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hemingway's gambit

1: Jon

The Network was constantly shifting, re-adjusting itself to accommodate for various disturbances. Sometimes an individual satellite would shift itself to avoid a retired satellite that had been forgotten for decades, but failed to fall and burn up in the atmosphere since. Sometimes it was a whole sub-group of satellites spreading out from each other to diminish damage from a dust cloud of microscopic flak, leftover from a century past battle to decimate communications apparatus in orbit. But each time, it would send ripples through the network of other bodies, like a pebble in a pond, prompting each of the others to make minuscule adjustments to maintain the average spacing.

The early days had seen wave after wave of uploads to the Net, flooding into its memory banks, the total accumulation of human knowledge digitized and shared with all people. The Net was only the library that they visited when they wanted to know anything.

Now, new information came more infrequently, but traffic hadn’t slowed. These days, the Net was utilized for the more mundane, images of people and short bursts of nonsensical text flitted up and down from Terminal to Terminal. Many said that the Net had devolved into what the internet of the early twenty-first century had been, replete with the filth that had been there before, but that was humanity.


“I found it! I found it!” shouted Jon across the field. Ziana was stooped over trying to get a photo of something she had found herself. “I found it! Come see!” Jon shouted again, this time getting Z’s attention, who stood up and turned in his direction and started sloshing through the damp meadow.

“Are you sure it’s the right subspecies?” she inquired skeptically. “You’ve been looking for weeks now.”

“I’m pretty sure, come confirm it for me. Look, the little hairs at the base of the flower are there, not like the others.” Jon explained.

“If it is, you’ll get a lot of attention for it,” she mumbled, stooping down for a closer look. “This is the last entry needed in our area. It looks right to me, did you take pictures yet?”

“Not yet, stop blocking the light and I’ll do that now.” Jon said, crouching down again with his terminal. “I can upload it from here too, I already have the text for the entry ready.”

“Wow…” Z sighed, “just imagine a decade ago, just hinting at adding to an open source database was considered profane. You probably would have been informed on; I would have gotten a commendation for it from the village council for doing it myself.”

Nearly ten years prior, the firewalls between countries had been lifted in the wake of the Information Revolution. It echoed of the fall of the Berlin wall in the late twentieth century, nearly a hundred-and-fifty years ago. For a hundred years, the world had been introverted, nations fearful of outside influence and filled with irrational hatred for anything different had turned in on themselves, raising physical and digital blockades to keep anything out, and everything else in.

The Balkan countries of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries were all too used to this way of thinking, so it wasn’t so much of a shock when the border closures and digital blockades were announced. Most just chocked it up to the government as usual. Elsewhere in the world, the complacent had a harder time adjusting; riots and detentions abounded, minorities were walled off from the rest of society, despite their political and religious leanings.

After the first decade though, things quieted down. Whether from disinformation or just the lack of communication altogether.

Jon and Ziana were born into this totalitarian world, so they had known no difference until they were eight and six respectively. A company named Hemingway had proposed an end to the status quo by reaching outside of their digital cage and convincing the world that collaboration was better than segregation.

People had been ready. The politically influential, not as much. For a full year, there were uprisings across the globe, the corrupt fell and the people largely succeeded in breaking down barriers.

Hemingway had proposed a vast cross-continental collaboration  to built and launch a series of low-orbit satellites. The goal: to create an all enveloping network of free access to the collected knowledge of the human race. The Database would be based on the then dilapidated Wikipedia of the twenty-first century. They would also create and distribute (for an accessible cost) hand-held terminals for accessing and uploading any information that the user wanted.

These terminals were a huge success, people lined up for hours at distribution centers for their chance at owning an Hemingway Terminal. It became less of a tool for learning, and more of a status symbol. Something that said, “I am one of many.” 

Most of Jon and Z’s friends had one of their own, many were afforded by selling anything they could to afford one. Jon’s family had sold their old beater vehicle to be able to afford one for each Jon and Z, though their parents didn’t feel the need to use one, they still supported the ideology behind it.

Jon had been frantically uploading everything he could manage related to botany. When the university had received funding to create a branch to document the flora and fauna of the region, he and his colleagues had jumped at the chance, leaving all other studies behind and throwing on their hiking boots.

That was three years ago now, and all of the college’s information was uploaded, save for a few rare species that he and his colleagues spent their free time hunting down. It was a sort of scavenger hunt for them, comparing notes and earning bragging rights when they each found something that they could use to expand the entries on the Net, or even better, to create an all new entry.

Gradually, the list of outstanding entries had dwindled to a handful, then a few, and now—or rather ten minutes ago—only one. The elusive Pontechium maculatum hirsutum.

For weeks, Jon had dragged his sister Z along with him, hunting this ultimate prize. She had been an undergraduate student at the same college, but didn’t share Jon’s obsession for wildflowers quite to the same level. She was glad to be included anyway though; any time away from home, or her vapid colleagues was a bonus. Even if the world had turned extrovert in principle, she and her brother were introverts at heart, and rarely even talked to each other as they trudged through the much on their hunts.

But now it was all over, Jon had found it! She watched him with a discerning eye as he carefully photographed the different aspects of the flower with his Terminal, occasionally pointing out something that he may have overlooked. Eventually, he straightened up, stitching and groaning like an old man with a bad back. Z rolled her eyes, “you’re not that old, stop exaggerating.” 

He grinned back, “I’m just happy, and maybe a little sad, that’s it’s all over. I don’t know what to focus on now.” He tapped at his Terminal a few times, uploading the images and the text he had prepared for the new, and last, entry. “Everyone else gave up weeks ago, I guess they just fell out of love with the game.” One last tap and the Terminal played a little tune to announce that it had finished the upload. Jon clicked it closed and shoved it back into his shoulder bag.

“Let’s make our way back to the camp, I’m hungry and maybe we can collect a few things to eat on the way.” Z said.

“Okay, my socks are getting a bit wet too, maybe these boots weren’t the right choice for today,” Jon sighed resignedly. “Let’s go.”

The trek back was easy, they both had decent senses of direction, instilled in them from their childhoods hiking with their father, who would frequently go off-trail “just to see.” Still, it took the better part of four hours to make it back to the tent, their legs tired, bellies rumbling, but with satchels full of greens and fruit collected on the way.

The evening wasn’t long, after they had stuffed themselves with tiny wild apples and plums, and drank the herbal tea that Z was so good at preparing, they both fell exhausted onto their pads and slept.

The morning came like any other. Jon woke first and stoked the fire and started the tea heating up again. When it was ready, Z crawled out of the tent and joined him, Terminal in hand. “Can I borrow your terminal? I wanted to contact Tata to tell him we’ll be starting back today and will likely be home tomorrow, but my Terminal’s battery is dead.”

“Sure, it’s still on my pad, and I don’t play with it as much as you do, so the battery should still be good for today.”

Z sneered at him as only a little sister can, and turned back to the tent. A minute later, she called back out, “Your’s says that it has battery power, but all I can get it to do is display a white screen. Did you drop it yesterday? You can be a bit klutzy,” jabbing back at him.

“Bring it out here, you’re obviously doing something wrong,” Jon snapped back. After tapping around without progress on the blank screen he put it down. “I dunno. I didn’t drop it or anything, and it’s stayed dry. Must be something else.”

Z just grunted, knowing she wouldn’t get any sort of apology for his unsubstantiated shortness with her earlier, and sat down on her own stool, reaching for her tea. “Well, we know the way back, and Tata doesn’t worry about us as much when we’re together; not that there’s much out here that we can get in trouble with.”

Breakfast wrapped up, Jon put out the fire and scattered any evidence that they were there as Z folded up the tent and pads. Mostly dry boots and packs on, they struck out toward home when they were satisfied that they had reverted the small area back to its natural state. 

***

A day and a half later, Jon and Ziana broke through the edge of the forest above their village. The hike had been largely uneventful, save for the occasional grumbling from Jon that he didn’t have a working Terminal to take a picture of something. Z, of course following those instances with some sarcastic remark to the effect of “You’ve already seen that so many times…”

The day was hot, but even so, the village was strangely still as they made their way through the narrow streets toward home. They dropped their packs at the stoop and shuffled into the dwelling. “Mama, Tata, we’re home!” was met with silence. “It’s not even Sunday,” Z said “they shouldn’t be at church now,” referring to the ultimate lack of much else to do, at least that captured their parents’ interest.

The sound of running outside piqued Jon’s interest, and sticking his head out to see who it was, recognized his neighbor Andrei. “Have you seen my parents?” he inquired after him.

Andrei skidded to a stop at the sound of someone else. “What are you doing home? I thought everyone was at the church.”

“What do you mean ‘everyone’s at the church’, everyone is never at the church. We just got home and you’re the first person we’ve seen.” Z said, having just exited the house too.

“Oh, hey Z…” Andrei stuttered, obviously flustered at the sudden appearance of Z in the doorway. “Does your Terminal work?”

“I just put it on the plate to charge, why, don’t you?”

“No, that’s why everyone’s at the church. Nobody’s Terminals are working correctly, they just display a white screen. Bogdan’s there, trying to answer questions, but it’s not going well.” Andrei explained, “I think it’s mostly from all the drink people are trying to bribe him with to fix their Terminals first, he’s a bit tipsy.”

“Mine was working a couple of days ago” Jon interjected, “I had just found the…”

“Yeah, so was everyone’s,” Andrei interrupted, “but then overnight something happened and now none of them do. I think it’s a hack, or maybe the Old Guard found a way to put up the firewall again.”

Andrei lingered for a moment longer, as if he was going to say something more, then with a quick sidelong glance at Z, he turned and continued running back to the church.

“He’s a strange one,” Jon said before turning back to his pack and dragging it in an exaggerated manner back into the house. “Let’s unpack and then go see what all the commotion is about. Maybe I can even get my Terminal fixed too.”

“Yeah…” Z sighed, lingering a moment longer, then following Jon’s lead. “Mine’s broken too, It’s holding a charge now, but it’s only a white screen as well. I doubt Bogdan can fix them all, if there’s even a fix right now. Despite his level of inebriation at the moment.”

From the other room, Jon called out, “Maybe he can still spin up the old RomNet and we can call the city to see if they’re having similar issues. I still keep in touch with a few people from school there.”

Half an hour later, and in fresher clothes, Jon and Z joined the rest of the village spilling out of the small chapel that served as a church. It never held very many people, but then again, not many people really ever went; except on the major holidays. Most of the commotion had died down from the morning when everyone was frantically looking for answers. Apparently, when you take away someone’s drug of choice without warning them, they tend to panic.

Their parents were there as well, sitting on a bench off to the side. They had never been that invested in technology, tending more toward the slow life. Jon had always looked down on them for their lifestyle, calling it backwards and lazy. His father would often remind him in such situations that he was young, and eventually he would see the value in it. 

Tata stood and waved over to Jon and Z in his trademark way as they entered the church yard. Jon glanced around, hoping that his friends hadn’t seen the interaction, but Z was already trotting over and chatting with Mama. 

“Hey, what’s going on here?” Jon directed toward his father.

“Apparently everyone with a Terminal lost connection last night. The main opinion is that the Securitate has found a way to lock everyone out. We’re just sitting here enjoying the show though. Funny what addiction does to some people…” Tata posited.

“A lot of people actually use the Net to work, Tata.” Z rebutted, redirecting her attention to the men. “How will people work now? How will they get paid? They can’t even access the banks without the Net these days since they closed down all the branches. Nobody even uses cash anymore.”

“We live in a village though, why can’t we all just take care of each other like it used to be?” Mama asked optimistically. “I mean, we’ve got plenty of veggies, and we can get most of anything else from close neighbors. There were benefits to life before the Net, you know; we were all closer…”

“Okay, that might make sense for now, but it’s only a temporary fix. People don’t all grow something to eat, or keep cows anymore, eventually food will run out, and before that, petrol will run out.” Jon realized. “We can’t even pay for anything, let alone petrol, without our terminals anymore. We need to find Bogdan and see what’s going on with a potential fix to this debacle.”

“Bogdan’s wife had to take him home, dear.” Mama said, “he couldn’t sit up straight anymore and was babbling incoherently. Something about ‘it’s all gone’, though I think he was referring to the drink.”

“Heh,” Tata chuckled, “That boy could never hold his liquor, I have no idea how he made it through the Hemingway Technician certification. I’ll ask around to see if anyone knows how to spin up the old RomNet.” Apparently reading Jon’s mind.

The RomNet was a truncation of the old twenty-first century “Internet” that served only the former territories of Romania. Many other countries had done the same, and it caused quite the business boon for server companies for about six months before anyone really realized the implications. Some say that it was all due to Russia’s similar move a decade earlier, probably because they rode out the segregation better than most—as was “reported” after the blockades fell. Russia had never really been a consistent or reliable source of accurate reporting, but then again, most territories tried to spin off how well they had done in the wake of the revolution. 

About twenty minutes later, Tata shouldered his way out of the crowd with an older man in tow. “This is Bogdan’s father, Vasile, he helped maintain the RomNet back in the day and says that he thinks he can spin it back up if the equipment is still there in the old station.”

“Great, let’s go and see what can be done!” Jon exclaimed, his curiosity piqued at the possibility of exploring the antique station overcoming his embarrassment of his father.

“Can I come too?” Asked Z.

“Of course,” Tata said, “though it’s pretty tight in there, most of the time it only required an occasional visit by only one person, Vasi says.”

“That’s okay, I can wait around outside. This crowd is depressing and I can help make calls if you succeed.”

“I’m going home, and taking a nap,” Mama said, “I agree with Ziana, too many people tire me out. I’ll see what we have in the fridge if you decide to invite Vasi over for a snack when you’re done; God knows Ioana has her hands full with Bogdan at the moment.”

“Good thinking, thanks.” Tata said curtly before giving her a peck on the cheek and turning toward the center with Vasile, Jon and Z at their heels.

“Where is the station?” Jon asked after walking a while.

Vasi turned back toward Jon, “It’s in the cellar of the Mayor’s house, she was a paranoid old bat at the end, though she did tow the party line like no other… The house has been abandoned since, well…” he trailed off, leaving the group in silence as they continued walking. They all remembered what happened in the early days of the revolution, though none of them really wanted to. Mob mentality can take people to bad places.

“We’re here.” Vasi stated matter-of-factly after a few more turns. The iron gates rusted out at the hinges so badly that the right side of the gate leaned inward at an impossible angle. “Nobody other than a few curious troublemakers too young to really remember the revolution have tried sneaking in here over the past nine years, of course the main house was gutted as soon as the old witch was gone. Though I don’t think these hinges will really work right anymore…” Vasi gave a hop forward toward the gate and gave a great kick at the rusted ironwork, shocking the family with his spryness. “Hiya!” he yelled as the gate listed further, making the hinges scream and pop as the entire right side of the gate collapsed into the courtyard.

After the reddish dust settled, Vasi gave out a little cough “I’ve been waiting to do that for a long time!” Then leading the way through the newly de-hinged entrance, they made their way up to the door.

“The stairs down to the station are inside. The old bag never wanted people sneaking in after dark to sabotage the machinery, so she had the old entrance around the side boarded up. Here they are.” He turned to the right about halfway down the main hallway toward a metal door. “Hopefully this one isn’t too hard to open, I think I only had one good kick in me.” With a little give, and then a scraping sound, Vasi and Tata managed to slide the door to the side, revealing a darkened stairwell.

“Here’s the fusebox.” Tata said, reaching up on the side of the stairwell’s wall. He through a switch and the dark cavity in front of them was suddenly illuminated with the stark blue glow of LED strips embedded in the corners of the walls. “Good thing there’s still power!”

“I seem to remember that she kept some sort of old fuel cell down here as extra precaution. Surprised it still works too, they phased out that technology seventy-five years ago after too many explosions. If it’s held a charge this long without exploding it’s probably safe, she didn’t use it all that often after all.”

“I think I’ll stay up here for now.” Said Z. “You mentioned that it was tight anyway, and I don’t need to be in the way.”

The poured concrete stairs were a bit uneven and though they were chipped and worn on the edges, they were really only twenty or so years old, but the three men descended into the small room housing the machinery anyway. There were two tall boxes standing on one side of the room and a makeshift metal table on the other, upon which sat a closed tablet with an analog keyboard attached. Two cables ran from the terminal, one to a wall socket and the other to the large boxes across the room.

“Those towers are called “servers,” they housed all of the information for the district around the city, though the city has its own station.” Explained Vasi, “I was there once, it was much larger and they had probably a hundred of these servers.” He walked around the small room, inspecting different areas of the front and back of the servers, jostling wires here and there, and then returned to the table. He took a rusty folding stool from the wall and set it up in front of the table. “Everything looks to be in order here, the one thing I’m cautious of is if this stool will still hold me… I was a bit skinner last time I sat here.”

Vasi sat at the table as Jon and his father watched, fascinated by the outdated technology. He flipped open the terminal and hit a couple keys, then sat back. “Now we wait to see if this baby still boots up. They were still using Lithium Ion batteries back when this was made, not those super thin graphene ones that you have in your terminal there.”

Jon took his terminal out of his pocket and turned it around in his hand, as if appreciating the leap in technology the last few years had represented. His battery was still nearly fully charged, but the screen still displayed only a white field.

“Well shit.” came from the direction of Vasi. He was now in a small closet behind the servers, kicking a squat rectangle. “I guess this thing only had enough charge to light the stairs. This is the fuel cell I was talking about. It would take hours to recharge it, and that’s after we rewire the station to accept power from the village transformers. Maybe a week.”

“Can you interface the servers with a Hemingway Terminal?” echoed down Z’s voice from the top of the stairs. “You said that their batteries can hold a better charge than the old fuel cells, maybe if you can connect it to the servers, you can reboot from its power bank.”

“Hmm, if we had some sort of converter that connects your port to the old—what are they…” here Vasi stooped down to the port that the old terminal was connected to the server with, “USB 8, it says here.”

“I could make one!” Z’s voice came from just behind Jon now. Now that the “danger” of the fuel cell had been ruled moot, the cramped space was acceptable to her. “Let me just run home and get my kit.”

Z, short for Ziana, in turn shorter for Sanziana (her great grandmother’s name), had toyed with electrical engineering back when she was in grade school. She was found to have proficiency in it to the degree that she was offered a scholarship at the engineering college in the city, but like many things, the phase mostly passed as she grew more interested in boys. Her intelligence tended to scare them off a bit, so she had decided to play it down a bit for the sake of her “social life.” Needless to say, her skills were still up to par, and she still dabbled a bit at home, making sure to keep all the wiring and appliances in good working order.

In short order, she was back, scraping down the worn cement stairs, zippered pouch in arm. “Where’s the cable that connects to the old terminal?” She demanded, “and you all can go wait upstairs, I need some elbow space.” 

As the men trudged reluctantly back up the stairs, feeling less than helpful, they could hear the zipper from Z’s toolkit unfastening and small tools being laid out on the table.

Five minutes later, Z reappeared at the top of the stairs, “all done!” she said with a smile, “let’s see if the servers will accept the interface.” When they all gathered shoulder to shoulder around Z holding her terminal, she plugged it into the reconfigured cable. Rebooting her own interface, she held down a combination of buttons to ensure that it bypassed the normal procedure and software. After a few seconds of blinking, the screen started on a black field with a green cursor blinking in the corner, the lower half of the Terminal screen displayed an old style “Qwerty” key layout. “I programmed this little backdoor after taking that history class in middle school about the latter half of the twentieth century.” She beamed up at her brother, proud of her secret gone public. “Just give me a minute to try to reboot the servers now…” She typed in a series of truncated words and symbols, then hit the “submit” key, a long scrolling of green text spilled past the small screen of the Terminal then blinked out.

“Huh.” Z sighed, “I guess it was too much for the battery.” Just as she said it, a small whirring of a fan started behind them inside one of the server towers, then the other, proceeded by a few, then more small LED lights blinking on and off. Z’s Terminal made a chiming sound as it restarted, this time to a pixellated and boxy interface.

“I think you’re up, Vasi.” Z said, handing him her Terminal.

“Thanks, I know this system like I know the Lord’s Prayer. I’ll have it up and running in a few minutes if the battery holds out.” The battery indicator on the Terminal had barely registered a loss.

Vasi went into the settings screen of the interface and adjusted a few fields. Once that was over, he got up and checked the servers against the settings that he had made. Then, opening a new interface on the Terminal, he sat back and placed it gently on the table. “All set. This interface is the general frequency for all communication across the RomNet, if anyone else is around and looking, they’ll show up here. It might need a few seconds to refresh though…”

Suddenly, the interface filled with text and lines started scrolling past on the small screen too fast to read. “I guess someone’s up, let’s see if I can find someone specific to talk to. I have a nephew in White July that would likely be the one down there booting up his RomNet terminal.” Vasi tapped away at the keys on the screen, opening and closing different interfaces as he went. “Here’s the connection to White July. Looks like someone is home.” He typed a few lines of introduction into the field and waited.

Jon had found three stools upstairs that weren’t too worse for wear and had carried them down to the station by this time, and they all settled as close as possible to Vasi, reading over his shoulder on the small screen.

  • Uncle, is that you? I could have sworn that the station out there would be defunct by now.
  • Yep, it’s me! I had the help of a brilliant young lady to get it up and running. I’m using her Terminal to connect to the RomNet now!
  • Her Terminal works‽ That’s great news! How did she get it working again?
  • No, she has the same issues as everyone, but she hacked into it anyway and booted her own system on it to restart the servers. You sound like you’re having issues with Terminals down there too?
  • Yeah, none of them work. That’s why they asked me to spin up the RomNet here. There’s no other way to communicate with other cities. Have you heard anything?
  • Nope. You’re the first person I found, but it looks like there are a lot of others in the main channel. How many RomNet stations are there?
  • That’s not just RomNet uncle Vasi, remember how they connected all the national networks together at the beginning of the revolution? That’s all of Europe that you’re seeing! As far as I can tell, this isn’t just a local problem.
  • Well shit.
  • You said it.
  • What are we supposed to do? What is Hemingway saying?
  • I dunno, people here are stockpiling like it’s the end of days. Over-reacting if you ask me. But we haven’t heard from Hemingway yet either, so…
  • Take care of yourself then, I’ll check back tomorrow to see if there’s any change.

Vasi sat back in his folding chair, causing the three onlookers to jerk back as well. “What do we do?” asked Jon.

“You read it just as well as I did, right? Nobody knows shit. I’d say we try to ride whatever this is out. Maybe Hemingway is working on it as we speak and it’ll be up by tomorrow.” Vasi offered.

“Whatever this is…” Jon repeated, “people won’t let it lie. Hemingway is going to have to answer for it.”

The four of them carefully shut down the servers and Z’s Terminal before retreating to the main house. It was dark outside and a cool breeze was drafting through the broken windows and open door. “Let’s come back tomorrow morning and check the general frequency again and see if there’s an update” Z suggested. “Oh, and we can all go back to our place for some dinner! I hope Mama didn’t get worried.”

Vasi’s eyes lifted at that, “That’s nice of you to offer, I’ll definitely take you up on it too. Ioana doesn’t have much of a knack for, well, flavor…”

As they walked in relative silence down the village road, Jon looked up at the stars. They were brighter here by default of not being near a big city with too much light pollution, but in addition to the stars, there was a series of brighter points, spaced evenly, but cut into a vast crescent shape parallel with the moon, much further out. They were the Hemingway Satellite System that comprised the Net. “Somewhere up there is my last update to the Database,” he said wistfully, “and I can’t even brag to my colleagues about it if I can’t prove it to them.”

“I guess you’re lucky you uploaded it before all the Terminals stopped working though,” said Z. “You may have even lost the text you wrote for it when it crashed.”

“Yeah, at least there’s that…” Jon paused for a second, a flash of an idea passed over him, but he dismissed it as being outlandish. How could a single Terminal upload possibly cause the rest of the Terminals across the globe to fail, and why would there be a delay? Then he had a different thought, this one he voiced, “What if the problem isn’t the Terminals, but the Net itself? I mean, there’s never been a hack of the Net, Hemingway was too careful for that, but what if?”

“I guess that makes sense…” offered Z, “but if it’s the Net, isn’t that a much bigger problem than just the Terminals? That means that whole industries would be crippled! Even if they got it back up and running—if the Net is the problem—people wouldn’t trust it the same way anymore. Hemingway would declare bankruptcy and take down all the progress of the last decade with it. We’d be stuck in the same place as we were before the revolution!” She started breathing heavily now, as if the weight of what might have happened was too much for her to comprehend.

“Ziana, calmeaza-te, I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that.” Tata consoled, “Even if it is, we’ll be okay, we’ve always pulled through anyway, and none of our livelihoods depend heavily on the Net.”

“That’s not helping, Tata.” retorted Jon, “Even if we’re okay, all of our friends and neighbors will be a mess, and wouldn’t we try to help them? Wouldn’t that just drag us down as well?”

Vasile walked in silent contemplation throughout this exchange as they arrived at the house. The fragrance of roasted vegetables and bread wafting through the door.

***

The next morning, walking through the village, Jon noticed how bedraggled the people looked. Vasi had stayed late the night before, discussing theories and repercussions, and if that was any indicator, many others had done the same. A few people had seen Vasile, Jon and his family enter into the former mayor’s house, and had put two and two together, so naturally, a good portion of the village knew that Jon knew something. He could tell in the sideways glances that he was getting as he retraced his steps to the station.

Jon was always an early riser, and Z had graciously instructed him how to use her terminal to access the RomNet through the station, in exchange for a few more hours of sleep.

He had a plan this time though, to try to get through to Hemingway, or at least to find some news of what their response has been so far. It was hard for Jon to be cut off from the feeds on the Net, he wasn’t much into networking with former colleagues, but he did follow current events; even if they did tend to depress him somewhat. He had a solution for that: go hiking. He hiked a lot.

So to be cut off from the current events, he felt like one of the common people, at least the ones in his head. He needed some sort of update, perhaps in some selfish way more than others.

Sitting at the table illuminated by antique LED lighting, he waited for the servers to boot up, his Terminal sitting quietly on the surface in front of him. At the chime, he immediately snatched it up and navigated to the general frequency interface. Watching the feed scroll past was tiring for his eyes, but at least it wasn’t as fast as yesterday; much of the rest of Europe was still asleep. After a while of staring dumbly at the scrolling, he noticed a pattern emerging, every few seconds or so there was a different looking message, like an automated notice. It took him a few tries, but he timed it right and tapped on the message as it swept by, expanding it to full screen. The message was from Hemingway, and was a curt three lines:

Hemingway Inc.

We apologize for any inconvenience the outage is causing.

Access to the Net will be restored promptly. Thank you.

An update! However cryptic, it did tell Jon a couple things. One, they knew about the issue and are affected by it as well, and two, they called it an outage, but also referred to a lack of access. Did that mean that the Net is down completely, or they just can’t access it, meaning it’s up but inaccessible?

It wasn’t enough, but it’s all he had. Jon sat in contemplation at the cold table. Suddenly, he heard footsteps descending the stairs.

“Hello?” called down Vasi.

“Hey, it’s just me Vasi,” responded Jon.

“Oh good, I thought someone might have snuck in after we left and messed with the equipment. Have you regained access to RomNet?”

Jon showed him the message from Hemingway, and shared his thoughts on their choice of verbiage.

“I see,” Vasi sighed, “so that means you were right last night, the Net is down, or at least disconnected.”

“Or we’re disconnected from it for some reason,” added Jon. “The Terminals were designed for use only with the Net, and unless you’re some über nerd like Z, they won’t work without connection to it, whether or not there’s something wrong with the Terminal.

“Solely based on the fact that Z got her Terminal to work with RomNet, tells me that the problem isn’t with the Terminals.”

Vasi glanced down at the Terminal with the general frequency scrolling by. it was getting faster as people across Europe were waking up and reconnecting. “Is that the message you found?” Vasi pointed to the bold text every few seconds as it slid past, “that looks longer than three lines to me.”

Jon turned back to the screen and tried to match the motion of the screen with his eyes; maybe he should have slept more, he thought to himself. “Yes, I see it now, it does look longer now.” He jabbed his finger at it a couple of times before he hit it again. This time the message was longer:

Hemingway Inc.

We are experiencing a global Net lockout.

Please remain calm as we investigate the root of the issue.

The Net has always been hack proof and remains so.

Stay tuned for further updates.

And then, just as Jon and Vasi had finished reading the text, it blinked and changed:

Hemingway Inc.

Access to the Net has been restored.

Thank you for your patronage and we look forward to furthering human knowledge together!

Jon jerked his head back involuntarily. “That doesn’t make sense! Why would they admit to being locked out one minute just to fix it the next moment? They can’t be that disorganized in their press releases?”

Before Vasi could respond, they heard shouting outside. Running up the stairs to see what the commotion was, Z was waiting at the door. “Where’s my Terminal? They’re saying the Net is back up! Just now!”

Jon ran back down and jerked the cable out of the Terminal, causing it to blink off abruptly. He took it back up to Z, who eagerly rebooted it and waited to see the Hemingway logo appear on the screen. When it did she yelped for joy and skipped off back to her friends.

“I suppose I should go and find my Terminal now too, maybe there are more answers in the feeds now, especially since my list of questions are just growing.”

Vasi nodded, “Strange indeed, for it to disconnect without warning only to reconnect with just as little warning. I suspect that the issues have only begun, but at least we’re reconnected and can start working to fix them together.”

Jon cringed a little at the partisan slant of Vasi’s words, but agreed with them in essence. They parted and made their way back to their respective homes and Terminals.

He had to wait most of the day for Hemingway to release an official statement longer than what he had read on the RomNet, and it wasn’t very much more enlightening than what he had already pieced together from what little information was available. In fact, it sounded like they were trying to cover their asses by explaining it as a communication error regarding scheduled updates to the satellite software. 

“Bullshit.” Jon grumbled from the chair in the main room.

“What’s that?” Tata called out from his office.

“This Hemingway release. It’s baloney!” Toning down his vocabulary in front of his father, “They’re saying that it was a scheduled reboot, but that they just forgot to tell everybody! Have you ever even heard of them needing to reboot the Net?”

“Not in my memory, and don’t try playing off your language, it is bullshit. I’ve read the feeds too,” said Tata. Jon started a bit hearing his father cuss, he was generally a fairly laid back man, and to hear him use a younger man’s language like that was enlightening to him. “Hemingway is obviously just as in the dark as the rest of us,” he continued, “They’re looking to create a cover-up so they don’t get sued out of existence. A lot of people likely lost a lot of money over the forty-eight or so hours that we were disconnected.”

Jon was impressed with his father for the first time in recent memory. He hadn’t expected him to be so informed, let alone to even care about the lockout, and his frankness with him made Jon feel closer to his father. “Well I hope that they’ve written in a back door into the code of the Net so they can actually investigate, though now that I’m thinking that, why wouldn’t they have tried that when they were in the dark like the rest of us?”

“A fine point, Jon,” Tata responded, “and now that we’re reconnected, I wonder if that door even exists anymore. In the past hackers were known to rewrite code, removing access or creating new ways to slip back in later. If it was a hack, and that’s a big ‘if’, Hemingway is probably squirming now.”

Jon smirked at the thought of the most powerful company shuffling around in their seats, not knowing what to do to solve the biggest communication blunder in history.

At that moment, in walked Z waving her Terminal over her head. “Have you guys been reading the feeds? You’re trending Jon!”

“What do you mean?” Jon inquired skeptically, reaching for his Terminal and loading the feeds. Right at the top, the first article read: “Upload to Database Causes Global Lockout.” Jon tapped on the title and read on:

Hemingway Inc. has determined that the leading theory of the recent global lockout from the Net was caused by a single upload to the Database from White County, Romania. Local student Iohan Mos uploaded images and text relating to a new entry for the regional library of wildflowers, just moments before the globe was cut off from the Net.

“What‽ They’re trying to blame this on me now? There’s no way that a few pictures and five paragraphs of text caused a global lockout!” Jon was livid, and slightly peeved at the use of his full name “Iohan” which he had never liked in favor of the Anglicized Jon. But that wasn’t the main issue, he was now having the finger of the most powerful company in history pointed directly at him saying ‘That’s the guy to blame.’

“I’d bet you were hoping for some more positive press regarding your entry, huh?” Jabbed Z.

“That’s enough Sanziana.” Tata stepped in, using her full name; underscoring the severity of the statement, “Jon’s in big trouble, even if his upload wasn’t the cause of the lockout. Most people will believe whatever they hear first, even if the truth is more rational. We need to help him though this as it comes, and I expect it’s coming soon.”

Jon felt the room closing around him, he needed to escape. Without a word, he found himself running out of the house back the way that he and Z had just come out of the woods a day before. Why had the Net come back up at all, why was he the scapegoat, how was he going to avoid the public from now on? All of these questions swam through his mind as he scrambled up the hill to his preferred refuge. He collapsed at the base of a large boulder, this is where he used to come as a child when he was feeling overwhelmed by his sister and parents. He’d even spent a night or two here during his ill-planned attempts to “run away” in his later youth. Later, it became his place to reflect on life, but now, that life seemed to be ending. How could he have come from such a high the other day, to being now, the target of global frustration. He slumped against the hollow of the rock that had provided shelter so many times before and fell into fevered sleep.

The sky was dark when he woke up, how long that had been he didn’t know. He had left the house in such a rush that he had forgotten his Terminal behind, usually something that he always had with him. He felt a bit naked without it, but figured it was for the best; it had caused so much trouble recently that he thought it would have been better had he not purchased one at all.

He was gathering his thoughts when a voice cut through the night, startling him completely awake. “Hey bro, so you finally woke up. Feeling better?”

“No…” Jon responded to his sister, “and why are you here, how did you know I would even be here?”

“What, you thought your little ‘Fortress of Solitude’ was such a secret to me?” obviously making some obscure reference with her tone, “I used to follow you up here all the time when we were kids. Tata taught us both how to be quiet in the woods, don’t you remember? Plus, its a good thinking spot. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve used it myself a few times.” She winked at him as if it didn’t matter that the only secret spot that he though he had was now desecrated.

Brushing her comments aside, he stood. “Well you’re here now. So what? Did you come to help or just to annoy me?“

“Despite how much that sounds right now, I did come to help. Tata and Mama have been talking about your, ‘situation,’ and they think that before people come looking for you en masse, you should go to the city. Few people know you there, and I could even come with you… God knows how boring it would be without you here anyway…” she paused for a reaction, Jon just sat back down on his rock. “Oh! Also, I found a car to get us there!”

At that, Jon perked up, “Well that makes more sense. I wasn’t relishing walking for three days just to get to the city. Who’s car are we borrowing?”

“Well…” Z looked away, “we wouldn’t be borrowing it as much as accepting a ride. From Andrei…” Before Jon could retort, she continued, “you know that he’s always liked me, right? Well it wasn’t really hard to get him to agree, and he promised he wouldn’t tell anyone that he took us to the city. Nobody would know, aside from Mama and Tata.”

Jon thought for a minute. “What did you promise in return? I’m sure he’s not doing this out of an overwhelming sense of altruism.”

“Well, I did sort of promise to let him take me out when we get back… But before you object, he did ask really sweetly…”

“You’re so weird. So is he. You two make a good match.” He scrunched his face up and made kissy sounds at her. “Ow!” she punched him in the arm.

“You know it’s not like that… Iohan.” She said, emphasizing his full name, “it was sort of an open-ended promise anyway; who knows when we’ll be back. Anyway, let’s get out of here, I’ve been waiting for you to wake up for an hour now, and I’m hungry. I’m sure there’s something to eat at home. Oh, and we leave in the morning.”

Over dinner, at least five different people stopped by, having read the feeds and figured that it was Jon who was mentioned. Each time, Tata answered the door and played it off as either a misunderstanding, or a mis-identification. No one was overly pushy, just curious and perhaps excited to have such a celebrity, despite the allegations, in the village. It would change of course, as more people figured it out and started flocking to the small village in search of answers or a target. It was good they were leaving in the morning, Jon thought, he couldn’t take much more than just a handful of villagers.

The morning came early for Jon, and as he was preparing some breakfast, he heard light tapping at the door. “Z!” Andrei whispered loudly, defeating the purpose. “Are you up yet?”

“Is that Andrei so soon?” Z groaned as she stumbled out of her room. “He’s so early…”

Jon opened the door to their neighbor and his “ride,” a beat up series 8 Tesla with mis-matched tires and no hubcaps. “Are you sure that thing will even run?” he asked incredulously. 

“Sure it will,” said Andrei in an overly chipper voice for the time of morning as he shouldered his way inside, Z had already scampered back into her room to put on something more appropriate. “I had to switch out the old cells for a later model’s graphene batts. They’re old, but they can still hold a bit of charge. It should get us where you want to go. Are you packed?”

“I just got up Andrei, give us a minute to eat something first.”

“Okay… but I was hoping to leave before dawn, that way we won’t be seen by as many people. Not that I’m embarrassed to be seen with you… or Z… but I thought…”

“Yeah, that makes sense. I appreciate the forethought. We’ll be ready as soon as possible.”

“I’m all packed!” Z said, bouncing out of her room, mood obviously changed given present company. “What’s for breakfast?”

Andrei started at the louder volume and turned a slightly darker shade of red as Z entered the room. “‘Neata, Z.” He squeaked out. “I’ll wait in the car.” Turning on his heels, he hastily retreated to the relative safety of his beater.

“Sure doesn’t seem like he likes you…” Jon offered.

“Stop teasing him! You know it’s only because you make him nervous. He was a year after you in school and I saw how he followed you everywhere. You’re such a dweeb; didn’t you know that?” 

“Yeah, I remember. I thought he may have grown out of that by now. Besides, I don’t think it’s me that’s making him nervous.” Jon joshed, “Sit and have something to eat, it’s at least a few hours to the city, probably double that in Andrei’s rust bucket.”

By the time Jon and Z had finished their meager breakfast, Mama and Tata were up and had started fussing over Z. “You should eat more! Here, pack some food for the road. Did you invite that poor boy in for breakfast too?” Mama chided.

“He’s fine, Mama,” interjected Jon, “he’s just making sure the car is ready.”

“Well in that case, say hello from us, and tell him to drive safely. I’ve seen that thing he calls a hot rod.” Tata’s voice echoed from the fridge as he stooped in to rummage for some cheese.

Goodbyes were short and simple. Mama, through all her fussing wasn’t necessarily an emotional woman, that was Tata’s domain. But they were only going to the city, not some other country, so there was little so say by way of farewells. The Terminals were up again, and they’d be able to talk soon and often anyway. Jon tossed a small rucksack into the boot as Z slid into the front seat next to Andrei, her overly packed bag already in place on the back seat. Looking back at Jon, she offered a pre-emptive excuse for her position, “I set the deal, so I get shotgun!”

“Yeah…” Jon said suggestively as he closed the back door behind him. Andrei’s knuckles turned white on the steering wheel without glancing back.

Andrei put the car into gear and they started rolling silently, save for the crunching of gravel beneath the tires, through the village. Before long, and without much attention paid by the occasional cow walking up the side of the road, they were out. The road ahead was long and windy, but they spent it in relative comfort. He had actually put some time into the upkeep of the vehicle, and it ran smoother than the roads, which wasn’t a high bar to pass.