The Fish
matt chisholm
June 1997

All morning he had been watching carefully. From his vantage point, a screen filled with a foreign language, he carefully monitored another world. He breathed deeply, chest rising, filling with air, relaxing, exhaling in the quiet hiss of meditation.

He baited the hook by delicately rewriting a worm he found. Once bitten, it would lead the fish back to his system. He let it go and watched it move out across the electronic sea. It moved with the ultimate stealth, burrowing through systems, slipping past security devices by piggybacking on other procedures.

Eventually he lost track of it completely and found that he had been absentmindedly watching the numbers on his screen for several minutes. This is why humans watch fire, and waterfalls, he thought. Every drop of a river, every splinter of flame, falls or flickers in the same pattern. Globs of water stretch and bead off as they fall, diffusing into mist, flames waver and pinch, ending in little chips of plasma that shrink and vanish as they seek the heavens. And yet every drop and every flicker is just different enough to hold your interest.

Watching the data stream was the same. Packets of numbers flew in all directions, breaking and merging, arriving or departing, reversing direction suddenly. Every few minutes there would be a lull in a certain place, for a fleeting moment a cool smooth pool would form. Then somewhere else a huge chunk of data would flare up and his screen would scream with numbers. In this he would find the fish, hook it, and bring it in.

The first tug on the line came mid-day. One of his hooks had been bitten. Now the waiting began to pay off. Energy stored in reserve all morning welled up inside him, and he looked in on the fish's world with a renewed intensity. He caught his breath, short from excitement, and quickly moved in close to the spot where the fish had last revealed itself.

The fish pulled on the line again. It had moved on, up a tiny tributary, through a mail gateway into a proprietary network of a college in Ohio. He smiled to his screen, as he snuck up behind his prey. Here was the proving ground. Human would face the machine in the machine's natural environment.

His first feeling when the hunt began was always the sense that his prey was not aware of him at all. The fish moved through the water faster than any human could, taking advantage of every type of port and gateway. Sometimes it seemed to completely disappear. But it had not noticed the hook yet, had not begun to struggle against the line.

Each time the fish vanished, it would find another copy of the worm and eat it, just as the worm sent him back a signal. With every worm it bit, the hook would burrow deeper into its flesh. He waited. His fingers moved slowly and deliberately over the keys, but they were tensed around the reel, ready to test his skill against the fish's instinct.

He was close now. The next step was to get a good look at his prey. He followed the fish in to a retail database and quickly set up filters on all the exits. When the fish left through the filters, he would leave behind a string of numbers and symbols. From this he would glean a mental picture of what he was up against.

But something snapped in the filter when the fish left, riding on a personal connection through to a corporate data archive somewhere in the South Caribbean. His window into the fish world was suddenly filled with a stream of numbers and symbols. The first quarter or so of the fish's program, spilling over and over across his screen like a broken record.

He was not smiling now, although he was not discouraged. He had not gotten a good look at his quarry, but the fleeting submerged shadow told him plenty. The broken filter meant the fish was no minnow, but an big old lunker. He was dealing with more than the base instinct of program. This fish would have weathered at least a few fishermen's lines. It would be a good catch; it would bring a good price. It could feed him for several days, if he found the right buyer.

He was connected to seven parts of the data stream simultaneously. He would bring the fish in to his system through one of them. He lured the fish closer, following it out of the South Caribbean to a Bank of America branch in Virginia, then gently leading it through to a phone switchboard center in California. In his mind he formed a picture of the paths he would lure the fish along.

By closing gateways on either side of the fish, compelling it in this direction or that, he brought it slowly closer. The havoc created by forcefully closing connections and taking control of distant systems was of little importance to the fisherman. The data lost or fragmented was minuscule by comparison to the whole stream; the inconvenience was subsumed by the scores of errors and crashes dealt with every day.

From the switchboard he could send it anywhere. He pulled it up a current that led it closer. This was a complicated game. Although he knew he was smarter than it, it was much faster. It was born and bred to swim through the electronic sea. Its every whim was carried out by electric thought alone, no chemicals to slow it down. No keyboard and monitor stood between it and the next system.

But the flow seemed to be against the fish today. A gateway on the switchboard closed down, presumably of its own accord, leading the fish still closer. Moments later, a large router in northern Japan disconnected itself from an adjacent system, cutting off a whole branch of possible routes for the fish. It was unlikely that the fish was thinking far enough ahead to see that its freedom had been drastically curtailed. But he decided it was time to bring it in.

He began to pull on the line more firmly now, and for the first time the fish felt the hook. It pulled on the line, the line went taut, the load on his system went up, the pole no longer straight but curved down against the struggling animal. He was sure now that an old warrior was on the other end of the line.

He pushed the doubts about the strength of the line, the delicate clinch, the barb on the hook, to the back of his mind. There was no use worrying about them now; all that was left was to pull the fish into his net. It was three systems away, then two. He made sure his net was ready.

The fish was in his hands. He closed his floodgates as fast as he could. It rammed against the false openings like a fly against a windowpane. His screen flooded with messages that the connections were frozen. But one of his gateways failed to close, and the fish bolted out.

He jumped ahead of it, and closed down the one opening left on the other system. He watched as it flailed about and tried to open new gateways. Two of the ports there were frozen in the same way that he had frozen his. His connection to the other system somehow closed itself off and his screen went blank. The fish was trapped on the other system for a few moments before it could open a port and escape.

But the other system wouldn't let him back in. He tried to raise a new connection before the fish got too far away. He tried to look over into the other machine, to try and see where the fish had gone from there. It was silent. No connections had been opened. The fish had to still be there, but it wasn't moving.

Suddenly his screen came alive with numbers. The fish had tried to escape onto his machine, but it had just stretched against some sort of net that kept it there. Gateways didn't just close and freeze by themselves. He looked back at the other system. The fish's program was being probed. Things only a human could cause were happening. The fish was being shut down.

He watched, helpless, as it was gutted, as someone else carefully extricated certain protocols from its code. The other fisherman stored the reproduction, hunting and navigating organs in separate sets on disk. The fish could be easily reassembled later.

He tried again frantically to bring up a connection, but the gates were sealed. Once again, with renewed force. Until now, the other fisherman hadn't seemed to notice him. Now, like someone would slap a feasting mosquito, he shut the connection down.

He stared at the screen, the little cursor blinking, ready for the next command. His fingers ached dully and he stretched his arm out in front of him, bending his fingers back. There was little use now. In the time it would take to get anywhere near the other fisherman now, he would be long gone. And if he was any good, he'd have covered his tracks. The ligaments in his arm tingled as he stretched them. The fish was gone.

He looked away from the screen, out the window. The real world flashed and wavered in front of his eyes. He closed his eyes and ran his fingers slowly up and down his forehead. Then he opened his eyes and stared at his keyboard.