"Kill Switch"
by Michelle Erica Green

Ghost in the Machine

"Kill Switch" Plot Summary:

While a frantic man works on a laptop in a diner, dozens of criminals and a pair of policemen get phone calls directing them to the place. A gunfight erupts, killing all within. Mulder and Scully arrive to discover that the latecomers were all in search of a cartel leader, while the man on the computer was Donald Gilman, a software pioneer who had been missing for years. Mulder believes the firefight was an elaborate hit on Gilman, and removes a CD from the laptop which plays "Twilight Time."

The Lone Gunmen tell the agents that Gilman was a subversive visionary who wrote early viruses that plagued the internet. Scully suggests checking his e-mail, and they find a note saying, "David missing, fearing the worst," with a tracking number for a storage facility. They find a woman with an electric cattle prod and lots of equipment living inside; she observes on her computer what she says is a Department of Defense computer locking in, and Mulder screams for them to get out over Scully's objections. A laser blows the container apart. The woman explains that Gilman had developed an artificial intelligence which he let loose on the net so that it could evolve, and that it targeted them to protect itself. It can recognize her voice on a phone, and track her anywhere. David Markham, the missing man, was the hardware designer.

When Mulder tells the woman that Gilman is dead, she fears that the "kill switch" for the program has been lost. But Mulder tells her about "Twilight Time," and takes her to the Lone Gunmen. They recognize her as Esther Nairn, a famous electronic game designer, and agree that in order to kill the artificial intelligence, they need to feed the program directly into its home node. They realize that it needs a very fast connection, so Mulder goes searching for T3 lines. He finds one in Fairfax, Virginia near a trailer park. Meanwhile, Nairn takes Scully hostage and forces her to drive to Markham's own trailer, but it's been blown to bits. Nairn sobs to Scully that she and Markham were in love and had planned to upload their consciousnesses into the system so that they could live forever on the net, though Gilman opposed their plans.

Mulder approaches the trailer in Virginia where the T3 line connects, and finds a vast computer system...as well as David Markham, dead, but still wired to the system. The computer traps Mulder and shoots electricity into his body. He awakes in a strange hospital with attractive nurses who assist in the amputation of his arms and warn him that the doctor will take his other arm unless he tells them where the kill switch is. Then Scully arrives and makes the same demand. Mulder realizes that he's hooked to the system, which is feeding him a virtual reality scenario, and calls for Scully, who told Nairn to throw the computer and the kill switch into the river so the artificial intelligence will stop aiming weapons at innocent targets in order to kill Nairn.

Scully finds the trailer where Mulder is trapped, and discovers that Nairn still has the kill switch. She puts it into the drive when the computer starts to electrocute Mulder, though Nairn warns her that the artificial intelligence will try to vaccinate itself against the program. While Scully works to free Mulder, Nairn attracts the entity and lets it lock on its target, telling Scully to flee. As "Twilight Time" plays, Scully gets Mulder out of the trailer; Nairn wires herself into the system, says "upload," and is electrocuted; and a weapon hits the vehicle.

Mulder suggests that Nairn is not dead - that since brain activity is a series of electrical impulses, she may be just as alive on the net as she was in her body. The Lone Gunmen get a message which would seem to support his belief. Later, at a trailer park in Nebraska, boys playing ball are scanned by a trailer inhabited by a giant computer node.


Whee! While there were some ridiculous elements in this episode, as Scully pointed out - a functioning Star Wars system, an electronic consciousness which apparently managed to build its own home trailer - this was also a whole lot of freaky fun, particularly Mulder's virtual reality nurses and Nairn's kick-ass computer skills (the Lone Gunmen will clearly never get over her). My husband tells me the whole episode was reminiscent of a John Varley short story in which an artificial intelligence tried to take over Arpanet, but I don't know my cyberpunk well enough to remember. The lingo flew fast and furious, which was to the episode's benefit: it's easier to believe in things when they're just over your head, but sound familiar enough to be plausible.

I was sorry that we didn't get a clearer resolution to the tragic love story. Was Markham killed by the artificial intelligence when he tried to disconnect it, or did he become part of it - and if the latter, was he trying to kill Nairn, or lead her to him without letting her trigger the kill switch? It sure seemed like whatever was out there wanted her dead, which makes me wonder if she's trapped in cyberspace with a madman for all eternity - a horrific thought, but then, much about Nairn was horrific, from her life inside a storage facility to her attraction to a system which gleefully tortured Gilman and Mulder.

I was sorry Scully had to be the voice of practical reason once again in a situation where reality as we know it is clearly warped - she sounds dumb expressing things which SHOULD make sense but do not in the world of The X Files where it figures Star Wars got built by some colleagues of Cancer Man. The idea of rogue artificial intelligence is hardly a new one in science fiction, so I'd think she'd at least be familiar with the notion even if she thinks it's a crock. I was more amused by Mulder's gullibility factor with the chesty nurses.

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