Originally published on March 1, 2016
The first sign we were under attack came from the elementary school.
The third graders were learning to print Christmas trees in time for winter break — an anachronism that always made the adults laugh at the idea of winter — and the printer wasn’t working right.
The little girl who raised her hand will always be famous for figuring it out so quickly. She pointed to the slightly lopsided, plastic tree standing on her desk, colored in a shocking crimson.
“Misses Banks, why won’t this print right?”
Words that will live in infamy.
“I don’t know Amy, have you checked your settings?”
She nodded. Misses Banks went over to Amy’s tablet: she had drawn the tree right, with preternaturally steady hands for an eight-year old, and she had checked “evergreen” on the print screen. The dimensions checked out, it had the proper z‑value to be the right depth, and the scale was about right. The printer’s plastic hopper was full, and its dye bank had just been replaced that morning.
Misses Banks was stumped. “Can everyone else print their trees okay?”
The other students nervously checked their settings, just to make sure. No one wanted to be embarrassed like Amy was about to be, the one stupid kid who couldn’t use a printer right. But she wasn’t stupid. It was the printer.
“Misses Banks, my tree won’t print right, either.”
The history books always changed who that was: whether it was George Zuckerberg, or Tommy Gates, or Jonathan Spiegel. It didn’t matter: Amy Hansen, the Governor’s daughter herself, is officially the one who figured out something was wrong with the 3D printers and thus showed us we were being destroyed, bit by bit.
We thought it was the Chinese at first. They had always been jealous, or angry, or critical, or whatever, of our base and what we had accomplished. Their state-run news sites attacked us constantly for wasting time, attention, or resources. We were the subjects of a dozen state TV hit pieces. They accused us of dumping trash onto the lunar soil, of poisoning it with human waste when we’d desiccate and bury our sewage. We thought they wanted us shut down, but then they’d also make plays to invalidate our patents, or to gain market share on our exports, or to force us to cut an exclusive price drop on helium‑3. It was a dysfunctional relationship.
So the Chinese wouldn’t — couldn’t — do this, we thought. They wanted to be in our base, not destroying it. Control, not death — that was their modus operandi. They couldn’t afford their own moon base since the last Asian currency collapse. Destroying us wouldn’t help them get a toehold up here, especially if it would disrupt their helium‑3 fusion fuel.
We had shown the world that lunar colonies could work. We grew our own food, mined our own water, and generated our own wealth through intellectual property that we defended through an aggressive law firm we kept on retainer in London. For all intents and purposes, we were our own government, even if we were technically still American in some way. It was just a technicality — we were all born on the moon, two generations of us. We didn’t really deal with the Americans very much apart from a formalized trade relationship, though they counted us among their space settlements. Still, our products had to go through customs just like everyone else. I don’t think any of us had passports or considered ourselves citizens. We couldn’t go down to the surface anyway — the crushing gravity on Earth would keep us bedridden, and probably kill most of us anyway.
America wasn’t laying claim to this chunk of the moon — just a few dozen commercial settlers.
Are we a base? That’s what we call ourselves now. I like to think of us like one of those Antarctic bases on steroids — sort of nominally associated with a government but not really, and existing in a uniquely apolitical environment. Unlike Antarctica there are no zones of national control — no one could conceivably enforce a claim to territory anyway. Moreover, because the U.S. government never endorsed or even supported our launch, the Founders always considered us above the International Space Treaty. America wasn’t laying claim to this chunk of the moon — just a few dozen commercial settlers.
We pretend to be a real government, but no one really puts his or her heart into it. As far as I know, when visitors come we don’t have customs or anything. We just have them swipe their IDs, and otherwise welcome them onto the base to conduct business. I guess it’s more of a free economic zone than a colony: a hyper-productive place springing from some smart inventors and others who had lost any strong ties to the country that gave them the wealth to fund their journey outward.
By the middle of the century, travel to the moon and back had become dangerous. The Europeans didn’t launch their first janitorsat until the Founders were all middle aged. The janitorsats focused almost entirely on the lower orbits, the ones crowded with old construction equipment, decrepit Russian Kosmos satellites that were never programmed to de-orbit, the leftover skeletons of Iridium’s network after Anonymous unleashed LulzInSpace.py, the spiraling radioactive cloud of debris that used to be the old Chinese Tiangong station, and hundreds of spent rocket stages. It took decades to net-down all the old satellites from a hundred miles up to thirty thousand. The geostationary orbits took the longest to clear: it is expensive to go that high, and it was so crowded with working and broken satellite buses that the janitors had to be delicate.
By the time there were one again wide open launch windows for a safe trip up to the Moon and back to Earth, we were poised to disrupt the economy with what we had discovered: not just abundant fusion reactor fuel, but new processes for molecular manufacturing. We built really high-precision lasers on the cheap and used them to manufacture high precision equipment below any Earthside costs.
Plus, our potatoes and catfish are the best for a million miles around. Lunar regolith has tons of nitrogen, but it never stayed hydrated and plants never thrived in it raw. So the Founders brought up some algae samples and catfish eggs to start an aquaponics system, using their own poop to supply active bacteria. Human poop is magic: it can power combustion engines, or be processed lightly into bioplastic for construction. Human guano. Gross to think about, but economically it is unbeatable.
The double-plus bonus? The nitrogen-15 isotope that’s so common in moon soil makes our food easy to trace. It helps our lawyers sue people who try to steal our (patented) food production techniques.
A week after Amy Hansen’s printer problem, Jorge Menendez, the deputy director of operations, noticed the south polar water processor was a bit misaligned. It was a problem no one had seen in four decades: it was still crunching through mined blocks of regolith, separating out frozen water for filtering and congealing the rest into blocks for construction at a manufactory near the base, but the blocks were coming out a bit wrong. And the water was just a bit less pure than usual.
I was on duty and messaged him that day. “Is there a wear-out somewhere?” I asked.
“No,” he said. The “typing” ellipsis in his window lasted a few seconds longer than it should have. He was typing really slowly on his phone. “I just ran a system-wide diagnostic. There are no failures reported anywhere.”
“Is it a monitoring issue? Maybe the sensors are gummed?”
He paused again. Sent a screenshot of his diagnostic window and pulled up a video from his desk. “No, see? The sensors are working just fine. Dust is light today.”
This was puzzling. “I’m sorry Jorge, I know going outside sucks out there, but can you get suited up and check in person?”
He flashed a thumbs up emoji. He must be pissed. Jorge’s window went idle.
Twenty minutes later, I got a buzz that his video stream was on. There were a lot of dead pixels. “Jorge, are you sure you’re on the right network? Your feed has a lot of errors on it.”
“Yeah, I don’t use the public Wi-Fi anymore. Maybe it’s my personal network,” he said. The typing on his left wrist made the image shake.
“Nope,” he huffed, “my networks are all working nominally, they’re pinging low and I have no packet loss.”
“I don’t get it, Jorge. The signal is really dirty.”
“I don’t know what to say, Bennett. Let me get to work.”
I watched him glide around the massive water processor. It made me think about the first CCTV hit piece on us, when they claimed our base was faked because we didn’t bounce around the way the Apollo pioneers did. The producers forgot that most of us were born here; for us, this was normal gravity. We don’t bounce. At the most, we glide. I always thought it a much more elegant way to walk than the staccato stomping you see from the Earthside feeds.
But Jorge found nothing. No mechanical faults, at any rate. “How else can you diagnose this?” I asked him. “Is it a software issue?”
“I have no idea, Bennett.” Jorge sounded tired and he was out of breath. “That will take some time, and meanwhile we will have to work harder to re-machine these blocks to get air, propellant, and drinking water. Can we afford to take these offline while we look?”
“I don’t think we can, Jorge. We can’t distribute blocks that are out of spec; it’ll screw up everything downstream. But we can’t just shut down either — we’ll lose too much.”
By now Jorge’s breathing had become ragged.
“Jorge, can you check your O2? You don’t sound good.”
Through heaving panting, he replied, “My meter says I’m fine, but I feel lightheaded. I’m going back to the airlock.”
He paused twice on his way back. Within ten minutes he went from sounding a bit tired to being barely upright. He sat down as the airlock cycled. His video feed shook. “Bennett, I can’t remove my helmet.” His voice was slurred, and his video feed shook a few times as his hand pawed at the release clamp.
I slapped the emergency klaxon and yelled into the mic. “Mayday mayday mayday! Any available personnel to render aid at south polar water processor airlock 2! This is not a drill!”
A technician was just up the corridor, thank God. The airlock hadn’t cycled all the way shut and was still partly open to the vacuum outside. Jorge was passed out in his suit. I could see the technician frantically punching commands into the screen by the airlock door. Jorge’s suit transmitted a muffled whumpf as the outer door sealed properly and air flooded into the chamber. As soon as the pressure equalized, Jorge’s helmet popped open. He wheezed and gulped huge lungfuls of air. But he didn’t wake up.
The tech yanked open the first aid panel and placed an oxygen mask over Jorge’s face, easing the man to the floor to lay flat. He looked at his wrist and tapped some commands. “Sir, there was a software fault in the airlock. It registered a full cycle but the mechanical fail-safes registered vacuum and prevented a full decompression. We could have lost the entire processor dome.”
I nodded. “Thank you. Can you help Mister Menendez to the medical shuttle? We’ll take care of him back here.”
The tech began to gently ease Jorge’s shoulder up. Jorge groaned and his eyes fluttered. “Oh and would you please run a diagnostic on Jorge’s suit?” I asked. “I want to know why he didn’t get a CO2 alarm.”
“Yes sir,” the tech said. He pulled Jorge into the corridor and shut off the video stream.
This was our first casualty in the war.
Jorge’s suit was compromised in some way. It took us days to figure out that it was a deliberate fault. Someone hacked his suit and the airlock at the same time. He was three minutes away from being the moon’s first murder victim.
Governor Hansen declared an emergency. We dropped everything beyond life support maintenance to identify how such a thing had happened.
But we were too late. Things just began to go wrong, failure on top of failure like an avalanche accelerating downhill. On Earth, if someone hacks your refrigerator and the temperature spikes, it sucks to lose all that food but you won’t die. There are other fridges to store food. You also have the grocery store, restaurants, deliveries and whatnot. You wouldn’t starve.
On Earth, if someone hacks your refrigerator, it sucks to lose all that food but you won’t die. Living in space, however, is hard.
The moon is different. Here, you are always on a knife’s edge, a slight tip away from death if something goes wrong. If you lose your capacity to grow food, you starve. You lose access to ice and you go thirsty or suffocate, whichever comes first. Without water you get no hydrogen peroxide, which means no rocket propellant, which means you can’t travel to find new sources of ice. If you lose your airlocks, you cannot go outside to fix things, and if you cannot go outside to fix things you eventually go blind from your sensors being dusted over or you die from equipment failure. Same thing if your spacesuit goes kaput.
Living in space is really hard. We do it because we love it, and we find it enriching, and because we have known nothing else for two generations. I never had a choice about growing up inside a regolith dome hacked out of a dead moon, but it is a good life anyway. It is also an inherently vulnerable way to live. You cannot let things get out of hand. You cannot relax, not truly, and you cannot be lazy or you will die.
We were facing death, and it stalked us in our own computer systems. And we had no idea what was causing those computers to fail.
Five airlock failures a week for two months. Half our suits wouldn’t work, and we didn’t know when the others would fail. The failures seemed to strike at random: there was no pattern to where or when they would fail, or under what circumstances a suit would stop recycling oxygen. People began to worry that other systems would get compromised, too: the carbon dioxide in their rooms, the sanitizers in the kitchens, the impact detection grid.
You could see it in their faces, the way the younger kids would clutch their parents’ hands just a little bit tighter as they walked down the halls, the shadows under everyone’s eyes in the dining hall, the way the technicians hung their heads every time they suited up to go outside, the way the traffic controllers would tighten their voices just a tiny bit when giving landing directions.
I had to design a contingency plan: our computers were going all wonky, so we needed to have non-computer backups. But it’s the twenty-first century — how do you live on the Moon without modern computers?
My first idea was to take as many analogue backups as we had leftover from Founding and refurbish them around the nearest airlocks. It was only a dozen old suits, but they were enough while we worked to remove the modern suit routers. That wasn’t nearly as easy as it seemed — everything from telemetry to health data to the situational awareness sensors had to be modified. Jorge’s intern, Gabrielle, cobbled together simple radio transmitters that could be switched out for the routers.
We had to position first aid and rescue kits in the corridors and in adjacent locks — which still came too late. The first few downmodded suits failed anyway. Gabrielle spent weeks manually re-creating the electronics suite of the old Founding suits. We had to disassemble everything and rebuild it as an older, less capable version. It was like giving up a modern electric car to drive a Model T.
Everyone was on the buddy system outside, and no one was permitted to be in-suit more than a three-minute journey from an airlock or a mechanical source of air. Maintenance got hard — and expensive. Rooms began registering leaks, some were false readings, but even the real leaks never became catastrophic. It was just enough to cause us constant heartburn, like someone was making us into the little Dutch Boy in space, running ourselves ragged.
The clock was ticking for us to figure this out. Our exports had halted, and we didn’t make enough from our residuals to cover any of our other costs. We were actually contemplating the prospect of running out of money and thus, lawyers. It would be a death spiral for our economy. No one knew how long we’d be a viable commercial entity without IP lawyers on earth to defend our exports.
Jorge was taking it really hard. “I cannot figure this out,” he told me one day over lunch. He was haggard, his voice harsh and gritty. By this point, we were practically living in our suits from the constant environmental failures. “Our operating systems are working. Our virus scans don’t show anything. None of our programs have been modified that I can see. I can’t make sense of it.”
He had dark circles under his eyes, and he hadn’t shaved in weeks. I could smell my own stench coming out of the neck of my suit. Everyone I passed in the hallways looked haggard. It’s hard to sleep when you’re wondering if your own home was going to misbehave and kill you without warning. And showers are out of the question: no one wanted to be discovered freeze dried and naked. We were falling apart.
“I know, Jorge. But I’m confident you can figure it out.”
He just nodded and went back to eating his steamed vegetables.
“I wonder if we weren’t actually hacked?”
At this, Jorge looked up at me. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know — maybe we’re being too literal in looking for an outside hacker.”
“But…” He paused and stared off to the side. “That doesn’t make any sense. That’s treason. It’s murder! Who would want to do such a thing?”
I didn’t have a solid answer. “Maybe whoever it is wants us to look like failures, instead of victims?”
Jorge kept nodding. “Maybe. But that would mean there is an inside person here. Someone manually rewriting lines of code and modifying the logs to cover his tracks. Someone with root access to everything we own.”
I looked him in the eye. “Who has that sort of access?”
“Not many,” he said back. “Not many. I’ll work up a list.”
It felt like living in the dark ages. Or a slum.
It felt like living in the dark ages. Or a slum. Our video feeds all became grainy, down to resolutions you’d see on an antique phone. We lost our bandwidth: first the laser optics, and eventually the Wi-Fi too. Our networks were so slow we could barely share pictures, and the video was unbearably fuzzy. It was worse than living in a slum; it was living in the 90s.
I got caught in one of these failures. It was a terrifying experience. I thought at first that the flicker and wavy motion off to my right was just my eyes being silly, the sort of entoptic movement you get when you stare at the bright silver lunar soil for too long. But soon I noticed that turning my head would create little waves of nausea. Spots began to appear in my vision. I stumbled and cried out, panting, but my voice never left my helmet. Down on one knee, I darted my eyes around, looking for my walk buddy Suleiman, but I couldn’t see where he was. My other knee hit the ground, sinking slightly in the regolith. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. The hand reached under my armpit and hoisted me to my feet. My head swam. I couldn’t see and felt only distant.
Next thing I knew, I was gasping and choking in an infirmary.
Jorge was standing over me. “Are you okay?”
My eyes watered. As I shook my head, the droplets flung outward in the low gravity. Piercing agony waved through my midsection. “I am in a lot of pain. What went wrong?”
Jorge thinned his lips. “This time it wasn’t a small failure. Your suit didn’t vent into space, but instead flooded your helmet with nitrogen. You were slowly asphyxiating and got the bends when we brought you inside.”
My stomach pitted, but only for a second. A lance of pain through my shoulder pulled the gut feeling away. Nitrogen narcosis is incredibly dangerous. “I don’t feel much like moving around, Jorge.”
“I know, Bennett. But you’ll be okay. We got you into a pressure vessel in time. You’ve been unconscious for almost two days.”
“Is that why I’m thirsty?”
Jorge nodded. “Bennett, there’s more.”
I looked at Jorge. “What do you mean, ‘more?’ Like, more than my suit being fucked up?”
He nodded and looked over at a screen. “Umm, look…” He licked his lips. “One of the grow houses vented.”
My eyes went round. “Like…vacuum?”
“Yes. There were four people inside. Their emergency suits vented too.”
I sat upright, ignoring the streaks of pain in my abdomen. “We lost four?”
He stared at me. “Governor Hansen has called an emergency meeting for tonight. He wants you there.”
“Will I be okay to go?” I looked over at the doctor. She nodded.
“You’ll be uncomfortable, Bennett, but you’ll be able to make it.”
At the meeting, we couldn’t figure out what to do. Governor Hansen was unhappy. “Look we know we’re compromised in some way, right?” Jorge and I nodded. “But we don’t know who?”
Jorge spoke up. “No, sir, we cannot even identify what is going wrong in the code. All we know is that we have cascading equipment failures, and that the newer equipment seems to be the most failure-prone.”
“Well that doesn’t help us very much does it?”
“No, Mr. Governor, but we might still have options,” I said. “We need to hire outside help.”
The governor gave me side eye. “Outside? Like who?”
“I don’t know,” I said. Before Governor Hansen could say anything I added: “But London should. They work on computer security cases all the time.”
“Nothing like this has ever happened before. No one has ever hacked an entire fucking society,” the governor shot back.
“However,” Jorge said, “there have been some attempts.” Everyone looked at him. “It’s mostly Russia and China,” he said. “At the dawn of the millennium, they would attack the computer systems of states they opposed. Russia tried, once, to shut down Estonia’s government networks that manage social services and count votes at election. China hacked dissident groups, competing technology companies, and tried to crack open secessionist movements in a pretty comprehensive way. They humiliated a ton of groups by making their security look weak.”
I interjected. “Right, we are all aware of that, but that’s why we built systems that can’t be hacked that way. It is physically impossible for someone on Earth to break into our network. It’s light speed. The signal delay would identify their location as Earth and lock them out. There is no way a hostile government can spoof that.”
Jorge looked uncomfortable. “Well it could be someone here.”
The governor scowled. “Do you have any evidence that someone is actively doing this here?”
“No,” Jorge conceded. “But it might not have to be a person. It could be something else, something built in that we missed, something in our source code that is being exploited somehow. I don’t know. I think the only way we can figure this out is by hiring a security expert to audit our systems.”
And so we did. It turned out intellectual property lawyers in London are really plugged into the somewhat murky universe of computer security experts. Our lawyers found a guy who was willing to travel on site to do his audit.
As the consultant’s shuttle approached, I decided to tune into the Lunar Traffic Control frequency. Too many things had gone wrong and I had to make sure that he got here properly. The video feed was grainy but I could make everything out with a bit of squinting.
The shuttle pilot indicated she was on final approach.
“Roger that, shuttle Alpha-four, set landing controls to auto.”
“Confirmed, landing sequence is on auto. Luna Control you are in the driver’s seat.”
“Copy that, Alpha-four. Stand by landing sequence.”
The shuttle lurched to the side.
“Umm, Control? Who’s punching buttons today?”
“That wasn’t us, Alpha-four. Standby.”
The shuttle rotated a full ninety degrees, its thrusters puffing out contradictory whips of vapor.
“Control I am fighting a nasty roll here, disconnect from autopilot!”
The traffic controller sounded panicked. “Shuttle Alpha-four I am completely disengaged from your control systems. Right your landing approach!”
The shuttle descended on its side, puffs of vapor still coming out at opposing angles from the thruster nodes.
“Luna Control we are unable to right our orientation. Prepare recovery crews!”
The shuttle was descending rapidly now, with a slight corkscrew. The traffic control sounded the crash alarm and a small-looking tractor outside lit up. Three people in suits left the traffic control airlock with rescue bags.
“Shuttle Alpha-four! Brace for impact!”
The shuttle slammed into the surface, just off the side of the landing pad. A giant puff of dust and vapor shot away from the impact site and a body went tumbling onto the surface. It didn’t move after impact. As the cloud blew away, I could see that the body of the shuttle looked intact. But the roar of shouting on the main traffic control line told me it was really bad. I realized that the cloud cleared away because of the force of the air inside the cabin, leaking into space.
A little bit away from the crash site, pieces of the shuttle began plopping onto the surface, kicking up miniature puffs of dust and leaving behind tiny craters.
“We are so fucked.”
I looked over at Jorge. “Oh really, Jorge, thank you for pointing this out.”
“Ugh, I’m not just emoting, Bennett! I think I figured out what’s going on.”
“Okay. So what is it?”
“I think we have a worm.”
I paused for a second. “A worm? What does that even mean?”
“It means there is code in our operating system that has propagated throughout the network and is responsible for the software failures.”
“So we were hacked? Who could do that, Jorge?”
He looked forlorn. “I have no idea, Bennett. This is very strange. I think it’s old, too. Like it’s been here since Founding.”
That couldn’t be true. The implications — “That means one of the Founders was a traitor,” I said.
Jorge nodded. “Yes they were. Someone built our entire society with a weakness we never knew about.”
Two days later we presented this theory to Governor Hansen. “Preposterous,” was his response. “The Founders were all computer scientists, coders all. How could one have created a worm that far back that no one else ever noticed? There has to be a more recent explanation. One less crazy.”
Jorge tried to persuade him otherwise, but Hansen wasn’t having any of it. So we kept looking, program after program, line by line of code.
“I keep coming back to this,” Jorge said after another few days of analysis. “I can’t find the actual program, it’s being too sneaky for me to track it down. But I can see what it does, and how it’s changing things. And it just isn’t behaving like a modern program. The heuristics are all wrong.”
We were having lunch. I had just spilled salsa roja on the neck ring of my suit and reached for a napkin to wipe it off. “Is it learning? Is that why you can’t find where the actual program resides?”
“No,” Jorge said. “That’s what I mean about the heuristics. Machine learning happens in a specific type of pattern: you can see it trying new things either systematically or contextually. This is random. Or at least, I think it is. That’s why I think it’s old, like a century old or more. Those old Machine Learning algorithms didn’t do a good job of learning from context. They learned randomly, within bounds.”
“But how would something like that even get on our network?”
“That’s the part that puzzles me. But I think one reason these failures seem to be random is because our network does not have tight boundaries.”
“You mean the program doesn’t have a narrow context to operate in, so it strikes wherever it can?”
“More or less,” Jorge said. “But that still doesn’t help me find where it is, it just gives me a random set of effects to try to make sense of. It’s really frustrating.”
While Jorge chewed on the weird worm putting us all in danger and making us poor, I was trying to figure out how to get some outside help. No one was willing to land a commercial shuttle, not even manually, after the Alpha-four crash. And our firm in London had denied our requests to send a new consultant up here to audit our systems.
I had begun reaching out to the Founding Families in California. Most had severed ties with us when we began pursuing intellectual property litigation against China; it was too risky to their own portfolios to be seen as having a relationship with a state adversary. But some had stayed in contact, at least financially. They cashed their residual checks at any rate.
His one and only name was Narendra. I asked him for a last name and he declined.
However, none of them expressed any interest in helping us, save one: Darryl Sandberg, who family went back generations in tech culture. He put me in touch with one of his friends, who did hush-hush security consulting for the American government. That seemed exactly what we needed: not connections to some security service, but the skills to operate at that level. His one and only name was Narendra. I asked him for a last name and he declined.
“Well, I can tell you one thing right off the line,” he said during our first conversation. “You need to fire your lawyers.”
I stuttered. “Umm, okay, that’s good of you to say. Can I ask why you think we should do that?”
“They’re owned by the Russians.”
I furrowed my brow trying to figure out why that was relevant. “So what? Rich Russian guys own lots of companies. Why does that matter?”
“I am almost certain they’re involved somehow,” he replied.
“Is there…I mean…do you have any evidence of this?”
The man shook his head. “No, but you know they’ve had designs on the South Pole forever. If the oil markets hadn’t crashed their economy they would have set up there with the Europeans.”
“I fail to see why that’s relevant,” I said back. “All that was forty-five years ago.”
Narendra nodded. “Yes, right when your Founders were launching constructors to the Moon.”
Now that gave me pause. “We’ll think about it,” I said, and proceeded to work out his fee.
We probably underpaid. In less than a week, he had landed nearby in a small, private rock jumper, piloted by one of Sandberg’s employees, and hopped across several miles of regolith to enter the main dome. Three days later, he told us he had an answer.
“It’s your BIOS,” he said. Jorge yelled something from the nearby office. Perhaps despair? Narendra continued: “Your BIOS has been compromised for decades, and it’s a vulnerability frankly no one has ever discovered until now.” He seemed happy, almost ecstatic. “I mean, think about it: No one has used this specific system for administering hardware for decades, but you stuck around long enough to get hit by it!”
“You do know 10 people have died.”
Immediately, his face drooped a bit. “Yes, I’m sorry. It’s very exciting to discover something completely new. But I mean, also, you are so fucked.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You need to replace everything here. Every single piece of electronics you have either constructed or that you have purchased since arriving. And you need to replace it all simultaneously: total power down, everything unplugged, full replacement.”
My mouth fell open. “We can’t do that. Even assuming we could afford it, I don’t think we can handle being offline for however long that would take. We are literally dependent on these computers for life and death.”
“Yeah,” he said. “That is why you are so fucked.”
Of course news of this catastrophe spread. Every single buyer for our high-precision manufacturing went silent. They wouldn’t even return our calls. The news accused us of selling “poisoned motherboards” to an unsuspecting public. We were completely ruined. We couldn’t even export our food – no one was willing to land a shuttle, nor were they willing to accept our cargo launches. We lost five potato harvests while they died in space, slowly irradiated into poison.
We lost our Internet access. Emails back to Earth stopped working, and we had to access social media through special portals that “scrubbed” our traffic to make sure this BIOS worm wasn’t getting to anywhere it shouldn’t.
We needn’t have worried. By the time Narendra had traced the BIOS worm to a small group of Russians who worked for the KGB fifty years ago but sold “secure” computer assembly sequences as a side business, he had unpacked the source code. We were the targets. Some Russian official fifty years ago wanted to disrupt our colony, and he eventually succeeded. We were ruined.
The Sandbergs took a bit of pity on us: they drop-shipped a thousand dumb spacesuits nearby the crashed shuttle Alpha-four. They then sent a big transport to start taking us to some nearby space stations. We were going to be split up; the only community any of us had ever known was being ripped apart because of a piece of ancient software.
Narendra helped us back up most of our pics and vids on some scrubbed hard drives. Besides our clothes, our only possessions amounted to a file directory on a little wafer of silicon.
When the Founders had settled the Moon, they spoke at great length of how wonderful it would be to be pioneers again, to be on the very cutting edge of something new. They were right to be proud, even as I lament how arrogant they were to not check their computers more thoroughly before making them impossible to change. Legacy bugs, the Internet says. Those legacy bugs will kill you. In our case it was too true.
I can’t admit, out loud at least, that we at least have the distinction of being another first for humanity: the first space refugees. We can never go down to earth, but we can at least get closer to it. Living in a spinning wheel is never the same as being pulled down by proper gravity. But that’s all we have left, now.