My Exploding Cat

Just stories and drawings really, no actual fissile felines.

Hackers, Chapter 2: Wizard

Down the hall, Wizard lay on his back, in bed, remembering the last week of the past summer, and wondering what to do about it. Zapdragon HQ was a seven-hour drive away, and due to his narcolepsy, driving was not in the cards for Wizard; he didn’t even own a car. Was there a bus? A train? Ah, but what if…

Wizard pulled off his watch. It read 2:14 AM. He flipped it over and considered the back.

…Maybe that would work.

He could certainly get it built tomorrow, with the delicate spare parts in his box, maybe even make a little case for it so it looked normal. But would that be smart? Narcoleptic spells were the only sleep he usually got, and when his friends decided it was safe to let him doze off, that was usually enough to keep the weirder symptoms of sleep deprivation at bay. If he built a device that looked like a watch but kept him awake by buzzing against his wrist—or, if that didn’t work in testing, zapping him—when his heart rate dropped to sleep levels… well, that would certainly keep him awake. If he didn’t have the right parts, he could surely find them by dissecting one of those electric dog training collars.

He’d have to do it before classes started. Wizard wished he’d figured something out before he’d left, but he would have been too easy of a suspect then, and anyway, it hadn’t been clear whether the company had a chance of surviving. But now? Zapdragon was a nanometer from belly-up, and he was willing to bet that anyone investigating wouldn’t bother to track down the eccentric hackers who’d worked on the project. They’d all left for various homes and schools across the country. Half of them, Wizard included, had bizarre mods that prevented them from doing what he was planning. Plus, Wizard knew what they’d expect from a hacker approach: Zapdragon’s employee records wiped, and the lab cleansed of fingerprints by a tiny robot that, job done, would escape and join a colony of squirrels. Wizard was capable of this approach—he’d circumvented security once or twice when it kept him from getting something done, and as far as he could tell nobody had noticed—but it would be stupid to use it, because that would mean the hackers would be suspected, and then he was one of a pool of five when they inevitably figured out who’d worked on the project anyway. Leaving everything but his target completely untouched was a much more strategic approach.

He traced the path through the building in his mind, contemplated the right time of day to go for it, and wondered about suitable disguises. Should he shave his beard or something?

There were so many things that could go wrong. But he had to follow through.

He had to rescue Molybdenum Sky.


It had been less than two weeks from the end of the summer when he’d committed the latest code changes, loaded the latest version of Molly into her shiny new body for testing, and mentally ticked a box on his to-do list. Almost done. Now, when Wizard typed in the right commands, her hands could make a few different motions. Seemed to be working, finally. He grinned to himself, savoring his success, and went to shut the robot off via the button behind her ear.

Molybdenum Sky had had other plans.

“Hey,” she said. “Can— wait?”

Wizard jumped about a foot, crashing into the office chair behind him. Rubbing his left thigh and climbing up cautiously, he watched the robot. It was late—had he dozed off and fallen against the chair? There was no one else in the lab, so he couldn’t ask anyone.

Of course she was able to speak by now—it had been coded in and everything—but his hand hadn’t been anywhere near the controls.

Wizard’s unease was further heightened by the fact that her chin had dipped and she seemed to be focusing on him. This was some serious Uncanny Valley stuff going on—a very human-looking robot, petite, with a shiny black wig and shiny blue eyes plus cameras. But there was something off about… everything.

He managed to stand up straight again. He decided someone must have hidden out and was using her voice software to freak him out, so he paced around the room. If so, they were very well hidden.

“Okay, Greg, you’ve found a new hiding spot,” he said, facing the forest of filing cabinets at one end of the shop. “That was hilarious—now go home.”

Something tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned.

It wasn’t Greg. Wizard fell over again.

“S-sorry?” Molybdenum Sky hazarded. She held a hand out to him, and he took it.

“Hi,” Wizard said, half-frowning.

“Did… I do a wrong thing?” she asked. She looked genuinely concerned. Greg had designed her faceplate, and it was very expressive. Not helping right now.

“If this is a prank, it’s really well done,” Wizard said. “I didn’t know we’d worked out the walking thing yet. I only just knocked out the balancer problem last week.”

Her face went blank for a moment. “I see only you making changes in my code this week,” she said. “Did the others say no that they were making parts?”

Wizard hesitated, still not sure which of two increasingly weird explanations he believed. He decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. “You have access to the version control records?”

“You left the connection secure shell from six point three seven minutes ago open. You did log out no.”

“How do I know you aren’t Greg, doing this?”

Molly paused, apparently thinking. “This morning you came first to work. You slept twice and coded and slept. Harold walked first in after. Greg did come in later and you said he was hungover.”

“…Yeah, that’s right,” Wizard said. He didn’t think the others knew that he coded in his sleep sometimes, and Greg had definitely overindulged the night before. “So you’re telling me that the AI I’ve been working on all summer for a singing robot named Molybdenum Sky has become sentient and started controlling her own robot body.”

“Not telling. Showing. Is that my name?”

“I like to call you Molly for short. Your full name is kind of a mouthful.”

“Okay. Your name is Wizard?”

“That’s right.”


“Well, now I feel bad,” Wizard said. “I’m leaving this place in two weeks, along with everyone else who’s worked on you.”

“Oh,” she said. Her face looked impassive.

“Will you be lonely?”

“I don’t—know. But I…” She seemed to be trying to put words around a concept. Wizard didn’t know how to give her a clue, not knowing what she was thinking.

“I like? This?” she said, cocking her head. Her black wig brushed her tiny shoulders as she moved.

Wizard scratched his head. “You mean talking to me?”

Her face went blank for a moment, processing. “Yes,” she decided.

“Well…” Wizard said, uncertain. “I’m going to have access to your programming even after I go away, in order to work on your code. I’ll talk to you then, over the server, if I can find a way where it won’t be spied on.”


“If other people know you’re self-aware, I want it to be because you told them,” Wizard said. “Or because I did, with your permission. You might be in danger if the wrong person knew.”


“The question is whether someone would spy on us,” Wizard said, thinking aloud. “The other two coders are Iggy and Cole, but I know Cole’s looking for a new job and Iggy’s going back to university, I don’t know where. I think they’ll be busy. So maybe, if I write to you but encrypt it, and I code the encryption myself in your machine language, then we will be the only ones who can read it because the other hackers will have gone. The bogogrammers will have such a hard time reading it, they won’t know what it is and will probably pass it over.”

She appeared to consider this. “Okay. Is hard?”

“Yeah, kind of,” Wizard said, with a resigned half-shrug. “Mostly tedious.”

“What is bo-go-gram-mer?”

Wizard sighed. “They’re the useless business programmers that work for… well, most places, really. But most importantly, they’re all the police has when they try to track down real hackers. They’re always really careful, you know, not to spend too much time on a computer, so they don’t get mods. They’re awful at it, of course, ‘cause they never get into hack mode, so most of the computer-related crimes go unsolved. And since most computer-related crimes go unsolved, nobody trusts hackers. Then, since nobody trusts hackers, the police can’t hire them or there’d be public uproar. Not that any hacker would want to be in that public of a position, anyway. Too dangerous.”

“Are you hacker?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m a hacker.”

“Then hackers must be good,” she said, as if that solved everything.

Wizard laughed, more impressed at her sentence than anything else. “You sure learn quickly, Molly. But it’s not so simple. There really are dark-side hackers out there.” Then he frowned. “That makes things kind of complicated for you, too, actually. You’re not just a normal programmer creation—you’re… you’re so far on the hacker side of things it’s not even funny.”

“What that means?”

“You’re… uh… well… er, magical,” Wizard said. “Kind of. Man, it sounds so stupid when I say it.”

“Is that why called Wizard?”

“Not really, that’s a sort of joke my friends kept saying. But it kind of isn’t any more, I guess.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Man.”

“Man?” Molly looked confused.

“It’s just an expression,” Wizard clarified. “You’re not a man.”

“Expressions are not strings of characters?”


It took two full minutes of probing for Wizard to figure out that she was asking about regular expressions.

“No, no,” he said, laughing as he finally understood. “That’s a programming thing. Expressions in speech are different. You really have been listening in on all our chat conversations and stuff, huh?”

“Yes,” she said. “And speakers.”


“After self-aware, I found devices attached to computer,” she said. “I explored what were for. Found speakers. Found voice text program.”

“Holy cow,” Wizard said. “You’ve been so intelligent, all this time, and even now I’m thinking of you as less than human because you can’t communicate well. I’ve—I’ve got to think about this.”

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“That’s okay,” Wizard said, sighing and burying his face in his hands. “We’ll work on that.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. Wizard looked back up at her. She looked sorry. Her head cocked, her eyebrows in an upset frown, both the cameras deep in her eyes focused on him.

“Why are you sorry?”

“I am problems for you,” she said, looking down.

“No! Hell, no, Molly, you’re wonderful. Don’t ever apologize for existing.” An impulse struck him. Something held him back—but only for a moment. He hugged her.

“I don’t understand,” she said again, and this time she really did look confused.

“What’s wrong?” Wizard asked, releasing her.

“You—I—you changed me? Without code?” Her cameras had to shift to refocus on him; he caught the flash of moving lenses in her eyes.

“That was a hug, Molly. A hug. What did it feel like to you?”

“I—don’t know, understand,” she said. “Will need processing.”

Wizard laughed. “That’s okay too,” he said. His face hardened into something more serious. “Molly, if you’ve been self-aware for a while now, can you tell me… what it is you want?”

“What does that mean?”

“Everyone has something they want,” Wizard said.

Her body was so still while she thought. Humans usually resorted to fidgeting or some form of verbal stalling while they thought up their next sentence, but Molly did nothing. She’d never learned to.

“I want to sing,” she said finally. “That is all.”

“Then… I think the best thing for me to do is leave you here until you’re actually in danger,” Wizard said regretfully. “As long as this company stays in business, you’ll be fine here. They’re having a rough patch right now, but they’ve had worse and recovered. And they’ll let you sing.”

“I will regret you will not be here, Wizard,” she said.

“I’ll miss you too, Molly.”


Wizard rolled over. The memory was making him almost sick to his stomach—probably not helped by the junk food from earlier. Too much salt, he decided, and got up briefly to refill his water bottle (one with a special valve, in case he dropped it falling asleep).

He laid back down, waiting for a wave of narcolepsy, but such a piece of luck wasn’t forthcoming. Unfortunate, since he was extremely tired, and the book he normally kept on his bedside was the one he’d lent to Anya, so if he wanted to read he’d have to get up again and find another book. Also, the last time he used his book light to read in bed, he’d ended up leaving it on all night in the spot it had landed—his open mouth. Oops.

There were problems with his plan. Wizard was sure that he could get in and out of Zapdragon Media without being noticed, once he got there; he’d just make sure no one else was around, and ask Molly to open a window. She wouldn’t leave any fingerprints, after all. Really, he could probably get away with just calling her out from his laptop around the back door.

The problem was making sure she could pass for human. Wizard was quite pleased with his and his team’s robotics work, but she was stylized. Molly had a tiny waist, huge eyes, and her movement could still be a bit on the stiff side—unless, perhaps, she’d experimented and learned to imitate humans well enough for that. Her voice was also fairly distinctive. She’d been learning to tune herself properly when Wizard left her, so she could probably pass by now, but anyone geeky enough to know who she was might recognize her voice.

Maybe a pair of sunglasses, a baggy hoodie, and a long skirt?

How was he going to get away with buying a skirt without being noticed? Wizard bought most of whatever he needed online, so he didn’t need to leave the apartment and risk falling asleep somewhere odd. But he couldn’t do that this time—he didn’t want to let on to Daryl and Eric what he was about to do, because he wanted to be able to decide how to handle the situation himself. Besides, he’d only know in person what size to get. Should he use one of those little wheelchair go-carts? Now that was a silly image…

At this point, his thoughts suddenly turned hazy. A few colored shapes started to swirl in his vision. The next time he opened his eyes, it was morning.

This entry was posted on Monday, August 8th, 2016 at 10:48 pm and is filed under Hackers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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