Active Failure snippet

I wrote this as a character sketch for something larger, but I think it’s kind of amusing on its own, so I’m sharing.

I locked my amazingly expensive brand-new car with all the trimmings and the alarm went off instantly, the first tone in the eight-tone series advertised as a scientifically selected, clinically tested arrangement of noises designed to jar, annoy, attract attention, implore for help, and repel intruders, not in that order. I hit the disarm button and left it to walk across the park to find the teenage girl sitting on a picnic table, pounding out text messages or blog entries or something while watching me amble.

Meeting Andrea, I wanted to say “I expected someone taller, or shorter, or thinner, or fatter”, but that’s the whole point of Andrea, proof that eventually if enough domesticated primates swap enough chromosomes you eventually get someone who looks like nothing, and you could name her, say, Andrea. If you averaged all the faces of all the teenage girls in the world with web pages – all the party pictures taken leaning into their friend, flashing the peace sign in front of a statue, holding up a kitten, you would look at the result and say “that’s the girl that stole my wallet”. And having made that positive identification from a computer construct, the cops could put the update on the network and begin the task of hassling every fourteen-to-sixteen year old girl they came across, and the wheels of justice would come grinding to a halt, which happened in Montreal twice and now fourteen-to-sixteen year old girls get away with murder, which is not really that much of a difference.

It is, as criminal abilities go in an age of oppressive, constant video surveillance, one of the most valuable attributes a budding miscreant can have, just below pluck, luck, and a willingness to use their sexuality in the service of a commission. As an apprentice, I knew from reputation that she had the two and I wasn’t frankly interested in the last.

Andrea was second on a smash-and-grab, in which I was being paid a number multiplied by a lot of zeroes to acquire a clean, Turing agent-crunchable copy of a particular dataset containing who knows what.

“You must be Adam,” she chirped.
“At some point in your life, and I’d suggest right now, you’re going to want to scan your features and patent, trademark, and put together a intellectual property portfolio around them, because if I looked away right now, I wouldn’t be able to describe you.”
She blushed. “Thank you. Was that your car?”
“There’s some kind of bizarre firmware conflict,” I said. “I took it to the dealer, they hooked it up, scratched their heads, shrugged. It’s probably some driver conflict, or an erratic short somewhere or something.”
“When does it go off?”
“I don’t know, fucking… whenever. Doesn’t matter.”
“Have you considered that it might be the key fob, sending the wrong signal?”
“It’s not the key fob.”
“Does it go off all the time?”
“Only when it would annoy me.”
“That’s going to a help on the job.”
“I can see that this is going to be a long and repartee-filled apprenticeship for the both of us.”
“You read my references!”
“Of course I read your references. You were my first choice.”
“Really? I’m so happy to be working with a distinguished—“
“Please, don’t use distinguished. I feel old enough already.”
“Who was your second choice?”
“Some Confederate fucker out of Raleigh.”
“Aaron?” She made a face. “I guess it’s good to have options, but wow, I don’t want to pump myself up too much, but that’s quite a dropoff in available talent.”
“Fortunately, I didn’t have to use him. Are you ready to go?”
“Are you asking because you want to go and you’re being polite, or because you don’t think I’m dressed for the occasion?”
I hadn’t really noticed. She looked as if she’d stepped out of a television advertisement for some hip product old people didn’t understand.
“You look fine,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“It must be nice not to have to dye your hair, pad your cheeks, change your stride, go through plastic surgery, maintain identities,” I said on the car ride.
“I wouldn’t know,” Andrea said. “I’ve never had to do that.”
“Do you need me to explain the job?”
“I’ll figure it out. I take instruction well. Am I going to need to shoot anyone, or is anyone going to be shooting at me?”
“Be honest now, if there’s violence I need to be prepared.”
“It’s not that I was hoping for violence, but – “
The car’s dash lit up all red and the autopilot pulled to the shoulder.
“I’ve had better getaway vehicles,” Andrea said. I removed the key, disarmed, restarted.

I badged into the garage with my contractor ID, left the car disarmed, and we walked to the first of four security stations, with the hand scanner. A stop kept the door itself open.
“What’s up, Joe?” I asked.
“Hey, Craig,” he replied, looking up from his terminal. He smiled at Andrea. “Who’s the kid?”
“This is my daughter.”
“You have a daughter?”
“Hi!” Andrea said.
“Wild oats and all,” I said, and we were by.
“Some secure facility,” Andrea said.
“Yeah, weird thing, it’s been getting less and less reliable since I started working here.”
“How’s that been going for you?”
“Turns out if I ever decide to give up this life of crime, there’s a lucrative future for me in IT operations.”
“It’s good to have a fall-back plan.”
“I always have a good fall-back plan.”
The narrow corridor ran another fifty meters to another door with a guard station behind armored glass.
“Craig, you’re in late. Who’s that?” the voice over the speaker said, the body behind the glass leaning back and forth to get a better look.
“Hey Graham. It’s take your daughter to work day,” I said.
“Oh shit, is that today?”
“You’re in trouble.”
“Shit. Um, well, nice to meet you though.”
“Nice to meet you!” Andrea said.
They didn’t even stop us at the retinal scanner, the door open, guard fanning himself with a benefits pamphlet.
“It gets too hot in the interior passages,” I said,
“I don’t understand why you’re getting his much to pull off this job.”
“Old-time trick,” I said. “Guard system’s on a direct circuit to the alarm company. You cut the line, the alarm company calls the cops, cops come out, nothing’s wrong, they tell the alarm company to go fuck themselves, meanwhile, you’re across the street at a bar enjoying a beer or something.”
“I can’t drink.”
“You could, I’m sure, but that’s not the point. Then you go over and break the back door in, the alarm tries to call out, it can’t…”
“Nice trick. What happened when they went to IP-based backups and stuff?”
“We adapted. It’s the same principle.”
Next door, same deal, I didn’t even have to bring my badge up, and they didn’t even look at Andrea, and we were into the datacenter, racks on racks of servers, air conditioned down to cold, fucking cold.
“That doesn’t answer my question, though. I could have talked my way through those checkpoints.”
“Hold that thought. Walk to the end of the room, turn right, find a cabinet labeled L – don’t worry about the number or anything – and give it a hard shove. You should see a red light come on at the top, which means the impact or motion sensor’s gone off.”
“And then?”
“Return here, to the front of the room.”
I grabbed a cart, took it down aisle 12, stopped at cabinet G, waited until the klaxon went off, and used a power saw on the lock, swung the cabinet open, and pulled the backup disk array out. I glanced towards the center to see Andrea walk forward.
“What’s going on?” she asked the guard, her voice a perfect mix of confusion and anxiety.
“Nothing,” the guard said. He stopped at my aisle. “Was that you?” he yelled.
“Not me. Can you reset the alarm? I’m in the middle of this.”
He waved an okay and wandered off. I disconnected the array and put in down on the cart, closed the doors. The klaxon stopped, I looked up and saw the cabinet’s red alarm light wink off. Close.
I wheeled the cart out with Andrea at my side, back through the same doors. I didn’t even have to tell them I was taking the box over for replacement or shipping or anything.
“What you have to get people to do,” I lectured as we walked, “is get people to distrust the system. That’s what took the months, and that’s what I got paid for: getting the retinal scan to blow out all the time, fucking up the central air so it’s too hot through the central corridor if the doors are closed.”
We exited the elevator and turned the cart down the aisle for my car.
“You did a nice job. They would have waved a yeti in there.”
“In the industry, this is called inducing an active failure.”
She rolled her eyes.
“It’s a basic concept, and if you’re going to apprentice, it’s important to know the lingo as well as well as the fundamental–“
Not only was there no sound of eight-tone scientifically selected, clinically-tested alarm to guide me, there was no car at all.
I stared at the empty parking space where my car should have been. Looking down the vast aisle of the parking lot, I imagined that I could make out my almost brand-new car, and one of the always-baffled-looking service representatives at the dealership driving off, my state of the art navigation system offering him the best route to the chop shop.
And there I was, in the secure parking garage, with a cart and a priceless data array, and in at some point in the next few minutes something would fail over to something else when it noticed the backup system wasn’t responding, and someone would be paged to run over there and check the box, and if I was lucky, I would be the one paged, and we’d have an extra five minutes on top of that before someone looked in the cabinet.
Andrea cleared her throat.
“Yeah, so I think I’ve got the idea,” she said. “Do you want to talk about the backup plans you always have, or can I start running now?”

One thought on “Active Failure snippet

  1. Scott

    I don’t understand why you’re getting his much to pull off this job.”


    I like it.

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