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

8: The C-Dome


High up in the Santa Cruz Mountains; near Loma Prieta, east of Soquel, home of the Doobie Brothers, the place where they spent their youth; on the perimeter of Silicon Valley, just a few miles from the lecture hall at U.C. Santa Cruz (the "Cruz") where Margaret Mead's husband Gregory Bateson introduced the Sixties generation to cybernetics and feedback systems; off the heavily wooded road where Neal Cassady once careened and zigzagged in a spark-sputtering, backfiring Buick every week to visit his ex-wife; and right up the blossoming hill from the farm where his buddies the Merry Pranksters staged one of the first acid tests... Here, then, was a hive of busy longhaired freaks running from keyboard to keyboard in bare feet, cats scampering across the floors and raising clouds of dust that settled on various flowcharts scrawled across three white boards, which if put together represented a blueprint for a totally secure, encrypted network. The C-Dome, named for the area dubbed as "Cyberia", and it's an honest-to-god geodesic, so Bucky Fuller would be proud indeed.

They worked not in secret but in obscurity, confining their results to code that worked with one of the more obscure operating systems. They could work on the core technology and let someone else take the risk of porting it to popular platforms on the open market. Markets! What did these genius hackers care about markets? They didn't need no stinkin' markets! Tofu sprouts, cat litter, "blueberry" sinsemilla buds, Jolt Cola, Phish CDs, and tantric sex oils -- these were known quantities of known qualities. The other necessities, such as computer hardware, always seemed to just "show up", on loan from some company. Software tools in the Open Source world were, in a word, free. These code monks shared the concept, or hallucination, of a "free market" as one in which everything is truly free. As in the Digger philosophy.

And yet, freedom is relative. There is always gravity to pull you down. There is always some logic for governments to consider encryption to be a form of weaponry. But Mort Gill agrees with Peter Moaning on this point: that encryption is more a form of subversion. All countercultures in history needed underground communications, alternate messaging systems, and new forms of the old-boy-networks.

Mort Gill makes the payroll for the C-Dome. They have recently finished a software module that authenticates domains. This security hole in the Internet had been scapegoated as the wormhole of terrorism. You think you are making a safe, innocent transaction at your banking site, but you are actually transferring your account to an unscrupulous counterfeit bank site, a mirror image right down to the face of the bank chairman and his message to the shareholders. Counterfeit sites were responsible for lost revenues at major retail sites. In other countries counterfeits wreaked havoc with propaganda sites, sabotaged treaties, dispersed armies, and sent death squads to the wrong addresses.

Which is not why Mort Gill was bankrolling this new level of security. His professed reason, precise and clear to anyone who visits his Web page, is to advance the cause of individual liberty. Is it not everyone's right to have secure messages and transactions, free of government scrutiny? The "intelligence" community a.k.a. law enforcement does not agree. Secure transactions, yes; but governments were organized precisely to scrutinize, to employ the busybodies of the world, the Nosy Few, They who Need to Know what it is You are Doing at any Moment.

You would think the C-Dome is in trouble here, at direct odds with the security forces of the most powerful government on Earth, but complacency impedes paranoia when you're nestled smugly in one of those peaceful, sun-collecting pockets of redwood forest that dot the Santa Cruz Mountains, with Jethro Tull on the box…

Now there's revolution

But we don't know what we're fighting

-- Jethro Tull, "Living in the Past"

And if there are G-men in the bushes, who cares, they can read our flowcharts, they can implement as they see fit, because by its very nature, as Gill would explain at length if anyone asked, the technology can't be integrated with existing infrastructure without liberating it! How breathtaking -- a revolutionary attachment, an ideological ice breaker, a piece of shareware that announces itself as "free" and seduces all the code around it, liberating code as it goes, a Johnny Appleseed of encryption and freedom. The code can only open up, it can't close down or obfuscate, nor could it be used for such nefarious purposes. So let them look.

And look they did. FBI video cameras whirred 24 hours a day, with live feeds to the NSA and CIA for parallel deconstruction, and then after a censor's interlude, over to the Pentagon for prototyping. All this espionage had merely served to illuminate the obvious: that homegrown encryption had arrived and was totally out of control. Back doors were already wide open, with only a hint of the surreptitiously fleeing lovers that had already compromised them.

"We have to make it easier for the Pentagon propeller heads," said Drew Anatole, a bearish, overweight long-haired disciple of Gill, one of the lead programmers in the C-Dome, as he adjusted the flexible chunk of flat white bathtub enclosure to lean it against the wall to use as a white board for today's talk. "Now they can see our diagrams through the window."

"What's the plan for today for The International Conspiracy of Encryption?" asked a gnomic, bearded, bespectacled man with long hair emanating from a bald spot on his crown.

"Today we lock and load, lock and load," said Drew.

"An apt metaphor, indeed," said Mort Gill, sitting Buddha-like in the corner, legs folded in a yoga position, brown hair spilling out of his rainbow-knit cap, wry mustache and wispy beard not hiding but accentuating his mischievous grin. "We lock in the new ICE key, then load it onto the Net. You've all seen the effects of positive and negative feedback, and how it's all just feedback, and that what we hear is not the actual signal but the amplification of that signal."

The encryption software had been finished and in a beta test phase for weeks, with several major porn and gambling sites already using it, thanks to Eric Mauer, who served as a kind of scout with regard to distribution. With just a click, anyone with a browser could obtain the plug-in client, and use it to not only scramble the account and personal information to keep it sanitary for those prying marketing eyes, but also send and receive super-encrypted email that nothing, not even banks of NSA computers, could read. And, of course, it could lead you to new places on the Internet that were no longer truly on the Internet, supported by special servers on some level above the true Net, above the world of passwords and club memberships, way above government scrutiny. Landless, not bound by nations or laws. The major enabler of the "Other Internet" -- whatever you think that might be.

They passed around the hat filled with little slips of paper, each containing a unique key for decoding the new encryption algorithm. It was a primary ritual for this group. Each person committed his or her key to memory, filling in the gaps with acronyms and phrases, eating the paper slip. No evidence, no way to crack the code, unless you were one of these chosen few. The new Conduits of the Encryption Age.

Said the straight man to the late man

Where have you been?

I've been here and I've been there and

I've been inbetween

-- King Crimson, "I Talk to the Wind" (McDonald-Sinfield)

Lighting some incense, Drew asked Mort about his plans for that night. "Going back to the City," drawled Mort Gill, "the Discordant Society is having an event out on Ocean Beach. They're burning Christmas trees." Ah yes, just the sort of thing Mort Gill would be doing, attending some pagan ceremony, then going out for vegan Indian food, sweet ginger ice cream, mango llasa, a walk through Golden Gate Park, swinging at the playground with some homeless children.

Incense swirled, the group huddled around Drew as he locked in the codes and loaded the software. In less than five minutes, the encryption software was up on the Internet, organically spreading to other harbor sites where it could turn itself loose on the unsuspecting public.

There was no stopping it. Not the crashing door, not the hatchet job on the T1 line, not the guns drawn. By the time the FBI had secured the control room and held Drew and Mort Gill at gunpoint, the rest of them had vanished into the nearby forest of hobbit-like crawlways through the dense underbrush. The forests of Cyberia led all the way to Silicon Valley and beyond.

* * *

People have their routines that get them up and about and ready to go to work. Tinker's routine did not vary just because, well, the cops seem to be after him. He had laid low for two days. Nothing had happened. So he got up early enough to sit on the couch with his kids and wake up to TV cartoons. This morning they were watching Yellow Submarine by the Beatles. They'd seen it only about 118 times. In fact, it was a staple of their belief systems.

Tinker and Charlotte had raised their kids without religion, but religion had found its way into their lives anyway, in the form of media. They decided to take a proactive approach, and taught their children the most important laws of the universe: "All you need is love" from Yellow Submarine, and the Prime Directive from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which states that you should never, ever, interfere in the lives and the well-being of other sentient beings; or as Tinker put it, "Don't fuck with other cultures." Recently they had added a third law, really a synthesis of the first two, so the kids could explore feelings of heroism and treachery with clear examples of good and evil: the law of The Force, from Star Wars.

The Blue Meanies were retreating to the sound of music when his six-year-old yawned and asked him, "Daddy, who's God?"

Tinker was now wide-awake. "God is a concept, really, that represents the entire universe." This was going over his son's head. "God is a concept, by which we measure our pain," he quoted John Lennon and smiled at his son, just a joke, heh heh. But his son's look made him try again. "Remember when we talked once, about religion? We said that people believed in different rituals and personalities that they called gods, but that basically, we all believe in the same rights and wrongs."

His son just stared back at him.

"What it is, is, there are these laws that we live by, see, and everybody has a different interpretation of those laws, including where the laws came from, everybody believes something different about that, but basically, the laws are the same."

The kid thought about it for a moment. "You mean, like, the different churches in town, they're different inside but they're still churches?"

"Yes, good. Some people like to go to church, some people, like your mom and me, we like to go for a hike in the redwood forest. It's basically the same thing, we go into the forest to pray just like people go to church." This was essentially true.

"If they're like different churches, then," his son paused, his eyes flashing, "then it's like when I play Sim City, and I start a new city. Each city is different but they have the same things like airports and subways."

"You got it. A religion is like a city."

"That's why I save each new city," he continued. "So that when I start up the computer again I can find the city and maybe continue building it."

"Yes. Now let's watch the show."

But the cartoons were over, so Tinker found a show about archaeologists uncovering a lost civilization, and at that point in the show, the archaeologists had found a mysterious thousand-year-old temple with corners that were oriented exactly north, south, east, and west, with monuments laid out to form a map to a star cluster.

The show linked the mounds of Ireland, the Egyptian pyramids, the astromony of the Incas, the statues of Easter Island, and the temple of Angkor Wat. Beliefs and systems had been wiped out by wars and new religions and sometimes by churches built right on top of the ruins of ancient shrines. Maybe religion is the most important form of entertainment, Tinker thought; maybe he was robbing his children from having what he himself had as a child: belief in a purpose in life, and in a grand reward after death. It didn't matter that he'd rejected the Catholic religion and notions of a human-like God. He at least had had the luxury of having a system to reject.

His kids seemed to be embracing all forms of information with no critical eye and no reasons to reject anything. Tinker had grown up in the shadow of the Bomb, with the fear that everything might disappear in an instant. His kids were growing up in a world filled with random acts of terrorism that destroyed people and things but never really changed anything.

"So why did they build a church on top of the ruins? Didn't they want to know about the ruins?" His son wanted to know, really, why they hadn't done a "save as" on the ruins before building the new church.

"I guess not," Tinker replied. "As Mark Twain once said, history doesn't repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme."

Charlotte was up and about and already picking up dirty clothes to start a wash. Tinker crept guiltily from the couch to his laptop, fired it up, and collected email. Eventually she joined him in the living room, nearly fuming already with the weight of world and the lack of appreciation from her husband.

"Andrew, what are you going to do?" she asked Tinker pointedly. The trip to LA had been unexpected, to say the least. Then he'd spent two days moping around. Did he have an affair? Had he been rejected? Tip number three, a big tip that your spouse might be cheating, was any unexpected trips, and tip number 14 said something about days spent being depressed.

He looked up at her. "I have a job interview. Remember? Made the appointment two weeks ago."

She frowned; unreasonable self-righteousness was yet another tip.

Tinker, once again clueless, returned to his email. One was an ICE-d message from Charlie.

Dude, the time has come. C-Dome is no more, Gill's been arrested. Eric's on the run. The only reason they haven't got you yet is because you're not as important right now. But don't bet on that lasting. They'll come get you, if only to make you a witness. If you want to join me, I'll be at Rikki's tonight. I'll be gone by morning, so make up your mind.

Tinker sat back and almost cried. He looked up at Charlotte, his wordless expression enough to cause her to drop everything. So he had to tell her about the Leary raid, and now the C-Dome. While she knew some of these people, she hadn't yet made the mental leap to recognize the enormity of the situation.

"The fact is, I'm caught up in this and I didn't do anything. I mean, I just did my job, at Private Key, and as a result I'm a possible witness or something. I don't know what's going to happen."

"How can we go on living in fear like this?" She held her hands up to her face. Tinker got up quickly, and wrapped his arms around her.

"I know, I know," Tinker comforted her. "There's good reason to be scared. You know, for a while I just thought I was paranoid. But you know, this is actually better, knowing it's real, and it's not just me." He stopped, as this was doing Charlotte no good. He sat down while Charlotte continued to sob. Danger had never presented itself so palpably on this impossibly brilliant sunny morning in the redwood hills so far from civilization. Would they come through the door? He didn't have anything to hide except his old bong shaped as the head of Richard Nixon, a relic from the past, which they could have, really, if they want to make a federal case out of it... fine... Why would anyone care, really, that he liked to smoke pot every now and then? What else could they possibly hold against him? His own intelligence?

Tinker stood up and held Charlotte tightly. On the ridge, up there alone, they had sidestepped the mainstream carnage of life in the Valley, of dark ambitions and failed marriages, creeping anxiety and numbness. Somehow through the last decade they'd maintained roots in the hippie lifestyle, ignorant of how to manipulate the levers of stocks and investments while the Valley surged with wealth and then crashed. Now they existed only marginally, as a footnote on the history of the decade's economic turbulence. But they were true to themselves and their footprint on the Earth was minimal. He could explain all this to a judge someday. Consorting with copyright thieves is easy to do these days, just go to any party in Hollywood or Silicon Valley…

"Are you gonna keep that appointment for the interview?" She looked up at him with moist, caring eyes.

"Yes, I have to," he said thickly. "It would look bad if I didn't." He disengaged from her embrace. "We have to go on like nothing's happened. Because, well, nothing has happened, really. Not to us."

"Not yet." She dropped her arms and paced around the room. "But it will. And when it does, what are we gonna do?"

"We're gonna be smart," said Tinker. "We're not gonna blow our tops. If we have to split, we'll take the kids and go to San Diego, to your mother's place. We can just take off for a while."

She stood still for a while, but eventually was drawn back to the kitchen and other tasks. It occurred to her that perhaps Andrew was inventing all this, to hide something else. Another tip from the spousal-cheating scorecard was to look out for elaborate, perhaps even outlandish, reasons for his abnormal behavior. As more tips added up to a high probability of a cheating spouse, she grew more despondent, just waiting for the next thing to happen.

Tinker got himself ready for the trip to the Valley. He changed his outfit from basic hill hippie to Silicon Valley suit. But this time he packed a suitcase of clothes and his laptop. He was thinking seriously about going up to the City and meeting Charlie, and he just didn't know what to expect.



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