by Tony Bove
Copyright © 2002, Tony Bove, All Rights Reserved.


5: Moment of Clarity

The next day Eric Mauer performed his morning ablutions in exactly the same order as he did every day. He put on his uniform of button-collared starched white shirt and sky-blue jeans, took a cup from the automatic coffee maker, and walked out the back door of his half-million Portola Valley redwood home to his cottage office. There he saw all his music CDs -- 4,000 CDs, representing a major slice of rock and pop music from the Sixties to the present day -- stacked up in boxes, waiting to be shipped out. There was also a stream of encrypted email on his screen.

First things first: the paper note on top of the music CD boxes. It was from Laura, his wife of almost ten years. She was gone, and she wanted him out by noon. He was amused. Did she really think I would be hurt by this gesture, surrendering the music library to me? Last night, over a dinner truce, they'd discussed the separation with equanimity and had even come up with a plan to divide various assets without even so much as a moist eye. But Laura always had her way of getting the last word, and somehow getting even. Eric refused to get mad about it, or about anything.

He walked over to his state-of-the-art flat-panel display. His desk was completely clear, just the display, keyboard, mouse, and mouse pad aligned properly with the edge of the desk. Eric hated mess. He hated all forms of human incompetence, especially the kind that accompanied high-strung emotional states. He preferred corresponding by email, and never answered the phone.

Today's email included marching orders from various clients, including a new one, Mort Gill. And there were non-encrypted messages from friends, including Tinker and Charlie. So many messages with so little thought behind them, like so many idiotic startups flooded with speculative capital.

Mort Gill had picked up the reins of Rob Smolder's project with Eric, involving automatic steganography -- the practice of embedding secret messages in other messages, in a way that prevents an observer from learning that anything unusual is taking place. The Greek historian Herodotus described how one of his cunning countrymen sent a secret message warning of an invasion by scrawling it on the wood underneath a wax tablet. To casual observers, the tablet appeared blank. Spies in World War II used invisible inks based on milk, fruit juice, urine, even semen, that when heated or chemically treated, revealed the true message within the message.

Eric had written a class of objects that used a special version of the HADES encryption software, known as ICE 8.8, to embed messages in rich media -- audio, video or still image files. It worked by storing information in the least significant bits of a digitized file -- bits that could be changed in ways that aren't noticeable to the human eye or ear. The least significant bits, it turned out, mattered more than the significant ones. You had to look at the individual trees to really see the forest. God is in the details.

Eric was well aware of his wife's criticisms. He knew that he fit the stereotype of the nerd, as in social dysfunctional. When challenged, he turned on his Germanic precision. That's what his wife had grown to hate… his precision… his need to do things the right way. She sometimes would just go out of her way to do things abnormally, inefficiently, with gusto even. Sometimes she would say things that penetrated Eric's gut like a sword. She seemed intent on disemboweling the relationship in order to gain self-confidence.

Discordance. The word just came to him: a spirit of discordance was influencing the world, interfering with things, and causing trouble in nearly all the relationships of his friends. The discordance knew no social boundaries, as even some gay couples he'd known for years were splitting up. Even people Eric didn't know were having problems, such as his Porsche mechanic arguing with his wife the other day even as he worked under the car. There was a restless spirit in the air.

Eric knew something about restless spirits. His ancestors were restless spirits involved in the founding of America. They were German philosopher-magicians, members of the Bavarian Illuminati; he could trace his family back to a cousin of Adam Weishaupt, whose grandniece had indulged in the Mysteries at an abbey in Italy with the infamous Aleister Crowley. He had read numerous books on the origins of the occult and had come away feeling less enthusiastic about responsibility in this world and more enchanted by the possibilities of the next.

The occult books were stacked neatly next to the boxes of music CDs. Apparently Laura wanted no part of that, either. All this stuff had to go, because she was staying and he was leaving. Ah, but the trick is to zig when they zag. Eric had always been prepared for moving. All of his important files were out on the net, and backed up to his laptop. He checked his remote site directories, making sure everything was still there, then abruptly canceled the operation with his usual signature routine that enabled him to tell the difference between authorized and unauthorized access. It was the electronic equivalent of laying a hair on a doorjamb to see if the door had been opened.

Laura had thoughtfully included a box of photos with the CDs and books. Photos of the shy altar boy in priestly robes at age 12, the nerd with blond bangs and crooked glasses in high school, the longhaired freak with granny glasses at UC Berkeley, the skinhead hacker in flannel shirt giving a demo at the Hacker Con, the crisply-shorn research wonk testifying before Congress as Mort Gill's earnest sidekick. Packed in with the photos were his all-ASCII-character nude-girl computer printouts from the 1970s, Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Aleister Crowley's Moonchild, and Computer Lib by Ted Nelson.

Sighing, he searched the Web for "movers" in his part of the Bay Area. Banners came and went until he saw "Atlas Shrugged? Try Movers and Shakers" (a subsidiary of Starving Students Moving Co.). He arranged for them to pick up the boxes and deliver them to a storage shed in Redwood City.

Eric had no forwarding address. His wife… his ex-wife, that is, would be stuck with the paper mail, which he didn't need. He owned his Porsche, paid all other bills electronically, and answered only email. She could keep all the party invites, conference promotions, press releases, Publishers Clearinghouse junk mail, and all the bills associated with the house. No mess, no fuss.

By moving with no forwarding address, he would be one more level beyond the reach of either the Feds or his latest ex-client, a shadowy man who called himself Grogan, referred by Peter Moaning and the Pot Page's Amsterdam connection. Mort Gill had warned Eric about arms dealers involved in reselling to Middle-Eastern terrorists the arms and ammunition confiscated from the Irish Republican Army, and had hinted that Moaning knew a contact. Eric had supplied Moaning with some basic encryption software, and had insisted on having no physical contact with Grogan. Even if sophisticated trackers chased down his signature, they would still have to navigate a physical space, using a different set of search rules.

He geared up his Porsche fast as he left his Portola Valley ex-home, heading east toward I-280, punching up music at the first opportunity.

I've got a feeling, a feeling deep inside

I've got a feeling, a feeling I can't hide

-- Beatles, "I've Got a Feeling" (Lennon/McCartney)

Stuck behind a Volvo, wouldn't you know it, filled with overfed hyperactive kids and a burly sheepdog. His friend Gooky's latest game, the Vigilante Driver, offered multiple escape routes. Machine guns rotated out of their placements behind the Porsche headlights and commenced firing, blowing out all four tires in less than two seconds, and as the hapless Volvo careened toward the shoulder, an extended hand appeared out of nowhere, plastering a note to the Volvo's windshield, an admonition from hell, Stay! Out of the Way! Out of the way of the Bloodstained Bandit!

Yes indeed, quite a fantasy. He must remember to tell Gooky to add the extended hand trick to the game. He kept his distance and waited for a straight section of the road to pass the smug Volvo and its fat-ass driver, whose kids and sheepdog leered at him as they passed. With only a few minor imaginary skirmishes he managed to reach Redwood City in ten minutes, and geared down into a parking space in a lot behind a slightly run-down, yellow-walled, stucco-roofed apartment building. The lot afforded some privacy for his car, while the road in front offered, besides a string of fast-food joints, a quick getaway route -- either east toward 101, or west to I-280, or the back streets behind the lot, which connected eventually to the El Camino Real and Menlo Park. There were many escape routes.

The second-floor apartment gave him a view up and down the road, and the kitchen window gave him a view of the parking lot and side street. He had secured the apartment a month ago, installed Net access and set up a pseudonym for the service. The work he did was not too demanding of bandwidth -- just some low-quality webcam video, images, text, applets, an occasional virus, and lots of unauthorized code breakers. Eric belonged to an elite group of Internet mavens who volunteer to kill spam. They perform more of a janitorial service than a censorship one, cleaning up when problems occur rather than blocking them before they start.

He opened a webcam window, positioned himself to be caught by his digital video camera mounted on his display, and connected with Mort Gill over an encrypted channel. Gill was smiling, in a bathroom, in what looked like his house in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.

"I wanted to enlist your support again," said Gill, his face appearing closer in the webcam window. "Things have taken a turn."

Eric smiled back. Gill would never say "for the worse" because Gill is eternally optimistic. "You need something from the black market?" Eric was a specialist in black market encryption.

"Not yet," Gill laughed. "Our code works fine. Besides, I don't approve of the black market. The war against free encryption -- it's absurd, like gun control. The more the government clamps down on free encryption, the more it becomes irrelevant to do so, because it generates a black market. Criminals and terrorists are most likely to have foreign, wiretap-proof encryption."

"Yes, while ordinary citizens would not likely have it, putting them ever more at risk from nefarious schemes that part them from their money," replied Eric. "My Marxist father used to say, 'read the dialectic' in the situation. Now people say, 'follow the money'."

"And you thrive on this business, keeping one step ahead of everyone. That's why you are so valuable to me right now. You know how to work both sides of a situation." Gill paused. "I have two clients with competing agendas. It's not really a conflict of interest, because I'm only interested in free encryption. Both clients want to have some control over their versions. I need a bit of work done that will ensure that everyone gets what they want."

"You usually do things out in the open," replied Eric. "I was impressed with that kitchen project. No one came knocking on your door while you were breaking the national security encryption standard."

"That took less than six months," replied Gill, frowning. "Perhaps it takes longer for the enforcement community to react. Of course, the point is now moot. By cracking the code so publicly, I helped establish the propaganda for the Encryption Act, which of course was the opposite of what I wanted."

"Well I'm still impressed. But I thought the whole point of ICE was that no one would be able to get backdoor control."

"You are aware of decoy strategies, Eric. You grew up with the best writers for Mission: Impossible."

Eric laughed. It was true, he'd lived his teen years near La Cienega and Beverly, cruising Melrose Ave., helping his father come up with plots for the Mission: Impossible TV series. His father, a theatrical producer blacklisted in the Fifties, had gone to work for the enemy -- the CIA, Hollywood Branch. The TV series was essentially a public relations cover-up of gross CIA incompetence, ordered by CIA chief Allen Dulles to paint a different picture than the one Ian Fleming did of the CIA in his books and in the internationally popular "James Bond, Agent 007" movies. Allen Dulles and his people were not to be trifled with. Indeed, one of the more amazing gaffes of JFK's career was when he said he liked reading the Fleming books, in which the CIA were nearly always portrayed as stupid thugs compared to the suave Agent 007.

"A decoy version, or perhaps several, will be necessary," said Gill. "You also have your alternate networks. Until this problem is solved, we need to distribute versions in a more secure fashion."

"We could go back to the post office," said Eric. "Secret couriers, alternate postal systems. Revolutions were coordinated that way." Eric believed in the very idea of freedom. He understood the need to communicate in code, in secret furtive gestures, in blood, in pure deeds.

"This is as big as any revolution," said Gill, solemnly. "We go back a long way. You and I, we were never interested in breaking the law for its own sake, or for money. You respect private property, and so do I. All we ever wanted to do was liberate the network, drive out the money-changers. Open the doors to the Library of Alexandria."

"You sound like those idiots in the Media Liberation Front."

Gill's eyebrows shot up, betraying his surprise. "You don't approve? On what grounds? Copyright infringement?"

"They'll get caught before they can do any real damage."

"Well I, for one, hope they succeed," said Gill. "Otherwise, history itself will cease to exist in any objective sense, as corporate control over information will be complete."

"Are you involved with them now?"

"There are levels of involvement, like a stack," said Gill. "Some are near the top, close to the surface, the interface with the media and so on. Some are in the middle, passing messages. Some are closer to the base platform, setting up infrastructure. Each level works on its own, need-to-know basis. You should know that."

"Indeed," replied Eric. "Well, I'm available."

"Then it's done. We'll communicate again by the usual methods." He paused. "Oh, just one other thing. You're not… you're not doing any of this Webomber stuff, are you?"

Eric laughed. "No, too amateurish. But I heard a rumor that Rob Smolder is behind it."

"Smolder? Isn't he dead?"

"I don't know. You tell me."

Eric closed the webcam window and looked out the physical window of his freshly painted apartment at a lone oak tree and the roadway beyond. He sympathized with the agents charged with watching his movements, who were now most likely searching his former home in Portola Valley. The intrigue got the adrenaline flowing and focused him on his work.

* * *

The Webomber had struck again, but not for publicity. The attack on the California Dept. of Motor Vehicles had been subtle, and only a few people knew about it. One was the IT director at the DMV, who contacted the FBI immediately. The action item had been referred to Cheney, who recognized the signature "Baby you can drive my car" as a distinctive mark of the Webomber. Another Beatles tune.

Cheney smiled. He loved the Beatles. While growing up in the 1960s, his father had been lead agent in San Francisco for the infamous COINTELPRO operation, discrediting leftist groups, infiltrating the Yippies, bankrupting underground press operations, and even executing Black Panthers and members of the American Indian Movement. Young Ray Cheney's eyes were open the entire time; he dabbled in left-wing politics and soft drugs, and the album he associated most with that period was the so-called White Album, an album that settled on the Sixties like a blizzard, obscuring everything, and leaving an eerie premonition of danger. Cheney took it to mean a life confronting contraditions, so he followed in his father's footsteps with the idea that revolutionary change had to come from within. He would change "the people with minds that hate" and would no longer carry pictures of Chairman Mao.

The Webomber's attack on the DMV's database had been somewhat specific for a range of driver records spanning a certain period of time, 1972-1976, in an area of the East Bay encompassing Berkeley and Albany, including UC Berkeley. Unfortunately the strike had not been surgical enough for Cheney to derive specific clues from the attack. The net effect was that the DMV had to reconstruct driving records for about 150,000 people, which would take about half a year. During that time those people could probably break any traffic law they wanted without it showing up on their records. Too bad they didn't know they had this opportunity.

Perhaps the Webomber was covering his or her tracks… Cheney thought it was quite a long shot that this event would be connected to the Smolder case, or to the encryption hackers associated with the Pot Page, or to the Media Liberation Front. Nevertheless, Rob and Rachel Smolder had gone to UC Berkeley during that time. So had Charlie O'Brien and his friend, Andrew Tinker. So had the elusive Eric Mauer. All out-of-state students had to change to California driver's licenses within a month of arriving for college.

The communications link failed as Cheney was probing UC Berkeley's school records, looking for anything that might pop out as a clue. He sighed and left the makeshift tent. He was in the hills of Sonoma County, overlooking Lake Sonoma, on a pot farm in the midst of a raid. The perps had escaped, but if they had been caught Cheney would have stepped in, representing the FBI, to take them into custody as witnesses for his case, which was more important. The Pot Page had been linked to the Media Liberation Front, and yes, they all smoked pot. But that wasn't as important as its link to another operation in Amsterdam that had Cheney truly worried. The Pot Page hippies had no idea what was happening behind the scenes, funding the Amsterdam connection. Their happy-go-lucky attitude would get them into trouble. He wished he could have grabbed them for their own protection.

Cheney, in his Air Force leatherneck jacket and pistol on his hip, circled around the farm on horseback. The crime scene was secure at the perimeter and had been adequately turned upside down at the center. They'd captured the server and database used for this particular mirror-site for the Pot Page. Evidence indicated a backup had just been made, and in all probability, this backup was in the hands of the fleeing perps. There were other mirror-sites, and shipments were made out of Amsterdam by an international courier service. The original files copied to the backup disk had been deleted; while recovery was possible, it would take a while because the algorithms they described had also been used to encrypt the files. It was like locking the safe key within the safe itself; one wonders how they were able to do it with such drug-addled brains. These digital crimes seem to slip right through their fingers. Months of work saved on their side and lost on his -- it would now be that much easier for the perps to set up another site.

The county enforcement squad that led the raid used an informant, Pete Drake, a local grower who'd produced such bad weed that he was out of business in two seasons, which left nothing for him to do but inform on others. He doubled as an Earth First infiltrator, which is probably why the county cops used him. Jerking spasmodically, sweating profusely, lurking at the perimeter, Drake was in dire need of formal acceptance for his Judas role here.

Cheney was given a chance to interrogate him. Each question sliced Drake in various ways to reveal a compromised soul, a classic liar who batted his eyes and bit his nails even when telling the truth. Drake stammered on about having done his part. He got the proprietor of this mirror-site into a raving nightmare of days-on-end crank use, just to get him to drop his guard. He had done what he was told, and now, please god, he just wanted to get some sleep.

Ray Cheney stood solidly, his feet planted firmly, nearly sinking into the ground with each step, his horse nearby. He held Drake in his glare for a full minute of silence, and Drake whimpered again about needing sleep. "You'll get plenty of sleep," Cheney said angrily, and barked orders into his cell phone. Two FBI agents then escorted Drake to a patrol car, which took him away. Such incompetence! It figures these local cops wouldn't know the difference between crank users and pot users. Some are born incompetent, and some achieve a high level of incompetency over time. And try as he might, he could not escape it.

Cheney established voice contact with the team down south, on surveillance. He was told that the MLF had scheduled a meeting in an encrypted multi-user domain, and that they could not penetrate it. Cheney informed them that the encryption decoding software would be available within the hour. He then placed a call to Mort Gill, who was under a secret contract to provide that software with a "back door" for law enforcement officials as mandated by the Encryption Act.

The Pot Page was a textbook example of the domestic uses of strong encryption that, if misused, could also cover violent, criminal behavior. The FBI now had several examples that demonstrated that key-recovery encryption systems were not hard to build, and could be used to help tech-savvy criminals and international terrorists cover their tracks. All of these examples found their way into presentations the FBI top brass were assembling in a lobbying effort to increase their power over domestic as well as exported encryption products. The bottom line for Cheney's boss was that as long as Cheney continued to provide great examples for these slide presentations, he could continue to run his operation independently.

The problem was that Cheney's boss was so inept at using presentation software that his first meeting with the top brass had been a disaster. First, the audio-visual equipment had failed to display the slides. When that was fixed, the slides were presented in the wrong order, and the transitions between slides, though clever, were so slow as to be obnoxious. The results were presented before the data, which confused the top brass enough to start them questioning the wisdom of the lobbying effort. Fortunately an independent lobbyist from the giant public relations firm Skill & Scrotum, with plenty to lose if the effort was called off, interrupted the presentation and rescheduled the meeting for a later date.

Cheney understood technology more than his peers, but he was at war with its complexity and the priesthood that served it. The more complex the systems, the less conviction in the people who work them, and the less they strive for competency. The internetworked world will make its people vague and pliant, unsurprised by anything. A powerful government will convince the people that war is good if for no other reason than to capture dominance in the oil market. It will convince the people that the mission of government is to lower the taxes on the rich. The people will eventually be so easy to convince that they will cease to exist.

As slowly turns the grinding wheel

In the court of the crimson king.

-- King Crimson, "The Court of the Crimson King" (McDonald-Sinfield)

And here he was, surrounded, as it were, by peaceful redwood trees. He wondered if it was possible that Druids still existed in this day and age, and if they did, could he tap into their magickal powers? The pot smokers understood Druids, and here he was, wasting his time with the war on soft drugs. His superiors, his associates, his friends in other agencies, the county cops… they might as well be chasing after Druids. There was real danger in the world, and they were not focused properly enough to deal with it.

* * *

Peter Moaning's meeting in the encrypted MUD session commenced at 6 p.m. that day. Stick-figure avatars, no frills, represented each member, and since the encryption software was still in its beta-test phase, they were limited to using the type-chat feature, so conversations were stilted and trifled with those silly emoticons.

Tinker had logged in from home and discovered, to his surprise, that Charlie was also online, along with Ted Anson. Gretchen Grubstein and her friend Gooky Karma were also there, representing the Media Liberation Front hackers. Gossip traveled in hiccuping packets... Charlie chatted with Gretchen about his first look at the Smolder site and how often hackers were changing it. Gooky reminded everyone how easy the hacks were. Ted Anson weighed in with his condolences for the widow Rachel, who was momentarily expected to join them. And at that moment, Peter Moaning's avatar shouted in capital letters for attention. "We have a message from beyond the pale, so to speak," he said to everyone, with a smirking emoticon. "Rachel Smolder is here to deliver the message, supposedly from her late husband."

All avatars turned to "face" the new avatar representing Rachel. She began by saying hello to everyone and thanking everyone for coming to this MUD. "You all now have the special encryption software, ICE, to use for this MUD and for your emails. You must use this software to secure your communications from now on. I know you have many questions, but we must keep them to a minimum. I have a message from Rob, from before his… his disappearance. His vision of the Other Internet is now my vision, and our shared vision. Let me read the message."

She began. "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream..." The avatars fidgeted, some letting go bursts of typed talk, which others stifled. "We are prepared to go beyond the boundaries of governments," Rachel continued reading, "beyond enforcement agencies, beyond censorship. We are going forward, underground. We are... the OtherNet!"

She paused as the avatars fidgeted again, then continued reading. "The OtherNet implements free speech, nothing more. It won't encourage or enable criminal behavior that wouldn't have happened without it, and it might actually help us better understand and deal with criminals. The hope of the Media Liberation Front is to create a free, uncensored, and complete online library of all content. That goal is similar to my own: to free the Internet itself from any government intervention. The OtherNet serves both purposes."

She paused again, then continued. "While it is also possible for a terrorist to publish on the OtherNet his reasons for bombing a building or hijacking a plane, that doesn't matter. That terrorist could have used other means anyway. A document on the OtherNet is like an anonymous letter to a newspaper, but one that always gets published. The public may learn more about such people and their motivations when these activities are more open."

She continued reading from the message, which contained more specific details, including how the OtherNet would be set up and how the encryption clients would be distributed for people to use. At the end of the talk, two buttons appeared, one for a gambling network, the other for porn, and above them a message: "Get ICEd." Furious clicking on the buttons did not prevail; they were not working. Rachel apologized and offered to email the software. Moaning adjourned the meeting.

"Another hack," grumbled Charlie, before signing off. "Y'know how you can tell? There were no references to 'Paul is Dead' or a Beatles album. Rob Smolder was a Beatles fanatic." Tinker had wanted to respond to Charlie, to tell him that yes, indeed, there was a Beatles reference, right in the opening of the message. But by then the MUD had ceased to exist.

* * *

An hour later, Steely Dan on the radio, the radio in a sleek silver Jaguar, the Jaguar halted at a stoplight on Middlefield Road in Palo Alto, the Palo Alto of Hewletts and Packards. A woman pulled up alongside in a Triumph MG, and smiled sweetly at him. This is the life. Peter Moaning smiled back, but didn't press his luck. He knew he was a hot property, in the same class as the richest in the Valley. He wasn't hitched or going steady with anyone and he never passed up a good opportunity, but he didn't really have the time. Time was everything to him, and time was always running out.

He was on his way to Assholes Non-Anonymous Limited, or ANAL (or just "the Assholes Club"), a group of successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, a club he had founded. To join, you needed to have a self-centered, no-holds-barred attitude that other people refer to as "being an asshole," and yearly income of more than $100 million and less than $500 million.

"Let those other pricks have their own club," laughed Gordon Henley, the group's other official spokes-hole, referring to the assholes that make more than $500 million a year. And in fact, the over $500 million assholes do have their own club -- the Pricks Club, or PC. Like ANAL, they met in secrecy, and also like ANAL, they excluded the highest among their ranks -- Bill Gittelson was not welcome. Somehow, by excluding assholes worse than they were, they felt righteous.

The Assholes met at a sports bar somewhere in Mountain View, an unpopular place that they could take over. Gordon Henley was there, and other notables like Pierre Marie Blasé, owner of a networking firm; Randall Pomposti, publisher of Fizz magazine and CEO of Fizz Ventures, with editor Jill Metrose; Scott Comick, super-salesman of Silicon Valley; and Sterling Allman, the famous stock-watch columnist from Bull Magazine. Comick had joined recently, still wet behind the ears, still talking about deals he'd made that day and so on, acting like a premature asshole, not quite getting the distinction, not quite tightened up yet.

This month's guest asshole, Howard Marker, was nowhere in their league with respect to income. Marker was a player in the world of journalism, the space where these rich Assholes had a major stake in manipulating the outcome. Each Asshole had a personal stock that was either rising or falling in the market where history is written.

Scott Comick had taken Howard aside to talk about the tough life of a high-powered salesman. Comick had just closed a major deal by "listening" to the customer. He took what the customer said, and repeated it like a mantra. He wore the customer down. "I'm ready to go out on my own," Comick boasted. "Find a solution to a problem, do a business plan, put together my dream team. Then come to one of these ANAL meetings. Talk to these people. One of them, just one of them, is all I need. One of these Assholes," Scott laughed, and Marker smiled. "Just convince one of them, who can then introduce me to someone who can put up the money. All I have to do is convince just one, and he'll flip the switch for me. He'll just flip the switch, turn on the light on some investor's mind, and I'll have all the funding I need." But Howard Marker was barely listening. He was trying to hear another conversation going on.

"So you haven't seen him," said Peter Moaning to Sterling Allman.

"I haven't. And he was always there, before. Just standing on the corner, smiling at everyone, wearing a buckskin jacket."

"A burnout. An acid casualty," said Blasé, in a French accent that accentuated the last syllable of each word.

"Probably one of the patients at the VA hospital," said Marker, joining the conversation.

"You've seen him," said Moaning to Marker.

"Of course. You can't miss him, if you're driving into Menlo Park from Sand Hill Road," said Marker.

Moaning snorted. How would Marker know? He had driven it many times, had frequented many of the venture capitalist enclaves on Sand Hill Road. He hadn't seen Marker at any of these places. But he had to be polite to him, even at an Assholes meeting. Marker, who wrote high-tech columns for a popular business weekly, getting things wrong all the time, still quoted Moaning a lot, giving Moaning the opportunity to plug his ideas and products. Inviting him to this meeting was a form of payback. The others did not like Marker, because he was not a player on Sand Hill Road, where publicity in any form is bad news.

"Well he's gone. He hasn't been out there, for at least a week or more," Moaning replied with some irritation.

"Maybe he's been cured," snickered Allman back to Moaning. "Maybe he's back in his cubicle, writing code for the next killer app."

"Maybe he's the Webomber," Comick chortled. Much laughter.

"I think the Webomber and the buckskin man have something in common," said Marker solemnly. "The madness that comes from too much stimulation. We live in overstimulated times," he said, spreading his arms wide to encompass everyone in the room. "It is perhaps inevitable that we as a society will hatch more madmen. It's like Maxwell's Demon in physics. If you stare at one side of the empty box and concentrate your energy on it, the air in that side of the box gets hotter. Maxwell's Demon is the basis of the branding business, the spin business -- the hype business. All it takes is for people to concentrate on making it happen."

In the silence that followed, Pomposti, Moaning, and Allman exchanged anxious glances. Metrose fidgeted, watching her boss Pomposti, wondering if the silence had anything to do with his presence as the newest member. Then Moaning adjourned the public part of the meeting. "It's time we got back to some serious wheeling and dealing," he explained to Howard Marker. "You can't stay for that. You have to leave. So do you," he said to Scott Comick.

"Why me?" asked Scott, devastated. "I'm not a journalist. I'm here to wheel and deal with the rest of you."

"Not a chance," said Moaning, smiling like the Cheshire Cat. "You're not that big an asshole yet." He looked over at Jill Metrose, still smiling. Metrose fidgeted, but Moaning's finger of death did not point to her. As Comick and Marker left, Moaning cleared his throat to command everyone's attention.

"You all know about my side project with the Media Liberation Front, the MLF," announced Moaning. Everyone fidgeted, especially Jill Metrose, who did not know about it.

"I have Gill to thank for our version of ICE," continued Moaning. "We have our own back door, so to speak. The only uncorrupted version is still in good hands, of course. Ted, you had that company that Tinker worked for shut down, right?"

"Gone, and the assets redistributed," said Anson. "But Tinker may have a copy of the documentation with him."

An audible sigh. "This means the uncorrupted version of ICE will be loose in the world," said Gordon.

"Indeed," said Sterling. "And no one will have a monopoly on the keys."

"Not even Aggregate, not even Bill," said Moaning, almost gloating. "Gentlemen, the monster from Seattle has been tamed, but the doors of perception have opened. The alternative network is about to come to pass, led by the MLF. And we hold the keys to it, but so do others, and we don't know who they are. We must move fast, before anyone realizes what has happened. We must start negotiations," he looked around, a smile plastered on his face, "negotiations with the various factions."

"You've heard from Amsterdam?" asked Gordon.

"Yes. They want to disrupt their opponent's operations, contaminate their database, and so on. They need our keys to do it."

"They think the OtherNet will be safe," said Allman with a grunt of irony.

"But they recognize the value of what it is today, and they want to buy the keys we have," stated Gordon for the benefit of everyone.

"That's right. And not only that -- the CIA want our keys too." Moaning was gloating again, laughing that hideous bad-boy giggle of his.

"But if the CIA get it --"

"Not a problem. The FBI, other agencies, won't be able to get near them. Not even the NSA. The company wants to deploy sparingly, only to go after terrorist groups before they bomb, that kind of stuff. No violence, no headlines, no publicity. Not even Congress knows about it. The FBI doesn't know."

"How do you know that?" Pomposti interjected.

"My informant is well connected," gloated Moaning.

"Wait a minute," interrupted Gordon, glowering at everybody in that way of his that made people think all hell was about to break loose. "We're here to talk about what we're gonna do, not speculate on what others might do. What's our next step?"

"Jamaica," said Moaning. "We are setting up the offshore part of the operation. Ted's funding it."

Anson nodded and smiled at everyone. "Wait until you see the fringe benefits. Jamaica is wonderful this time of year."

"And what about Smolder?" asked Pierre Marie.

"Not to worry," Moaning answered with a twinkle in his eye. "He's dead, right?"

* * *

Howard Marker and Scott Comick left the sports bar together. "It's not fair," Scott was saying. "There are too many rich guys in this industry already. They should be giving new people a chance."

Howard was scribbling in his notebook. "They say the rich hate other rich people more than they hate the poor," he said without looking up. Comick just stared at him. "But did you notice their fascination with the homeless guy in the buckskin jacket? It's as if they envied him and his lack of responsibility."

"I dunno, I thought they were just making fun of him," said Comick. Marker looked him over briefly. Comick was not deep, but then, most sales people he knew couldn't hold a conversation about anything other than playing games, killing the opponent. These young slick bastards with their gold bracelets and Armani suits had invaded Silicon Valley more than a decade before, and brought everyone's standard of living up, way up, before the investment bankers swindled the stock market and brought it all crashing down. He hoped his contempt didn't show, but Comick probably couldn't even recognize contempt in any form unless it somehow was involved in the negotiation of a deal. Only in the midst of a deal did someone like Comick come alive and see everything clearly.

"Probably so," Marker mused abstractedly. But he made a point of getting Comick's card. He liked using sales people as anonymous contacts. They were always so full of themselves, and though the commissions they made were excellent, the money was not enough to appease their voracious appetites for recognition…. Which, ironically, they did not receive, as he would never quote them by name.

Marker walked out into the smoggy sunset and paused in the parking lot, checking out Moaning's vehicle, a sleek silver Jaguar. Moaning had been such an asshole all these years. Right now the man was conducting some kind of conspiracy, Marker could feel it in his journalistic bones. He had been invited to this conspiracy only to be used, once again, by Moaning, to intimidate the other conspirators. Marker knew nothing substantive about it. But by god he would still write something about it. Something about ANAL itself, something to embarrass Moaning.

He bent over the right rear tire of the Jaguar, feeling creepy but also elated. Moaning wouldn't see it from this angle as he strutted to his silver prize. Using the tip of his pen, Marker bent the tire's pin and let out just enough air to cause the Jaguar to slump only slightly but not noticeably. Yes, there are many types of assholes in this world, he chuckled to himself.


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