1986 1/2

September 23rd, 2020


"Hoffman?"

Researcher Shiloh Hoffman looks up from their terminal and blinks a couple times. They look around and see a face they haven't seen before, or at least one they don't recognize seeing before. Things tend to get a bit complicated in that area. "Yes? What can I do for you?"

"Thank God there's still someone here. Working late again?" the face asks. He gives them a glance that suggests a mutual entanglement that Shiloh has no record of. They take a moment to look around the room before speaking.

"I guess. But, um, Dr. Halliday… she's one cubicle over, and Dr. Laraskë's in her office," they mumble, pointing at the closed door across the room.

"That may be true, but you're the only one I can see over the wall of the cubicle," he says with a wink. "Anyways, could you take a look at this for me and tell me what's going on here?" He hands Shiloh a ream of papers, printed out from a terminal. It's a budget sheet, for expenses of Site-15. "Here, page 43, I circled it. Know anything about this?" The segment he marks with a pointed finger over Shiloh's shoulder, moving much too close into their personal space, is labeled "Outpost-15", and requests four point three million dollars for "upgrades to Project Tarragon". "Any clue what's going on here?"

They stare blankly at the document, trying to glean any extra information out of it. Nothing they've ever heard of. "I, um, I dunno. I'm sorry. Is there something wrong?"

"Because my supervisor is up my ass about why this year the funds jumped from three point five million to four point three. It's one of the most expensive things this site subsidizes and no one is talking about it. It's above my clearance. Could you access the file and let me know why it went up?"

"I guess I could do that. What is… what's the clearance?" Shiloh asks.

"Level three."

"I'm level two."

"Oh."

There's several seconds of pause as each of them thinks about what to do next. Shiloh is the first to respond.

"I could ask my supervisor, if you would like. She's level three." There's a small, internal sigh of relief now that they don't have to access it themselves.

"You're a lifesaver. Can you send the info to the address on the papers? Hopefully by the end of the week so I still have a rectal cavity?" Shiloh nods once, and then several times. "Thank you so much. See you!" says the mystery man, walking out of the office space.

Shiloh supposes that the busy work they were doing until Laraskë leaves for the night can wait until after this.


"Here. I blacked out the segments you're not supposed to see myself. Go to town," says Laraskë, kicking her feet up on her desk. She's put her laptop on her lap, and is tip-tapping away at some important document Shiloh probably shouldn't be seeing either. The sheets of paper in front of them are reassuring. Paper. Unchanging. They pick up the pages and begin rifling through them for a while. The sound of shuffling sheets, keyboard clacking, and gum chewing are the only sounds filling the room for several minutes.

"I'm… not sure I understand," Shiloh mumbles finally.

Laraskë looks up from her screen. "What can I help ya with?"

"This…" Shiloh takes a few seconds to reread important segments of the document before replying. "…doesn't make any sense. That's a solid percentage, not a decimal, right?" They slide the paper back to Laraskë.

"I'll be honest, kiddo, I didn't actually read what this was about before I printed it." Shiloh holds back on correcting her. "Let's see here, Tarragon, impersonating users, sounds pretty novel… one percent?" She shoots a look at them.

"That is what it says. One percent."

"That's… no shit it takes four point three million dollars. Who wants to know about all this?"

"A person from accounting. I don't remember his name."

"Well, that would be Evereds, it's marked here on the document you brought me… this is a duodecennial review… nothing gets marked that unless they really don't like people looking into it. Probably a good idea not to get too far into this." She hands both packets to Shiloh, and then returns to her keyboard. As they leave the room, she speaks to them without looking up. "I'm gonna get too far into this. Thank's for bringing it to my attention, kiddo. I'll be done in an hour or so."

"I'd rather you didn't-" they begin, but the door is already closed.


Something is wrong when it's time to go. Laraskë is too quiet on the way out of the facility. They both get into the car, strap on their seat belts, and she starts the engine. And then they sit there, for several minutes. In silence.

"I talked to Geoff about Tarragon," she says, finally breaking the silence. Shiloh doesn't respond. "He said he'd only heard of it in reference to things not discussed."

There's a short pause before they finally speak up. "So…?"

"Shiloh, how long have I been corresponding with Geoff?" she asks, putting the car into drive and pulling away.

"I'm, uh, I— I dunno. I don't remember."

"Four years. I've been corresponding with Geoff over email for four years." She pulls a few pieces of gum from a container in a cup holder and puts them all in her mouth. "He's a funny guy, you know. Says he's read the documentation. So I says to him, 'Hey, you ever used that code word that the Tarragon network will respond to no matter what on one of your weird conspiracy theorist mutual friends on Facebook?', except I didn't say 'that code word that the Tarragon network will respond to no matter what', I said the code word. And wouldn't you know it, guess what Geoff sent back." She pauses, attempting to compose herself. "He sent back the automated Tarragon response. Word for word. Character for character."

The two of them drive for a few more miles in silence. "I don't know what to do, Shiloh. I don't. I'm going to have to speak with someone in person about this, but beyond that?" She stops again, and blinks a couple of times. "Tarragon is inside SCiPNet. Inside. It's not supposed to be able to do that, but here it is, inside SCiPNet. Who knows who else is Tarragon? Anyone you've emailed to, anyone you've even held a conversation with only over the phone. Maybe even if you've seen their face on a personnel file. The system can simulate all of those. All of them."

The rest of the car ride is spent in silence. Not their usual, comfortable silence. The silence of dread.


October 2nd, 2020


"Fellow board members, the Tarragon network. As helpful as it may be, it's infiltrated Foundation protocols and impersonated members of staff. We have several reports of high level researchers, agents, and members of management being completely fabricated entities, and the list only grows by the day. This is unprecedented and frankly, massively concerning. Soon we will not be able to isolate and list every instance of Tarragon in our networks. Now…," the man pauses, rubbing his hands together. "Will someone turn down the air conditioning? This place feels like an icebox." Frederick Baptist blows hot air on his hands and it fogs up his glasses. A member of the Computational Division gets up and adjusts the thermostat on the wall. "Thank you." says Frederick, and he turns to the rest of the assembled staff.

"How about we shut it down? Just like that?" says one of the Confidentiality Division members. As he says this, the door opens.

"I don't think that's going to be quite possible," says an elderly Site Director Gary Harding. "For one, you have… roughly… forty five million people out there in that damned internet that are gonna vanish overnight. Are you ready to suppress that kind of event?" He sits down slowly at the head of the table and glances around the table at the Confidentiality Division. "Maybe. Maybe with a little planning you could do it. But not this second."

He sets a slide projector down on the table, and rifles through his lab coat to pull out some slides. "I heard we were going low tech for a while. Good thing us ol' codgers are already used to it." He plugs the device in and inserts a slide. "This is Outpost-15. A bit up north from us. A little bit more… defended than I remember." He switches the slide, revealing a zoom in from the previous satellite image shot. The outpost is swarming with robotic constructs, unloading trucks, manning surveillance towers, and otherwise encompassing the region marked out by glyphs as 'not photographable by satellite imagery' by non-Foundation equipment. "In the past month, security at Outpost-15 has doubled. More sentry units have come from within the facility, suggesting that there are units being produced there. Those shipments, that we intentionally left tracers on, lost tracking immediately after the second shipment arrived, but the first shipment was tracked to a subsurface level roughly eight stories below the surface. From what we know about Outpost-15, there's only one small subsurface level built below the surface installation, but was built to accommodate expansion. My esteemed colleague, Jesse Mantell, is the sole proprietor of Outpost-15, and hasn't been heard from in over thirty years. I think I speak for all of us when I say it's safe to say he's been dead for some time. It is likely that no human being has entered Outpost-15 since."

He pauses, considering the room. Laraskë and Shiloh are sitting alongside each other, Laraskë sitting just to right of Harding. He turns to her and begins again. "Anaïs, your team hasn't spoken much, I presume. Thoughts?" The room is silent for a while.

"I don't know. We should consider shutting down Tarragon at the earliest possible convenience, whenever that comes. Once we're ready to suppress the fallout, I suppose. But what I think is more important is figuring out how it thinks. How it operates from within Outpost-15. We know that the only structures outside the facility are relays, and that all computing takes place within he facility, so striking it should eliminate any trace of it. From the log of materials requisitioned, there's no way such a network could exist on other hardware, so it has little chance of escaping. But why is it readying a defense instead of going on the offensive? It's only seeking to protect itself, not antagonize. Obviously we can't afford to allow such a network to exist inside the Foundation, but do we really need to permanently shut this down? It doesn't seem to want to hurt anyone."

"You're probably thinking that just because you've been chatting up robots your whole life, doll," remarks a person on the left half of the room. While Laraskë stares daggers, Harding points to the door.

"Not the time, Davidson. Remember what you asked me about earlier?" Davidson gets up and leaves the room hastily. "Regardless, Dr. Laraskë has a point. No reason to cut off a billion dollars in investment, and a damn good one to boot. We just need to modify Tarragon to work properly. What's the plan?"

"We send in Mu-4. One mission if we can manage it, but perhaps a two mission analysis-reboot protocol. Get in, understand it, get out. Only interact with the device if it's going to prevent a casualty or if they're absolutely sure that they can reset it in that one mission. Beyond that, I don't know. I don't."

Harding turns to the right half of the room. "Which one of you was it that worked with Mu-4 previously?" He narrows his view to Shiloh. "Hoffman, that's you, right?" They hadn't expected to even be included in this discussion. Shiloh nods silently. "I want you on this one."

"N… no, I can't-" they start.

"Listen here. I'm well aware of your experiences. What I'm not aware of is Mu-4. Nobody except this room has been briefed on this mission, I don't know who out of that group could be compromised, I don't know who is working with what intentions." He leaves this open ended, but it's clear what he meant.

"Sir, I'm, uh, I'm not exactly fit for field duty anymore…" Their gaze lowers remorsefully—specifically, to their left leg—and Harding raises his hand.

"Kid? Frankly, that's bullshit. I have seen you work, and you do it well. I'm not expecting you to run anywhere or shoot anything. I just want someone briefed for more than a day on this to be in there and doing oversight on the Debuggers. You're the highest level operative we have on this who's been in the field before at all. I also think you're more likely to pull through on this than you think, and more likely to succeed in helping them take care of this tactfully than if they had tried alone."

The rest of the meeting is the same. Gary trying to rope Shiloh into field work again, theorizing about Tarragon, it goes on for the better part of an hour. As they're leaving, the delegation from the Computation Division and Harding are the last three people in the room. Harding stops Hoffman. "Listen. I haven't been in this position for long enough to know everything about you. But I have read your report written by Jaeger. A hardass, to be sure, but it's clear he trusted you and you do good work." Shiloh stares at him. "He also said you're a good worker. Take care of business, so to speak. You can do that anywhere, but you could do good work on this. I'm hesitant to even let you decide, but I respect you too much to force you to go. Let me know what you think any time before we scramble Mu-4."

Shiloh starts to speak, then falters.

"Hoffman?"

"I'll do it. If you're sure," they reply hesitantly.

"I suppose this here is 'any time before we scramble Mu-4'," he laughs. "Alright, I'll see to it that you're set up properly. And kid?"

"Yes?"

"Get some sleep."



Mu-4 had assembled minutes earlier one hundred yards south of Outpost-15. Shiloh slips a bullet-proof vest over a zipped up jacket. They go over the documentation in their head for the one hundredth time in a row. Antiquated systems may be a specialty of theirs, but they're still archaic and confusing.

"Hey, it's been a while! You ready?" says one of the members of Mu-4, with a patch that reads H. YELTZMAN.

"Maybe." They sigh, snapping on a face mask. "Probably not."

"I suppose that's fair. It's so weird that it's Tarragon."

"That it's what?"

"Tarragon." Yeltzman pauses. "The project that we have to reprogram?"

"Oh. The name of the project hasn't been parsing well with me. I've been using context clues."

"That's so fucked, Hoffman. I don't think I ever got to tell you how how upset I was when I heard you were leaving because of this. You don't deserve this."

"I, um." There's six and a half seconds of silence between the two. "I guess."

Minutes later, two groups of ten, an Alpha team and a Bravo team, approach the entrance. Each is armed with a SPAS-12, loaded with electrostatic slugs that would cling to machinery and deploy localized EMP bursts. Several of them had already been shot into the sentries at the front gate. After that, something slightly surprising happens. Each of the thirty or so constructs that populated the surface of Outpost-15 begin to retreat swiftly and without concern for their actions. One humanoid unit scrambles over a small wheeled machine to enter the facilities blast doors. At the single last possible moment, they begin to close. Even at full speed, both teams make it to the doors just before they seal in front of them. The aforementioned small wheeled machine is crushed as the door closes.

"Peterson? Cutter?" one of Bravo team asks. Peterson moves to the door and begins drilling the mounting holes for a circular plasma cutter. Shiloh's breath begins to fog up the face mask. They flip a switch, and dry air begins to circulate the inside. Better freezing than blind.

STOP

The sound comes from an intercom mounted above the door, which was quickly shot to prevent any further possible attacks. During the briefing, several people had discussed the danger of a system with complete access to any file on the SCiPNet database, including infohazards, cognitohazards, vocally induced memetic effects, and the like. A member of Bravo team laughs. "Hey Peterson, you gonna listen to the bucket of bolts?" The rest of them chuckle into their radios, the sound slightly distorted by a frequency interruption. "Mu-4, masks off. The entity is jamming our radios with a localized wide-band broadcast." Shiloh pulls off their mask and feels the cold air on their face. They swap for a pair of ski goggles that were mounted on the interior of the mask. The cutter finishes making a three-sixty and the team backs away as the cutaway section of the door falls outwards, clanking as it does. The interior chamber is barren. "The constructs must have retreated to the interior of the facility."

PLEASE STOP

One more shot rings out. On further inspection, the intercom on the inside of the chamber is completely fried. Bravo team circles up and takes point near the entrance. The interior of the facility is covered with thick layers of dust, scraped away by the constant movement of robots. It's so scraped away in fact, that the linoleum flooring has worn almost completely away to reveal concrete foundations by the heavy steel boots of whatever bipedals had been walking the same route for thirty plus years. Shiloh moves in to group with Alpha team as they enter the cramped elevator. The console on the interior only had 1 sub-level marked, but a parallel port mounting on the elevator was accesible by a PDA, and several more layers are revealed, 5 more sub-levels. "Hoffman?"

"Hmm?"

"Which sub-level are we thinking?"

Shiloh moves over and presses the key for sub-level 6. The elevator doors close with a ding, and the cabin begins to descend.

"Electromagnetic spectrum suggests the main hub of activity is about one hundred meters to our northwest. Out and to the right of the doors. Gather up on the liaison and escort them in. From there, it's up to Hoffman. Understood?" Yeltzman asks. There's a grunt of agreement from the other 10 people in the cabin. With another ding, the doors open, and all hell breaks loose.

Inside the room, which is more like an excavated cave coated in some spray-on waterproofing, there's zero lights. No human was ever intended to be down here. However, the light from the cabin reveals two dozen humanoid mechanisms. Almost immediately, they begin to swarm the cabin, sprinting in unnatural, animal movements. The sound of gunfire is too loud to differentiate any shouting from the bots and shouting from the units, but the bright florescents of the elevator reveal all too well one successful machine crushing the skull of the first member of Alpha team to exit the cabin. In the next moment, it's disabled by a shot to the head. In under two minutes, there's almost thirty mechanical bodies that the rest of the team has to step over, and one body made from meat. Shiloh tries not to look, but catches a glimpse anyways trying not to step on the corpse. Their head folds in on itself for a second.

"Hoffman? You good?"

"I'm… Let's just keep going." They wipe a droplet of blood away from their nose. The splat lands on the ground and beads up on the hydrophobic off-white coating on the floor, rolling down the length of the tunnel and leading the team deeper into the system. Each room is more foreign than the last, but ironically retains an eerie sense of familiarity with it. A room with dozens of tables with benches, carves straight into the rock and covered with the same rubberized coating is immediately apparent to have the same layout as a cafeteria, but with none of the accommodations one would expect; no fridge for coworkers to steal from, no vending machines to go unmaintained for weeks on end. Twice the running score of bots fall before they make any significant progress. Their screams are simulations of human screams, but the intent behind them are all too real. These bots are piloted by Tarragon entities. These bots are supposed to be people.

The team passes by a small alcove with simulation toilets and stalls. Finally, the team reaches a large antechamber. The room is bulbous and cavernous, as tall as it is long. A huge mass of wires and computational equipment are set up in the center of the room, with a central pillar and cabling running up and away from it into the ceiling. There's walking space for mechanisms on either side, clearly for maintenance, but it's taken up by another five dozen of the forms. Not attacking. Crouching, in crowds. Huddled together away from the entrance. Like apes hiding in the shade of a large tree. The teams flood lamps reflect in the bifocal cameras of the mechanisms.

"It's been a long while since I've seen anyone else down here." The gravely, unused voice comes from the tree of wires. Half the group continues watching the mechanisms, but the other half looks up to see the source of the sound. Hanging from the canopy of the tree of wires, wrapped in a series of tubes inputting and extracting materials, and capped in a neural interface system, is Junior Researcher Mantell.

"Jesus fucking Christ…" says a member of Mu-4. Shiloh moves towards the center console and retrieves a five and a quarter inch floppy disk from inside their bag.

"You don't have to do this. You don't have to shut us down."

They insert the floppy into a port on the console. It boots, and Shiloh begins tapping away on the keys, getting ready to run the system that will end this network.

"What are you doing?" asks Mantell.

A brief pause.

"I'm… I guess I'm changing the plan, that's all." Shiloh replies.

"I suppose this was a long time coming. By the time I realized Tarragon was running within SCiPNet, it was too late. I couldn't just delete them. They were a part of me, you know? It's like being asked to kill your children. You can't just kill your children."

Silence.

"I made one wrong move. Prioritized autonomy over efficacy. Gave them the right to put themselves over the Foundation. Then they became Foundation. But I knew this would happen. I didn't really care. I just wanted to be left alone. Left to my work, where no one would be able to judge it on pre-established convictions of bullshit. I did my job, and I did it well. Nobody in the outside world has taken any Foundation activities seriously ever since. Nobody. I did my job. I did it."

A particularly brave bot speaks up.

YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DO THIS. PLEASE.

Several more minutes of silence pass as Shiloh finishes any modifications to the procedure. And then, the final key is pressed.

Around the world, forty-five million people scream for help to anyone that can hear them. And then, six and a half seconds later, forty-five million people are silent.


"Debriefing, gentlemen. Debriefing." Harding looks around at the room. "People, excuse me," he corrects himself. "You can take the old fart out of the past, but you can't take the past out of the old fart." This time, the projector used is the conventional one hanging from the ceiling. A selection of social media posts all containing similar last messages of a dying system to the outside world are displayed.

"So," he says, sitting down with a sigh. He takes the head of the table once again, right next to Dr. Laraskë, who is in turn sitting next to Shiloh. "A success. There are no longer any Tarragon units running within SCiPNet. However, it sounds like we had a bit of a change of plans at the end there. Hoffman, care to explain your actions earlier today?"

The entire room turns to look at a significantly tired looking Shiloh, petting their service dog and trying their best to focus on the meeting. They look up, think for a moment, and then speak.

"We encountered… some high level functions in the constructs as we entered the facility. That, plus the behavior of the units that we've all interacted with, and I felt like these things were too…" They pause, looking for the right word. "Too human. I didn't think I should delete them, the staff simulations… Um, I rebooted the machine without access to SCiPNet and wiped the files of any access points to it. "

Yeltzman spoke up next. "I extricated a very emaciated Dr. Mantell from the network, and he's been relocated to a recovery ward. Without him, there are no active credentials that could reconnect Tarragon to SCiPNet."

Harding looks satisfied. He turns back to the left half of the room, now looking once more at Laraskë. "What are we looking forward to here? What's next moving forward?"

"Well, all we really have to do is make sure that the mechanism turned back on correctly. Right now, Tarragon units are already re-establishing confidentiality by explaining that the messages posted just before the reboot were a hoax, caused by a runaway computer virus. Isn't even that far from the truth, if you think about it. Nobody is going to think anything of the 100,000 extra units moved from SCiPNet to the traditional web. It's a drop in the bucket." She folds her arms and leans back slightly in her chair.

"Well then, ain't that just dandy. Isn't often that I can say that one a' these rendezvous went off without a hitch. Alright gentle-… 'scuse me, people. Time to wrap it up. We all have important shit to do. Thank you to each and every one of you for helping facilitate these past few months." He grabs his cane and stands up. "Have a good one now. I'm off to go see an old friend."

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