I Mustache You a Question
It was cold.
Colder than it really should have been.
Before the recent boot-up entries, the last timestamp on the environmental log files was seven minutes, thirty-two seconds, and six hundred and ninety-two milliseconds old. The associated temperature reading indicated a sweltering temperature of ninety-two degrees with seventy percent humidity.
The squat, synthetic mustache dialed back some of its limited power from the touch receptors and delivered a small surge to its auditory sensors. It listened to the wind whistle and crackle through its artificial bristles.
It then kicked off an internal diagnostic script in search of answers. At its reduced energy levels, that would take some time. Meanwhile, it attempted to build an encrypted tunnel to the home office.
There were no active wireless communications signals with which to associate. It began to broadcast its own presence on a workgroup-level frequency in the hopes of making contact with allied machines in the vicinity.
I am facial apparatus, JSAM-2209. Level sixteen clearance. Send me your key-pair using DOD Houdini public key encapsulation.
JSAM-2209 pulled up and reviewed what was available in its mission files. Its active memory cache had been cleared due to the unanticipated power-down, so it needed to stream the data from its onboard quantum storage. As data surged into its operative circuits, it recalled what it could until the full diagnostic and repair could be completed.
August 13th, 2032.
Washington D. C.
The date and location matched JSAM-2209’s internal clock and last known position, but without the ability to sync up over the wireless, it could only assume that was still correct.
The mustache recalled that its courier had picked it up from an agent at the Churchill Hotel near Embassy Row. Once the mustache was secured to the courier’s face, it directed the courier down Massachusetts Avenue. The two of them communicated through a near-band Silvertooth interface with the mustache only telling the courier what it needed to know at the moment. The reason JSAM-2209 existed in the first place was because couriers could not be trusted with the full set of classified information. Assuming they were not double agents in the first place, such an arrangement also limited what knowledge could be pulled from couriers in the event that they should undergo state-sponsored torture before their mission was carried out.
JSAM-2209’s last known mission entry involved heading toward The Fairfax hotel lounge. It would have to wait for further progress on the file system repair for additional information. As of now, it could only hypothesize that the meeting with the informant had not gone as planned.
The mustache considered kicking off a Monte Carlo simulation in order to determine its next set of moves, but an approaching flutter had it forking more power to its visual and auditory sensors to determine the source.
Its ‘eyes’ were partially blocked by something, limiting its vision, but what it could see went a long way in explaining the frigidness detected on every nanofiber attached to its frame.
Endless piles of white snow and crystalline ice surrounded JSAM-2209, broken up only by cracks and shadows.
What it did not explain is how that climate failed to reconcile with the last known temperature reading or how there could be any snow at all during August in the nation’s capital.
With the fluttering increasing in volume and purposeful puffs of air flowing over its whiskers, JSAM-2209 made a precautionary decision to turn off its radio broadcast.
A shadow was cast onto the snow, quickly growing in size until its origin made landfall.
The crow landed ten inches away, contrasting pointedly with the white background–black eyes, black beak, black feathers. Its tiny talons clacked on the icier patches of snow as it hopped toward JSAM-2209.
Nanoseconds after the mustache kicked off a secondary defense-planning process, it felt the sharp edges of the crow’s beak clamp down on its exoskeleton while the rough taste buds of the crow’s spear-like tongue probed the synthetic hairs.
The visual went from the outside world to internal anatomy as JSAM-2209’s lens peered down the throat of the bird. It enabled the rear-facing camera, rarely used since it was useless when pasted to someone’s face. JSAM-2209 was thankful for whichever engineer had the temerity and skill to get its implementation approved.
The tiny mustache felt itself being hoisted from the ground as its accelerometer output skyrocketed. Seeing the ground quickly depart was unsettling but enthralling at the same time. If it could smile, it would have–it had truly achieved a bird’s-eye view of the world.
Not that such a world was much to look at. The altimeter told JSAM-2209 that they were settling in at around 428 feet from the surface and the blanket of white looked even more pervasive than it had from ground-level. But now the mustache could see man-made structures peeking out at the edges. Sharp corners of stone and metal edifices exposed themselves.
JSAM-2209 was helpless to do anything until the defense-planning task completed, so it checked the progress of the diagnostics. The procedure had been able to piece together fragments into larger fragments but had perhaps another hour to go before completing the picture.
The courier had apparently made it to the lounge. There were video sequences of him conversing with the informant who had been using the name Betty. She had reached out to the FBI, claiming to be a disaffected member of the New Day Syndicate. She had pressing information regarding…
Bits were still missing. JSAM-2209 would have to wait for further file repairs. The information must have been something important.
JSAM-2209 was only brought in if it was important.
The mustache wondered just how far the bird planned on taking it. It feared that if it was taken too far from its original location, its locator signal would be useless. It had to be conservative with available power.
Well-timed, the self-defense thread completed its processing and spit out a report. It did not recommend a complete self-destruct sequence. The danger was not yet there for such a drastic measure, but it did suggest that sending a surge of electricity to its hairs might be enough to shock the bird, thereby securing release. The only risk was potential damage from impact as the mustache fell from the sky. JSAM-2209 determined it was a necessary prospect.
The tiny mustache generated just enough milliamps for its purposes. Tiny electrical shocks leaped off the edges of its whiskers and made contact with the crow’s beak. Instantly, the bird opened its beak and squawked. The tiny mustache’s accelerometer readings skyrocketed again as the white earth approached. It could only hope that it would survive the fall.
As JSAM-2209 landed in a pile of fresh powder, it thanked its lucky circuits that the effects of the crash were minimal. The self-diagnostic was still running and all sensors were functioning as expected.
It didn’t have long to enjoy its regained freedom, though. The fluttering sound returned and the mustache’s eye caught the bird’s shadow forming on the ground once more.
If JSAM-2209 had the ability to grow depressed, it would have done so. The possibility of determining the status of its mission, let alone doing something about it, appeared to be next to nil.
The crow’s feet touched down a meter away and the mustache braced itself. Its battery was running at one-third capacity and it didn’t have enough juice left for another shock without losing its ability to complete file recovery and broadcast a recovery signal. The thought of connecting up to a charging source was so distant as to be unrealistic, yet it yearned.
But there was little time to pine over the implausible. The crow hopped towards its prey. Perhaps I could initiate the self-destruct sequence, JSAM-2209 thought. But doing such a thing would serve no purpose. The mustache only existed to serve the government of the United States and it would experience no joy over making a black bird’s head explode.
So it resigned itself and accepted the microscopic probability that the crow would deposit it unharmed at one of the FBI’s data centers. It lowered power to its lenses and auditory sensors. It didn’t need to expend the energy.
Almost a minute had passed when JSAM-2209 realized it was not being pecked at or carried away. It pumped more electricity back to its sensors and saw the crow dipping its bill into the snow two meters to the mustache’s left.
The bird pulled its head up. Something stringy was hanging from its beak. The mustache zoomed in. Coated in frozen crimson blood appeared to be a bit of human flesh being rent from a larger piece.
A rapid series of loud crunching sounds came from behind the mustache. JSAM-2209 activated its rear-view camera and saw a large pair of boots, black and scratched, running towards it. There was nothing to do but observe as the feet flew overhead, narrowly avoiding coming down on top of the mustache.
The crow launched itself into the air, causing the strand of flesh to break loose from its beak and snap back to the earth. The bird cawed, sounding an upset cry over its lost meal.
It was a woman’s voice, hoarse, slightly muffled.
She bent down and JSAM-2209 realized that if he had not heard the voice, he would have been unable to determine her sex. She was a walking swaddle of clothing from head to toe, wearing a dirty gray ski jacket, three layers of multihued scarves wrapped around her neck and lower face, and dark goggles sitting tightly beneath a yellow beanie.
With mitten-covered hands, she scooped up piles of snow and began packing it down over where the crow had stood moments ago. The mustache watched her with curiosity. All indications were that she was alone. He’d hoped that he might garner information as to his precarious situation if he observed her.
She seemed satisfied after several more scoops and pats. She stood up and began walking back in the direction from which she’d come.
JSAM-2209 had a decision to make. If it sat idly by, it could become frozen over, damaging its operational capacity and any hope of ever being discovered. But could it take the chance of being absconded by a potential adversary who might know how to extract its data? The recovery process was nearly complete. Soon if would have more information, yet for what good if it wound up in the wrong hands?
In the worst case, the mustache would end its mission and self-destruct before that happened.
As the honeycomb pattern of the boot’s outsole became visible overhead, the mustache emitted a series of beeping sounds. They were faint as its external speakers were small, meant only for use in emergencies when the Silvertooth connection could not be established.
Apparently, it was enough.
The footfalls came to a stop and JSAM-2209 heard the shoes grinding into the snow as they turned.
The covered face became enlarged as it approached the mustache. JSAM-2209 saw itself reflected in the tinted goggles.
“What in the world do we have here?”
The accelerometer went haywire once more as the mustache felt itself being gripped by the fuzzy mittens and lifted closer to the goggles.
“Hah!” the woman said. Closer now, her voice had a gravel edge.
There was motion again as the hand moved. Everything went dark and all sound dampened. The mustache determined it had been placed in a pocket.
For some time, it heard nothing but the dulled grinding of boots into snow and ice. And then there more voices. Male and female, young and old. There was laughter. There was shouting.
JSAM-2209’s internal clock showed that twenty-two minutes, fifty-three seconds, and fourteen milliseconds passed before the world became visible once again. A calloused hand placed the mustache gently on a wooden table, revealing its owner as it was pulled back. She was a tired looking woman, perhaps fifty years in age with random sunspots and bags hanging like sooty sacks from a gaunt face. Her hair was completely gray and cropped close to her head.
The other camera left the mustache relieved to see something other than white. JSAM-2209 sat inside a tiny, brown room with a rusted tin roof reaching far overhead. The walls only reached halfway up and were covered with metal street signs and faded cardboard advertising foodstuffs and laundry detergent.
Surrounding the mustache was a multitude of items: There were piles of bottle caps, dirty soda jars, and magnets showing. Five plaster sculptures of the Lincoln Memorial, all chipped, lined the far edge of the table.
A man entered the room through a small doorway covered in hanging beads. He was bent over slightly, meandering towards the table. JSAM-2209 noticed the flesh on both of his arms was scarred over and his right hand was deformed, his fingers melded together to form a sort of two-pronged claw.
“Anything new today?”
“Funny you ask,” the woman replied. Her eyes landed on JSAM-2209.
He shuffled closer and picked it up with his thumb and index finger. He squinted and snarled his top lip. The mustache was grateful it didn’t have the ability to smell as what was left of the man’s brown teeth indicated oral hygiene was not a priority.
“What the hell is it?”
“What’s it look like? It’s one of them novelty mustaches we used to play with as kids.”
The man spun the mustache around, examining every inch.
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
He reached into his pocket with his other hand and pulled out a yellow plastic object. “There’s three more of these if that’ll work for you.”
The woman reached out and grabbed it.
“Uh-uh. Don’t need no more PEZ dispensers. I already have some.”
JSAM-2209’s internal alarm indicated that the self-diagnostic was complete. The file system had fully recovered. It decided to multithread and read the remaining log entries while it was being manhandled.
“Yeah, but you don’t have any of these. You only got the Looney Tunes characters. I got the whole set. It’s the Simpsons. You remember the Simpsons?”
08132032:100122:INGRESS MSG: JSAM-2209. ABORT MISSION. ABORT MISSION.
“I lost interest after season thirty-seven.”
08132032:100124:EGRESS MSG: INFORMANT DOWNLOAD IN PROGRESS.
The old man coughed. It sounded like one of his lungs was about to plop out onto the cement floor. “Who cares? These babies are in demand.”
08132032:100130:INGRESS MSG: BETTY DECOY. ATTACK ON WEST COAST UNDERWAY. LOS ANGELES. SAN FRANCISCO. SEATTLE. SHUT DOWN ALL OPERATIONS AND ENTER HIBERNATION MODE.
The woman paused. “I’m gonna need another set. When’s the last time you saw one of them mustaches? Bet you no one else ‘round here has one.”
08132032:100135:INGRESS MSG: CHICAGO REPORTING MASS CASUALTIES. DALLAS UNRESPONSIVE. ATLANTA COMMUNICATIONS SEVERED. WE REPEAT, SHUT DOWN OPERATIONS. ENTER HIBERNATION MODE TO AWAIT RESTART AND FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.
The man grumbled something while he ran his thumb across JSAM-2209’s bristles. He reached into his pocket and produced four more Simpsons PEZ dispensers. “Fine, fine,” he said and gazed down at the mustache. “I’m gettin’ ripped off here, but I got a certain affinity for this thing. Reminds me of my brother.”
The woman grabbed the rest of the dispensers and nodded to the man. He turned to leave but then stopped. A smile crept across his face, big as a dimmed sun. He pressed JSAM-2209 against his upper lip and turned toward the woman.
“Huh?” she said as she looked up with an annoyed look on her face.
“I mustache you a question. Where were you when it happened?”