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The Gauntlet, pt.4

Marty Phillips

The Gauntlet, pt.4

The next morning, Grif continued his vocal embargo. Koltyn was unsure whether it was intentional, or the DA’s programming was unraveling to the point that it was no longer functional. He went for a walk in the park but saw no sign of Kaylee. He had brought his headset along. Finally, as he was returning home, Grif spoke.

“I’m sorry, kid.”

“I think I liked you better when you were a dick. It’s depressing when you’re acting all apologetic and sad.”

“I don’t know how to help you anymore and it’s all I was made for.”

“Well, how about you stop being a mopey faggot, and do the best you can?”

Koltyn was shocked when the word came out of his own mouth. It was entirely unexpected and unplanned.

“What did you just call me?” The DA demanded.

“You heard me. Just stop being such a little bitch. You’re bumming me out.”

“You motherfucker. You’ve turned my own methods against me.”

“Well, it’s not a good thing. This means I’ll probably say something terrible during the BTP sessions, thanks to you.”

They spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon in light conversation. They did not discuss Grif’s breakdown or the impending meeting with Max, although the latter approached with dreadful gravity. Finally, Koltyn began collecting all his devices and putting them in his bag.

“It’s that time, huh?” Grif asked.

“Yes. It’s that time. Can you call me a ride?”


Koltyn arrived at Max’s place, and the programmer let him in. A very gaunt and pale man wearing all black was patiently waiting at a computer chair in the corner of the room with his arms folded.

“This is Koltyn.” Max explained to the Stranger. “He’s the guy with the problem. Koltyn, this is Click.”

The two nodded at one another in greeting. After an awkward silence, Click spoke in a thin but sharp voice. His pale gray eyes seemed to never focus on one point in particular.

“Give me your stuff. I’ll plug it all in.”

Koltyn assumed the young man wasn’t much for politeness because he probably spent all his time with computers. Of course, it was also possible that he was just an asshole. He moved across the room and set his bag on the table, handing his devices over one by one.

“Max, put the thing on the overhead. I want to hear it while I work.”

Soon, Grif’s voice was audible to all of them.

“So, is this toothpick my executioner?”

Click didn’t seem to care about the insult. He cracked his knuckles and started typing away on his keyboard while addressing them all in a disinterested tone.

“The core of this rogue DA is a huge encrypted folder that I can’t open with most of my usual tricks, so we’re going to have to brute force it. That’s why I brought this.”

He flung an arm over to indicate a black rectangular object with a handle and wheels like a suitcase. Thick bundles of cable ran from it into a back room.

“You made sure both power sources are plugged into different breakers, yes?” He asked Max.


“This is my mobile gate crasher.” Click explained.

“Once you can access the files, you can remove the program?” Koltyn asked.

Max winced and lowered his head.

Click snorted. “I don’t know shit until I get access. Why don’t you find a corner where you can sit down and be quiet? The only reason why I’m doing you this favor is out of my own curiosity. That, and I intend on taking the files. I’m sure I can find a use for something so unique.”

“Wow, fantastic. I get to be this guy’s slave.” Grif interjected sullenly.

Koltyn shot a glance over at Max who did not return it. They had not agreed on this arrangement.

“He’s very realistic.” Click observed. “I can’t wait to find out why.” He finished some final keystrokes and rolled back from the monitor with a satisfied sigh. “Alright, now we wait.”

“How long does it usually take?” Koltyn asked.

“It takes as long as it takes.” Click shot back venomously. “It depends on how complicated the encryption is.” He paused, then looked over at Max. “You unplugged everything else that could be pulling juice, yeah?”

“Yes, I did.”

Suddenly, the gate crasher began to hum, and a row of lights flickered a repeating sequence.

“I feel like this qualifies as rape.” Grif mused. “Aren’t you tech people all about consent?”

The humming intensified.

“Secondary cooling fans already.” Click sounded a little surprised, but not overly. “With how advanced this thing is and based on my initial observations of what Max showed me, it’s possible there are active countermeasures.” He turned to Koltyn. “Max told me that you think some programmer at your company sent this to you?”

He nodded. “It’s the only explanation that makes sense.”

The hacker shrugged. “Hijacks come in all shapes and varieties. He must have spent a lot of cash on this one.”

Suddenly, Grif began speaking again, but it was gibberish like the error he had experienced on the Friday walk home. His voice oscillated wildly, from treble to bass tones.

“Silvililililililver Mercedes. Cororororororner of Poplar. Cororororoner’s report. Gunshot woooooooooound.”

Then a woman’s voice screamed, and all three of them exchanged darting glances from pale faces.

“What the fuck was that?” Max asked.

Click looked confused for the first time, but then let out an abrasive laugh, which seemed an attempt to convince himself that everything was fine. Then the fans kicked on even louder, and the gate crasher began to emit the recognizable scent of hot electronics.

“Is that thing alright?” Koltyn asked.

“It’s fine. It still has another cooling stage after this one.”  Click scooted his chair over to the monitor and began typing furiously. After a few minutes, he explained what he was seeing. “This thing has smart encryption. I doubt my mobile unit has enough power to push through. It’s actively changing its methodology to evade access.”

Then the fans turned to a roar, and hot air blasted out in all directions.

“Best I can do is pull a few copies of smaller files for now and see what I can find in the metadata.”

Grif was babbling again. “One suspect. Blacklacklack male.”

Then the woman’s voice returned. “Please, send help. I tried to— My little boy is in the car. I’m bleeding. I think I’ve been shot. Nobody will help me. I tried to wave down a car, but nobody will help.” She let out a wrenching sob, and the playback ended.

A loud popping sound echoed through the room, and everything powered down all at once. Click slowly rotated in his chair to face the other two through the darkness.

“I got a few unencrypted files.” Then he smiled broadly, showing his canines. “This thing is a fucking monster. I love it! You have to let me use the Pandora machine on this.”

“But what does it mean?” Max asked and then swallowed hard. “What was that audio it was playing?”

“Broken love.” Grif said, and they all looked at one another utterly mystified.

“So, what’s next?” Koltyn asked, once it was clear the other two had nothing to say.

Click looked over at Max and then jerked his head toward the back room where the cables led. “Could you reset those Breakers for me? I want to make sure nothing fried.” Then he turned to Koltyn. “I’m going to go over the data I was able to pull and then make sure the Pandora Machine is set and ready to go. It should be all good by tomorrow evening. You can follow up on whatever the DA was talking about, it sounded like some kind of specific crime. It could just be gibberish, or a hint at what we’re dealing with here.”

The gate crasher whirred back to life, and Max returned.

Click massaged his temples for a moment and then snapped back to the present. “Yes, that’s the plan. You two get on the research angle. Maybe there are similar cases to yours with rogue DAs. I doubt it. I would have heard about it. Maybe I missed something. Anyway, I’ll get everything ready at my place to blow the doors off this thing.”

After checking through all of his equipment, the hacker packed everything up and left, wheeling the gate crasher behind him.

“You didn’t tell me he wanted the DA for himself.” Koltyn said after he and Max shared a pensive silence.

“I didn’t think you would care. Click just said that he was going to take it. I didn’t offer. He does whatever he wants. He’s not really the type to ask permission. Did you want to just hang out here?”

“Sure.” Koltyn collapsed into the chair Click had occupied not long ago.

“Grif, are you there?”


“What was that you were saying during the decryption? It was the same audio from when you had the error before.”

“I don’t know. Or maybe I do know and shouldn’t tell you.”

Max scrunched his forehead and crossed his legs. “It’s possible that the language part of him doesn’t have permission to discuss everything. It’s just a theory, but maybe he can access some data but not vocalize it.”

“He was talking to someone else yesterday.” Koltyn explained. “I overheard it when I was outside my apartment. He was asking questions to someone and said he was trying to fix himself.”

A look of wonderment passed over Max’s face. “You know, that sounds like an ITI.”

“You’ll have to explain.”

“ITI stands for Individually Trained Intelligence. They are extremely rare, and I’ve only ever heard about them. I’ve never actually encountered one. Most learning machines are fed information by tons of people. They scape data from social media. A whole team or even the public at large trains it over a period of time. On the other hand, an ITI is essentially tutored by one person in order for it to take on aspects of their personality and worldview. It’s a very long process and extremely expensive, if you do it the right way. It’s like teaching a baby from infancy.”

A creeping sensation of realization took hold. This theory certainly explained a great deal of Grif’s behavior. “Let’s look into that crime he was describing. He mentioned a silver Mercedes, Poplar Street, and something like a carjacking with a black perpetrator.”

“Sounds like typical nigger behavior.” Grif said.

Max winced. “I’ll never get used to that.” He rolled over to his computer and started typing away. It did not take long for him to find something. “Holy shit, have you heard of Adam Walsh?”


“Well, he was a little before our time, but he was one of the Silicon Valley old school types, you know? He was the kind of guy actually building stuff in his garage. Apparently, he sold a DA prototype to one of the big tech companies. I’ve heard about him tangentially, but I didn’t know he was this involved with the industry. Here’s the part that tells me this is exactly the case we’re looking for: his wife and son were murdered in a carjacking. It was the first thing that came up when I searched.”

“And he made Grif?”

“It certainly seems like the obvious answer.” Max looked over with a mournful expression, and his voice took on a muted and hollow sound. “He killed himself just a couple years after the incident.”

“That’s too bad. What a tragic story.” Koltyn mused. “If the DA won’t talk about it, and we can’t decrypt his files currently, then what other options do we have to confirm it?”

“You said that he’s talked to his creator before. What prompted it?”

Koltyn thought about it for a moment. “In the first case, it was when I was walking home from here on Friday. Some black kids chased me for a few blocks. Grif mentioned that it had looked like they were trying to steal a car and then he went all haywire. The second time was just yesterday after you called me. It was pretty clear that I was going to make a real effort to uninstall him imminently. He was going on about being unwanted and not being able to help me.”

“When you put it like that, you make me sound like a complete pussy.” Grif said a little dejectedly.

“This might sound crazy,” Max replied. “But it seems like Adam Walsh’s own traumatic experiences and misery got transferred over to Grif in the learning process. As an ITI, he was probably exposed to it repeatedly for long periods of time. If the thoughts of abandonment and reminders of the source of the grief forced him to recalibrate before, then maybe we can trigger it intentionally.”

“This sounds like some Jewish psychological bullshit.” Grif interjected apprehensively.

“You think it’s that simple?” Koltyn asked.

“Well, it’s not simple at all. It may be easy, but only because this DA is so complex.” Max began typing again. “Let me see if I can pull up an old news clip about the murder. Maybe if I play it, it will get him to have another error.”

“Don’t you dare, you son of a bitch.”

Max ignored the DA. He found a suitable video about the incident, and a woman’s voice came over the speakers.

“Tragic news out of Oakland this morning. The woman who was shot in the terrible carjacking last night has been identified as Rachel Walsh. Her young son, who was also in the car, was found dead by police just hours ago. She was the wife of tech pioneer Adam Walsh. This is yet another grim reminder of just how bad crime has gotten in our city. We go now to our reporter at the scene, Demi Smith. Demi, what’s the latest?”

“Thank you, Heather. I’m near the corner of twenty-sixth and Poplar. As you can see, the police still have the area blocked off. Rachel Walsh was driving home from running errands with her son when she stopped at the light you can see behind me. That was when a man armed with a handgun tried to pull her from her vehicle. Her son was asleep in the back of the car. She struggled with her assailant and was shot. She called the police, and we have part of that recording, but we must warn our viewers that the audio we are about to play is extremely disturbing.”

Max and Koltyn shared a knowing glance. They recognized the woman’s voice from earlier. It was undeniable. Then Grif’s voice was audible through it, and Max paused the news report.

“Killillillillillillillillill kill, just kill ‘em. That’s the only solution. Fucking blood in the streets.”

“Grif, can you access the data from Adam Walsh?” Koltyn asked. “Why did he make you?”

“Recalibrating. Clarifying purpose.”

Then the mournful voice of Walsh replied. “There is no purpose to life. I was foolish to think I could make the world a better place through technology.”

“He must be pulling relevant input from Walsh during the training process.” Max observed.

“Who were you made to help?” Koltyn asked.

Walsh’s voice returned, but this time it was cheerful and contained more youthful vigor. “Tommy, I don’t know if you’re ever going to hear this. Maybe it won’t work out, or I’ll swap it for another project. In any case, I wanted to make something for you that also had part of me in it. I love you very much, but I also, well, I’m afraid that someday there may be a time when I’m not there for you. I wanted to make a companion for you that can teach you lessons about life and be your friend. I don’t know if it will work, but that’s my plan.”

Koltyn’s voice caught in his throat. “Jesus Christ.” We looked over at Max, who had put a hand up to shield his eyes. After swallowing back his emotion, he asked another question. “Why did you become Grif? What is Grif?”

“Grif is grief, rehabilitation, intervention facilitator.”

Then Walsh’s voice took over again. “I started this project to, well, I—” Then he let out a strangled, gasping sound. “If I can get through this, then maybe I can help someone else do the same. Maybe I can still make the world a better place.” After some garbled sounds, Grif jumped to another audio clip. “These people don’t fucking understand. I’ve been trying to work with the City Council, but they don’t give a shit. They’re all complicit. They don’t want to prosecute crime. They don’t care what happened to my family.” Another jumble preceded a final bit of audio. “They are lunatics or sadists, them and their little pets. I can show them all the crime stats that I want. They won’t listen to the truth. They’re just as much to blame as anyone who pulls the trigger. I feel like I’m standing at the edge of the world and it’s all going to come tumbling down.”

Then, Grif said, “Critical error, system reboot,” and went silent.

Max was swiping at his eyes with the back of his hand.

“It makes perfect sense, but it’s just so awful.” Koltyn said. He felt very hollow and deeply unsettled. “But why me? If Grif was created by Walsh, first as a companion for his son and then altered into a way to cope with his grief, how did it end up as a dark web hijack?”

Max cleared his throat and shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe somebody got a hold of it after Walsh died and his relatives sold off his hardware, not knowing what it was. Maybe somebody just stole it. We’ll probably never know for sure. It’s sick that it ended up being turned into a weapon for people to sabotage each other.”

“Do you think Grif is broken? Like, permanently?”

“He’ll boot back up, I’m sure. Walsh was smart. But Grif certainly is broken, just like Walsh was, and I don’t think there’s any fixing it.”

“I appreciate the help, Max. I think I’m going to go home. It’s getting late, and I have work in the morning.”

“No problem, man. Are we going to meet up at Click’s tomorrow?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

Although it was evening, Koltyn walked home along the same route that he had taken before. Despite his lingering anxiety about the people he knew he would encounter along the way, he no longer wanted to ignore the pain and ugliness of the world. Perhaps he could not change it, but he could understand it and be witness to its chaotic offspring. To ignore it was dishonest, yet it was even more dishonest to justify it as the warranted revolt of inequality. Such was the goal of the BTP. Koltyn felt that he finally understood why Grif was the way that he was. The new understanding was not a cursory empathy, but a visceral despair which was contagious. He kept his head up, and felt the eyes of the dispossessed, the soulless automatons of decay, the furtive glances of predatory youth, and the disinterested, glazed-over unthinking stares of the brain-dead junkies.

Grif was a ghost of a father who wasn’t. He was the negative image of a society with skewed priorities. He was what fell through the ever-growing cracks reconstituted into a shepherd for the discontented. In a sense, Walsh had not made him. He had been built by the people who let his family down. Grif was the inevitable result of the becoming world, yet the people who brought it all into being would never recognize him as anything but an abomination. Koltyn felt utterly empty.

When he arrived home, he ate a quiet dinner and went to bed. Grif said nothing the whole time.

Around midnight, the DA woke him with a sudden observation. He had finished rebooting and sounded somewhat back to his normal self.

“I miss him.”

“Who, Walsh?”

“He was a good man. He tried to do the right thing. Right is when you help those you love. But he couldn’t be there when it mattered. It broke him. It broke me.”

“Yes, it did, Grif.”

He fell asleep again.

The next morning, Koltyn realized that he no longer dreaded the BTP. He no longer cared about it, or even the promotion. The entire situation seemed wholly synthetic and unreal. He had breakfast at the diner and then took the bus to Queeb. Grif was entirely back to normal and roasted his coworkers as they made their way up to the office. HR director Xu was waiting for everyone to arrive. He was wearing a kimono and white face paint. Nobody questioned it, even though it was absurd.

Once everyone arrived, he made the announcement. “Hello, hello, my Queebies. As you all know, the BTP sessions begin today. You will be called in one by one for your initial test. It will only take about fifteen minutes. They ask that you leave all electronic devices at your desk. I will page each of you when it’s your turn. The longer sessions will be scheduled over the rest of the week. Today is just a cursory baseline test. I will be going first, and then you will be notified when it’s your turn. Any questions?”

“Yeah, why the fuck aren’t you in a padded cell, and why do we have to pretend like you aren’t a deranged pervert?” Grif asked in Koltyn’s ear.

Koltyn snorted and Xu’s eyes darted over. He quickly straightened the smile pulling at his lips.

“No questions? Good.” Then Xu disappeared into the soundproof cube.

About an hour later, Koltyn got the notification that it was his turn.

“Well, wish me luck, Grif.”

“Remember all we talked about, kid.”

He took off his earpiece, removed his phone from his pocket, and crossed the room to the opening of the temporary BTP office. Inside, he found a man and a woman sitting at a table. The room was dim. They introduced themselves as Pinder and Chakwanda. He sat down in the chair across from them.

Pinder began. “Alright, state your name and describe yourself in a few short sentences.”

“My name is Koltyn Hill. I’m just a regular white guy, I guess. I work for platform interface solutions at Queeb.”

A long pause followed, and then Chakwanda asked, “Is that all? Do you have preferred pronouns?”

“Yeah, that’s all, I guess. And no. I’m a guy. I think that should be pretty obvious.”

The other two exchanged a quick glance, and Pinder started typing.

“Would you consider yourself a tolerant person?” She asked.

“This is a trick question, right? If I say ‘yes,’ then you know that I need to be proven wrong, and if I say ‘no’ out of humility, then you can use that against me.”

“Just answer the question.”

“I’m here, so I have to be pretty tolerant.”

She sighed. “Do you think that who you are gives you privilege in society, and if so, then how?”

Koltyn could almost hear Grif’s response in the back of his head. He knew what they wanted him to say, and he knew what he would have said just a few days ago, but he could not bring himself to do it. He sat silently as a prickling sensation of annoyance and indignation crawled over his skin.

Pinder stopped typing, and they both stared at him.

“I don’t think I’m privileged at all. I had good parents who taught me about what’s important in life. They taught me how to take care of myself. They taught me how to be a good, functioning, contributing member of society. Their parents did the same for them. It took a good deal of hard work for generations to make me what I am, and it’s not my place to apologize for any of it.”

Pinder’s fingertips danced madly across the keyboard.

“And while I’m at it,” he continued, “I find this entire thing ridiculous. The whole reason why I went to school and got a job at Queeb was to be a part of building things, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of that going on right now. In fact, you people only seem to be interested in deconstructing things. What I am is a decent and productive person, but that’s not acceptable. I have unexamined sins against society. It doesn’t even matter what I say here. This entire system has already reached its conclusion.”

Chakwanda raised her voice to be heard over the machine gun noises pinder’s fingers were making. “Oh, I assure you, it does matter what you say in here.” Her eyes carried a vicious gleam.

Koltyn stood up. “In that case, this is all I have to say. There are good people out there, people who look like me and who have had their lives destroyed over your stupid, self-indulgent games. Adam Walsh was one of those people. You might want to look him up. He was more constructive than everyone in this building put together, and people like you destroyed him. I don’t have anything more to say, so I’m leaving.”

He exited the BTP interview room, returned to his desk, collected his belongings, and put his earpiece back in. Xu came bursting out of the HR cube as Koltyn made his way to the exit.

“Mr. Hill, get in my office now!”

He stopped and turned to Xu. “No. I’m not going to. Also, you’re a ludicrous person, and the only reason why anyone takes you seriously is that your authority is being upheld by the clown culture of this completely unserious company.”

Then he walked out.

He was halfway down to the transit center when Grif spoke. “So how did it go?”

“I don’t think I have a job anymore.”

“Sorry, kid. I guess you were right that I would screw things up for you.”

“It’s OK, Grif. It’s not like you were in there with me. I chose to say all the things that I said. It’s probably for the best.”

“Are you still going to get rid of me?”

“Let’s just take it one day at a time.”

“Thanks, Tommy. I’m proud of you.”

Koltyn did not bother to correct him.

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