scene, but he has work to do.

A strong gust of wind almost separates the restaurant-style dining umbrella from the heavy leather straps binding it to his chair. Lee stops pounding the deck long enough to tighten the straps.

He knows time is of the essence at this stage of his infiltration, but he isn't whiz on the idea of trying to keep the deck dry when the real rain starts. When he is satisfied that the umbrella isn't going anywhere, he turns his attention back to the deck, and his mission.

With a single button depression, he sets the deck scrolling through lines of code that have lain dormant in sequestered sections of the Skywatch Mainframe for exactly a year.

Flickers of recognition pass across Lee's face as the green-on-black code fragments coalesce into a 3D rendering of the storm program. Chinese food. Crimson Deth Cigarillos. Ebola~Cola.

The code dredges up long forgotten memories like he expects would happen if he were to smell herright now. He forces the memories out of his mind with the recognition that this is no time to get sentimental.

It's all here.

He's compiled every fragment, and none of it has been corrupted. He checks the digital display on his watch and finds he is ahead of schedule.

He leans back in the lawn chair and gazes out across the rooftop, toward the miniscule dot of the setting sun. Lee knows that what he is seeing is really a five-foot-wide circular array of ultra bright halogen bulbs -- each no bigger than his fingernail, but he can hardly tell the difference.

This years storm is going to be flash. Real flash. He saw to that when he first wrote the storm code and scattered its fragments across the Skywatch Mainframe. Every year whose numerical value is a multiple of five is special.

Lee doesn't really know what to expect. This is the first year that realizes the Five-M logical structure.

His mind begins to drift. Thoughts of happier days spent walking hand in hand with her. Hours with her olive-toned skin pressed tightly against his. He remembers a joke she once told him.

How many Judges does it take to arrest a Ganger?

One divided by zero, Lee remembers, because no Judge has ever been bothered to arrest someone they could just as easily shoot.

His laughing is interrupted by a harsh beep from his wrist watch. It's time.

I hope you're watching, because this year is going to be good.

He hits the execute button for the fifth time in as many years. The rendering of the storm program is encased in a reflective grey sphere from the bottom up: the encryption protocol that will protect the program while it executes its very important task. He lets out a deep sigh, turns off the deck.

Almost immediately, the gusts of wind double in strength. Rain drops the size of cigarette butts start pelting the ground, and the roar of thunder begins booming so loudly that Lee thinks he can feel the building shake.

Lee watches with terrified awe as several bolts of lightning strike the tops of nearby buildings. This is more than even he expected. His lightning has always been the cloud jumping kind. Powerful enough to breach the small gap between storm clouds and create a dazzling light show, but never strong enough to jump to ground. The wind seems to have grown even stronger still, and it's howling so loud that it drowns out the now constant rolling of thunder.

Rain begins smacking into Lee's face, and he looks up to see that the material of his umbrella has been completely torn away by the wind, leaving only a skeletal frame behind.

This is bad. I wanted the Five-M storms to be special, but someone is going to get hurt. Probably me.

The scream of tearing metal pierces the winds howling gate and Lee looks down in time to roll off his lawn chair as a six foot piece of rebar comes out of nowhere, smashing his lawn chair into bits. It continues across the roof until it collides with the small hut that serves as the doorway to thestaircase leading back into the building. The building shudders and Lee gets the feeling that part of it has crumbled and fallen away.

Lee rushes over to the now-shattered hut, his deck clutched tightly in his hand, hoping against all odds that the way down won't be completely blocked. It is, and panic hits him as hard as the wind now whipping against him.

I'm going to die up here.

He rushes to the roofs edge, fighting the squalls of rain and wind. Looking down, he sees that the piece of metal that smashed the stairway entrance was part of a strut, holding the fire escape to the building. It has since bent backwards around the tenth floor and smashed into an adjacent building.

He crouches down behind the roofs three-foot ledge and turns on his deck. Rain drips from his face onto its touch-screen. It will probably short circuit if it gets too water-logged, but thats the least of his worries at the moment. If he doesn't get the storm under control quick, he's as good as a ghost.

Glancing over the ledge quickly he can see that the streets are empty. Looks like most everyone got somewhere safe in a hurry. He keys the deck over to the Skywatch database and uses the login he cracked earlier to gain full access privileges. He calls up a System Status diagram.

It looks like the Skywatch AI is working fast to crack the encryption in place around the storm program. Not fast enough though. He designed that encryption to withstand several hours of scrutiny from an AI. Even with the heavy upgrades that the AI has undergone in the last five years, it will still be at least an hour before it can access the program code and terminate it from within.

With the storm continuing to worsen by the minute, Lee knows he doesn't have much time before he gets blown off the rooftop or turned into toast by a bolt of lightning. He keys through his encryption and calls up the code for the storm.

He's looking for a way to halt it, or at least slow it down. He didn't bother putting in an external terminate command when he coded the program because its internal timer is set to halt the storm, re-fragment its code, and scatter itself back across the mainframe after an hour.

His eyes fall on the problem, an unterminated loop in the Five-M code that with each iteration raises the intensity of the storm by an infinitely small fraction of a percent. He had added the loop to the Five-M code to make the storm increase and decrease slowly over time, building up into a crescendo and then waning into nothingness over the course of the storms hour-long run.

With the loop not terminating, the storm will just continue to increase in strength with every CPU clock cycle. He scans the code again, searching for a way to terminate the program. He finds nothing.

The AI could terminate the program with a brute force attack if it was past the encryption. He tries to make contact with the AI, intent on giving it the encryption codes. Even if it means being tracked.

Better to be on the run and alive than up here and dead.

He finds the AI to be unresponsive, all of its attention likely focused on cracking the encryption surrounding the storm code. He begins calling up the Skywatch Technical Department, hoping to give the code to a human.

That's when his deck gives in to the water flowing openly over its circuit boards and cuts out with a fizzle.

Lee screams in frustration and struggles to his feet. The deck slips out of his hand and goes careening off the roof and into the gaping maw of the storm. He turns to face the wind, staring it down furiously like a parent stares down a delinquent child.

He roots himself in place, his hands curled into fists and frustration at his creation pouring off of him in waves. He holds himself there as raindrops hammer into him like bullets.

Droplets of blood form on his face where hard rain has opened a hundred tiny wounds and are blown away almost as fast as they can appear. He faces down the storm for five minutes, a final tribute, and then he lets it carry him away.

Published:
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